The Eastside Sound System: Five Music Venues East of Downtown You Should Know
The scene today - not 30 years ago - at Black Barbie.
All photos by Marco Torres
The trendy and off-putting nickname “EaDo” obscures what has long been one of Houston’s most culturally fertile areas. Home to the heavily Hispanic Second Ward and the original Chinatown, as well as storied bygone music venues like the Axiom, today the Eastside is either experiencing a revitalization through additions like BBVA Compass Stadium and METRO’s new light-rail line, or being invaded by tone-deaf urban carpetbaggers intent on remaking the area in their smartphone-addicted, Uber-loving images. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but not up for debate is the fact that everyone seems to be talking about the Eastside right now.
As the townhomes and loft buildings continue to sprout up among the unglamorous terrain of warehouses, body shops, funeral homes, industrial-supply companies and food-processing plants, here also are historic homes and churches, old-school beer joints and taquerias, vibrant murals and a nightlife scene wholly removed from Houston’s swankier entertainment districts. That includes a handful of music venues that have all opened in roughly the past couple of years, except for the one that is just about to open.
In the tradition of older (and very much still operating) Eastside venues like Bohemeo’s, Super Happy Fun Land and the White Swan, these five rooms represent an antidote to the cultural sterilization often signified by gentrification. Here, it’s still possible to catch a glimpse of the kind of unfettered artistic expression that has vanished from other parts of town — sometimes recently, sometimes not — and that still provides the city’s DJs, bands and musicians a place to call their own. For as long as it lasts, anyway. — Chris Gray
The idea behind Arlo’s Ballroom, says owner Ryan Supak (left, with son Arlo and wife Sara Van Buskirk), is “a dance dive in an old grandma’s house.”
Dance clubs, in most people’s imaginations, aren’t often associated with the word “intimate.” These warehouse-size structures, often located in former warehouses, boast super-size sound systems, fog machines and confetti cannons, and NASA-worthy lighting rigs. A big part of the purpose of going to these places at all is losing yourself among the heaving throng of humanity on the dance floor.
But not so with Arlo’s Ballroom, a new lounge just east of 59 that hopes to bring the experience down to a more human scale.
“We liked this concept of a dance dive in an old grandma’s house, basically,” says Ryan Supak, who hopes to open Arlo’s within a few weeks along with his wife, local singer-songwriter Sara Van Buskirk.
Named after the couple’s three-year-old son, Arlo’s is located in a large old house on the corner of Leeland and Hutchins that has already had a colorful past. Among its many incarnations, it’s been a pair of old juke joints as well as a crash pad for day laborers and home to even sketchier activities. When recently showing Arlo’s to an old friend who became a math professor, Supak says, his guest recognized the building from his long-ago days in Houston’s rave scene.
“The first thing he said — he wasn’t joking — was, ‘I used to buy crack out of this building,’” laughs Supak. “It was a nice homecoming for him.”
Supak and Van Buskirk took over the keys to Arlo’s in late 2013, and have spent the past several months putting two or three tons of reclaimed wood to good use. The sound system has been hand-built by Supak, including the larger speakers he fashioned from equipment salvaged from the Astrodome. Other features include antique chandeliers, an oversize disco ball and a parquet dance floor that will hold fewer than 50 people. (The official occupancy will be just under 100.) The DJ booth looks like a cage from one of those old Mississippi River paddle wheeler casinos, with slots in the wire for dancers to pass through request slips.
“We’re aggressively in favor of requests,” says Supak, a freelance software developer and former KTRU DJ. “That’s one of my favorite things to do, take requests in real time for people and then riff on that with my own tracks, maybe more obscure tracks that I know of. That’s something that at a lot of places people are often too afraid to ask the DJ something, because they think they’re going to get harshly rebuffed or whatever they ask for in some way is not going to be good enough.”
One thing not to look for at Arlo’s is something common to every other dance club: theme nights. According to Supak, people think they want to dance to an artist such as Depeche Mode all night long, but would really rather hear their three or four favorite songs mixed in with a variety of music, even contemporary radio hits. Basically, he wants Arlo’s to be the eclectic place that fills a void he sensed when listening to friends — older than college age and even into their thirties — who would tell him, “We just want someplace where we can go dancing to good music and have fun.”
“I think they felt like their options were lacking,” Supak says. “Like, they didn’t always want to go to South Beach. They don’t always want to go to Barbarella.
“All I’m trying to do is make a place that I’d want to go to,” he adds.
The Supaks, who live in nearby Eastwood, say the property values in their neighborhood have already risen so much that many of their bohemian friends can no longer afford to live there. But they’re hopeful that many of the area’s even newer residents will be looking for somewhere they can spend an evening dancing with friends in a warm, homey environment. Early signs have been encouraging.
