Houstonians' ambivalence over the city's most iconic structure and, at the moment, biggest civic embarrassment should reach a climax this evening at the Astrodome's "50th birthday party." With that milestone comes with an asterisk almost as big as the building itself, considering the Dome has been all but abandoned after being used as a shelter for Hurricane Katrina refugees in September 2005.
Nevertheless, starting at 6 p.m., tonight only officials will unlock the gates of the onetime "Eighth Wonder of the World," allowing the public inside for a gracious photo op (watch out for pigeons, and maybe even worse), and we can all briefly put aside all the back-and-forth about what to do with the damn thing already and bask in the rainbow glow of Astrodome nostalgia.
Dome-related memories have not been in short supply lately, but what has been sorely lacking has been people coming forward to share their memories of seeing Pink Floyd at the Dome in '87 or 'NSYNC in '01; the Stones in '81, '99 and '94; or U2 in '92 and '97. More than a few people will no doubt tell you the reason is because as a concert venue, the Astrodome sucked. The acoustics could be brutal, and the performers appeared no bigger than insects if you happened to be sitting in one of the upper decks.
But more than that, wrote former Houston Press Music Editor Brad Tyer in a 2002 article for Rice University's architecture/design journal, Cite, the Dome's sheer size took away one of the key ingredients necessary to create good rock and roll: immediacy: "It's no accident that the periodic resuscitations of rock & roll vitality — British punk rock, American college rock , etc. — have been born in clubs, not stadiums," Tyer says. "It's no accident that as they've grown into stadiums, they have become, by popular definition, less rock, more pop."
Maybe he had a point. Who plays NRG Stadium today? One Direction. But be that as it may, plenty of Astrodome concerts deserve to be remembered at least as much as - if not more than - many of the teams the Astros and Oilers put on the field during the Dome's heyday. What it lacked in acoustic niceties, not to mention plumbing, it made up for in character. I will never forget the time my brother and I went to see U2's Popmart tour in late 1997: shortly after he returned from a visit to one of the crowded bathrooms, he discovered he had stepped in human feces. Once we got over our initial revulsion, we laughed about that for years afterward.
What the Dome had in the asset column is also tied to its stature. That building could hold a mass communion better than any other stadium I've ever been to, and it doled out shared experiences in spades. But everyone's experiences were different, too. For the past few days, we've combed the Internet for reliable accounts of concerts at the Astrodome, and asked a couple of our writers to give us their own. Here we tried to give a representative account of just what a "multipurpose" venue the Dome really was, based on the accounts we were able to unearth. (Occasionally we also came across some unsettling footnotes, like the fact that the lone hip-hop act to perform in the Dome may have been Public Enemy, who opened the fall 1992 stadium leg of U2's "Zoo TV" tour.)
Therefore, some shows that pop up often when the Dome's All-Stars are mentioned don't have much of a footprint today; we're thinking of Pink Floyd here (maybe it was the drugs) or the many Texxas jam-type events in the early '80s. Others, such as very last concert in the Dome — George Strait at the 2003 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo — have been well-documented on DVD or other media. Elvis you can watch on YouTube right now if you want.
But by all means, tell us your Dome concert stories. And before we go any further, a special thanks to Bruce Kessler, for most of the artwork you see in this article. His Web site, rockinhouston.com, never ceases to amaze us, and we never tire of trying to come up with possible articles we might be able to illustrate with his photos.
JUDY GARLAND & THE SUPREMES Date: 12/17/1965
Courtesy of a promoter named Stan Irwin, the Astrodome's first concert came about eight months after the building opened, as the star of The Wizard of Oz, A Star Is Born and Meet Me In St. Louis was winding down her tenure on Capitol Records with albums like I Could Go On Singing and "Live" at the London Palladium, for which she shared the bill with daughter Liza Minnelli.
The very first artist to test the venue's precarious acoustics, though, were Diana Ross and her fellow queens of Motown, who in '65 were riding high from hits like "I Hear a Symphony," "Back In My Arms Again" and "Stop! In the Name of Love." (Talk about a generational divide.) According to biographer Scott Schecter's Judy Garland: The Day-to-Day Chronicle of a Legend, the Dome's seating capacity was raised by 12,000 (to an even 60,000) via additional floor seating; Garland's set list included "My Kind of Town/Houston Is" and "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands" to go with "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby" and "Over the Rainbow"; and she was paid a cool $43,000 for the gig. Ticket prices started at an even one dollar (American).
FRANK SINATRA Date: 8/16/1969
Strictly speaking, Ol' Blue Eyes' appearance at the Dome in the wake of the Apollo 11 moon landing - almost a month after Neil Armstrong's crew had disembarked on the Sea of Tranquility - was as Master of Ceremonies for this "All-Star Tribute to the Apollo 11 Astronauts." Other talent on hand included Flip Wilson, Dionne Warwick, and honorary Rat Pack member/future Terms of Endearment heroine Shirley MacLaine; Sinatra stepped away from the podium long enough to perform "The Lady Is a Tramp," "Fly Me To the Moon" (naturally) and "God Bless America."
