The 10 Best Spots to Build Houston's Live-Music Strip

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There’s no shortage of live music in Houston — diverse and quality acts can be found plying their trade on stages large and small all over the city. And that’s a problem: The tunes are too spread out, too scattered, without a central hub to dig in and build around. It’s why a lot of us whine and complain about our local entertainment options without ever realizing that some incredible stuff is happening right around the corner.

Since the late ’70s, at least, but probably longer, Houstonians have longed for a full-fledged entertainment district to call our own. An answer to Sixth Street; Beale Street; the Sunset Strip. Hell, we’d probably take a Deep Ellum and accept it graciously at this point. There have been flashes over the years, brief moments in time, where dope live music, flush young people and incalculable liters of alcohol threatened to coalesce into something bigger, something permanent. Eventually, though, it always seems to crumble.

It doesn’t have to be that way in the future, though. With a little planning, a lot of money and an almost reckless will to kick out the jams, Houston should be more than capable of bringing its lively live-music scene together in one location, forming some kind of heavy-metal, screwed-and-chopped Voltron of blinking marquees and neon. By way of inspiration to our fellow dreamers, we’ve compiled a list of the ten likeliest locales for such an experiment.

Frankly speaking, practicality was not our greatest concern here. If building a strip of bars and venues in these places were easy, cheap and welcomed, it would have been done years ago. Each spot presents its own challenges and its own advantages. So set aside, if you will, any fears or prejudices regarding market trends, real-estate prices or industry feuds and imagine a Houston in which the whole city boogies on the same block.

This idea is more purely fantasy than most on this list, simply because Metro’s light-rail University Line is nowhere close to being built. Conceived quite a few years ago as an 11-mile stretch of track connecting UH, Rice, TSU and St. Thomas (not to mention Uptown, Greenway and Gulfton), the University Line was approved in a 2003 voter referendum as part of a five-line expansion of the light-rail system. Not everyone loved where Metro planned to build the University Line, though, and opponents found a powerful ally in U.S. Representative John Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, who quashed any chance of federal funding for the line by tacking an amendment onto the transportation leg of the federal government’s $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill in 2014.

Still, all hope for a rail line connecting Houston’s university campuses is not lost. Metro and Culberson came to an agreement last May allowing Metro to seek crucial federal funding for a University Line under the condition that another voter referendum could be held and passed. And so, our beautiful dream of tracks dotted with all-ages music clubs connecting 150,000 or so college kids lingers on. In the meantime, keep looking both ways when you cross Main Street.

The Heights has seen an explosive influx of residents and businesses in the past several years, including plenty of popular restaurants and watering holes. The neighborhood’s northern portion is already a nightlife destination. And if you’re dreamcasting a suitable strip there for a live-music hub, you could do a lot worse than 19th Street. The Heights Theater will soon be one of the coolest spots in town to catch a show. Big Star Bar, which has long been friendly to local bands, is already there, and it doesn’t take much imagination to picture live music going down at the Austin-inspired Cedar Creek, either. Bars of varying levels of fanciness, including the Corkscrew, Palace Party Beverage Co. and Down House, are all within walking distance. Throw in two or three more small venues in the area, and you’ve got the makings of the livest street in town — right in the middle of one of Houston’s fastest-growing ZIP codes.

Okay, so we’re thinking way outside the box with this one. Or maybe inside the box — big-box stores, anyway. Greenspoint Mall was once the top indoor shopping destination on the north side of town, but that was quite a while ago. Today, “Gunspoint” ain’t exactly a big draw, with former anchors Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, Sears and Lord & Taylor all having pulled up stakes. Last month, the mall went on the market for redevelopment. You want redevelopment? How about turning those sad, old stores into live-music venues? Mervyn’s ain’t never coming back, y’all. But how cool would it be to have Charli XCX playing one end of the mall, M83 playing the other and Z-Ro rapping where Sears used to be? All of the stages would be connected by rows of air-conditioned restaurants, shops and bars, featuring the best people-watching in the city. After all, this is Houston — we like to party indoors.

It’s getting harder and harder to talk about the future of live music in Houston without discussing Second Ward. Navigation has long drawn people from all over town to enjoy the Original Ninfa’s, but there’s a terrific rock club on the street, too — the White Swan. Another, Satellite Bar, is nearby on Harrisburg. Moon Tower Inn, over on Canal Street, has hosted live music too, even if it’s a bit farther away. But there’s potential here for so much more. Navigation is already studded with dive bars, restaurants and watering holes. If a few clubs and music venues went in, too, the nicely updated esplanade would make it easy to hoof it from one place to the next. It feels inevitable that increased development is coming to this street. Why shouldn’t we put a beat to it?