“Even these condo dwellers are driving over and saying they’re happy we’re opening,” Supak says, motioning down the street. “They start telling me, ‘Oh, are you going to do any trip hop? Because I love Portishead.’ Their touchstone always seems to be the ’90s.” — Chris Gray
L-R: Black Barbie’s Beth Howl and Lou Miller have created a sanctuary for local music from the riskier end of the spectrum, from hardcore and industrial to death-rock and coldwave.
From the outside, Black Barbie retains the trappings of its former life as a taqueria, camouflaged in a quiet residential barrio that has so far survived the first flood of gentrification. If you arrive early enough, you can find a space in the small parking lot; otherwise, you’ll be parked half in the ditch streetside. Inside, however, the walls are painted black, and a silvery booth with a modular light-and-sound installation blinks wildly by the bar as a large, sweet-natured dog sniffs around the punks and goths making nice.
Black Barbie, where bands from the riskier side of the spectrum make a ruckus, is Eastside, not EaDo. It’s already at home in a part of the city with its pinkie in the eye of Houston’s business-as-usual, every-bar-should-be-a-sports-bar, anti-music agenda.
The venue was founded by Lou Miller and Will Harrison, both of enigmatic space-rock band Auto-Fellatio Dreams, when they grew tired of what they saw as “traditional networking…ass-kissing or scripted conversations.” They envisioned Black Barbie as “a place where alternative musical ideas can blossom,” according to Miller.
In a little more than a year, Black Barbie has quickly become a crucial Houston venue, home to the kind of shows and events that struggle to find a place in more uptight and commercially oriented clubs. It picked up the slack following the abrupt closure of Mango’s, while also expanding its repertoire with help from local promoters like Juan Carlos Newton, Jaron Sayers, Herber Quattro, David Rosales and JJ Foster.
Punk, noise, hardcore, coldwave, techno, industrial, death-rock and psych all have a home here. Black Barbie has hosted festivals and events like Bad Ass Weekend and Free Press Houston’s Holiday Ball, and is working on its own two-day fest in March. Currently dubbed “Retro Death 1,” it will feature all Texas artists from the industrial/noise, hardcore/pogo and post-punk/synth scenes.
The name itself is just a piece of “evil retro, to be exact,” according to Miller. “It originally came up as a name Will came up with when we were brainstorming new band names.”
Here you find the bands who define the dirtier side of music on both local and national levels: Cop Warmth, Alimanas, Dress Code, the Snooty Garbagemen, Wiccans, Turbokrieg, Gerritt, Profligate, B L A C K I E, Licker, Pleather, Millennial Grave, Street Sects, Pfaffenberg, Mojave Red, the Wiggins, Burnt Skull, Auto-Fellatio Dreams and the suddenly ubiquitous AK’Chamel.
Not only does Black Barbie feel hidden and out of the way, it feels like a venue out of time. It’s a particular kind of environment — sparsely advertised and completely DIY; you have to be on the lookout for it. With that also comes a seedy glamour. An undeclared but palpable street-trash aesthetic prevails: everything black, leather and denim, with well-chosen punk and space-rock on the PA between bands. At the same time, however, the owners maintain an open-minded approach to their role in Houston music.
“It’s not a trap house or clubhouse of any kind,” says Miller. “We would give anyone a shot if they had an idea for a show. It’s nice to have a place…for people who are trying to get into production and promotion.”
Black Barbie has the good sense to keep it simple. Miller and new partner Beth Howl book the shows, run the sound, staff the door and keep the lights on, all with the help of other friends. There are no unfortunate branding or corporate promotions, no widescreen TV and no cute attempts at curation. And because of this simplicity, the low overhead, the skeleton crew, and the active participation of a dynamic community of bands, promoters and showgoers, Black Barbie may have a shot at keeping it going despite the dire economics and exhausting timetable endemic to running a small music venue.
When asked about the prospects for sustaining Black Barbie into the future, at a time when similar venues seem to pop up and shut down overnight, Miller is optimistic.
“We’re dedicated to this and we’re definitely not backing down, because of its importance to us and Houston,” he says. “Plus, our landlady is super-nice and the neighborhood is great, very accepting of our progress.” — Tex Kerschen
Houston alt-pop trio Vanilla Sugar performs during a recent show at Eastdown Warehouse.
Last December, Eastdown Warehouse hosted an event called Winterfest. The music festival began on a Friday afternoon and ran into the early morning hours. By the time it was done, two dozen bands had played the venue’s spacious indoor stage or one of two modest, makeshift outdoor ones. The headliner was Paul Wall, one of Houston music’s most notable success stories.
That show is just one of many we’ve attended at the space, located in the vicinity of old-guard mainstay Last Concert Cafe and the more recently successful House of Creeps. In a span of about 12 hours, Winterfest showcased its host venue’s strengths and appeal, some of which are noticeable immediately.
