When I moved to Houston last summer, everybody told me the music scene sucked.
And it wasn’t that hard to believe. I was already borderline horrified by the lack of touring bands stopping in Houston for the next couple of months. It didn’t help when my new friend’s boyfriend informed me that Houston was “all about rap.” And it really didn’t help when, after I finally found some music-geek friends out in the suburbs, a guitarist who also had recently moved here told me he thought it sucked too — and as a guy looking for freelance gigs, his livelihood literally depended on that opinion.
So I thought it must be true. Sure, I had met the lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Titus Andronicus, at the 59 Diner across from Cactus Music after I saw him put on a free show there. Sure, I had seen one of my favorite guitarists, Marissa Paternoster of the Screaming Females, shred one of the best live solos I had ever heard at Fitzgerald’s. And sure, Deer Tick played one of my all-time favorite songs at the Untapped Festival after I requested the song via Twitter (no shame there). But it all seemed like luck, or fleeting, or like it wasn’t really “Houston’s” music scene. Which is all very correct. And so none of that helped change my opinion — even on the bands-in-town front.
Finally, though, there was a point at which I realized that I was doing something unfair: comparing.
When I moved here, I used a few reference points to assess just how cool Houston’s music scene was. And when you start to believe that Des Moines — where, eye rollers be damned, opportunities for up-and-coming punks have exploded in recent years — has a cooler music scene than a city claiming to be almost bigger than Chicago, it’s hard to recover. That’s where I went to college. I had grown up in the Chicago suburbs. I spent a summer living in Brooklyn, where I came to despise the word "hipster," and also one in Austin — the worst of all the culprits.
Here’s how I got over my Negative Nancy phase last fall, though: I stopped going there.
The fact that Austin has a bigger, healthier, more vibrant music scene than Houston — and a lot of other places across the country — is just that: a fact. But blindly buying into it ignores the merits of a scene that may not be as huge and visible but may easily be more diverse. And weirder. Definitely weirder.
“It’s just a little more sparse, and it’s not as easily accessible as Austin, where it’s everywhere,” says Charlie Bryan, who works at the record store Vinal Edge. “Here, you kind of have to do some digging.”
Bryan, originally from Houston, spent time playing gigs in Austin for a few years, but ultimately came back. The cacophony surrounding a place labeled the Live Music Capital of the World distilled bands’ identities down to names on a bill, and the competition was more distracting than anything. “You go down a street and every bar has bands playing. Houston’s not like that, so the people who do actively go out to see live music, they all know each other,” he said. “They’re all supportive of each other, regardless of the type of music, and it’s just like the people here are almost, to a certain extent, more grateful for it, you know? It’s more like a small town than a big city.”
When I started digging into it, I tried to find music that extended beyond my pretty standard taste for straight-ahead punk rock and dirty blues riffs — and in Houston, I found that that’s actually not hard to do. I saw some accordion-heavy gypsy folk bands and banjo-slinging Irish folk bands play in Satellite Bar’s backyard. I saw drony experimental bands command a small, completely silent audience’s attention at Walters, where one avant-garde trio, Papier Blanc, tossed candy into the crowd, and another, Garden Medium, played their string instruments using everything from marbles to crushed metal objects as picks. And at Shoeshine Charley's Big Top Lounge, I saw The Mighty Orq play a blistering cover of “John the Revelator” on a cigar-box guitar — a guy who, I would later learn, was a finalist in the 2016 International Blues Challenge this past weekend.
While that classic Southern roots-rock may be the most standard of all, that's also what I grew to appreciate about Houston’s music scene: that long-standing music culture was still here, but less visible subgenres appeared to add several dimensions, making for its own breed. “The arts and outsider-oriented music scene is so much bigger here than Austin,” says Cactus Music general manager Quinn Bishop — who also pointed to the widely recognized Latin-American music community and Houston’s national rap and hip-hop reputation as two stripes that other music meccas may not have earned.
Sound Exchange owner Kurt Brennan, meanwhile, named the experimental noise and metal scenes as two of the fastest-growing in Houston yet also the most invisible, for obvious reasons. But to Brennan, that lack of visibility, and the lack of national interest in Houston as big grounds for new music (if we set rap aside), are exactly what has fostered its appeal. “There’s something to be said for music to develop on its own, outside of the limelight with nobody else watching,” Brennan says.
Brennan has watched Houston’s music scene ebb and flow since he moved here in 1981. He has watched it reinvent itself every several years, as rock clubs continued to shut down, leaving Houston with few historic, prominent rock hot spots, and as twentysomethings who once fronted solid bands got married and started families and moved away, leaving younger musicians to redevelop what they had built.
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“Something new always takes a while to develop,” he says. “These things only last so long.”
And perhaps the volatile nature of Houston’s music scene was what made it seem so impenetrable at first. I realized that many of the opinions that helped shaped mine when I moved here all came from people who had once lived in Austin, too, where discovering new music is literally as easy as walking down the street. In Houston, I started to like that there was a bit of a wall you had to climb before you found it, and that once you did, what you found was sometimes weird.
Naturally, though, the best local shows I saw in recent months were closer within the bounds of my usual taste, both at Satellite Bar in January. Last week Mikey and the Drags mixed explosive drums, ripping vocals, and high-energy, full-bodied keys to flesh out their distinct garage-rock sound. At another show, Woozyhelmet graced the stage with the kind of irreverent recklessness that, if their songs lasted any longer than two-minute bursts, could probably incite a riot. And that night's headliner, Young Mammals, finished out with piercing, psych-tinged guitar melodies over pop-rock drumbeats.
I looked around that night for a guy with a green mohawk. I had seen him the last time I was here and at two other shows a couple of weeks earlier — he’s a little hard to miss. It was starting to make me feel like Houston was almost as small as Des Moines.