Nevertheless, according to a 2012 letter to the editor of The Dallas Morning News by Richardson resident Linda Vaughn, even seeing Sinatra couldn't top the thrill of cheering on Armstrong and his colleagues in person. "The highlight of the evening was seeing the Apollo 11 astronauts. I attended several Astros games in the Astrodome, but nothing could top that evening," she said. "I hate to think of Houston without the Astrodome, but those of us with good memories of it will always remember being there. And I will especially remember that night in 1969."
ASTRODOME JAZZ FESTIVALS Dates: July 1972/July 1973
Pairing bona fide jazz immortals with some of the top contemporary R&B stars of the early '70s, the Astrodome Jazz Festival lasted two years. Shame it didn't last longer, but get a load of the lineups it did manage to pull:
1972: The Ike & Tina Turner Revue; B.B. King; Cannonball Adderly; Donny Hathaway; Roberta Flack; Lou Rawls; Herbie Mann; Dave Brubeck w/Paul Desmond; the "Jimmy Smith Jam Session" featuring the organ great as well as Kenny Burrell and Clark Terry; and finally Gerry Mulligan & the "Giants of Jazz" - a no-bullshit supergroup including Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Kai Winding (trombone) and Al McKibbon (bass)
1973: Aretha Franklin; Ella Fitzgerald; the Staple Singers; Stevie Wonder; Billy Paul ("Me & Mrs. Jones"); Ray Charles & His Orchestra; Rashaan Roland Kirk; B.B. King (again); Herbie Mann; Charles Mingus; David "Fathead" Newman; Bobby Womack; Freddie Hubbard
Daaamn. Hathaway's performance made its way to posterity via a rare bootleg. Better yet, according to the Bayou City Soul blog, Houston groups the Fifth Ward Express — featuring dynamic singer Bobo Mr. Soul ("Hitch Hike to Heartbreak Road") — and Bubbha Thomas and the Lightmen were added to the 1973 bill at the last minute. Though the Astrodome Jazz Festival didn't last, the Kool Jazz Festival brought many of the same names (and those of a similar caliber) to the Dome for several more years throughout the '70s into the early '80s.
Story continues on the next page.
NIGHT OF THE HURRICANE" RUBIN CARTER BENEFIT CONCERT Feat. Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Ringo Starr, etc. Date: 1/25/1976
The story behind the "Night of the Hurricane" is perhaps the most bizarre in Astrodome concert history. First things first: Rubin Carter was a New Jersey-born former pro boxer and the subject of Bob Dylan's 1975 hit song "Hurricane," because Carter was then serving time for a 1967 murder conviction that some celebrities like Dylan thought was bogus. He won a new trial thanks in part to the publicity from "Hurricane," which reached No. 1, and was released on bail two months after the Astrodome concert; however, he was re-tried and convicted later in 1976. Normally an all-star benefit featuring performers like Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Carlos Santana, Ringo Starr, Dr. John, Stephen Stills, Richie Havens and Kinky Friedman would take place in New York or L.A., and maybe it should have. (An earlier, more successful benefit for Carter did happen in late 1975 at New York's Madison Square Garden.)
But according to a fascinating February 24, 1977 article in Rolling Stone by legendary Texas music journalists Chet Flippo and Joe Nick Patoski, the show wound up in Houston because Pace Concerts (then known as Pace Management) still had a hold on the Astrodome due to a motocross race it was promoting there the day before, and the benefit's New Orleans-based organizer could not finalize a date with the Superdome, where the concert was originally supposed to take place. Once it did, according to the article, the promoters quickly racked up some $50,000 in debt.
In order to be profitable, some 66,000 people would have had to show up, but the final head count was less idea half that. Among the reasons for the low attendance was the fact that Rubin Carter was relatively unknown in Houston, and local promotion for the concert was indifferent if not openly hostile; a local DJ for KILT repeatedly called the concert a "ripoff" before the show. Afterward, the late Bob Claypool, the Houston Post's pop-music critic at the time, wrote that he thought Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue "stunk."
THE ROLLING STONES Dates: 10/28-29/1981, "Tattoo You" tour
This was the very first concert our own Jesse Sendejas Jr. ever attended. Here's what he remembers:
It was the Rolling Stones' 1981 visit to Houston supporting Tattoo You and whatever drug/alcohol/sex habits the Stones had acquired by that time. The show was basically preserved for the ages in the music documentary Let's Spend the Night Together, but one thing they didn't show that amazed my 16-year-old male mind was there were women in the men's restrooms.
