Thanks to Condray and crew, Houstonians were treated to many an unforgettable evening of history-making performances.
HOUSTON — On Bruce Springsteen’s 1998 multi-album box set of miscellaneous recordings, Tracks, “The Boss” performs a live acoustic version of his composition, “This Hard Land.” Within the song, he poignantly sings, “Hey Frank, won’t you pack your bags and meet me tonight down at Liberty Hall / Just one kiss from you my brother, and we’ll ride till we fall.” This was Springsteen’s way of paying homage to the music venue where as a young man, he blazed a musical trail deep into the heart of the southern United States as part of a promotional tour after being signed to New York-based Columbia Records.
Springsteen was also giving a tip-of-the-hat to Liberty Hall owner, Mike Condray, who, in March 1974, took a chance and booked this unknown New Jersey road warrior into his Houston music venue, four continuous nights, to the delight of the city’s live music aficionados.
Springsteen’s was only one of the legendary stage shows that Condray booked.
Springsteen’s was only one of the legendary stage shows that Condray, along with his business partners, then-girlfriend, Lynda Herrera and Ryan Trimble, a Beaumont crony, had the insight to book into their new music venture. Between 1971 and 1978, week after week, Houstonians were treated to many an unforgettable evening of history-making performances that were as diverse as they were profoundly inspirational.
Memorable musical moments some were fortunate to experience included the night John Lee Hooker traded guitar licks and verbal barbs with Houston’s Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins, a performance by a post-Burrito Brother, Gram Parsons, whose L.A. band, The Fallen Angels, included his muse and protégé, Emmylou Harris, on vocals, and the night Beaumont blues guitar virtuoso, Johnny Winter, surprisingly took the stage to lend backline support to an equally adept Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet.
Liberty Hall was also where Velvet Underground guitarist, Sterling Morrison, played his last engagement with the remnants of the Warhol-inspired art rock ensemble before informing band members that he would be leaving the road in favor of his doctoral pursuits at the University of Texas. Some former Liberty Hall patrons still reminisce about the evening they experienced the first and only Houston performance of the decibel-driven, cross-dressing New York Dolls who left their confused audience unsure of whether they should demand an encore from the band or a refund from the box office.
‘Mike had a real gift for gab and should
have been a lawyer.’
“Mike had a real gift for gab and should have been a lawyer,” Herrera said.”He was on his high school debate team, and he loved to network with the New York booking agents. That’s how we got Springsteen to come down to Texas.”
Originally from Beaumont where he operated the Inferno Coffee House with future Liberty Hall partner, Ryan Trimble, Condray, Herrera, and graphic illustrator George Banks, opened their first short-lived Houston venue, Jubilee Hall, in 1967, in a former East Montrose church located at the corner of Bagby and McGowen.
This endeavor led to another more successful venture in 1969: Houston’s first “Hippie” restaurant, The Family Hand. Located on Brazos Street in what is now a trendy upscale neighborhood called Metro Midtown, The Family Hand offered patrons a cheap meal with a cold beer that included a floor show. It was a cozy place where any given night local songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark would test drive their new compositions. According to Herrera, because Condray “loved the blues,” Houston’s Lightnin’ Hopkins and Navasota’s Mance Lipscomb were also frequently booked to into “The Hand” to entertain the neighborhood regulars.
In 1971, when an old American Legion Hall, located in the 1600 block of Chenevert Street in a rundown area east of downtown became available for lease, the trio of Condray, Trimble, and Herrera knew this was the venue where they could start fresh and begin their new social experiment.
“Mike booked the music and handled the contracts, Ryan, the level-headed one, made sure the bills got paid, and I got to pick the opening acts and was in charge of beverages and set design,” Herrera said. “I also came up with the name, Liberty Hall.”
In addition to their weekly duties at “The Hall,” the trio also produced larger shows at other Houston venues decades before the advent of corporate Live Nation Entertainment. They brought Ravi Shankar to Jones Hall, and the Incredible String Band and David Bromberg to Houston’s now defunct Music Hall. “Liberty Hall just couldn’t accommodate the large fan base of some of these performers,” Herrera said, “so we had to find bigger venues elsewhere in town.”
In the end, ‘too much decadence and too much partying’ was the downfall of Liberty Hall.
In the end, “too much decadence and too much partying” was the downfall of Liberty Hall according to Herrera. They gave the business over to Liberty Hall’s flamboyant master of ceremonies, Roberto Gonzales, who managed the venue until its final demise in 1978.
Known as a social innovator and a cultural pioneer, Michael Dale “Mike” Condray, age 71, died March 18, 2016 at Kingwood Hospital, located northeast of Houston. According to Condray’s younger sister, Terry June Woolery, he had battled lung cancer since 2012. Condray was living in retirement, in rural Splendora, Texas, at the time of his death.
“He was a real visionary who had a knack for picking the right group and bringing good music to Houston. I believe he provided the city an invaluable service and should be remembered for his contribution to the arts and culture of Houston,” Herrera said.
Surprisingly, partner Ryan Trimble served as mayor of the City of Blanco for five years where he still resides, and Family Hand and Jubilee Hall partner, George Banks, is an architect who still practices in Humble.
Regarding the trio’s formula for success, “We were just in the right place at the right time in Houston history,” said Herrera who now enjoys retirement and the tranquility of Egypt, Texas, southwest of Conroe. She also said she still enjoys her weekly drives to Houston to visit old friends and what is left of her former Montrose haunts from the good old days.
The site where Liberty Hall stood, east of downtown Houston, is now a parking lot in the shadow of the massive Toyota Center indoor arena and sports facility. It remains a fond memory to those who knew it ever existed.
Find more articles by Ivan Koop Kuper on The Rag Blog.
[Ivan Koop Kuper is a freelance writer, a real estate broker, and a professional drummer. He is still a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, and can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.]