If only the major record labels were as impressed with us. While Houston and DFW have very similar demographics, the Metroplex's indie scene is clobbering ours. The last 15 years have seen the Toadies, Lisa Loeb, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, Tripping Daisy, Pantera, Deep Blue Something, the Old 97's and Jackopierce (among others) emerge from Dallas to the national and international consciousness. Say what you will about the merits of these acts; between them they have sold several million albums and garnered write-ups from Los Angeles to Moscow. Now, newer bands like Flickerstick, Chomsky and Slobberbone seem headed in the same direction.
Over the same span, Houston's rock scene has put up King's X, Blue October, Fenix TX, Mary Cutrufello and the Galactic Cowboys -- none of whom graduated from regional fame. Many of our most talented bands never even get the major-label shot that these acts did. And it's not because the music isn't good enough. Indeed, the simplest explanation of Houston's invisibility is that record companies don't have offices here, as they do in Dallas and Austin. But with deeper examination it becomes clear that record execs would have a hard time finding our scene, such as it is, even if they weren't too lazy to get off their duffs and check us out. And there are as many reasons for that as there are great unsigned bands.
Craig Feazel is a native Houstonian singer/guitarist who started his music career in Dallas while he was attending Southern Methodist University. In 1999 he moved back home and formed the band Wilt, which was soon renamed Drifter. He's observed both scenes as a player and a fan.
"I think in Houston you have a lot more real-deal blues guys like Gosey, Lil' Joe Washington," he says. "But in Dallas you have a lot more progressive stuff -- people who want to get signed and whatnot, people who want to make music their business."
Greg Ellis, project manager at Southwest Wholesale record distributors, sees the University of North Texas as vital to Dallas. The school is home to the state's premier music college, and the students there are on musical missions. "That's just a breeding ground of talent up there," he says. "Just in the normal course of events, those guys are gonna get together, and bands are gonna come out of that."
Feazel's choice of the word "business" is apt. Ellis says that the UNT-trained acts are very savvy. "Dallas bands are much more cognizant of what's going on, and what sells, and again, that might be partly because of North Texas," he says. "Those guys go to school there to learn how to make a living as a musician, and they are as motivated as much by commerce as they are by art." (The flip side of this is that, in their naïveté, Houston bands are more adventurous.)
But it's not just North Texas that gives Dallas a boost. UNT may provide a bunch of the bands, but other schools provide the fans. "Within about 30 to 45 minutes' drive you've got SMU, TCU, and even Baylor in Waco," says Feazel. So some 45,000 college kids are available to pack nightclubs. And Ellis says the Greek system provides income for bands as well. While few bands are fond of what happens to their integrity at frat houses, they do enjoy the generous paychecks.
Houston's major colleges can't compete with these schools in terms of generating a scene. The University of Houston is a commuter school, and Rice is too small. Also, Rice's wet campus tends to keep the Owls "inside the hedges," as they say at the Institute.
In addition to the college influence, Feazel and Ellis agree that the biggest difference between Dallas and Houston is Dallas's vastly superior club infrastructure. The Deep Ellum entertainment district is the epicenter of the Dallas scene. "If you want to hear live music, you can just drive up there, park your car and just barhop until you find something that is sonically pleasing to you," says Feazel, taking the fan's point of view. Ellis sees it as a great proving ground for young bands, a place where they can play often and develop.
In Houston, the major clubs are scattered across Montrose, downtown, the Heights and in one notable case (the Sidecar Pub) halfway to Hempstead. Ellis calls them "destination bars," and Feazel agrees that to many people, committing to an unknown at a destination bar is too risky. "Here, if you're gonna see a band, you're gonna have to make a night out of it You go to a bar and if you don't like the band there, then you're gonna have to trek all the way back across town to Fitzgerald's, all the way over to the Continental, all the way back over to the Satellite. It's just a problem; people don't wanna do that." No, people would rather have music come to them, and in Dallas it does.
But paradoxically, DFW wins by being both more concentrated and decentralized. Both Feazel and Ellis mention the fact that since TCU, UNT and SMU are scattered over a wide area, bands have the chance to gig on three different scenes on any given weekend. Houston's clubs, in this sense, are not scattered enough, for a band who schedules one show at Rudyard's and another at Mary Jane's on the same weekend will split their house. But if the clubs were farther apart, who would support them? There aren't enough footloose twentysomethings in Katy, Kingwood or Clear Lake to keep a club in business.
Houston's pool of indie-digging college students isn't likely to swell in the immediate future. But what can be done to help build a scene worthy of our bands? "Man, I wish I knew. That's the $64,000 question," says Ellis. He hopes that the city fathers will see fit to bend the rules in order to fund an entertainment district. "If there was some sort of tax break for live music venues, or just an easing of some of the codes in that area, we might have been able to develop something like that, but there wasn't anybody there to champion the cause. It's, you know, the sound of one hand clapping."
It's rare that the namesake of any foundation attends one of said organization's parties, generally because that person is, well, dead. Pauline Oliveros is alive and well, though, and she'll be at her foundation's benefit party on November 23 at the Suchu Studio (2201 Preston). "Echoes," as the event is called, features music by DJ Defenestration and the MECA Improvisation Ensemble, and a poetry reading by Ione. There will also be a silent auction, with attendees invited to bid for such items as a broadside of an original Oliveros score; original art by Abbie Cohen, Austin Cooley, Jenni Rottor, Chad Sager and others; gift certificates; and a kick-ass turntable courtesy of the folks at Sound Exchange. Admission is free for Pauline Oliveros Foundation members; $7 for the general public.