Retro Musicians Still Make Houston Swing

Bart Maloney has a steely gaze to go with his steel guitar.
Bart Maloney has a steely gaze to go with his steel guitar.
Photo courtesy of Bart Maloney

Louis Armstrong once said, "The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician. Things like old folks singing in the moonlight in the back yard on a hot night or something said long ago."

Bittersweet in its achy nostalgia, the saying is quite fitting for some of Houston's retro musicians. On vintage instruments, these players resurrect the memory of music long gone, bringing new life to the words of Etta James or Bob Wills, paying homage to the old swing and jazz greats.

One such act, the Belmont Four, is a prime example. With a catalogue of old songs, these talented four musicians -- Bart Maloney, Nick Gaitan, Robert Rodriguez and Rajiv Grover -- have made it their mission to pass along songs from decades ago. You can almost hear the crackle of the old record playing when the group breaks out an old American standard like Hoagy Carmichael's 1927 hit "Stardust." It's a strange feeling, being transported to an era you never belonged to, but somehow, among the slicked-back hair and the hum of that old music, it works.

Even with only a handful of shows under their vintage belts, it's amazing the following the Four has built. There must be something about hearing "San Antonio Rose" on an old steel guitar -- Maloney has been playing his 1954 Fender Triple Neck Stringmaster for the past decade or so, to be precise -- that draws in the growing crowds.

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But it's not just the steel that people are lining up to see. It's also Rodriguez's old squeezebox, an instrument long forgotten on much of the local scene, the tap-tap-tap of Grover old drums, and multiple HPMA winner Gaitan on that old bass -- where he'd be tonight were he not in the midst of another tour with Billy Joe Shaver -- that lure them in, one by one.

That's precisely what Maloney and the band aim to do: draw a crowd to hear songs even their grandparents are probably too young to remember.

"You know, it's really about trying to keep the tradition alive," the steel man says. "It's music that a lot of people aren't introduced to,"

And he's right. These days songs like "Sleepwalk," by '50s rock-and-roll musicians Santo and Johnny, are rare just about anywhere. But you might hear it at a Belmont Four show.

With a catalogue as varied and as eclectic as the one that Maloney keeps in his back pocket, it's impossible to know just what they'll whip out. Except that it will be a vintage tune, of course.

"There's something really cool about getting younger people into this music," laughs Maloney.

There is indeed. And The Belmont Four are hardly the only ones who know it. Take Allison Fisher.

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Nick Gaitan (right) and the Umbrella Man, circa 2012
Nick Gaitan (right) and the Umbrella Man, circa 2012

Maloney shines as he professes his adoration for Fisher, who he says he's had a musical crush on since first hearing her play. There's just something about that voice, he says.

But Maloney is hardly the only one who has that musical crush on Fisher. Her Allison Fisher Band plays some of the best vintage Gulf Coast R&B to be heard around these parts, and has a steady following of its own at the Big Top.

It fits right in with that bar's strange old circus vibe; the music is a bit old, a bit earthen, but perfectly in line with the Big Top's retro vibe. It's a fine line to keep that retro sound from spilling over into kitsch, but Fisher's talents safely keep those sorts of questions at bay.Her voice is one of the best you'll find in Houston, and hearing her belt out those old blues hits should be a requirement for any proper Houstonian, vintage-music lover or otherwise.

The same could be said for Belmont member Nick Gaitan's other band, too. Nick Gaitan and the Umbrella Man, veteran players of this vintage craft, has been paving the way for acts like Belmont Four for years now, largely thanks to the group's Thursday-night residency at the Big Top.

Much of Umbrella Man's catalogue is steeped in vintage Gulf Coast tunes, a sound that begs to be danced to live. It's not quite as clean as Belmont Four's brand of vintage music, but Gaitan and company's sound still gets the toes tapping with Rodriguez's reedy accordion and the leader's thumping bass lines.

The musicians in the band, which often include Maloney on steel, are adept at infusing vintage swing with the sounds of Texas country and zydeco. As soon as the band takes the stage, couples flock to the bar's small dance floor.

In the end, Louis Armstrong's observation was spot-on. The memory of things gone is important, and luckily, such memories survive, thanks to the bands who are eager to play those old tunes or sing those old songs from long ago.

The Belmont Four opens for Nikki Hill Friday at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. Doors open at 9 p.m.


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