The first brackets of this year's NCAA men's tournament won't even be busted until early Thursday afternoon, and yet Houstonians who can comfortably look themselves in the mirror already have a big reason to cringe. Something called the March Madness Music Festival, three days of free concerts, is coming to Discovery Green between April 1 and 3. The Final Four is nothing if not a celebration of unchecked corporate synergy, so fans can choose to attend the AT&T Block Party (Friday); Coca-Cola Music (Saturday); and/or Capital One JamFest (Sunday). Lucky them.
Besides teasing Maroon 5 a few weeks ago, the other MMMF headliners were released last Friday afternoon, traditionally the time any sort of unpleasant news is allowed to leak out. The NCAA nailed it here, too: Also scheduled to appear next month are Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, Pitbull, Jason Derulo, Flo Rida and Conrad Sewell. The festival happens to be on April Fool's weekend, but this is no joke. Except it sort of is.
On the surface, these acts amount to a giant whirlpool of suck. Being either pop, rock, R&B, rap, Latin or some combination thereof, they seem to have little in common except this: They’re all surfaces. Their music is slick, shiny and superficial. It’s got about as much depth as a puddle on the sidewalk ten minutes after it rained. Their music is designed for YouTube, TV commercials and video games; no wonder AT&T, Coca-Cola and Capital One want them to perform at their festival. But some of us think life is too short to listen to acts who only want to sell you something, even if they are playing for free.
Understand we’re not asking for the NCAA to book Bob Dylan, Radiohead or Björk here, either, although that would be something all right. Kanye, and all his baggage, would certainly be attention-getting. But this is the same organization that has booked the likes of Rihanna, Taylor Swift, The Black Keys, Zac Brown, Kings of Leon, Muse, Weezer and even Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in the past. That’s…kind of hip, anyway. The lot Houston has been stuck with this year, by comparison, seems like a bunch of artists showing up to cash some checks and not much else. This lineup represents a profound lack of imagination, not to mention a lack of respect for the music fans of Houston.
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See, the NCAA appears to have completely ignored where it's throwing this festival. How else to explain the complete lack of country artists? Or Texans? Besides Pitbull and Derulo's recent rodeo appearances, none of these acts have any special connection to Houston; negotiations with ZZ Top, Bun B and Beyoncé must have hit a snag. So unless there’s something pretty big the NCAA isn’t telling us (Drake, cough), this MMMF looks like one giant missed opportunity. Think about all the local acts who would relish the chance to play for that many people. Maroon 5 and Pitbull sure as hell don’t need any more publicity.
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On the other hand, this does look like a perfect example of what happens when you put sports and advertising people in charge of a music festival. Demographically speaking, “sports fan” rarely lines up with “music lover.” Even when it does, it can lead to a number of unfortunate situations: still claiming to love Gary Glitter; proudly announcing “We Will Rock You” or “We Are the Champions” as one's favorite Queen song; or ignorance of the White Stripes' discography beyond “Seven Nation Army.”
Still, all is not lost that weekend. Plenty of good music is out there waiting for all those Final Four fans; they just need to steer clear of this festival. Not far away is the wonderful They Might Be Giants – who, in an alternate universe, could put on a killer show somewhere like Discovery Green – April Fool's Day at Warehouse Live. The next night, one of the hardest rappers in the 50 states, Kansas City’s Tech N9ne, plays the same venue. Kitsch-loving Carolina surfabillies Southern Culture On the Skids pull into the Continental Club for their annual two-night stand that weekend too, and it doesn’t get any more gonzo than the Melvins, Napalm Death and the Melt Banana at Numbers. Their Oklahoma roots notwithstanding, top-notch Texas country is taken care of thanks to Turnpike Troubadours at Sam Houston Race Park. But that weekend also makes an excellent opportunity to show off some locals: maybe The Mighty Orq at Shakespeare Pub; The Wiggins, Pleasure 2 and Distant Worker at Satellite Bar; or the Bombon DJs at Fox Hollow. So it’s not like people will be hurting for options.
And in all fairness, the NCAA has not announced the complete MMMF lineup yet, although it’s hard to hold out much hope given who they’ve revealed thus far. At least all these corporate types will have to find somewhere besides Hughes Hangar for their afterparties. As far as any other positives to come out of this thing, here’s one — the MMMF will surely pale in comparison to the shitshow that this city is going to turn into come Super Bowl time next February. Can't wait for that.