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Fixture on Little Rock music scene, Mystro gets help from friends

by Sean Clancy | November 25, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.
Mystro, who runs sound at Stickyz on 10/29/2021 at Stickyz (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

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He is Mystro, with a y just to be different, and don't bother asking about any other name.

"You ain't getting that," he says firmly. "I used to have a sound company and did a lot of outdoor festivals and people knew me as Mystro. I've actually gotten checks [made out to Mystro] from the city of Cleveland. Had a helluva time getting them to go through."

Since 2001, he has worked his wizardry behind the soundboard at Stickyz Rock 'n' Roll Chicken Shack in Little Rock, controlling the sound as bands perform onstage. From rock and funk to rap and country and blues to folk and beyond, from garage band punks and local heroes to international legends, Mystro has seen them all.

He shows the musicians where to park their vans or buses, helps them load in, oversees soundchecks, crafts the way their music comes through the club's speakers during their sets, runs the stage lights, then helps them load out at the end of the evening.

"I'm probably the only really true house engineer in the state," he says.

"Mystro is always early," says Chris King who, along with wife Suzon, owns Stickyz and Rev Room, which is a few blocks west on President Clinton Avenue. "He's here from [before bands arrive] and then he's watching them drive off."

HEALTH PROBLEMS

About four years ago, Mystro began having health problems. He's on dialysis now, and there are other ailments.

"I've come close to dying a couple of times," he says.

On a recent weekend, Tragikly White, Bad Habit and deFrance, featuring Texas blues guitarist Wes Jeans, hit the stage at Rev Room for the Mystro Show, a fundraiser to help offset health care costs for the longtime sound man and Little Rock music scene fixture.

Sam Bennett is the 18-year-old drummer for Bad Habit.

"We're a pretty young band, and we've been playing at Stickyz for four or five years now," Bennett says. "I think Mystro was sort of intrigued by us when we first started playing there. He can be a tough crowd, if you will, so if he takes a liking to you, it's a really good thing. He will do whatever he can to help you out."

In the spirit of helping out, Sam's brother, Bad Habit singer-guitarist Jack Bennett, came up with the idea for the Mystro Show.

"We just wanted to do a night of rock 'n' roll where people can hear three great bands and all proceeds go to help Mystro," Sam Bennett says.

"We're really good friends. I have so much respect for the guy," says deFrance guitarist, singer and namesake Drew deFrance. "He's run sound for Aretha Franklin ... he's absolutely legendary."

FRIDAY AFTERNOON

It's a Friday afternoon in late October, and Stickyz is mostly empty as Mystro sits at a table with King. In a couple hours he will help country singer Bri Bagwell set up for her show. Right now, he's talking about his life in music.

Originally from Ohio, Mystro was a drummer, doing session work at a Beachwood, Ohio, studio called the Recording Connection, where some of the clients included the Dazz Band and Gladys Knight and the Pips. He also attended classes there on studio production and engineering.

"They were called the Midnight Connection because classes started at midnight," he says. "It worked out for me because I was doing gigs, either working sound or playing drums."

He had his own 14-piece band -- "I like horns," he smiles -- for about 15 years and also spent time on the road with the O'Jays and the Ohio Players. He still loves the drums, however.

"If my health wasn't bad, I'd still be playing drums," he says. "I was a hard-hitting drummer."

For a while he was managing The Mad Hatter, an Akron, Ohio, nightclub. He had a sound system business with locations in Cleveland and Akron, worked gigs as a DJ and managed bands, including a heavy metal group called Shadow Play and Cleveland R&B outfit The Rude Boys, who were signed to Atlantic Records from 1989-1993.

The Rude Boys were on tour when Mystro left to come to Little Rock to work under contract as the house sound man at Smitty's.

LANDED AT STICKYZ

Stickyz opened in 2000, and was in need of a sound man in late 2001. Mystro remembers ducking into Midtown Billiards to pick up a burger one night and talking to Stickyz bartender Jon Butcher.

"He said, 'Man, we've been looking all over for you,'" Mystro recalls.

"Mystro and I had a meeting around the first of November 2001" King says, realizing during the late October interview that an anniversary was on the horizon. "It will literally be 20 years next week. Outside of his health [issues] he's been at every single show. His record is impeccable. I can't tell you how many of our touring acts have expressed interest in taking him on the road with them."

DeFrance has a story about Mystro's reputation.

"I was doing a show in Gateshead, England. I was playing with Steve Earle and the Dukes and Brandi Carlile's band was there, too. I used to know these guys in Austin. I was talking to them -- members of the Dukes and Brandi Carlile's band -- and they were like, 'Oh, yeah, Little Rock, right. How's Mystro doing?' That happens all over. Anybody who has ever played Stickyz, Mystro has run sound for them at some point in their career."

As referenced by Sam Bennett, Mystro runs a tight ship. He tells the story of a Fayetteville musician who complained about the way Mystro spoke to him before a gig. The musician's wife let him know that Mystro was simply telling him what he needed to hear.

A FIGHTER

Mystro will not countenance half measures when it comes to performance.

"This is a business," Mystro says. "People pay good money to come in here."

Ailments sent him back to the hospital in September and forced him to miss shows.

"I'm a fighter," he says. "I said, 'This is not happening.' I'm telling you, laying up in that hospital bed, I felt terrible. Laying in the bed will kill you. I got some nurses to help me walk up and down the hall."

He now keeps an oxygen tank near his sound booth, though he hasn't had to use it yet, and has a bigger tank at home.

"I feel all right," he says about his health. "I'm just a little short-winded."

How much longer does he think he will keep working?

"As long as I can get on my feet and my health allows me to function," he says. "I'm not going to stop. That's when you drop."

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