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Houston live venue Fitzgerald’s to close after Dec. 31 show

December 24, 2018

HOUSTON (AP) — Ryan Chavez stood on the side of the stage at Fitzgerald’s talking to some other sound engineers about the end of an era.

The Houston Chronicle reports this was back in 2014, when he was working sound for Run the Jewels, a rap duo that would soon move from playing the likes of Fitzgerald’s to bigger venues, and Chavez knew the November show would be one of the last great ones he worked at Fitz, a venue that opened in 1977, turning a two-story 1920s structure into a live-music hub in Houston.

“I told them, ‘Guys, this is the last of the glory days,’” Chavez says. ”‘They’re over after this.’”

He would know: Chavez had a 360-degree relationship with Fitz. He frequented the club as a teen concertgoer in the ’90s, then went on to become a concert promoter who booked a few shows there, and also played on its stage as a drummer in local bands, before manning its sound board for two years. For about half of the venue’s lifespan, he saw its wood planks from every angle. So as Run the Jewels’ El-P and Killer Mike sweated on stage and traded rhymes, Chavez knew he wouldn’t work another concert like that again as similar shows would migrate to the soon-to-open White Oak Music Hall.

“These miserable glory days were done,” he recalls. “Dragging equipment up a flight of stairs; throwing kids off the side of the stage; sweating because the A/C doesn’t work. These were our salad days. And I knew they were over.”

A year or so after that gig, much of the live music that used to happen on Fitz’s stage migrated to other, newer venues. Fitzgerald’s thrashed around a few more years, but when owner and founder Sara Fitzgerald sold the property in August of this year, the true end was nigh. It comes this month, with the venue closing after a Dec. 31 gig featuring Skyrocket!.

Fitzgerald is both sentimental and not about her club’s impending exit.

“I didn’t start this thing in hopes of making an institution,” she says, laughing. “It was a 42-year real-estate flip. I opened it as a little thing in hopes of making a little money.”

The buyer is Easy Park, a Chicago company that has been snapping up real estate in Houston. Its seven-figure paying price ensures the company isn’t interested in operating a rickety music club that always teetered on, rather than rising above, solvency.

December meant a series of farewell concerts for Fitz by various long-running bands — Dr. Rockit, Herschel Berry and the Natives, 30footFall — a collection of sentimental reunions and hauntings as musicians who played the Heights venue over the years take to its stage one last time before it goes away forever.

The venue survived more than four decades, remarkable because for years newer, sound-first concert spaces replaced those that had a regal history. Fitz enjoyed renown, infamy and rebirth in its 40-plus years. As it shuts down, the venue pries loose sentimental memories about incredible shows seen and played there. And it also provokes a good-riddance from some local musicians who say they were stiffed by the venue’s owner, who opened Fitz in 1977 and saw her namesake venue become an incubator for Houston’s live-music scene more than once.

But more often than not, music fans speak lovingly of the place.

“It was such a great space,” said singer-songwriter Joe Ely, a Fitz regular in the ’70s and ’80s. “It was close to downtown, and it had this old, old Houston vibe. When I started playing Houston, it’d be downtown around Market Square. Later on I discovered Fitzgerald’s, and it was a major change for me. It really was my place in Houston.”

Everybody who spent time at Fitzgerald’s can recall a few nights that stand out. Because the storied Heights venue spanned decades, those memories vary greatly depending on the concertgoer. I recall one evening when the short-lived band Wild Flag — with Sleater-Kinney singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein — played downstairs to a modest crowd while Georgia metal band Mastodon churned out loud, lumbering rock upstairs. The venue’s stairwell was well traversed that night.

When Fitzgerald opened the venue, she took a structure built originally as a Polish dance hall in 1918 and turned it into a spirited nightlife center for rock, country, blues and just about any other style of music that needed a stage. The list of performers who passed through over the years is formidable. Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top both played its stage, Vaughan with regularity between 1981 and 1983 before he took Texas blues worldwide. The storied Texas Outlaw Comics, a group that included the late, great Bill Hicks, brought their comedy to Fitz.

James Brown howled through a set there in 1985. Perhaps the confines were smaller than he’d grown accustomed to in the ’60s and ’70s, but photos from the show find Brown sweating and resplendent in his cape, backed by a fire-breathing brass section.

But its roots were humbler.

