For the last three months Wendy Robbins told everyone she knew that she was going to see the Rolling Stones. The 52-year-old artist and part-time teacher has been a Stones fan for 30 years. She's been to six of their live concerts. She thought the 40 Licks World Tour would be her final chance to see them play again (but she said that during the 1989 Steel Wheels Tour, too), so she shelled out $100 for a ticket.
"I really looked forward to it," Robbins says. "I don't go to many concerts anymore -- they've gotta be pretty special."
Her seat was in the upper deck at Reliant Stadium for the January 25 show. When Mick Jagger took the stage, she could see his trademark lips moving, but she couldn't hear anything he was saying.
"You couldn't even tell what song they were singing -- it was that bad," Robbins says. "Didn't anybody bother to sound-check the nosebleed section?"
Another spectator in the sky-high section 600, dental hygienist Linda D'Ambrosio, describes the sound as "muddy" and having too much reverb. "You couldn't hear a word he said when Jagger spoke," she says.
Robbins soon had no trouble hearing other sounds: the complaints from those sitting around her. The seats in her area eventually emptied out, she says, as people either left or tried to search for closer seats with decent audio. "That's what I should have done," she says. "It sounded like a low radio with a bad speaker. I'm still reeling with disappointment and madness."
The Stones' appearance had been heralded as the grand debut of Reliant Stadium as the area's ultimate super-concert venue.
To be certain, some of those with access to ground-level seats gave glowing reports about the acoustics. But even down in the better seats, Martha Oaks says, the sound was awful. Oaks, an office manager, sat in section 110 to the side of the stage, up one level and ten rows back from the field. She says she was in front of a bank of speakers and the sound still wasn't good.
"There was just so much reverberation and echo," she says. "He'd be singing 'Brown Sugar' and it'd be brown, brown, brown, sugar, sugar, sugar. If I didn't hear it the first time I waited a minute.
"It was worse than the Astrodome ever was -- which has to be the worst concert venue I've ever been in -- up until [that] Saturday night," Oaks says. "That stadium is built for football and not for concerts."
The Houston Music Festival was held at Reliant in November, but the Stones were the premiere concert event, attracting more than 46,000 fans. In the media buildup to the $449 million stadium's opening last year, Reliant had been touted as a great place to hear music. It had pumped $8 million into its sound system and was described as a state-of-the-art arena.
Those gushing descriptions continued after the Stones concert. The Chronicle reported that "the notes were crisp as they were absorbed by the concrete walls -- not blaring guitar din as they might have been in cozy arenas."
However, domed football stadiums -- even expensive ones -- are bad concert venues, says acoustics expert Art Gottschalk. He's professor and chair of music theory and composition at Rice University.
"Stadiums are miserable for sound," Gottschalk says. "They're not designed for acoustics."
That's especially true if the roof is closed (as it was at the Stones concert) because the sound gets trapped, bounces back down and becomes garbled. Most rock bands try to make up for the cavernous spaces by cranking up the volume. "That exacerbates the problems. It doesn't help," Gottschalk says. "It just makes things louder; it doesn't make things clearer." (A stadium spokesperson was out of the office and did not return repeated requests for an interview.)
The next group to deal with the acoustical challenges is the biggest annual music draw in the region: The rodeo's coming to town.
After the muddy music at the Stones concert, some people panicked that the upcoming rodeo concerts will have the same distorted sound.
The simple solution, Gottschalk says, is to open up the Teflon-coated retractable roof during the rodeo concerts. But that isn't going to happen, according to rodeo officials, because 180,000 pounds of speakers and six video screens will be suspended from the roof.
"If, in fact, we decided that we didn't need a roof, there wouldn't have been one built," says Leroy Shafer, assistant general manager of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. "I think you know how few seats we could sell for rodeo in February if it was raining or 28 degrees."
Shafer says that rodeo planners will rig the sound system the same way they did for past concerts at the Reliant Astrodome. (Keep in mind that Shafer strongly disagrees with those who say that at past rodeo concerts the sound sucked.)
He says the rodeo has had three and a half years to customize the sound system and the Stones arrived with just a one-size-fits-all set of traveling speakers. Shafer says there will be seven times as many speakers as the Stones had. Speaker clusters will be suspended from the roof and aimed at each section. "That is the real secret to doing concerts in a large stadium," he says.
At the Stones concert, Shafer says, some people were 100 feet away from the central bank of speakers, and others were 500 feet away. But at rodeo concerts, everyone will be generally equidistant to the speakers, no matter how cheap their tickets.
The Astrodome had a lot of blank walls, although the spare wall space at Reliant is lined with seats to suck up sound, Shafer says.
Plush theater seats do suck up sound, but Reliant has plastic seats, which don't, Gottschalk counters. People sitting in those seats will be good sound absorbers -- if they stay seated. "But people rarely stay against the wall during a concert," Gottschalk says.
Rodeo officials also plan to hang more than $1 million worth of insulation-filled noise barriers from the ceiling to clarify the sound. They will span the width of the stadium and hang 30 feet down.
"It's not gonna make a whole lot of sense. You can defeat those cranking your amp up to 11," Gottschalk says. "And it won't deal with the echo effect. Anytime they take a big space like that and try to jerry-rig it to make it acoustically better, I'm always a little bit skeptical."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.