The past year in Houston music can almost be defined by what didn’t happen instead of what did: Free Press Summer Fest didn’t get washed out, although Something Wicked did; Transmission Events didn’t last as Fitzgerald’s primary booking agents; and, thank God, Houston audiences remained safe all year long, whether from crowd-caused catastrophes or a Bataclan-style attack. This year also felt like as much was happening behind the scenes as onstage, with new venues on the horizon and the Eastside emerging as a real force for the creative energies for Houston musicians, an entire not-quite-new sector of town that is now in play like never before.
To borrow a line from Lord of the Rings, the board is set, and the pieces are moving…
5. EASTSIDE RISING
Long known as home to late-night warehouse parties and stubbornly independent venues like White Swan and Super Happy Fun Land, this year the industrialized patch of central Houston due east of highway 59 saw enough after-dark activity to justify its designation as a legitimate — if still highly unofficial — entertainment district. Seeded in recent years by bars like the Moon Tower Inn and Voodoo Queen, and abetted by the opening of METRO’s Green light-rail line in May, the Eastside has now definitively wrested Houston’s bohemian center of gravity away from Montrose.
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The shift was practically visible as many of the acts displaced when lower-Westheimer alt-music stronghold Mango’s finally shut its doors at the end of March found a warm welcome at Black Barbie, a converted taqueria on Canal Street founded by two members of the band Auto-Fellatio Dreams. About a quarter-mile away lies Wonky Power Live, headquarters of the label run by Bang Bangz/Tax the Wolf leader Mario Rodriguez, which often stages events featuring acts from within Wonky Power’s widening circle of friends. And just within the past month or so, two more venues have joined them: Arlo’s Ballroom, a mom-and-pop dance club aimed at Gen-Xers and older millennials; and Satellite Bar, a self-professed dive and indie venue sandwiched between a car wash and a Whataburger.
However, not to be ignored in all this is the belt of slightly more established clubs on the northeastern fringe of downtown, a line that includes Walters Downtown, Houston House of Creeps, EastDown Warehouse and Last Concert Cafe, perhaps the grandaddy of all Houston DIY venues. It’s never been especially easy to be a struggling musician in Houston, but thanks to this network of sympathetic small businesses, it’s at least still possible.
4. RODEO TICKET WRANGLE
The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo has grown so popular that this year it opted to switch ticketing systems; demand has been so high in recent years that the servers of its former provider, Ticketmaster, crashed several times. New carrier AXS promised to circumvent those difficulties with a “virtual waiting room,” a feature designed to alert fans the moment seats became available rather than forcing them refresh their browsers over and over again. It also promised to ward off those pesky “bots,” mechanical lurkers that can snap up entire blocs of tickets in a nanosecond and often funnel them to brokers like StubHub or TicketCity, which usually resell the tickets back to the public at a steep markup.
Sounds nice in theory, but anyone who was expecting the transition to go off without a hitch probably doesn’t buy tickets online very often. When the on-sale date arrived, things went awry and social media went predictably nuclear, resulting in a few hours of online invective about long wait times; error messages, mostly in the AXS mobile app; and difficulty finding seats together in the lower levels. (Some tickets also showed up on StubHub anyway.) While admitting they could have explained the process better, rodeo officials countered that the waiting room had always been designed to open for an hour before tickets ever went on sale, the app-related glitches were fixed relatively quickly, and the lower levels are largely reserved for season-ticket holders.
Of course nobody wanted to hear the rodeo’s explanations/excuses at first, but things blew over fairly quickly. Although overall attendance was down by a hair this year — 2.483 million, about 2,500 people down from 2014 — the rodeo set a new record for paid rodeo/concert attendance at 1.377 million fans, many of whom must be a little more tech-savvy than they originally let on.
3. R. KELLY IGNITES FPSF CONTROVERSY
Not long after this year’s Free Press Summer Fest lineup was announced in late February, heads began being scratched all over Houston as people realized that notorious R&B lothario R. Kelly, of“Ignition (Remix)” and “Feelin’ On Your Booty” fame, was one of the headliners, second only on the bill to Skrillex. Not long after that, FPSF began getting an earful on social media from people who were appalled that Houston’s biggest music festival would trot out an alleged child predator as one of its biggest attractions. For a few weeks, the situation drew scattered national attention as leaders of local music-education nonprofit Girls Rock Camp Houston circulated a petition calling for Kelly’s removal from the bill, and city officials refused to intervene.
