10 Houston Acts to See Before You Can't

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Photo by Mark Britain
Little Joe Washington
The passing of Texas Johnny Brown last year hit me and a bunch of people pretty hard, so the September 12 death of Crusaders pianist Joe Sample was another slap in the face that many of Houston's musical heroes are closer to the end than the beginning. The latest bad news is that bluesmen I.J. Gosey and Little Joe Washington, as well as monumental drummer, educator and community leader Bubbha Thomas, have been in poor health, although Little Joe's prognosis is looking pretty good if he maintains his dialysis schedule.

All of this brought on some surveying of the local landscape and wondering how much longer some of our oldest artists have, and in turn the following list of artists that you need to get out and see while you still can. Nothing morbid here, just the cold, hard facts of time marching on. As Houston's Mike Stinson sings in one of his new songs, "Time is a relentless marching whore." Believe me, I'm on the front lines.


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Revisiting Johnny Winter's Hell-Raising Memoir

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Photo courtesy of Kid Logic Media
Johnny Winter, third from left, with John Belushi, Muddy Waters and Dan Aykroyd
Raisin' Cain; The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter
By Mary Lou Sullivan
Backbeat Books, 384 pp., $24.99

As is the case when any musician dies, widespread interest in his or her career and catalog shoots up in the immediate aftermath. And that has certainly been the case with blazing blues singer/guitarist Johnny Winter, who passed away in July at the age of 70 while on the road in Switzerland.

Ironically, even outside of his demise, the profile of the Beaumont native and former Houstonian was on the rise with the release of a career-spanning box set (True to the Blues), a documentary (Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty) and a now-posthumous "comeback" record, Step Back.

So it's a good chance to look back at Raisin' Cain. First published in 2010, it was the culmination of a rocky road for author Sullivan. Based on scores of hours of first-person interviews Sullivan conducted with Winter -- along with his bandmates, his mother and brother Edgar, friends, lovers and others -- the book took more than two decades to produce. It didn't help that a former manager barred her from access to Winter halfway through the project, while his next one restored the relationship.


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Robert Ellis Is in a New York State of Mind

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Photo by David Ayer/Courtesy of New West Records
You can take the boy out of Houston, but...well, this is part of how Robert Ellis has found himself spending his time after moving to New York City a little more than a month ago.

"There's actually a weird little honky-tonk scene in Brooklyn," says the singer-songwriter who relocated from Houston to Nashville in mid-2012 after his group, Robert Ellis & the Boys, won a fiercely loyal Bayou City following with their "Whiskey Wednesday" classic-country nights at Mango's and Fitzgerald's.

As Ellis tells it, Brooklyn's honky-tonk scene includes three bars -- Skinny Dennis, the Levee and Lucky Dog -- that offer sanctuary to Lone Star exiles, from a Willie Nelson painting to a Western swing band on Wednesday nights that Ellis says isn't half-bad. Although he notes his friend B.E. Godfrey, another Houston musician who recently relocated to NYC, makes fun of him for figuratively sticking close to home, Ellis says his Texas upbringing gives him certain advantages in the Big Apple.


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The 10 Biggest Country Stars Who Live in Texas

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Photo courtesy of EB Media
By Chris Gray and Matthew Keever

HONORABLE MENTION: SUNNY SWEENEY
Thus far mainstream success has eluded Sunny Sweeney, but not for lack of either talent or trying. According to her Facebook page, Sweeney (a former standup comic) has now played the Grand Ole Opry 41 times but continues to reside in Austin, where she did an acoustic set at Waterloo Records last month to celebrate the release of her third LP, Provoked. Both Country Weekly and NPR have come calling since then, so Sweeney -- also a 2013 nominee for the CMA's New Female Vocalist -- can't possibly stay under the radar much longer.

Facebook fans: 106K

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Sampling Joe Sample: 1976

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The Crusaders' album Free as the Wind
If 1975 was a whirlwind year for Joe Sample, the Crusader who passed away last Friday, 1976 was a full-blown hurricane. The newer, funkier Crusaders were increasingly popular, so much so that United Artists began to repackage and reissue some of the early 1960s Jazz Crusaders tracks the group made for the Pacific Jazz label, but titling the reissues The Young Rabbits. There was also another reissue, Best of the Crusaders, a compilation of tracks recorded for Blue Thumb.

The Crusaders themselves issued a live album, Live: Midnight Triangle, and one of their finest studio recordings, Free As the Wind, in 1976. But these efforts aside, Sample worked a string of sessions that kept him on the move both physically and musically. Following are his most notable sessions of 1976.


