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An Unexpected Music Education in 1990's Houston

When I was 16 years old I started going to shows. That’s what we called them then—shows. They were concerts, live music events, but typically not of the pop or classical persuasion. This was the mid 1990’s and the musique du jour for my brand of youth was a menagerie of grunge, emo, punk, hardcore, and hip hop. And the act of going to shows was more than an activity—it was a lifestyle.

I grew up in the northwest suburbs of Houston, which at the time was an odd mix of untampered-with country and impending development. On weekend evenings, my circle of friends and I would pack into a car, hop on US 290 heading for the city, and land at various venues, clubs, or bars in H-town.

I don’t remember my first show nor do I remember the specifics of how the occasion materialized. But it probably surfaced in the following way, between classes, in the hallways of Cy-Fair High School:

“Hey Todd, there’s a show this weekend. Wanna go?” 

“Sure, where?”

“In the city.”

“OK.”

And we were off. A simple invitation that would alter my life in so many unforeseeable ways for years to come. It was an unexpected music education and it was fast and furious. In a matter of two to three years I consumed a ridiculous amount of live music.

Here’s a smattering of some of the highlights, from 1993 to 1995: 

  • Faith No More at the Unicorn
  • NOFX at the Vatican
  • Butthole Surfers with Stone Temple Pilots at the Lone Star Amphitheatre
  • Lollapalooza 1993 feat. Primus, Rage Against the Machine, Alice in Chains, Dinosaur Jr., Fishbone, Arrested Development, Tool, etc.
  • Pearl Jam at the William R Johnson Coliseum (we stalked and talked to Eddie Vedder afterwards, camping out beside the PJ tour bus, mystified when he emerged and told us that duct tape holds the world together)
  • Fishbone and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones at Bayou City Theatre
  • Tool with the Flaming Lips at the International Ballroom
  • Helmet with Rollins Band at the International Ballroom
  • Lollapalooza 1994 feat. Beastie Boys, George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars, A Tribe Called Quest, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, etc.
  • Dinosaur Jr. at Numbers
  • Tripping Daisy at the Abyss
  • The Reverend Horton Heat at Fabulous Satellite Lounge
  • The Warped Tour 1995 (the very first Warped Tour) feat. Deftones, Quicksand, No Doubt, Sublime, etc.
  • 311 at the Abyss
  • Fugazi at Rainbow Rink (this one in Chicago, but another Fugazi show at some point in Houston)
  • Sonic Youth at Numbers

There were others, too, like the Chieftains, Tom Petty, and the Eagles, all of whom I didn’t consider sufficiently ‘cool’ at the time, but clearly were well worth me seeing. 

And in between these higher profile shows we’d feed off of Houston’s formidable local band scene, hitting venues like Fitzgerald’s, the Vatican (later the Abyss), and Goat’s Head Soup a couple of times a month to see our friends and contemporaries cut their own teeth. Sometimes there were road trips to Austin because, well, Emo’s was there and we had to go to Emo’s. 

Two things ran concurrent with this rabid live music consumption:

First, I played in bands myself. Drummer for Milkbone, Ivy Lee, and later whatever squirrel tribe would become in Austin. And singer for the Statesman. We infiltrated these same clubs that our idols were playing and even ended up as opening acts for a couple of regional touring outfits. We built audiences, cultivated a sound, made CDs and shirts, sold CDs and shirts, and learned the biz, all while we were in high school.

But I was also in high school band. And at the time I was pretty sure one had nothing to do with the other. In one setting I was perched on my throne atop a stage in a hazy, smelly club; and in the other I was playing at high school football games, pep rallies, competitions, and the like.

One was cool, and the other was school. 

It was a whirlwind of musical activity and I couldn’t have possibly realized the long-term benefits as it was happening. At the time, it was a blur of dingy venues that smelled of beer, smoke, and sweat. We’d leave each night, our clothes soaked, but our spirits high. I can only imagine what my mom thought doing my laundry… 

“My son must be a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, hard-living, lost youth who hangs out on Washington Ave. and the Heights* every weekend. What have I done?” 

(*Washington Ave. and the Heights were quite different in those days, as older Houstonians know.)

But these were hugely formative experiences. The sights, the smells, the music. . . ahh the music. And the physicality of it all—bodies jammed into small venues, violent, circling, churning mosh pits (are mosh pits a thing anymore?), stage diving, body surfing—all of these swimming together into what was, for me, a magical experience.

And my friends and I were riding the wave with our own musical desires. Here’s the thing about the bands I was in—we practiced a lot. Like a lot a lot. Sure, this was our social scene but it was also very much music education. We practiced every day. My drum set lived in the back of my mom’s old, wood-paneled, 1980’s Chevy Celebrity station wagon. The same wagon that we all piled into to go to Lollapalooza. The same wagon whose radio only worked by jamming a pen into the tape deck (how I figured that trick out, I have no idea). The same wagon that I proudly drove to high school every day, adorned with my favorite Fugazi sticker, my drum set forever in tow, a vehicle perfectly ironic and useful and in a way, emblematic of our crew and the scene we inhabited. 

My God, I was a working musician at 17 years old in one of the country’s largest cities! And so were my friends! This isn’t self-congratulatory. . . this is self-realization. This is an epiphany. This is OMG, how was I so unbelievably lucky to be in these specific places at these specific times. These lessons, these experiences MEANT something. And have ever since. And still do. To me. Now. As a full-time, professional, classical musician. To this day. 

We were just band kids. Like, yes, that type of band kid. We were suburban Houston drumline/marching band/solo and ensemble band kids. But we would moonlight as something else, something quite different. And that ‘something’ was as valuable to me as seven years of public school band programs and three professional music degrees. 

So, here’s my reflective, 20+ years later admonition. Get out. Go to shows. Go see something. Maybe you’re a drum corps junkie. Maybe you’re more refined than I was and already lounging on the lawn at Tanglewood or watching the New York Phil’s “Concerts in the Park”. Or maybe you’re like me, or like I was, in Houston in the 1990's.

Whoever you are and whatever you do, do it as if it’s your lifeblood. You’ll learn a great deal along the way.

Todd Meehan is the founder of Liquidrum. He currently serves as the Associate Professor of Percussion and Division Director of Instrumental Studies at the Baylor University School of Music. Todd has performed as one half of the Meehan/ Perkins Duo since 2006 and was a founding member of So Percussion.