In about two months, people who grumble about Houston being relegated to the touring-circuit sidelines are going to have a harder time than ever making their case. Last week House of Blues, the nationwide restaurant/music-venue chain (partially) owned by Houston-based behemoth Live Nation, announced the first round of bookings for its Houston branch, scheduled to open in downtown's new 700,000-square-foot Houston Pavilions entertainment/retail/office complex in mid-October.
So far, House of Blues's calendar is a fairly evenhanded combination of heritage artists and current hitmakers. Things get off to a rather anticlimactic start October 12 with '90s novelty-rockers the Presidents of the United States of America, but pick up in earnest about a week later with pop-punk MTV favorites All Time Low (Oct. 22), Top 40 songbird Sara Bareilles (Oct. 23), the "Blackest of the Black" goth-metal tour headlined by Danzig and Dimmu Borgir (Oct. 28), Brooklyn hipster icons TV on the Radio (Oct. 29) and Lone Star heroes Los Lonely Boys and Alejandro Escovedo (Oct. 30).
November is bookended by Willie Nelson (Nov. 1) and two nights of B.B. King (Nov. 21-22), with classic-rock shredder Joe Satriani, emo stars Cobra Starship, jam/blues-rockers the Black Crowes and Seattle indie-rockers Minus the Bear in between. That's a solid, if not quite spectacular, slate of talent — with much more doubtless to come in the weeks and months ahead — but it does touch on just about every corner of the touring spectrum.
House of Blues
It's hard to say how many of those acts would have skipped Houston otherwise, particularly since according to tour-tracking Web site Pollstar.com, the calendars of Meridian and Warehouse Live, the two venues closest in size to House of Blues — which will hold slightly more than 1,500 people in its main venue and route smaller shows to its 300-capacity Cambridge Room — are nowhere near as packed. (Yet.) Though House of Blues's presence immediately makes Houston's booking sweepstakes much more competitive, representatives from both Warehouse and Meridian welcome the competition. Or so they say.
"Anyone can look at our calendar — we've been successful in any genre we've done," says Warehouse Live's Jeff Messina. "We've had bar mitzvahs, Beyoncé's birthday party, weddings — we really try to diversify our private events. We're not going to change directions. We've had success with every format."
Meridian owner Bob Fuldauer — Live Nation books some shows at Meridian, and will continue to do so — goes a step further. He thinks House of Blues will be the third point in a triangle making the east side of downtown the first legitimate live-music district Houston has ever had.
"Houston's not known for being a music town, but I think it's getting better," says Fuldauer. "Someone thought Houston could support a House of Blues, and I don't think they thought that five or ten years ago. The market is growing, the population is growing and we're bringing in higher-level talent."
Will House of Blues be good for Houston? Yes and, perhaps, no. For starters, having a House of Blues at all immediately puts Houston in the same class as other HOB cities such as Chicago, Las Vegas, Anaheim, Cleveland and Orlando. More importantly, it completes a natural circuit of venues between Dallas, Houston and New Orleans. And since it's about the same size as Stubb's in Austin, it gives artists who play there and might have otherwise skipped Houston one less excuse not to come.
House of Blues's impact on what might be termed Houston's micro-indie scene — the Mink, Walter's, etc. — should be negligible, because acts who play those types of venues aren't likely to be on Live Nation's radar (even for HOB's Cambridge Room) until they can pull in crowds at least double the size of those rooms. Besides, bands who prefer not to get in bed with Live Nation do still have other options like Warehouse Live. (And how much more indie can you get than TV on the Radio, anyway?)
House of Blues is most definitely a corporate venue, and makes no pretensions to the contrary. As in other cities, its bookings cater primarily to suburban baby boomers and the under-25 set — in other words, the two demographics that spend the most money on music — rather than the downtown hipster crowd. But being part of a money machine like Live Nation means it's able to have state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, a plush VIP/backstage area with first-class catering for artists, not to mention all the music-industry connections that come with being a subsidiary of a company that dominates its field.
It's also worth pointing out that if House of Blues is going to cannibalize anyone's bookings, it may well be Live Nation itself. Many of the mid-level acts playing the venue would probably have gone to Live Nation's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, which itself recently increased its capacity to 3,500. Although some reports have the concert industry down this year, it's still far and away the most prosperous and profitable segment of the music business.
"I think the live touring business is a healthy business," says Live Nation talent buyer Anthony Nicolaidis, who, somewhat ironically, is booking Houston's House of Blues out of Live Nation's Dallas office. "Yes, we're all bobbing for the same apples, but I think there's enough inventory to go around. Assuming Houston books like Dallas, there's a lot of clubs in this city, and they've all got full schedules."
Will Houston book like Dallas? Considering House of Blues is a chain, and run as such, there's no reason to think it won't. The most recent House of Blues to open before Houston was Dallas's venue — almost exactly a year ago, in fact — so Noise e-mailed Dallas Observer music editor Pete Freedman to see how it had fit into Big D's music scene.
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"Without it, Dallas would probably miss out on a lot of shows," says Freedman, pointing out that Dallas's House of Blues opened not long after similarly sized venues Trees and Gypsy Tea Room shut down. "Plus, ours has I think four different rooms or some shit, so it can cater to a lot of different-sized shows."
"Would I prefer it if it were independent? Probably," Freedman continues. "Do I hate it as is? Probably not as much as creative types and their constant 'Keep Things Local!' rallying cries would like me to. Fact is, it helps get more people out to shows, gets more shows in town and every now and then sheds some light on some local acts — when, really, it doesn't have to."
Houstonians can only hope the same holds true here come October.