In the words of the old Motown classic, summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street. Suffocating humidity, public-safety laws and hazardous roadways, however, dictate that residents of the Bayou City confine most of their rug-cutting to indoors. But if there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Houston has dozens of musically minded establishments that are only too happy to reserve an evening out of the week, or several — even once-taboo Sundays — for the express purpose of dancing.
Besides the obvious aerobic benefits, or just the opportunity to show off that brand-new outfit, dancing remains one of the relatively few human activities that exist to bring people together for (mostly) positive reasons. So to usher in the summer of 2017, and once again give our eternal thanks for air conditioning, the Houston Press presents seven snapshots of local venues where Houstonians, so often united by little else, hit the floor to shake off their troubles.
ALL THE FEELS
Saves the Tuesday, Barbarella
With its glowing floors and smoke machines, Barbarella in Midtown (2404 San Jacinto) looks like what you’d picture if you closed your eyes and thought about what a dance club should look like. It’s the perfect environment for the ’90s dance parties and modern electro-pop dancefests it normally plays host to.
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But on the first Tuesday of the month, things are different. People dance, sing and drink the way they’d do any other night, but there are no booming 808 bass hits, synths are rarely if ever the lead and what happens on the dance floor is closer to moshing than dancing. And all of this for a genre that people are more likely to associate with crying than partying.
“Emo” might be a dirty word to some, but at Saves the Tuesday it’s cause for celebration. The songs might be about broken hearts and bad times, but you’d never know it from the smiles of recognition as music spills out of the speakers, and the high fives given after a particularly loud sing-along. It’s a different kind of nostalgia high, one where camaraderie is almost as important as the music.
“It’s a much more tight-knit community of fans,” says Alex Chavez, the man behind Saves the Tuesday. “To have a night where you can hear the stuff that seemingly missed the masses and meet new people who were into that stuff in their middle-school/high-school days makes it a special type of nostalgia.”
So if you missed the early days of social media, questionable haircuts and going to see My Chemical Romance, Brand New and Dashboard Confessional, 2017 is an exciting time. Emo has been having a resurgence, with many of the popular bands of the early-’00s scene out on the road. Emo nights aren’t a replacement for the live experience, but at least they help with the wait.
“Seeing a band like Brand New play is way better than hearing their song in a bar,” says Chavez. “But there’s a feeling close to being in a venue watching those bands when they played clubs like Fat Cat’s, Walter’s, Numbers, etc.”
Saves The Tuesday isn’t the only emo night in Houston. In the last year The Secret Group has hosted Nothing Matters, an emo/indie/punk night, and ADTR HTX has run over at The Satellite Bar, giving local emo fans many chances to relive heartbreaks past.
Screaming and moshing with strangers to guitar-centric music are not elements of your average dance night, but with a city as diverse as Houston, there’s room for everything under the moon. Whether emo nights are built to last or just a passing fad remains to be seen, but for now fans are rolling with the happy nights of sad music.
“Warped Tour still goes on today,” Chavez reminds us. “In my mind, every month that’s crowded is a miracle. I’m not sure how long it’ll be a big night, but for now I’m happy with where we’re at.” — Cory Garcia
Classic Numbers, Numbers
Ranking as one of Houston’s longest-running no-frills dance nights, the steadfast Classic Numbers is still the city’s premier opportunity to dance to the best of the ’80s. On Friday nights there’s a line running out the door parallel to Westheimer by 11 p.m., and the weekly event serves as a come-as-you-are scene for everyone from hipsters to clubgoers to old-school goths in fetish wear.
The origins lie — of course — in darkness in the year 1991, when DJ Wes Wallace had been spinning tunes on Fridays and Saturdays. He approached the late Robert “Robot” Burtenshaw, one of the founders of Numbers (who passed away in 2013), with a plan. “Back then we were playing new music on both Fridays and Saturdays,” Wallace recalls. “I approached Robot about designating Fridays [as] just ‘Classic Numbers’ tunes and leaving Saturdays as new music. He agreed, and we started almost immediately.”
While the night does feature music videos and typical ’80s hits like Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough,” Classic Numbers embraces the darkness and pipes in industrial hits like Nitzer Ebb’s “Join In the Chant” and Sisters of Mercy’s “Marian.”
“Originally I would only play more of the underground Numbers late-’80s industrial-type stuff,” notes Wallace. “I also mix in new music a bit, though it is still predominantly ’80s.”
