Thursday night in H-town...The evening begins while the sun still sizzles overhead. I walk from the Press office down to Leon's Lounge, where I am to meet Swingin' 650 DJs Ronnie Renfrow and Ken Double, who, well, doubles as the radio voice of the Houston Aeros. But first, Leon's intrudes as only it can.
I arrive before Renfrow and Double, and the twentysomething barmaid and a tipsy old woman with piled-high hair are the only two souls in the venerable old bar. The barmaid is seated on a stool when I walk in, but heads back around the bar when I enter. The old woman has other plans. She extends her leg from her perch and rests her foot on the shuffleboard set, blocking my passage.
"I see," I say. "None shall pass, right?"
Mojo Risin' Coffeehouse
"Nah till ye glyhsfid," she says, cackling.
Not sure what that's about and equally unsure if I want to know, I put in an order for a Bud and a shot and stuff a couple of bucks into the jukebox. Which happens to be fantastic -- absolutely perfect for its location, and they play it really, really loud. I've selected a mix of Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Derek & the Dominos and Hank Williams. And what's this? A two-volume British import of all of Townes Van Zandt's best songs? Dude, I'm gonna have to fish out another couple of bucks for that.
CNN is on the TV behind the bar. As images of Israeli tanks shelling Lebanese villages unfurl before our eyes, the sighing, resigned pedal steel intro to "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" sends the old woman into ecstasy. She harmonizes with Hank, and does it very well. Meanwhile, Renfrow enters and orders up some kind of lethal-looking whiskey drink, and we talk about his return to the airwaves.
Renfrow's been gone too long, as has his format, which migrated from KBME to KRTS to KIKK-AM, which is where it is now -- 650 on your dial. Houston radio is really weird -- the formats you think should be "cool" -- alternative rock, to name but one glaring example, are anything but. Renfrow's Swingin' 650, on the other hand, should be square -- in most cities, these "Music of Your Life" stations are for old farts who still dig Mantovani and Don Ho. But not here -- Renfrow and broadcast partner Tom Richards spin everything from Chris Isaak to Sinatra to James Brown to Waylon Jennings to Norah Jones. It's the closest thing we have to free-form radio anywhere on the dial.
And now it's back on the air seven days a week -- in afternoon drive time on weekdays and beginning at 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Renfrow and Richards man the boards, while Double, who has joined us at the bar, handles many of the voice-overs.
People might call Dick Clark "America's oldest living teenager," but in a couple of decades, Renfrow will have him beat. In between his radio spots he leads his jazz big band and carries on like a sailor on shore leave. Double, a former TV sportscaster who is immaculately groomed and is also a nationally renowned pipe organist, is not the wildman Renfrow is, and Renfrow likes to remind of that fact.
"Hey you Ted Baxter-lookin' motherfucker, tell Lomax how you met me," Renfrow says.
"I take umbrage at you calling me Ted Baxter," Double says mildly. "Anyway, I heard Ronnie on the radio and called the station and asked him who he was, and why he was having so much fun."
"Bullshit!" Renfrow explodes. "You said it like this: 'Who the fuck are you, and why the hell are you having so much fuckin' fun?"
Renfrow sits and ponders his drink. "Look at us -- a radio DJ, a minor-league hockey announcer and a fuckin' print guy," he says. "The three of us together might make one fuckin' salary."
We clink glasses and order another round. Meanwhile, an enormous dog enters the bar from the doorway that leads to the apartments above Leon's. It looks like a husky, but twice as big as a normal one. Renfrow starts to pet it, but the barmaid warns him away.
"He bites," she points out. Oh, okay. The dog heads over to the singing lady and curls up on the floor, blocking all entrance and exit from the bar.
"He helps us keep out the riffraff," the barmaid adds. All right, then. Let's hope none of us qualifies. Double is looking exceedingly nervous. He has a dinner appointment, and he has to go.
"Is there an alternate exit I might avail myself of?" he asks the barmaid.