Fitzgerald was born in Houston, though her family moved to Pearland when she was an infant. She grew up south of Houston, but at 18, she moved to the Heights. She bought a house in the neighborhood, “when people wouldn’t give women a loan,” she says. “Things were slowly changing. I worked in Xerox in sales, what then they called ‘a man’s job.’ On the weekends, I’d sell real estate.”

She visited the property at White Oak and Studewood, which was eyed as a tear-down, even in 1977. The space had been vacant for a few years, but the owners were hoping the new buyer wouldn’t tear it down. Fitzgerald started paying $600 a month to own the plot.

“I figured I’d fix it up and sell it,” she says.

But she also describes visiting the space as a moment of epiphany.

“I almost feel like I was hooked by that building and to that building,” she says. “Does that make sense? I walked in and felt something. I felt like I was supposed to be there.”

Initially she operated the downstairs as a bar, filling the space with furniture from her home.

A liquor license and a piano on the lower level drew some musical riffraff. At some point in the late-’70s, Rex Bell, a musician and club owner, and some of his friends asked her about the upstairs space, which had a ready-made stage from the club’s dance-hall days. They helped her secure some folding chairs from Liberty Hall, somebody dragged in a PA system, and Fitzgerald’s hosted a Lightnin’ Hopkins gig there, for a crowd of about 200 who bought their beers out of an ice-filled cooler because there was no upstairs bar.

Fitzgerald says “it just grew from there.”

“She created a great space that somehow managed to work for a really long time, longer than a lot of other clubs,” says Johnnie Goudie who, starting with his band Panjandrum, was a Fitz regular. He’s also in Skyrocket!, which will play the venue’s last show on New Year’s Eve. “She must’ve known something. I don’t know any club owners who walk out of this as millionaires. That she was a single woman dealing with all the stuff that comes with running a place like this, it’s impressive.”

Because Fitzgerald’s was one of those clubs that lived so long, cyclical patterns emerged among performers; next-generation players would take stage at a venue they’d visited as listeners years before.

Fitz lived so long that musicians who left everything on the stage on a given night would gradually drop out.

And not just the old icons like Brown, who died in 2006. Among the Fitz traditions ending this month will be the final annual Christmas show by 30footFALL, a local punk band. Its guitarist, Chris LaForge, died of a stroke last year at just 42.

Others could be observed across the years, their looks and their sound changing. Songwriter Rodney Crowell chuckled at a reference to an old photo of him at Fitz from around 1988, clad in a puffy polka-dot shirt and leather pants.

“It’s a little like yearbook photos,” Crowell says. “What guy was I trying to be that year? But I liked the space. And interesting things would happen there. I remember a show with Rosanne (Cash) and Guy Clark there. We went back to a hotel that was near the club, and half the club followed us, so we just played till 4 a.m. It’s like the Hemingway thing, ‘A Moveable Feast.’ That whole area in and around Fitzgerald’s and Rockefeller’s was full of music, and everything in that part of town ran together. It felt like a moveable feast.”

Time worked differently at Fitz than in the real world, as it does in a great concert venue. On the right night for the assembled, clocks would stop.

Former Houston Chronicle music critic Marty Racine wrote of Fitz in the ’80s: “There are fancier nightclubs and others more trendy. There are clubs with better sound systems and superior air conditioning.” But he called Fitz “the most essential club to the city’s and region’s original live music scenes.”

Chavez recalls a gig downstairs when it was referred to as Zelda’s, a literary play on the venue’s name. For a crowd of a few dozen, At the Drive-In opened for Jimmy Eat World before the latter became a charting pop/rock hitmaker and the former became an influential post-punk band.

“Talk about intimacy,” Chavez says. “If you wanted to get close to a band, Fitzgerald’s is where you could smell them.”

Members from a few local and regional bands said they recall memorable shows at Fitz but also recalled having issues with the venue over money.

“We had some great times there,” says one local musician, declining to be named. “However, on the side that I personally dealt with Sara, I’m not too upset about it going away.”

In 2017, Fitzgerald took heat for passing on hosting a hip-hop concert by producer and promoter TrakkSounds. Her side of the correspondence was made public, referencing the music’s lyrical content but also broader critiques of hip-hop fans’ attire, bar-spending habits and marijuana consumption.

Fitzgerald wrote an email stating she didn’t care for the lyrical content of one particular rap artist’s work. In part it said:

“Not a big fan of (expletive) music or the fans that wear their pants under their (expletive) with their underwear showing, drink and smoke pot in the parking lot, then scream, ‘you racist (expletive)’ when I ask that they take their lit joint outside. 300 fans that buy little, tip little and create big disharmony — no thanks.’”

