Houston Beer Fest. Just the name alone conjures up a bad taste — and probably heat stroke — for most Houstonians. The festival, notoriously ill-managed in years past, was held for its fifth year over the weekend. But while the name may have been the same, HBF's fifth go-round touted new ownership and new management in a bid to turn its image around.
But try as they might, this one might be an uphill battle, especially after this weekend. In 2011, the festival kicked things off with a bang: oversold tickets — to the tune of about 8,000 — which caused massive overcrowding and would-be festivalgoers waiting for hours in the Houston heat and humidity. Those who were lucky enough to gain entry were met with little to no beer...or water; the festival ran out early, apparently not anticipating the crowds. Things appeared to be looking up the next two years, with promoters taking more care to expand the festival's footprint, including hiring outside help to run the event. But while there may have been more beer and water, according to festival attendees, the organizers forgot to increase the amount of portapotties and those horror stories about lines to nowhere were, well, still everywhere.
Last year, HBF's festival's music lineup — 30OH!3, Rick Ross, Juicy J, Action Bronson, Slightly Stoopid, and a handful of other well-known bands — killed what it had been in previous years, and those long lines were replaced with plenty of potties and even more beer. Except the festival forgot to pay many of its staffers, from vendors to performers and even off-duty cops working security. Those who tracked down festival promoter Timothy Hudson to get a paper check often had issues with insufficient funds; a year later, many of them still say they're waiting to be paid. According to KTRK, Hudson is even facing charges over a bounced check to an ice vendor.
So given the festival's past problems, it was pretty surprising to see Houston Beer Fest 2015 being advertised across social media earlier this spring. This year sounded pretty promising, too. The PR firm hired by the new HBF management promised the festival would make it right, inviting some of the breweries that hadn't been paid last year and top local musicians like Houston rap legends Scarface and Chamillionaire. Even the Cy-Fair Neon Icon himself, RiFF RAFF (if you want to call him a musician), was supposed to come. Awesome, right?
Eh, not so much.
Remember those lines from years past? Well, walking up, they were back. The doors, slated to open at noon on Saturday, opened about 45 minutes late with no explanation, which only exacerbated the problem. In normal festival world, fine. A slight delay to finish setting up or put out last-minute fires ain't no big thing, right? Right. But this is Beer Fest, and given its notoriously bad rep and no reassurances or reasons given, people immediately appeared disheartened.
Things didn't really get much better once the lines did get moving, either. The new/old layout — HBF had been relocated from last year's temporary digs back to its old locale at Hermann Square — was crushingly tight, with brewery tents lining both sides of the streets and stages dropped obscurely in between. Should one want to see, whatever band was playing the main stage (the Bud Light stage, an odd choice for a craft beer fest, no?) — perhaps the Wheel Workers or Free Radicals, who played early in the day — well, good luck with that. In order to stake out a spot, you'd have to contend with the crushing throngs of people headed toward beer town, which was built right around the entrance and the main stage, leaving the entire back of the festival devoid of people or beer.
Also, the festival was only sampling beers 'til 4 p.m., which it appeared most people found out once they tried to sample anything past 4 p.m. Yep, four hours of beer sampling was all you got at Beer Fest. Should you arrive late, or should the gates open late like they did Saturday, your only option was to purchase full-size (8 ounce) beers for five tickets, which amounted to $7 a beer. That's two-thirds of an actual beer, really, because a normal, big boy (or girl) beer is 12 ounces. Cries of "Wait, what? Nobody told us this!" were all over the festival and social media. It was a hot mess, y'all.
And while the early hours of HBF were pretty hectic, the mess of people and beer only got worse as it got later in the day. Acts like Scarface and Dirty South rapper Chamillionaire, both of whom played Sunday, were a huge draw with the barely-21 crowd, and the mad rush of millennials trying to catch a glimpse of those storied Houston rappers, as well as RiFF Raff on Saturday night — especially RiFF RAFF — made it damn near impossible to really get into the music on the main stage.
I attempted to catch the Neon Icon's set, but between the thousands of people hurtling toward the front of the festival to refill their beer cups, and the groups of drunk millennials staked out on the grass in front of the beer tents, it was damn near impossible. I was so far back from the stage that I was almost in the street outside the festival. But as far away from the Neon Versace set as I was, I was still able to hear how...confusing? terrible? (it's hard to tell)...it truly was. Oh, and he was 45 entire minutes late to the stage, too. So we all waited for RiFF RAFF's subpar set.
Maybe I'm old, or maybe I just don't quite understand his schtick yet, after years of trying, but I just straight-up can't understand the draw. Is he funny as hell on Twitter? Yes. He is, and I follow him — and sometimes retweet — unabashedly. I think everyone should tiptoe in their Jawdins, and ride Versace neon bikes. But he's not nearly as enamoring live. It seems silly that one has to have three hype men around to make him sound decent, which RiFF does. His stage is full of dudes backing his flow, and while it certainly makes him sound tolerable, without those hype men he's just not a very good rapper. Seriously.
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Still, people flocked to him at Beer Fest, just like they flocked to Scarface and Chamillionaire. But with those two, I can see the draw, and can even justify standing in ass-to-elbows crowds in the Houston heat. Scarface is — excuse my language — a fucking badass, and the Geto Boys veteran isn't just badass because he's a Houston native. He just kills it. He killed it at Beer Fest, even from the poor man's street view where I was standing. Dude is bigger than the stage, and he even busted out a couple of rock covers while he (allegedly; I couldn't see) strapped on a guitar for good measure. And Chamillionaire. I mean, come on. How could one not like Mr. "Ridin' Dirty"? Even from the nosebleed seats on a Sunday at an overcrowded, overpriced festival he's brilliant. RiFF just can't compete.
But as crowded as that main stage was, there was (sort of) an upside to the whole thing. Those randomly placed side stages, while tough to get to, were kind of the bomb. After trying and failing to get anywhere close to Free Radicals on Saturday, who — from what we could see — killed their entire set on the main stage because they're awesome, we decided to try and head back to Mikey and the Drags. Unlike Free Radicals, the Drags were thrown onto the Ziegenbock stage at the very back of the festival, and because there were only a couple of scattered beer tents around, there was only a handful of scattered Drags fans in the crowd. Probably not the biggest ego boost for the Houston garage-rock band, but awesome for us. We got to stretch out in the grass and hang out listening to some fantastic tunes. Everyone else missed out.
Same thing goes with the 8th Wonder stage, which, positioned at the opposite end of the festival, was a pavement oasis. Artists like Emily Bell (who played Sunday) and Quiet Company were slated to play that stage, and should you have pushed your way through the human maze that led up to it, it was a brilliant place to hang out. Well, if you were interested in the local music at all, which unfortunately appeared to be an afterthought for most Beer Fest players.
At the end of the day, though, I would still find it hard to justify a $45 ticket — or, God forbid, a $200 VIP ticket — to fight the crowds, not taste beers, and ultimately pay $7 for a tiny beer. And it's especially not worth it to see RiFF RAFF. It's freaking RiFF RAFF. There ain't enough Versace beer in the world to make it worth the time.