An unruly beast on a good day, Houston’s music scene shut down with remarkable speed once the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak reached the Bayou City.
“Everything that has developed within the last few weeks of this outbreak has been a shock,” says Mario Rodriguez of Bang Bangz and Wonky Power Records. “Our music scene was not prepared for something like this.”
In another lifetime, “social distancing” might have made an excellent band name. In this one, gigs began to evaporate even before Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered all local bars and clubs to close on St. Patrick’s Day. White Oak Music Hall has now suspended its shows through the end of March; Satellite Bar through April. Other places are simply closed indefinitely, starkly exposing the fragility of their business models.
“The entire music scene and community depends on many sectors of the economy to be fully engaged and thriving,” notes Rodriguez, who also runs the East End venue Wonky Power Live and helps book Midtown beer garden Axelrad.
“Most venues are not financially structured to be shut down for more than one or two days at a time, and right now the venues without to-go food have zero income,” adds bluesman The Mighty Orq, a fixture on the scene for decades. “If they don't survive—particularly places that are hubs for the music community—then it becomes even more difficult for the artists to get back into a live-performance groove.”
“Plus, if your favorite dive bar or dancehall closes, it's tough on morale,” he says.
So far, Orq figures he’s lost close to a dozen gigs since the outbreak started; Rodriguez estimates three times that many. Miguel Ponce, singer and guitarist for Flower Graves, had all six of the psych-rockers’ SXSW showcases scratched, plus “a handful” of residencies for his DJ crew Shakin’ All Over and ‘60s-tribute group Motion Potion. Wheel Workers front man Steven Higginbotham is not hopeful for his band’s regional tour this summer.
“Given the timelines I'm seeing on the pandemic, we may not be playing live shows for a long time,” he says.
With live music off the table for now, many local musicians have embraced live-streaming wholeheartedly, leading to a wealth of bedroom troubadours. Additionally, “Fab Faux” cover band Beetle streamed last week’s happy-hour gig live from the Continental Club, just like any other Thursday; dance-pop aquanauts Swimwear Department, appropriately, took over poolside watering hole El Segundo Swim Club. Houston drag queen Roxanne Collins, a Tina Turner specialist, will host a “QuaranTina” concert this Friday on her Facebook page.
Higginbotham recommends the “quarantunes” his band’s keyboardist, Erin Rodgers, has been posting on her social media. Mario Rodriguez, meanwhile, says a lot of what he’s been watching doesn’t sound as good as it could.
“I have a lot of knowledge on live video streaming since I've been doing it for years,” he offers. “I would love to help out and give tips or offer guidance for anybody that is serious about it. There are many ways to improve the live streams while utilizing gear that most bands [and] musicians already own.”
Many venues are coming up with ways to help staff and customers however they can. White Oak has set up a GoFundMe account for its idling employees. The Continental has an “online tip jar” for its Houston and Austin locations. Rudyard’s is offering free toilet paper with every food and/or booze delivery. The Mucky Duck is providing curbside pickup of “socially distanced comfort food” six days a week.
Although the coronavirus curve shows no sign of flattening, or even slowing down yet, the musicians Houstonia talked to sounded optimistic the scene will ultimately get through this.
“We have a vibrant scene is this town, with a lot of great music venues that support local music,” Higginbotham says. “It’s going to be a hard time for the scene, but one way or another, local music will continue. My guess is that all your favorite local artists will emerge from this trial with a lot of new songs they can't wait to play live.”
Adds Ponce, “I think once venues/bars are allowed to re-open, there's going to be a swarm of Houstonians ready for music and drinks. Personally, I've been social distancing close to two weeks already, and I'm itching to get out!”
“I feel pretty certain that music lovers will be hungry for entertainment once this is done, so there will probably be a big spike in all kinds of live performance,” echoes The Mighty Orq, who kicks off his “Stay at Home Sessions” on Facebook at 6 p.m. Thursday. “If the support that is taking shape online translates over to real-world scenarios, I think the scene will recover very well.”