First, the room is huge. Even when it approaches capacity, as it did that night or, more recently, at last month’s second-anniversary shindig featuring Los Skarnales and Archie Bell, there’s plenty of elbow room. After all, the “warehouse” isn’t just a colloquialism — the venue sprung to life from a former incarnation as a mattress storage facility.
There have been obvious upgrades since those days of back-order slips and delivery trucks. Eastdown’s interior is sleek with black decor, including oversize booths and tables at the rear of the main showroom. The sound system was recently upgraded, too.
If ample real estate and hip makeovers were the true driving elements of a successful music venue, Eastdown would have a leg up on many. But what matters more often than not are the people who run the place, and their knowledge of Houston and its music community.
“The staff at Eastdown is very friendly, laid-back and easy to work with,” show promoter Jennifer Lunn told us back in 2013. “Everyone appears to be very knowledgeable about what they’re doing.”
That staff has proven to be one of the less obvious but most critical keys to Eastdown’s rise. Adam Rodriguez, with a booking-agent background that has helped him bring in international acts (Sister Nancy, The Vibrators) as well as regional stars like Girl In a Coma’s Nina Diaz, manages the venue. Rodriguez shares the booking opportunities with his staff, who all do additional duties like tending bar, monitoring the parking lot and cleaning restrooms.
Staffer Mike Schoolcraft, a promoter, visual artist and musician, has staged festivals and shows at the venue, bringing underground cult fave Cancerslug. 30footFALL guitarist Chris LaForge works there, and has put together shows that allow the room’s considerable space to be used for mosh and circle pits; most recently, bodies were flying at a show featuring Dying Scene and locals Some Nerve. Rodriguez’s brother Isaac is Eastdown’s house DJ — DJ Simmer Down — and has used bonds he’s built as a musician here to bring favorites like Nick Gaitan and Fuska to the venue.
Eastdown’s staff also know local promoters who favor the venue’s roominess for events heavy on food and art vendors as well as music. Masterpiece Motives brought in Fat Tony and Beaumont rockers Purple for its Bayou City Bonanza this summer, as well as a host of food trucks and artists. Visionary Noise staged Winterfest, and has booked Eastdown for its popular For The Community festivals that have brought in exciting young bands like Empty Vessels and Austin’s Wonderbitch.
But the acts who benefit the most at Eastdown are the locals, of course. It books shows on most nights of the week, which means more chances for area bands to gig and, subsequently, more music for music lovers to hear. No genre is excluded from the mix, it seems, which was evident that one Friday night last December. From several rap acts to nuanced acoustic artists like Lion Among Men to party-starters like Gio Chamba and the polished indie-pop of Another Run, there was something for all sorts of music fans.
That’s the story of Eastdown Warehouse — not just on a single night, but all around the calendar year. — Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Although the SafeHouse can be difficult to find from the street, proprietor Marc T. Lishewski has made sure his guests know exactly where they are once inside.
Near Walker & Saint Charles
It’s not the easiest place to find — especially after dark. But if you head east on Walker, past the bright marquee of Warehouse Live, beyond BBVA Compass Stadium and farther still past Francisco Studios, the city blocks get quiet in a hurry. Only when you’re alone on these silent streets in the Warehouse District can you begin to hear the telltale rumble of bass. Look around: Are there any helpful signs about? Maybe a secure-looking parking lot? No? Then you may have just stumbled upon the SafeHouse.
The SafeHouse is a DIY music and events space in a very old, rather small warehouse on Saint Charles. The joint is leased and operated by one guy, Marc T. Lishewski, who just stumbled onto the place himself earlier this year. A Lufkin native, Lishewski moved to Houston five years ago to attend the Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at UH. Like any good college kid with a talent for hospitality, he kept an eye out for living arrangements that might allow him to get creative with his parties. About seven months ago, he found what he was looking for.
“I stumbled upon a sign on the side of the building in Sharpie,” Lishewski says. “My first idea was not, ‘Hey, I’m going to make a music venue.’ I was going to live there. I was going to live in the front room and slowly kind of renovate it and piece it together into sort of like a Brooklyn loft or flat.”
Once he started removing the junk from the place and giving everything its first power wash in about a century, though, Lishewski’s ideas got bigger. What if he turned the spot into a modern-day speakeasy? Outside, it wouldn’t look like much, with no sign or marquee or anything — and even once you’d secured entry, you’d find yourself escorted into what appeared to be a small studio apartment, with a bed and a few sticks of furniture. Then the back door would open and, all of a sudden, you’d be transported into 2,000 square feet of vintage warehouse space with funky lighting and a stage built out of pallets.
The music would be loud, but not too loud — and you’d find yourself in the middle of one of the coolest house parties you’ve ever seen. That was the initial idea behind the SafeHouse, and it’s exactly what the SafeHouse has become.
