By Kimber Fountain, Photos by Christa Schreckengost
Galveston has witnessed the burgeoning of quite an ample music scene over the past few years. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a bar on the weekend that does not have some sort of live performance, but therein lies the rub. The late-night spots that want to provide added entertainment to their venue have indeed increased the quantity of music, but the fact that the band or singer pretty much has to be okay with just being background music severely limits the quality. Fortunately for Galveston, there is a place that has not only held fast during the ebbs and flows of the local music scene over the last two decades, it is one of the only places on the Island where the music comes first.
Old Quarter Acoustic Café is a hidden gem, in every respect of the word. Nestled away on the outskirts of downtown, on a street where only the non-existent trolleys are allowed to travel, Wrecks Bell has nurtured the careers of local musicians for nineteen years. Born and raised in Texas City, Wrecks spent much of his childhood in Galveston fishing with his Dad, and it was one of the first places where he himself performed as a musician. He would eventually rise from the salty waters of the Gulf Coast to cultivate an impressive career as an acclaimed bassist. For many years he accompanied the legendary Townes Van Zant, as well as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lucinda Williams, and Hayes Carl, whose career, Wrecks notes, “was launched right here from this very stage.”
Wrecks opened his first club in downtown Houston at Austin and Congress, and tells the beginning of what is a most serendipitous tale regarding the club’s name. “We were on a pretty tight budget opening the club,” he says, “and there was actually already a sign on the building that said ‘Old Quarter.’ We liked the name, and it meant that we didn’t have to buy a sign, so we went with it,” he laughs. Later he would meet his wife Janet, a native Galvestonian from the well regarded family of the Jenkins doctors. Her own interest in music was spurred by her involvement in the club, where she began playing guitar at the behest of Wrecks and some of the musicians who played there. “They would be in a circle, playing, having [jam sessions], and they began to say ‘come on, come over here and play with us,’” Janet remembers. “I was encouraged into music by some of the best musicians around at the time. It was a great experience.” The original Old Quarter stayed open for nearly ten years, but then fell victim to a fire.
Then one day, Wrecks was walking down a Galveston street and saw a vacant building with furniture stacked in front of it on the sidewalk. Inside, he found the landlord of the building who explained that the previous bar that was there had just closed down. Without hesitation, Wrecks agreed to rent the place, and on a whim and a handshake, Galveston’s Old Quarter Acoustic Café was born. And it was a good thing that he kept the name, because over ten years later he would get a phone call from the owner of the building he left in Houston, who told him he had found that original sign, the very one that had so generously provided a namesake. It has now found its forever home, hanging proudly on the east wall of the Island café.
The success of Old Quarter has hinged on Wrecks’ insistence that “we are a music club more than a bar. Here, the music comes first. Here, lyrics count,” and Galveston has no shortage of talented musicians to fill his lineups. All of the Island’s most notable and followed acts are fixtures on the Old Quarter stage. The likes of Robert Kuhn, Kevin Anthony, Come See My Dead Person, and Zak Perry are frequent performers, and if the history is any indication of the future, they are well on their way to greatness.
Over its long and storied career, the Acoustic Café has garnered an international audience and hosted acts from all over Texas and the world. Last year, the “Houston Press” named Old Quarter one of the ten best live music venues outside of Loop 610, but surprisingly enough the scope of its influence has gone largely unnoticed by large sections of the Galveston community. “But we have acts that come from Ireland, France, and Italy, and people come from all over to see the ‘Townes Wall,’ and to hear Wrecks play all of his beloved songs,” Janet says. However, Wrecks knows that there is another very distinct reason, one that also exemplifies the quality of music he perpetuates. With a sly grin on his face, he affirms that at Old Quarter, “You will never hear ‘Margaritaville.’”
Old Quarter Acoustic Café
413 20th Street, downtown Galveston