Along with pickled pig's feet and a steady supply of Slim Jims, a good jukebox is a prime element for any great bar. But, like dinosaurs, jukeboxes are a vanishing breed. Unlike digital jukes, iPods or DJs, jukeboxes require love, care and maintenance, as well as -- among the truly great ones -- some thought.
Until recently, Poison Girl had a killer jukebox, but it went down and owner Scott Walcott hasn't been able to get a mechanic familiar with his type of machinery, so it's currently on hiatus. Last year Under the Volcano's dollar-swallower shorted out and caught fire, so there are perils that most civilians wouldn't necessarily consider.
But with that in mind, here are eight local jukeboxes that only make the party better.
8. Big Star Bar: Owner Brad Moore's tastes can be described as eclectic and kitschy. Of course Big Star (the band) is featured, part of the overall large-scale mix of old-school hitmakers: Sly & the Family Stone, Metallica, Tupac, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Elvis Costello, Robert Earl Keen Jr., ZZ Top, Patsy Cline, Janis Joplin, Thin Lizzy, Commodores, Green Day, Liz Phair, Beck -- you get the idea.
Moore also goes in for interesting juxtapositions: Beyoncé next to Jay-Z, Patsy Cline squeezed in between ZZ Top and Sublime. And Big Star gets a huge thumbs-up for its Mod greatest-hits compilation, Sound of the Jam. Biggest (not best) oddity? Taylor Swift. Hahaha, yeah, that's funny, Brad. 281-501-9560, 1005 W. 19th, Web site
7. Warren's Inn: Warren's on Market Square is one of the city's great lounges, and the jukebox here is an eclectic mix of classics that reflect Houston's diversity and its sense of "lounge." This may be the only jukebox on Planet Earth with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, Morrissey, Kinky Friedman and Kenny Chesney. Seriously.
The "mixed-up-ness" factor is actually Warren's greatest asset; in fact, it's almost bewildering, especially if one is looking for an overarching theme or musical pattern in a list like this: Steely Dan, Ray Charles, Herb Alpert, Jimmy Reed, Bob Wills, Dave Brubeck, the Platters, Louis Armstrong, Marty Robbins's Gunfighter Ballads (!), Booker T., Sarah Vaughan, Fats Waller, Aretha, Al Green, Sonny Stitt and Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding.
Biggest oddity? That this box contains both Harry Nilsson and Kenny Chesney. That's just warped. 307 Travis, 713-247-9207, Cool bars like Warren's don't need no stinkin' Web site.
6. Grand Prize Bar: Another Brad Moore property, so this juke has virtually the same quirky characteristics as Big Star, although not the same music per se. This one gets props for Joy Division, Whiskeytown, Wilco and Billy Bragg. It also gets a nod for a leaf that contains MC5, Valient Thorr, Sonic Youth and Motörhead.
It sports the only Flamin' Groovies we've encountered in our rambles, mixed in among George Jones, T Rex, The Band, Nazz, N.W.A., Flaming Lips and early Nick Cave. Lightnin', B.B. King and Professor Longhair give the 'box plenty of blues cred, and there are a handful of "oh, wow" surprises, especially Vicente Hernandez and Soupy Sales (no, that's not a typo).
Top surprise find? The Geto Boys (1990), which rock critic Robert Christgau criticized sharply:
I'm impressed by pungent beats and vernacular. I'm glad they put Reagan in bed with Noriega. I'm sorta touched when one of them thinks to thank the first girl to lick his asshole. I admire their enunciation on 'Fuck 'Em.' But fuck 'em.
Nowhere but H-Town. Best oddity? The Vampiros Lesbos collection. 1010 Banks, 713-526-4565, Web site
5. The Ginger Man Pub: The rock-solid juke at the G-man is the result of two managers, head man Joe Jackson and assistant Clint Broussard, who have excellent musical tastes. The 'box gets major props for keeping local chestnuts like Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and Little Joe Washington's Texas Fire Line in the mix no matter what else changes.
With its flexible mix of old-school blues, old-school soul, and impressive catalogs of indie and classic rock, the juke at the G-man is ready for that clientele shift that sees the venerable Rice Village craft-beer haven switch from a local neighborhood bar to a Rice student mecca on weekend nights.
Selections for the older crowd range from Jimi Hendrix and the Dave Clark Five to the early Rolling Stones classic December's Children...and Everybody's and Joe Strummer. Indie-rockers get by with Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, Best Coast, the latest Black Keys and the Keys rap offshoot Blackroc (how cool is that?).
Digging deep, one will also find the latest Black Crowes, English Beat, the first Ramones record, rising soul man Charles Bradley (Daptone), a double James Brown anthology and a massive Chief/Age Records compilation of old school swamp boogie. Jackson and Broussard make wholesale changes to this box approximately every six months.
