White Oak Music Hall Opens With World-Class Ambitions and a Hometown Feel

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Houston has not had a major music venue open since House of Blues in October 2008. For a free-standing structure expressly devoted to hosting concerts and other live events, you’d have to reach back to Warehouse Live in early 2006. The intervening decade has seen almost unprecedented growth, both in the music scene and the city at large, at least until the bottom dropped out of the energy market about 18 months ago. But not until this weekend will Houston see what its next generation of live-music venues look like.

The owners of White Oak Music Hall, a project of Houston-based W2 Development Partners, have effectively stacked three different venues next to and on top of one another. The figures, as quoted by the Rice Design Alliance, are impressive: five acres; 50,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor space, including 3,000 square feet of outdoor viewing areas. The compound’s three separate stages range in capacity from 3,000 for the outdoor stage astride White Oak Bayou, dubbed The Lawn at White Oak, to about 1,200 for the theater-size downstairs stage; and finally around 350 for the club-like upstairs area.

“Essentially the biggest advantage of building this from the ground up was being able to make a wish list and say, ‘This is what we need in the dressing room…'” says Jagi Katial, founder of Houston’s Pegstar Concerts and a WOMH partner; his staff will serve as the venue’s primary booking agents.

The White Oak partners say they want their venue, designed by Houston/New York architectural firm Schaum/Shieh and built from scratch, to feel as friendly as possible to artists and audiences alike. Buses and vans will pull up to a loading dock just a few feet from the downstairs stage. Dressing-room amenities include showers (three downstairs, two up) and TVs where artists can scope out the crowd before heading onstage.

Wooden planks of varying lengths line the walls of the downstairs theater, meant to make the room as acoustically “dead” as possible. (That’s a good thing.) The balcony, or what the partners call a “mezzanine,” features a series of criss-crossing walkways meant to maximize good sight lines, and a generous viewing area directly in front of the railing. A pair of outdoor balconies offer postcard-worthy vistas of White Oak Bayou, the downtown skyline and Raven Tower, the adjoining bar fashioned from an old metal shop at the foot of the four-story apartment once kept by the son of the shop’s owner. Most prominent, though, is The Lawn, which has now hosted about a half-dozen shows since opening with M83 in April.

Asked to rate how the almost-finished building measures up against the architects’ original plans, W2 co-founder Will Garwood offers a forthright 92 percent. Katial agrees, saying outside a few proportions turning out a little different from the blueprints, it’s spot-on.

“No one knew what a ground-up development was,” Garwood says. “We had no idea. We just knew that we wanted to create a music space that resonated with our friends in the music community, our buddies – a place where we’d be excited to go. And we like, blindly thought that we could navigate all that, and we have.”

W2 broke ground on the venue in February 2015. Although the heavy springtime rains both this year and last resulted in some construction delays, Garwood says the property has not flooded yet. This spring’s flooding reached the back of the outdoor stage, relays W2 co-founder Will Thomas, but high waters have yet to reach anywhere on the Lawn — and it has rained a lot in Houston lately.

White Oak’s modular design extends to its deluxe opening-weekend lineup. Scheduled to play are Austin’s Black Angels downstairs on Friday and a hard-rock/metal bill of Houston bands Oceans of Slumber and Venomous Maximus upstairs; latter-day outlaw-country singers Cody Jinks and Whitey Morgan downstairs Saturday with a free show upstairs featuring Night Drive, Bang Bangz, and Young Girls; and Sunday’s climactic doubleheader of Explosions In the Sky on The Lawn and Ghostland Observatory downstairs. Although Katial says construction delays more or less prevented him from booking the grand-opening weekend as such, the artists who are playing definitely line up with his goal of a venue where no one type of music is given more weight than any other.

“I’ve never wanted to be genre-specific,” he says, pointing to Pegstar’s five-year tenancy at Fitzgerald’s, which ended a year ago, as an example. “Here the programming, honestly, is ‘good shit.’”

Katial says he spent a solid six months where every week he’d visit a different music venue across the country; some of the names that came up in our tour were Stubb’s and the Backyard in Austin, Fitzgerald’s in Houston, Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, Radio City Music Hall, and San Francisco’s Fillmore Ballroom. He demurs when asked if he wants WOMH to be known as the Fillmore of Houston, but if it picks up a nickname like that down the road a few years he probably wouldn’t mind.

“The vision from all of us was to create a place,” he says. “To create a place that has a name, and that name is known.”

“That really incorporates what Houston is, you know?”, adds Will Thomas, also a member of local Americana-rockers Grand Old Grizzly. “The bayou, the skyline. We actually have the use of some unique Houston architecture [Raven Tower], which is extremely rare.”

Katial notes that while he and his partners hope White Oak becomes a venue that national and international acts will brag about to their peers, the overwhelming number of visitors will be coming from the Houston area. Likewise, the owners are emphatic that every step of the construction process, from the earth-moving early days to the final aesthetic touches that weren’t even done when the Houston Press visited last week, has been locally sourced wherever possible.

“The staff is Houstonian,” Katial says. “The production company that works here is Houstonian. The sound engineer is a Houstonian. The person who books the private events is a Houstonian. I want to be able to tell that story.”

White Oak’s owners have good reason to be sensitive about its role in the community. Garwood says he and his partners have done their best to address the concerns of the venue’s neighbors, which flared up in a flurry of noise complaints and newspaper articles around the time of the M83 show. Purchasing more land across the bayou has allowed the venue to add about 300 parking spots, which Garwood says in turn convinced the city to classify the outdoor stage as permanent; its temporary designation had been an issue with some nearby residents. Katial says he has asked White Oak staffers to count the people arriving from the light rail to shows on the Lawn, and the number can range from 400 to 600. The owners are continuing to meet with some neighbors over the noise, Garwood admits, but adds that city officials have visited the venue and found the sound to be within the acceptable range of the city’s existing noise ordinance. They’ve also held job fairs at the site, he notes, and hired on several Northsiders.

“Honestly, the neighborhood wants to know that they’re wanted here as well,” Garwood says. “I think underneath all those protests were, ‘Is this something for the kids from Memorial to come in and make noise and pee on our lawns, or is it someplace where we’re wanted?’

“You will see on Thursday the relationships that we’ve built in this neighborhood with the people that live [nearby],” he adds. (Thursday is a preview party featuring Another Run, Mobley, Peach Kings and Kay Weathers.) “They’ll be here enjoying the opening, and as they’ve gotten to take some sense of pride in the building themselves, it’s made them more happy about the project, because they feel like it’s part of the neighborhood instead of exploiting the neighborhood.”

See whiteoakmusichall.com for ticket information and more details on this weekend's grand opening.

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