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Volume 70, Issue 128, Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Life & Arts

Medicine show brings back roots

Culture Shock Therapy

Bridget Brown

Eight years ago, a coffee shop called The Mausoleum was a small shack of a house better known as an underground haven for the club across the street's (Numbers Nightclub) Friday-night gothic spillover. Now, Helios, 411 Westheimer Road, is a pinnacle of Houston's hoity-toity hipster art scene. 

It's still grimy, and dogs are always welcome inside or out, but the patrons have changed. This is no more evident than every Monday night for the past two years when local bluegrass outfit The Medicine Show performs.

The six-piece bluegrass band litters the stage with traditional instruments: a bass guitar made from a jug sitting on top of a microphone and a string, a banjo, an accordion, a clarinet and a drum kit with a bass drum and a cymbal. It was like a back-pasture jamboree, and of course, there were tambourines and rattlers -- but that's where the crowd comes in.

Two girls in their early 20s danced wildly in front of the stage -- one petite with long braided pigtails, a flowing, flowered skirt, fishnet stockings and a fanny pack. The other is tall and wore a denim miniskirt, hot pink stockings and white go-go boots. Both sported face-covering sunglasses -- they are urban gypsies. 

As The Medicine Show flies through a set that covers swing, gypsy, Greek, Native American and traditional bluegrass styles, the girls flail, stomp and flounder with tambourines and rattlers. For the moment, the two steal the show until a member of the band played puppet-master to a small skeleton on strings. 

It was hard to sit still during such a lively performance, and we were all off our seats toward the middle of the set. Men in tucked shirts jammed and do-si-doed with other guys with beards reminiscent of Texas rockers ZZ Top, and the girls joined the gypsies up front.

"It's really not polished at all," the smaller gypsy, University of St. Thomas junior Alex Yancey said. "They play because they really love it."

Yancey said that "raw" is the only way to describe the Houston bluegrass scene.

"We love the feeling that life brings. It is very lively. It's not watered down. It's pure life," she said. "The Medicine Show is about making a party." 

Yancey said she would like to see the scene grow because she thinks all roots music envelops is important. 

"It is important to remember the rawness of music and keep a party atmosphere. That is what it is all about, and that is why I have only missed one Monday here at Helios in the past year."

Those Mondays are precious according to some fans because they feel Houston really has a very nonexistent roots music scene, especially in the genre of bluegrass. 

A crowd of kids getting air outside agreed. When asked what they thought of the Houston roots scene, one young, hipster boy announced, "What are you talking about? Get real, honey. There is no bluegrass scene anywhere." 

His girlfriend, Shelly Nelson, quickly grabbed her lunchbox purse, and as he whisked her away, she quickly said, "I'm sorry. He hates the scene here. We're from New York."

Taller gypsy walked up right in time to coax them both into coming back inside for a drink. Later, the annoyed couple was spotted gyrating together with the best of them. 

"It's always easy to build something on energy," Yancey said. "And if nothing else, that's what we have here: energy."

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