Workshop City

Framed by the window at Diedrich Coffee, Mark Zeus looks like a regular customer, another quiet head and shoulders sitting there at eye level with the other patrons. You don't realize Zeus is cradling an acoustic guitar and performing until you enter. Only then do you realize that you've unwittingly stepped into the live local music scene. It's a scene that has no real beginning and no foreseeable end, and is as valid in a small coffeehouse as it is in an arena of 1,400. All it takes to enter this world is to stumble on a place where performer and audience members acknowledge each other. Could be in the street, at a record store, on the Internet or in a java-slinging operation like Diedrich. Or just about anyplace where there is human interaction.

From coffeehouses and record shops to bookstores and educational centers, even to in-studio performances at radio stations, the world of local music is slowly expanding to encompass nearly every nook of Houston like sunshine in the summer. Yet now that all of Houston has become a potential stage, there remains a need to name these kinds of performances, which are mostly informal, not too serious and sometimes spur-of-the-moment (and mostly free of charge). Let's call them "workshops."

Some obvious benefits of Workshop City: First, Houston looks like a real music town. Though the city doesn't have the music-biz infrastructure of, say, L.A. or Nashville, it does appear to have the enthusiasm. Second, every time a musician plugs in on open-mike night, he is getting good experience; the crowd gets the chance to experience a raw and dramatic performance; and everyone involved runs the risk of becoming, well, enlightened. (Nothing calms the savage beast like blah, blah, blah; you know the rest.) The negative: Workshops almost always end up becoming cliquish. New musicians can be easily discouraged from joining, and casual observers can be made to feel like intruders. Performer-audience acknowledgement is no longer as simple as pulling up a chair and listening to an artist. It's a formal request.

The slow deterioration of this mutual understanding -- that in exchange for his music, the performer will get at least a modicum of the audience member's empathy; and that in exchange for his attention, the audience member will bear witness to art -- is the Internet's fault. To keep up with or maybe just to mimic the Internet's 24-hour-a-day accessibility, yokels like Zeus, Dobro blues master Harlem Slim and alt-country act Clay Farmer, among others, are performing in the flesh whenever and wherever they can, to whoever might pass by. The live music around town has become so nonstop as to sound like traffic or rustling trees, just white noise (albeit melodious).

A performance like Zeus's at Diedrich is a good example. Customers pop in and out without even giving Zeus as much as an upturned nose. As the performer softly picks at his guitar with his eyes closed in rapture, one of the two clerks behind the counter bitches loudly about tips (though being paid extra for doing a job competently is not an entitlement). Zeus remains in his own world, singing and plucking his guitar earnestly -- as if 500 people were surrounding him, mesmerized, trying to read his soul in these twinkling notes. Zeus could be playing alone in his bedroom for all he cares. Diedrich patrons could be on the silent surface of the moon for all they know.

Covering Houston with live local music should be encouraged. Sound Exchange on Richmond is doing its part. The 23-year-old record store is ground zero for Workshop City (in addition to being a decent outlet to see formal, traditional shows). Two nights a month since July, the store has hosted an improvisational jam called HISD (Houston Improved Sound Deployment). Spearheaded by newcomer David Maddox, HISD is everything and nothing at once. Everyone in town, from an aspiring cellist to the most seasoned metal guitarist, is invited to sit in, and everything is encouraged. "It's a simple, painless way to check out [improvisational] music," says Kurt Brennan, Sound Exchange co-owner. "It's early, free, and with free beer, it's a great way to get exposed."

A typical workshop resembles the inner mechanisms of a jazz quartet: Sometimes everything gels; other times nothing does. But that's the beauty. "It's great," says David Dove, an executive at MECA and an improvisation artist who occasionally performs at the Sound Exchange jams. "It's the first time someone has made something like this so public. Anyone can come and get musicians together who may or may not know each other. It's a network."

Another newcomer to Houston (via Chicago, like Maddox), Zeus has infused Workshop City with his professionalism and with his dedication to helping the scene. He'll take a gig on the back of a moving pickup if it provides him with at least the possibility of being heard. His songs, straightforward folk numbers of precise and clear storytelling, ensure that he is.

Diedrich is a regular gig. Toward the end of this performance, an older woman tells the performer he sounds like Dylan, but with "better lyrics." Zeus chuckles and says to the three other patrons paying attention, "I like this lady." Never mind the source -- the compliment sticks with Zeus. It follows him all the way through the rest of his set and into the evening, after he unplugs his microphone, settles his guitar in its case and walks out into the parking lot where his van waits, the hum of passing cars providing the only applause.

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Anthony Mariani