Echo Lounge Weathers Lonely Downtown Nights

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If you've ever found yourself stuck in the downtown area on a Friday night, you're bound to notice a few things.

First, there's an inordinate amount of horse-drawn carriages riding back and forth across McKinney Street. Does anyone know why this is necessary?

But second, and more importantly, the area is a virtual black hole for late-night entertainment.

Save for the seasonal crowds for the Astros or Rockets (who've recently struggled with declining attendances of their own), downtown shuts down about 7 p.m. and reopens for business in time for early-morning rush-hour traffic around dawn.

Sure, the odd bar or venue has managed to stay alive, but for the most part, it's pretty well acknowledged around town that downtown is for work, not for play. For a city as massive as Houston, it's actually pretty eerie.

It's in this little bubble that Amber Elizondo finds herself.

For the past year, Elizondo, general manager of Echo Lounge (formerly Jet Lounge) has taken the task of pushing the local-music market in an area that has traditionally been unreceptive to the regional music scene.

"Originally, Jet Lounge was established as a DJ lounge next to the Engine Room, which was doing pop shows and touring bands," Elizondo tells Rocks Off.

"Jet was always kind of an afterparty spot. But after the Engine Room shut down, we lost that purpose. So there needed to be some kind of change in our makeup."

With Elizondo at the helm, the changes came quickly.

First, there came the issue of the name, which Elizondo readily admits was not a serious problem as a whole. But nevertheless, a business overhaul means just that, so out went the famous "Jet" in Jet Lounge.

"It's been there for eight years now," says Elizondo, "and we wanted to revamp the whole thing. Give it a new brand. So it's Echo Lounge, not the place people remember it being five years ago."

The new name was a welcome change, but the real work for Elizondo came when figuring how to approach the Downtown area -- a market she fondly refers to as completely "dead" -- with local artists and bands.

Currently, there are only a handful of prominent live entertainment venues downtown, none of which cater to the local music scene to any significant degree. The disconnect of the city's established music environment was one of Elizondo's key concerns when revamping the Echo brand.

"I think solidarity is a huge problem. The music scene is really spread out across the city, so there's not a lot of unity," she says. "Especially in different genres, I see a lot of different promoters doing hip-hop shows, but they don't work with each other at all. They don't have a clue what other people are doing.

"One of our main goals, and our hope with the new Jet, is to bring different genres, and a bit of unity into downtown," she adds. "We can make it a meeting place."

Elizondo's mission for Echo Lounge, while admirable, is not a new challenge from local artists and club owners. After all, the Engine Room hung around for quite a while before shutting down (with still no real hope to reopen in the near future). Over the years, dozens of clubs have popped up on the outskirts of downtown with visions of making a go of presenting mostly local music, only to flicker out after moderate to meager success.

With that knowledge, Elizondo knows Echo has to change its formula to stay alive.

"It's not easy," she says. "But, trying to work with the right booking agents, to get the attention of bands around town, hopefully that'll add up. Time and perseverance, hopefully, will pay off.

"Personally I'd really like to see Echo do what Jet Lounge struggled to do -- getting itself a name as a real local music venue," adds Elizondo. "We're not a Fitzgerald's or Walter's in its heyday. We're not there yet, but we're working towards that."

One of Elizondo's more recent projects, a SXSW kickoff, will welcome bands from Houston and Austin to Echo Lounge for a pre-festival weekend. The "Austin-Houston invasion" will open Friday night, and is geared for those festivalgoers ready to start SXSW a bit early, before their trek to the capital.

Among Elizondo's missions for Echo Lounge, the common thread is tying the disconnected music scene together. That, Elizondo says, is the key to Houston's success as a force in the industry.

"It comes back to the idea of community," she says, "and finding orientation in the music scene. It doesn't always reach certain markets very easily, and that's what Echo has to tap into."

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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