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Cover Band Gauntlet: Air Guitars and a Weeknight Sherlock’s Party with Rat Ranch

by Hugo Esteban Rodriguez Posted: 08-13-15 | 2 years ago
rat ranch houston
Photo Credit: Hugo Esteban Rodriguez / Hype Houston Rat Ranch -- 4/5 Air Guitars ain't bad.

We’re investigating Houston’s cover band scene, heading out to every damn Sherlock’s in the Houston area to decide which ones are worth a shit. This one? It’s worth a shit. But who knows what next time will have in store.

Cover Band: Rat Ranch

Venue: Sherlock’s Carillion on Westheimer

Rating: 4/5 Air Guitars


No matter what anyone says, Wednesday nights are not for going out. There’s no “hit the whiskey hard because it’s Monday.” There’s no “hit the tequila hard because it’s Friday.”

It’s Wednesday — the middle of the week — and so help me god, if one of you comments with a camel meme I’ll scream.

But despite it being Wednesday, I somehow found myself at Sherlock’s on Westheimer to scout out Rat Ranch, a local cover band with a massive following so that I could advise you, dear reader, as to whether you should hit Carillon Square at 10001 Westheimer this weekend to see them.

And the answer to that? Well, I say yes.

Yeah, they're definitely worth a trip to Sherlocks.
Yeah, they’re definitely worth a trip to Sherlock’s.

I showed up to Sherlock’s, trying (and failing) to avoid looking wistfully at the closed empanada eatery Marini’s (I’m hungry!) as I make my way inside. For the first time in a long time, I was carded at the door because why not, and once I proved my adulthood, proceeded to set up shop near the stage. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Rat Ranch prior to a few weeks ago, when I was told,”Hey, these people are doing this. Go.” Or some variation of that sentence. (We have great communication, I swear.) So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I do know that the last time I listened to a live band at Sherlock’s property was at the Baker Street Pub in Rice Village back in 2011. The bassist, in his attempt to flirt with my friend, clocked me on the back of the head with the long end of the bass. He apologized. He didn’t have to, because it was a shitty band anyway, and not much would have helped at that moment.

Rat Ranch proved to be different.

They led off with Cole Swindell’s “You Ain’t Worth the Whiskey,” following it immediately with Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” — all tunes with vastly different genres and sounds, but Rat Ranch is one of the few cover bands I’ve seen that can pull such a feat off.

As I looked around the bar, I noticed someone dancing animatedly to the music, swaying from side to side to the beat of the music. Outside the band, though, that was about the only sign of life in the place. Sure, there were maybe ten or so people watching and clapping but for the most part, the looks on their faces are serious, and they pause their frowns only to take a sip from their beer.

This is not a judgment on the band, though. This is a judgment on the fact that it’s Wednesday and most upright citizens are tucked in bed, watching Modern Family reruns or letting a randomized Netflix choice lull them to sleep. (Ed. note: Okay, I get it. No more Wednesday night cover band chases for you, Nancy.)

The band’s composition is interesting, these are grown men working hard at their job. Lead vocals Brett Axelson has a kind of Shawn Michaels meets contemporary country artist vibe going on, and bassist Scott Madigan looks a bit like Journey’s Ross Valory. Rick Valadez, furious drumming up a beat behind the band, would look at home at any heavy metal show — and lead guitar Kent Newman, well…he looks like a college professor.

Collide of genres and styles or not, the band deserves some credit where credit is due. It has been around for two decades now and show no signs of stopping. They made that clear when they announced the upcoming September release of their new album before playing two original songs from the album.

I sat around listening and watching for a few more minutes, and in that time continued to wonder who the hell goes out on a Wednesday night. I also learned the woman dancing is named Berny.

Cover band? Cover yes.
Cover band? Cover yes.

The band busted out a few more hits — The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” which was followed up with the Stray Cats’ “Rock this Town” and Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love” — because seriously, what other Bad Company are you going to actually listen to?

But just as the band began to play Love an Theft’s “Angel Eyes,” I followed the endless dancer Berny downstairs for a quick chat.

Wait, let me add air quotes to downstairs.

