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Stepping Back Ever So Carefully Into Houston's Re-emerging Live Music Scene

Joey Robichaux, Cindy Baker, and Juan Hernandez of Heart tribute band Heartstring.EXPAND
Joey Robichaux, Cindy Baker, and Juan Hernandez of Heart tribute band Heartstring.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
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November 15, 2019. That was the last time I saw a live music concert when I caught the Drive-By Truckers at the Heights Theater. It was so long ago that the band previewed songs from a not-yet-released record, and since that time they’ve put out another entire disc.

I had my second vaccine shot last week (thanks, Methodist Hospital!), but wasn’t even thinking about going to a show again. It just hadn’t entered my mind, probably just due to 2020 conditioning. Then I received a marketing email offering free tickets to an afternoon “Sunday Funday” triple bill of classic rock cover bands at the new Rise Rooftop club.

Rise Rooftop masked employees Fahim Raswany and Monica Smith.
Rise Rooftop masked employees Fahim Raswany and Monica Smith.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero

I started to feel an old familiar urge, long dormant during the past year. And then I started thinking about things I hadn’t experienced in a while. Like the booming sound system of a live music club. The leaning up against the bar to order a drink among other music lovers. The collective joy of bellowing out a familiar chorus to a song with scores of your new temporary friends. And now, there was no way I was going to miss this show.

When I arrived at the entrance to Rise, masked staff asked if I had been feeling any illnesses before taking my temperature. Passing those litmus tests, I walked through the door of a live music club for the first time in 16 months. And Classic Rock Bob was ready to rock again.

The Club
Located on Travis Street in Midtown, the tall structure that is Rise Rooftop certainly lives up to its name, and has undergone extensive renovations since its prior club incarnation as Proof Rooftop. It’s co-owned by Justin Ellerton and Sean Stauble. (Ellerton also has Warehouse Live.) The state-of-the-art stage and lighting setup is impressive, and the two levels have two full bars for audience members, with smaller sections for groups. It has an industrial but clean feel, allowing for a lot of movement.

Above it all are large glass windows that look over Houston, and at the very top a retractable roof. On this day, intermittent rain had kept it closed, though by the time I left, the sun had peeked out. General Manager John Thomas notes that it takes exactly 1 minute and 52 seconds to slide that roof open or shut, powered simply by two 12-volt batteries.

Rise Rooftop (with a capacity of 1,200) opened on New Year’s Eve, and Thomas aims to make it sort of an all-purpose venue for live music, actively booking classic rock and ‘80s cover bands, country artists, heavier metal, and plenty of EDM DJs.

“We’re not able to book a lot of [national] bands right now because of COVID, and they’re not really touring yet. So we book a lot of smaller bands, local bands, and tribute bands,” he says in his office festooned with posters of Marilyn Manson and P.O.D. Thomas says that opening a new club in 2021 means adapting to a lot of new avenues to compete for audiences. And that means learning new skills.

Rise Rooftop General Manager John ThomasEXPAND
Rise Rooftop General Manager John Thomas
Photo by Bob Ruggiero

“Dude, social media is huge. It’s how you get the word out. In Las Vegas where I used to work, I would have to call people up to come out, and now you can do it with a click of a button,” he says. “And even I know how to take a screen shot, crop to a picture, and then share it! It’s a new age for people like me who have been around for so long trying to adapt. But I still take my posters to stores to put up in their windows. And I know that’s old school.”

He adds that Rise’s Entertainment Director and performer DJ Riddler will often post to social media and make videos while his show is going on. And he admits it’s hard to follow COVID protocol.

“Our staff is required to wear masks, and we encourage the guests to wear masks if they’re not drinking, but we don’t require it. But social distancing is hard to do in a concert venue, especially now that we’re at 100 percent capacity.” On this day, few audience members wore masks, though there was enough spacing given the modest crowd size that most groups who arrived together were able to keep to themselves.

Randy Folk (right) fronts Black Crowes tribute band The Black Rose.EXPAND
Randy Folk (right) fronts Black Crowes tribute band The Black Rose.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero

The Bands
Sunday Funday featured three Houston-based classic rock era-tribute bands. Once derided by critics, tribute bands now really work to keep the music of a performer or band alive as the originators have broken up, ceased touring, or even passed away.

Cindy Baker is the lead vocalist (or “Ann Wilson”) of headliners Heartstring, and is thrilled to be back onstage (she’s also “Stevie Nicks” of the Fleetwood Mac/Nicks cover band Tusk). “As soon as the venues started opening up, we started playing again. And the rules are fine. It’s got to happen for safety reasons and we get it. We’re just happy to play again,” she says. “And we’re seeing a lot of younger folks coming out to hear the older stuff. And that’s keeping classic rock alive.”

Heartstring guitarist Joey Robichaux concurs. “There’s nothing better than playing live. We’re playing things that are 40 and 50 years old, and people are hearing it like it’s new.”

