By Jim Allen
Veteran singer-songwriter Wes Houston has seen his share of history. The host of the 4VS program Wes Houston Presents has been performing since 1964, and was a part of the New York City folk scene in its 1960s heyday, playing guitar for legendary African-American musician and civil rights activist Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick as well as performing his own material and recording for the storied ’60s folk label/magazine Broadside alongside Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, et al.
In 1974 he formed his All-Star Space Band, which evolved into the Wes Houston Band by decade’s end. A constant presence in Queens and Long Island in the ’70s and ’80s, he developed a style that was Americana before the genre existed, blending folk, country, blues, soul, rock, jazz and more. His songs were slices of life from the streets he grew up on, detailing the dreams, disappointments, lives and loves of the working-class folks who made the area what it was.
If you lived in Queens or Nassau County in that era, you knew Wes Houston, and long-timers still wax rhapsodic about his shows, and still turn up to see him play today with the acoustic trio he started in 2013 with Hollis, Queens, natives Ray Forgione (drums) and Steve Hawk (bass). The single he cut in the Space Band days, “Too Long a Day”/”Wanderin’” has become a collector’s item (when you can find it), but he’s made a number of albums in the digital era too. And he’s been hosting the live music show Wes Houston Presents on cable station Four Village Studio for 13 years, bringing a jaw-dropping number of acts to viewers in Queens and Long Island.
But the trio’s performance on Saturday, Jan. 20 at Neir’s Tavern in Woodhaven is kind of a historical homecoming that brings a lot of things full circle. Wes Houston hails from a musical family—not only did his dad play guitar in big bands from the 1930s until WWII, his uncle was a touring violinist, and his grandfather, R. Petersen, was a bandleader and violinist in the 1900s and teens. And one of his frequent venues was Neir’s Tavern.
Neir’s opened at 87-48 78th St. in Woodhaven in 1829, and has been hailed by PBS as “the most famous bar you’ve never heard of.” And Houston’s grandfather Reinhold, who lived close by in Cypress Hills, performed there often as the leader of R. Petersen’s Orchestra, a group of seven or eight musicians who played at a multitude of functions for Neir’s over the years.
Houston still has his grandfather’s violin, as well as the programs from some of those performances. He helped take care of his grandparents when they were in their 90s, living in Bellaire in Queens Village, and he’d been close to them since boyhood. He recalled, “My grandmother always told me, ‘When you’re a musician, sometimes the money’s good but other times…’ Of course I had to find out for myself. However, it was a lot of fun for a 15-16 year old to drink beer with my grandfather and hear the stories.”
Neir’s is still operating today and on Jan. 20, Houston will bring things full circle by playing there with his trio. When he hits the bandstand at what is one of New York’s oldest pubs, he’ll be picking up a story that started more than a century ago and is adding a new chapter to it, sharing tunes from his big, bountiful songbag with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people who saw his grandfather play there so many decades before.
And Houston’s own grandchildren are already following in the familial footsteps by displaying musical talents of their own these days. So who knows what the future holds? Houston’s appearance at Neir’s might not be the last link in the chain…
The Wes Houston Trio plays at Neir’s Tavern (87-48 78th St.) at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 20.
For more on Wes Houston and Wes Houston Presents, visit www.weshouston.com, email email@example.com or call 718-468-9308.
For info on Neir’s Tavern, visit www.neirstavern.com.