Over by the bar there are still some empty seats on this warm Thursday night, but in front of the stage the floor is packed with teens and kids in their early twenties. Behind them parents -- that's right, parents -- sit waiting for the show to continue. The metal trio on stage are taking an infinitesimally brief break, but it's too long by half for several kids with no attention span. They start moshing, ramming into each other over and over while their friends laugh.
Houston band Medicine For Destruction is getting ready to resume. Lead singer Serge Gromyko goes up to the mike, looks over the room and announces: "We're gonna be playing a song in Russian now. Sing along. You know the words."
The trio launches into a crushing metal number, and da, it's in Russian. (Gromyko and his younger brother Oleg are first-generation Russian-Americans.) After the song ends, they take another short break before Gromyko grabs the mike once again. "We're gonna play 'Master of Puppets' by Metallica, and we want the audience to join in a little game we made up. Every time you hear the word 'master,' take a sip of beer."
Fans are stoked. Members of other bands lounge on green suede couches, waiting their turn. It's Cardi's 2000 -- a place where the underage can go to play in bands and listen to music, that is, if they pay $3 extra at the door to make up for their nonexistent alcohol purchases.
Cardi's is band rookie ball -- a place where young musicians can escape their garages for a night. For an hour or so, they get a stage, a light show and an expert sound guy -- and they don't have to pay for the service, except on weekends, when the bands pay the club a $50 deposit (which they can make back if they bring in at least 15 people) or if they want an additional service, such as a concert DVD ($60) or CD-ROM ($40), both of which could be useful in winning gigs at other clubs. And it's unlikely, but you never know; there could be an A&R guy in the room, and this is the biggest lure for many of these kids.
It's a good deal for the kids, but it can also translate into a moneymaker for Cardi's. The bands guarantee a certain number of customers will show up to hear them play. (Not unexpectedly, a lot of these fans turn out to be friends and relatives. In fact, Cardi's encourages the performers to bring along their families.) Cardi's keeps its overhead low; their pay scale isn't going to make anyone rich. After the first five heads in the door, bands get $1.50 to $2.50 for each person they bring in, and if a band is from out of state, Cardi's picks up its gas money.While club founder Ted Cardis says his club has had some big bands come through, such as the then-ascending KISS, Clint Black and Pantera, who got their first record deal at Cardi's, his main focus today is on young start-up groups. He gets downright philosophical talking about it. "Do you know what the key to the music business is? It's the clubs," he says. "It gives young bands the chance to be seen, and without that, how are they gonna go anywhere? It's like this: A car without an engine can't go anywhere. Cardi's is the car, bands are the engine, and the operators are the transmission so we can all get somewhere."
By "operators," Cardis means his staff, which includes Monica, the gatekeeper who happens to also be his wife. Clubgoers first make their way through a metal detector covered in Monica's hand-written admonishments -- "No outside alcohol," "We have the right to refuse service " and the like, and that's before they get to the woman herself. Monica Cardis has the economy of words and no-nonsense attitude of a pro. Her husband may be the owner, but she's in charge of the club.
Then there's Ruben, the self-described "soundgod." His sound, lights and roadie work win him high praise from people like Serge Gromyko: "I like Cardi's. It's got the best sound. Ruben knows what he's doing."
Though locals make up the bulk of Cardi's bills, they do get their fair share of baby touring acts. The Idaho band P36 was one of them; while on a two-week tour of the western United States that had already taken them through California, Arizona and New Mexico, they needed a gig in Texas and found Cardi's on the Internet. The young quartet (21-year-old Aaron Miller, 24-year-old Jarod Dawson, his 22-year-old brother Nathan and 20-year-old drummer Danny Davis) had come a long way since their debut at an Idaho frat-house battle of the bands three and a half years ago.
That was one red-letter day in P36 history. Nathan Dawson recalls another: "We got second at a battle of the bands, and all we got was eight free movie tickets." And their show at Cardi's was even less lucrative -- the band cashed in a total of $20 for their performance -- in other words, gas to get them on down the road, as long as "down the road" was somewhere close.
"Cardi's is badass!" chuckles guitarist Miller. "Other bands that I've heard so far here at Cardi's have been pretty good." They get phoned-in support from their parents, but no one from home was able to make it to Texas with them. "But so far, the people we meet are some of the nicest fuckin' people we've ever met," Miller adds.
Gryphon Graham, 16, the guitarist-singer for the trio Spilltoy, was brought up in a musical family. "Yeah, I think growing up around music affects you," Graham says. "My parents were in a band together, and growing up with music at such an early age makes you more comfortable around a band or just music in general. This is what I wanna do."
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Spilltoy is from Austin, though Graham moved there from Houston just a year ago. The three musicians met at a seminar at a local music store in the capital. They heard each other play and thought they sounded good together. Unlike most of the other bands playing the room, some of these musicians take lessons. The bassist, Aaron Allen, 17, is in a jazz band that competes regularly, and Crissy Palmos, 15, gets drum lessons.
"We played Cardi's because it's got the best policy on bands," Graham declares, even though his band raked in a grand total of $40, which didn't even cover their expenses.
"Rock and roll is not cost-effective," Graham says, showing a wisdom far beyond his years. "Luckily it doesn't affect us because we have parents to support us. But I'm not looking forward to later, when it will."
How realistic is it that any of these kids will get to be rock stars? According to Ted Cardis, that's not exactly the question. "It gives them a chance to decide whether they want to be a doctor or to be a musician," Cardis says. "I just really wanted the parents to see what the kids could do. The expression on their faces is amazing."