Unable to wait for their own spot in their appointed space, they simply asked the all-too-accommodating gents if they could cut ahead to do their business with us XY-types. I could barely focus on [openers] the Fabulous Thunderbirds, ZZ Top or Mick and Keef after that initiation. The show was the centerpiece of a three-piece set that kept me returning to shows . The ticket-buying experience was actually a fun experience then. The show was thrilling. And, wearing my concert tee following the show was a source of unmitigated pride.
THE JACKSONS Dates: 11/9-10/1984, "Victory" tour
Michael and his older brothers played the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo back-to-back years as the sun set on their run as the Jackson 5, in 1973 and '74. About a decade later, now calling themselves the Jacksons, they took over the Astrodome for two nights in November 1984, toward the end of the North American leg of their "Victory Tour." That we know of, that is the only time an act outside Elvis was able to stage a multi-night stand at the Dome.
However, according to an Associated Press article in the Victoria Advocate dated November 10, even Michael's post-Thriller popularity wasn't quite enough to justify two shows in the cavernous Dome; as of that Thursday, an Astrodome spokesman estimated that about 25,000 seats of a possible 80,000 remained between the Friday and Saturday shows. The ultimate attendance count is unknown, but here is a nice clip of "Billie Jean" from the November 9 show:
Story continues on the next page.
MADONNA Date: 7/24/1987, "Who's That Girl" tour
Not a lot of information about this show has survived online, except for the newspaper ad you see here and, according to a January 1988 article in Smithsonian (concerning the architecture and feasibility of Astrodome-like structures), the fact that there were plenty of tickets still left over. This despite the "giant video screen" and "theatrical seating!!", apparently. Sendejas, though, was there and remembers the show this way:
My wife and sister-in-law made it perfectly clear we would be seeing Madonna in the Astrodome for her Who's That Girl? tour. I was a fan and really wanted to see Level 42, who opened, so I didn't fuss much. Back then, my brother was listening exclusively to gangster rap or Yngwie Malmsteen. But since he loved my sister-in-law, he too complied. What I recall best is thinking during the show that I probably had never seen so many people all dancing at the same time.
Madge proved to be a stellar performer, much better at that than singing, I thought. We were thoroughly entertained, even up in the nosebleeds. The night was a blur of spotlights, pop music and people of all types up and out of their rainbow-colored seats, all moving at the command of a distant, tiny, blond star in center field, the center of our universe for that night. If you ask them today, my wife and sister-in-law would still probably tell you it was their favorite show. My brother might still go with Malmsteen.
MILLER LITE'S "BIGGEST PARTY IN HISTORY" Feat. The Who, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, etc. Date: 9/2/1989
This blistering Labor Day Weekend mini-festival enveloped both the Astrodome and its parking lot, in a triumph of marketing that turned out to be a pretty good concert to boot. Hoping to cut into Budweiser's market share in Texas, Miller Lite began airing spots on local radio and TV stations months in advance about a mysterious "Biggest Party In History," featuring spokesman Randy Quaid forever promising to "get back to you later with more details."
They booked just about every big Texas-based performer besides Willie Nelson and ZZ Top — Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, and more — and had them all effectively open for the Who's "reunion" tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of Tommy. There were also wrestling matches, and some of the gate was designated for Texas Special Olympics, too.
Although Vaughan — who would be dead less than a year later in an August 1990 helicopter crash outside Alpine Valley, Wisc. - was inexplicably relegated to the parking lot (the T-Birds had the honor of opening for the Who in the Dome), it sounds like a good time was had by all; if it wasn't the biggest party in history, it was probably at least Houston's party of the year. Houston blog 30 Days Out filed this excellent report in July 2008:
When Pete Townshend hit the first notes of "Pinball Wizard" I got chills - I'd listened to that song since I was a kid. They didn't do the entire "Tommy." They played a standard Who set - kicking it off with "Substitute" - but the encore featured a couple of interesting choices: "Hey Joe," dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, and Creedence's "Born On The Bayou," which Daltrey said was the only thing he remembered anyone playing at Woodstock.
THE ROLLING STONES Date: 11/9/1989, "Steel Wheels" tour
Bob Ruggierio's first Rolling Stones live experience:
I was more of a Beatles guy but my friend, Billy Ryan, was a diehard Stones fan, and I figured this would be a bucket-list band to see. My lasting impression was about the incredible energy that Mick Jagger had as he bound up and down and back and forth all over the stage, and the huge inflatable "Honky Tonk Woman" that made an appearance. A bonus for me was the opening set by one of my favorite bands, Living Colour.
METALLICA & GUNS N' ROSES Date: 9/4/1992
One of the biggest rock tours of the entire 1990s, this paring of behemoths came along at just the right time — Metallica was flush with the success of the "Black Album," while G'N'R hadn't completely imploded yet (though they were well on their way). Posting on a Guns fan forum in Denmark, user Ann Labuda's memory of the show offers some rare insight behind the scenes at Dome concert: "They had a backstage area up on a higher level where there were video games, a bar, and [the bands] hung out when they weren't onstage."
