Identity problem... You may have heard a rumor buzzing around that the Urban Art Bar -- still the best reason for live music fans to venture downtown -- is on the verge of closing. Not so, says part owner Skip Rudsenske, though there have been a few significant changes made in the way the club does business, changes that don't bode particularly well for local bands.
Specifically, the UAB will be diverting its attention away from Houston acts to concentrate on booking national entertainment, says Rudsenske. The reason he gives is that local groups aren't drawing the crowds needed to keep the venue operating -- and given the thin crowds I've regularly witnessed there, I see what he means. But it's a little more complicated than that. The UAB is in the throes of an identity crisis, stuck in no man's land somewhere between being a neighborhood watering hole, a teen hangout and a full-fledged concert venue, but lacking the regular drinking crowd, the rep with the kids or the large capacity to truly be any one of those.
"We haven't ever really had the built-in crowd," says Rudsenske. "If you look at Emo's and the Blue Iguana, people are in there shooting pool and drinking [whether there's a band or not]; Fitzgerald's caters to the underage crowd. The dilemma is: What do you do with the club on the off-time?"
Bringing in up-and-coming touring acts -- bands on the cusp of breaking out to a wider audience -- has always been at the top of the UAB's mission statement, ever since its days at the corner of Tuam and Brazos, where it existed as little more than a cozy concert shell for local promotional behemoth Pace Concerts. That motivation, along with the Pace connection, was supposed to carry over to the present Milam Street location. And it did -- for a while. But over the last year, the UAB's intentions have been muddied by efforts to patch holes in its schedule week in and week out. There have been a number of reasons for the problem. Aside from last-minute cancellations and a dearth of national tours coming through town, there've been the bidding wars, which have become more intense as the Satellite Lounge, Fitzgerald's and, to a lesser extent, the Abyss have become more aggressive in vying for national alternative acts. As a result, says Rudsenske, the UAB is losing shows more frequently to larger clubs with more money.
Increasingly, local talent was called in to take over on dead nights -- good for the bands, not so good for the bottom line. "We [were] in over our heads," Rudsenske admits. "We found ourselves at times going, 'Oh God! It's Friday, we need to put a show together.' It got to the point where we were putting 30 people in the room on a weekend." And with a capacity of 250, he adds, the club would have done better by staying closed.
Now, says Rudsenske, it's time to reverse that trend. "It's a matter of drawing people in," he says. "We've put some pool tables in there ... tried to cozy it up a little bit. We're doing happy hour, trying to get some of the after-work crowd."
And what if a Friday or Saturday evening comes along and there's no national act booked? "We'll open without music," says Rudsenske. "I'm not going to stop doing local acts, but it's going to be more difficult to play here, because I'm not going to struggle to fill up every night. The Sonnier Brothers are going to continue to play every Thursday. I've always been into building audiences for bands that I like."
It looks like he'll be doing much of the building on his own. Greg Pitzer, another UAB partner, recently stepped down from his booking and promotion post, leaving Rudsenske, who's also a full-time attorney, to handle those duties for the second time in less than a year. Pitzer says he left to pursue other opportunities, though he'd rather not go into any more detail than that.
Rudsenske is more specific: "He was burned out. It's been a real fight to say, 'Let's take this idea, and let's make it work all the time.' A lot of clubs get to this point, and they close."
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If things don't pick up soon for the UAB, closing could be a real possibility -- especially when national names can't even be relied on to pay the bills. Former Bangle Susanna Hoffs's May 22 show at the club, for instance, drew a miserable 62 people.
"That's the risk we take," shrugs Rudsenske.
Serious Spanish... "All the human beings from all cultures have needed to know where they've come from, what they are doing here and where they are going. The fundamental proposition of Seres Ocultos is to wake up humanity and fill that emptiness." That's a tall order for a band to fill; in America, it's even tougher if the band's material is written and sung solely in Spanish. Thankfully, though, Houston's Seres Ocultos (or Hidden Beings) are as serious about writing memorable melodies as they are about turning the world around. On Despierta, the quintet mines the mildly Gothic, mope-pop territory (Cure, Depeche Mode, etc.) thought to be depleted a few years prior to grunge -- which may explain why it sounds so fresh and outmoded at the same time. Most important, it's catchy as hell, and giddy with its own self-importance.
-- Hobart Rowland