As a wise man (who happens to be a Houston Press music writer) once said regarding this city's music venues, "In the end it’s a sort of victory just to keep the doors open, the floors clean, and one’s ethics in place." Houston certainly has its fair share of high-profile stages that draw A-list talent and large crowds, be they franchises (House of Blues), corporate-branded large theaters (Revention Music Center), or local institutions whose names are synonymous with Houston music (Fitzgerald's, Mucky Duck, Rudyard's). But other places are just as invaluable to the local music community, often serving as talent incubators or redoubts of neighborhood culture while seldom receiving a fraction of the credit they deserve. They may rarely draw the attention of the media or even the general public beyond their regular crowds, but these places matter too. Maybe more.
10. DEAN'S DOWNTOWN
While not the full-scale music venue it was in a previous life, Dean's — when it showcases live music — is still among the best venues in the city. That holds particularly true for its weekly Houston Songwriter Series, which showcases the area's top singer-songwriters from 8-10 p.m. every Sunday; each installment ranks among the more intimate, personal shows you'll find in Houston. Dean's also takes great pride in its selection of craft beers and cocktails. Here's a tip — order the Old Fashioned; you won't regret it. (316 Main, deansdowntown.com)
9. WALTERS DOWNTOWN
Walters Downtown hosts mostly rock-related guitar-having bands, from tween hardcore matinees to indie-pop get-togethers and punk jamborees, none of which mean the big bucks around here. Whatever the tenor of the event, whatever the turnout, the staff is always gracious, capable, and much friendlier than one has a right to expect. For the good work is seldom clean work. (1120 Naylor, waltersdowntown.com)
8. WHITE SWAN
A name like White Swan might mislead the unknowing into thinking the venue is a serene sanctuary filled with harps and angelic voices. The winged creature most representative of this Eastside hardcore haven is the sinister statuette perched atop a beam in the center of the room, where it overlooks the mayhem that’s usually occurring onstage. If it’s loud and heavy, it’s welcome at the White Swan, along with the devotees who follow such music. The beer is cheap, cold and often set aside by the patrons clearing the tables and chairs away from the stage area to accommodate yet another mosh pit. (4419 Navigation, whiteswanlive.com)
7. THE BIG EASY
The Big Easy stands in stark contrast to its Rice Village home; it's a scruffy stronghold of Houston authenticity stationed in the antiseptic, bourgeois university neighborhood. Beer and blues are on tap every night of the week, with local gems like Luther and the Healers filling the joint with 12 bars of bliss. A mosaic of vintage posters pattern the walls with legends of Houston's musical past. But the best night, as everyone knows, is Zydeco night. On Zydeco night, regulars show up in their best rhinestone jeans and cowboy hats and turn it out on the dance floor to the lovable hum of an accordion. The diversity of the dancers is always a bright spot in a city not well-known for its racial harmony. It doesn't matter what age you are, where you're from, or whether or not you can two-step. The regulars, warm and guileless as they are, will be happy to teach you, and give you a night to remember. (5731 Kirby, thebigeasyblues.com)
6. J P HOPS HOUSE
Fittingly, J P Hops House neighbors a Shipley’s Do-Nuts. Both are Houston institutions built on delivering sweet goodness to locals. Instead of sugar and dough, they’re serving up fine beers and acoustic music at J P’s. The venue’s been open since 1980 and gives singer/songwriter fans a place in the ‘burbs to get their fix. Located on Highway 6 near Westheimer, it’s miles away from inner loop sibling venues like Mucky Duck and Anderson Fair, which makes it convenient for west end commuters to see their favorites. There’s a house band, The Hardtime Troubadors, which welcomes guest artists in on Wednesday nights. Some who’ve played the venue recently are Hank Woji, Larry Sepulvado, Keith Rea, Mystery Loves Company, Charity Ann, Matt Harlan and Rachel Jones. It might be the only venue in town with an ode to a patio; songwriter Bob Yoh once penned “Jim’s Big Deck,” in honor of JP's spacious outdoor area. (2317 S. Highway 6, jphopshouse.com)
