Wednesday, 9:30 a.m.: UPDATED to add comments from White Oak-area resident Beth Lousteau.
Ongoing construction and everything, the outdoor-venue portion of White Oak Music Hall opened over the weekend to a capacity crowd for French electronica artists M83 and widespread positive feedback about Houston's newest open-air concert venue. After scanning social media Monday, about the only remotely negative sentiment came from a few folks whose opinion could be summed up as “call me when it's finished.”
Otherwise, fans raved about the grassy hill, scenic views and overall “festival” feel of the venue's outdoor stage, dubbed The Lawn at White Oak. Neph Basedow, a former Houston Press and current Austin Chronicle music writer, drove in from Austin and noted that the sold-out show “didn’t feel overwhelming or packed.” (The Lawn’s capacity is about 3,000 people.) She too remarked on the venue’s idiosyncratic aesthetics.
“Despite the skyline backdrop and neighborhood locale, energy still felt remote, covert-cool...a "Party at the Moontower!" vibe,” Basedow said. “Maybe it's my Austin ZIP code speaking, but I don't foresee that remoteness sticking around; I think that area's going to grow and grow. Get used to those cranes!”
It also might be advisable to watch your step on the hill, too.
“I will say there is probably a drinking game to be had with certain parts of the lawn,” offered one user on Reddit’s r/Houston subgroup, this one going by the name of “fuegofosho.” “If you're drunk/not careful there's plenty of places to eat it. The gravel sidewalk has a bit of a lip and so does the astroturf where it joins with the rest of the lawn.
“Beyond that silly observation I thought it was a hell of a first show,” they added. “It felt like a music festival without the chaos. The view of downtown is pretty great as well.”
Drawing less enthusiasm were the plumbing situation, namely port-a-potties (which also made it feel more like a festival to some), and the cash-only transactions; customers with credit or debit cards had to wait in a line for vouchers that could be redeemed at the bar. “Mildly inconvenient, but still went smoothly,” noted a Reddit user nicknamed “Pyroshock.”
The other two stages of the White Oak complex, both indoors, are scheduled to be completed this summer. Houston Press Web Editor Cory Garcia, who reviewed the M83 show for us, said the construction was not a problem for him. “It does look weird from the outside, but inside I thought it was just fine, minus the fact that you could [clearly] see the squares of sod as they had been laid down, lol,” he said Monday.
In the weeks leading up to Saturday's show, much of the talk about White Oak centered around residents of the surrounding Near Northside neighborhood's concerns about possible traffic congestion and excessive noise. The results came in as a mixed report, at least at this show.
Many people appeared to heed the venue’s advice by arriving via MetroRail and Uber; according to Pyroshock, surge pricing had not been triggered as M83 was letting out. Those who did decide to drive were met with one free lot and several other paid lots. Although his car was nearly boxed in at one point (see “Random Notebook Dump” in his review), Garcia said the overall parking situation “wasn't awful.” Press photographer Jack Gorman, who parked in the free lot, said “I was able to get in and out with relative ease.” Because the gravel in the free parking lot was loose, Gorman reported witnessing a few unfortunate vehicles getting stuck, though.
As for the sound, if anything, it wasn’t quite loud enough. Several r/Houston users, as well as Garcia, said they thought it could have been quite a bit louder; “anonq” said, “I wasn't that far away from the stage [during M83] and I could easily hold a conversation at my normal volume.” Someone else on the board, “Kampfgegenfeuer,” claimed to work for the venue and said the sound equipment is in good hands.
“I was talking to our sound guy who is also one of my best friends and I haven't seen him that excited about a PA system in a long time,” they said. “So there should be no issue making the Flaming Lips show sound fantastic. We have 2 more big shows between now and then so we will have our systems down by then.”
Some hard feelings about White Oak continue to linger, though. Beth Lousteau, a nearby resident who has been a vocal opponent of the project (including to the Press last week) told the Houston Chronicle Monday that dozens of her neighbors had phoned in noise complaints to the police Saturday; the Chronicle article said a HPD spokesperson originally said the department had no record of such complaints, which was corrected in a later version. Commenting on the original version of this article, Lousteau said, "I can point you to 100 people for whom these were very much issues."
"We realize how much there is to love about this venue as a music lover, myself included," she added. "But as a neighbor, it is a problem. Other amphitheater-style venues like Cynthia Woods Mitchell and Hermann Park are located in parks. Not in the middle of residential neighborhoods. That's not a coincidence. We’re not unreasonable people. I don’t think you’d find many people who would be excited if an outdoor music venue popped up in their backyards."
Be that as it may, the next few shows at the Lawn — UK synth-pop trio Chvrches (April 29), country revisionist Sturgill Simpson (May 10/sold out) and Denver indie-folksters the Lumineeers (May 21/also sold out) — are from artists not known for performing at overwhelming decibel levels. Not until the Memorial Day Weekend blowout scheduled for May 29, featuring the Flaming Lips, Lucero, Title Fight, Nada Surf and Roky Erickson, among others, could another show at White Oak truly try its neighbors' patience.