Fifth Ward Jam: More than Just Public Art

Texas Johnny Brown has never played on a stage quite like this one before.

A haphazard mix of scavenged red, blue, yellow and white wooden planks fan out over the microphones, amps and drum set, forming the recognizable concave shape of a bandshell. The building's past life is still discernible, the roof of the formerly condemned house peaking from behind the skyward two-by-fours, though the sides of the house are squeezed and pinched into something that looks ready to suck you in.

Art enthusiasts, or anyone who drove down Montrose Boulevard a few years back, will recognize the work of Dan Havel and Dean Ruck. The two last drew major attention here for their 2005 piece "Inversion," which turned a couple of condemned houses into a traffic-stopping vortex. The duo's latest project is more functional, though no less eye-catching. "Fifth Ward Jam," a sculpture on a former vacant lot on Lyons Avenue, sticks out like a sore thumb on the strip of churches and bungalows, the red house transformed by "wooden brushstrokes," to borrow Ruck's phrasing, into a piece of public art.

"It's good Houston street art," said Havel. "It's art you can see from your car."

Of course, this time around, it's more than just street art -- Fifth Ward Jam is a performance space, slated to stand for the next two years at the community's disposal. It's a fitting addition to the historic Houston neighborhood, which during its musical heyday in the 1940s and '50s was home to Don Robey's Peacock Records, which recorded the Mighty Clouds of Joy and Big Mama Thornton, and its sister club, The Bronze Peacock, which hosted the likes of T-Bone Walker and Clarence Brown.

On Saturday, music returned to the strip in full force during the bandshell's christening. While visitors regularly peaked inside the house to see the impenetrable web of two-by-fours that support the sculpture and kids played in the impromptu gravel playground at the foot of the stage, talent with ties to the neighborhood took to the multicolored stage. There was gospel quartet Endurance, which brought it way back with an a cappella set; Continental Zydeco Ballroom veterans Jabo; rapper Moon Rue, who's inspired by the likes of Fifth Ward group The Geto Boys; and, lastly, legendary blues guitarist Texas Johnny Brown, who was once the in-house guitarist for Peacock Records.

By the time Brown and his Quality Blues Band were up, the sun cast the wooden stage in a beautiful golden hue -- its warm glow in contrast to the weary blues coming out of Brown's magenta Les Paul. And despite the typically somber tunes, Brown, playing in his former stomping ground for the first time in more than 20 years, seemed in a pretty good mood, too.

"I consider this a special event," said Brown. "There's nothing like playing in the Fifth Ward."

And on a work of art, no less.

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