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One-Eyed Doll & Vanilla Sugar at Scout Bar, 9/10/2014

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Photos by Jack Gorman
One-Eyed Doll, Vanilla Sugar
Scout Bar
September 10, 2014

A solid but small crowd that gathered at Scout Bar Wednesday night to view the greatest Texas goth-punk band in the world, Austin's One-Eyed Doll. Earlier, around 8 p.m., a line of about 20 or 30 people had waited to meet front woman Kimberly Freeman, who Revolver named one of its "Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock" at the merch table.

The tall, slender brunette wore a trucker hat atop her Crystal Gale-like mane that flowed past her mid-thigh. She hugged each fan and chatted them up as she signed memorabilia and took photographs, before disappearing for a bit and returning to catch opening band Vanilla Sugar right up front.

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UtopiaFest Again Beckons Southwest's Free Spirits

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Photo by Jim Bricker
A scene from UtopiaFest 2013
For the sixth year running, this weekend a little slice of heaven known as UtopiaFest will take over the Four Sisters Ranch in the middle of the Texas Hill Country, just outside the quaint village of Utopia and about two hours northwest of San Antonio, Nearly 2,000 kind folk will be descend on the outdoor camping festival to take in sets starting tonight and going through the wee hours of Sunday morning,

If you missed it last year, I gave you the ten reasons you should go; that's well worth a read, especially if you already plan on attending and have never been, or are on the fence and need a last-minute kick in the ass to make your decision for you.


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The Musical Cream of This Fall's County-Fair Crop

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Photo by Axel Naud via Flickr
Now that's a super moon all right.
If you've been lucky enough to see the so-called "supermoon" the past couple of nights, you know good things are coming: not only cooler temperatures but fairgrounds full of carnival midways, fried foods, beauty pageants, golf tournaments, parades, cookoffs, livestock auctions and top-notch country music. In other words, small-town Texas in all its harvest-season splendor.

Although this season is somewhat overshadowed by that big shootin' match that takes place next to the Dome (which is now just six months away), almost every county that touches Harris is having some sort of officially sanctioned celebration between this weekend and late October; lest we forget, so is Harris County's second-largest city. To salute them, Rocks Off picked out a dozen acts that are worth the short drive outside the Loop to see while eating Frito Pie and drinking light beer from a plastic cup or aluminum bottle. Don't forget those boots, because they might even make you want to dance.


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The Ugly Beats Pick 10 Rare Texas '60s 45s

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Photo courtesy of NightTrain PR
The Ugly Beats aren't nearly as self-consciously cool as many of their Austin musical neighbors, because they don't need to be. Honed by a decade or so of near-constant gigging at 512-area nightspots such as Hotel Vegas, Beerland and the Carousel Lounge, the quintet's garage-pop is as sincere as it is spot-on. Soaked in reverb, surf licks, that eternal Byrdsian jangle and oodles of Farfisa, their songs celebrate the '60s without ever seeming stuck there, while the band keeps them coming at a good enough clip for three full-length albums now, most recently July's Brand New Day (Get Hip).

Lately their Houston visits have been increasing (they'll be back to play Rudz next month), a development most definitely to our liking. In fact, before they play the Big Top Saturday night, the Beats will do a 3 p.m. matinee at Cactus Music as part of the "Peace Love & Rescue" benefit for the no-kill animal-rescue program SMART Rescue. We asked the band's Joe Emery to pick out ten of his favorite rare '60s 45s by Texas bands, and he sent back the following list within 24 hours. That ought to get us all through the lunch hour. Good stuff below...thanks, Joe!


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Southern Rock Gets a New Bible in Southbound

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Capricorn Records
Kings of the Hill -- the original lineup of the Allman Brothers Band: Jaimoe Johanson, Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts, and Butch Trucks.
While there are plenty of musicians, record collectors and journos who will argue (as only musicians, record collectors and journos can) that all rock is "Southern rock" due to its geographical origins, Southern rock is nonetheless a well-defined genre.

And that genre finally gets its comprehensive Bible in Scott B. Bomar's Southbound: The Illustrated History of Southern Rock (Backbeat Books, 304 pp., $29.99). Insanely detailed with band bios, rare live and publicity photos, and chapters giving the context of Southern rock in both the greater world of music and its '70s heyday, Southbound covers the genre's giants (Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top), mid-level players (Marshall Tucker Band, Atlanta Rhythm Section) and more obscure groups (Cowboy, Grinderswitch).

Recently Rocks Off spoke with Bomar, a researcher and music-industry pro who specializes in reissues, about the book, the bands, and how Southern Rock helped elect a U.S. President.


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