Culture / Entertainment

Houston’s Groundbreaking New Concert Complex Opens With a Bang: Music in the City Will Never be the Same Again

BY Jailyn Marcel and Matthew Ramirez // 08.19.16

Fitzgerald’s was a Houston institution. Or rather, is one. But the century-old venue has seen much better days, and plenty of those better days came within just the past six years, as concert promoters Pegstar took on the venerable concert hall in 2010 to become the landing spot for mid-sized touring acts, national and regional, and the continued benchmark for where local bands wanted to play.

But Pegstar’s five-year run at Fitzgerald’s, which encompassed 400 to 600 shows each year, ended last year. It didn’t take long for the company to reveal its next move: White Oak Music Hall (WOMH), a new, unprecedented venue (at least for the city of Houston) right on the banks of White Oak Bayou, with five stages and ambitious plans to host 500 shows a year. It includes the Raven Tower, a bar that sits high in the sky, an unmissable Houston landmark that boasts its own small stage.

After a soft opening this spring (M83, the Lumineers, and The Flaming Lips have already graced the White Oak lawn), the dream of Will Garwood and Will Thomas is finally being realized this weekend, when the rest of the city will see the entirety of what the two Wills have cooked up at the 5-acre complex at 2915 North Main Street.

Along with architect Troy Schaum — who splits his time between offices off West Alabama, a gig at Rice’s vaunted School of Architecture and a satellite office in New York City — the two Wills envisioned a campus that would be the centerpiece of the city’s concert-going experience. Citing the  lack of a trademark venue, such as Austin’s Stubb’s or Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, White Oak Music Hall is designed to be Houston’s version of a musical mecca.

The main indoors concert space holds 1,500 people, the smaller stage upstairs fits in 400, and the lawn can accommodate 3,000 concert goers. The lawn’s rear section boasts minimal but effective seating. The rear of the hall, which adjoins the outdoor seating, is covered in wood and other materials that absorb sound and create a chamber effect, and effort to enhance the acoustics of the outdoor space and replicate an indoor listening experience.

M83 at WOMH
M83 at White Oak Music Hall

Conceptually, imagine Fitzgerald’s, but re-mastered across two LPs on colored, 180-gram vinyl, with a new glossy, double-gatefold sleeve. In the hall, subtly tiered floors mean concertgoers standing in the rear (especially those on the balcony overlooking the main stage) will have a clear line of vision to the stage.

The Wills want their creation to be the center of a booming near-downtown entertainment complex, and details such as parking (630 spots) were not overlooked. And while Houston has seen its share of devastating floods within the past 18 months, the venue on the bayou naturally rests at a higher level — even during April’s 500-year flood event, the campus of WOMH remained mostly dry.

Peace with the historic neighborhood White Oak Music Hall is located in hasn’t been as easy to come by. During a daylong-fest in May headlined by The Flaming Lips show, White Oak was cited for violating the city’s sound ordinance with sounds that allegedly exceeded 75 decibels. The developers are contesting the ticket (Will Thomas is a lawyer and often defends the venue himself in court). Two noise violations that stand up in court in three years would result in White Oak losing its sound permit from the city.

Opening weekend festivities kicked off Thursday night, and continue this evening with a headliner performance from Austin’s The Black AngelsExplosions in the Sky play outdoors on Sunday. White Oak Music Hall’s agenda is heavy on “rock ‘n roll,” but we’d love to see H-Town’s BeatKing or Geto Boys play the space. Artists we can’t wait to see at Houston’s new music venue this autumn/winter include: Dinosaur Jr., Gallant, Deerhunter, Animal Collective, and Morrissey. Matthew Ramirez 

Speakeasy in the Sky
Perched above WOMH’s spacious grounds is The Raven Tower — a nearly 50-year-old metal warehouse, now retooled with icehouse fixings. Garwood and Thomas wanted an accompanying watering hole for concertgoers and neighboring tenants; the storied tower fit the bill perfectly.

More than four decades of wear-and-tear plagued the tower’s bones, however, so Schaum and designer Gin Braverman of gindesignsgroup (who’s also responsible for the rest of the White Oak Music Hall complex’s interiors) set out to improve the space.

On the ground floor, an aluminum warehouse was transformed into an open-air pavilion, providing additional space for intimate performances. Just steps away lies a sprawling outdoor patio decorated with wooden benches and a full-service bar. Food trucks will operate on the premises.

While the al fresco offerings constitute the makings of a successful bar, the true wow factor lies at The Raven Tower’s apex — a blue-tinged sky box, once occupied by a young bachelor in the ’70s. The tower is no longer open to the public for the time being while safety improvements are being made, but a recent preview tour allowed us access to the four-story tall attraction.

A hike up a series of narrow stairs (the elevator is undergoing a few tweaks) took us to the renovated space. The integrity of the room is still intact, with rusted beams peeking from the ceilings and repurposed parquet flooring channeling the 1970s origins.

“We wanted to keep the space pretty understated, so we redid the area with neutral tones,” Braverman says.

Uncovered floor-to-ceiling windows showcase sweeping views of Houston’s downtown, while low-set chairs and tables create a lounge vibe. A shuffleboard table rests in the corner, a source of entertainment or a table for pop-up dinners and private events. A full bar is nestled in the rear on one side of the space.

Another flight of stairs leads the building’s rooftop. At this height, visions of the future are revealed. Down below sits an undeveloped section of Little White Oak Bayou, awaiting its restoration. The coming years will also make way for a hike-and-bike trail connecting to Moody Park. Across the foliage, on the other side of the bayou, lies an abandoned sand lot — The Wills have plans to transform it into a volleyball bar. And The Raven Tower’s barren roof will soon be replaced with blooming green space. Jailyn Marcel 

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