Sam Houston and his rock-and-soul band Blk Odyssy have spent the past few years entrancing growing crowds with cathartic music that singes and soars. Houston’s vulnerability draws in the audience, and his power shakes and stills them.
Now he’s fueling his voice with another personal passion to bring people together. Houston; Blk Odyssy guitarist Alejandro Rios; and Houston’s brother, Jay Elcock, Blk Odyssy’s business manager, are building the foundation for Soul House, a forthcoming brick-and-mortar soul food restaurant that will preview its food through a delivery service that launches with dinner Monday.
Houston, a native of New Jersey who has lived in Austin for five years, turned to the late great Wells Supper Club in Harlem for inspiration for his restaurant that will showcase chicken and waffles. Named by some historians as the birthplace of the sweet, savory, crunchy and juicy dish, Wells served as a touchstone for its community and musicians during the Harlem Renaissance.
"Obviously during that time there was a lot of social and civil injustices in the country and civil unrest and racial unrest," Houston says. "Harlem-style soul food stemmed from that just like the music did."
Houston, who studied at Austin Arts Institute’s culinary program in 2015 following a childhood spent often enthralled with television cooking shows, sensed a correlation between that historical period and the protests calling for civil justice today. He wanted to open Soul House as a place to bring people with disparate views together through the common love for food and need for community.
So, with a spate of Blk Odyssy shows canceled due to the coronavirus, Houston turned his attention to his second love.
"The main thing I think our issue is in society is everyone focuses on what makes us different and thinks that those things should not be celebrated," Houston told the American-Statesman recently, in between sessions at Studio 512 in South Austin. "What the Soul House is aiming to do is be a place where people can come together and just celebrate those ideas and start to appreciate each other for the differences and start to celebrate different cultures."
The Soul House is currently taking orders for its first delivery dinner, with a menu that includes fried chicken and buttermilk waffles, candied yams, collard greens, honey butter cornbread and more. The plan is to continue to delivery with Sunday brunch and dinner on Monday and Tuesday for a few months while the team raises money and searches for a restaurant location, all while getting in the studio to record their debut album.
Blk Odyssy guitarist Alejandro Rios, who is also a popular bartender at Home Slice North Loop, will handle the hospitality aspect of the restaurant, with Elcock taking care of the business end of things, just as he does with the band.
While the coronavirus pandemic cratered a hole into the band’s performance calendar that gave Houston the space to add burgeoning restaurateur to his resume, the recent protests over police brutality and the value of Black lives connected the musician more closely to the community he is trying to bridge with food.
Houston took to the streets with protesters in Austin and says he was proud of his relatively new home and moved by what he saw from a crowd that he noted was predominantly white.
"I saw white people getting slammed and tear gassed, and the fact that they would go out and there and risk themselves to fight for us that was amazing for me," Houston says.
The cause couldn’t be more personal for Houston, whose oldest brother was killed by police in New Jersey a decade ago. You can hear the pain in his voice on Blk Odyssy’s "Drinking Good," a song American-Statesman music writer Deborah Sengupta-Stith described as "a visceral blood-letting" and a "powerful meditation on pervasive inequality, trauma recovery and the way misperceptions kill black men in America."
Houston tempers the song’s rawness with sanguine empathy when he talks about how his grief transformed him.
"I have spent a lot of time meditating on forgiveness and getting over it. It plagued my life. It was really messing with my mental health," Houston says. "At a certain point in grief you have to realize that you can’t stay there. I literally told myself that I forgive the officers that did that. They don’t know the evil that is plaguing their mind, and I wish and hope that they find peace in their hearts one day, because it’s a lot harder to hate than it is to love."
That message of love and understanding through something as simple as sitting down with people for a meal informs Soul House’s mission. He wants everyone to feel welcome at Soul House, regardless of race, gender or political affiliation.
"Which is so far out for people nowadays," Houston says. "I want people to come together and have something mutually that we enjoy, which is soul food. We all sit down over a meal and celebrate the things that we like together, which really correlates to our message in music, as well."
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