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Monday, December 03, 2007


Houston Musings

"Hi everybody. We're Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, Texas and we dance just as good as we walk. In Houston, we just thought of a new dance called 'The Tighten Up' and here's the music we Tighten Up to..."

So began the first "really great" vamp record, "Do the Tighten Up," a huge mid-sixties hit that had no melody, and no particular lyrical message either for that matter. The record simply vamped along for about three minutes of well produced, almost funky dance music, narrated by that one hit wonder, Archie. In some ways, this could be seen as the first disco record, at least in concept, though minus the syncopation.

Anyway, as I walked the streets of downtown Houston over the weekend, I can see how that particular record came to be created here. This is a sprawling city with no discernible center, and a downtown that springs to life in short spasms of energy that alternate with long periods of dormancy. Most of the weekend, and even on Friday, there was no real traffic to speak of downtown and one could usually cross any street without waiting to get to the intersection (though the drivers need to be watched - traffic signals seem to be observed only in the breach and I was honked at by a driver for apparently crossing too slowly when I had the light at the corner and he wanted to make a right on red).

Outside the city, there is quite a variety of settings and the main shopping is away from the downtown area in the large malls. (The downtown mall was fairly deserted on Saturday afternoon!) And of course, there are places like Galveston within fairly easy reach that are serious attractions.

But for business travelers, the downtown area offers a mixed bag. The convention center, baseball park and Toyota Center are concentrated in a fairly small area pretty much within walking distance. However, for some reason, the natives do not encourage walking particularly at night. If you must walk, you are advised to "use Main Street" and this was a pleasant surprise since it was jumping with young people, rock music, Irish Pubs, etc. Friday and Saturday night until 2 AM or so.

As for jazz, what they call jazz here is really more like smooth jazz - I did not hear any boppers. The Sambuca restaurant is quite pretty, comfortably large, and with very good food, a little pricey, but the music was not jazz as advertised. The band played mainly rock covers with a smooth jazz approach in the shortest sets I have ever heard - about 15-20 minutes. The bar seemed pretty lively though.

A better bet is the Red Cat Cafe, certainly grittier and not at all laid back, with music that was basically jazz/funk. Very high quality musicians though, and a very friendly host, comedian Al Freeman. $10 to get in with a Louisiana style bar menu, and very friendly service. I was very comfortable there, and was impressed by the fact that unlike the very expensive NY clubs, the audience was racially mixed - it's a crime that in NY, only whites and Asians come out to hear what is essentially a Black originated idiom (jazz) live.

All in all, I have enjoyed Houston more than I thought, having heard very little positive from those who have been here before. Interestingly, this is one town that is not suffering from the housing debacle, since for the most part, home prices here really didn't bubble in the first place. This is one of the few cities in the country where home prices are actually appreciating now and the metro area is growing rapidly. Of course, how they will do if the overheated oil market recedes is anyone's guess.

One might forget that Houston, not Dallas, is the true Texas oil town, notwithstanding where Jock Ewing and Digger Barnes settled. I guess though, the TV geniuses figured it would be a lot harder to sell the story of those fictional feuding families if it were called "Houston."

Keep up the good work.
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