Does Washington Avenue Need Any More Live Music?

Last week, the Chronicle ran a story about the owners of Salt Bar, a newer drinking establishment on Washington Avenue, and their goal of building "a live music scene in Houston from the ground up." One of the partners behind Pearl Bar, Elecia Wheeler, wanted to open a new venue that focused on live music and, the story says, decided to start a weekly open-mike night for singer-songwriters on one of the bar's slowest nights - Tuesdays.

That got us at Rocks Off thinking -- wasn't Washington Avenue once one of the city's most concentrated areas of live music? And we weren't the only one with questions. Jeff Balke, a local music blogger who had written a series of vitriolic posts about the changing demographic of Washington Ave., had this to say:

First off, Ms. Wheeler, if you were SO concerned about having live music on Washington Avenue, why not keep Mary Jane's alive in the Pearl Bar? That venue had a long tradition of live music dating back to when it was called the Bon Ton Room and the Arc Angels were among the regulars.

Second, if you truly wanted to build a music scene from the ground up, why not encourage the same from your neighbors - Pandora (formerly Rhythm Room), Front Porch (formerly Cosmo's), Blu Salon (formerly Satellite Lounge) the small bar next to Walter's (formerly Silky's Blues Bar)? There are MANY former live music venues along the half mile stretch of road just waiting for revitalization.

What Rocks Off wanted to know was, with the atmosphere of bars on Washington transitioning over the past several years from dives and live-music venues to sports bars, clubs with dress codes and valet parking lots, is it really a viable goal to try to bring music back to the scene? And if so, how will a single open mike night a week help that. So we called up Elecia Wheeler ourselves.

One of the first things she told us was that Salt Bar's singer/songwriter night was just the tip of the iceberg.

"I have people playing Monday through Sunday now," she said. Hunter McKithan is the Monday night regular, Tuesdays are reserved for singer/songwriters who perform their own material. The Tuesday night open-mike night starts at 7 p.m., and is hosted by Brant Croucher, who recently moved from Nashville to Austin. Bryan Scott is the Wednesday night regular, Aaron Cuadra plays Thursday nights. Franky's Cut have Friday nights and JJ Usher, also of Austin plays Sundays. Both McKithan and Cuardra will bring special guests on stage with them each week, Wheeler said.

Because most of the bands booked for regular gigs are acoustic, folk or light funk, Wheeler said she's reserved Saturdays for touring bands and musicians who play electric instruments and harder rock. She said the bar's patronage is different on the weekends, and she's trying to accommodate that.

"During the week you get a crowd that's there to talk and enjoy music."

Wheeler also said she plans to start a summer concert series next door at Pearl Bar. She recognized a lack of female musicians in her weekly line-up, she added, so she'd like to do something similar to Lilith Fair -- a singer/songstress day -- at Pearl. But part of the problem of booking bands at Salt Bar is the venue's small size. The problem with Pearl Bar is the bar's immense popularity, which means any live music would have to take place during the day, most likely over a whole Saturday.

"We're busy at Pearl Bar at night," she said. "We don't need any more business at night." Wheeler sees the Tuesday open-mike nights as a way to discover new talent for her lineups on other days of the week.

"Come in and see if we like your style or see if people like your music and we'll find a slot for you," she said.

Walter's on Washington, right across from Pearl and Salt, is one of the last musical holdouts on the street. Walter's patrons are typically interested in a different style of music than the bands booked at Salt, but the bar is still a supporter of local music. The Wild Moccasins, for example, are having their CD release party there tonight.

Walter's owner Pam Robinson has been searching for a while for a place to relocate her club, due in part to the changes on Washington, but also due to issues with parking, local residents and more. Ten years ago, Robinson's habit of buying and opening music venues on Washington led the block containing Pearl (then Mary Janes/Fat Cats), Chaise Lounge (formerly Silky's Blues Bar) and Walters to be known affectionately as Pamland. Two of those venues are now bars, but she said music has never left Washington Avenue.

"We have hundreds of people that come to our shows, and they don't come to drink," she said. "If they'd pull their heads out of their asses and look across the street they'd see there's still live music on Washington."

Robinson said the Walter's move has been put on hold because the city didn't approve her plans for the new location.

"Maybe she (Wheeler) thinks we're moving sooner than we are. Good luck with the neighbors."

The biggest problem Walter's has faced as a music venue lately is the issue of parking. Parking at the current location is too small for the crowd that Walter's typically draws, and a scarcity of parking at the potential new location is what caused the City of Houston to deny Robinson's plans, she said.

Last August Robinson talked to Rocks Off about her reasons for wanting to move.

The area sucks. I live here and I love my home, which is right behind the bar, and I loved the neighborhood for many, many years. I'm still hopeful that eventually it will get back to what it used to be, a lovely community with a lot of diversity, but it's been overrun by the non-Walter's type.

This week we asked her if she thought Salt Bar's plans to become a live-music mecca were realistic, given the clientele Pearl Bar is known for.

"If their music is as amateur as their drinkers, no," she said. "We're about the music. The other bars are more about the money. Some of the partners tried to do music at Pearl Bar when they first took over, but it didn't work. It's a place to be seen, not listen." "I guess I shouldn't complain. Any music is good music."

Brad Moore, a former partner at Pearl Bar and current owner of Big Star Bar in the Heights, said that while the singer/songwriter genre of music may work well at Salt, the patrons of Washington Avenue are more interested in bands that play cover music.

"There's not going to be a strip of Anderson Fairs on Washington, or Knitting Factories on Washington," he said.

He also disagreed with Robinson's assertion that music hasn't left Washington.

"But God bless Pam for sticking to her guns," he said.

Moore used to book occasional bands in the early days of Pearl Bar. The Sideshow Tramps played every Monday, he said, and there was sometimes live music on the patio. "But when you start seeing the Bud Light crowd, they want to hear cover bands."

Moore has booked a few local acts at Big Star Bar, but he says he doesn't like dealing with the hassles of managing live music -- charging a cover, infighting amongst the bands, the drummer's underage girlfriend trying to get into the bar.

"I'm not going to book a band I don't like," he said. "It's more fun [at Big Star Bar]. The bands are more fun to deal with."

Moore also said the nights when a live band plays have been good for the bar. "Because we do it so rarely, those are some of our biggest nights. But I don't want to deal with having a schedule."

Elecia Wheeler said the live music at Salt has already been good for her bar too. "We have people that come in and are very excited."

And Mitch Jacobs, a friend of the Wheelers, plays a regular Sunday-night gig at Pearl Bar, so there is still some interest in music at that location. Neither Pearl nor Salt charges a cover for musical performances.

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Shey is an experienced blogger, social media expert and traveler. She studied journalism at Oklahoma State University before working as a full-time reporter for Houston Community Newspapers in 2005. She lived in South Korea for three years, where she worked as a freelancer.
Contact: Brittanie Shey