Friday, December 16, 2005

Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine, III

The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)

Houston, Texas. April, 2000.

It’s somewhere just after 9:00 p.m., the weather is warm and humid, and he’s almost, but not quite, lost. He’s on the bike, riding slowly up and down dark streets in Houston’s warehouse district, looking for a small club. Even though he has the bar’s address and called ahead for directions, he’s still disoriented. Building numbers seem non-existent in this neighborhood, and there’s no one on the street he can ask for directions. He looks down the block ahead and sees three people get out of a car and go into a doorway. Aha! This may be it!

Sure enough. There’s a very small sign over the door, and a window that looks in to what is clearly a small bar. He parks the bike, pulls off his helmet, straightens up a bit, goes inside and orders a beer.

The first part of the mission is a success. He’s found it, and he was warned it wouldn’t be easy! The Mission? Find this bar in the warehouse district. Listen to a band fronted by a woman guitarist, described to him as "a young Bonnie Raitt." He was talking to a guy at an outdoor Warren Zevon concert last week and asked the guy where he went and who he liked, once they decided they had similar tastes. The guy suggested this place, this band. The Bonnie Raitt comparison was a bit off base. Our band’s leader ain’t the guitar player Bonnie is, but the woman DOES have a great band with a very eclectic repertoire. She plays lead on a Stratocaster, does a little bottle-neck work, and has a damned fine blues voice. The band also has two other guitarists that trade off playing rhythm and lead with each other, plus a bass player, a conga player, and a drummer. The drummer is in his 50s, the rest of the crew are between 20 and 30-somethings.

The band does three sets, beginning at 10:30 p.m. and ending around 3:00 a.m.. This bar is a small club, holding about 60 people comfortably. There are about 80 people in the audience for the first set (SRO, obviously) and the audience dwindles slowly throughout the evening, until only about 25 folks are left by the end of the last set. It really isn’t that small of an audience, considering it’s a weeknight. The first set is OK, but our man isn’t that impressed. The band plays a lot of original stuff, which is good in one respect (new music!), but bad if you want to sing along and boogie.

The first break comes around 11:45. Since it’s late and the first set was just OK, he thinks about going home, but doesn’t. Something about this place feels right, so he stays.

The club is laid out much differently than most bars he’s been in. The bandstand is quite small, as is the dance floor; “cozy” is the word that comes to mind, crowded is another. Behind the bandstand is a garage door (really!) that opens up into a patio area that is at least three times as large as the club itself. The patio is spacious, a courtyard, actually, with large arching trees and large terra cotta planters with lush flower arrangements in them. There are two picnic tables and perhaps six round wrought iron tables with wrought iron chairs at each table. Much different than the interior of the bar and not at all what you’d expect by looking at this place from the street.

When the band goes on break, they put their instruments down, raise the garage door and walk off the back of the stage out on to the patio. The audience just walks across the stage and follows the band outside. Our friend goes to the men's room. When he comes out, the club is empty…everyone is on the patio. He follows. Once outside, he lights a cigar and chats with a couple of girls. He notices several small groups are passing cigarettes around between themselves, and the butts don't have filters. He walks over to the group with one of the guitar players in it and begins making small talk with him. The joint comes to the guitar player, he hits it, passes it to our friend and they just keep right on talking. No big deal, just your average "go on break, have a smoke" kind of thing. The break lasts at least a half hour and the joints just keep appearing and circulating. Lots of laughter, lots of good conversation. And then the band drifts back inside and it’s time for the second set.

The second set is a real ass-kicker…our front-woman leads off with Neil Young's "Let's Go Downtown." The song is a real rocker and is a two or three minute cut on the Young album, but the band turns it into a boogie jam that lasts quite a while (10 minutes? Who knows?). The audience knows all the words; there’s lots of singing along, lots of dancing. And then a smooth, seamless segue into Chuck Berry's "Memphis" without a hint of a stop… the band plays on. After about six or seven added choruses, she slows the pace down a bit with Jerry Garcia's "Deal." By this time, our friend is really knocked out…hooked…on-board for the whole tour! The second set goes until about 1:30, and then everyone (only about 35 or 40 people, at this point) adjourns to the patio area again. Same drill, more conversation, more laughter, more joints.

The final set begins around 2:00 or so, just before last call. The band plays until 3:00, which is probably just this side of the law. It’s an understatement to say our friend feels pretty good as he walks out of the bar into the warm night. Not sloppy drunk, mind you, just feeling very good!

He sits down on the curb beside the bike and smokes a cigar for about 15 minutes, debating whether to ride home or call a cab. After the cigar is done he looks around, surveying the territory once again. The warehouse district is a "not-so-nice" part of town, motorcycles are easily stolen and he wonders if he could even get a taxi to answer a call this late, in this place.

His head is relatively clear by this point, so he reluctantly decides to ride home…slowly and carefully... staying on city streets all the way back to the park. It’s an uneventful ride, almost zero traffic and no cops.

He gets home around 3:45, goes to bed around 4:15, and sleeps very late the next morning, lulled in and out of sleep by the sound of heavy rain that moves through Houston from around daybreak until 10:00 a.m.. He wakes up with a clear head and makes the coffee. No hangover. Zip. Nada. It turned out to be a great day.


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