“You sure you want me to leave you here,” the country western lady Uber Taxi driver said to me as she eyed a very large woman wearing a very gold lame dress. I said I was OK. Does your phone have service? I checked. Yes. And battery power? I checked. Yes. So you can get a lift out of here if you need it? Yes. “You know you’ll be the only white [person] here?” I assured her that I could take care of myself and thanked her for checking for my safety but I was going to listen to blues not score premo yay yo from a cartel or walk into a Scheiße
sex club buttered up and carrying a box of butt beads.
I then understood this is not the sort of blues club one goes to in Gotham. Up in Harlem where the busloads of Sweeds turn out for Tuesday night supper clubs, or downtown Jazz clubs packed with NYU girls with belly rings and tan lines from flopping about the beaches of Tel Aviv. This was not the place people from the other side of Houston come to.
Situated on the outside of town in the cement piles of discarded monuments and scrubby lumpy shrubs where once there were neat upon neat rows of houses, sits the best little blues club in Houston. Houston has a lot of poverty, a great deal of wealth, and run down sections that are hard to focus the eye upon they seem so out-of-place in a First World nation.
Today the Best Little Blues Club (BLBC) is itself a snapshot of days gone by. The Chitlin Circuit. Clubs once all over the nation, but especially in the Deep South, where black entertainers could enter and leave through the same door as the patrons. Where there were no divisions other than those who knew one another, and those who didn’t.
The establishment is out there in the ruined section of town. Right by the train tracks and highway, is ramshackle, run down, stapled together, and altogether perhaps a danger to be within it looks like a film set for a blues club. But, this is the real thing. Owned and run since the early 1970s by the same gentleman, the club occupies a maze of additions held together by spray foam, carpet remnants, and decorations left over from all sorts of private parties. The BLBC has no fancy sign, it does have a classic car out front but one has to know that this place is here, and on certain days, like Sunday afternoon, open for business.
Inside it is exactly like Back in The Day. Those days may have been mean, and remainders of this history we cannot yet cleanly escape, but in those days of segregation places like this served a community, maintained a strong unique culture, and allowed a group to form tightly. Members of any private club always knew who was in, and who was on the outs. Nevertheless, there should be no nostalgia for those days as there should be no pity for having lost the Borscht Belt, the Irish Alps, German Village, or the passing of those many whistle stops on the Chitlin Circuit. At the same time, history does not vanish, and often we remember the good things in history and the bad things in our life and often in this mix up we breed nostalgia and a romantic notion of what once was and what we wish were today.
We don’t want to return. We don’t want poverty and inequality, but for good or for bad, these hard lives and unfair conditions make the best blues. You can’t have daddy buy you a car for your high school graduation party to replace the pony and turn out good blues. Clearly these old musicians are familiar with the facts of the heart and the long days that march to the vanishing point without any pork in the pan. The music is going strong and all the patrons are dressed up in various styles from church going attire to party clothes. Clearly no one rolled out of bed to be dragged here but thought about it. What am going to wear to BLBC? Crazy church hats. Long overcoats the colour of which may surprise most designers. But people dress to impress, even if the majority of the establishment is populated by silver headed folks who yet party but are of a certain age. The fun starts and ends early. “How you doing,” one man said to me. Another came by and asked me the same question. I could see some wanted to size me up. I had a conversation with the owner and chatted about being in that day from Gotham.
An affable master of the dance, he ushered me inside and pointed to the bar. Passing the large groups clustered at tiny tables, I could see a few eyes upon me since I came in alone and people that look more-or-less like me have been in the news more than once for coming into places with people like them for no good reasons and with no good outcomes. I was just here for the music, as was everyone else. I ponied up close close to the bar and tucked in a few beers which put me and those about me at ease, or at least not causing a fuss I was able to vanish into the woodwork and just enjoy the music and maybe that Uber driver had woken up some slight discomfort of the unknown. I mean… I have never quite fit in no matter where I go. So, this was in that way, no different. Right?
The band plays on a little stage. Around there are different environments. When this crowd was younger, so many nooks and places I am sure the walls could tell stories about. There appears to be a central part of the whole establishment. An older core from which various additions were tacked on to. The stage if blocked by decor. Old musical instruments and a few posts supporting the roof. Clearly this is about the soul, about the music, about the little dance floor, and getting people moving, not about posing on stage looking at invisible cameras.
And music they did make. I leaned against the bar and watched a very elderly man, I am sorry but while locally known I am not familiar with his name, turn the house on its end. At the end of every song the dancing couples would return to their little tables or rush the bar for drinks or huge bowls of ice that came with wedges of lime, little cherries, and maybe a slice of lemon that are then taken back to the table (wink wink), or those cheep drinks that you can’t officially buy (everything is a donation freely given). When the next song starts, the same couples rush up from their tables, abandoning their drinks, and rushed back onto the dance floor so they would not miss a single note of the performance.
In time, the evening grew to night and I had to get back to the hotel since I had an early day.
“I got to work early too,” the older man told me, “but you don’t see me leaving yet!” He winked and patted me on the shoulder. I made pleasantries with the owner and stepped outside, turned on my phone, and contacted The Ubers. “You OK” a patron asked me as I sat on the bench. Yes, I am, just waiting for my ride. You know where you are? Yes. You have a way home? Yes. I thanked them for looking in to my safety and just then the car came. A VW with an after market exhaust pipe that made it a little loud. I got inside and the young man asked me, what kind of a place is this? Blues. The Best Little Blues House. Really, you went here alone? I looked at my Uber App. The name Max struck me as short for Maximilian. Maybe I was just assuming by the hint of a Spanish twang in his voice. Yes, I came here alone, and you should come here too. It safe? he asked me. I looked at the old couple holding one another as they walked back to their car. History doesn’t just vanish in a day. For good, or for bad.
Editor’s Note: This is not a review or recommendation but a reflection from a night out on the town. The writer of this blog does not get paid to promote. However, if your candy-coated ass would like to see the best blues in Houston, check it out by starting your journey HERE.