It’s no secret that 2016 was a rough year for music. Although Houston’s scene was spared any of the truly cataclysmic events or catastrophic losses that were visited elsewhere, the weather-related evacuations of both Free Press Summer Fest and Houston Open Air, new venue White Oak Music Hall’s difficulties with its neighbors, and the deaths of locally revered musicians like Tejano superstar Emilio made it a challenging year for a community already confronted with plenty of challenges under the best of circumstances.
Fortunately, the new year arrives with a number of reasons to be optimistic about the coming 12 months. Some of these threads have carried over from 2016, or even further back, while others may break fresh ground in one manner of speaking or another. Either way, all eight sections in the piece that follows could have easily been expanded at much greater length. Here, they serve as a thumbnail guide to what already looks like a very promising, challenging and — we hope — entertaining year for Houston music. — Chris Gray
Super Bowl week brings a wealth of musical options to Houston.
To call the Super Bowl simply a football game is akin to calling any of these new Star Wars flicks simply films. The big game will no doubt draw plenty of eyes worldwide when Lady Gaga headlines this year’s halftime show. But the entertainment during the week leading up to the event will draw plenty of interest of its own in and around Houston.
For those in the mood for Super Bowl fun on a budget, Super Bowl LIVE — taking place January 28-February 5 at Discovery Green — is a good bet. The park got a trial run of sorts last April when it played host to Final Four musical festivities, but nothing compares to this year’s nine-day lineup of free music. The night before Super Bowl Sunday, local legends ZZ Top will headline along with Gary Clark Jr. and local favorites The Suffers. On tap Friday are Leon Bridges, Shakey Graves and Robert Ellis; Thursday is set to be headlined by Houston’s own Solange, plus Grammy-winning HSPVA grad Robert Glasper and Lizzo. Acts from the area also playing Super Bowl LIVE include The Tontons, Wild Moccasins, Los Skarnales, Nick Gaitan, Fat Tony and Buxton. Downtown parking is going to be interesting all week, so it might be best to employ local transit or Uber — or simply be prepared to pay to park.
Others seeking Super Bowl festivities but looking to escape the congestion downtown would be wise to check out the Players Party at Sam Houston Race Park. The event will feature country music aplenty from the likes of Hunter Hayes, Tracy Byrd, Montgomery Gentry, Jamie Lynn Spears and many more. Meanwhile, those who purchase a ticket will have a chance to meet a number of gridiron legends, including Warren Moon, Drew Brees, Odell Beckham Jr. and Herschel Walker, or take part in a number of interactive events, including a midway and carnival area, a celebrity lip-sync contest and an Xbox Madden tournament. The event culminates in a Sunday viewing party for the big game. One-day tickets are $24 for children ages 5-12 and $30 for those 13 and over; four-day passes are $59 for kids and $79 for adults.
Want to check out the two hottest tickets of the weekend at Club Nomadic? Good luck. A sort of pop-up nightclub, the 62,500-square-foot venue located in the Sawyer Yards district will host Bruno Mars on February 3 and Taylor Swift on February 4 (the February 2 performer is TBD). Tickets for Bruno Mars are sold out, but currently available on resale sites starting around $200. The Taylor Swift show, meanwhile, will be available only to those who are selected via AT&T promotions and campaigns. Both shows are 21 and up. — Clint Hale
Sound and Fury
The fight over White Oak Music Hall shows no signs of letting up.
The biggest sticking point nearby residents have with White Oak Music Hall has been its 3,000-capacity outdoor stage, known as the Lawn at White Oak. Essentially serving as the brand-new venue’s backyard, the lawn was the site of the music hall’s opening festivities — an outdoor performance by French electronica act M83 on April 9. The show was a hot ticket, drawing thousands of fans, but it only confirmed some neighbors’ worst fears. Some complained of window-rattling bass, sleepless nights and public urination in their yards. As more performances were booked, opposition to the venue grew more organized.
