Austin isn’t the only city in Texas with a thriving music scene. Houston is a great spot to listen to the blues, as well as jazz and country. The bars and dance clubs are reminders of the city’s cosmopolitan culture.
Mention blues towns and most people think of Memphis or Chicago, but Houston definitely belongs in the mix. It has a long-standing tradition of serving up swampy bayou blues, and some of the state’s grittiest and most soulful players have emerged from the city’s downtown African American neighborhoods.
The Continental Club (3700 Main St., 713/529-9899, 7pm-2am Mon., Thurs-Fri., 8pm-2am Wed., Sat.) doesn’t stage blues exclusively—roots and alternative rock acts are often on the bill—but the local and touring blues bands that play here are typically the best around. An offshoot of the legendary Austin venue, Houston’s version of the Continental is appropriately more sprawling but still dedicated to offering some of the most soulful music in the Bayou City. Consistently topping Houston’s annual “best blues club” lists is West University’s The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club (5731 Kirby Dr., 713/523-9999, 8pm-2am daily). Locals have called it the “Big Sleazy” for so long, it may as well be the official moniker, but the quality musicianship waiting inside is the epitome of integrity. Weekends are set aside for top-notch touring acts and Houston’s premiere local blues bands while weeknights offer themes like open jams and dance parties.
Another local favorite is The Shakespeare Pub (14129 Memorial Dr., 281/497-4625, 4pm-2am Mon.-Sun.). Locals rule the stage here, including luminaries such as John McVey, Eugene Moody, and Texas Johnny Brown. If you get a chance, drop by at dinnertime on Sunday for Sparetime Murray’s weekly “early blues jam.”
Country and Western
Houston is the true home of the Urban Cowboy, so grab those boots if you’re fixin’ to head out for some two-steppin’ at one of these fine dance halls. For a real-deal honky-tonk experience, go straight to Blanco’s (3406 W. Alabama St., 713/439-0072, 11am-2am Mon.-Fri., closed Sat.-Sun. for private events). Located near downtown just north of the Rice University area, Blanco’s is small in size but huge on character. Some of the best live acts in the state play here, and there’s always a fascinating array of couples gliding across the dance floor, from octogenarians to college students. The music is classic country, transporting all ages to a bygone era of bolo ties and beehive hairdos.
Less charming, yet more appealing to the masses, are the city’s big-box country music venues. Located near the Galleria among the trendy upscale dance clubs is the refreshingly unhip Firehouse Saloon (5930 Southwest Fwy., 713/977-1962, check website for hours). You’ll see some flashiness here—big ol’ shiny belt buckles, fancy light machines, Vegas-style video games—but the crowd is genuinely friendly. Although cover bands take the stage most nights, you’ll find the occasional worthy local band looking to catch their big break.
For an overwhelming dose of Lone Star State culture, drop by the Big Texas Dance Hall and Saloon (803 E. NASA Blvd., 281/461-4400, 6pm-2am daily). It’s a bit hokey—the decor is pseudo-rustic with cacti and Western “artifacts”—but the scene is vibrant, especially for singles. Live music is the big draw on Thursday, when regional acts get boots scootin’, but DJs fill the dance floor most weekends.
More interested in drinking and listening to country music than dancing? Work up an appetite and drop by Armadillo Palace (5015 Kirby Ave., 713/526-9700, noon-midnight Mon.-Sun. and until 2am on weekends), located among a cluster of barbecue restaurants. The Armadillo has a huge bar in the middle and tiny stage in the corner. Fortunately, the pure honky-tonk sounds coming from the bands are huge enough to fill the venue and even get a few people two-stepping in the limited space near the stage.
One of the many benefits of being a music fan in a big city is access to quality jazz clubs. Houston is a major player on the jazz circuit, and it’s a hotbed for some of the genre’s rising stars. The stalwart on the scene is Sambuca (909 Texas Ave., 713/224-5299, 11am-11pm Mon.-Wed., 11am-midnight Thurs., 11am-1:30am Fri., 6pm-1:30am Sat., 6pm-10:30pm Sun.). Located in the stunning historic Rice Hotel, Sambuca is a jazz fan’s dream—a classy downtown venue offering nightly performances from local and national performers like Norma Zenteno, Tianna Hall, and The McClanahans. Accompany your ideal evening with a juicy steak from the acclaimed restaurant and a post-meal or set-break visit to the cigar room.
For a truly intimate experience, visit Cezanne (4100 Montrose Blvd., 713/522-9621, hours vary), a 40-seat venue in the trendy Montrose district. Cezanne is considered Houston’s premier jazz club, which is nice for the aficionados who get a chance to sit merely feet away from national acts but unfortunate for the hundreds or even thousands of other music lovers who’d like to see the show. Regardless, every seat in this cozy spot is a good one, and you’ll hear, see, and feel every note being played. Check the website for favorites such as Joshua Redman, Randy Brecker, and Pamela York.
Since Houston is such a business- and convention-oriented city, visitors often find themselves in town for a few days in search of familiar rock acts or with an expense account to afford some pricey tickets. Virtually every touring act makes a stop in Houston, so out-of-towners also have an opportunity to catch shows that may not make it to their home turf until the second or third leg of the tour. These folks will likely want to browse the online calendar for the downtown entertainment complex Bayou Place (500 Texas St., 713/227-0957). The Bayou’s Verizon Wireless Theater (713/230-1600) covers the gamut from rock and country to comedy and musicals while the adjacent Hard Rock Cafe (713/227-1392) offers its venerable blend of music and memorabilia. Nearby is the more club-oriented Rocbar (713/236-1100), where DJs and live acts keep the party going until 2am.
If you still want to rock but prefer to roll away from the hassle of downtown, head to the classic Houston venue Fitzgerald’s (2706 White Oak Dr., 713/862-3838). Housed in an enormous historic Polish dance hall, Fitz’s features indie rock acts, classic Americana groups, and comfy local bands. The all-ages policy can rub some old-timers the wrong way, but they can always escape to the spacious back patio for a fresh breath of smoky air.
Also housed in a historic venue is the folkie Anderson Fair (2007 Grant St., 832/767-2785, Sat.-Sun., cash only). This tucked-away weekend club in the Montrose area has been hosting up-and-coming folk and roots rock acts for decades and continues to stage some of Texas’s most popular Americana acts. Note: Anderson Fair is only open on weekends and only accepts cash.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Houston & the Texas Gulf Coast.