AvantGarden is a chameleon, shifting its colors each day to cater to Houston's many incommensurable tastes. The Montrose venue, which is located in a refurbished 19th-century house, hosts guitar plucking singer songwriters, glitch pop djs, experimental jazz bands, and good old fashioned freestyle rap, sometimes all in the same week. But more important that its eclectic performance roster is AvantGarden's commitment to being a Houston cultural hub. With open mics, comedy nights, anti-art classes, and charity benefits, the venue does more than any other to sample and support the burgeoning creative class of Clutch City. Its weekly spoken word series, Write About Now, is a particular treat, showcasing our diverse and incisive poetry scene. Plus, with three bars, a spacious outdoor patio, multiple stages, and a precarious yet breathtaking upstairs patio, there's plenty of space to listen, dance, or just enjoy a drink (which will only be $2 dollars if you happen to find yourself there on Thursdays). While the space has morphed into many things since its erection, we hope it stays AvantGarden for the next hundred years. (411 Westheimer, avantgardenhouston.com)
4. ALLEY KAT BAR & LOUNGE
Four and a half years ago, much to many locals' chagrin, the Mink shut down. It had changed hands a few times, and a number of Houstonians were concerned about the club's future, or lack thereof. Since then, however, the Alley Kat, as it is been known after reopening under new ownership in January 2013, has filled in nicely as both a drinkery and a music venue. Local acts abound on the establishment's events calendar, and it happens to be in one of the coolest spots in town to boot. The Waxaholics are there every Thursday, spinning golden-era rap tunes for your listening pleasure as well. Although Alley Kat hasn't received as much love as nearby venues like the Continental Club and Big Top, it's one of the best on the block and a welcome addition to "The Island." (3718 Main, Facebook page)
3. SHAKESPEARE PUB
This club’s namesake once pondered, “Can one desire too much of a good thing?” To answer the bard in the vernacular of the music that oozes from this west Houston blues staple, “Ohhh, noooo.” Indoors, Shake’s is dim and shadowy, the way you’d imagine any great blues bar should be. Outdoors, on an enclosed patio, patrons smoking cigarettes and cigars trade tall tales one can’t help but eavesdrop on while standing or sitting in close quarters. But the real smokin’ is done onstage, with occasional touring acts and regulars that include The Eazy Three, Tony Vega, Sparky Parker Band and The Mighty Orq; Sparetime Murray's Sunday-night blues jam is also a must. The beer here is pub-worthy and the vibe always seems right. As Billy Shakes once said, “I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it.” (14129 Memorial, shakespearepub.net)
2. LAST CONCERT CAFE
Technically, Last Concert Cafe is a Mexican restaurant, one that just so happens to feature some of the area's best live music seven days a week. There's no better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than taking in Last Concert's weekly acoustic jam while feasting on Texas Style Eggs Benedict and knocking down a cocktail or locally-brewed beer. Not that good times at Last Concert Cafe are exclusive to weekends; the venue features a diverse array of music throughout the entire week. From Americana to R&B to blues, not to mention tribute bands, Last Concert Cafe offers something for everyone's musical tastes. (1403 Nance, lastconcert.com)
Notsuoh’s eclectic events often draw more heavily from the performance-art and sociologically levelled elements of life after dark, which is of course completely on purpose as part of Jim Pirtle’s ongoing psychological experiment on the city as a whole, as well as each of its visitors. Nots is the best place in town for unpredictable human interactions and artistic histrionics, in a way acting as the messily exhibitionist conscience to an often unconscionable Houston. (314 Main, notsuoh.com)
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BONUS: DARWIN'S PUB
The newcomer on this list (established 2014), the former Darwin’s Theory has lately been billing itself as Darwin’s Pub. Either way, its a craft-beer paradise, with its excellent specials scribbled onto a chalkboard with style. Music-wise, last weekend's JOn Black album-release show was pretty spectacular; Darwin's has also hosted touring national acts like L.A.’s Lena Fayre and local standouts Carmeci, Ganesha and Jody Seabody and the Whirls, whose manic set nearly left the bar in tatters. The layout is perfect for Houstonians with seating out in the sun for those who dare or inside with A/C and especially nice bartenders; or, in a lodge-like space between the two, with leather seating, pool tables and DJs, on occasion. The whole place will be turning Japanese, I really think so, come June 18, when Tokyo’s wild Otonana Trio brings its "Someone To Buy Me a Beer" tour to town. (33 Waugh, darwinspub.com)
10 MORE VENUES THAT DESERVE SOME LOVE TOO
The Hideaway On Dunvale
Main Street Crossing (Tomball)
Miller Outdoor Theatre
Union Tavern (Clear Lake)
Written by Clint Hale, Matthew Keever, Tex Kerschen, Katie Sullivan and Jesse Sendejas Jr.