Many near-northside residents phoned in noise complaints to the police and took their pleas straight to City Hall, desperately prodding council members and Mayor Sylvester Turner to do something. No shows were shut down, but the opposition did find some success in harrying the venue’s efforts to build a permanent stage on the lawn. In October, at neighbors’ urging, Turner told the White Oak developers they would not receive a new temporary permit for the outdoor stage. They obtained a permanent permit in October, but not before being red-tagged by the Public Works department after inspectors were tipped off that crews had begun construction on the stage before the permit was in hand.
Then, in mid-December, a group of neighbors filed a lawsuit against the music hall’s owners, W2 Development Partners, arguing that the noise from concerts and large crowds interferes with their property rights. Though the stage had already gone silent for the winter, a judge nevertheless temporarily banned the venue from hosting any outdoor events with amplified sound. That restraining order lasted two weeks before it expired.
In 2017, there is no doubt that White Oak Music Hall intends to hold concerts on the lawn; managing partner Johnny So confirmed as much when the Houston Press reached him for comment last week. He and the other partners have repeatedly insisted they’ve worked with the city to ensure everything is done by the book, and that residents’ concerns have been taken into consideration in their plans for the future — despite the lawsuit.
“The outdoor stage at White Oak Music Hall is fully permitted and meets all City of Houston requirements to begin construction,” So said in an email. “Current legal proceedings do not prohibit construction of the stage, which is currently scheduled for the spring/summer of 2017.”
The residents opposed to the outdoor stage have shown no inclination to concede the fight either. Attorney Cris Feldman, who represents some of the residents, called on the mayor to yank the venue’s outdoor stage permits in December.
“It is time for the Mayor to choose,” Feldman says in a press release on his firm’s website. “Will he stand with the children who just want a good night’s sleep, or with the greedy developers who put an outdoor concert hall in the middle of established working class neighborhoods?”
What Turner will do in 2017 remains to be seen. For now, the sound and fury along Little White Oak Bayou appear poised to continue flowing uninhibited for quite some time. While some music fans may feel conflicted about the neighborhood’s pleas, the acts booked on the lawn have been too good for fans to stay away. At least the venue’s two indoor stages aren’t facing neighbors’ wrath — yet. — Nathan Smith
Concert dates at the city’s biggest rooms are filling up fast.
Houston’s larger venues had another big year in 2016, and 2017 should be more of the same — except, of course, that it will include the addition of the Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land, which will provide our suburban neighbors some bragging rights and alleviate their driving woes a bit.
Up until this point, you may not have spent much time there, but a number of Houstonians are about to become intimately familiar with Sugar Land. This weekend, the Smart Financial Centre will celebrate its grand opening with two sets by comedy great Jerry Seinfeld. Musically, the venue kicks off its 2017 lineup the next night with Eagles co-founder Don Henley; Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, then Reba, and finally Sting are all on tap in weeks to come. The Lumineers, Tony Bennett and the Avett Brothers are scheduled to perform in March.
Between AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Justin Bieber, Mary J. Blige, Drake, Madonna, Puff Daddy, Sia, Tool and Kanye West, Toyota Center boasted quite the lineup last year. If basketball is your thing, there’s even more incentive to visit since the Rockets have been playing well as of late. The Red Hot Chili Peppers just played, and Green Day, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd and Lionel Richie are just a few of the acts scheduled to visit the indoor arena in the first half of 2017.
Meanwhile, just 30 miles north of downtown, last year the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion welcomed its own impressive lineup ranging from Slipknot and Marilyn Manson to Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa; Florence + The Machine and Twenty One Pilots to The Dixie Chicks and Hank Williams Jr. Historically high temperatures be damned, the Pavilion delighted throngs of Houston fans all year long.
As of press time, the Pavilion’s 2017 calendar was surprisingly bare save for two notable exceptions: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in late April, and the Chicago/Doobie Brothers ’70s extravaganza in May. Judging from past years, however, local music fans should expect plenty of reasons to endure drive-time gridlock in the months to come.
And who can forget NRG Stadium? After all, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is barely two months away. — Matthew Keever
Back in Time
Texas could be looking at a new major player in the music-festival game.
A new festival called Middlelands is coming to the Texas Renaissance Festival grounds this May, and dance-music fans around the state are watching with heightened interest. Judging from the promotional materials to date, this looks to be the festival many dreamed about when rumors of an EDC: Texas started to swirl back in 2013.
