You could say the Westheimer Block Party has had its ups and downs. "The first one was this big cluster fuck," says Omar Afra. "'Cluster fuck' would be a really big understatement." Afra, the event's coordinator — and the editor/publisher of Free Press Houston — was all ready for his first go at the biannual arts and music festival in October 2005 when his wife started to go into labor two weeks before her due date.
"We woke up that morning before [the day of the Block Party], and I had a kabillion things to do. She wakes me up at 8 [a.m.] and says, 'Hey, we're having the baby today,'" Afra says. The dad-to-be headed to the hospital and started making phone calls.
"She's in labor and I'm on the phone telling people where to set up the stage and she's cussing me. I'm calling people and telling them to go here and say that and do this," he says.
Westheimer Block Party
The next day, Afra says, his daddy duties were split. "The day of the festival, I was at the hospital, at the festival, at the hospital, at the festival."
Afra's love affair with the Block Party — formerly known as the Westheimer Street Festival — began before he was old enough to drive there on his own. He says when he was about seven or eight years old, his father drove him to the festival. "It was really shocking [for my dad]...because he was an Iraqi immigrant, and to see the punk rock scene and the transsexuals — we drove to the Montrose and somehow he accidentally drove into the festival. I remember seeing it as a kid and thinking, 'Wow, I never knew there were so many artists, musicians,' and when you see all that condensed..." Afra stares off into the distance with a big, childlike smile on his face — he's picturing it all over again.
But Afra didn't inherit that festival. He got it in 2005, a couple years after the beer companies had taken over with cover bands and beach volleyball tournaments. That party didn't last long, and so in order to spike interest back up, Afra scaled things down.
"Instead of it being a hodgepodge of Miller Lite Stage, Bud Light Stage, Verizon Wireless stage, now we can have some oversight and say, 'Let's have bands that represent the forefront of Houston music, as opposed to it being this monolith of the kind of shit you can hear on The Buzz.'"
Since Afra took over, instead of stretching blocks and blocks down Westheimer, the festival has been condensed into one intersection. Stages and booths are erected inside and outside of a handful of bars and restaurants near Westheimer and Taft: AvantGarden, Numbers, La Strada, Mango's and the Austin Layne Hotel.
But things haven't stayed small. "The first one was like 1,500 people, and [the] last one was like 7,000 people," says Afra.
Besides, ahem, the Houston Press Music Awards, Afra's Block Party has become the it-gig for local bands. It's one of the few occasions where droves of newbies and veterans flock to an event touting local acts. The Block Party is about as good as it gets when it comes to being seen by Houston music fans. And, for concertgoers, it's quite worth the ticket price: free.
But all this attention has brought some new problems. The influx in attendance has brought up the question of street closure and the attendant need for permits, insurance, cleanup crews, security, etc. But Afra says that right now the cost of closing off the street is too high for a free festival with little to no sponsorship. Depending on this year's profitability, things could change next year.
"We need the big corporate gang-bang dollars, but we don't want to change the character," Afra says. His solution to making enough money for the festival to survive has been to host a night show at Numbers with national acts, local acts and a ticket fee. This year, he's expanding to a night showcase, with multiple venues participating.
This decision to charge for certain shows has been met with cheers and jeers from festival veterans. Some are happy to pay the ticket price to see more national acts and some top-notch local acts such as Voxtrot, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and HEALTH. But some festivalgoers groan about the idea of paying for anything at a festival that used to be totally free. And some bands have been less than willing to play the night show because they're worried people won't pay to see them. But Afra sees his plan as the only way to let the festival grow without sacrificing authenticity.
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"In order to shut down the streets, we'd have to give the capitalists blow jobs. We don't want that, so what we're trying to do with the evening festival, by risking all this on bringing all these national bands, is to try and create a self-perpetuating revenue stream where we don't have to rely on Coors Light or Cingular."
This year's free shows will run from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. After that, those who have purchased a wristband for $20 can continue checking out bands at all the participating venues. Performers at the night shows include big-name acts such as HEALTH, Valient Thorr, St. Vincent and Devin the Dude, plus some indie Houston darlings like News on the March, Fat Tony, Homopolice, Golden Axe, Spain Colored Orange, Ghost Town Electric and more.
"People have complained...Some people are like, '20 bucks?!' But you'd spend $12 to go see any one of these bands. People spent $15 to go see Valient Thorr last time they played at Meridian," says Afra, adding that most of these people will also get to see 100-plus bands for free during the day portion of the festival.
"If we could get 15 to 20 percent of the people who go to the festival for free to come and see the evening shows, those people will be making — without sounding like I'm overdramatizing it — those people will be making an investment in the future of their arts and music scene," he says.