Housed in one of the oldest venues still thriving in the ever-gentrifying Montrose district, Numbers (300 Westheimer) now stands as a big middle finger to luxury developments popping up in the area. Established in 1978, the club is a special place that even today remains true to the alternative subculture, with concerts, Cure tribute bands and Kinky Collective fetish nights. Upgrades over the years have helped keep the venue populated with clubgoers wearing their blackest-ever black.
Truly a mainstay in Houston, Classic Numbers offers a space to kick back and take a trip down memory lane, or, for the younger generations, to step into a pre-Internet time capsule to visit an era when the nights were but a way to let your inner freak out to dance. — Veronica Salinas
CHASIN’ THAT NEON RAINBOW
Saturday Boot-Scootin’ Dance Party, Neon Boots
Country music is generally associated with rural areas, and rural areas, historically speaking, have not been all that welcoming to the gay community. But this is Houston, and we do things a bit different ’round these parts.
On Hempstead Road between West 34th and Antoine sits Neon Boots (11410 Hempstead), Houston’s premier gay country-western bar. If that location sounds familiar, it’s because Neon Boots now occupies the former Esquire Ballroom, a historic honky-tonk that closed in 1995. The likes of Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and even Elvis Presley once performed there. Willie wrote a song about the place, and Elvis fired his manager from a phone booth that now sits on display by the front door.
Between 1995 and 2013, the venue went through some growing pains as it searched for a new identity: a disco ballroom, a Tejano bar, a boxing gym and, at one point, even an outer-space-themed discoteca. But four summers ago, Neon Boots rediscovered its niche and began welcoming people from all walks of life into the dimly lit dance hall. On Saturdays especially, the bar honors its heritage with the Boot-Scootin’ Dance Party, a celebration of cowboy hats, chaps and tight-fittin’ jeans populated by what might be the most diverse group of two-steppers in the Bayou City.
Walking inside, customers immediately notice the bright neon beer signs that give Neon Boots an authentic, divey feel. The wood railing encompassing a spacious dance floor, in dead center of the venue, makes clear that this is a country-western bar. Remarking on Neon Boots’ super-inclusive nature, John Donato, president of VAST Marketing Group and the club’s publicist, says, “Does this look like a gay bar to you?”
A staple of Neon Boots since its inception, the Boot-Scootin’ Dance Party invites patrons to two-step, line-dance and waltz as the DJ spins iconic country tunes like Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” and Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.” Drag queens, trans men and women, and gay and straight couples alike two-step to iconic country songs. Late in the evening, the DJ even plays a few classic Top 40 hits. One recent Saturday, Usher’s “Yeah” blared from the speakers inside as Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind” gently serenaded the smokers on the patios.
The Frozen Jack & Cokes — a Saturday-night special — were cheap, strong and filled with enough sugar to keep you dancing extra close. Nearly everyone in attendance that night danced at least once; many of those who didn’t found refuge in the Esquire Room, named for its storied predecessor. Historic pictures lined the walls as visitors sang Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar” and Big and Rich’s “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.” The host even assisted one young man with the “Elephant Love Medley” from Moulin Rouge. The crowd roared.
Neon Boots also offers free dance lessons, giving newcomers a chance to familiarize themselves with two-stepping and line-dancing before taking a spin between the wooden rails. Couples lessons are offered every Thursday, and instructors run down various line-dancing steps as a warmup to Saturday nights. The lessons are all free of charge.
Willie Nelson, by the way, hasn’t returned to these hallowed grounds since Neon Boots opened. But ask anyone there and they’ll all tell you the same thing: He always has an open invitation. — Matthew Keever
The Score, Dean’s Downtown
It’s nearing midnight and the 1975 classic Sheba, Baby is on the big screen. You’re sipping whiskey and Coke, body is partway melted into the comfort of the sofa, and you’re admiring Pam Grier’s timeless beauty with the TV volume down. That’s when the bass notes of Bernard Wright’s “Just Chillin’ Out” strum up, and you edge your way off the couch, your legs suddenly moving and your hips swiveling to the funky, funky beat.
“Funk just has a way of tapping into whatever it is that makes people wanna move,” says DJ IV, one of three resident DJs introducing new audiences to forever classics. “That’s why you continue to bring it back.”
This is The Score, the Thursday-night dance party at Dean’s Downtown (316 Main) that brings the funk back in a major way.
“It’s like this is your living room. Come on in and let’s listen to some records,” says Flash Gordon Parks, who along with IV and cohort DJ Good Grief has been inviting people to their downtown den since November 2016.
In a short amount of time, the night has built a solid following. Young, hip crowds wander in from nearby Notsuoh or Nightingale Room. Mumbling “Y’all don’t know nothing ’bout this,” older patrons mix in too, summoned by the strains of James Brown, Rick James, even Pharrell. The music at The Score isn’t confined to any specific era; all it must be is funky.