Middlelands is a collaboration between Insomniac Events, the promoters behind Electric Daisy Carnival and Nocturnal Wonderland, and C3 Presents, the company responsible for Austin City Limits Music Festival, Lollapalooza and Houston’s Free Press Summer Festival. The Middelands website promises five appropriately named stages, including Castle Northwoods and The Wench’s Bay, plus rides, art, camping and more, including a slate of still-unannounced musical acts. If Middlelands lives up to half the ambition currently on display, Texas is looking at another major player in the festival game.
While Texas already has its fair share of EDM festivals — including but not limited to Sun City Music Festival (El Paso), Ultimate Music Experience (South Padre Island), Lights All Night (Dallas) and Something Wicked (Houston) — it’s hard not to feel a little jealous when you see the photos coming out of other music festivals, like EDC: Vegas and Miami’s Ultra Music Festival. These look more like epic events, full of bright lights, massive production and huge layouts. So the most intriguing question about Middlelands doesn’t involve the music side of things at all.
Instead, it concerns the location of the festival itself. If you traveled back in time to RenFest this year, you know getting out to the site in Todd Mission isn’t exactly easy. Insomniac and C3 are going to have to deal with some major logistical issues, because as of now it sounds as if Middlelands is going to be at least as large as what normally goes on at RenFest, if not larger. Beyond that is trying to imagine what the layout will be. The walkways of RenFest feel crowded as it is, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of upgrades get put into place over the next few months.
For years now, it has seemed weird that no one has tried building a bigger EDM festival in Texas. It’s easy to see why C3 might have balked at expansion, seeing how large a part EDM plays in the ACL and FPSF lineups these days, but for everyone else, Texas must have looked like a fertile marketplace. Multiple cities easily connected to each other, many already proving they could host a dance festival? What’s not to love, other than the ever-fickle Texas weather? Maybe the risks were just considered too great until someone the size of Insomniac came on board.
Tickets to Middlelands are now on sale, because if there’s one thing that all EDM festivals learn pretty early on, it’s that if you promise an experience — or, in the case of Middlelands, an adventure — EDM fans will buy tickets with no idea who’s on the lineup. Give them a dance floor, a racetrack, a convention center or a renaissance festival, and they’ll show up, happy to dance the night away. If the weather plays nice and the traffic isn’t too terrible, they’ll be dancing at Middlelands for years to come. — Cory Garcia
A new documentary explores the deep connection between Numbers and its patrons.
Like thousands before him, Marcus Pontello first went to Numbers as a teenager. At the time he was a sophomore at HSPVA and a fan of headliners the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was the openers, masked San Diego grindcore unit the Locust, that really taught him how far beyond mainstream tastes the venerable Montrose nightclub could accommodate.
“I was, like, terrified,” he laughs.
Pontello says he went back a few weeks later and witnessed an even more representative experience: Classic Numbers, the weekly night featuring ’80s alternative dance music and vintage video clips. Today Classic Numbers is a Friday night rite of passage for generations of young Houstonians and a cornerstone of Friday I’m In Love, the feature-length documentary director Pontello hopes to complete by this fall, the submission deadline for many film festivals.
Pearland native Pontello and his partners in Dinolion, the local production company run by Jeromy Barber and James Templeton, have been working on their film for four years. It’s taken that long to build the kind of trust necessary for some subjects to open up on camera, Pontello explains. “Not that there’s some big dark secret, but it is personal for a lot of people, especially people that have been [going] there for 35 years,” he says. “It is a lot of people’s lives.”
But the filmmakers’ time investment is already paying dividends. Pontello says it’s become common to hear from people who have met their significant other or best friend at Numbers. Musician alumni like Ministry’s Al Jourgensen have been candid about their memories, and the staff at Numbers has given Pontello’s crew their blessing. Now, after 90 hours of interviews (and counting), the director figures he’s facing two main challenges to bring Friday to the screen. One is working without the direct input of former owner Robert “Robot” Burtenshaw, who passed away in 2013. (Helping to compensate, Pontello says, are the hours-long talks he’s had with Burtenshaw’s voluble onetime partner, Bruce Godwin.) The other is to show the club’s complex history in a way that will be compelling to audiences who may never have heard of Numbers.