“The idea was to kind of savor the speakeasy vibe of the place,” says Lishewski, who named the spot after a massive safe he found in the back. “It’s strange every time: I’ve had thousands of people walk through my bedroom. The way the first event went was pretty perfect. The sense of discovery that everybody had on their faces? That was the whole point of the place: to stumble upon something awesome. You don’t often get that feeling in this city, or at least I haven’t.”
Since April, the SafeHouse has hosted ten events, with local musicians and artists setting up shop at each one. It’s become one of the coolest, most mysterious spots in town to catch hip-hop luminaries like Roosh Williams, Devin the Dude and Fat Tony, and Lishewski says he has plans to possibly branch out into hosting pop-up dinners with some of the city’s top chefs. He says he’s in talks with the owner of the space to do some re-platting and permitting in a move toward legitimizing the place.
In the meantime, Lishewski says he isn’t wasting time on too much planning. Hosting cool get-togethers where art and music abound is his primary mission. So expect to enjoy more secretive events and mysterious gatherings — assuming you find yourself on the list.
“There’s no long-term directive with the SafeHouse,” Lishewski says. “I just want to do stuff like this all over the world for the rest of my life. I don’t know what, exactly, but I want to create experiences. I just want to keep having distinctly different gatherings here with distinctly different people.” — Nathan Smith
Mario Rodriguez has no trouble toggling from member of Tax the Wolf and Bang Bangz to driving force behind his budding Wonky Power empire.
Wonky Power Live
3534 Navigation Blvd.
In August of last year, Mario Rodriguez walked back to his truck and saw the damage, an all-too-familiar situation for many Houstonians. The feelings of rage and helplessness that come on after your car is broken into cut deep and linger. In most cases, the stolen items can be replaced, and we learn to live with the inconvenience. But Rodriguez lost a laptop and hard drives that held hours, possibly years, of work, including full albums of which there were no backups. Broken glass, broken heart.
Yes, this was a setback, but it was necessary for him to push forward for the sake of his musical family, which now proudly bears the moniker Wonky Power Records. The label includes a roster of artists making eclectic, enjoyable music, from digital cumbia to spacey electronic rock, psychedelic sounds and funky rhythms. Overall, the crew is dynamic, imaginative and supremely creative. Theirs is a different vibe; not exactly hippie, but open-minded. Familiar. Open for growth and development. Supportive, with only positive attitudes.
Friends and family gave Rodriguez the nickname “Wonky” when he was a skinny Chavez High School kid because of his strange and “far-out” ideas. Adding the “Power” reflects his independent and curious nature. Today he is good karma personified, which carries over into his music and seemingly endless ideas and projects. As a member of Tax the Wolf and Bang Bangz, Rodriguez has always portrayed himself as focused, determined and resolute.
Rodriguez and his family grew up in Magnolia Park, near the Houston Ship Channel. They lived in a modest house, which included the room he shared with his four siblings. He has fond memories of growing up there, with weekly trips to La Victoria Panaderia and hours spent listening to his parents’ records. His brother Gustavo first brought home an acoustic guitar to impress his friends, and Mario would secretly practice on it until his fingers were numb. He would later befriend Adrian Graniel and Alan Garza, who went on to establish Tax the Wolf.
Venues such as White Swan and Walters on Washington really stimulated Rodriguez’s musical appetite, as he hoped for the day his band would be onstage rocking for an appreciative crowd. The excitement of creating drove him toward success, along with being a part of a community that supported the music scene’s growth and development. His sense of loyalty and essential need to help others would eventually evolve into the Wonky Power umbrella, which includes the record label that will release its first compilation — featuring local artists like Gio Chamba, George West, Bang Bangz and, of course, Tax the Wolf — on November 14.
Rodriguez’s headquarters, known as Wonky Power Live, was once a mechanic’s shop. His landlord is Isaac Cohen, a creative master himself known for his work with the Art Car Parade and his wood sculptures. Upon hearing Rodriguez’s plans for the space, Cohen excitedly provided his support.
Mario and his team built out the space almost from scratch, setting the venue up for future musical performances, online broadcasts and networking events. The lot once filled with old cars now includes a stage and a recording studio; Rodriguez is poised to expand into the building next door, which recently housed the short-lived alternative-music venue dubbed the Summit. Although he admits the rent seems like a mountainous obstacle, Rodriguez and his business partners are optimistic they can make things work. Once completed, Wonky Power Live will include a handful of rehearsal spaces, a larger studio and a proper stage for live music and events.
Mario didn’t specifically plan to return to his old neighborhood, but he now regards it as fate. This is where life started for him, and this is where it will continue. He does what he does in order to foster excitement for the city and create special memories through music. As he continues to grow, he extends his hand for others to grow with him. Fun and interesting things are happening, both at Wonky Power Live and all over the Eastside. — Marco Torres
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