Houston Open Air Was No Match for Mother Nature Will Return in 2017

– Words by Jordan Buford / Photos by James Villa –
Houston Open Air – Houston Texas / Saturday and Sunday, September 23rd and 24th, 2016

Houston Open Air - Houston, TX 9/24-9/25 ©2016 James Villa Photography, All Rights Reserved

Day I

Texas is not short on festivals. In fact, one could argue that it hosts some of the best there are, though the first ones that come to mind take place in Austin and typically cater to a certain niche. That’s fine, there’s a fan base for it; a host of other festivals taking place locally, be them music or beer fests, further solidifying the state as a major market for festivals.

So, why add more to the mix when it is somewhat inundated by them? Well, because it is seriously lacking a festival that caters to the fans of rock and metal, and when it comes to that, no one knows how to put on a fest like Danny Wimmer Presents.

The masterminds behind the slew of festivals that constitute World’s Loudest Month have been growing their festivals this year, expanding some already established ones to two and three-day events, as well as introducing new ones, like the first in their new Open Air series, Chicago Open Air.

Houston lucked out in being the second city to get an Open Air fest from DWP, and as soon as it was announced it had music lovers anxiously awaiting the final weekend of September. It couldn’t arrive fast enough.

Taking over NRG Park from September 24th through the 25th, it was scheduled to showcase more than three dozen bands, from lesser known acts that are quite capable of making a mark to top tier headliners including Avenged Sevenfold and Alice in Chains to name a few. So, plenty of reasons to buy the sensibly priced tickets (be them single day or the weekend passes) and head to Houston for the weekend.

It wound wind up not being the weekend either party — the festivalgoers as well as those producing it — had hoped and planned for, the Saturday date of Houston Open Air getting off to a rocky start.

Potential severe storms heading for NRG Park delayed the gate openings, and soon after, when only a couple of bands had performed, meant everyone that had made it inside the gates would need to leave as they were evacuated.

A few hours would pass, some people killing that time by tailgating in the parking lot, others leaving to go grab a bite to eat before returning to see if the situation had changed. Many others just sat or stood along the street that ran in front of the first entrance, just waiting until they could go back in.

Several bands would have performed during that time and unsurprisingly all of those got axed, simply losing time to accommodate any of them at that point, which was about five in the afternoon when the gates reopened.

From there on out there was little to complain about, though.

Houston Open Air - Houston, TX 9/24-9/25 ©2016 James Villa Photography, All Rights Reserved

Next up on the schedule was Alter Bridge, who took the stage shortly after their 5:15, the band currently out touring in support of their forthcoming fifth studio album The Last Hero.

It was largely the tried and true they stuck with this afternoon, which the fans were grateful for, singing along with tracks like “Come to Life” and “Metalingus” just to name a few.

The four musicians appeared to be doing their best to compensate for what the festivalgoers had missed out on too, delivering a true spectacle of a show that showcased how impressive their music is along with performance. Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti were often seeing smiling at the audience, clearly getting a kick out of what they were doing for the time they had the stage.

Chevy Metal was one of the most interesting acts of the day.

Houston Open Air - Houston, TX 9/24-9/25 ©2016 James Villa Photography, All Rights Reserved

For the most part no one is going to come to a festival like this wanting to see a cover band, but when that cover band is a side project of Taylor Hawkins (from Foo Fighters), well, that changes thing a bit.

The trio was far from what the stereotypical cover band is, traditionally a bar band that’s just playing someone else’s hits. Chevy Metal was incredibly lively, particularly Hawkins, who was putting his heart and soul into drumming, and even the singing on the numbers he did do lead.

They had no trouble capturing people’s attention as they knocked out hits from The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and a variety of other artists, leaving more than a few attendees wanting to see them again.

Ministry ushered in the metal portion of the night, “Uncle” Al Jourgensen and company proving to be one of the best acts of the day, commanding the stage with a ferocity.

Houston Open Air - Houston, TX 9/24-9/25 ©2016 James Villa Photography, All Rights Reserved

Even new(er) tracks like “Punch in the Face” and “PermaWar” got people’s attention right from the start; many a fan being seen crowd surfing throughout their set.

Jourgensen was a force to be reckoned with as he roamed about the stage, belting out the lyrics with a passion as he stared out at the crowd.

His band mates brought every bit as much intensity to the stage; Sin Quirin smiling at the audience when he first stepped out, working to pump them all up before getting serious and shredding on his axe. Jason Christopher looked ferocious, the bass player at times glaring at people as he viciously picked at his bass.