Books and songs have been written over the years about the excitement and trouble found on Telephone Road, which was once perhaps the rowdiest street in Houston. In the ’50s and early ’60s, the Jimmy Menutis Club played host to big-name acts like Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry — some of whom recorded at the nearby Gold Star/SugarHill studio. Today, Bohemeo’s keeps live music alive on Telephone, and a number of cantinas are getting by, too. But a string of live-music joints could really go a long way toward revitalizing the seedier stretches of the thoroughfare, which have become better-known for human trafficking than honky-tonk piano.

Back in the mid-20th century, when Third Ward was something like the Harlem of the South, Dowling Street was where the action was. Shops, businesses and homes abounded, but the jewel was undoubtedly the Eldorado Ballroom, the Chitlin Circuit palace that gave a stage to James Brown, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Etta James and all of the day's other top black performers. The Eldorado still stands, unlike many of its neighbors, which declined and disappeared post-segregation. The neighborhood along Dowling has long resisted re-development and gentrification. But nice new things are cropping up now anyway. Near BBVA Compass stadium, huge new apartment complexes have just opened a couple of blocks behind Warehouse Live. More bars and artsy venues are sure to follow. And Emancipation Park, just across Elgin from the Eldorado, is undergoing a massive and impressive redevelopment. Between these two ends of the street are a long line of struggling businesses, townhomes, trash-strewn lots and little gems like Sparkle Burger. It all seems ripe for development. Why not make it into something cool again?

Houston’s boosters rightly crow about the city’s Theater District, boasting that there are more seats concentrated there than in any other U.S. city besides New York. That’s terrific and all, but once the show’s over, everybody goes home. Street life is nil. If we really want a theater district worth bragging about, that needs to change. Revention Music Center, the Symphony and the Opera are all hot tickets, but the area needs some smaller stages to make the 17-block district a fun place to be when the grand theaters are empty. Real estate there ain’t cheap, but with some smart public investment, the streets surrounding the Theater District could become a very attractive place to plunk down a bar, a cafe or a live music venue or seven. Houston First, the weird, quasi-public agency that runs Houston’s convention spaces, commissioned a new master plan for the area last year. Let’s hope whoever’s in charge of it is a music fan.

That all-night street celebration of the Rockets’ ’94 title win might be a distant memory now, but the Richmond Strip lingers on. Its cheap, dumpy apartment complexes don’t house nearly as many young singles as they used to, and its time as Houston’s clubland Mecca is long past, but the factors that made it a special place originally are still in place today. It’s easy to get to from both inside the Loop and out, there’s a good mix of residential, commercial and hospitality properties in the area, and there’s nary a noise complaint to be found there. Hell, it’s even still got the name recognition. All it would take to make Richmond the place to be for live music is a lot of money and a little imagination. The Concert Pub is already holding it down for cover bands. Who wouldn’t like to see those strip clubs become hip-hop clubs, or a nice, big stage added to that biker joint? It’s all probably more likely than the Rockets winning another trophy, at least.

All right, hear us out here. The ’90s were a long time ago, and it’s been quite a few years since clubs like the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, Rockefeller’s and the Abyss made Washington Avenue Houston’s top live-music destination. More recently, it’s been better-known (or reviled, maybe) as the home of douchey dance clubs and bars catering to singles from outside the Loop. But those places are in decline now, too. And the time may be right to reclaim Washington for the live-music lovers. There are still plenty of venues on this strip — many of which used to host live performances regularly. Now, though, they’re surrounded by a ton of apartments housing party people. Making Washington again synonymous with live music instead of Ed Hardy wouldn’t require much, as long as a détente can be reached with the noise-complaint warriors who forced out the cool joints the first time.

Main Street has had plenty of ups and downs throughout Houston’s history, but it’s pretty hard to argue that it isn’t back on top at the moment. Along with neighboring Market Square, Main Street in Downtown has once again become a nightlife hub in the past few years, boasting some of the city’s hottest bars and clubs. And that’s awesome. But there’s room for still more growth. Venues like the Nightingale Room, Notsuoh and (sometimes) Dean’s Downtown are helping to keep live music alive among the skyscrapers, and in Midtown, the Continental Club, Big Top Charlie’s and the new MATCH complex offer excellent stages as well. All that really needs to be done is to do a better job of filling in between these outposts. Because did we mention they’re all connected by a train? They’re all connected by a train. There’s conceivably no better place in town for venue-hopping, and we’d like to see it happen yesterday. 

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