Emily Glazener of Joan Jett tribute band The Joan Hearts.
Emily Glazener of Joan Jett tribute band The Joan Hearts.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero

In fact, several performers are in more than one tribute band. On this day, vocalist Randy Folk is fronting Black Crowes cover band The Black Rose in the “Chris Robinson” role. Just the night before, he was on the exact same stage as the “Lou Gramm” singer in the Foreigner tribute band Double Vision.

“I just love having the emotion from the crowd and hearing the cheering. I’m glad to be back. Thing are looking good with the bigger bands starting tour plans,” Folk says.

One show he’s looking forward to the upcoming August 14 Black Crowes “reunion” show at the Woodlands Pavilion, rescheduled from last year due to COVID. “I want to go see them!” he laughs. “I don’t sound exactly like Chris Robinson and I put my own spin on it. But he’s an amazing singer.”

Finally, Emily Glazener of Joan Jett tribute band The Joan Hearts goes a bit deeper about the impact of live music. “It awakens the soul. You want to be able to bring music to everybody, but also keep them safe. And it’s a great feeling to just get up on stage instead of singing into your hairbrush in your room,” she says.

When not channeling Joan Jett, Glazener also performs locally as a solo acoustic act and leads the original band Red Iris. As the mother of three boys ages 19, 11, and 8, she says the pandemic has actually helped them to expand their listening tastes—even as she urges them to be extremely careful with “Mommy’s vinyl.”

“During lockdown, kids didn’t have a lot to do, so they were listening to things they might not normally. They’d hear Elton John and Billy Joel and tell me ‘This is so great!’ And all teenagers discover the Beatles at some point. It’s the same thing with the Cure and Mötley Crüe.”

“Tribute bands play most of the hits, and that’s what a lot of people love to hear,” adds John Escamilla, longtime local booker/promoter who studied under Houston music legend Don Gomez at Rockefeller’s. The former musician now books acts for Rise and Warehouse Live, among other venues. “They want to know every song. And that’s why the tribute bands succeed.”

Concertgoers Jason White, Priscilla Edwards, and Collin White.EXPAND
Concertgoers Jason White, Priscilla Edwards, and Collin White.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero

The Fans
Chris Johnson calls herself a “concert junkie,” and somehow found a way to attend 41 live music shows in 2020. She couldn’t be happier to be at Sunday Funday. “I feel like I’m back in my element. I like the one-on-one experience. The virtual shows just aren’t the same,” she says. Her friend Stacy Collins is even more succinct: “It feels like freedom.”

For Jason White, attending the show with teenaged son Collin and friend Priscilla Edwards, it’s not his first concert back, but he notes it gives him a little something extra. “I try to catch live music whenever I can. The energy from the band and the sound coming from the speakers is an entirely different experience from just putting on a record,” he says.

Concertgoers Ronnie Stixx and Leila Mizell
Concertgoers Ronnie Stixx and Leila Mizell
Photo by Bob Ruggiero

Edwards offers that the classic rock lineup is especially up her alley. “I grew up with it, even though it was a little [before] my time, and I like passing it on to a younger generation.” And that generation includes Collin. But when asked which band he’s looking forward to seeing most, the teen laughs. “I have no idea! I just came here to jam out!”

Edwards later added that Sunday Funday was her first foray into a public outing without a mask on. As she and White are frontline workers at a logistics company, COVID has been on her mind constantly. Still, it was special after feeling for a year that "the world would never return to normal."

"It was a landmark moment for me to experience a communal gathering of folks just looking to safely start dipping their toes into some normalcy," she adds. "It was about more than just the music."

For others the return of live music is something that should have never gone away in the first place. Ronnie Stixx is a professional musician who moved to Houston late last year, he’s got a definite view of it.

“My personal opinion, there ain’t goddamn fucking COVID-19, and it should have never stopped live music,” he says. “When you try to suppress that, that sucks. So now that everything is opening up, that’s great. You soul dies from not having good vibes and good music in your life. And we shouldn’t be afraid to go out and experience it. Live your life.”

His companion Leila Mizell adds “It’s a big part of what brings us happiness. Just being out among people and listening to live music after being shut in and cooped up feels so great.”

The Encore
After several hours of hearing hit after hit, I left Rise. The door was opened for me by a buoyant employee, Fahim Raswany. “How’d you like it?” he asked. And for a second, I was actually at a loss for words. It had been so long since I’d been asked or been able to offer an opinion on a live concert, I just didn’t know how to respond. And the words that came out were fumbling and generic and unfamiliar. And not stellar for someone who manipulates words for a living.

“I loved it!” was all I could say. “It was…awesome.”

“That’s great!” Raswany shot back with genuine enthusiasm. “We’re starting to be able to bring a crowd out again. I love serving them. And I love that live music is back.”

For more on Rise Rooftop, visit RiseRooftop.com

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