The night works, according to DJ IV, because the funk is universal; the genre has had a global following for decades. But Melesa Martin, The Score’s marketing manager, says it’s more than that. Fans can tell these DJs are well-versed; each one brings different strengths. Good Grief is the record-picker, with crates of albums and 45s he’s collected since his teens. Flash is the music historian. IV is the self-described “Padawan,” learning from his fellow Jedi masters even though he is a producer himself; his own father was once a video producer for Rap-A-Lot Records, and he spent time around DJ Screw as a child.
“Everybody seems to know everyone once they get here. You’re hanging out and you feel like you already know these people even if you don’t,” says Martin, likening the environment to that of Cheers.
Sorry, but Sam and Diane never got down like this. While starting around 9 p.m., the night heats up closer to midnight. That’s when, according to Good Grief, the room is filled with “B-boys, pretty ladies, funkateers.” They dubbed the night The Score because, Parks says, “imagine yourself in a movie. You gotta have theme music, right? We represent the soundtrack for the night.”
It’s a night that can be as sexy as Pam Grier or as fun as a Soul Train line, and has become the unofficial weekend-starter for many downtown music fans.
“I think what makes this special is all the cross-pollination, everybody coming together under one umbrella,” says Parks. “We rarely get DJs that have such different backgrounds say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna unite like Voltron.’” — Jesse Sendejas Jr.
DON’T TURN UP…
In Houston, diversity reigns. From the international food we eat to the art we praise, a discerning Houstonian’s palate could never be satisfied with anything generic or mainstream. The appetite for an unpretentious dance night devoid of bottle service or a dress code gave rise to Blackout, founded in late 2012 and established at Boondocks on Westheimer by its one-year anniversary. The third Friday of each month has been the city’s Tropical Booty Bass mecca ever since.
Diverse as the night itself, Blackout’s founders include Ape Drums, a Mexican-American producer who specializes in dancehall riddims; Hyro, a California boy of Nicaraguan descent, heavily influenced by genre-benders such as DJ AM; and a gringo named Leckie, one of Houston’s premier projectionists. A later addition to the crew is Act Badd, self-proclaimed “Pupusa Papi,” a proud Salvadoran kid from Mo City who has transitioned from rocking house parties to collaborating with Bombón Houston and Austin’s Peligrosa.
“It’s not a damn concert, that’s for sure,” Hyro replies when asked what a typical Blackout looks and sounds like. “We are trying to make you sweat! It doesn’t matter who you are; when you hear those beats and that bass, it will make you dance.” The key to a good night is the sound, he stresses, especially the low end. That means a typical Blackout’s rotation of genres might include dembow, reggaeton, hip-hop, dancehall and cumbia.
Hyro again: “It’s a vibe, and people will feel our music!”
Blackout’s DJs pride themselves on introducing new music and playing remixes and blends that may never be heard at any other DJ night in Houston. That’s not saying that other DJs are ignorant of the moombahton, grime, trap and modern dancehall/EDM regularly heard here, just that the freedom to experiment with sounds without pushback from a promoter or venue owner is certainly a luxury.
Blackout’s audience is as diverse as its playlists. At the beginning of the night, the late happy-hour crowd mixes with early “girls night out” ladies and bros who love the cheap Lone Star beer. But round about midnight, the real Blackout crowd arrives — most nights the dance floor is so packed it literally bounces. Members of the younger generation love the DJ mashups and remixes, and their enthusiasm, whether in dancing or in singing along, is infectious.
“The cool thing is that you can be yourself at Blackout,” says Act Badd. “This isn’t a club in Midtown with long lines, VIP and poppin’ bottles. There are no status seekers, and nobody judges you here. We all just want to dance and have fun.”
As Blackout nears its five-year anniversary, its future seems bright yet uncertain. Ape Drums has moved to Miami to be closer to the music scene that’s driving his career. Yet Blackout continues to draw guest-DJ sets by big names such as Dave Nada, Happy Colors, Sliink and Brenmar. Hyro actually hopes to expand the Blackout brand to other cities in Texas and maybe across the country, excited to find new frontiers for the night’s loose, let-yourself-go attitude: “We don’t turn up; we Blackout!” — Marco Torres
IT’S ALL LOVE
All Vinyl Everything, Alley Kat Lounge
“Hey, y’all going to Alley Kat?”
It’s a familiar question if you know anything about Wax Thursdays. Houston-based DJ and party group The Waxaholics have owned the space inside 3718 Main for the better part of five years and have turned that simple question into a mandate. The Midtown bar hovers between sprawling downtown real estate and chic high-rises, and All Vinyl Everything is its signature event.
