Midtown Getdown

Well, the Music Awards season is finally at an end, so that means you can expect two things from Racket: One, faster response time on e-mails and phone messages, and two, a column with a bunch of stuff I didn't have time to chase down during the busiest time of my year. And so here we go.

At last mine eyes have seen the future of the coming of the long-awaited, first-class midsize venue, the one we haven't had since Rockefeller's munched the grapes of wrath. Oddly it's been in Midtown all along, ready to roll for the last 20 years, flying under your radar right there on San Jacinto. Or make that gaydar, because the place I'm talking about is Rich's, which is no longer a gay club. Houston house legend Sean Carnahan and former Hyperia honcho Neil Heller have bought the place and are in the process of re-branding, re-centering, re-naming and remodeling the 21-year-old dance palace. "We're gonna have a little of everything," says Carnahan. "We'll be keeping Saturdays for DJs, we'll do some plays, some of the bigger comedy shows, some gay stuff and we're gonna put a stage in and bring in some bands."

I dropped in one hot afternoon last week to check out the joint, which is temporarily doing business as 2401 San Jacinto. ("We've got about a thousand candidates for a new name," Carnahan says. "We'll probably just pick one of 'em out of a hat.") My first impression of the place is that this is it, this is the place we've been waiting for. The interior of the two-story club -- all silvers, purples and reds -- is wonderful. Twenty-one years of the queer eye will do that to a place. It just goes to show you -- gays really are ahead of the aesthetic curve. While my eyes rarely had seen a club so well-appointed and nicely done, the main reason Rich's went on the market was that the newer, even nicer South Beach had cleaned its clock in the dance-palace stakes over the last few years.

But even if Rich's is yesterday's news on the gay scene, I believe it's the future for everyone else. Think of Houston's larger showcase venues with their functional interiors and poor attention to detail, and you've thought of everything that Rich's isn't. Every railing, tabletop and seating area, every inch of wall space, has been designed carefully to contribute to a pleasant whole.

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Out back there's a largish, wooden patio studded with potted palms and a bar overhung with flowering bougainvillea. Meanwhile, the upstairs -- and in a welcome change from most other multilevel clubs, there are plenty of staircases -- has two terrific smaller rooms. The Leopard Room put me a little in mind of Elvis's fantabulously tacky Jungle Room at Graceland. Except Elvis's African-esque cellar-crypt didn't have a panoramic view of the Houston skyline and a good 70 percent of the rest of the city; nor did it have a large bar, nor a small stage for DJs and little bands, nor a capacity for about 250 people. A few feet around the corner, there's another small bar, the back of which is lit by hundreds of wall-mounted votive candles, whose light flickers off the sparkly deep red that overhangs the bar. Even the green room downstairs is visually stunning -- the walls are draped with purple cloth, and a score or so of small mirrors are suspended in front. It's something like what I imagine Prince's boudoir to be, and it's got the kind of touches that make it a place visiting bands and DJs will remember and tell all their buddies about. (There's also a storage room upstairs containing what looks to be Southern Importers's entire inventory -- literally tons of decorations for special events, ranging from tiki-hut regalia to sheiks' tents to silver, nude male torsos, which according to Heller come from "Carnahan's private collection." He's kidding, of course.)

So much for the visuals. What about the nuts and bolts? "Neil and I are psycho about sound," Carnahan says, and it shows. Rich's has long been known for having well-above average sound, but Carnahan and Heller say it's going to be even better. "We want to have the best sound in Houston, hopefully in Texas and later the entire Midwest," says Heller. "I'm gonna be bringing in enough equipment to kill an elephant." And they both promise to do the same for lights, and the air-conditioning is already eminently up to snuff. (The one possible snag is parking. Even in the heart of gentrifying Midtown, San Jacinto Street is plenty funky, especially at night. But the McGowen Metro stop is a mere three blocks away, and the trains are running late enough to accommodate clubbers now. So with a little creativity on the part of the customers, parking shouldn't be a problem.)  

