Many moons ago, or one or two anyway, our friends over at L.A. Weekly's West Coast Sound decided to evaluate Southern California's two main universities, USC and UCLA, using a set of music-oriented criteria and declare a winner. We're not talking matriculation either, though that's certainly part of it — they also factored in each school's distinguished alumni in the music world, notable on-campus performances past and present, student-run media (specifically radio stations) and a few other points.
Naturally this idea was too good not to steal, especially considering two such prime candidates as the University of Houston and Rice University. As L.A. did, Rocks Off asked two members of our team to act as advocate. Here, fairly recent UH grad Matthew Keever took up for his alma mater, while Rice U. alumnus-in-law Jeff Balke stated the Owls' case. As a proud Texas Longhorn, even if he never quite graduated, our Music Editor was more than happy to play judge. Hook 'em.
RADIO STATIONS UH: Besides the two UH-operated FM stations, NPR affiliate KUHF (88.7 FM) and Classical 91.7 (KUHA), the university's student-staffed station, Coog Radio, is online-only — much like KTRU now. And like UH itself, Coog Radio is eclectic, covering a wide range of genres from international to electronica and, of course, local music. Coog Radio prides itself on diversity and employs about 50 DJs throughout the week, all available to listeners at the click of a button. It isn't nearly as beloved in the music community as KTRU is (err...was), but give the new kid on the block a chance. You just might like what you hear.
RICE: There has never been a better traditional college radio station in the city of Houston than KTRU. Sure, it would occasionally play five minutes of uninterrupted guitar feedback and the DJs would often sound stoned, drunk or both. But no one played more local and college/indie music than KTRU. Unfortunately, the broadcast station was sold to the University of Houston in 2010 and all that is left is an Internet radio version. But it still blows KUHF away for music, even if it is Internet-only.
WINNER: Rice. At its height, KTRU was one of the best student-run stations on the planet, and even Internet-only — which is hardly even a hindrance in 2014 — it remains an invaluable outlet for Houston musicians. Coog Radio has made impressive strides in the short time it's been around, but is still nowhere near matching KTRU's footprint.
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ON-CAMPUS PERFORMANCES UH: Alice Cooper, the Allman Brothers Band and Pink Floyd have played inside recently demolished Robertson Stadium (then known as Jeppesen Stadium); Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Devo and the Clash have rocked Hofheinz Pavilion; and Van Morrison has performed in Cullen Auditorium, with John Legend due there in May. UH's Student Program Board keeps music coming to campus through Frontier Fiesta, which is both current — this very weekend, in fact, with performances by B.O.B., Love & Theft and A Great Big World — and local, with FF alumni including the likes of VerseCity, Simple Success and The Niceguys.
RICE: While Rice is not exactly known for big stars at campus festivals — with all due respect to the KTRU Outdoor Show — its stadium has hosted some huge names in music, never mind President John F. Kennedy and his "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard," speech and Super Bowl VIII.
The Eagles, Elton John and Billy Joel, and George Strait all played there in the mid-1990s, as did the biggest name to grace the facility, Pink Floyd. But, my most relevant memory is of the Van Halen Monsters of Rock show in 1988. It was hot as hell, a cup-throwing fight made the stadium look like it was in the middle of a snowstorm just before Metallica went on, the Scorpions absolutely dominated every other act, and I struck out with some girl whose name I don't remember.
WINNER: Push. For two such different universities, both Rice and UH have pretty noble concert histories, and manage to keep one toe in the waters of staging their own events as well.
NOTABLE FORMER STUDENTS, CURRENT AFFILIATES AND MUSIC SCHOOLS UH: What do 2013 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Rogers, Grammy winner Larry Gatlin and Original S.U.C. founding member Big Moe have in common? Yup, they all went to UH. But besides diverse alumni in the realm of commercial music, UH also boasts the Moores School of Music, which houses an opera center, hosts a jazz festival and hones some of the best voices in town. And isn't Fat Tony still enrolled at UH? He's been in New York as much as Houston lately (if not on tour), but I think he counts here either way.
RICE: In the first two, I concede. The kids at Rice are simply too smart to try a career in music, God bless them. As for music schools, the Shepherd School of Music is one of the most well-respected music programs in the country for chamber music, orchestral music and opera. The school, founded in 1974, has attracted the attention and support of classical stars including Itzhak Perlman and Renee Fleming, and has a reputation for producing talented alumni and wonderful recordings.
WINNER: UH. Rice's Shepherd School might have a slight edge, but the Moores is no slouch, and the Coogs have the Gambler up their sleeves.
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STUDENT BANDS UH: Besides the aforementioned Fat Tony, former UH students currently entrenched in the local music scene include guitarist Enoma Asowata of Otenki and Adam Martinez of the Tontons, arguably the hottest band in town right now. Furthermore, four of the five members of thelastplaceyoulook went to UH, as did Cody Swann of the Wild Moccasins, Arthur Yoria and Dwight Taylor Lee of The Literary Greats, Finnegan and The Wandering Bufaleros. And speaking of student bands, Rice can keep the MOB; UH has the fightin' Cougar Marching Band. Eat 'em up.
RICE: I'll admit I don't know every ensemble produced by the university, but it matters little when your marching band is the MOB. Like no other college band out there, the MOB descends on sporting events donning pinstripes and sporting instruments ranging from horns to electric guitars to violins and kazoos. When you go to Rice, smart often translates into smart-ass and the MOB is perhaps the university's greatest example of that character trait (or flaw, if you are a stick-in-the-mud).
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WINNER: UH. The present-day Houston music scene bleeds Cougar red. Besides, we doubt anyone in the MOB (bless their hearts) much cares what we think. And as far as local marching bands go, TSU's Ocean of Soul gets our vote any day of the week.
CLOSING ARGUMENTS UH: I'll admit that Rice is the more renowned regional university. Some amazing things happen on that campus, and Houstonians should be proud to have it so centrally located in our city. But when it comes to music, UH is the superior school. Its music school is better, and it has educated and nurtured far more musicians who have gone on to do great things, locally and otherwise.
RICE: I did not attend Rice University. In fact, I attended UH, but my wife is an alumnus and her father has been a popular professor and administrator at Rice for more than 50 years. But their collegiate history had no bearing on my praise of Rice. The fact is, Rice has consistently incubated interesting and influential artists in the Houston music scene, and KTRU alone should win them the title of best school for music in Houston. Tack on the Monsters of Rock and I don't know how anyone could deny their superiority. I'm pretty sure if you ask a Rice student, he or she will certainly confirm it for you.
OVERALL WINNER: UH. That Monsters of Rock story is compelling all right, and KTRU will always be a treasure. But when it comes to boots on the ground — successful working musicians — UH has a depth and scope that Rice just can't match; hell, they spread out over two categories here. And we daresay the Owls will probably get over it.