Young and Stylin'

The two young girls are glued to Brad McCool like family, but as it happens, they are fans of a sort. Waiting for his table at Spanish Flowers, a 24-hour Mexican joint in the Heights, the guitarist doesn't seem to mind the girls' presence as they stand moon-eyed and gawking at his bright red vintage suit and gleaming wing-tips -- he's not basking in the attention, mind you, just enjoying the company. Pretty soon, McCool scares up a copy of his debut CD, Big Time, and autographs it for his new followers, who are suitably ecstatic. Anything, it seems, to get the word out.

"They thought I was Jimmy Ray, man," an embarrassed McCool confesses later from his table at the restaurant, watching as the girls wave good-bye and follow their mother out the door.

Truth be told, McCool's modest, slicked-back coif couldn't go up against Jimmy Ray's statuesque pompadour if its sculpting spray depended on it, and for that, McCool is grateful. Because, frankly, a player weaned on T-Bone Walker, Freddie King and Magic Sam has no business being measured against some plasti-billy, fly-by-night U.K. sensation. And besides, McCool's wisp of a goatee makes him look more like a young, hungry and stylin' Jimmie Vaughan than anyone else. When push comes to shove, he practically begs his interviewer not to mention the Ray incident in print.

But, alas, the anecdote is simply too juicy to pass up, and it illustrates a point: At the tender age of 25, Brad McCool -- with his rugged good looks and blossoming aptitude on the frets -- might just be the man to drag the Houston blues scene out of its creaky, fragmented doldrums. And while purists may find it hard to swallow that some scrawny white kid from the tiny northeast Texas hamlet of Athens would have any business sharing a stage with local luminaries such as Milton Hopkins and Joe "Guitar" Hughes, the fact is, he has. McCool -- whose first run-in with a guitar came only five years ago -- has also opened for Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Jimmy Thackery, Tab Benoit, Anson Funderburgh, fellow Houstonian Mark May and many others since he migrated to Houston in 1996. Thus far, his reach has extended to festivals and clubs in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Locally, he's performed everywhere from high-profile touring venues such as the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, Billy Blues and the Big Easy to smoky neighborhood dives as far north as Conroe.

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You'd think that McCool's rather speedy career trajectory might have gone to his head by now. But nothing could be further from the truth. "You have to earn their respect," says McCool of performing with the older players. "You gotta get to know them."

Indeed, McCool is more aware than anyone that he has a lot to learn. Fronting his four-piece Big City Blues Band on a Friday night at a Heights watering hole called the Shiloh Club, the guitarist put on an inconsistent, if frequently impressive, display. Moving from the fluid jump-blues shuffles that are his calling card (Freddie King's "See See Baby," Walker's "T-Bone Shuffle") to somewhat shrill and awkward crowd-pleasers in the flashier Texas tradition (Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Cold Shot," among them), McCool is a developing singer still working to find his way around his instrument. His solos can veer from fiery to caustic in the span of just a few bars, and he has a tendency to stray ahead of the groove. And the Big City Blues Band, while competent, needs more time to gel behind him -- which isn't surprising given that the lineup has only recently become set; the latest incarnation includes Austin refugee Jimmy Rose on drums, Joe Ely look-alike Johnny Juan on bass and Denny Dew on keys.

Lack of refinement aside, McCool's read on the true spirit of the blues is dead-on, and in most instances, it's fairly plain that he's channeling from the heart, not merely regurgitating licks from memory. Even better, McCool seems to be able to pull himself out of most any jam: At one point early in his first Shiloh set, a stone-drunk couple took a tumble in front of the tiny stage, taking one of the PA speakers with them. "Two down," quipped the unfazed guitarist, and the entire room loosened up as a result. Granted, he's no Johnnie Lang. But then, McCool would never think of performing in front of any audience without the proper attire, let alone shoeless, as Lang has been known to do.

"He's really getting into it," says McCool's manager, Kenneth Dunn, an insurance agent who also does bookings for Brint Anderson and Joe Hughes. "When we play these places in Mississippi, I say to Brad, 'Man, if these guys ever get their minds off of the way you're playing and start looking at the way you're dressing, we're in some deep shit. When you look the look, you've got to be able to do the do. Hopefully it will work to our advantage."

Dunn goes on to explain how he discovered McCool one night at a North Houston club called Westfield's by the Railroad. "I see all these guitars up on stage, I see this kid all dressed up, and I told [my friend], 'Either this guy's gonna be real good or he's gonna completely suck.' And he was smokin'."

By that time, there was no turning back for McCool, who started playing guitar at the age of 20 and hasn't stopped. Brad's father, Don McCool (yes, that's the true family name), put in time as a serious musician, playing bass for various blues bands in Dallas (where he fell in with the Vaughan camp) and Austin before moving back to his Athens birthplace. The younger McCool has some additional experience playing bass and piano, which he shows off to a limited extent on Big Time, recorded at Rock Romano's Red Shack in the Heights. Although he also spent some time in Kingwood, McCool's reasons for finally settling in Houston are obvious.

"There's no music scene [where I'm from]," McCool says, recalling what finally motivated him to get the hell out of town. "We were playing this place where you had to drive ten miles to get beer. The first night we played, they said, 'Well, we'll pay you tomorrow night.' The second night at about ten o'clock, we realized we were going to get stiffed, so I grabbed my amp and my guitar; I [went home and grabbed] a couple of shirts and told my dad, 'I'm moving to Houston tonight.' "

Apparently, Athens's loss is our gain.

Brad McCool performs Friday, August 14, at the Shiloh Club, 1321 Studewood. Showtime is 9 p.m. For info, call 869-8354. McCool also performs Saturday, August 15, at Rookie's Sports Bar, 305-B Sawdust Road. Showtime is 9:30 p.m. For info, call (281) 362-9610. Both shows are free.

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