My family and I recently vacationed on the West Coast. However you do your vacation, I hope you're doing it well. As for us, we got zombified for Hope For Young Adults With Cancer. We drove along the edges of a massive California forest fire and shot a music video at the Salton Sea, among other, less-apocalyptic leisure activities.
One of the places we visited was the Hotel Utah Saloon in San Francisco. The bar opened in 1908, survived Prohibition and continues today, with music offered nightly. We were there for its open-mike night, and my kids played the same stage that once was a proving ground for Whoopi Goldberg and the late Robin Williams.
There were at least 40 acts that night, so it seemed like a great place to learn more about the Bay Area's music scene and teach others about Houston's. As I've done before in Amarillo and Denver, I handed out CDs by some local acts to these far away music lovers.
I handed off a copy of a Rusted Shut CD to see if Houston could actually out-weird the renowned eccentrics of the Golden Gate city. One couple, Tommy and Alissa, drove from Sacramento, nearly two hours away, to see my kids do their single, open-mike song. They got two free beers, a Gnar World Order CD and some love here for their troubles.
As the night passed, I asked some of the performing musicians about their journeys while sharing the purpose of ours. Here's what a few of them told me:
SALEM Two or three acts into the night, an amiable young man in the Utah's balcony made some witty comments about music within earshot. I toasted him with my full glass of Ninkasi Total Domination (y'all don't know nothing 'bout that, Houston).
Knowing the city has a rich standup-comedy history, I asked if he was a local comic. No, he apologized, just another musician trying to get some recognition. He said his name was Salem and he was due onstage.
"I play rock. I play random rock," Salem said. "Sometimes it's blues, sometimes it's pop, sometimes it's rock and roll, sometimes it's a little emo, sometimes it's folk. It really depends on what I'm feeling at that moment."
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That compelled me to share with him Everybody Knows, by Galvestonian by way of just about everywhere, Robert Kuhn. Both are singers, guitarists, songwriters and musical vagabonds -- particularly Kuhn, whose songwriting is influenced by his life abroad in Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and, maybe most foreign of all, Lewisburg, Penn. But while Salem's music may be all over the map, he's kept his roots close to home.
"There's something about this area, and it's one of the reasons I don't leave," he said. "Just being out there and doing music is encouraged. You know, very few people are getting signed out of this shit. It's just about encouraging you to get up there and do your thing."
Aside from the Kuhn CD I passed onto him, Salem's awareness of music from Texas is admittedly limited to Seeing Red's lead singer, Tara Marie, who hails from Fort Worth.
"I do know there are some people there who are very serious about their craft, so you get some fantastic music from Texas," he said.
KINGPIN ROWE San Francisco's long tradition of protest music goes at least as far back to the Summer of Love in the Haight district, which is only a few miles from Hotel Utah. Since injustice and bigotry continue, it's good to know San Francisco artists also continue to fight.
When Kingpin Rowe took the stage, his spoken word on this summer's events in Ferguson, Mo. recalled his dissident forebearers of the '60s. By the time he was done, he'd swallowed all the air in the room, especially all that had escaped from the gasps of those who'd listened attentively to his art.
Once we'd collectively exhaled, I handed him a copy of 2012's Fuska Blast by Fuska. After all, the hometown-ska punks have a long and very personal history with murderous police and law-enforcement corruption. One of the band's members is a relative of Joe Campos Torres, the Vietnam veteran whose life was cut short by cops who beat and drowned him in Buffalo Bayou.
Rowe's story starts in a common fashion. At 19, he was immersed in underground hip-hop and the Bay Area's battle-rap scene. But important messages demand audiences, and he felt he had some important things to say; so, like any enterprising artist, he began to network. His musical six degrees of separation, by way of participation in Band of Brotherz, attaches him to no less than Grateful Dead founder Bob Weir.
"The hippie scene has been good to us," Rowe said. "I'm about dropping the knowledge and dropping the game. I poured beer on the battle rhymes, unless it's a show, I poured beer on the underground, but publicly I come with the positive science."
He invites people to learn more at bayareamusic.net.
"People don't know what they're doing in Ferguson," Rowe said. "They're trying to set up a reason to implement martial law. The thing is, if they come close to that, all nationalities are going to bind together. You might be shooting black kids, but there have always been allies.
"We're always dropping the knowledge trying to get people to see what's going on. I got time for that," he added, noting he travels to different venues like Hotel Utah, to "pull out my machete and take heads off."
Story continues on the next page.
MEGHAN ANDREWS Andrews is New Yorker now living and working in Los Angeles; she and her music partner, Marco Ferrero, had just participated in the West Coast Songwriters Convention in Palo Alto. She told me she won the conference's competition, which surprised me not at all, having just witnessed her mesmerizing single-song set.
I shared with them the debut CD by Danielle Bradbery. Of course, they'd heard of her. She's the Cypress teen and phenom who won NBC's The Voice a few seasons ago.
Andrews also got her start as a teen, playing shows in Manhattan. That and a voice that's as natural and pretty as Bradbery's is about all the two have in common.
Bradbery's best-known collaborator was country megastar Blake Shelton. Andrews' biggest champion is Ferrero, a skilled bassist whose nuanced playing complements Andrews' own mastery of the guitar.
Bradbery's eponymous CD features 11 tracks and she has no writing credits on it. Andrews writes her own music and also plays piano. The Houstonian burst onto the scene on national broadcast television. Andrews has a film credit from a Logo TV documentary and forged her career the old-fashioned way, by touring incessantly. She's visited Houston and recalls "being really impressed with the songwriters' circles" here.
Andrews doesn't begrudge Bradbery or any artist who fast-tracks out of obscurity. She just keeps doing what she knows, playing often and anywhere -- even one song at a time, if necessary.
"I think it's about just not giving up," she said. "Marco and I have been doing this for most of our lives. The right time comes along, opportunities present themselves, everybody gets their chance, I feel. You don't give up. You keep going."
She says the same thing in her song "Islene," which I heard at least a dozen times on the way home, back from the fantasy of vacation to the real world. Her words stuck with me, and felt like something to share with the Houston artists still waiting to break through to larger audiences.
"Keep calm companions, keep doing what you've been doing all along/ My patient darlings, be wise enough to keep singing your song."
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