“I hope that outside audiences will see the kind of universal story [here], which is this coming-of-age kind of place where young people, and older people, have consistently found a sense of belonging or community,” Pontello says. “I think that’s the story more than the music.” — Chris Gray
Twenty-two-year-old MC Rocky Banks sounds royal on 2017’s first major Houston rap tape.
Rocky Banks likes gold.
When he wears it, he feels like a king, part of a royal line of rulers who cannot be denied family lineage or a right that is God-given. When he walks, you see him flash golden fronts. Two gold pendants adorn his neck; a cluster-filled watch grips his wrist. Hair braided down the middle, gold frames on his face, he dresses like a star because that’s how he views himself. His family didn’t buy him his first gold chain; he worked for it. In his eyes, he’s earned every step he’s made to get to this very moment.
Inside the Marriott Marquis, the brand-new downtown hotel with the winding, Texas-shaped pool, people notice him. They glance over and size him up before going on about their business. But they can’t ignore him, him or the Yellow Hearts that follow his every move on social media or musically.
“I wanted to be more positive,” Banks says. “A leader who promoted more positive as opposed to glorifying the negative results of where I grew up. The Yellow Hearts are people who are focused and striving on being better, both mentally and physically.”
For the past two years, Banks, 22, has overcome not just his own impulses but the ups and downs of crafting music. Last March, The FADER premiered the video for his track “A Lot,” which set in motion the next nine months of Banks’s career. More people began paying attention. More artists inquired about collaboration. His project, In Other News, I Don’t Do Drugs Anymore, was an audio confessional about finding sobriety after years of mixing uppers and downers and nearly dying. He remembers his final day vividly, a bender piecing together Xanax, dabs, tabs and more. His lungs began shutting down and paramedics told him he was near death. “I was too busy pulling in and out of it,” he says, recollecting. “It was really about self-control.”
Stories of finding himself stretch throughout Banks’s music. His partnership with producer Mufasa Enzor delivers jazzy, introspective moments starring Banks as the key protagonist; the two of them challenge each other to be greater. Banks is already on schedule to deliver the year’s first major Houston rap tape, Trust In Banko, days after the Super Bowl. There are easy comparisons to other artists, but Banks has taken months, if not years, to find his voice. He could rage in the vein of a punk rocker or attempt to stack bars on top of one another for pure fun. Now, tracks like “Hi And Bye,” from In Other News…, and “Favor,” from Trust In Banko, speak to where he’s been and where he wants to be.
When we move back into the hotel lobby, children and adults shoot various glances. Banks barely notices. “I’m an introvert, so while they’re in their own world, I’m in mine,” he laughs. “And most times, that world comes out when I record.” — Brandon Caldwell
Houston musicians stand poised to confront the Trump administration in song.
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows: Donald Trump, in just over a week, will be the 45th president of the United States. He won. Now our country faces a hundred-year storm, one that rumbles with naked xenophobia and dangerous incompetence at our highest levels of government.
Luckily, Houston knows how to get ready for a storm.
When democracy gets sucker-punched, good citizens fight back. We’ve got plenty of guns and music here in Houston, but our guitars might be the better tools to resist a Trump presidency. Houston musicians are part of a splintered, sprawling network of artists considered separate from Trump’s “real America.” They’re plucked from the melting pot of Texas immigrants, refugees and other people who make this city a vibrant model of down-home cosmopolitanism. They speak with the rising voice of an America that so many Trump voters feared — brazen, brave and often very, very brown. Voices like these are uniquely able to speak truth to Donald Trump’s power — voices that embody the “come and take it” spirit required to hold four years of authoritarianism at bay.
