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Ten Things I Love About the Houston Music Scene

Whether driving or dating or writing a weekly column, once you get past that first time, it's all gravy. So for my first go-round as music editor, I thought I'd list a few reasons why, during my recent three-month leave of absence from the Press, moving back to Austin never once entered my mind. It took about five minutes. I've been in Houston a year now, and still feel like I just got here. Funny how things work out, huh?

10. Free shows. Luckily, since the economy's tanking, it's possible to fill up on local music all week long without spending a dime. The potluck "Secret Saturday Shows" at Shady's Tavern in the Heights are always a pleasant surprise. Wednesdays at the Volcano offer local, regional and national alt-­country and roots-rock in such an intimate environment you can smell the guitar strings burning.

Boondocks hosts a generous cross-section of Houston bands Monday nights (such as World's Most Dangerous, the Monocles and Heist at Hand in upcoming weeks, and Spain Colored Orange at the bar's one-year anniversary July 13) and local blues institution Little Joe Washington Tuesdays. Discovery Green is booking more and more family-friendly free shows like the much-discussed Sgt. Pepper's re-creation, and of course, both Cactus Music and Sound Exchange schedule in-stores (and free beer) on a regular basis.

9. History. Houston has an incredibly rich musical history that, the efforts of my predecessor John Nova Lomax and our mutual mentor-in-spirit Sig Byrd notwithstanding, feels like it's hardly been explored at all. Maybe that's because it barely even feels like history. Here, what other cities might label "history" has an interesting tendency to intrude into the present, whether it's Billy Gibbons wandering into the Continental Club, Texas Johnny Brown playing at Discovery Green, the guys from the Hunger running the Scout Bar down in Clear Lake or even Austin's Black Angels — two of whom were raised in Seabrook — conjuring the ghost of Houston's International Artists Records as they spearhead the current psych-rock revival.

8. Nameless Sound. Since 2000, David Dove and his Nameless Sound cohorts have been drawing the biggest names in experimental and avant-garde music — Keiji Haino, Peter Brotzmann, Kurt Newman, Frank Gratkowski and Hans Bennink, to name but a few — to Houston from all over the world. Sometimes it takes some digging to figure out exactly who these people are, but it's always worth it, especially because it's often the artists' only U.S. appearance. Moreover, Nameless Sound is heavily involved in local arts education, teaching youths how to appreciate some of the most out-there music out there — and how to make it themselves.

7. The radio. I know, I know, commercial radio sucks. Guess what? It sucks everywhere else, too. But noncommercially speaking, Houston excels. Besides offering programming as eclectic as the city itself, both KTRU and KPFT maintain high profiles in the music scene and give local artists plenty of airplay. Alvin's KACC plays classic rock with a deep-cut mindset and a Texas twist. KUHF admirably steers clear of classical crowd-pleasers like Beethoven's Fifth and the "1812 Overture" (great though they are) in favor of more adventurous fare, and The Front Row is a great way to keep up with the local arts community. Several folks believe the jazz and gospel-heavy KTSU is the best station in town. Come to think of it, considering that 97.9 the Boxx has long been a beacon to Houston's rap community, new kid on the block Hot 95.7 has been playing some straight jams and Jack FM is a virtual survey course in pop music that generally cruises along at a rate of one dud per every ten songs, even commercial radio here isn't nearly as bad as it could be.

6. Steak nights. Technically, various local taverns' steak nights have nothing to do with music, except providing a golden opportunity to become acquainted with some mighty decent jukeboxes. But a man's gotta eat, and with a giant hunk of meat, mounds of mashed potatoes and sometimes even a pint for not much more than $10, a man can eat very well indeed almost every night of the week around here: Mondays at Volcano and the Wet Spot, Tuesdays at Griff's, Wednesdays at Onion Creek and Thursdays at PJ's, Beer Island and the Wet Spot (again). With all that, there's always plenty of leftovers for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

5. 3700 Main. Yes, I do live there. And I can tell you firsthand, I've never seen a more urban self-contained community than what we like to call "The Island" — not in Austin, not in New York or Chicago or Seattle, not anywhere else — and music is its heartbeat. Not only are the city's preeminent roots-rock and indie-rock clubs virtually back-to-back in the Continental Club and the Mink, the Big Top Lounge is a time machine back into the '70s and Sig's Lagoon is as much a museum of Houston's musical history as it is a record store. And the Rolling Stones always seem to be playing at Tacos a Go-Go. Even though he didn't mean to, Lou Reed couldn't have written a better song about our little stretch of Main Street than "Dirty Boulevard" if he tried.

4. Numbers. Even if I wasn't bananas about the artists who form the bedrock of Numbers' legendary '80s night — the Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Echo & the Bunnymen — I'd still have to give the Montrose mainstay, marking its 30th anniversary this summer, its propers. Even after all this time, and with a lot more competition from the LiveNations of the world, Numbers still manages to draw in bands (the Slits, British Sea Power) that might otherwise bypass Houston altogether. And best of all, its doors are always open to local musicians, whether through events like the Westheimer Street Festival or Free Press Houston's recent run of "Recession Thursday" shows.

3. Hands Up Houston. This lively Internet message board is invaluable in finding advice on everything from scooter repair to a good dentist, with loads more personality than Craigslist to boot. But since it's populated largely by the movers and shakers of the local music scene — mostly indie-rock, though metal and hip-hop get plenty of face time, too — it's absolutely indispensable when it comes to finding out what's really happening, be it an instant concert review, last-minute booking opportunity, occasional flame war, directions to that house party everyone's talking about or sharing that hilarious clip you just found on YouTube.

2. Entrepreneurialism. Houston has plenty of clubs, many of them excellent, but one of my absolute favorite things about the scene here is how many great shows happen nowhere near a nightclub. Besides multipurpose venues like DiverseWorks, the Orange Show and the new Caroline Collective, it's not unusual for shows to happen in art galleries, museums, warehouses, parking lots and people's freaking houses. Sometimes it seems like the entire city is one giant venue.

1. Potential. Forsaken or otherwise misbegotten by the fickle gods that govern other cities' music scenes, Houston routinely shrugs off slights that would cripple lesser locales. Though it acts as a spigot spraying homegrown talent all over North America (and beyond), Houston always keeps more than enough to itself to surprise natives and newcomers alike.

Just about everyone I've met here, no matter how they're involved with the scene, seems to be constantly thinking about what they can do to make it better. And like I said, I've been here a year and feel like I've only scratched the surface of what this city has to offer. I look forward to delving much deeper in the months and years to come.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com


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