Fitzgerald cites the incident as part of her reason for moving on from the club. Having endured decades of change as a business owner who liked music, she saw music move ahead to places she couldn’t relate. She still doesn’t regret passing on the show, but she regrets how she conducted the rejection.

“I’m old, so I don’t know the how the internet can take your words and spin them out of control,” she says. “But I also made comments I shouldn’t have. I always had R&B and blues acts here, and hip-hop shows, too. But I was a businesswoman, not a music person. Still, blues and R&B were my go-to. So I realized I wasn’t supposed to do this anymore.”

After that rejected booking correspondence was made public, some musicians began canceling shows immediately. Fitzgerald’s was fading anyway, but it hastened the pace, an unfortunate marker in a timeline that was for so long musically welcoming.

Other out-of-town bands were not enamored with the space for less justifiable reasons. The ’90s alternative-rock band Tripping Daisy got banned from Fitzgerald’s before it even took the stage. Wes Berggren — the band’s guitarist, who died in 1999 — had too much to drink before the show. Because Fitz’s green room, such that it was, was elevated, Berggren decided to urinate off the patio onto some shrubbery below, unaware it was a patio where concertgoers were standing prior to the gig.

“It was a really bad situation,” Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter says. The band was kicked out, and the situation turned uglier. “We were done there.”

That said, DeLaughter and his new band the Polyphonic Spree played the venue multiple times years later, joyful shows void of public urination.

One of those Spree shows was part of a Fitzgerald’s renaissance. Fitzgerald leased the space to local concert promoter Pegstar and Free Press Houston, who relaunched the venue in September 2010. The shift in booking brought both a literal and metaphorical new coat of paint to the venue. A resplendent green on the outside, Fitz on the inside became a notable concert destination again.

The venue welcomed greats from the past, such as Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, while also catering to a younger crowd with shows by acts including Iron & Wine. Rising acts such as Father John Misty would play Fitz before moving on to larger theaters.

The Fitz revival filled a void as Houston struggled to bring in well-regarded independent bands, following a nasty 2006 incident when the Houston Police Department crashed a Two Gallants show at Walter’s on Washington that resulted in people being tasered and arrested.

Fitzgerald’s filled a need after that black-eye moment with some strong bookings.

“Going to shows there really influenced me and my taste in music,” says Connor Barwin, the former Texans linebacker. “It was a great room. One time somebody threw a beer at me from the balcony. I don’t know if it was random or if it was because I was a football player. But I liked that wild things could happen there.”

During that renaissance, Fitz also became the go-to place for album-release shows by local bands with homegrown followings, including Buxton and Grandfather Child. Chavez was drumming in the latter when it released its first (and only) album with the Suffers opening, a not uncommon instance when the opening act becomes a band of some renown.

The venue felt alive, despite its old bones. That said, those enjoying a cigarette on the balcony sometimes felt the addition of one more smoker might cause the structure to collapse.

“You always figured it’d close down or burn down,” Chavez said. “But if it closed down or burned down, you were always glad you went the night before.”

When Pegstar set up shop in the new White Oak Music Hall, Fitz rounded its final turn. “The limitations of the building have begun to work against us,” read a statement from Pegstar at the time.

Fitzgerald ran the club a few more years. But after the 2017 incident, she wanted out. At 70, she’s looking forward to camping and fishing around Seguin, where she has staked out space for the next chapter of her life.

She sounds a little wistful for the past, but not nearly as much as some of the people who played in her club.

“I have so many good memories there they start to run together,” Ely says. “I won a lot of money on that pool table downstairs. So many of the places we played in Houston, Dallas and Austin have gone away. The real-estate enticement is too great. People can’t pass it up. It’s like what Yogi Berra said: ‘Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.’ But the vibe of Fitzgerald’s was great.”

Goudie says he’ll “really, really, really miss that place,” a venue where he spent 30 years on stage, including for some old shows clad in his underwear. But he also said the mood isn’t maudlin as Skyrocket! plans to play the last show at Fitz.

“We’re all looking at it more as a celebration of what it has been to us,” he says. “And the community there. Fitzgerald’s and Rockefellers, those were the staples. They’re the venues you’d go to, but you could also mention them to your aunt, and she’d know what you were talking about.”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

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