Some years back, I had a conversation with City Councilman Gordon Quan about our city's lack of a proper entertainment district, and he put forth an idea. Old Chinatown, he said, was primed for a boom. It was centrally located. There was ample parking. And there were plenty of cool old warehouses sitting around vacant, just waiting for creative, well-heeled types to throw the dice.
And after some fits and starts, it finally does appear to be happening. Of course, the area has never been totally dead. Hyperia's 72-hour-party-people dance party kept the area bopping into '03, and Industry Cafe's eclectic bills had the place jumping for a time. The punks and the avant-garde had the all-too-briefly revitalized Axiom, and joints like Club Go and Thermal had even shorter runs, but it wasn't until the opening of the Meridian in an old Chinese seafood warehouse that more mainstream crowds started coming.
Meanwhile, lofts popped up all over the place, and it appears that some of the Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants that have been recently priced out of Midtown are opening up east of U.S. 59. As are nightclubs. The dance palace Club Next recently opened up in a former bank at the corner of McKinney and St. Emanuel. And on November 6, Warehouse Live, yet another entrant in the "suddenly they're everywhere" midsize venue stakes, will open up on Rusk in the block that used to house Industry Cafe.
I recently had lunch at Jenni's Noodle House with three of Warehouse Live's principals: The Messina Group's Jeff Messina, who will book the joint, fellow TMG employee Kevin Brelsford, who will market it, and owner-operator Brent Silberstein. "The place is gonna be a two-in-one club," Messina promises as he saws at a hunk of meat in a Vietnamese steak salad. "We're gonna be able to do small and big shows."
Messina says he felt compelled to open Warehouse Live after years of hearing gripes from both fans and artists about the lack of such a place. For the fans, it'll be a little smaller and more intimate than the Verizon and there will be no stairs to climb, as there are at the Verizon and the Meridian. And at Warehouse Live, there will be a raised area off to the side near a bar, where you can stand above the teeming masses, sipping a drink and enjoying great sight lines, and a patio outside where you can leave all the hurly-burly behind. For artists, Warehouse Live will offer backstage showers/restrooms, easy load-ins, high ceilings and a huge stage.
Chart-topping local rapper Paul Wall, Bavu Blakes and Rapid Ric will help christen the club's main room -- known as "The Ballroom" -- on November 12, while critical darlings Mos Def, Jean Grae, Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli will grace the stage two days later. Thrice, Underoath, Veda and the Bled (in a show moved from Numbers) follow on November 15, with Simple Plan the day after that and Ben Folds on November 18. Also, in another show moved from Numbers, Senses Fail and Saved the Day have confirmed at Warehouse Live for December 7. And in late November, H-town's foremost hip-hop blogger and underground radio DJ (and sometime Press employee) Matt Sonzala will host the first local installment of the HoustonSoReal parties he's been throwing in places like Montreal, Denmark, Finland and New York City.
Shows confirmed on the side stage -- known as "The Studio" -- include Meshuggah and Mnemic on November 4, Clutch on November 5, Dan Dyer on November 19, History of Our Presence on December 3, and Nile and Prong in the first couple of months of 2006.
Warehouse Live promises the next phase in the seismic shift that has been ongoing in the past six or eight years of Houston nightlife. Back in the '90s, most of the punk and rock shows were scattered out at Montrose spots such as Emo's, the Oven, Laveau's, the Mausoleum, Numbers, Rudyard's, the Blue Iguana and Instant Karma, or at Fitzgerald's in the Heights or Mary Jane's or the Abyss on Washington Avenue, which was then still the cradle of Houston's bluesy roots-rock scene at places like the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, Cosmos Cafe and Silky's. And back then, much of Houston's dance-club and high-dollar, high-concept bar scene was clustered on the Richmond Strip.
Look at what a difference a decade or so makes. Today, almost all of the big dance palaces and fancy bars are in NoDo or Midtown. Instant Karma, the Oven, Laveau's and the Blue Iguana are all gone from Montrose; only the Iguana and Mausoleum were reborn as music venues (now the Proletariat and Helios, respectively); and live shows at Numbers have dwindled precipitously -- as of last week, the only shows they had booked for the foreseeable future were those of the DJs Keoki and Miss Kittin and a Hawthorne Heights gig in November. Virtually everything else that club would have booked has been ending up at the Engine Room, the Meridian and now Warehouse Live.
