I'm at Helios on a sweltering Monday night, and the funky old lower Westheimer mansion is packed. Old punks next to young punks, black guys with scraggly beards and dreads tucked into doo-rags, white girls who look like they got lost on their way home from The Social, a wine-sipping Kelsey Grammer look-alike, East Asians, South Asians, Hispanics, you name it. And for the sausagefest that is all too often the Houston live music scene, there are as many women in the house as men. All of this on a Monday, mind you.
And dozens of them are crammed as tight as a can of smoked oysters right in front of the stage, where they're trying their best to dance to music performed by four or five young guys who look like the crew of a Missouri River whiskey boat, circa 1851. In some cases, the music played by these guys (multi-instrumentalists Geoffrey "Uncle Tick" Muller, Craig "The Reverend" Kinsey, Scott "Rag Tag" McNeil, Shane "Coach" Lauder and occasionally two-time Press Best Guitarist winner Kelly Doyle) is also that old, while in other cases, it originated from the hands and vocal cords of people like Bill Monroe, Django Reinhardt, Jimmie Rodgers, Cab Calloway and the Louvin Brothers.
And in some cases, from the Medicine Show itself, the band responsible for this scrum. Right now, the band is singing -- screaming, really -- an original tune about vodka. "That's one of the songs the Reverend kinda wrote spontaneously on stage," says Rag Tag the next day. "A lot of our songs are like that."
The Medicine Show
At any rate, it has sent Josie the Incredible Bartender into a wild-eyed frenzy. "All right, who wants some vodka?" she screams, brandishing a fancy bottle of imported grain spirits. ("Vodka!" the band hollers.) "Line up for your shots! You want some?" she asks, pointing the bottle at a twentysomething blond. ("Vodka!") "How about you? Vodka, on the house!" (Rag Tag says she's been known to jump on stage and pour the stuff in their mouths.)
Down the hatch. "Vodka!" indeed. The bar is also doing a roaring trade in Shiner Bock on tap, big cans of Lone Star and aquamarine-colored shots called, if the chalkboard over the bar is to be believed, Blue Smurf Shits. The whole evening is like one of those Blue Monday jams in the Third Ward -- you take the lemon that is the worst day of the week and squeeze that sucker until it turns into lemonade.
And then you pour in the vodka.
And, as it turns out, this is musically like a Blue Monday as well, for Little Joe Washington drops in to perform an opening three-song mini-set (backed by the Medicine Show's Coach on drums and Uncle Tick on bass) that comprises "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and a slow blues or two. Washington has traded in his battered cowboy hat for a floppy camouflage lid, but he's still sporting the battered blue coat and the same blistering, jazzy and occasionally dissonant blues licks he learned over on Velasco Street near the train tracks in the Trey.
And the tricks: He wails a line or two about "great big titties" and scrapes the guitar's strings over the back of his head. He wraps up his set the same way he always does: "I'm gonna pass the hat now," he says. When he works his way over to me, I hand him $3, and he is clearly enthused, more by his playing and the packed house than by my donation. "You don't play all night on somebody else's job," he says, smiling, knowing that he could do just that if he wanted. "That's the truth. Hey, man, wanna buy a T-shirt?"
Scenes like this remind me of just how much like Lightnin' Hopkins Washington has become. No, I'm not referring here to Washington's demeanor or stage antics; instead, it's his role. Just as Hopkins was the face of the local blues scene to thousands of white hippies in the '60s and '70s, so is Washington to the hipsters of today. (Hell, he has been since the '90s.) Except for Etta's Lounge, most hipster kids have never been to the jukes in the Third and Fifth wards, and they see the Big Easy and the other westside blues haunts as old man bars. Washington, on the other hand, gets on his Schwinn and comes to them.
And that's vital. Cite magazine called Houston an "ephemeral city," one marked by "rapid change, built-in obsolescence, indeterminacy, media orientation, a culture of style, and instant gratification." We lack zoning, the population doubles every generation, and it seems that any building that reaches the age of 30 is torn down so the yuppies can have a new place to play, shop or sleep.