A laundry list of Houston artists will likely be fighting Trump on the front lines. There’s the Wheel Workers, with their indie-pop take on progressive folk tunes. There’s Giant Kitty, with their lighthearted yet trenchant queer punk rock. And there’s Lyric Michelle, whose deep rhymes weave personal and political pains. But ultimately, individual artists aren’t as critical to creative resistance as the roots of the Houston music scene itself. Artists who come up here are roses that grow from concrete; they make their way through a grass-roots web of tiny labels and DIY venues without the support seen in larger music cities like Austin or Los Angeles. Now, in Trump’s America, the Houston music scene’s divorce from the music industry at large is its greatest asset. Our artists will have the freedom to resist because they have nothing to lose.
The resistance, however, will need more than just musicians. It will need those 700,000 Harris County voters who pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton to shell out money for shows and cassettes. It will need our newly elected officials to protect the First Amendment rights of musicians who criticize the government in ways the government may not like. And let’s be clear: This revolution will not be on Facebook. If you’re not out with your fist in the air, singing along to the songs of refusal, than you aren’t doing much for the fight.
Remember, Houston: This land is our land, from the Baytown refineries to the downtown skyline. If you love this city’s independence and diversity, then it should hurt you to see our country get hijacked by a shameless, inexperienced, predatory bigot. But if you truly know this city, you also know we’ve got the ability to fight back deep in our DNA. It might not be through a battered old acoustic guitar — we’re more the beats-and-microphone type — but Houston music, the heartbeat of this hustling city, has the power to kill fascists in 2017. — Katie Sullivan
Names you should know from Houston’s fringes this year.
Unless you’re tapped in directly enough to the main power grid to know firsthand whether real power struggles more closely resemble the doings of Veep or House of Cards, you owe it to yourself to forget the long, hallucinatory gastrointestinal struggle that was 2016. Times are tough all over, but the sounds to listen for in 2017 are coming up from under the bleachers, in cryptic guises and improperly captioned, even as the juggernauts stumble.
After sitting out a few rounds, Civic TV is back to gather and display more of those flowers that bloom in the night soil of this unlikeliest of places, meaning there is one more place to seek out the marginal and outre beyond Walters, Notsuoh, and AvantGarden’s They, Who Sound programming. Misanthropic Agenda will be curating shows from the world of the traveling and the homegrown avant-garde, and The Wiggins will be holding a monthly matinee, in a custom-painted environment of his own making à la Mr. Peppermint, Ms. Pussycat and the public-access all-ages freak beat of Chic-A-Go-Go.
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It used to be that if you told an out-of-towner you were from Houston, he’d invariably bring up Rusted Shut or the Geto Boys, and that was that. So God bless Cop Warmth and Muhammadali and all who sail with them; without them Houston would have been further adrift in the horse latitudes. But as they used to say of the idea of God, if the new noise-rock groups didn’t exist, we would have had to invent them.
Blue Dolphin has a limber, fast-moving take on that never-ending split-second in time before punk becomes doctrinaire and macho. KA approaches the machinery of rock and roll production the way Jean Tinguely took to the machines of industrial production, which is to say they are saboteurs, giddy ones, with a penchant for no-wave horns and grinding rhythmic passages that fulfill the dictum of John Cage: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four.”
Milk Leg and Mouthing, though infrequent performers, stand to spray a few street corners with their musk in the spirit of all that is good and gross. As fast and furious as a cage match, Dead Time recall the primetime of a scarier Houston, when head injuries served to prove one’s attendance at shows, when the streets were littered with the husks of burned-out Range Rovers, and when there was Internet, but less of it.
Spit Mask are differently instrumented than the aforementioned groups — depending more on drum machines and electronic things, with an aesthetic more closely related to Chondritic Sound or the Xerox-and-bondage aesthetic of Bliss Blood in the Pain Teens than to Jandek with half-cabs, but they’re noisy enough, with hardcore roots and a slow-burning and unsettling sense of purpose, and they’re looking to go places and do things in 2017. If you encountered Subsonic Voices, or remember Balaclavas, you won’t be surprised by the hopped-up sci-fi power-prog of Rough Sleepers, not by their carefully crafted sound design nor their unstoppable rhythmic force, but they fit the dystopian promise of this new era like a cute little alien head popping out of a bloated human belly. — Tex Kerschen