2 Years After Ownership Change, Fitz Is Thriving

Has it really been two years already since Jagi Katial and Omar Afra became the new owner-operators of Fitzgerald's? Apparently so, because the Free Press Summer Fest partners celebrated their second anniversary at the rickety old live music club on White Oak a couple weeks back with a weekend's worth of bands, headlined by the Walkmen. Time flies, as they say.

When the pair bought the club from longtime owner Sara Fitzgerald, who opened the place back in 1977, local music fans were pleased to see the place remain open, but a little unsure what would become of a historic venue where a lot of happy memories have been made.

Two years later, it's pretty safe to say that the takeover has been a resounding success. That's why we toasted Fitzgerald's as the city's Best Live Music Venue in this year's Best of Houston issue.

Today, quality shows can be seen throughout the week both upstairs and down at the former Polish meeting hall. Before I started writing for Rocks Off last year, it had been almost a decade since I'd stepped inside Fitz, and I get the feeling my story was typical. My first show back was local rap luminaries Lil' Flip and K-Rino downstairs. Both have been on the scene for a minute, and I'm pretty darn sure they never played Fitz back when.

If anyone worried that the Summer Fest brain trust would set Fitzgerald's to indie 24/7 two years ago, they're probably resting pretty easy by now. In the last year, I've seen classic rock, hip-hop, EDM, punk, post-punk, psych and -- oh, yes -- metal shows at Fitz. And they still brought in all the best indie bands, both local and national.

But even those of us who get paid to come early and stay late couldn't hope to catch everything good in the past two years. I decided to talk to some folks who might've. Last week, I contacted a few of the people who have invested significant chunks of their lives into Fitzgerald's re-launch to learn what had changed, what hadn't and what had made everything worth it.

"I had not been to Fitz for about 16 years before we went there to talk to the previous management about taking over," co-owner Jagi Katial says. "One thing that I know has probably changed is the type of and quantity of acts that play Fitz. I would say we have the best bands on the touring and local levels playing the room on any given night."

And aside from the urinals, pray tell, what has changed the least?

"The room itself," he says. "We cleaned it up, painted and dressed up some areas, but I always felt that the two rooms had the right feel already. So we did as little as possible to alter the way the rooms' layout felt."

Spoken like a true Houstonian. It's nice to have the place in the hands of music fans who grew up going to shows there. It's helped keep Fitzgerald's familiar.

"There is a certain effect Fitzgerald's has on the people that derives from the rich history of the building," says venue manager Brian Smith. "There have been historic events happening here since 1918. I feel like when people attend concerts here they are becoming a part of that history."

While the old stage has managed to retain nearly all of its fondly remembered charms, booker Jason Petzold was quick to point out that some parts of the venue have been improved pretty dramatically.

"We just completed a major revamp of our back patio, so people should be sure to check that out now that the weather is bearable," he says.

Even when it was hot, the patio was made bearable by the club's much-improved beer selection. Thank God for Karbach Weiss-Versa Wheat. Still, do yourself a favor and only head out there to smoke between bands. Quality live music is the real draw at Fitzgerald's, same 30 years ago as it is today.

Which begs the questions: Who has put on the best show there in the past two years?

Everybody has their favorite. I think mine might have been the When We Ruled H-Town showcase this summer. It was a blast watching groups like deadhorse and Spunk reunite to wreck the last club standing from their era of local music in the '90s.

Stars, who will be back at the club this month, got a couple of mentions. Other names like Portugal. The Man, the English Beat and Holy Ghost were tossed out, too.

"Iron and Wine," says Katial. "I have never been a dedicated fan. However, seeing the way the crowd responded to Sam (Beam) on stage was fulfilling. I have always enjoyed watching the crowd from stage or side stage, seeing them have the time of their life.

"Fitz has given me many such great moments over the past two years, and this was definitely one I will remember," he says.

Smith, meanwhile, had some local names on the tip of his tongue.

"Young Mammals," he says. "Like many Houstonians, I've been jamming these guys since they were too young to know how badass they were. The first time they played at Fitz after the re-opening was my first to see Ryan Chavez play for them as their permanent drummer. He killed it. Cley Miller has improved so much at playing guitar since 2006 that it makes me want to vomit a unicorn."

Then again, isn't the best show always the next one? Waiting around on that big balcony for the music to start still gets the heart racing, three decades later.

"We booked nearly 400 shows in the first year alone, and we aren't slowing down," Petzold says. "Fitz has some really awesome shows coming up that we are very excited about."

See you there.

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