None of which is to say that this city does not have some eternal truths. And the blues is a huge part of H-town's DNA. In the '40s and '50s, tens of thousands of rural black people came to Houston from places like Marshall, Centerville and Newton.
Washington is transmitting the city's genetic musical code to a whole new generation, and seeing him up there with the Medicine Show reminds me of how some of the 13th Floor Elevators used to sit in with and even record with Lightnin'.
And it's perhaps that same ephemerality that brings people out to see the Medicine Show. The past never changes -- only our interpretations of it do. And the Medicine Show's music is also a part of the city's genetic code, only it's so distant an ancestor to most of the rest of the music out there that it seems really fresh and really strange today.
Just as people like Hopkins brought the music of places like his native Centerville to town, so too did rural whites like the legendary Texas fiddler "Prince" Albert Hunt, who was shot to death outside a bar not long after his 30th birthday in 1930. He would have fit right in with the Medicine Show, if this description of him from Salon.com is to be believed: "He growls through dirty teeth, rolls on the floor, punches his fist through his stovepipe hat, passes out, gets up, falls down, and after every verse kicks up a dance-call with a single down-stroke so fat and sweet you're ready to hire him to clean up your yard." (And the Medicine Show needs a fiddler. Perhaps a sance is in order.)
Prince Albert also had a bucking little bronco of a fiddle tune called "The Houston Slide," which is often credited as a forerunner of Western swing. On the record, it is introduced with the following timeless banter:
Band member: "How do you feel, Prince?"
Prince: "Feel like a jug o' molasses."
Band member: "How's that?"
Prince: "All around but not stuck up."
Band member: "Well, that's great, boy. Well, say, Prince, whattaya wanta do -- you wanna talk about women, get drunk or you wanna play some music?"
Prince: "I wanna play 'The Houston Slide.'"
And it's tempting to call this whole show a Houston Slide in the larger sense. Here is where the native-born children of doctors from Saigon, factory workers from Flint and campesinos from Michoacn come together and bond through intense performances of the old and often weird songs that helped hack this town from the frontier and made it the colossus it is today.
Many writers -- this one included -- have attributed the Medicine Show's fire to their punk backgrounds. That's both true and untrue, Rag Tag believes. Yes, all the guys in the band have punk backgrounds, he says, but they simply play those songs the way they were played originally. "We love the rawness of old-timey music," he says. "For a while there, me and the Rev would get a bottle of Jameson's and listen to John Lee Hooker, and we would wonder what it was about him. He had it. 'It' is just some mystical thing, a power he has that we try to have."
Most of those who have it play music first and foremost for the sheer joy of it. Maybe one day the Medicine Show will get serious about themselves. Maybe they'll change their name to something more distinct and hire a manager and a publicist and start shopping for a label and a tour van. Here's hoping they don't. Here's hoping they just keep on doing what they're doing, weaving themselves deeper and deeper into the folklore of the city -- the band that loved music itself more than women, drinking and drugs and everything else.
Somewhere, where the hangovers are mild, the women are all beautiful, and the fiddle strokes ever sweet and fat, Prince Albert Hunt is smiling wide, dirty teeth and all.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
As the Medicine Show continues to evolve into a Houston institution, another retro-cool, cover-heavy band is drawing to a close. The El Orbits, the nine-and-a-half-year-old Gulf Coast R&B/swamp-pop party band, will play one of their last shows ever on New Year's Eve. David Beebe has nodes on his vocal cords, and he'll be having surgery on them in January, and then taking the rest of the year off.
"I'm going to Austin to have lunch with my priest about all this," he announced from the stage last Monday. "He's very worried about me. It seems like I'm the only one who's really happy about me taking the year off."
Beginning next year, New Year's Eve will be the only El Orbits show each year.