By sheer coincidence, the timing of the concert — featuring opening act Faith No More — augured the tectonic shift going on within rock culture. As Labuda notes in her post, the very next day Lollapalooza 1992 (its second year) pulled into the Fort Bend County Fairgrounds, featuring Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Ice Cube, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Ministry and more.
Story continues on the next page.
PAUL MCCARTNEY Date: 4/22/1993, "New World Tour"
This would be the first time our "Classic Rock Bob" Ruggiero, a lifelong Beatles fan, saw one of the lads in person:
Thanks to my brother's ticket connections, we had seats in like the fourth or fifth row on the Astrodome floor. For a fucking BEATLE! I remember hearing hit after hit, and up close I could see Paul was mugging a bit too much for my taste. Unfortunately, I was ticked off by the people around me, whose asses stayed mostly glued to their seats, standing up for only the more familiar tunes, then quickly sitting back down.
For a fucking BEATLE. I remember it bummed me out immensely, and we ended up leaving before the show was over to beat the traffic. I went home and wrote an angry essay about my experience. Maybe I was just in a shitty mood.
A fan named Steve Jones remembers the show this way on Facebook:
It was like stepping into a time warp. Some of the people at the concert wore platform shoes and bell-bottom pants. The parking lot had a lot of the "Hippie vans" from the 1960's parked in it. Some people were passing around joints. The Astrodome had a big cloud of marijuana [smoke] by time the concert was over.
SELENA Date: 2/26/1995, Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo
Arguably the most famous Astrodome concert in the building's history, the Tejano superstar's third consecutive rodeo appearance shattered the Dome's attendance record with more than 66,000 fans — one that stung that much more when Selena was killed by fan-club president Yolanda Saldivar less than a month later. Jesse Sendejas Jr. was there...almost.
Some days, I feel like I am the only Chicano who did not see Selena's Astrodome show in 1995. As the years have passed, it seems like everyone was there, although the 'Dome's seating couldn't have held the exaggerated numbers I've encountered. Unlike my counterpart Marco Torres, who saw her many times and recently wrote a touching homage to her, I had one chance to see La Reyna.
I even had a ticket. And I was in the stadium before she triumphantly took the stage. Even still, I didn't see the show. Excuse me while I find some Kleenex. My parents bought tickets for themselves and for me, my wife and kids, who were four and two years-old on the day of the show. Because I was a big dummy and thought it was important for the kids to see horses and pigs, or ride the kiddie rides at the carnival, they were exhausted and cranky by the time we ever reached our seats.
I wasn't a huge fan and my kids were fidgeting like crazy. Executive decision — let's get these kids out of here, we'll just catch her the next time. Fortunately, my folks stayed to see the legendary concert. A month later, Selena was gone, leaving only beautiful music, memories and "if only" moments for we who never got to see her live.
** The Simon and Garfunkel concert scheduled for August 17, 1983, part of the tour that followed their blockbuster 1981 reunion concert in New York's Central Park, was cancelled due to Hurricane Alicia, which made landfall southwest of Galveston the next day. Bob Ruggiero would have been there.
What was supposed to be my first concert ever was going with my parents and a friend to see a reunited Simon & Garfunkel at the Astrodome. Already a huge fan of '60s music (thanks, 98FM KFMK!), I was excited for weeks. The four of us piled into our van (complete with late-'70s brown shag carpeted bed in the back) and headed for the 'Dome as the skies grew dark.
To my utter disappointment, as our car turned into the gate, we were told that the show had been cancelled due to the threat of Hurricane Alicia, which was churning around. I was devastated! The next day, when I got home from school, my mother had bought a copy of Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits and had it waiting for me in my room. Thanks, Mom! (My first concert ended up being Billy Joel on the 1984 Innocent Man tour at the Summit.)
** The first festival-type event (again, that we could find) planned for the Dome never came to pass, but sounded awesome from the title on down. Billed as "Soul Bowl '69" and scheduled as a three-day event in mid-June 1969, the concert was organized by the Rev. E.L. Franklin, father of Aretha and a gospel-music legend in his own right, with the proceeds scheduled to go to various urban-renewal causes.
Among the supposed headliners were Ray Charles, the Queen of Soul, Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge, Houston native Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and more, as well as one day set aside for gospel acts like the Swan Silvertones, Dixie Hummingbirds and Rev. James Cleveland. It was not to be, though — according to Jet magazine, city officials were worried that Charles' appearance elsewhere in Texas a few days prior would hurt his potential draw at the Astrodome, so the show was moved to a much smaller venue in Dallas and then ultimately canceled altogether.
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