With the hipster set being priced farther and farther north out of the Heights and Montrose (today Garden Oaks tomorrow Acres Homes? Hempstead? Bastrop?), Sound Exchange music buyer and "chief bootknocker" David Wilcox thought it was time to look in another direction. That's one of the reasons he's saying, "Hi, SMOM, I'm home!"
For the uninitiated, SMOM stands for Sociedad Mutualista Obrera Mexicana, or for the Spanish-impaired, the Mexican Worker's Mutual Aid Society. Wilcox doesn't qualify as a Mexican worker -- he's not Hispanic, and chief bootknockers are not accepted in the club. What he's hoping to do is regularly rent the organization's rambling, two-story, 71-year-old Second Ward building to put on a bunch of shows and maybe even get some kind of "horizontally integrated" artists' collective going.
The sociedad was founded in 1932 by a Mexican-born Ship Channel welder named Refugio Gómez. Gómez's friend Jesús Sanchez was run over by a truck that year, and his relatives didn't have the $30 to keep him from spending eternity in a pauper's grave. So Gómez helped organize friends and family to pool their resources, and Sanchez got a proper burial. Gómez decided then that there should be a permanent organization for such crises, so he and his friends started SMOM. Whenever a member got in financial straits, the others would hold tamale sales and potluck dinners to help bail them out.
Like many Anglo community clubs such as the Elks and the Knights of Columbus, SMOM has seen its membership dwindle, and today the hall stands vacant except on relatively rare occasions when it is hired out for a quinceañera or as a rehearsal space for Ballet Folklórico Azteca de Houston or Tepache, a Spanish-language drama company. But now SMOM could be the latest in a series of community gathering spots-turned-youth venues. Fitzgerald's was once a Polish dance hall. Garden in the Heights still belongs to the Houston Saengerbund, a German-American folksinging organization.
Wilcox was approached about the plan by Adrian de la Cerda and Daniel Sandoval, two young Second Ward natives who have a sentimental attachment to SMOM, where they used to attend community parties. Wilcox was attracted to the hall as a prospective venue for a number of reasons. First and foremost, its size. "It easily fits 300, probably up to 400," Wilcox says over a cold Modelo in Sound Exchange's upstairs offices. "There's not many in town that size. There seems to be a need -- the Engine Room always seems so empty and depressing, even when you have that many people in there."
Second, hiring out the hall rather than opening up a new place cuts everyone involved a little slack vis-à-vis the merciless bottom line. And the building doesn't need any big-ticket renovations. It already has handicapped access, an elevator and a kitchen with all the bells and whistles.
In addition to having all those amenities already in place, Wilcox hopes to save even more by using temporary liquor licenses as needed, so there won't be a big huge payout to the TABC to be recouped from bar sales. And anyway, he wants to have the emphasis on the music, not the booze, and all of the shows will be all-ages.
"Except maybe for places like the Axiom and DiverseWorks, there isn't a venue in Houston that isn't totally dependent on bar sales," he says. "There's nothing wrong with bars -- I've seen a lot of great shows in 'em -- but there should be something else."
By something else, Wilcox means pretty much everything. The SMOM Benefit No. 1, which was held on SMOM's 71st anniversary in February, saw Nikki Texas and the Electric Fuck All (Perpetual War Party Band), Jana Hunter and Freedom Sold take the stage. In case you're wondering about that first band, in leader Tex Kerschen's own words, NT & the EFA (PWPB) play "military marches, burial dirges, forgotten national anthems, loosely interpreted covers of songs banned from Clear Channel radio and MTV. Oh, yeah, and rebel songs that U2 wouldn't have touched even before Bono's hair transplant operations." (See for yourself at the Proletariat on April 5.)
On April 18 the SMOM Benefit No. 2 will feature Austin's Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee (led by Tim Kerr, who will play in spite of the broken leg he incurred at South by Southwest), and two Houston acts, shape-shifting improvisers the Defenestration Unit and garage rock legends Sugar Shack. Later, DJ Ceeplus will host a Warp Records showcase featuring various electronic music acts.
Wilcox hopes to put on about one show a week through the summer, though he's not ruling out more. Hands Up Houston and the Pauline Oliveros Foundation both may be involved in later shows. "We want this to be self-sustaining," Wilcox says. "We're going to be using promoters we know and trust."
But the plan is for SMOM to be more than your run-of-the-mill music venue. Wilcox hopes SMOM will blossom into something like the Vera, a government-subsidized film, music and art venue in Groeningen, Holland. While Wilcox isn't holding out for taxpayer money, he does hope that SMOM will be multipurpose. In addition to the concerts on the second floor, he hopes to have an art gallery at ground level and to eventually show films, among other artistic endeavors.
Should SMOM thrive, it could help spur an eastward exodus of Houston's hipster community. All it takes is one successful venue for another and then another to open nearby. Pretty soon people start moving over to be closer to where it's at -- not to mention where the rents are about half what they are across town. But right now, except for landmarks like the original Ninfa's and the Maxwell House plant, for many westside Houstonians the Second Ward is a void, that space you ignore north of the Gulf Freeway as you drive to UH or the beach.
Wilcox is aware of the risk involved, but he believes he's ahead of the curve. After all, not so long ago, downtown was just Warren's, La Carafe, Power Tools and Cabaret Voltaire. Then came the deluge of high-end bars full of martini-sipping pretty people. And spots like the Axiom are already starting to entice clubgoers east of the convention center.
"In the next couple of years, I think that the Second Ward is going to become a lot more familiar to a lot more people," Wilcox predicts, citing personal anecdotes about several of his friends who have already moved there. "And I also believe that there is a demand for what we're doing, enough of one where people will venture out of their comfort zones."The SMOM Benefit No. 2 will be held Friday, April 18, at the SMOM Hall, 5809 Canal. For more information, call Sound Exchange at 713-666-5555 or visit SMOM's Web site at www.smom-houston.org.
While we're talking about the deeds of one Sound Exchange employee, we might as well discuss what the others are up to. Since February, owners Kurt Brennan and Kevin Bakos have been hosting live concerts the first Thursday of every month. After lengthy debates, they settled on calling this series First Thursdays, despite the stuffy PBS feel of the name. At any rate, don't expect Ernie Manouse to be chatting with any of the people on these Sound Exchange bills anytime soon. The series kicked off in February with Swarm of Angels, and in typical Sound Exchange fashion, the premiere First Thursday concert was held on a Wednesday. In March, Rotten Piece celebrated the release of its ten-CD boxed set (fo' real), The Rotten Decade:1990-2000, while last week the Kimonos performed. Next month's bill is still up in the air.
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And while we're still on the subject of Sound Exchange, it turns out their ramshackle digs on Richmond have a somewhat sordid history -- as befits the catercorner neighbor of the notorious Skylane Apartments. Way back in the Otis Day, a joint called El Diablo's occupied Sound Exchange's mini-mansion, and that accurately named venue was where touring jazzmen went to play the dangerous games jazzmen were wont to play. Cocaine, prostitutes, heroin and dice were their toys, and El Diablo's was their playpen.
"They came here to do the unspeakable," Wilcox deadpans.
"Which is also what we want to do with First Thursdays."
First Thursdays will be held the first Thursday every month at Sound Exchange, 1846 Richmond. For more information, call 713-666-5555.