Hype This

Ho-hum, here we go again. Another sports and entertainment palace opens in Houston, and the Chronicle pulls out all the stops saying it's the best thing to happen to the sports and entertainment universe since the last sports and entertainment citadel opened in Houston. Fran Blinebury, Dale Robertson, John Lopez and Mickey Herskowitz all take stabs at immortality by trying to come up with a cute name for the joint. A ten-page color supplement is printed and inserted into the Sunday edition, praising to high heaven the new wonders of the structure's innovative, high-tech light and sound, its tasteful use of vaulting space and gleaming form, the superabundance of parking, and all the delicious food and cooling libations to be had.

Lee Brown is quoted about a "vision" that the arena inspired in him. What was it? A burning bush? A scabrous, 13-headed rough beast slouching forth from Buffalo Bayou's muck, croaking "Political future? Nevermore!" A polar bear on a hang glider? Nothing of the sort. The Revelation of Lee is as mundane as the man. "My vision was that someone would stop me in the streets downtown and say, 'Mr. Mayor, I'm from San Antonio. I'm here spending the weekend in downtown Houston.' That's what's going to happen."

Allow us to pick our jaws up from the floor. Anyway, on the Chron went with the litany of bells and whistles. Mocha lattes! A 2,000-square-foot Rockets team store! State-of-the-art steaks and fork-tender sound systems!

Showtime rolls around and the Chron stays in overdrive. Several reporters sally forth and say that the night, while not without glitches, was certainly one to remember. We are, we are told, "wowed" by the venue and "dazzled" by the band. Michael D. Clark says the sound is "very listener-friendly," and a rash of letters comes in by Sunday saying that it is anything but. So it went for Reliant Stadium and so it will go for this show.

That's the problem for the Chron. Their reporters have to get quotes, and the public input often tells a different story from the headlines, and these weirdly schizoid stories emerge. In the story that had us 'Wowed' in the headline, only one of reporter Mary Vuong's three sources offered the bling-bling arena unqualified praise. Twila Ross, 57, said that it was "a step up from the Compaq Center and you can [still] get a hot dog." Faint praise indeed. (And wouldn't Bling-Bling Arena be a better name for the Rockets' new crib? After all, we invented the bling aesthetic here and it's a thriving local industry…)

Meanwhile, others gave it mixed reviews. A NASA engineer named Doug McMullen said it was more advanced than he thought it would be and that he liked the refreshments and seating. But then he added that a renovated Compaq Center could have been just as good, and groused about the "ridiculous" $15 parking fee. (Parking was free at Compaq Center.) Others grumbled about the crass commercialism -- the Toyota logos everywhere, and even actual Toyotas. Concertgoer Rebecca McDowell, another of the "wowed," told the Chron that it was "gross" that there were floor models parked all over the place.

And indeed, some parts of the new pleasure dome resemble nothing so much as the showroom out at Sterling McCall. And in fact, it is a showroom: Toyota sales reps are conveniently on hand at all events, and though you can't drive your brand-new Corolla right off the lot, er, out of the arena, you can pick it up the next day.

Still, the concourses would more accurately be described as a cross between a Toyota dealership, the long white halls out at Intercontinental, and the flight deck of 2001:A Space Odyssey's S.S. Discovery.

In fact, HAL-9000 would not be out of place here. They could lay off a bunch of the ushers they've hired to keep people out of the many and various luxury suites and boxes and go fully automated. For example, you could insert your ticket into a slot at the gates to these Shangri-Las, and hear a soothing voice intone things like "I'm afraid I can't allow you in that pod. That's a luxury pod, for people with much more money than you. Please step away from the pod bay doors. Would you like to hear me sing a song? It's called 'Daisy.' "

And so on. And perhaps if HAL-9000 did treat you to some warbling, at least you could understand some of the words. You sure as hell couldn't if you were sitting stage right or stage left at the show. For yes, another part of this song and dance is this: The Press goes out to the arena and gives you the unvarnished truth. And as tiring and predictable as this is to write, it's also -- depressingly -- true: The sound was bad for many of the people in the building.

Out front, Racket's sources say that it was damn near perfect for a large venue, even all the way at the back of the room, but it was not so for me stage left, where it was as echo-ey as any show at the Dome or the Summit/Compaq Center/Oasis of Love. Several other people who had seats elsewhere in the wings told me the same thing. These buildings aren't designed for good sound -- the opposite is true. The conventional wisdom is that you want harsh acoustics for basketball and hockey and you do the best that you can to smooth out the edges temporarily when there's music for a night.

Not to say that the Toyota Center wasn't an improvement over the Oasis of Love, for it is much more intimate and plush. Though I was nine rows back on the first tier, watching Fleetwood Mac here felt a little more like seeing them at a club gig than it did an arena show. Something else that fell short of bona fide arena rock status was less encouraging for the Toyota Center: Rumor has it that only about 6,000 people paid to attend and that tickets were being given away to all who asked before the show. Generosity also reigned elsewhere -- one of the ladies working the bar in the outdoor smoking area told me an anonymous gentleman had plunked down three C-notes and told her to start handing out free booze to all the nicotine addicts in the caged ciggy-pen.

Back inside, it was easy to spot the paying customers. Those would be the aging male classic rockers, and a huge contingent of female Stevie Nicks fanatics. There were more shawls on display here than anywhere else on earth, outside of a large gathering of the Gypsy tribes, as Stevie's bizarro Celtic-Romany-Wicca posse came out in full effect. Mothers and their daughters -- some of the few under-forties in attendance and likely all named Rhiannon or Sara -- shared their Nicks fix together, most prominently right in front of the stage, where an ethereal coven of witch-eh women swayed away the evening in communion with their high priestess, no doubt wishing they had a wind machine and plenty of confetti for added drama.

Drama is something Fleetwood Mac sans Christine McVie has a little too much of. Both Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham come across as fairly humorless and theatrical. Ms. McVie was the grounded, down-to-earth heart of the band, and her sensible and heartfelt pop tunes like "Over My Head," "Don't Stop," "You Make Lovin' Fun" and "Say You Love Me" were the soul of the band's most successful incarnation. On their 1988 greatest hits compilation, McVie wrote more than half the songs. But are there eccentric women inserting her mug into commissioned portraits, like this one (www.johannas-art.com/Portraits.htm) in Scotland? No! Why McVie is considered less a star than Nicks or Buckingham and why her solo career has never taken off are mysteries to me, as is the fact that anyone could consider a Christine-less lineup the real Fleetwood Mac.

Buckingham, who now looks like rock and roll's John McEnroe, is the bombast-meister who brought us the cocaine octane of "Tusk," while everything about Nicks, from the gravel of her voice to her supernatural vibe, has always been a you-love-her-or-you-hate-her deal.

So whether it was Nicks rasping out "Rhiannon" or "Dreams," or Buckingham belting "Big Love" and "I'm So Afraid," or the two of them leather-and-lacing along on "Landslide," wherein their Tender Moments Together After All This Time put some concertgoers in mind of A Mighty Wind, without McVie the picture of Fleetwood Mac was imperfect.

As was the one the Chronicle told about the Toyota Center.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax