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.
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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.
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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."
So some trendy, overhyped blog bands skip Houston...So what? After all, Radiohead comes to The Woodlands on all their tours, and The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands is one of the most well-attended concert sheds in the country.
And getting beyond the indie music bar scene, if you look at the big picture, Houston's doing pretty well. Hip-hop and zydeco are thriving here. In the larger economy, the post-real estate bubble, post-cheap oil economies of many American cities are in free fall, while Houston's is doing (relatively) fine. In a recent spate of "Places Rated" polls from business magazines, Houston's rankings have been more than respectable.
In bottom-line terms, why does a lively indie scene matter?
It's hard to quantify. One who has tried is Dr. Richard Florida, an author and urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto. Florida has studied the economic value of music scenes in 31 North American cities (Houston not among them), and concluded they are a major component in attracting and keeping creative young people in town, and that often those people go on to create lucrative businesses.
"Music combines with technology and business trends to put these places on the map," Florida writes in his study's conclusion. "It reflects their openness to new ideas, new people and new sounds. If you really want to see entrepreneurs in action, go talk to local musicians."
Florida's study further contends that successful music scenes signal "the rise of regional ecosystems that are not only open to new sounds and new ideas, but have the size, scale and commercial oomph to retain key talent and turn their ideas into global commercial successes. Once music scenes of this scale get going, they produce a logic and momentum of their own and signal that more entrepreneurship is on the way."
While Florida's data, methodology and conclusions are debatable, and his focus somewhat blindered in that it was focused on indie rock, the exodus of a certain type of creative person from Houston is not. For decades, Houston has exported musicians to cities with livelier scenes at a depressingly steady clip, with almost none moving here from elsewhere in return.
As Florida points out in one of his studies, Win Butler founded the Arcade Fire in Montreal after moving from Houston. We also lost Greg Ashley and Jolie Holland to San Francisco, where their recordings have won attention from fans and critical notice all over the world. We lost Mando Saenz to Nashville and Hayes Carll to Austin, and each of their latest recordings made at least a dent in the national psyche this year. And those are just some of the more famous ones — every band in Austin seems to have a couple of exiled Houstonians in it.
And then there are the people who are simply music fans. How many one-time fixtures at places like Rudyard's, Mary Jane's or the Proletariat have now decamped to Austin, San Francisco and New York? Maybe most of them were just slackers, but surely at least a few have gone on to prosper.
On the flip side, how many recent college grads from other parts of the country turn up their noses at even the prospect of coming to Houston sight unseen? In many of their minds, Houston is a cousin city to Coketown in Charles Dickens's Hard Times, a town populated by and solely for Gradgrind-like engineers and scientists where facts and statistics must always trump fancy and the spirit of bohemia. Given a choice of moving to, say, Seattle, or Houston at the same salary adjusted to local cost of living, how many would choose Houston? The question answers itself.
Music matters, and, like it or not, the music that matters most to a great many young, educated new entrants into the workforce is indie rock. And that scene in Houston is definitely ailing.
Like Chavez, Erik Carter is one of those rare Houstonians who both work in the indie rock industry and have a certain degree of national clout. Carter helms the Houston office of the Kork Agency, a booking company with offices here and in the San Francisco Bay Area and with a roster comprised of more than 100 of the nation's top indie rock bands. (Among them: Of Montreal and locals such as Fatal Flying Guilloteens and Indian Jewelry.)
"For a town of four million people, we have one of the weakest scenes in terms of people going to shows, which perpetuates bands not coming here," says Carter. "I just routed a band a day off instead of playing here. Most of that was because 50 people came to their last show here while they were doing 400 in similarly crappy markets. We took the cake as the worst show in a seven-week tour. I proposed Houston to one of my other bands and the immediate response was, 'Houston! God no!'"
Right after the fateful Two Gallants show, several other national booking agents echoed Carter's complaints in the Houston Chronicle. One asserted that Houston is not as musical as Dallas or Austin. Another pointed out Houston's unlucky geographical setting. East along I-10 there is only Baton Rouge and New Orleans, both third-tier markets. Beaumont is not even on national bookers' radar, and to the south and southwest of Houston, there is nothing beyond fourth-tier markets.
Then there is local radio, or the lack thereof. Houston's dial — even in the best of times, never the beacon of glory that some nostalgists would have you believe — has been unbearably stale for this entire decade.
And yet none of that can fully explain what makes Houston the way that it is. "I've talked to so many people around the country and asked them, what do you think it is that your town has that my town doesn't have," Chavez says. "And no one ever really has an explanation, but usually the one that I come back to is that all these other cities have a decent history of really good local bands, local bands that make it onto the national spotlight, and Houston has never had that."
In the early part of the decade, Chavez and friends Bucky Thuerwachter, Lance Scott Walker, Russell Etchen and Jason Colburn founded the Hands Up Houston show collective to bring to town the bands that had been skipping Houston. They would also see to it that the musicians were fed and housed while they were here, and see to it that the crowds were at least decent.
They already knew going in that radio would be of little help, so instead they relied on old-fashioned methods such as flyering clubs and telephone poles as well as the Internet, which they had more or less grown up with. From the beginning, Hands Up operated under strict "punk" dictates: None of the founders were to profit from these shows; instead, the excess cash was to be rolled back into the kitty, so that the others could both attract more and better shows and to subsidize the duds, of which, to be fair, there were more than a few.
"We kept it small at first, and looking back, that was pretty smart," says co-founder Lance Scott Walker, whose band Port Vale also played the very first Hands Up show. "In the beginning, what we did was for the city, and not for us."
As Jeremy Hart wrote in the Houston Press in late 2001, their hard work was paying off. "Some national bands are now skipping Austin completely in favor of Houston, believe it or not, and more good independent bands are coming to our fair city now than at any time since the early '90s," Hart enthused. "In just over a year and a half, Hands Up has managed to build a fan base that will go to just about any show the collective books. In essence, Hands Up has become a brand name and a focal point for the sprawling Houston music scene."
What's more, it gave Houston's indie music fans a focal point on the Web. Hands Up's online message board became the spot on the Internet for gossip, rants, consensus-forming and debate for indie kids from Lake Jackson to Katy and all points in between. Not to mention bringing people to shows — one of the staples of the board was (and is, as the board is today all that remains of Hands Up) a roll call of who was going to see what. In a city with conservative-to-the-point-of-idiotic commercial rock radio, Hands Up's Web site served as both Houston's Pitchfork and its de facto version of Seattle's influential radio station KEXP.
By 2004, Chavez's national reputation as a promoter was growing, as was his ambition. He felt like he had accomplished his goal of making Houston a viable market for touring bands. Why not make his living at it? Teaming up with Andrew Morgan, he formed Super Unison and junked the "no profits" rule. Hands Up ground to a halt a few months later, but Super Unison picked up where they left off, and yet, slowly but surely, both Morgan (who didn't want to speak for this article) and Chavez were souring on Houston. After too many months of taking baby steps forward with well-attended shows, followed by expensive debacles that nullified his gains, Chavez admits that he was starting to lose his edge as a super-aggressive promoter.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were almost the final straw. During the Rita scare, Morgan and Chavez headed to Austin, which was then in the throes of its annual Austin City Limits music festival. There, they made a joint decision. They would leave Houston: Morgan would head to Seattle, and Chavez to Philadelphia, where each had a job waiting for him. Morgan kept his word. He is now living in Seattle, working for booking agency Billions and, to hear Chavez tell it, is as happy as he can be.
But despite having a dream industry job waiting for him in Philly, an increasingly glum Chavez stayed put in Houston. The Two Gallants brouhaha came about a year after that decision, and today, Chavez sounds both far too bitter and far too wise for his 26 years. "I've started being a lot more realistic about putting in offers for bands, because Houston's just never gonna show the support that agents or managers would like to see."
