Saturday: Chris Gray Day at the Continental Club
Chris with the officers that saved his life.
Photo by Marco Torres
"I didn't know Chris was a celebrity."
Chris Gray's mother told a rapt audience from the stage on Saturday afternoon that she was "overwhelmed" by the outpouring of love for her son, our music editor, who survived a nearly-fatal heart attack several months ago, but miraculously stood beside his parents on the Continental Club stage shaking the hands of the officers who saved his life and accepting a proclamation from the mayor's office.
It was a heady moment in a day where "overwhelmed" seemed to be the buzzword, whether it be the tearful moments of joy after so many moments of worry, the packed-house turnout in support of Chris or the blistering performances by more than four dozen of Houston's finest musicians.
Photo by Jim Bricker
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The first six hours of my Chris Gray Day was spent on the back patio of the Continental Club in the Pachinko Hut playing country vinyl in between bands. I got to see all the action on the outside stage, and snuck inside the Continental when I could, when I wasn't playing George Strait records. The crowds that just kept coming and coming really made me feel warm and gooey, because they were there to support and lend a hand to my friend. First and foremost, Chris Gray is my friend. We've sort of come up together here at the paper, since joining forces in 2007, so he's not just a co-worker or a colleague. And to see hundreds of people helping your friend meant so much to me.
One thing that struck me about CGD was the level of game that the bands brought to their sets, all damned day. They played harder, louder and more masterfully than I had seen in a while, even compared to some of their own shows that aren't attached to a benefit. In essence, CGD wasn't just a benefit for a Houston scene champion, it also showed that Gray has had a lot to champion. Jesse Dayton's midday Doug Sahm-drenched set was the first stunner, backed by David Beebe, Allen Hill, and none other than Mike Stinson on drums. Drums! Even on drums Stinson swings.
Later in the day, after I escaped for an hour for dinner, I got to take in the night side entertainment, with the best stuff to be seen at Big Top next door. Benjamin Wesley's set came with the singer-songwriter taking time out in between songs, new and old, to philosophize on life, death, and sometimes in German. Joe Mathlete's music keeps showing infinitely more colors as the years progress, his slot after Wesley's was fun and fulfilling. Poor Pilate continues to make me man-swoon ("Bullshit! Encore!"), and The Handshake's set close to midnight was a personal eye-popper. I mean, I knew they were good, but I didn't expect myself to be sitting perched up on a couch over them grinning like an idiot. Maybe the loudest band I saw all day, that wasn't ADream Asleep on the back patio of course.
The tag-team of New West Records' own Wild Moccasins and Buxton were the sets to see in the evening at the Continental. The Moccs continue to expand their once tightly-wind indie pop, as it spools out into dance-funk territory. Their drummer, John Baldwin, is one of the most fun ones to watch in town. Buxton's recent touring forays have turned them gruffer and more aggressive. They ended their set with Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down", dedicating it to Gray who is a big Petty freak. The lyrics echoed the battles that he has been fighting ever since the October 28 heart attack. The band received vinyl copies of their upcoming debut on New West, Nothing Here Seems Strange, after they left the stage, and the giddiness was audible from yards away in the backyard.
Like photographer Jay Lee intoned on Twitter late Saturday night, "Just remember, you don't have to wait for someone to have a brush with death before you get your ass out to support live music." Very true words sir. -- Craig Hlavaty
ADream Asleep...and up a tree.
Photo by Jay Lee
I can't claim to know Chris Gray -- I met him on Saturday. What little I do know about him comes from reading just about everything he's written for the past four years. Something new I learned during the festivities on Main is that Chris has a hell of a lot of talented people who care about him.
The crowd was all smiles even early in the morning, when the David Beebe 3 had folks dancin' before breakfast. The number and frequency of smiles increased all morning and afternoon, as more and more friends, musicians and music-lovers headed for the Island. By 2 p.m. or so, when the Zydeco Dots took the outdoor stage at the Pachinko Hut, the event had taken on the flavor of a family barbecue. People crowded around picnic tables, talking and laughing over barbecue sandwiches, surrounded by killer local music.
Chris Gray could have been forgiven for posting up and holding court in some quiet corner of the complex, but instead he could be seen drifting between stages by himself, quietly taking in as much of the music as he could.
The breadth of talent on display throughout the day was staggering; everywhere you turned, a different act was killing it. Highlights for me included the Chase Hamblin Band stunning a packed room at Shoeshine Charlie's, ADream Asleep singer Mike Seals climbing a tree out at the Pachinko Hut and Little Joe Washington playing guitar with his hair, and that was all before the sun even set.
Musicians I'd never had the pleasure of hearing before, like the Young Girls and John Egan, converted me into a fan on the spot. It was roots-rocker Egan who summed up the event best: "Who says we don't have a scene in Houston?" he said. "Look at all the love that's going on today."
Photo by Marco Torres
My perspective on Chris Gray Day is probably quite a bit different from others who attended. First off, I've been doing the online portion of Chris' job for the past two-plus months, a job I honestly am unclear how he does along with his print duties and other responsibilities given the sheer amount of the work and his laudable dedication to seeing any and every band Houston has to offer.
Second, I'm a musician who had the honor to actually play on Saturday to a warm and generous crowd inside the Continental Club.
For me, CGD was as much a work event as anything, but from the very moment I set foot on "the Island," as many fondly refer to the block encompassing the three venues utilized on Saturday (and no more perfect a place for this event), I was enthralled.
Over the years, I've done a lot of festivals and multi-band shows, some with fantastic results and others not so much. I've also done more than my fair share of benefits, most of which were poorly attended and more likely to end in disaster than unrelenting support for its honoree.
But CGD was none of those things. It was not only well organized and extremely well attended, but the diversity of the artists and the sheer strength of their performances was nothing short of extraordinary. From the late morning gumbo grooves of Umbrella Man to Bright Men of Learning's wall of distorted guitars to the shimmering '60s pop of Chase Hamblin to the soulful country fiddle of Miss Leslie, I could not have been more impressed by what the Bayou City has to offer.
At the risk of be self referential, I found myself saying to anyone who would listen, "Some people say the Houston music scene sucks. After being here today, I think they are full of shit."
I would be lying if I said it wasn't great to see Chris back in his element at a live music show, but I was mostly blown away by the performances. Besides the highlights listed above, there was the fiery antics of Little Joe Washington, the killer Doug Sahm-inspired set by Jesse Dayton and friends, a bright, feisty pass from Young Girls and a much quieter but lovely one from John Egan, and, of course, the mesmerizing storyteller songwriting and wry wit of Hayes Carll.
It was heartwarming and jaw dropping and about as encouraging a day as I've been around in the last 20 years of playing music in Houston. It's a shame it took a near tragedy to make it happen. Let's hope it can happen again soon with no reason but the music. -- Jeff Balke