Walk through either of Alley Kat’s two entrances, the front stoop a few doors away from Tacos-A-Go-Go or near the back wall of The Breakfast Klub, and you’ll hear the thumping bass of retro hip-hop and R&B records. You’ll see a mass of bodies, like a nebula in outer space, laughing, dancing and hugging the bar asking for more libations. But unlike with any other specific club night in the city, there’s a community built within All Vinyl Everything.
Some have been coming for years to see DJ Big Reeks or DJ Demo or DJ Losty Los spin, to see them interact with friends and anyone else who bears the crew’s large “W.” Others come strictly through word of mouth, overhearing a friend mention how awesome a previous Thursday was, or how the atmosphere is as relaxed as possible. When he began All Vinyl Everything, Reeks’s mission was to get away “from laptops, from [DJ software] Serato,” he says, and back to the essence of spinning records pulled from crates.
That music, a clever culling of hip-hop, reggae and R&B, can easily keep the body occupied for four hours, if not longer. Given Alley Kat’s intimacy and loungy feel, All Vinyl Everything even encourages the nearly lost art of slow dancing in a public space. Watch Reeks throw on music from Nigerian or Caribbean artists, and the lights dim to a blueish hue as bodies connect. “It’s all love,” many can be heard saying as strangers become newfound friends, possibly even lovers.
Traditionally, genre- or artist-specific parties are a niche way of distinguishing from a typical club night and its watered-down drinks, strobe lights and little-to-no actual dancing. All Vinyl Everything eliminates the posturing quickly. At Alley Kat, you can zoom between both bars and navigate many a conversation. Workday woes can be handled over a game of dominoes and Jenga.
The alleyway, the main artery connecting the buildings, can be home to moments of reconciliation, swoon-worthy emotions or just laughter and general camaraderie. At All Vinyl Everything, it’s all facilitated by the music and the simple idea of having fun without any of the put-ons that have weaned plenty of attendees off other clubs, or dance halls altogether. Back in February, The Waxaholics celebrated their fifth year with a raucous Super Bowl weekend, Devin the Dude one night and a block party featuring N.O. Joe and the Chopstars the next. With a formula this stellar, why should this groove stop now? — Brandon Caldwell
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SUDS AND THUDS
Electric Foam, Stereo Live
Every few months, protective plastic drapes the interior of Stereo Live (6400 Richmond) as massive foam cannons flank the stage, signaling another installment of Electric Foam. The crowds have steadily grown since these parties began in early 2014; nowadays, the main floor often fills before midnight. The crowd’s energy shoots through the roof when fans start descending on the cannons. The lucky ones pulled up onstage are allowed to spray their fellow dancers with the so-called “twin sisters.” They are the envy of the crowd as the froth flows down on the ensuing madness like a heavy snowfall.
The night normally starts off with talented local DJs like Parker Clark, Vance Lawrence or Albert Fix priming the crowd, taking full advantage of the venue’s superb sound system, lasers and slick production effects. Hometown promoter DJ Surain was the sole headliner early on, but now, in what started as a guest spot, DJ Liquid Todd has established himself as a regular; today the two consistently go back to back. Surain and Todd play well off each other, spinning a wide variety of electronic music that spans many genres, including trap, big house, techno and bass-heavy remixes of classic hits. When not behind the deck, Todd is a madman full of energy, often hopping down into the soaked crowd and hyping the party even more. Surain normally remains nonchalant, scanning the crowd and bobbing his head in approval.
Nightculture, Stereo Live’s owners, delivers a wet and wild time that should easily get your squad in the groove, no matter the type of dancer. The rail-riders usually pack in to await getting blasted in the dome with foam during the drop, while more serious dancers move to the back, where there’s extra room to maneuver. The shufflers are often seen on the side flowing to the beat, with less friction to deal while working up a lather. Most dance in packs in the middle of the crowd, while another group congregates outside to stay dry and dance to a different DJ, stationed on the terrace.
The Electric Foam experience is meant to create an unforgettable, crazy night. It usually coincides with an event or a holiday, such as “Foamsgiving” last Thanksgiving weekend, beckoning those friends who reunite when they arrive back in town. The affair has caught on — these days you’ll witness clubgoers in commemorative Electric Foam T-shirts alongside bikini tops and board shorts. Keep in mind that these foam-ers do stay clean but get incredibly soaked. A towel and a quick change of clothes (for the ride home or late-night eats) are mandatory. — Jack Gorman