Houston Has a Bad Reputation with Touring Indie Bands

For lovers of modern indie rock, Houston has its very own Pearl Harbor Day — October 13, 2006. The battle took place at the Rice Military nightclub Walter's on Washington, when, early in the set of San Francisco punk-folk-blues band Two Gallants, all hell broke loose.

It all started with that new bane of live music in a rapidly infilling Inner Loop — a noise complaint from a neighbor who evidently was unduly disturbed by the strummings of the two-piece, acoustic guitar and drums band.

Before it was all over, burly Gabriel M. Rodriguez of the Houston Police Department wound up storming the stage and tackling Two Gallants frontman Adam Stephens — a blond, wispy vegan who looks to weigh about 135 pounds, who may or may not have cussed Rodriguez out. A melee ensued which ended with Rodriguez Tasing two concertgoers, the dismemberment of a vintage bass guitar belonging to one of the other bands on the bill and the arrests of three other attendees and Stephens's Two Gallants bandmate Tyson Vogel. In the aftermath, about ten cop cars and the police chopper descended on the club.

For tech-savvy, twentysomething music fans across America, this was a huge story. Before the night was over, accounts of the debacle raged and crackled over the Internet like a South Texas brushfire. Footage from several camera-phones found its way to MySpace and YouTube, and, eventually, local TV news. All the major music sites from new media kings Pitchfork to old-line stalwarts Rolling Stone and Spin ran with the story.

Colin Meloy of the Decemberists haughtily commented on one blog that his band would not be coming back to Houston until the situation was rectified. Other commenters in the blogosphere aimed potshots at Houston — that we were a suburban wasteland where the nocturnal strummings of San Francisco folkies attract redneck cops hell-bent on cracking skulls. And indeed, if the comments on the Houston Chronicle's Web site are anything to go by, there are some locals who positively exulted in presenting that image to the world.

Ryan Chavez, the promoter of this show and hundreds of others over what had then been six years, was crushed. "As much as I've tried to have a positive outlook on it since the day I've started booking, [after] the Two Gallants ­incident I kind of started to reassess my actual outlook on how viable Houston is ever going to be as a big scene where people go out to touring band shows en masse like they do in other cities with comparable populations. It's not gonna happen."

At the time of the Two Gallants donnybrook, Chavez, who is now 26 years old, was already a scene veteran, both onstage and off. As a musician, he'd toured extensively in local band Panic in Detroit and Chicago punk group the Smoking Popes. Offstage, he was one of the founders of Hands Up Houston, a booking collective that firmly reestablished Houston as a viable touring option for up-and-­coming, buzzed-about bands from all over the world.

Back in 2002 and 2003, Chavez thought, with some justification, that he and his friends were revolutionizing Houston's live music scene. Hands Up stopped the exodus of bands ignoring Houston. But today, Super Unison, the booking company Chavez founded from the ashes of Hands Up in 2005, has only five shows on its docket through the end of July.

And beyond Super Unison, what's left on the agenda for this summer's touring shows looks weaker than it has since 1999 — other than a couple of gold star dates like June's Tom Waits coup, it is little more than a litany of crappy butt-rock bands, Branson-style country, the same classic rock shed shows and metal, punk, Christian and American Idol package tours that play everywhere. And that "Why do all the cool bands skip Houston?" chorus is swelling to life all over again.

Kurt Brennan, a co-owner of indie-­centric record store Sound Exchange and an occasional promoter of shows, has heard it all before. "There's nothing more depressing than when you bring some band to town that has never been here before, and everyone's been whining about, 'How come this band never plays Houston, they always play Austin!' And so you go to all the time and effort of setting up the show and hardly anybody shows up, and then the next day you hear people whining that there's never anything going on in this city."

And for his part, Chavez, the guy who a few years ago thought he could really make things better here, is now resigned about the entire nature of the city of Houston — the average bands, the substandard venues, the sprawling layout of the city. Everything and nothing is to blame.

"I don't personally think it's Houston's fault," he says. "I don't blame the show­goers, I don't blame anyone. It's just not the kind of town that Houston is."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax