According to Whitney Andrew, the legendary tycoon Howard Hughes and Houston grocery pioneer Henry Henke are buried a few plots apart in Glenwood Cemetery. And now they are neighbors again, in a manner, in a historic downtown property where Andrew and some fellow Houston music veterans have opened a new performance space. The venue’s been dubbed Spruce Goose: Social Flyers Club, a nod to Hughes’ famed aircraft, and it’s located on the top floor of the Henke & Pillot building which once housed a Henke grocery store.
That might sound like a Houston history lesson, but Andrew and her cohorts are more interested in the future. Judging from a couple of visits to the upstart venue at 811 Congress, it’s a promising one. With Walter’s closing recently and Nightingale Room scaling back on live music, Spruce Goose will fill a void and bring a steady live music presence to Market Square.
“Shae Janik, who also manages the night club beneath our venue, felt Houston would benefit from a room with the capacity and production capability that Spruce Goose has. After meeting with a series of promoters and other community members she was convinced that this space was adequate to operate as a live music venue,” said Andrew, who joined on as the venue’s production manager. “She and I were introduced and through a series of interviews and drinks we decided our vision for the space was mutual and we carried forward, bringing in people to work with us whom we felt were not only like-minded, but trustworthy and eager to make the place their own.”
That team includes Janik as general manager, Andrew as production manager overseeing booking and sound engineer/stage manager Matt Willhelm. All three have solid ties to Houston’s music and arts scenes from places such as The Doctor’s Office, Satellite Bar, Heights Theater and Sugar Hill Recording Studios.
What they’re overseeing is pretty exciting and has a vibe all its own. We visited on the first night of operations, back at the beginning of March, for a mixed-genre show featuring rapper Jon Black, indie pop faves Camera Cult and a touring band, New Fame, from Vietnam. The room’s acoustics were solid. There was a nice and well-stocked bar. We spotted our friends Brandon and Julian from Dead Dialect in the building. Having those scenesters on hand for opening night was a good sign.
Wood, brick and over-sized windows overlooking Market Square Park give Spruce Goose the air of a very hip loft hosting very hip house parties. The staircase into the venue alone is something to behold, wide and tall and leading up to a single, massive room. When we returned in April for a show featuring Floridians The Antidon’ts, the stage had expanded in size from opening night. Projection and light and fog machines were added. Andrew said even more changes are on the way, most notably the addition of green room space.
It’s hard to gauge whether any new Houston venue will have staying power, but the odds are in favor of Spruce Goose. The old adage for any business is “location, location” and Andrew says the venue’s is a definite plus.
“I am very happy to have our venue on the market square block! We are close to the rail and bus routes, many other great bars, several restaurants that are open late, and yes, a beautiful little park. Since we are close to but not on Main Street, our area is a little more relaxed than what a lot of people are used to dealing with when playing or attending a show downtown. Additionally, our patrons are big fans of our neighbors like La Carafe and Warren’s and can often be found drinking in them before and after shows. We haven’t been open very long at this point, but I do hope that over time we will come to be seen as an asset to this area.”
Another good sign is the flexibility they offer in booking shows. Artists have inquired about video shoots in the space and one of the best attended shows so far was last month’s Honey and Salt album release, with WHIT, Ruiners and Blast Dad. They’re open to all genres of music and “are very open to hosting events for the arts community, as well” Andrew noted. “We also just got word that a beloved underground performance art coalition is wanting to book one of their monthly events in our space, and, I personally, couldn’t be more stoked for it.”
But the biggest advantage Spruce Goose has is its operations team. The people in charge are artists themselves. They’ve seen what’s gone right and wrong elsewhere and are working from that base. So far, so good, Andrew said.
“Honestly, our reception from the community, especially those who have played with us, has been very positive! Promoters who book with us have praised us for our communication and policies, while bands who play here seem to really appreciate the size, style and sound of the room. We have hit a few snags along the way, but we try to learn from every experience. Ultimately, our goal is to do right, be kind and support the community we all grew up loving.
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“It’s a venue that gives 100 percent of the door earnings to the booking party to be distributed to performers without sacrificing a cut to the venue,” she continued. “This allows not only for bands to be paid adequately, but also for promoters and bookers who set their own door price to keep prices low – which obviously directly benefits the guest.”
Spruce Goose's downstairs neighbor is a chic night club, Henke and Pillot. We note it’s interesting to see the mix between its vogue clientele and the punks and hipsters who might frequent Spruce Goose. Andrew said the two co-exist as peacefully as Hughes and Henke do down the road at Glendale.
“We haven’t had any issues keeping these worlds at peace as the two spaces, while sharing a building, have completely separate and private entrances. We do share a patio, but from my observations the guests from downstairs tend to like to stay in the club where the action is. There are large glass windows in the downstairs entrance that allow our guests to peak into their night club lifestyle on the way into Spruce Goose. I’m particularly fond of this because it’s almost like watching fish in an aquarium or something - on that note, please refrain from tapping on the glass,” she joked.
Approaching shows at Spruce Goose include tonight’s show with Red Iris, Cactus Flowers, Magenta Jones and Nite.Nite. Also slated for this month is Friendship Commanders, Wheel Workers, Expensive Genes and Dead Roses (May 8); Small Chair’s EP release show (May 12); Moth Wings and Astragal (May 19); and, Shipla Ray, Adam Bricks and Swimwear Department (May 30.) For a complete list of shows, check the venue’s Instagram or Facebook pages.