UPDATE (April 11, 2:15 p.m.): According to Lonnie Brantley, Condray will be released from ICU this afternoon.
I last saw Michael Condray five years ago at his home outside Porter. I was working on a story about his legendary Houston venue, Liberty Hall, where Bruce Springsteen found his first success in Texas and where a budding guitarist named Billy Gibbons would occasionally work out. Condray loaned us some significant photos for that article.
One of the quiet giants of Houston's music scene in the late '60s and '70s, Condray is in Hermann Memorial Hospital following an emergency brain surgery to relieve pressure Wednesday night, according to an email from his friend Lonnie Brantley.
Brantley added that Condray is suffering from both brain and lung cancer, and is in dire condition. Informal vigils are planned for this weekend.
"Michael was taken off his ventilator this afternoon," Brantley wrote, "but was not coherent, thought he was there for an appointment. Well, he is!"
Before coming to Houston, Condray operated a small coffee shop in Port Arthur, where he gave a young up-and-comer named Johnny Winter one of his earliest gigs.
Along with Thirteenth Floor Elevators poster guru George Banks, Condray opened Jubilee Hall at the corner of McGowen and Bagby circa 1969. It had formerly been La Maison, which had a storied past with all the major psychedelic bands of that period. Condray and Banks concocted an interesting mix of mostly local bands but managed to snag some important national acts, and typical of Houston, seemed not to be much bothered by genre, booking bands like United Gas (who would morph into early metal pioneers Josefus) as well as newfangled outfits like Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris or the Flying Burrito Brothers. They also made a spot for local blues cats like Lightnin' Hopkins.
Condray's and Banks' Jubilee Hall stint was rather short-lived; it was popular with hippies but highly unpopular with the HPD. Condray and Banks eventually relocated at the city's first vegetarian restaurant, The Family Hand, the first restaurant where I encountered brown rice on the menu. It was Freak Central, very much a foreshadowing of Last Concert Café and Dan Electro's.
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Eric Taylor was not only an employee at the Hand, he also hung out there. He recently recalled sitting in the restaurant and seeing Townes van Zandt pull up to the curb. Van Zandt bounded into the restaurant and, coming straight over, asked Taylor and his group if they wanted to hear his new album.
"You know, it was a big deal back then to have a record, so we were impressed," Taylor recalled when we spoke about this last year.
It was Van Zandt's legendary first album For the Sake of the Song, produced by Nashville mastermind Cowboy Jack Clement. But Taylor also noted that HPD made a habit of harassing the Hand, routinely showing up to roust people.
"It was an area of town where a lot of junkies stayed," Taylor recalled. "A blue-and-white would pull up and the junkies would scatter like roaches when you flip the light on."
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Moving on from Family Hand as Banks returned to architecture school at UH, in 1971 Condray and his associates located an empty American Legion hall at 1610 Chenevert near where Toyota Center is today. Along with Lynda Herrera and Ryan Trimble, Condray ushered in an unprecedented era that not only saw very early Springsteen, but the roll-out of ZZ Top pre-Frank Beard and Dusty Hill, the eclectic Tex-Mex stylings of Doug Sahm, folk sensation Loudon Wainwright, Cajun wild man Doug Kershaw, and many blues giants of the day including Hopkins, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton and Jimmy Reed.
When Willie Dixon rolled through town, Condray thought a newly formed blues band would be the perfect opener. The result was one of ZZ Top's first gigs.
Velvet Underground played the Hall in 1971, Springsteen in 1974, and afterward memorialized the venue in the lyric "Hey Frank, won't you pack your bags/ And meet me tonight down at Liberty Hall" in his tune "This Hard Land."
Cheech and Chong reportedly sold out the 450-capacity venue eight nights in a row, with tickets at $2 each. The Ramones played there in 1977, not long before it closed. Waylon Jennings reportedly loved playing the venue because it wasn't the usual kicker joint, and Clifton Chenier virtually had a second home there.
Condray also worked out a deal with KPFT to broadcast many Liberty Hall shows live. Many, such as Springsteen's and Jimmy Reed's, have been bootlegged; some can be found on YouTube.
Michael Condray is one of those players who was never out in the spotlight, but without whom the scene would have been far less interesting than it was. If you're the praying type, he can use them today.
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