Mario Rodriguez has seen a lot of changes come to his old neighborhood. The historically working-class, heavily Hispanic East End has steadily seen lofts and townhomes sprout up among the warehouses and industrial plots for about a decade now, a pace too slow for the neighborhood to go full-on gentrified, but fast enough to raise the warning antennae of many longtime residents. As rising property values continue to push young Houston creatives out of traditionally bohemian enclaves like Montrose and the Heights, the Eastside still beckons as fertile territory for now.
“There’s something warm about that area,” Rodriguez says. “Although some people may be scared of it and whatnot, but I guess I just grew up there, so it’s not a big deal. But I’m really excited that there’s a lot more creative people down there in that area, and there’s a lot of new businesses.”
A musician whose projects include Bang Bangz, Satellite d’Homme and Tax the Wolf, Rodriguez also happens to be an East End small-business owner himself. He runs Wonky Power, a sort of octopus musical organization whose arms include a booking agency, a record label, a recording studio and a performance venue, all housed at Wonky Power HQ on Navigation. WP’s artists include Gio Chamba, George West, Rex Hudson, Dollie Barnes, Vodi and Handsomebeast, all of whom happen to number among Houston's most dynamic and buzzworthy performers at the moment.
Saturday, those acts and more than 40 like them (except not really like them at all) will fan out across Wonky Power Live and four more Eastside venues — Arlo’s Ballroom, Bohemeo’s, Super Happy Fun Land and White Swan Live — at the inaugural Wicked Music Showcase, which aims to put as many performers as possible in front of as many fans as possible, and to make it as easy as possible for those fans to slide between venues. To that end, shuttle-bus service will be offered for a $10 upgrade to the general-admission ticket price of $30, as well as a special deal with Uber (code WICKEDHOU) and B-Cycle rental stations set up at Super Happy Fun Land and Ripley House on Navigation. Ironically, although the East End has been all over the news recently as Houston’s newest cultural hot spot, the majority of participating venues have been doing their thing for years; Rodriguez jokes that he hasn’t been inside the White Swan since high school. Food trucks will be close at hand, and music is scheduled to run from 2 p.m. to 11 or midnight, depending on the venue.
Although Rodriguez admits that Wicked’s design owes something to our own now-defunct Houston Press Music Awards showcase (which, sadly, ultimately proved unsustainable), he says the real germ of Saturday’s showcase arose with conversations he had been having with members of the East End Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded after the Texas Commission on the Arts officially designated the area a Texas cultural district in 2014. (According to the foundation, the area contains one of the largest numbers of outdoor murals in the city.) Following one of its previous events, an Open House for local businesses Rodriguez says drew thousands of people, he says foundation board member Amy Dinn approached him to enlist his help drawing up some possible ways the neighborhood could show off its musical gifts. (This part of town is usually in the mood to party; witness last weekend's East End Street Fest.)
“She came to me with this idea of making a big kind of concert out there in the East End, where people can actually go out there from the suburbs and make it a big thing,” he says.
Once the transportation and other logistical issues were sorted out, the showcase was born. About one-fifth of the artists performing Saturday were chosen by a small artists’ panel (including Rodriguez and Houston Press photographer/music writer Marco Torres), and the others by the five venues, all of whom Rodriguez says hopped on board pretty quickly. The whole showcase has come together in about six months, mixing emerging artists with veteran acts like Free Radicals, Knights of the Fire Kingdom and the Suspects.
“I guess nobody thought of it too seriously,” Rodriguez says. “I guess [Dinn] and I were like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make it happen,’ and the other venues were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ But I think they’re getting more excited now that they see there’s movement behind it.”