If it seems that Racket, whether penned by Chris Gray or me, has all too often been a depressing read, that's because lately there has been a mess of bad news to report. Last week's closure of the Proletariat was just the wilted cherry on top of a rancid sundae of a year, comprised in too large a part by smoking bans, venue closures, noise-complaining neo-Montrosians and death.
Thankfully, this week there is some good news. The Secret Saturday shows at the Shady Tavern might just be the shot in the arm needed to make 2008 a great year for local live music.
The brainchild of local rocker J.D. Tucker and his wife Stacy, Secret Saturdays are afternoon shows comprised of genre-mixed bills of top-secret bands and DJs. (Not only do attendees not know who is on each week's bill — neither do the bands.)
The shows get rolling around two p.m. at Shady Tavern, which is both one of Houston's most pleasant and most criminally underused venues. A ramshackle tavern that teeters on the brink of full-on icehouse, the 68-year-old sylvan retreat is set on an enclosed lot amid towering oaks and pines on blue-collar West 20th Street, between Shepherd and White Oak Bayou, just inside the northwest corner of Loop 610.
"This is the only place I know of that does not register on my GPS," says Tucker. "Everybody who comes here for the first time is like, 'This place is awesome.' Everyone loves it. It's like you're not in Houston while you're here."
The bearded, red-haired twentysomething discovered Shady Tavern through his wife, a vivacious brunette who took a job as a bartender there. J.D. already had the idea for Secret Saturdays, but up until then had not come across the perfect venue. "I was gonna have them at Walter's or something, but I came here and saw they had a stage outside and an enclosed one indoors, and I was like, 'Man, this is awesome.'"
Neither of the Tuckers had been to Shady Tavern before Stacy started working there. "We came up here and met the owner, and he gave Stacy the Saturday shift and let me start putting on shows," says J.D. "It's pretty perfect."
J.D., who by day manages Amy's Ice Cream, also drums and plays guitar in local indie/experimental bands Over Sea, Under Stone and The Day After Yesterday. He says his aim for the Secret Saturdays is to broaden the base of fans for each of the bands that play there.
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"I wanted it to be a free event for anybody that likes music," he says. In his experience, people often only come to see bands that their friends or family are in. To trick them into seeing a couple of other bands, Tucker keeps each band's start time on the D.L. "I only tell them they are playing between two and five," he says. "No one knows who they are playing with or what time they are playing until they show up."
J.D. keeps the fare on each bill well mixed. "It's always pretty diversified genres — we've had weeks where we've had reggae, hip-hop and a couple of folk acts," he says. "Everything goes. Today there's a couple of hip-hop acts, a noise band and a band from Detroit that wrote me in need of a show."
On the afternoon I attended, the noise band — which featured Trey from the Jonx and proved to be less a true noise band than sludgy, pummeling rock — went first. Here's the deal about Secret Saturdays. Even if that's not your thing, another band, one you might like better, is coming right up after them. And even if you don't like that next band, or any of the bands on a given day, there are worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon than sitting in the shade outdoors, sipping Lone Star with your friends or family. You're not out a penny from the door, and since most of Shady Tavern is al fresco, you can smoke all the cigs you want everywhere except in the immediate bar area. You can also bring your kids and/or dogs, and though the Shady is a beer joint, set-ups are provided for you whiskey tipplers.
"It's a free show in the middle of the day on a Saturday," says J.D. "There's nothing else going on. You may like it or you may not, but you will probably like the next band, because it's always different bands."
It reminds me a lot of a sort of bizarro version of the West Alabama Ice House. At these shows, instead of the blues and country you'd hear on Alabama, you get hip-hop and indie/experimental rock. The veggie dogs and burgers for sale at Shady Tavern have their obvious meat-laden counterparts on Alabama. And there's a similarly interesting mix of humanity at both locales — hipsters and old-school, blue-collar Shady Tavern regulars attended in more or less equal numbers last week. And truth be told, the Shady and the Alabama Ice House share similar parking woes. I left just before I got blocked in from behind in the double-stacked parking lot. But hell, is parking ever easy at anything worth going to?
One difference between the two venues — don't expect any evening shows at the Shady, at least for now. "The owner is not big into nighttime shows," says J.D. "If he was, there would probably be one here every night. He's only down for the Saturday, midday shows. That was a slow business time for them before, and now we are doing, I dunno, like ten times their previous bar sales."
But hell, most shows in Houston run on too late anyway. It has always been a puzzler to me why here, in a town as workaday and blue-collar as Houston, most club owners seem to think none of us need to get out of bed until eleven in the morning. Why else would they host weeknight shows that start around 10:30 or eleven and last until two?
Tucker agrees. "I'm almost 30 and I'm a musician, but most of the shows I go to are the ones I play," he says. "I can't get out every night — I work a nine-to-five and so does Stacy. I kinda wanted a place to go where I could see bands that I hadn't seen before. Most of the bands that play here I haven't seen before — I maybe checked 'em out on MySpace."
J.D. says he has already turned one corner. He doesn't have to reach out to bands to fill his bills anymore. Now, they come to him. "Now, most of the bands I get have written me wanting to play, which has been pretty awesome," he says.
Secret Saturdays were launched last month, and J.D. says they are already pretty much running themselves. "I'm just scheduling it, supplying the P.A., and make sure everything runs good," he says. "We accept food for donation, and we offer vegetarian burgers and hot dogs. I'm usually a little out of pocket every week, but Stacy makes tips so it kinda works itself out."
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The Shady Tavern is a dusty jewel. The bar needs a new coat of paint, some of the picnic tables outside have seen better days and much of the yard is ankle-deep in fallen leaves. But all it needs is a bare minimum of nurturing to be one of the city's landmark hot spots.
The same could be said for the city's music scene. The best way to help both of them thrive is to go to one of these shows. What else have you got to do on a Saturday afternoon?