Interview: Joel Roma

Julian speaks with the new owner of Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe. Prior to taking on the venue, Joel was active in the Houston music scene—including a fifteen year run as the drummer of the Hates (going by the name Joel Juggernaut). He’s in the middle of this photo from 1999. Photo: Christian Arnheiter.

Julian: How’d you end up as owner of the Acoustic Cafe?

Joel: Well, I’ve just been coming here for years. Every band I’ve ever played in has played here. It’s one of the only places that I know in Galveston County that features all original music.

It’s one of the reasons I like the place. How long has this place been around?

It’s been on the island for 21 years. It was in Houston in the 60s and 70s. That’s where it started. It was like a haven for all the… Steve Earl, Lucinda Williams... all these folk and blues players. Rex Bell, who was the previous owner,  had a partner, his name was Vince. They started the acoustic cafe. They were both songwriters- Rex played with Townes Van Zandt, Lightnin' Hopkins, you know, they were all in the music scene of the 60s back then. They started the club. And then sometime in the 70s Rex Bell left the club to Vince and moved down here. Vince closed the club in Houston. And then Rex just happened to be driving by this place. It was called the Acoustic Cafe before and they were evicting the previous tenant. Rex drove by and saw it, asked if he could rent the place, and he started the Old Quarter back up. It was all by chance. That was all back in ‘96.

Could you describe a little more that connection to Townes Van Zandt?

Well, one of the most famous folk albums is “Live at the Old Quarter” -Townes Van Zandt. So that’s… You know, Rex was his friend. They made music together, toured together. Townes wrote the song “Rex’s Blues.” That’s about Rex. Everybody you can think of in blues has covered that song. This whole place is basically a shrine to Townes Van Zandt. He’s the one that put the club on the map. The second weekend this place was open, he came down and played two shows. I have the flyer back there. He passed away New Year’s Day, 1997, so it was only a few months after he played here. SO people travel from all over the place to look at the walls.

Townes Van Zandt had a lot of history in Galveston, although Live at The Old Quarter was actually recorded at the previous location in Houston. The building still stands at 1400 Congress Street.

So how did you get involved with the place?

It was just kinda dumb luck I guess, I dunno. Like I said, I think ‘99 or ‘98 was the first time I played here. I played in a punk band, in Houston, it was called The Hates. They were like the oldest punk band in Houston. I was 23 or something like that and I joined that band. Somehow we ended up down here, just in the middle of touring or something. We had never come down here. I played with them for 15 years, and after that I formed bands with other people. But every band I’ve played with has played on this stage. So Rex put out a mass email with a newsletter that let everybody know what was up. And he sent one out last year that said “21 and done.” He was gonna close the club because he wanted to retire.

I just, on a whim… I had thought about it for a long time, “man it’d be nice to.. I’ve always wanted to own a venue.” So I sent him this email, 3 o’clock in the morning, this long email explaining to him I wanted to keep the whole thing going, the legacy. 2 or 3 days later he sent me back a message, “I find your offer perfect in its presentation.” So we started talking. That was last March. We talked and negotiated until July last year… he had a stroke. So he was down. So I started coming here, helping his wife run the place, and we finally finalized January.

You mentioned you wanna preserve his legacy...

Yeah. The whole club, it’s an interesting thing. In its genre of music, which I guess is folk/blues, it’s an institution. People come from all over the world to see this place. My personal thing was that this was one of the only venues in town you could see full original music, and not only local talent but nationally touring acts. Unless they’re at the Grand, this is really the only place you’re gonna see bigger name acts come through. And it’s because of the name.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about the place is that I’ve always seen such a wide range of genres.

Other than them being professional and good, I don’t really pay too much attention to it. I grew up with punk and like folk and blues but I’m really open to it all. That’s how I grew up. When I played in the Houston music scene, and you would go to clubs, you’d see a country band and a punk band and rockabilly, it’s all mixed up. So that’s how I see things.

How have you seen the scene change since you’ve been in Galveston?

Now that I’m here, I see how strong the music scene is locally. They really band together and support each other which is great. These guys really pull together. I think that’s great- I’ve always wanted to be involved in a great Seattle scene. Here, man, there’s so much talent, just right here on this island. It’s amazing. It’s great that I get to be involved and help them put on shows.

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