Meanwhile, they've got some remodeling to do. The main focus of the master plan is to rip out one of the two huge downstairs bars and install a big stage, a move that will almost double the size of the dance floor from its present 900 square feet. There's no hard-and-fast deadline, though they say they've got contractors lined up and the remodeling will be done ASAP. Promoters are drooling already at the prospect of bringing in bands.

Meanwhile, Carnahan's gonna keep doing what he's always done. Superstar DJs will continue coming in for the Spundae and Godskitchen shows, and Carnahan's laid-back approach to clubbing will prevail. When asked if Rich's still would be a "gay-friendly" club, Carnahan has a ready answer. "We're just friendly, period," he says. He doesn't subscribe to that whole hoity-toity aesthetic of exclusivity laid down by Studio 54 way back when and copied by virtually everyone who has opened a nightclub ever since. "I don't believe in that whole thing," he says. "The guy with the clipboard outside picking people out of the crowd to come in, the VIP rooms, all that bullshit. It's been done. It's tired. Our only dress code is that you be clean, and we'll have a ticket booth and somebody to check your ID, but that's it."

Crazy Tony's Return to the Golden Era

Meanwhile, across town, Crazy Tony Avitia is at it again at Fitz's. This time he's got local, underground hip-hop on his mind, and with Julio Alonzo, he'll be hosting The Return to the Golden Era, another of his famous big ol' shows, on August 13. "It's weird, Houston seems to have some kind of stigma with hip-hop," he says. "You have these national shows like M.O.P. and The X-Ecutioners and something like 100 people turn up. If we can get 250 or 300 at Fitz's, it'll be the biggest hip-hop event here in a long time." To entice those 300, the show will offer performances by V-Zilla, Q.U.E. & The Lucipher Crew, Lower Life Form, DJ Joe B and 2003 Press Music Award-winner Studemont Project, among many other DJs and MCs, not to mention B-Boy and graffiti-art films by Fly Guy Productions. "We're trying not to have too much silence," Avitia says. "We're gonna have a rapper going for 15 minutes, and then a DJ will start and go for another 15 minutes. I'm hoping it won't be a fiasco -- taking a mike away from an MC can be like taking a baby out of a shark's jaws. But we're gonna get it done and have the booties shakin' all night long."

Bad Day for the Blues

Smooth blues singer, songwriter and guitarist Oscar Perry passed away on August 4 at 61 years of age, a mere two days before his old labelmate Bobby "Blue" Bland made his return to Houston. Born in rural Brazoria County, Perry once told me of a backwoods childhood where he watched guitar-washboard combos through the screen door of a long-forgotten juke joint, and how he used to keep time to his own singing by beating on a barrel. At age 13, he and his dog ran away from home and settled in Houston's Sunnyside neighborhood. There he discovered the music of Brook Benton and Jerry Butler, two bass-baritones whose vocal styles and ballad-style soul-blues helped shape his music. Perry took a job at a paint company in the 1960s and spent his spare time at Duke-Peacock Records, where he contributed several songs to Bland, including "When You Come to the End of Your Road," "Country Fool From the Sticks," and the top-five R&B hit "This Time I'm Gone For Good," which was later reprised by Johnny Adams on his last album. Perry also absorbed many of the arranging skills of the ingenious Duke-Peacock bandleader Joe Scott, and he took them with him to Huey Meaux's Crazy Cajun label in the 1970s where he released dozens of deep-soul singles, which are now available on two Edsel compilations. In the '80s and '90s, Perry released three albums, two on his own TSOT label. He was a hugely neglected talent -- in recent years, his arranging and songwriting skills outstripped the musical skills of most of the sidemen he could find here, and thus he often resorted to tinny synths and drum machines on his albums that sounded more like demos than finished product. If he could have found his way to New Orleans, say, where there are still plenty of cats who can do his style justice, he could have made some classic albums. His songs and his chocolate fog of a voice were both one in a million -- hearing him do "Rainy Night in Georgia" was as good as hearing it done by Benton, and his Crazy Cajun stuff is well worth tracking down on Amazon.  

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