Best oddity? The disco soundtrack to the movie Car Wash (winning!). 5607 Morningside, 713-526-2770, Web site
4 Big Easy Pleasure and Social Club: Obviously blues and zydeco figure heavily in the jukebox mix at the top blues/zydeco club in town, but owner Tom McLendon has wider tastes than one might first expect.
Of course, he has stocked his 'box with classics and local favorites old and new, including Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, the three Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddie), Bobby Bland, Lightnin', James Brown, Texas Johnny Brown, Little Richard, Elvis, Sam Cooke and -- surprisingly -- the only Chuck Berry album we found on any jukebox so far. The box also contains the only Joe "Guitar" Hughes or Earl Gilliam we found anywhere.
John Lennon makes an appearance, as do the Beatles, Sonny Landreth, Bonnie Raitt, the Blasters, Doug Kershaw, Taj Mahal, the Meters, Slim Harpo, Clifton Chenier, Billie Holliday, the Four Tops and Louis Jordan. It gets pretty ridiculously good when we find Wild Tchoupitoulas, Jon Cleary, Irma Thomas, soul shouters Sam and Dave, and the immortal James Brown/Parliament Funkadelic sax giant Maceo Parker. This jukebox is hot enough to fry eggs on.
Best oddity? A tie between Bob Wills and Lyle Lovett. 5731 Kirby, 713-523-9999, Web site
3. La Carafe: Don't look for today's Top 40 on the jukebox at La Carafe, one of the city's most ancient drinking establishments. Similar to its Market Square neighbor Warren's, the juke at La Carafe is mostly old-school, mostly classics and is another 'box that gets props for having The Jam. It also gets props for having Louis Prima next to Tom Waits, David Bowie next to Townes van Zandt, Lightnin' Hopkins next to Peggy Lee.
In fact, the strength of La Carafe's 'box lies in its something-for-everyone mix. Old hippies can dial up Janis Joplin, the Byrds, Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Little Feat, CSNY, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Dick Dale, and Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home. For country-music fans, it's made easy: Hank Williams and Johnny Cash inhabit the same leaf.
There's plenty of Buddy Guy and Albert Collins to quench the thirst for old-school electric blues, and the inclusion of Houston classics Two Steps from the Blues and Archie Bell and the Drells' greatest hits earns La Carafe even more props. Nice rarities like Bobby Darin's Mack the Knife, Sergio Mendes, Johnny Mathis, and Carole King spread the appeal of La Carafe's jukebox even further.
Best oddity? The Essential Marlene Dietrich. 813 Congress, 713-229-9399, Facebook page
2. Under the Volcano: Maybe the most eclectic jukebox in town, with Calle 13 nestling next to Heartless Bastards and Bill Monroe across from the Pogues, flipping through the leaves at Volcano is an adventure in musical geography. Owner Pete Mitchell is married to an Argentine, and keeps up with the hottest bands in Latin America to put plenty of fire in his 'box.
Combine his interesting world-music selections like Tuareg band Tinariwen with the Plimsouls, Willie Nelson & Family Live, Tom Jones, the Gourds, Levon Helm, Hacienda, Chuck Prophet, Thievery Corporation, Black Keys, Scott Miller, Nirvana, Centromatic, Lila Downs, Miles Davis, the Chieftains, Louis Prima, Exile on Main Street, John Prine, Edith Piaf and slinky-cool Los Angeles Cambodian rockers Dengue Fever, and there really is something for everyone.
In fact, it's amusing to observe the Great Unwashed throw $5 in and studiously flip through all 100 entries just trying to find something they are comfortable with. By the looks on many of them, it's like a jukebox final exam they haven't studied for; Mitchell has wisely added brief user-friendly Post-it Notes descriptions for some of the less familiar items.
He also stocks his 'box with albums from many of the bands who perform at Volcano's Wednesday live-music nights: Shinyribs, Mike Stinson, John Egan and Brennen Leigh. A choice mix of old and new, Mitchell is good at sprinkling four to five new items onto the 'box monthly, another plus. Best oddity? Ramsay Midwood's funky Larry Buys a Lighter. 2349 Bissonnet, 713-526-5282, Facebook page
1. Robbie's Lounge: The recent proliferation of Internet-based jukeboxes is a perfect example of too much of a good thing. No matter how cool the owners of a bar, no matter how refined their ears, they can't stop their clientele from making terrible choices with the music.
Not long ago [in 2010 -- ed.], we were regaled with the greatest hits of Van fucking Halen while chilling in a lounge on Almeda, a boulevard on which one's ears should feast on soul alone. Robbie's sidesteps that type of problem by sticking with an old-fashioned CD jukebox and stocking it with the good stuff: cry-in-your-beer honky-tonk from dive-bar patron saints Gene Watson, Ray Price and Gary Stewart and choogling boogie-blues by folks like Jimmy Reed and Slim Harpo.
It's hard to believe, but limited though choice selections like that are getting harder and harder to find. (Houston Press Best Jukebox winner, 2010) 8518 Long Point, 713-461-3229
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