This particular Sherlock’s is my favorite out of the locations I’ve visited. Four levels on a slant. The upper level is a tiny hybrid of a cosmopolitan and a dive bar. You go down two flights of stairs and there are a few tables and a dartboard. Go down another level and there are even more tables and the stage. Go down again and there lies the billiard area.

But yes, “downstairs” is where I set up shop to talk to Berny for a little bit. Berny, who reminds me a bit of Leslie Mann, has been one of the bands longest-tenured fans, meeting them through mutual friends twenty years ago. We chat about her affinity for the band a bit before she abruptly cuts me short as the unmistakable first chords of ZZ Top’s “La Grange” start coming through the speakers on stage.

“I have to dance to this,” she says.

I don’t blame her. I headed back in with her to take a few more shots…of the band (hey, I have a 9-5 job, too), and then managed to track down Kent Newman and Brett Axelson, who were writing their setlist on sheets of paper with thick sharpie.

“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve experienced in a show?” I asked.

The question stumps them. I mean, why wouldn’t it, they’ve played a lot of shows.

One idea gets discussed, but then summarily dismissed. Another one borders on the morbid and bizarre.

Axelson claps me on the shoulder and tells me he’s got one.

Flashback time.

A two-part story.

In 2013, the band got hired to play at the AT&T Center in San Antonio during a live viewing of game six of the NBA finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat. The band did not expect the kind of turnout, which was around 15-17 thousand people just to watch the game. So they’re getting into it, and the audience is lively, and then the band plays The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and get drowned in boos. They recover the audience’s goodwill, but after the show, the manager approaches them, asking them what the hell were they thinking.

Seeing the band’s confused faces, the manager explains that the song is the Miami Heat’s pump-up song.

The other part of the story is recounted by Newman. The entire audience is getting ready to explode with celebration as the Spurs appear to have the edge. He recalls an older gentleman wheeling a cart full of champagne onto the court.

Then everyone witnesses this:

Newman and Axelson remember the weight of the emotion drained out of the arena that night, and the older man timidly wheeling the champagne cart back out of sight.

I remember that day, too. It was horrible for both Rat Ranch and me.

I was in Puerto Rico at a dry casino (and probably the only place in the island where alcohol wasn’t served because life sometimes doesn’t make sense), watching the game. I remember Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward to play the game, and one of the Top 5 basketball players of all time, being benched for a slightly speedier Boris Diaw for the last minute.

I remember Kawhi Leonard, an 82 percent free-throw shooter missing a crucial point from the line. I remember Lebron James missing a three-pointer and the Spurs, easily one of the most defensive-minded dynasties in NBA history, losing a defensive rebound — and Chris Bosh kicking Manu Ginobili in the scrum — before conceding an open look to Ray goddamn Allen to send the game into overtime.

It’s been three years and I still don’t think I’ll forgive Allen for that.

I remember the game eventually ending, and then me looking sadly at the screen, and then over at the bandwagon Miami Heat fans to my left. I must have placed my head down to the table and said nothing for a good twenty minutes. My friends still think this is one of the funniest things that they’ve ever seen.

So I understand the emotion of those 15,000 people in the audience for the NBA finals and Rat Ranch, and fuck, I’m getting some PTSD flashbacks about that night. Luckily, Newman and Axelson had to head back for their second set and we parted ways before we commiserate on more painful memories.

Memories like the one where the next game Duncan missed a tying basket with 30 seconds left to go and ACTUALLY SHOWING EMOTION. Memories like shuddering whenever “Blurred Lines” played, not because of the rapey-vibe but because when T.I. mutters “but she ain’t bad as you” it REALLY sounds like he’s saying Shane Battier and fuck that guy, too.

And fuck the Miami Heat.

But enough of that. Rat Ranch will be playing this Thursday, Friday and Saturday. You should really go out and see them play. Just stay away from awkward conversations about basketball games, or you’ll also be dealing with flashbacks the next morning. And nobody needs that on a Wednesday OR Thursday. Nobody.

Hugo Esteban RC

"You can take the Mexican out of the Valley, but you can't take the Valley out of the Mexican. Writer, poet, interpreter."

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