Chelsea Street Pub had a small stage and tables were so close that some band members could sneak food off when fans weren’t watching. Hard rockers had to wait for later sets, after dining families and older mall shoppers had left, before cranking up the volume.
Bands had to play on the hour during their sets. Club managers often feuded with bands over fans moving tables to dance. Guitarist and would-be messiah Vernon Howell, better known as David Koresh, sometimes dropped in.
There was nothing quite like Chelsea Street Pub, according to Waco rockers who remember the place.
Before it abruptly closed in 1996, the venue in Richland Mall was the rock and pop oasis in a Waco world of country music clubs. It also served as a proving ground for young bands, who got plenty of experience during their weeklong gigs.
Ten bands will revisit their memories and dust off their setlists during Chelsea Street Pub Revisited Friday and Saturday at Hog Creek Icehouse.
It’s the brainchild of Brian Brown, Waco talent promoter, lead singer with Sloppy Joe and half of the Brian and Jeremy duo. Brown has been booking local acts for Hog Creek Icehouse in recent months, bringing more rock and rhythm-and-blues bands there. In talking with many longtime Waco musicians, he realized their memories often crossed the common ground of Chelsea’s small stage and suggested a reunion of the groups that played there in the 1980s and 1990s.
That idea rocked. Interest proved high enough that the reunion now stretches into two nights, each capped by a closing, free-form jam with who’s onstage and in the audience.
The Richland Mall Chelsea’s was part of a restaurant/pub chain that started in the 1970s and at its height stretched into five states. Live music was part of the corporate strategy and Waco bands willing to travel often picked up gigs on the Chelsea circuit, playing at other Chelseas in Corpus Christi, Abilene, College Station, Louisiana and Wichita Falls.
A Chelsea gig meant six nights of performing, four hours on Monday to Thursday nights with five-hour stints on Friday and Saturday. Bands got a 15-minute break every hour, but had to play at the top of each hour of their set. For young groups starting out, a Chelsea gig meant plenty of time performing, and that time often helped bands cement their sound.
“It really shaped me as a musician,” said Brown, who watched bands during a four-year stint as a Chelsea bartender and performed there as well, leading the band Red Eyed Gravy. Watching energetic performers such as Jason Collins of Flashback or Rumorhasit drummer Gary Summers, known for drum solos played on the club’s tables, chairs and other hard surfaces, showed Brown just how to entertain an audience.
“It was like paid practice,” recalled Rumorhasit lead singer John Maxwell, whose band was onstage the night Chelsea’s closed. “It was good money — if you didn’t spend it all on alcohol during the week.”
The club helped establish fan bases for such Waco groups and musicians as The Fringe, Flashback, Rumorhasit, Joe Silva, the MixMasters, Common Ground, Riff Raff, Tony Calhoun and Pleasure, Hourglass and Fivovus. Several of those groups will reunite for this weekend’s performances.
More than a few Chelsea’s veterans remembered the club’s strong drinks and menu items such as the Mountain of Nachos, some of which will be added to Hog Creek’s food and drink offerings Friday and Saturday.
The pub’s mall location created a different kind of audience: families and mall shoppers finishing their dinner in the early stages of a set, replaced by drinkers and hard partyers as the night progressed.
The weeklong gigs had a rhythm as well. Mondays and Tuesdays sometimes were brutally slow, but word-of-mouth for a good band usually translated into full shows by Friday and Saturday.
Bands and club managers sometimes clashed on how an audience should react, particularly when it came to dancing. Fans often pushed back tables and chairs to clear space to dance in front of the stage, prompting some managers to intervene — without the band’s help. “Try and get people to stop dancing? Good luck with that,” recalled Hourglass leader and drummer Michael Tibbs.
Sometimes what happened off the stage floor created lasting memories. Doug Shafer, guitarist for Whirling Dervish, remembers the night that his rude hand gesture to another band member — in view of that musician’s kids — led to a parking lot fight. Then there was the night he was driving home after a Chelsea’s show and found a female fan hiding in the back seat. It was, he said, a different time.
Brown remembered one Chelsea regular, his preferred beverage, and local claim to fame before he became globally infamous. “David Koresh would come in sometimes. He never bothered anybody and drank Miller Genuine Draft, but he had that awesome ‘67 Camaro outside in the parking lot,” he said.
Largemouth Recording Studios producer and engineer David Zychek played Chelsea’s in the early ‘90s with his band Zychek, before joining the nationally touring rock band Night Ranger. Playing the Chelsea circuit could mean a grueling schedule, he recalled: Long nights Monday through Saturday, travel on Sunday, then setting up by 8 a.m. Monday for the next Chelsea date. “It was rugged, but that was the fun of it,” he said.
Those long hours, though, benefited local rock groups like Hourglass, said Tibbs. “It was great for us as a band,” he said, noting that Hourglass would go on to open for such national acts as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Leon Russell, Three Dog Night and REO Speedwagon when they’d come through Waco.
The heyday of the Richland Mall Chelsea came during a rich time for rock music as established bands and guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and Stevie Ray Vaughan were finding upstarts such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Guns n Roses and Stone Temple Pilots muscling their way into the scene.
Waco bands found themselves filling those long sets with mixes of rock covers and their own material. Groups reuniting for this weekend’s show, in fact, are brushing off old playlists of Pink Floyd, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Austin band Storyville, the Black Crowes, Ian Moore, Nirvana, Ted Nugent, Soundgarden, Def Leopard and more.
The music may bring back helpful hints for those trying to reconnect 1990s memories to musicians now in middle age.
“We’re going to try and figure out who everybody is — nobody’s skinny and with long hair anymore,” Tibbs laughed.
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