The reality is he was never going to get booted from the festival, not when he shares a management company with several other FPSF artists; the festival, however, at least agreed to air anti-sexual-assault PSAs on its video screens before each performance. In the end, it was all a little anticlimactic. Kelly wound up drawing a decent FPSF crowd, mostly avid fans interspersed with a few hecklers. The grand protest of his appearance envisioned by some never materialized. Some observers thought he was fantastic; others less so. But by the time Kelly went onstage, FSPF had much bigger issues to contend with. More on that in a bit.
2. THE FITZ SOAP OPERA
One of the most turbulent chapters in Fitzgerald’s nearly 40-year history began in August 2014 when Houston promoters Pegstar, the historic Heights club’s tenant for more than four years at that point, announced it was planning to build a state-of-the-art venue near I-45 and North Main, later revealing its name to be White Oak Music Hall. It would be an exaggeration to say all hell broke loose when Pegstar’s lease expired earlier this fall, but not by much.
A few weeks before Pegstar’s final show at Fitz in late August, the venue’s new tenants outlined their plans for extensive renovations to the aging building, as well as a new booking partnership with Austin’s Transmission Events, the promoters behind the Mohawk and Fun Fun Fun Fest who hoped to make Fitz part of a statewide network also including Transmission-booked venues in Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio. Fitz shut down until early October, when it reopened with a sold-out performance by Bun B and special appearance by Mayor Annise Parker.
Not two weeks later, the club’s brand-new GM was gone and the alliance with Transmission was defunct, both supposedly casualties of the slower-than-expected pace of those renovations. It’s been mostly quiet over there ever since, as the club’s new talent buyers seem to be steering the venue away from alternative/indie acts in favor of metal, rap, punk and Texas country, but this latest episode has only underlined an key theme in the venue’s decades-long saga: Whatever it may be, many Houstonians take what goes on at Fitzgerald’s very seriously.
1. HERE COME THE FLOODS
The Memorial Day Weekend flooding caused millions of dollars in damages across Southeast Texas, and nearly sank Free Press Summer Fest. A few days later, even as its usual site of Eleanor Tinsley Park lay submerged under Buffalo Bayou, FPSF organizer Omar Afra vowed the show would go on. When even more rain fell the next weekend, the festival announced it would move to NRG Park’s Yellow Lot near the Houston Texans’ training facility. Even though it was less than ten days away, production crews managed to transform the acres of grass and concrete into a passable facsimile of FPSF, and fans braved the face-melting heat to enjoy headliners Future Islands, St. Vincent, Weezer, Mastodon, R. Kelly (see above) and a reprise of the “Welcome to Houston” all-star rap revue, this time backed by Bayou City power-soul outfit the Suffers in their first local performance since appearing on The Late Show With David Letterman In March. They stole the show.
ALSO WORTH MENTIONING
** Stepping away from ZZ Top, Billy F. Gibbons recruited some friends he dubbed the BFGs and recorded the Afro-Cuban-laced LP Perfectamundo. The group made the Houston concert debut earlier this month in a muy caliente set at UH’s Cullen Performance Hall.
** Houston launched a national rap star into orbit for the first time in a decade when Elkins High alum Travi$ Scott’s latest album, Rodeo, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Honorable mention goes to Chedda da Connect, whose “Flicka da Wrist” went so viral it even wound up on Fox’s Empire.
** Beloved Rice University student-radio station KTRU returned to the FM airwaves in early October, broadcasting over the low-power 96.1 FM from an antenna atop Rice Stadium. Some critics have said the University of Houston, which bought KTRU’s signal license and transmitter back in 2010 and flipped its format to classical music, should give 91.7 FM back to Rice now that UH has announced its intentions to sell the station.
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** The Continental Club celebrated its 15th anniversary this past June even as it withstood the construction of a massive mixed-use parking garage/apartment block next door. By year’s end, the bottom floor of the garage was open, helping to relieve congestion in the area as the eclectic community now known as “Mid-Main” continues to thrive.
** Houston’s newest record store, the vinyl-only Deep End Records, opened in a very convenient location — the entryway of Walters Downtown. Behind the till is John Baldwin, longtime Cactus Music clerk and drummer for popular indie-pop band the Wild Moccasins.
** Free Press Houston’s winter counterpart to FPSF, Day For Night, debuted this past weekend with performances by Kendrick Lamar, New Order, Janelle Monae and more. Conceived as a hybrid between a music festival and digital-art installation, Day For Night drew healthy crowds for a first-year event and minted a new Internet star when Lamar pulled onstage an aspiring MC from Houston calling himself “Corporate Dough,” who then delivered a wicked freestyle during Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. City.”