Remembering Rockefeller's With iFest's Rick Mitchell

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With the Houston International Festival practically right around the corner, and the "Mardi Gras Party" benefit for iFest's education programs - including the teacher's curriculum guide to the Caribbean the festival is sending to 1,500 area schools - two weeks from today at Rockefeller Hall with Marcia Ball and Texas Johnny Brown, Rocks Off asked iFest Director of Performing Arts Rick Mitchell to reminisce about the most memorable shows he saw at Rockefeller's during his tenure as the music critic for the Houston Chronicle.

We'd like to thank him for being so generous with his time during the most hectic part of his year, and encourage our readers to attend both the benefit and the festival. More information at www.ifest.org. Take it away, Rick...

"Some might say that Rockefeller's best days were behind it by the time I arrived in Houston in 1989 to take the job at the Chronicle. I heard stories of legendary five-night stands by Ray Charles and B.B. King, documented by the blow-up photos on the walls, and of the late Houston music critic Bob Claypool (whose job I inherited) hanging out backstage until all hours with Paddy Maloney and the Chieftains.

"But the club, launched in 1979 by landlords Sanford and Susan Criner, was still going strong well into the '90s, with live music several nights a week and a loyal crew of bartenders and waitstaff and doormen and backstage security, many of whom I became friendly with over the years because I was in there so often.

"Under the management of co-owner Don Gomez and talent buyer Colleen Fischer, Rockefeller's operated as the ultimate big-city showcase venue. It truly was all things to all people - an upscale honky-tonk on one night, the hippest jazz club in town on the next; a sit-down singer-songwriter listening room on Friday, a sweaty R&B dance club on Saturday."

"With hindsight, the writing was on the wall for Rockefeller's when Bayou Place opened downtown in the early '90s. Fischer was hired away by Pace Concerts (now part of the Live Nation empire) to book the much larger, better financed concert hall now known as the Verizon Wireless Theater. The club continued to operate as a live music venue into the late '90s under different ownership and management, but the odds were stacked against it.

"National touring acts that previously had played three- or four-night stands at Rockefeller's could make as much or more in one night at Verizon Wireless. Regional bands coming from Austin could do better next door at the more rock-friendly Satellite Lounge. As for the jazz acts, well, jazz was always a tough sell in Houston anyway. Rockefeller's shut its doors as a live music venue in 1997.

"However, the room itself lives on as Rockefeller Hall, which for the past decade has operated successfully as a private event facility under the ownership of sisters Lisa Porter and Cynthia Porter Davis. The original bank architecture (the building dates to 1925) and intimate acoustics have not changed, and as self-serving as it may sound, I have to say I am really looking forward to seeing Marcia Ball and Texas Johnny Brown, both of whom played Rockefeller's plenty of times back in the day, back in action onstage.

"At the suggestion of Rocks Off editor Chris Gray, I have compiled a Top Ten list of the most memorable musical moments at Rockefeller's from my tenure as the Chronicle's music critic. I have attempted to put them in chronological order, though I must admit I am kind of fuzzy on some of the dates. In the spirit of the blog, I invite Rocks Off readers to share their own favorite memories from the Rockefeller's era of 1979-1997, some of which no doubt predate mine."

Joe Ely Band: "OK, this was pretty much of a religious experience. I went back all three nights. I had heard Joe's early MCA and Hightone albums while I was living on the West Coast, but I had never seen him play live. This band, featuring David Grissom on guitar, Jimmy Pettit on bass and Davis McLarty on drums, was then and in my opinion still is the best rock and roll band in the sovereign state of Texas, the Lone Star equivalent to Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.

"The evidence can be heard on the epic Live at Liberty Lunch album, and on the studio album Love and Danger. My wife remembers that Joe was wearing leather pants. Guess we'll have to take her word for it about that.

Stay tuned for the rest of Rick's picks next Monday, Wednesday and Friday.


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