The Houston Press nabbed Robert Ellis on his way to Mohawk Austin's green room at last Friday's Hurricane Harvey relief show there. The native Houstonian's spirits were high ahead of the event, despite worries about family members here still being affected by the storm. Once he realized we too were Houstonian, in true Houston fashion, Ellis offered his own home to us for refuge.
We politely declined but thanked him for being part of a star-studded benefit at Mohawk that night. Dubbed Houston Strong: Benefiting the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, the concert united some of Austin's top musical talents including Ellis, The Octopus Project and headliner Black Joe Lewis. All proceeds from the sold-out show have been tabbed to help people here affected by last week's storm.
Before he delivered a stirring set, we asked Ellis is he had anything to say to his friends and family in Houston.
"I love everyone. I hope everyone stays strong, you guys are gonna get through this, we're all gonna get through it," he said. "And just know that Austin is psyched to help in any way they can."
That was evident long before we reached the venue. Evacuated from our own home by Harvey, my wife and I went west and stationed near Austin for the week. We realized a week-long marathon of TV reports on flooded neighborhoods and obsessing on when the river nearest our home would crest wasn't healthy. The benefit was a way we could get away from the barrage of bad news and still help those back home. Before we got to the Mohawk, we visited some bars on 6th Street, including The Dizzy Rooster. Placed prominently at the front of the venue was a Tito's Vodka collection bin collecting items for the relief effort. We saw a few of these bins in various spots on the strip.
Performing at the Rooster was Stephanie Bradley and the East Side Soul Band, which features the Austin guitarist and musicians from other acts she's aligned with, including Blues Boy Hubbard and the East Side Kings. The group was serving up a welcomed, soulful distraction when it got to the Brook Benton classic "Rainy Night in Georgia." Singer and showman Willie Brown got us right in the feels with that one line from the song: "I believe it's raining all over the world."
We saw signs of Austin's generosity elsewhere. Legendary British street punks GBH and tourmates The Casualties were slated to play Scout Bar last Friday, pre-Harvey. The storm disrupted those plans, so the bands played a show at Barracuda Austin that night, which doubled as a fundraiser for recovery efforts at home. We arrived too late to hear new Casualties front man and Austinite David Rodriguez address the crowd, but a Facebook post he made ahead of the show reminded Austin punks, "This is the reason we all got into punk, because we felt part of something. Now, WE give back." GBH frontman Colin Abrahall repeated the sentiment throughout the band's rejuvenating set, which featured GBH classics like "Sick Boy" and "Momentum," the title track from the band's new album, due in November.
Back at Mohawk, Houston was abundant, from the beers being served (Karbach was an event sponsor) to the official benefit T-shirts. One read "Hold It Down H-Town" and featured a familiar Columbia-blue oil derrick bobbing on waves. The shirts were commissioned from Austin-based Fine Southern Gentlemen and are available via the clothing retailer's online shop. FSG's Ian Graham was manning onsite sales at the benefit. He said the company had already shipped more than 400 orders of the T-shirts out ahead of the show.
"We're all with you. Texas is with you, America's with you," Graham said to Houstonians. "We've got thousands of dollars to donate whenever this is all said and done."
The night's music was stellar; The Deer did a poignant turn on Phil Collins' "Another Day In Paradise" with a lovely Americana arrangement. Otis the Destroyer (whose debut album, Keep Bashing, is due this month) crushed its early evening set and got people ready to rock. By and large, though, music took a bit of a back seat to the reason for the event. Native Houstonian Walker Lukens opened a solo gig with "The Star-Spangled Banner," then shared some thoughts with the crowd before his set.
"I understand the feeling, the feeling you're kinda powerless to do anything and also feeling like there's still so much to be done. It's really cool to see so many people here. I know we usually come here together to have a good time, but I appreciate this because it's like therapy for me this week."
Another Houston expat, Mohawk Austin's talent buyer, Austen Bailey, personally thanked the audience for attending and introduced a special guest to the event.
"I want to thank y'all for being here for the Hurricane Harvey relief show that we've got. It took a lot of people pitching in, donating their time and their money, their talents, to make his happen," Bailey said. "Someone who's been a very big supporter of this, a supporter of the Austin music scene, a supporter of the Red River Cultural District, really a man who needs no introduction but I get the honor of doing it — let's give it up for Mayor Steve Adler."
Austin's mayor appeared to applause so thunderous it seemed to take him aback.
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"Whoa! I love this city! It's a magical place!" he began. "Hey, I just wanted to say thank you, too, for being out here. I was on the phone not long ago with the mayor in Houston, Mayor Turner. They got beat up pretty bad with this storm and they're counting on people like you guys, what you're doing here tonight. Also had the chance to spend some time out at the shelter we have out here. You know, we have a lot of guests that are arriving here in Austin tonight and I appreciate everybody that's treating them like guests, doing the chores that you do when company's showing up, helping with some of those welcome baskets...I appreciate that, man.
"This is a city that comes together," Mayor Adler told the crowd, "and this is a city where anybody who's looking for shelter can get shelter in Austin, Texas."
The crowd had fully settled in for a night of music when Ellis took the stage, alone in the spotlight, guitar slung over his shoulder. A line from "Drivin'" that goes "This don't feel like livin', it's just surviving" took on added significance for folks like us who were displaced, even temporarily, from our homes. Fortunately, we happened into a city that loves and assists fellow Texans. Ellis put it best in his opening remarks to the gathered.
"Hello everyone," he said. "Thank you all so much for coming to this. It's beautiful."