It's reggae night at the Mink.
Let's set the scene: A few weeks back, the Midtown Houston watering hole was about to be inundated by old-school reggae tunes that would permeate the bar and spill out onto the sidewalk. Stewart A. Anderson, the man who would be playing these tunes, was sitting down at the bar, sipping on a tonic and lime (he doesn't drink) and manually gluing playlists onto the back of reggae mix CDs.
The CDs, featuring rarities from such performers as the Ethiopians, the Soul Stirrers, Justin Hinds and Derrick Morgan, would be free to those who attended the evening, a free, monthly gathering Anderson calls "A Fistful of Soul."
For the past year and a half, Anderson, along with colleagues John Baldwin (Anderson's former bandmate in mod-punks Teenage Kicks) and Ben Browning, has culled together 45s of old, obscure soul, rhythm and blues and reggae tracks and played them every third Friday at the Mink.
"Really, it's just a way to justify my bad habits and all the money and time that I spend buying records," Anderson says.
A 28-year-old bookseller at the Half Price Books in Montrose, Anderson grew up in Houston with many soul 45s around the house. But when he soon started listening more to punk, he found himself getting reacquainted with those same soul singles.
"You read these books and it's like, what were The Clash into? What were The Jam into? What were The Sex Pistols into?" he says. "They listened to soul, rhythm and blues and reggae."
What these UK punk gods were listening to was "Northern Soul," the genre that grew out of the British mod scene in the late '60s. It was most popular in dance halls in northern England, spots that favored American soul that was fast-paced and heavy on the beat. They favored a lot of Motown, but the more obscure and underrated the soul, the better.
"Northern Soul definitely was what pushed me," confirms Anderson. "Marlena Shaw's 'Let's Wade in the Water' was the song that had me just absolutely out there digging and digging and digging."
But Anderson hasn't been the only Houstonian spinning throwback jams recently. Eight years ago, New York-born Scott Mesorana, a.k.a. DJ Mod Scott, came to town with a bunch of 45s and began spinning retro soul at Fitzgerald's and Helios (now AvantGarden).
Northern Soul isn't exactly a specialty for Brett Koshkin, but he still digs — and digs for — various bits of throwback soul. When the 32-year-old native Houstonian (and former Houston Press music listings editor) isn't writing about music, he's been collecting soul LPs and 45s and playing them at venues and parties for the past 13 years.
"It's a room in my house," confides Koshkin, who just like Anderson also has a monthly soul night. His "Dirty Honey" happens the first Saturday of every month at Boondocks.
A few years back, Koshkin was becoming a frequent guest at a monthly Austin event called "Soul Happening," and was approached by DJ Witnes about doing a monthly soul night at the Montrose bar. But Koshkin was originally apprehensive about playing his favorite ditties for hometown folk.
"The way I see it is, if I do something, I want to do it right," says Koshkin. "And I just wanted to know that it's going to be appreciated. And I know Houstonians, you know, who appreciate that sort of thing. But, at the time, when I started doing it, there was nothing like that going on in town.
"And I was really curious," he adds. "I mean, it just seems so out of left field, you know. There's this random white guy playing a bunch of weird, '60s soul music for people. How are people gonna respond to that?"
The answer is quite well. Dirty Honey has been going strong for close to five years. But he isn't just a proud soul spinner, giving nocturnal Houston audiences little-known numbers to groove to. Koshkin has taken it upon himself to be the city's resident soul-music historian. Last year, he received a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, called the Idea Fund, to research and write on the history of Houston soul music.
As it has already been established by such retro soul-crazy labels as hip-hop empire Stones Throw, whose reissue wing Now-Again has released ("unearthed" would be a better word) music from Houston high-school soul collective the Kashmere Stage Band, this town has a rich soul history.
"I'm tracking down old soul musicians and producers and label owners and anybody I can get my hands on and trying to get their stories on tape," Koshkin says. "Because we're losing these people faster than we can get their stories documented."
Hopefully, he'll turn all this research into a book. At the moment, you can follow Koshkin's efforts over at his Bayou City Soul blog (bayoucitysoul.wordpress.com). Anderson, meanwhile, has his own local soul Twitter page (twitter.com/houstonsoul), and is planning to drop a Texas/Gulf Coast soul mix CD at a future Fistful gathering.
Even though there are nostalgic DJs in this region keeping long-lost soul alive, Koshkin still isn't sure that a retro-soul movement could go down in Houston. "I'm a little gun-shy on that," he says. "I look at things like the swing-dancing, zoot-suit kind of fad that came through. And it's something I love and something I do, and I don't want it to simply just be a fad.
"So, I don't know, but there's definitely a certain surge of people playing classic soul, like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and the entire Daptone stable," he adds. "There's definitely a newfound appreciation for these sounds. I'll definitely say that. But I don't think things have reached hyperbole at this point."
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However, from what he's observed, Anderson says he thinks it could be very possible.
"There's definitely a lot more interest in it than there was a few years ago," he says. "I see a lot more people out buying the records. I hear a lot more people talking about them. So, there may not be a scene yet, but there's absolutely potential for it to happen.
"It's really strange, the people cheering for records. And what's great is people cheering for records they've never heard before, which just absolutely blows my mind. Like, it definitely tells you you're doing something right when the whole crowd erupts when you're playing a record.
"And it's like, you're not in a band," Anderson marvels. "You're just some guy playing a song you like."