Room to Grow

Location, location, location. This cliché probably means everything to business owners in cities where people walk to and from places. Here, Houstonians expect to drive from apartment to supermarket to gym to apartment and from rock venue to rock venue. Traveling by auto is second nature, like turning without signaling and wrapping napkins around beer bottles. Travel by foot? America's smoggiest city does fine on its wheels, thank yuh vera much.

Area clubs still manage to do okay. Some benefit from neighboring hangouts, such as Mary Jane's and the Fabulous Satellite Lounge on Washington, The Oven, the Mauz and Numbers on Westheimer, and all those swanky digs down around Bayou Place. Some exist fruitfully out in the middle of nowhere, islands in concrete seas, like the Sidecar Pub wayyyyy out on Huffmeister, Rudyard's on Waugh and Fitzgerald's, caught between the Heights and upper Montrose. Quality is the key. If a club gets decent acts, then folk will flock.

While the Engine Room's interior and potential to draw quality talent is outstanding, its locale isn't ideal. Maybe someday, but not now. This is why peeps at the Room hope yokels still have a thing for quality. The business is banking on it.

Situated next to a Tryco temp agency and across the street from fields of parking lots, the Engine Room looks a little out of place. Its sharp logo hanging over the entrance and metallic facade are in contrast to the surroundings, the washed-out beiges and grays of one-floor office buildings nearby and the sidewalks to which they're connected. With no real retail outlets around, the venue could probably benefit from a seven-story neon arrow hanging overhead, reading "ENGINE ROOM HERE."

Foot flow someday isn't all a fantasy. If ever a new basketball stadium gets built, the condos going up near adjacent Leeland are finished and those wild-'n-crazy residents of Houston House, just a few blocks from the club, start acting on their closet hankerings for live music, the Engine Room could be the next big thing. Its solid foundation hints at the possibility.

Mitch Burman is the main man. Ever since he began running Instant Karma, on Richmond near Montrose, four years ago, he always felt Houston lacked a big live venue in the heart of town, something that's not some huge arena like the Aerial and not some pickup parlor like those around Main and Travis but a good-size room for national acts and blossoming local talent. With help from silent partner Harris Kempner, Burman acquired the lease for 1515 Pease last fall. After overcoming problems conforming to city code and four to six months of intense, six-day-a-week labor, the Engine Room finally opens its doors Friday, July 28. (Yes, this is the third or fourth time the club has announced an opening, but this time Burman et al. mean it.) Locals-gone-national Chlorine will headline. Since the band is in the middle of working in a guitar player and recording a new CD, the gig seems like that much more of a favor to Burman, a longtime scene supporter and bassist in groove-rockers goneblind.

As an insider, Burman knows his shit. By virtue of its layout, the club appears to navigate that magical ground where musicians and patrons feel equally valued. The stage is roomy at 30 feet in width, and with Intelligent Lighting, powerful sound and private dressing areas, the club has big-league appeal. (If Barbra Streisand did club gigs, she wouldn't mind this place.) Walking into the 6,000-square-foot space, patrons immediately confront the stage. A bar stretches along the right-hand wall, booths are situated along the left, and a pool room sits opposite the stage, left of the entrance. The club's decor is appropriate for a venue that manager Tinna Powell says will host everything from performance art to honky-tonk to jazz to blues outfits. Icy blue and green lights dangling from the high ceiling and a silver-painted wall behind the bar give the Engine Room that industrial, edgy look.

Burman also knows how to run a club. Just look at Instant Karma. The venue doesn't have its competition's superficial accouterments (like, ummm, chairs), but it always hosts superior local bands and brings in top-notch touring acts that probably know Houston only as a street in New York (pronounced "How-stun"). It's one of the best places in town to see live music, not because of its barback TVs or hilly concrete floor but because of its content. If the Engine Room, with help from booking agents Pace/SFX, proves to be one-half the talent-bringer Karma is, then the venture is can't-fail.

"It was hard to find a room this size," Burman says, by way of explaining 1515 Pease. "And this area could turn into the next good area. We could be sitting in a boomtown."

Location hasn't hurt some hangouts slightly beyond the realm of NoDo. Club Waxx at Leeland and Crawford and Emo's on Albany have both weaseled their way into nightclubbers' and live music fans' weekend itineraries. The Engine Room could be the anchor of something special.

'Round Town

The word "pop" carries more baggage than Imelda Marcos's shoe boy. So when Dave Ensminger started his Hot Pop City event at The Oven last year, he wanted to redefine what had become pejorative. "There's no support in town for pop," he says. "And I'm not talking about Ricky Martin….Pop used to be a denigrating term. People'd say, 'Oh, you're too pop,' and that was an insult. We just wanted to embrace the term and turn it on its head." This year, Hot Pop City continues providing proof of pop's still-beating heart. On day one, Friday, July 28, Magnetic Four, the White Papers and big-timer Jen Wood perform. On Saturday, July 29, Britt Daniels, Ensminger's band London Girl, national-recording novelty act (from Houston!) Junior Varsity and Danny and the Nightmares (featuring Daniel Johnston) play. And on Sunday, July 30, New Guinea Pigs, Casino and Puerile perform. Prospective pop fans can either pay $5 per night or fork over one dirty Hamilton for all three days. The Oven is located at 403 Westheimer.

Sunday, July 30, also marks the first of a string of Christian Sabbath days that young guys playing jazz by the collective name of Rosta will begin their residency at No tsu oH. More than just a Cézannean gig, Rosta's performance features an interactive element that can only be appreciated with knife, fork, spoon and, no kidding, nondisposable utensils and plates. "I love to cook," says front man John Edward Ross. "And things I love, like music, I like to share with people." Which means that -- aside from the occasional Coltrane or Wayne Shorter cover -- there will be food, including vegetarian delectables, and drinks, all for $7 (with discounts for those who bring their own nondisposables). Festivities begin at 7:30 p.m. No tsu oH is located at 314 Main. For more information, call Ross at (713)349-8369.

In whew-it's-good-to-be-outta-Houston news, native son Jack Ingram returns for an Aerial Theater performance with the Hollisters. Both might call Houston home, but neither can really do so without cracking up. While Ingram split years ago and now resides in Big D, the Hollisters, with new drummer Tom Lewis in the saddle, are just packing their bags. Austin, Lewis's home, is the destination. It's also the spot where the band can be among its Hightone Records cohorts Aztex, Hot Club of Cowtown and Tom Russell, among others. Thanks for the memories.

Ingram is touring in support of his latest, Hey You, his Sony/Lucky Dog debut. He'll probably be back before the year's out -- at least seven or eight more times. After touching down in only about a hundred cities last year, Ingram has said he's planning to return to 200-gigs-per-year work. This show is Saturday, July 29, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $21.25. For more information, call (713)629-3700.

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Anthony Mariani