Houston has great music, talented musicians and incredible venues. We can also brag on impressive festivals like FPSF, Houston Whatever Fest and Day for Night, to name a few. No one’s going to argue with our love of live music. But musically speaking, Houston longs to be a destination city, and in order to court the musician army's top brass, we need a strong show of force. While Houstonians are understandably tired of the comparisons to Austin and its overrated, exploitative and elitist SXSW, we could stand to learn a thing or two from Texas’s other thriving music hub, Denton.
After all, live music is a business venture, and one that Houston could certainly duplicate. Let’s learn from what Denton got right as well as what it could improve. Let’s steal its ideas, revise them, create something magical and call ourselves Shakespeare while we’re at it. Seeing especially as how SXSW is not exactly a poor man’s festival, why not offer a reasonably priced and accessible competitor? Or at least one that gives musicians a chance to stay in Texas another day and draw music investors.
Many Denton bands actively take advantage of a vibrant music scene already in place. Bands like Brutal Juice, Brave Combo, Neon Indian, Riverboat Gamblers, Eli Young Band, the Baptist Generals and far too many more to list in one article found their genesis in the tiny North Texas town. And while Denton can claim many festivals throughout the year, 35 Denton Fest is the hallmark gathering of bands far and wide that keep Denton relevant.
If you’re unfamiliar with Denton’s contribution to Texas music, start with the University of North Texas’s music department, home to one of the leading jazz programs in the country. World-class acts who can claim their scholarship under its tutelage include Sara Hickman, Don Henley, Meat Loaf and Norah Jones, among dozens of others.
But how did that scene grow into what it is today? You could certainly claim the university as a catalyst, and while that’s definitely a huge contributing factor, it’s not the only one. Music is inherently a product of youth culture, and Denton has laudably nurtured the community's musical endeavors instead of discouraging them.
You won’t find angry noise complaints, curfews or other forms of passive-aggressive harassment against musicians. Denton hosts walkable venues and an active nightlife that is courted by the city and local businesses as a way of supporting the university.
As a UNT alumna, I recall with fondness the musical buffet that made live performance an everyday occurence in the small Texas town. It was not unusual to find bands like The Reverend Horton Heat, Limp Bizkit, Blue October, Chomsky, The Toadies and Tripping Daisy in a venue any given night of the week. Cover bands, jukeboxes and empty open-mikes just didn’t exist; every restaurant, venue and coffee shop had a small stage and a PA. Even the laundromat had a small stage and PA. Music was delightfully inescapable. Denton could boast of a gallery of talented acts across town in a gorgeous cross section of genres every weekend.
Denton’s original springtime musical fest of the 1990s was the Fry Street Fair, hosted by the Delta Lodge, an unincorporated (and unrecognized by the university) fraternity whose main purpose was the inebriation of its members. To that successful end, everyone knew the best place to party and hear live music was at the corner of Fry and Oak streets, at least until the frat house burned to the ground in 1995.
The site is now the parking lot of a Christian Outreach Center (do they even know they sit over a portal to Hell?), and both the Delta Lodge and Fry Street Fair are gone. The subsequent spring music festival moved to the city courthouse square after the soul-sucking gentrification of Fry Street.
It’s hard not to make comparisons between the 35 Denton of today and the wild and reckless culture that spawned the Fry Street Fair. In some regards, there is no comparison. Fry Street Fair was what the old Westheimer Arts Festival was to Houston — a gathering of the counterculture and a celebration of all things deliciously forbidden, namely sex, drugs and rock and roll. And, best of all, an uncompromising focus on showcasing local music.
While there were local Denton acts at this year’s festival, there were also lesser-known acts from far and wide and no real central spotlight outside the main-stage headliners. What Fry Street Fair did right back in the day was showcase its local talent and bring in nationally known DFW-area acts to headline. Most important, the acts didn’t compete for listeners because time slots alternated. You could see every band on the lineup.
If there was a large draw at 35 Denton this year, I didn’t see it. I couldn’t see it; the stages were too scattered across the map. Outside of Houston’s MyDolls playing Dan’s Silverleaf on Saturday night, which packed the house to a standing-room-only level, most crowds were loose and spotty. Even though Saturday-night headliner Charles Bradley and the Extraordinaires drew a healthy audience and performed a spectacular set, my most generous estimate would be about a thousand people.
But that’s no reflection on the quality of the acts, either. Bands like Hares on the Mountain and Purple played strong sets on the second stage but never had the feeling of presence the Fry Street Fair once had. I had to shake the comparisons to be fair (no pun intended), but the energy just wasn’t there.
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Even new, good bands didn’t draw the crowds they should have. Austin’s Lowin played TJ’s Pizza Saturday evening to fewer than ten people in the room; a shame, because they were incredible. Unknown acts need open-air stages to attract new fans, not basement venues. It’s worth pondering whether the trip was worth it for a band like that. At the very least, they gained a new fan with me, but I’m not enough — even with nine other people in the room (three of whom were photographers).
Several acts appeared to have more press and photographers than fans in attendance. Something notable, yet it’s exceedingly difficult to gauge a band's draw at an event that divides 100 acts over eight stages. While every band wants media exposure, they also need fans in order to gather a buzz and get noticed.
Overall, the festival was too spread out and time slots were too infrequent for there to be a centralized audience or true festival feel — but in its defense, that free flow of concert-goers and their spending cash benefited the surrounding local businesses, which were all packed and busy. If the goal was to spread the wealth in the community, 35 Denton Fest did one hell of a job.