Houstonians' ambivalence over the city's most iconic structure and, at the moment, biggest civic embarrassment should reach a climax this evening at the Astrodome's "50th birthday party." With that milestone comes with an asterisk almost as big as the building itself, considering the Dome has been all but abandoned after being used as a shelter for Hurricane Katrina refugees in September 2005.
Nevertheless, starting at 6 p.m., tonight only officials will unlock the gates of the onetime "Eighth Wonder of the World," allowing the public inside for a gracious photo op (watch out for pigeons, and maybe even worse), and we can all briefly put aside all the back-and-forth about what to do with the damn thing already and bask in the rainbow glow of Astrodome nostalgia.
Dome-related memories have not been in short supply lately, but what has been sorely lacking has been people coming forward to share their memories of seeing Pink Floyd at the Dome in '87 or 'NSYNC in '01; the Stones in '81, '99 and '94; or U2 in '92 and '97. More than a few people will no doubt tell you the reason is because as a concert venue, the Astrodome sucked. The acoustics could be brutal, and the performers appeared no bigger than insects if you happened to be sitting in one of the upper decks.
But more than that, wrote former Houston Press Music Editor Brad Tyer in a 2002 article for Rice University's architecture/design journal, Cite, the Dome's sheer size took away one of the key ingredients necessary to create good rock and roll: immediacy: "It's no accident that the periodic resuscitations of rock & roll vitality — British punk rock, American college rock , etc. — have been born in clubs, not stadiums," Tyer says. "It's no accident that as they've grown into stadiums, they have become, by popular definition, less rock, more pop."
Maybe he had a point. Who plays NRG Stadium today? One Direction. But be that as it may, plenty of Astrodome concerts deserve to be remembered at least as much as - if not more than - many of the teams the Astros and Oilers put on the field during the Dome's heyday. What it lacked in acoustic niceties, not to mention plumbing, it made up for in character. I will never forget the time my brother and I went to see U2's Popmart tour in late 1997: shortly after he returned from a visit to one of the crowded bathrooms, he discovered he had stepped in human feces. Once we got over our initial revulsion, we laughed about that for years afterward.
What the Dome had in the asset column is also tied to its stature. That building could hold a mass communion better than any other stadium I've ever been to, and it doled out shared experiences in spades. But everyone's experiences were different, too. For the past few days, we've combed the Internet for reliable accounts of concerts at the Astrodome, and asked a couple of our writers to give us their own. Here we tried to give a representative account of just what a "multipurpose" venue the Dome really was, based on the accounts we were able to unearth. (Occasionally we also came across some unsettling footnotes, like the fact that the lone hip-hop act to perform in the Dome may have been Public Enemy, who opened the fall 1992 stadium leg of U2's "Zoo TV" tour.)
Therefore, some shows that pop up often when the Dome's All-Stars are mentioned don't have much of a footprint today; we're thinking of Pink Floyd here (maybe it was the drugs) or the many Texxas jam-type events in the early '80s. Others, such as very last concert in the Dome — George Strait at the 2003 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo — have been well-documented on DVD or other media. Elvis you can watch on YouTube right now if you want.
But by all means, tell us your Dome concert stories. And before we go any further, a special thanks to Bruce Kessler, for most of the artwork you see in this article. His Web site, rockinhouston.com, never ceases to amaze us, and we never tire of trying to come up with possible articles we might be able to illustrate with his photos.
JUDY GARLAND & THE SUPREMES Date: 12/17/1965
Courtesy of a promoter named Stan Irwin, the Astrodome's first concert came about eight months after the building opened, as the star of The Wizard of Oz, A Star Is Born and Meet Me In St. Louis was winding down her tenure on Capitol Records with albums like I Could Go On Singing and "Live" at the London Palladium, for which she shared the bill with daughter Liza Minnelli.
The very first artist to test the venue's precarious acoustics, though, were Diana Ross and her fellow queens of Motown, who in '65 were riding high from hits like "I Hear a Symphony," "Back In My Arms Again" and "Stop! In the Name of Love." (Talk about a generational divide.) According to biographer Scott Schecter's Judy Garland: The Day-to-Day Chronicle of a Legend, the Dome's seating capacity was raised by 12,000 (to an even 60,000) via additional floor seating; Garland's set list included "My Kind of Town/Houston Is" and "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands" to go with "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby" and "Over the Rainbow"; and she was paid a cool $43,000 for the gig. Ticket prices started at an even one dollar (American).
FRANK SINATRA Date: 8/16/1969
Strictly speaking, Ol' Blue Eyes' appearance at the Dome in the wake of the Apollo 11 moon landing - almost a month after Neil Armstrong's crew had disembarked on the Sea of Tranquility - was as Master of Ceremonies for this "All-Star Tribute to the Apollo 11 Astronauts." Other talent on hand included Flip Wilson, Dionne Warwick, and honorary Rat Pack member/future Terms of Endearment heroine Shirley MacLaine; Sinatra stepped away from the podium long enough to perform "The Lady Is a Tramp," "Fly Me To the Moon" (naturally) and "God Bless America."
Nevertheless, according to a 2012 letter to the editor of The Dallas Morning News by Richardson resident Linda Vaughn, even seeing Sinatra couldn't top the thrill of cheering on Armstrong and his colleagues in person. "The highlight of the evening was seeing the Apollo 11 astronauts. I attended several Astros games in the Astrodome, but nothing could top that evening," she said. "I hate to think of Houston without the Astrodome, but those of us with good memories of it will always remember being there. And I will especially remember that night in 1969."
ASTRODOME JAZZ FESTIVALS Dates: July 1972/July 1973
Pairing bona fide jazz immortals with some of the top contemporary R&B stars of the early '70s, the Astrodome Jazz Festival lasted two years. Shame it didn't last longer, but get a load of the lineups it did manage to pull:
1972: The Ike & Tina Turner Revue; B.B. King; Cannonball Adderly; Donny Hathaway; Roberta Flack; Lou Rawls; Herbie Mann; Dave Brubeck w/Paul Desmond; the "Jimmy Smith Jam Session" featuring the organ great as well as Kenny Burrell and Clark Terry; and finally Gerry Mulligan & the "Giants of Jazz" - a no-bullshit supergroup including Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Kai Winding (trombone) and Al McKibbon (bass)
1973: Aretha Franklin; Ella Fitzgerald; the Staple Singers; Stevie Wonder; Billy Paul ("Me & Mrs. Jones"); Ray Charles & His Orchestra; Rashaan Roland Kirk; B.B. King (again); Herbie Mann; Charles Mingus; David "Fathead" Newman; Bobby Womack; Freddie Hubbard
Daaamn. Hathaway's performance made its way to posterity via a rare bootleg. Better yet, according to the Bayou City Soul blog, Houston groups the Fifth Ward Express — featuring dynamic singer Bobo Mr. Soul ("Hitch Hike to Heartbreak Road") — and Bubbha Thomas and the Lightmen were added to the 1973 bill at the last minute. Though the Astrodome Jazz Festival didn't last, the Kool Jazz Festival brought many of the same names (and those of a similar caliber) to the Dome for several more years throughout the '70s into the early '80s.
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