One problem he sees is that there are too few great local bands. Local bands, he explains, are the gateway drug for local fans to get into the scene — at any rate, that was the way it worked for him when he first got involved. "I get the feeling these days that there is no local band that can draw a shit-ton of people on any given night," he says. "I'll help out bands with their CD release shows and it still won't do more than 200, 250 people."
It's not just local, he adds. "I used to blame people for not going to shows, but I don't do that anymore," he says. "I don't think there's a whole ton to be excited about right now. I think the pool of musicians and bands right now is so bad. There are so few great musicians in the world right now."
As for the locals, Chavez agrees with the assessment of Houston as a town of a thousand "side projects" and about five (if that) really good bands. Part of the problem, Chavez believes, is that too many local groups are focused on getting out of town and touring. "I personally used to be one of them — all I wanted to do was get out on the road and tour, tour, tour and be a band for real, but you know, you're from Houston. You've got a lot more to work on besides getting out of here, like writing great songs, and practicing, recording more than one album every four years. Be a good band. Make it in Houston first."
And then there are the venues. For years, Houston lacked adequate mid-capacity clubs, but when the Meridian and Warehouse Live opened, that void was filled. Today, the shortage is at the small club level.
"In Chicago, something can be happening at any number of bars that all have a good vibe; all of your friends want to be there," says Chavez. "There's just not that kind of venue here. I guess some people like going to the Mink, but I don't care. I like the Mink as much as I like Walter's, and I still don't go to Walter's unless it's a show that I am doing. All they are is bars with stages, and that's all there is in this town."
Walker, Chavez's old Hands Up cohort who is living in New York and working on a book about the early days of Houston's rap scene, thinks Houston's age-old, bigger-is-better attitude is to blame. "I think the mentality in Houston has always been for big clubs," he says. "Houston is big. Texas is big. That's always been the thing. It's not a quaint little town."
Erik Carter, the Kork Agency booker, agrees with Chavez about the substandard venues. "I quit drinking and now I barely go out," he says. "I'm married and I don't drink. Why would I want to go stand up for seven hours so I can see a poorly mixed garage band, let alone one that I've never heard of?"
Many would say "passion for live music."
"My passion leads me to buy the record and stay in my air-conditioned home and listen to it," Carter retorts.
Chavez will second Carter's contention about poor mixes. "I'm aware of most of the house sound guys in Houston, and man, some of 'em are total train wrecks," he says, "The second any feedback comes up, they just freak out and can't fix it. A bunch of them here have been doing it wrong so long that their ears are destroyed. There were any number of bad ones that came and went through Mary Jane's, and then there was one guy who was great, and then he died."
Carter also cites the cliquishness of Houston's Montrose-oriented bohemian set. "I think there's such a Main Street mentality where the only place that matters is the Montrose. As soon as something is Outer Loop or not specifically within your music clique...People don't really market to everybody."
And that's important, Carter believes, because shows with a critical mass of nothing other than music fanatics can be utterly dreary. "I was just talking to Larry Pirkle and he said he was DJing downtown and the people there didn't know what song he was playing, but those people were on the dance floor dancing and having fun," he says. "They weren't sitting by the turntable trying to see which pressing of the 12-inch he had like a bunch of indie rockers would, and not dancing. As a DJ you've got your regular people and your regular music scene people, and the regular people are actually a lot more fun."
Which speaks to another concern. Sure, our local bands, venues and sound men are not the greatest, true enough, and cliques can be off-putting to newcomers and less trendy music fans. And perhaps the smoking ban has taken a bite out of the draw too, and other factors to consider include Houston's ridiculous sprawl, woeful nocturnal public transit and relative shortage of traditional college students. And then there is the puzzling culture some clubs have here of starting weeknight shows at 11 with an interminable sound-check and one or two opening bands.
