Houston Whatever Fest takes over the streets around Warehouse Live and BBVA Compass Stadium this weekend hoping that when it’s over, it will be much less of an unknown quantity than it is today. Perhaps that’s a natural risk run by any event with such a vague word in its title, but founder Jason Price is confident that in time he can convince Houstonians looking to have a little fall fun exactly what “Whatever” stands for.
“I want it to represent the diversity that is part of Houston,” says the longtime Houston talent buyer and booking agent. “I want it to be not this mass-produced event, but I want it to remain grass-roots just like the people who are coming and supporting the thing. That’s really what it means to me.
The two-day festival, featuring almost 100 musical acts and comedians as well as attractions that range from All-American (a giant TV showing football all weekend) to sideshowesque (micro wrestling), has already improved its long-term survival chances by relocating to November from August. The weekend weather forecast could not be more appealing, but Price also notes that the competition for festival-worthy acts isn’t quite as steep this late in the year.
Then again, it could be argued that HWF is a festival constructed almost entirely of acts that aren’t quite festival-worthy, certainly not as high up on the bill as they are here. On their own, this weekend's late-evening acts like GWAR, Metric or Wu-Tang Clan rapper GZA could probably fill up Warehouse Live (or close), but here they could be playing to thousands more people on HWF’s outdoor stages. It’s almost a given that laser-loving Austin techno-rockers Ghostland Observatory will draw a big crowd for their first Houston appearance in three years, but this festival is also chasing fans of emo acts like hometown heroes the Waterparks or St. Louis’s Story of the Year — not to be confused with Family of the Year, the sensitive indie types behind Boyhood sound-track anthem “Hero,” also playing this weekend. Or if you’re in the mood for something offbeat and bounce-y from New Orleans, like Vockah Redu (now a Houston resident) or Quintron & Miss Pussycat, they’ll be here too.
“It really is all over the map, musically,” says Price, whose Rise Up booking agency handles local venues like Warehouse Live, Sam Houston Race Park and the Redneck Country Club. “So you take a bit of a chance when you jump all over the map in regards to music genres, but to me it’s more about the event itself versus plugging and building one genre.” [Note: the Houston Press is HWF's official media partner.]
With that in mind, comedy is the festival’s second-biggest selling point, represented this year by names like T.J. Miller, Doug Benson, Brooks Wheelan and Billy D. Washington. (Benson got a nice plug in for HWF as a guest on last week’s episode of AMC’s post-Walking Dead discussion group Talking Dead.) Price says the festival has almost quadrupled its physical footprint this year, and much of that space will be devoted to new art features like “canvas combat,” a live competition where between 15 and 20 artists create art on the spot for fans to vote on a winner, plus a tent stuffed with 3D art, a DJ and go-go dancers.
“Houston is an incredibly rich art community, and to the best of my knowledge, art and alternative art has never been heavily included into an event that has included both music and comedy,” Price says. “The art is the last element that we will add as we continue to grow. We thought it was important to have, other than just the really killer local artists displaying their work, but to have the experiences.”
Other experiences at HWF include a Ferris wheel, bungee jump and skaters’ half-pipe. But even with all that going on, one of the festival's strongest elements is its lineup of local acts. Roughly half of its overall music roster, it’s at least as eclectic as the visiting performers, and probably more so. Here are wildly different rappers Lil’ Flip, Fat Tony, Guilla and B L A C K I E, as well as ska veterans the Suspects and punk true believers Dead to the World; the hard-rocking thelastplaceyoulook, To Whom It May and We Were Wolves; and the avant-garde stylings of Black Kite, Auto Fellatio Dreams and MNYNMS.
There’s plenty more where that came from — Say Girl Say, Second Lovers, Bang Bangz, DJs Damon Allen and Fredster, Gio Chamba, Def Perception, Dead Rabbits and so forth. Better yet, instead of the minimal small-venue production rig they usually get, many will be performing with the benefits of full festival-strength light and sound.
“All those acts have something — they’re special, they’re freakin’ amazing, so it provides a platform for them to further promote themselves,” Price says. “We were very careful who we selected for it. I’m very proud of the local acts we have involved with it.”
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Of course, a festival could have music, comedy and art, plus a dozen Ferris wheels and a troupe of French mimes and it wouldn’t matter if ticket prices were too high, a pretty common complaint nowadays. Comparatively, HWF’s general-admission walkup rates are a reasonable $35 single-day and $55 weekend pass, but those looking to spend more money certainly have that option as well: The VIP area is decked out to resemble the Astrodome, down to the authentic Astroturf and rainbow seats.
Price says he thinks HWF is now in year “one and a half,” part of a five-year timeline he hopes will culminate with acts playing inside the adjacent BBVA Compass Stadium on top of the existing festival. This weekend, his goal is to slip away for a few minutes to enjoy a view that to him represents how cool the fest could ultimately become.
“I’m personally looking forward to no matter how busy I am, I’m going to take a ride in that Ferris wheel, and I’m going to look down and see the laser lights of Ghostland Observatory, and sort of have a couple of minutes to myself just to kind of take that in,” Price says. “I think that’s going to be special.”
Houston Whatever Fest rolls out the Ferris wheel this Saturday and Sunday in the streets around Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel. See houstonwhateverfest.com for ticket information and more details.