Age-Old Axiom

Remember that old, um, axiom about how the more things change, the more they stay the same?

It seems that the downtown spot now housing the Axiom cannot -- try as it might -- escape its past as a music venue. First the building at 2524 McKinney was home to Cabaret Voltaire and the Axiom (versions 1.0 and 1.1). The Axiom went through a succession of owners and reopened as Catal Hüyük. It was there that Jason Nodler landed in 1993, when he brought his play In The Under Thunderloo home with him from New York.

Both the Axiom and Catal are still seen by some as symbols of a lost golden age of local music. "It was a good time while it lasted," says Nodler. "Catal's heyday was the most fun I've had in Houston. It was a crazy party pretty much every night."

There were bands and poetry slams and live talk shows. But perhaps the most memorable Catal events were Monday nights with Bloodfart, the Chris King-led supergroup wherein a cast of dozens of local musicians regaled hard-core Monday drinkers with stuff like the theme from Smokey and the Bandit and "Delta Dawn."

"It was a dollar cover and dollar Busch tall boys," remembers Nodler wistfully. "It was full every Monday night."

Shortly after Nodler broke with owner Wes Hicks, Catal imploded. Harvey's Club De Luxe arose from its ashes, but it too closed in 1995. Most recently, the building housed Incognito, a drag bar with a predominantly African-American clientele, and also played host to a rave or three.

Late last year, Nodler moved back into the club -- this time with a whole theater company in tow. Infernal Bridegroom Productions remodeled the place, fixed the bathrooms, installed central air and heat -- and restored the Axiom name.

Artistic director Nodler says it was not his intent for the Axiom to become a music venue again. "We went in to run a theater," he says. "We didn't have plans to do music shows."

But evidently, the reopened Axiom tickled the nostalgia of the postpunk and arty crowd. How could there not be shows at the Axiom? "Once we opened up, a lot of people started calling," says Nodler. "We decided that initially we would do just special events, maybe bands from out of town that were a good match for us, but we've expanded it because of the demand."

Now, in addition to being the temporary home of Infernal Bridegroom Productions' off-kilter drama, the Axiom is looking suspiciously like a full-fledged nightclub. Last weekend saw a total of four bands play on two nights: the Groceries, Loyal Frisby and Roquentin on Friday, and Blessitron 4000 on Saturday. While the last of these bands has ties to IBP, the others do not.

This Saturday, March 16, Rockpile Records will host a record and 'zine fair and barbecue. The Down&Dirties, Magnetic IV, Tremble Tremble, the Mirrors, Gun Crazy, Speed 90, Roquentin, John Sparrow, C'mon C'mon and LOW Z are booked for the all-ages show.

As long as someone else handles the booking and promotion chores, Nodler is happy to have the IBP theater share space with a music venue. "We're doing shows with Sound Exchange, KTRU, some independent stuff, and we've been talking to the Hands Up Houston show collective too, so hopefully things will work out with them," he says. (That would be a fitting turn of events: For years, IBP was a drama company without a theater, and Hands Up has effectively been a nomadic nightclub.)

Rudyard's has a one-year catering license to manage the Axiom's bar, so Nodler doesn't have to concern himself with selling booze, either. (For the music shows, Rudz gets to take home the bar profits, and the promoter of the night gets the door.) All Nodler has to do is oversee things, which he says is easy since he's not actively trying to fill up a calendar.

But Nodler wants people to remember that this is a theater first and a nightclub second. To that end, the club version of the Axiom doesn't open its doors until 10 p.m. because IBP's plays run until then. "I wasn't real eager to get back into doing music shows full time because I did that in that same building back in '93," he says. "It kept us from doing as much theater as we wanted to be doing."

Despite its second-priority status, the music venue seems to be shaping up to look a lot like Emo's, a piece missing from the city's nightclub jigsaw since it closed last September. "Certainly for the touring shows, yeah," Nodler agrees. "Any show that would have done well at Emo's, we'd love to have. We were in nightly competition with them when I was at the Axiom in '93."

Infernal Bridegroom is planning to move out of the Axiom in 2004, and unless another theater company comes along, the Axiom will have to sink or swim on music alone, much as it did when it first opened in the Reagan era.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Texans current and former had a pretty decent Grammy night. The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, produced by Texan T-Bone Burnett, alone claimed more Grammys (five, all told) than many whole states. Along with soulful wunderkind Alicia Keys and those four gallant Irish blokes, his album was the story of the night. Texans swept the blues Grammys, with Jimmie Vaughan taking home the Traditional award and Delbert McClinton the Contemporary category. (While Racket likes Delbert, it must be said that him winning a blues Grammy is a little like Jethro Tull winning the inaugural metal Grammy. If there was a Roadhouse Rocking Texas Soul Country category, McClinton should win it just about every year, but he has no business even being nominated in straight-up contemporary blues.) Destiny's Child's overwrought and recently litigated-about "Survivor" won the bulkily titled R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal statuette. Fellow Houstonian Yolanda Adams's The Experience took home the trophy for Contemporary Soul Gospel Album. Valley natives Ramon Ayala and Freddy Fender won awards for Mexican/Mexican-American Album and Latin Pop Album, respectively. The Texas connection is tenuous, but the award for Best Album Notes went (in a tie) to Elijah Wald for his work on Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000 The Journey of Chris Strachwitz, a boxed set that is dominated by black, brown and white Texan roots musicians. (Wald also hipped the Anglo world to the narcocorrido phenomenon last year. See "Racket," by John Nova Lomax, November 1, 2001). Last but not least in the Texan Grammy roll call, Anderson Fair graduate Lucinda Williams, who once recorded for Arhoolie, won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for her snake-handler's anthem "Get Right with God."…A few Grammys not awarded that should have been: Best Muddled Icon: Bob Dylan; Best Dancer Under Age Seven: That kid with Outkast; Best Diva with Abs of Titanium: Janet Jackson; Susan Lucci Award: India Arie; Best Impersonation of a Walking Guatemalan Rug: the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines…One last Grammy comment: Can someone tell Racket why Lenny Kravitz has won Male Rock Vocalist of the Year every year since 1999?…Former Geto Boy Scarface has changed his name again. Born Brad Jordan, the rapper first recorded under the name Akshen until he came out with a song called "Scarface." Evidently he's had some reconstructive surgery, because now he wants to be known simply as Face. In June, Face will release The Redemption, his seventh solo album…In other local hip-hop news, the Bad Akktors' eponymous debut and Low G. and Rasheed's Wet Black will both street on April 16…That same day will also see the release of singer-songwriter Mando Saenz's much-anticipated alt-country album Watertown, which was produced by Tequila Cowboy John Egan…What is it about Frankie Blue Eyes that's so appealing to the homicidal maniacs among us? First there came word from Reuters that Slobodan Milosevic -- your favorite ethnic cleanser and mine -- has been awaiting the final curtain in his Dutch jail cell listening to "My Way" as well as reading the works of John Updike and Ernest Hemingway. Later, in February, the Philippine Star reported (under the headline " 'My Way' Claims Another Life") that a 21-year-old Filipino criminology student ambushed and killed one man and seriously injured another outside the Honey Joy Videoke Bar in Manila. The student was enraged by their sarcastic applause for his drunken, off-key version of "My Way." A Reuters report on the same incident noted that many bars in Manila have had to remove "My Way" from their karaoke machines. For reasons authorities have yet to understand, the song causes an inordinate amount of violence, ranging from scuffles to murder. Regrets? Did the student have a few? Likely yes -- as many as the bevvies he must have knocked back to get himself in such a fix.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax