Brave New World

Houston's Music Community Reflects on the Pandemic

Bayou City musicians weathered Covid-19 any way they could.

By Chris Gray May 11, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Cover photo: Music promoter and musician Allen Hill, who lives across the street from the Continental Club, practices guitar in his neighbor's yard. Photo by Thomas Shea.

Houston’s musicians are resilient. They have to be. They’ll play for tips, at weddings, on the sidewalk—wherever there’s a gig. When the coronavirus pandemic began, that’s also what made them uniquely vulnerable.

Many ply their trade in dark, poorly ventilated bars and nightclubs, or else in social settings where conditions are ripe to create so-called superspreader events. But many of those places have now been closed for going on a year. Worse, medical experts have singled out singing as a perniciously efficient way of transmitting Covid-19. And forget about any kind of social safety net once these people do get sick.

Simply put, over the course of the past year Houston’s music scene has been gutted. It’s not just performers’ livelihoods that suddenly lurched into jeopardy with the advent of the pandemic, either: it’s sound engineers and lighting designers, ticket-takers and booking agents—an entire cultural ecosystem now exposed as shockingly fragile.

“I went from playing three, four, five gigs a week and being out and about in public and stuff to zero,” says The Mighty Orq, whose gritty guitar licks and good-humored delivery have made him a fixture on Houston’s blues circuit for decades. “I haven’t not played a gig in this long probably since I was 16 years old.”

The fallout has been as much psychological as economic, too.

“I’ve lost a large part of my income, but a large part of my identity as well,” says bilingual singer-songwriter Amanda Pascali, whose earthy and mysterious songs—some heavily influenced by traditional Italian music—helped her reach the finals of the 2019 Kerrville Folk Festival’s Best New Folk competition.

Bilingual singer-songwriter Amanda Pascali.

Pascali also graduated from UH last May, and as a sort of present to herself, she planned an extensive tour of Europe and part of the U.S. for herself and bandmate Addison Freeman. It took her six months to organize, and canceling it has put her in a strange limbo. She’s been proofreading and indexing some books on Dante for a former professor and playing shows when she can.

"I’m very emotional about it because I’m kind of in this new chapter of my life, but I haven’t quite been able to enter the chapter,” she says. “I’ve been in this in-between space because of the pandemic—not quite a college student anymore, but not quite a full-time professional [musician] either.” 

After the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo shut down on March 11, Mark Austin, owner of The Convoy Group and talent buyer at the Heights Theater, watched helpless as show after show he had booked evaporated in the space of about 48 hours. His wife, Rachel, a publicist for the Party on the Plaza concert series, faced a similar problem—between the two of them, up to 150 musicians they had booked were suddenly left high and dry.

“I had probably eight or ten gigs that weekend I had to cancel, and those folks had no idea that was coming,” says Austin, whose clients include Discovery Green, MKT Bar, and 8th Wonder Brewery. “Even though these guys are making in the hundreds of dollars, they do it four or five times a week. When that goes to zero, it really goes to zero. There’s no new gigs.”

Spurred to act, Austin and his wife began making phone calls to people they thought might be willing to put up some tax-deductible money. In April, they chartered the Houston Music Foundation, an extension of the nonprofit organization Artist for Artists. The response was overwhelming. “Our first 24 hours, we had 600 applicants,” says Austin. “We were like, ‘Holy crap!’”

Thanks to the generosity of both anonymous donors and high-profile H-Town artists like rapper Bun B, as of late December the foundation had given out $83,000 to roughly 150 recipients. (Applications are now open to any working music-industry professional over 18 and living in Harris County; grants are distributed in $500 stipends.) Right now it’s just the couple and a six-member application-reviewing committee, but the Austins are hoping to build a lasting organization that would stand ready to help the music community in future disasters, be that pandemic or hurricane. Their latest round of grants was expanded to include other music-industry professionals besides musicians who are also out of work. It’s not easy selecting recipients because so many are in need right now, he notes. Even as they’ve been working to distribute more money, he says, they know the nearly 700 applicants as of press time represent only a fraction of the struggling local music community.

“We can confidently say that a very large portion of people on this planet could use this money right now, for whatever the reason,” says Austin.

Eventually larger agencies began pitching in as well. In November the City of Houston directed $3 million to the music community from the CARES Act, courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Through the program, individual musicians would be eligible for grants of up to $5,000; the figure for venues would be up to either $50,000 or $100,000, depending on their size.

“Music venues and iconic performance spaces are a big part of our city and an important segment of Houston’s cultural life,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in a statement at the time. “They were delivering great live music before the pandemic, and we want them to be able to do that again, as soon as they can, and by being safe.”

The grant was announced following a virtual public meeting organized by MOCA and the Texas Music Office, which recently began the process of officially designating Houston a Music Friendly Community. In the same statement, MOCA Director Debbie McNulty added, “we heard from a diverse group of Houstonians in the music industry that one of the most pressing concerns is survival.”

Mark C. Austin pictured at Heights Theater.

Image: Thomas Shea

SO FAR, SURVIVAL HAS TAKEN ON MANY FORMS. But, notes Austin, the high degree of specialization within Houston’s music community makes it especially difficult for its members to switch careers on a dime—a guitarist, for example can’t suddenly become a drummer any more easily than a sound engineer could become a woodworker. The skills just don’t translate that directly.

“Even if you wanted to go find another career and start over at whatever age you are, however many years of experience being a lighting director you have, it’s not that easy,” he says. “You generally are hung up. A lot of those positions in our ecosystem are hung up.”

The service industry, which traditionally employs multitudes of musicians, allowing them to supplement their gig pay, has itself been decimated by the pandemic. Mlee Marie Mains, frontwoman for quirky alt-pop outfit Hearts of Animals, opted to take unemployment when Bissonnet eatery Raven Grill, where she was a server, had to shed some employees.

“I expressed to my friend sometime in the summer that I was feeling guilty that I was getting extra money from unemployment and having so much time to do my creative thing, and he was like, ‘This is the way it should be,’” she says. “Like, ‘Just think of this as payback for all the time that you haven’t been able to do this.’”

But the extra down time didn’t automatically translate into a burst of artistic productivity, Mains reports. She set up a studio in her bedroom for the first time since her son was born, and enjoyed playing around with her effects pedals, but still didn’t feel inspired to write. Luckily, a comedian friend in Chicago asked her to write some songs for her act. Hearts of Animals also spent the bulk of their quarantine working on their holiday album Merry Christmas Anyway, which came out in December. Despite staying relatively busy with music, she’s not harboring any illusions about the state of the world.

“It’s pretty depressing, the state that we’re in; and while in the past I’ve been able to write out of depression, right now everything’s just too weird,” Mains says. “The depression isn’t really fueling the urge to write, necessarily. It’s more been about the opportunities that I’ve had.”

For up-and-coming pop-R&B musician Micah Edwards, whose day job is in marketing, working flexible hours from home did leave him ample time to create. His single “December 26” grew directly out of pandemic-fueled anticipation of the holiday season.

“When I do most of my songwriting, it’s either in the car, in the shower, or in the studio,” he says. “And so I’ve had a lot of extra time at home, when I’m just able to be by myself and reflect on my thoughts. Alone is when I come up with my best stuff.”

Even if it didn’t directly lead to new material, other musicians took advantage of the downtime by learning new skills or seeing to long-overdue self-care. The Mighty Orq took a deep dive into videography and video editing, selling off a couple of instruments and teaching lessons through Zoom for extra cash. Off the road indefinitely for the first time in years, Nick Gaitan—leader of Tex-Mex rockers The Umbrella Man, and bassist for R&B dynamo Nikki Hill and late outlaw-country legend Billy Joe Shaver—balanced working odd jobs like plumbing or auto repair with taking online classes, doing stray session gigs, catching up on household fix-it projects (and taxes), and showing his mom how to online grocery-shop.

“I just felt like the things that were blocking me creatively were things that were sort of just piling up around me,” says Gaitan. “So with this break and actually addressing those problems, I was able to free myself a little bit creatively. I have to say, I feel like I’ve grown from it.”

“For the first time in a long time, I spent some time at home and really enjoyed it,” says Laura Lee of internationally touring psychedelic-soul trio Khruangbin. The group had already been on the road nearly nonstop for years, and the pandemic forced them to scratch another tour behind their brand-new album, the highly acclaimed Mordechai. But on the other hand, “I haven’t had that sort of time to be able to focus on nurturing in that way, and cooking for myself, and spending time with loved ones even if it was virtual,” she says. “I feel like I made the most of it.”

In December Allen Hill, leader of good-time '50s and '60s cover savants the Allen Oldies Band, released “I Miss You,” an uncharacteristically melancholy tune from Houston’s self-proclaimed “King of the Oldies.” Besides noodling around on the guitar (he estimates “Miss You” has some 30 verses) and listening to “tons” of records, he’s spent the pandemic living “musician cheap” off grants and savings, playing cards and dominos with his girlfriend, cooking, and taking long walks.

Denied that rush that comes from regularly gyrating in front of a raucous crowd—what he calls “the rock and roll version of ‘breathe in, breathe out’”— Hill has taken up drawing to keep his creative juices flowing. “There are so many ways to describe the artistic process, but for me, I have the opportunity to look at a blank piece of paper and create something out of it,” he says. “That’s something I think I kind of took for granted before the pandemic.”

Fat Tony, the longtime Houston rapper who recently relocated to Tucson, Arizona, finished recording his latest album, Exotica, in December 2019. He says the pandemic has “completely robbed me of what I love about being a musician, which is being a performer.” But a new publishing deal helped defray his living expenses, and the hiatus gave him plenty of time to practice his live show, as documented in the impromptu LP Live at No Audience, and tweak Exotica just the way he wanted it. The album ultimately released in October; Tony calls it, his eighth full-length, “my best work yet.”

“Music is harder than ever to win in nowadays, especially with the pandemic,” he says. “So if you’re in it, you’ve gotta really be in it for the right reasons. I think the audience is starting to notice who is bullshit and who is not, and who is genuine and who is not.” 

Haley Lynch, a member of Ancient Cat Society, Dollie Barnes, and Vodi— three of Houston’s top indie/folk/Americana groups. 

Image: Thomas Shea

WITH A FEW EXCEPTIONS, MUSICIANS WHO WANTED an audience during the pandemic were forced online—a mixed bag at best.

“It’s like the lite beer of shows,” says Jesse Sendejas, leader of folk-infused punk rockers Days N’ Daze. “It’s fine. It’s not as good as the real thing, but I just keep reminding myself that we’re lucky to have that. Imagine if this has happened pre-internet. We’d be so alone and secluded.”

Performances over online platforms such as Instagram Live, Zoom, or Facebook Live were common in the early days of the pandemic. As the novelty wore off, though, the shows soon began to feel like a “chore,” according to Fat Tony, who nonetheless turned one early gig into the album Live at No Audience. Nor are streaming shows remotely lucrative. When her band has live-streamed recently, notes Amanda Pascali, “on a night when we would usually make $700 or $800 at a gig, we’ve been making $47. Yeah.”

On the other hand, playing online is still a chance to play, and even grow an audience. The Mighty Orq had been hosting his “Stay at Home Sessions” on Facebook and YouTube since early in the pandemic, sometimes with his band, sometimes with guests, sometimes solo. Recent sessions have averaged several hundred views. “As we’ve continued to get new folks tuning in, [we] still have friends and folks that tune in every week,” he says. “It’s been the thing that has kept me from living in a van.”

Allen Hill has been holding off on doing any streaming shows because re-creating the excitement level of a typical Oldies gig online seemed difficult, if not impossible, to him. But he found an angle, and booked something for late March. “Playing no-audience shows will be difficult, but I’ve done that plenty in my career pre-pandemic,” he laughs. “I’ve trained for everything!”

Mlee Marie Mains, frontwoman for quirky alt-pop outfit Hearts of Animals.

A handful of Houston venues—notably McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, White Oak Music Hall, and the Heights Theater—have resumed hosting performances for socially distanced audiences. But even these gigs are vastly different from the way they were pre-Covid-19.

“Before, when people would buy tickets to see us live, after the show you’d get to hang out with them, hug them, sign CDs, and do other stuff like that,” says Pascali, who played her first live show with an in-person audience there in December. “This was very distanced in the literal sense, but also distanced in the metaphorical sense as well. A few people came up to talk to us afterwards, but that connection was missing.”

Haley Lynch, a member of Ancient Cat Society, Dollie Barnes, and Vodi—three of Houston’s top indie/folk/Americana groups—had her first baby in the middle of the pandemic. Her daughter was two months old when Ancient Cat Society opened for Shakey Graves outside at White Oak in October, and Lynch describes a surreal performance for a couple of hundred people in socially distanced “pods.”

“I popped in like right before our sound check, and I left after we played because I needed to get back to the baby,” she says. “It kind of just felt like a dream—I woke up and I was like, ‘I played a show last night?’ It just didn’t feel the same; it was very strange.”

No matter their experiences these past months, the musicians Houstonia spoke with agreed on one fundamental point: They feel the loss of their audiences terribly.

“It hurts how much I miss it,” say Nick Gaitan. “And who knows when we’ll be able to do that again at the level of what we were doing it at before? It breaks my heart how much I miss it, but we can’t do anything about it.”

“We love putting on a show, and it wasn’t something that we wanted to half-ass if we did a livestream,” says Laura Lee. “So we decided to just be patient and the show’s going to happen when the show’s going to happen.”

“I decided early on I’m not going to fight the tide on it,” adds Allen Hill. “I just want to save my strength and make sure that I’m healthy and positive when this is all over, because when it’s time to go back to work, I’m going.

“I’m going for it,” he adds. “When it’s safe.”

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