If you wanna know whether a Houston band has chops, if it has a draw, if it’s staffed with reasonable working musicians or rock star divas, don’t ask a so-called music critic: ask a bartender. From load in to payout, these diligent professionals see and hear everything visiting musicians do in their venues from a very exclusive vantage point. From rappers moshing with Christmas trees to “Wonderwall” wars, Houston’s hardworking bartenders have seen and heard it all when it comes to local music. Four of our favorites recently shared their thoughts and a tale or two about the local bands that frequent their fine establishments.
Sam Rose, Neil's Bahr
Sam Rose once got kicked in the face at Neil’s Bahr.
Rose tends bar at the downtown area nerd haven, a place where the damage is more often delivered by D&D demigods and Super Smash Bros. attacks than a rowdy music crowd. Neil's does hosts lots of live music events and it was at one of those shows where Rose, who is incredibly nice and well-versed in music, unfortunately took a foot to the face.
“I’ve been here actually for, I believe, every show that’s been here at Neil’s Bahr. The first one actually was Dead To The World, it was like almost a year after they opened, they played here. I got kicked in the face at that show because the barback started crowd surfing. I lost my glasses. It was really fun, though," she said.
Rose is no stranger to crowd surfing, mosh pits or punk rock. She's one of the organizers behind the annual ATX vs. HOU show, which pits the best punk acts from Austin and Houston in friendly competition. This year's installment is slated for August 17 at Satellite Bar. Rose says she loves all kinds of music, from punk to classic rock and Wu-Tang Clan. She admitted, “I think my favorite right now is on Sundays we’ll play Selena after midnight. Yeah, we play Tejano music. Just for shiggles."
"On the Cinder and Revels and Patterns played here. Excellent show, but my favorite shows that I've actually worked have been this really awesome husband-wife duo from Maine called Crunk Witch. So, they're like a pop-EDM duo and they're super cute, they're super awesome, they're just adorable. But they come here and the whole reason they have been here has been because of another local Houston artist, Ryan Adam Wells. They had a show together and then their venue dropped out last minute, so Neil let them perform here because it was like a Tuesday. So, every time they come back to Houston, they play here.
"They're absolutely an awesome band," Rose said, noting that even bar owner Neil Fernandez sports Crunk Witch's T-shirts. "They're just really nice people and we love to support their music when they come, especially because they're a touring band."
"No getting kicked in the face," she said of the Crunk Witch gigs at Neil's, then said of that Dead To The World set, "I mean, I was at a punk rock show, so I took that one in stride. And someone found my glasses, so it was fine."
Katy, Braman Winery and Brewery
Richmond’s Braman Winery and Brewery is dedicated to crafting the finest sips of wine and beer for its thirsty patrons. The Fort Bend establishment just celebrated its second anniversary and music has been as important to its brand as a good chardonnay or a sturdy stout. Fridays through Sundays, local cover acts are booked for shows, including afternoon and evening sets on Saturdays. We’ve heard Nervous Rex do Flogging Molly there for St. Paddy's Day, formed a Soul Train line for The Spotlights and grooved to acoustic sets by Sean Heyl. One Sunday afternoon, we were blown away by guitarist Frank Matta delivering Miles Davis’ “Nardis” for the unsuspecting brewery masses. You don’t hear that one in many cover sets.
Katy, who kept it informal and first-name basis, is a favorite Braman bartender. She knows her clientele, knows her beer and, best of all, she has a high music I.Q.
“My mom was like folk rock – John Denver, Jim Croce, Simon & Garfunkel. My dad’s more like the harder rock, like Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Rush, Pink Floyd. Yeah, I got a good music education,” she told us.
“So, my personal favorite band is probably a tie between The Rikkis and FM Radio and that’s because FM Radio, they have an acoustic set, they have an electric set as well, and they do mostly, totally my vibe, the ‘60s, ’70s folk and folk rock. It’s really cool,” she said. “Like I’ve never heard anyone else do ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ by Steely Dan. The first time they played here they opened with ‘Rocket Man’ and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard this, they’re pretty good,’ and then they did ‘A Horse with No Name’ and like Seals and Crofts and stuff that I’ve never heard any other band do. And The Rikkis are really, really high energy.”