Maybe the problem goes deeper than that — to the heart of Houston's multiethnic soul. In 2006, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam, the author of 2000's well-received cultural study Bowling Alone, published a paper called "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in 21st Century America." Putnam examined 41 American sites, ranging from rural areas in Washington state and North Dakota to big cities such as Los Angeles and Houston, on the benefits and drawbacks of cultural diversity. Putnam's findings were disheartening to all lovers of diversity, Putnam included. People in diverse communities, he found, lose trust in everybody, not just people from other racial groups but also from within their own kind. They disbelieve their local newspapers, the mayor, their neighbors, everybody.
Putnam contended that diverse cities like Houston were not marred by anything so dramatic as outright ethnic hostility. Instead, "inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television...Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us."
Despite his gloom, Putnam believes that over time, these distinctions disappear, noting that in the 1960s, a wedding of an Irish American and an Italian American was thought of as "a mixed marriage," and that even now in rural North Dakota, it's the height of cosmopolitanism to invite the Swedes to a Norwegian picnic.
"What we shouldn't do is to say that they should be more like us," Putnam later told the Financial Times. "We should construct a new us."
Sure, there are diverse cities with thriving music scenes — London, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles. But with the exception of sprawling L.A., which also just happens to be the world headquarters of the entertainment business, few of those cities heap on the rest of Houston's drawbacks: mediocre bands, terrible radio, second-rate venues, poor public transportation, killer sprawl and a diverse populace of mildly paranoid, cynical souls. Houston could be doing worse. Every show that has a good draw is a testament to the dedication of those who do turn up. And there are some shows that go off really, really well. Those are where the "new us" is being forged.
These would include the Starbucks Mixed Media series of concerts at the Museum of Fine Arts. The 2005 kickoff of this event, which featured Grandmaster Flash spinning records in front of the Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings his music helped inspire, hit Houston's indie scene like a double-jolt of espresso. Upwards of a thousand hip kids were dancing the night away in some of Houston's most well-appointed and cosmopolitan surroundings, dancing and drinking in cutting-edge sounds. This and the succeeding events in the still-running summer series give people the feeling that Houston can approach a New York State of Vibe.
"It works because it's an event," says Chavez. "It's something different — it's not just another show at another fucking bar."
Maybe that "same old shows in the same old bars" paradigm is dying alongside the rest of the old-school music business model. If people aren't willing to pay for recorded music, wouldn't it follow that many of them would turn up their noses at live music in its most humdrum form too, even if the live experience is, at least theoretically, much more visceral? In a day and age when far too many bands eschew showmanship, is it any wonder that the answer is yes?
Kids today have other priorities. "No matter what happens, it's never gonna be like pre-Internet days again, for touring or CD sales," says Brennan of Sound Exchange. "Music is now one notch of importance below where it was, especially for kids. My 14-year-old niece has to have a cell phone so she can text-message; she has to have a MySpace account. If you look back, kids were the number one demographic for buying music and going out for decades and decades, and I think now it's number four for sales."
Brennan confesses to a case of scene fatigue. "I'm kinda getting tired of going to the same places and seeing the same things. The bar scene is great for the social aspects, but not so much for the music."
Maybe the future lies in big events like Eric "Ceeplus" Castillo's Mixed Media series on one end and in more intimate and inexpensive house parties on the other. Or in other nontraditional venues: in Houston, NiaMoves, a yoga studio in the Heights, is hosting a Houston offshoot of Dallas's The Bend Studio series, offering up-close-and-personal evenings with Americana artists in an environment much more serene than a bar.
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Houston abounds with odd places. Brennan thinks we should use them. "I went and saw that band Extra Golden at the Orange Show," Brennan says. "It's always great to be at the Orange Show, but it is just being in a different place, around people who are just there for the music, not to hang out and drink; it was so enjoyable."
Special places for special shows in a city that is, perhaps, "special" in the euphemistic sense of the word.
"Yeah, a little bit!" laughs Chavez. "[Houston is] the special child that, when they do something that's especially smart, you're like, 'Oh wow! Look at you!'"