Hype This

Fleetwood Mac opens the Toyota Center, the Chron hyperventilates, and a city grumbles

Ho-hum, here we go again. Another sports and entertainment palace opens in Houston, and the Chronicle pulls out all the stops saying it's the best thing to happen to the sports and entertainment universe since the last sports and entertainment citadel opened in Houston. Fran Blinebury, Dale Robertson, John Lopez and Mickey Herskowitz all take stabs at immortality by trying to come up with a cute name for the joint. A ten-page color supplement is printed and inserted into the Sunday edition, praising to high heaven the new wonders of the structure's innovative, high-tech light and sound, its tasteful use of vaulting space and gleaming form, the superabundance of parking, and all the delicious food and cooling libations to be had.

Lee Brown is quoted about a "vision" that the arena inspired in him. What was it? A burning bush? A scabrous, 13-headed rough beast slouching forth from Buffalo Bayou's muck, croaking "Political future? Nevermore!" A polar bear on a hang glider? Nothing of the sort. The Revelation of Lee is as mundane as the man. "My vision was that someone would stop me in the streets downtown and say, 'Mr. Mayor, I'm from San Antonio. I'm here spending the weekend in downtown Houston.' That's what's going to happen."

Allow us to pick our jaws up from the floor. Anyway, on the Chron went with the litany of bells and whistles. Mocha lattes! A 2,000-square-foot Rockets team store! State-of-the-art steaks and fork-tender sound systems!

Showtime rolls around and the Chron stays in overdrive. Several reporters sally forth and say that the night, while not without glitches, was certainly one to remember. We are, we are told, "wowed" by the venue and "dazzled" by the band. Michael D. Clark says the sound is "very listener-friendly," and a rash of letters comes in by Sunday saying that it is anything but. So it went for Reliant Stadium and so it will go for this show.

That's the problem for the Chron. Their reporters have to get quotes, and the public input often tells a different story from the headlines, and these weirdly schizoid stories emerge. In the story that had us 'Wowed' in the headline, only one of reporter Mary Vuong's three sources offered the bling-bling arena unqualified praise. Twila Ross, 57, said that it was "a step up from the Compaq Center and you can [still] get a hot dog." Faint praise indeed. (And wouldn't Bling-Bling Arena be a better name for the Rockets' new crib? After all, we invented the bling aesthetic here and it's a thriving local industry…)

Meanwhile, others gave it mixed reviews. A NASA engineer named Doug McMullen said it was more advanced than he thought it would be and that he liked the refreshments and seating. But then he added that a renovated Compaq Center could have been just as good, and groused about the "ridiculous" $15 parking fee. (Parking was free at Compaq Center.) Others grumbled about the crass commercialism -- the Toyota logos everywhere, and even actual Toyotas. Concertgoer Rebecca McDowell, another of the "wowed," told the Chron that it was "gross" that there were floor models parked all over the place.

And indeed, some parts of the new pleasure dome resemble nothing so much as the showroom out at Sterling McCall. And in fact, it is a showroom: Toyota sales reps are conveniently on hand at all events, and though you can't drive your brand-new Corolla right off the lot, er, out of the arena, you can pick it up the next day.

Still, the concourses would more accurately be described as a cross between a Toyota dealership, the long white halls out at Intercontinental, and the flight deck of 2001:A Space Odyssey's S.S. Discovery.

In fact, HAL-9000 would not be out of place here. They could lay off a bunch of the ushers they've hired to keep people out of the many and various luxury suites and boxes and go fully automated. For example, you could insert your ticket into a slot at the gates to these Shangri-Las, and hear a soothing voice intone things like "I'm afraid I can't allow you in that pod. That's a luxury pod, for people with much more money than you. Please step away from the pod bay doors. Would you like to hear me sing a song? It's called 'Daisy.' "

And so on. And perhaps if HAL-9000 did treat you to some warbling, at least you could understand some of the words. You sure as hell couldn't if you were sitting stage right or stage left at the show. For yes, another part of this song and dance is this: The Press goes out to the arena and gives you the unvarnished truth. And as tiring and predictable as this is to write, it's also -- depressingly -- true: The sound was bad for many of the people in the building.

Out front, Racket's sources say that it was damn near perfect for a large venue, even all the way at the back of the room, but it was not so for me stage left, where it was as echo-ey as any show at the Dome or the Summit/Compaq Center/Oasis of Love. Several other people who had seats elsewhere in the wings told me the same thing. These buildings aren't designed for good sound -- the opposite is true. The conventional wisdom is that you want harsh acoustics for basketball and hockey and you do the best that you can to smooth out the edges temporarily when there's music for a night.

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