Katy’s most interesting music moment at work was when she became the center of a music duel between two friends, the Katy area singer Gabriel Montoya and his guest, Greg.
“He brought a friend from California who’s also kind of musical and – I don’t know if he was trying to be flirty with me, he’s older, probably 60 – and, I couldn’t recognize it at first because he put a twist on it, but he played ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis and before he played it he said, ‘This is for my new friend, Katy.’
“And I thought, aw, that’s sweet,” she continued. “Then, he got off stage and let Gabe get back on and he came right up to the bar and I said, ‘Aw, that was really sweet of you, Greg.’ And I jokingly looked at Gabe and said, ‘God knows Gabe’s never dedicated any songs to me.’ So Gabe says, ‘All right, this song is for Katy,’ and he starts playing ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis!”
Shae, The Wet Leprechaun Tavern
The Wet Leprechaun Tavern is a cozy Irish pub in Spring and when we chatted with its bartender Shae, who preferred we use her first name only, the Celtic punk act The Dead Rabbits were just feet away singing shanties about drinking and whaling.
“The Dead Rabbits are one of my favorites,” Shae said. We asked if she singled them out because they were within earshot and she said, “No! It’s because they’re Irish and they put on a great show. The have fun with the crowd.”
The crowd having fun is key to any pub and live music is a proven way to keep the good times rolling. The Wet Leprechaun has its share of live music nights.
“Generally we have local country music, it’s every Friday night,” Shae said, and name-dropped Jody Booth, who has played the venue. Recent Friday night visitors have included Mandi Powell and Wes Nickson.
“Open mike is every Tuesday night,” Shae said. “A guy named Channing runs it for us, people bring in their own instruments. It’s just a jam session. We have karaoke every Saturday night.”
Shae gave us as much time as she could afford between draws of beer and whiskey pours. She said music keeps the place busy.
“I mean, on the weekends it’s go, go, go,” she said. “Yeah, I mean, it’s a quaint little spot. But, it’s just fun.”
D’Laney Kernan, Darwin's Pub
Darwin's Pub has long dedicated itself to showcasing a broad variety of Houston music acts. In the past, we’ve trekked to the bar, which teeters between Montrose and the Heights, for an album release party for rapper Jon Black. We’ve seen The Grizzly Band bring songwriter Nicole Starch up for guest vocals. We’ve witnessed Expensive Genes’ explosive duo wreck the place. Not too long ago we caught Vernon Trumbull and His Kinsmen there and an approaching show featuring Metanoia and Fuska is circled on the calendar. The bands in this very small sample cover hip-hop, Americana, punk, country, blues and ska. Darwin’s brings these diverse acts together seamlessly and probably better than any other bar in the city.
D’Laney Kernan is the pub’s bartender/manager. She gave us the bar’s music blueprint.
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“Darwin’s is home to a lot of musicians and their fan bases and we love that. It’s a bit hidden, so I think it’s become this hobbit hole for good music, good people and, of course, all of the tasty drinks,” she said. “We’ve got live music every Friday, but we also have an open mike for musicians on Thursdays and, if you feel like you’re the one that should be onstage, karaoke on Mondays.”
We asked her to describe the bar’s Friday nights, when free live and local music reigns there.
“Okay, for the record, putting into words what we see here every Friday is a bit of an ask, but let’s see,... Darwin’s Pub is definitely a hub for intimate shows of all genres here in town,” Kernan said. “We’ve had guitarists shredding on the bar, a one-man band wearing a giant alien head, rappers jumping into Christmas trees - I mean, it’s a riot at times. We have staples of the bar like Howard and the Nosebleeds and texture: Yellow to newer acts like Lady Starbeast that I look forward to seeing again.
“That said, as much as I adore the bands that play here, I really live to see the people in the crowd fucking getting it out there. Music makes people happy, and I’m no exception. I work at a video production company at my day job and I seriously wish I’d been able to record all these shows. You never know what’s going to happen out here.”