Since its announcement last spring, the Houston Open Air festival has been one of the most intriguing and hotly debated items in local metal circles. And relatively speaking, it is huge news. For the first time in our city’s history, the Danny Wimmer Presents franchise has bestowed a destination rock show on Houston, scheduled for September 24 and 25 at NRG Park. Whether you’re a metal fan or not, that’s immensely important for our music scene.
That being said, the festival itself seeks to combine two art forms Houstonians love: music and cuisine. Not only is the musical lineup a sampling of national heavy-metal acts, but HOA is also offering top-shelf eats, which the festival has dubbed “gourmet man food.”
"The days of propping up a couple of stages and giving fans stale beer and corn dogs are over," says HOA's Vice President of Production, Gary Spivack.
Despite its dubiously male-oriented labeling (come on — women eat food too) this is a grand idea, although how many people will want to eat anything in the oppressive Houston heat and humidity after baking all day on the NRG asphalt remains to be seen. Keep in mind Chicago Open Air, Rock Allegiance, Welcome to Rockville and other DWP festivals also have a “gourmet man food” component, although Spivack notes “what we [call] ‘gourmet man food’ would be really localized, regional Texas barbecue.”
It begs the question, if we’re celebrating local cuisine — such hometown eateries as Coreanos, Texas Taco Depot, Hugs and Donuts, the Waffle Bus, and (full disclosure) a reprise of the Houston Press' Tacolandia buffet, among others — what about local musical talent? Of the 37 announced acts performing over HOA's two days, names including Anthrax, Slayer, Avenged Sevenfold, Deftones, Ministry, The Cult, Pierce the Veil and Chevelle, not one is from Houston.
Some local musicians say they've been wondering about that themselves, and think the festival has some explaining to do. One, who asked to remain anonymous, put it bluntly: “Where are the street teams? Where is the local involvement? Why aren’t they trying to stimulate the community they’re trying to reach? If this thing fails, it fucks with our tour routing and the legitimacy of our scene.”
HOA's website says it’s currently seeking volunteers to staff the festival's Access Center and Info Booth. When asked about publicity, Spivack says, “We’re going to all media — to The Buzz, to sports radio, to [Houston Press], social media — to spread the word that Houston Open Air festival is here.”
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The festival is now less than a month away. As we draw nearer to the date, HOA is making strides in activating that local scene to get people involved. Even better, according to Clay Busch, Executive VP of for Danny Wimmer Presents, the festival and ReverbNation are sponsoring an online Battle of the Bands for local metal musicians, with a pretty sweet prize.
The winner will receive, Busch says, “a 30-minute set…kicking off the festival as the first band to ever play Houston Open Air.” Not a bad gig. It’s free to enter and the deadline is approaching quickly.
When asked what exactly they’re looking for in terms of a winner, Busch offers, “Just the best of the best — Best song, best look, best sound. The best of what hasn’t been discovered in Houston yet.”
While that may be an admirable way of reaching out to Houston's music community, some musicians and promoters here want more. They want their own local side stage. Unfortunately, HOA officials say an exclusively local stage is not something HOA is in the business of promoting. And to be fair, DWP has not historically supported such a showcase. It may be unrealistic to ask them to make an exception, especially in the festival's inaugural year.
“We’re not one for [a local showcase], in all honesty.” Spivack says, “We just want to put on the best rock and roll music. If 100 percent of the bands happened to be from Houston, then great. But we’re not really…we just don’t do that. We just want to put on the best rock and roll possible.”
From our conversation, it was clear that HOA is not meant to promote the scene already here in Houston, but wants to offer Houstonians a destination rock show featuring a cross-section of chart-topping, radio-familiar performers.
“We wanted to cast this great rock and roll net and have some of these iconic bands like Slayer, Ministry, [and] The Cult,” Spivack elaborates. “[We have] some right down the middle like Chevelle and Deftones and Alice In Chains and then, some on for the youth like Pierce The Veil, Amity Affliction. We feel we’ve really covered the bases from left to middle to right.”
Yet, Spivack cautions, that doesn’t mean HOA is not open to the idea of booking a Houston band on the bill if said act is of national caliber, or what he calls “Rock with a capital R.”
The festival's booking philosophy, he explains, is to “search under every rock and search under every stone to find the best regional, local, Texas talent...we’re open to [local acts], it’s just that when we devised this lineup, this is what we felt best served what we wanted to get across.”
To be sure, HOA does feature a handful of Texas bands: Texas Hippie Coalition from North Texas, Sons of Texas from McAllen, Nothing More from San Antonio and Mothership from Dallas. Some members of Houston's metal community take offense to even that, scoffing at HOA importing metal talent from anywhere outside the city limits, but these kind of festivals are not booked according to the proximity of where its artists live.
Even so, what about our nationally known bands who do deserve to share the stage? HOA is booked and designed months in advance, and while booking Houston acts may make sense to locals, it's just not in HOA’s business model unless those acts already have a national profile.
But of course, in order for an act to become nationally recognized, performing on a major platform like HOA would present a huge opportunity to do so. Such is the frustrating conundrum of many local musicians who might like a crack at a festival like this. And because live events of this scale can be a boon for the local economy, HOA could be essential in establishing a nationwide awareness of Houston as a rock destination. So whatever fate befalls the festival, success or failure, is significant.
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That fact alone means HOA deserves our support. When the tide comes in, we all rise with it. This festival's kind of national presence gives Houston's own scene a boost toward the legitimacy it’s already created, just on a grander scale. Consider other cities that have similar offerings: Chicago, Orlando, Columbus, Sacramento, Jacksonville — all also cities in the nation's Top 50 media markets, many of them significantly smaller than we are.
But a successful festival of this size can only help grow our scene, which we desperately want to do. Considering Houston's size, scope, population and media saturation, it's remarkable that this is the city's first multi-day destination festival of this magnitude put on by a major outside promoter. The fact is, we deserved one long ago, and even if it’s overdue, the potential success of HOA could mean even more festivals making their home here.
And would be good news for everybody.