"No. Hell, I'll move that sumbitch for you." The dog is moved and Double beats a hasty retreat.
One thing about Leon's jukebox that is not so good: It has a mind of its own. What you think you've played is not always what comes out. And now is one of those times.
"Lomax, why the fuck did you put this on?" Renfrow demands, the very second Tony Orlando and Dawn's "Knock Three Times" starts caterwauling out of the box. I deny it. Honestly, I really, really hate Tony Orlando and Dawn. But Renfrow doesn't believe me, and neither does the barmaid, and neither do the two guys at the end of the bar. It's time to go.
"Hey, man," says one of the guys at the end of the bar. "You might or might not have put this crap on, but could you fucking warn us about whatever other crap you put on there?"
Man, I swear, there was a mistake.
Renfrow and I hop in his ride -- a PT Cruiser-looking loaner from some dealership -- and head over to the Mojo Risin' Coffeehouse to see John Egan.
Press contributor William Michael Smith has been telling me about this Mojo Risin' place (1600 Shepherd, near the Katy Freeway) for a couple of months. And when I first laid eyes on it, it was exactly like he described it: a completely authentic throwback to the radical '60s. There are hand-painted murals of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and other fallen idols on the walls, psychedelic, brightly colored tables, and flyers touting various causes all over the place. The menu features coffee drinks like the White Rabbit, the Magic Dragon and the Foxy Lady. (Those who desire harder stuff can bring their own.)
The Houston Chronicle, with its increasingly apparent hard-on for all things Austin, would probably say it had an "Austin vibe." I can tell you from firsthand experience that Houston had and still has its hippies, too. My parents were a couple of them, and this reminds me of the places they took me back in '73, right here in Houston.
Jack and Teri, the husband and wife owners of the place, seem genuinely flabbergasted that someone from the paper would take an interest in the place. "I don't have any statements prepared," Jack says. This despite the fact that this little joint is booking some first-rate folk, country and rock acts from both Houston and Austin to the tiny stage in the corner.
Take Egan, for example. He's a Houston guy, a bearded dude with a Resonator guitar who plays hard-edged slide-guitar blues in the vein of Chris Whitley. This ain't no Stevie Ray wannabe here -- Egan's more into the trancelike, foot-stomping boogie grooves of Fat Possum cats like Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, and he pairs that with his own heavy lyrics about death, God and the bottle.
Outside of the Continental Club, guys like Egan haven't really had a home here. He's a bit too scary for the Mucky Duck, a little too rootsy for Rudyard's. But now...
The British Are Coming!
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The BBC has awakened to H-town's hip-hop scene, and London's DJ Semtex is headed to Houston this week for a couple of appearances for broadcast in the UK. Semtex is Dizzee Rascal's DJ and one of the UK's foremost hip-hop pundits, and while he's here he will be interviewing a few local luminaries. Also, on Thursday, he and HoustonSoReal's Matt Sonzala will be co-hosting a free shindig at Warehouse Live. Semtex and DJ Chill will spin, Bun B (and perhaps Pimp C, too), Gritboys, Trae and Devin the Dude will spit, and a damn good time should be had by all.
I caught up with Semtex via e-mail and asked him what caught his ear about Houston rap. "The clarity of the MCs" is one of his favorite things about hometown rap. "Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, Bun B, etc. all have devastating flows, but you can hear and understand everything that they're saying. Houston artists make classic music that reflects where they are from."
This is his second trip here. "I was in Houston a few months ago, and Bun B and Matt Sonzala looked after me. They showed me around all of the spots. My trip to Houston showed me how much I didn't know about the scene over there. I went to a club where I heard five hours of Houston hip-hop; I felt embarrassed that I didn't know any of the music. I found out about Trae and Z-Ro and saw the impact that they had in the club -- it was crazy! I've got to shout out DJ Chill, too.
"I spent a lot of money in the Sharpstown Mall, and nearly bought a grill."