Meanwhile, of the Heights-area joints, the Abyss is gone, its role along with that of Instant Karma assumed by the Engine Room downtown. The Satellite and Silky's are gone too -- the Continental/Big Top compound in Midtown has taken their place -- and the physically crumbling Mary Jane's has been having tax troubles of late. The Rhythm Room, which opened in 2002, is heavily rumored to be closing soon, so by next month only Cosmos and Walter's will remain as music bars on the rapidly gentrifying once-grungy strip.
And now that the Summit is a church, most of the big wintertime shows are at Toyota Center or the Verizon. Look at what's going on downtown the next couple of months.
Warehouse Live: (see above)
The Meridian: Blue October, LCD Soundsystem/Juan McLean, Breaking Benjamin, Metric, Caribou/Super Furry Animals, My Morning Jacket and even fucking Hootie and the fucking Blowfish.
The Engine Room: Veruca Salt, Blue Merle/Anna Nalick, Porcupine Tree, Adema, the Drive-Thru Tour, the Dwarves, Against Me!, Mae and Dillinger Escape Plan.
The Verizon: Marcia Ball/Robert Cray, Aimee Mann, a big-ass metal show with Danzig and Chimaira, Finch/HIM, Rob Thomas, Hall & Oates, David Gray/Jolie Holland and Los Lonely Boys.
Toyota Center: Depeche Mode/the Bravery, Black Eyed Peas/Gwen Stefani, U2, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and, yes, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Christmas-palooza.
So there's gonna be some shows downtown, people, and that's the way it should be. But it brings up a point: Next, downtown, the Warehouse District/Old Chinatown and Midtown are gonna need more chilled-out bars and restaurants, more shops and galleries with unconventional hours, and more places for creative but poor people to live.
We need a few more bars like Warren's, La Carafe, the Big Top and Leon's, where you can kick back before and after shows, and a few more shops like Sig's Lagoon that offer cool merchandise and are open at strange hours. There should also be more and a greater variety of grab-and-go food, as there is on Sixth Street in Austin. (Since we're Houston, we could do them one better and have take-out Vietnamese, Thai, Greek, Mexican and God knows what else.)
It will also help if the city steps in and sees to it that people who earn less money than mergers-and-acquisitions lawyers can afford to live in the city's core. As everybody knows, artsy types are being priced out of Montrose and the Heights, and many of them are moving to far-flung 'hoods like Oak Forest, Westbury and Spring Branch, which is a pity. I'd bet many of them would like to live closer to town, but I know that few of them can afford one of those "starting from the low $390s" lofts.
But there's still plenty of time to iron out those details. In the meantime, there's a bunch of shows to go to downtown.
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Lightnin' Strikes Again
It took a hurricane to do it, but that was the kind of monster Katrina was. It got Jug O' Lightnin' to start playing together again. Drummer Chris King told me that the band so enjoyed their gig at the Continental's recent Katrina benefit that they booked another show last weekend at the West Alabama Icehouse. I caught that show, and it sure was great to hear them back together again -- that "AM-radio sound with a little Björk to it" that guitarist Aaron Loesch likes to say his band sounds like.
For the uninitiated, Jug O' Lightnin' is the best rootsy trio to come out of this city since ZZ Top, a crazy mishmash of Blind Willie McTell, Leadbelly, the Osborne Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and Slim Harpo, all filtered though Loesch's hair-metal upbringing and sounding like nothing you've ever heard. Not only that, but Loesch plays only the cheapest thrift-store acoustic guitars he can find and restore, and bassist Mopar Mike Sinclair chips in the bottom end on a bizarre, high-tech, two-string electrified washtub bass that sounds more like a rhythm guitar, while King clatters and bangs away on his drum kit from behind his Civil War-general beard. Oh, yeah, there's a kazoo, too; Loesch plays rack kazoo. Their infamous turn-of-the-century Sunday-night shows at Rudyard's were responsible for a terrific amount of slowed Monday-morning productivity And did we mention that we believe Loesch is in the top half of 1 percent of all guitarists on the planet today?
Like we said, it was nice to see 'em back together. Amid their choogling originals, "Ohio," "Harris County Jail" and "Green Vegetables," they worked in some CCR covers like "Suzie Q" and "Born on the Bayou," which begs us to give them yet another inadequate critical shorthand description: "acoustic CCR." Anyway, Saturday's show was recorded and may or may not be released as a CD, but in the meantime, the band is leaning toward doing some more shows in the near future. Go see 'em if and when they do.