Unsurprisingly, “N.W.O.” and “Just One Fix” seemed to be the two songs everyone was most eager to hear; and by the time “Thieves” was done, marking the end of their set, the spectators were somewhat taken aback. Ministry had pulled no punches, and while they’ve been around for awhile, they had no trouble keeping up with the younger bands that had played this day, even teaching them a thing or two on how to perform.

There were a couple more rock acts to go, with Buckcherry closing down the Atlantis Stage.

Houston Open Air - Houston, TX 9/24-9/25 ©2016 James Villa Photography, All Rights Reserved

Their set list had undergone a revision from what it used to be, the five-piece outfit now opening with “Sunshine”, knocking it and “Brooklyn” out in no time at all.

Right from the start, they radiated a rock aura, Josh Todd, Keith Nelson, Stevie D., Xavier Muriel, and Kelly LeMieux just having that look about themselves, like rock stars of yesteryear, the kind of gritty and even slightly edgy look not many modern acts have.

That’s one of Buckcheery’s most appealing qualities, the other being the fact that they’re a pure rock band, “Tight Pants” and “Lit Up” being a couple of fine examples of that; while “Crazy Bitch” had much of the audience singing along as they capped off their set.

They sounded great this night, the instrumentalists getting lost in what they were doing, while Todd’s voice was sharp and on point as he sang. It ensured they were a highlight of Houston Open Air.

As the night progressed, it was time for the headliners to begin showing their stuff, and the first of those was The Cult.

Houston Open Air - Houston, TX 9/24-9/25 ©2016 James Villa Photography, All Rights Reserved

They took the stage a few minutes later than initially planned, though that only fueled the suspense, patrons in the then packed field in front of the stage eagerly awaiting them to appear.

It’s somewhat easy to forget just how many hits The Cult has been responsible for over their career, though they reminded everyone this night, playing a great collection of songs that constantly had everyone in awe. That was part because they’re amazing to begin with, and part because the band sounded impeccable this night. They may have been unrivaled in that regard, having the cleanest and most superb sound of any band this day.

Billy Duffy was often heard serving up some guitar solos this night, often taking command during “Rain” and “Lil’ Devil”; the spotlight that illuminated him (each member having their own) ensuring everyone could see him perfectly.

They made quick work of their set, Ian Astbury periodically chatting with the audience and forming a good rapport with them.

It was their final four songs, “She Sells Sanctuary”, “Sweet Soul Sister”, “Fire Woman”, and “Love Removal Machine”, that had the fanfare growing louder and louder as they proved what a beast of a band they still are.

Really, The Cult set the bar here at Houston Open Air, and it could be argued that no one touched it.

Things took a drastic turn with the next band, Slayer closing down the Endeavor Stage.

Houston Open Air - Houston, TX 9/24-9/25 ©2016 James Villa Photography, All Rights Reserved

While they differed in style from the two bands they were sandwiched between, there was no denying that Slayer was the main act most everyone was there to see. It had been impossible to look anywhere this day and not see at least a few people sporting one of the bands shirts, those loyal fans now chanting as they waited for them to take the stage.

The thrash metal icons held nothing back, opening with “Repentless”, the still fairly new song being well received by the throng of fans that were then treated to a bunch of classics.

“Disciple” had everyone singing the refrain along with Tom Araya; while Gary Holt was seen placing his guitar behind his head for a few moments as he continued shredding on it. He was arguably headbanging harder and heavier than any of them, being completely in sync to the powerful percussion Paul Bostaph was responsible for, though Kerry King was giving him a run for his money.

King was showcasing his mastery over the axe, making it look easy as he attacked the instrument and thrashed along to other staples like “Hate Worldwide” and “Dead Skin Mask”.

Truly, everyone was hanging on to every word, savoring every last note of the chaotic though undeniably well-rounded songs, “Raining Blood” and “Angel of Death” (two of their final three) earning Slayer their largest responses of the night, which is saying something.

They knocked it out of the park, satisfying nearly everyone that had walked through the gates this day, some deciding to call it a night after having seen that performance.

That’s just all a testament to what a storied career Slayer has had and how revered they still are, being pretty much the sole reason some of these people came out to Houston Open Air this day.

The final act on the Discovery Stage was Alice in Chains, the titans of grunge and 90’s rock in general concluding the show in an incredible fashion.

Early on William DuVall mentioned how great it was to be back in Houston, praising the fans for braving the weather like they had. It was pretty easy to see he, Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez, and Sean Kinney were just glad to be able to perform this night, and like many of the other acts, they wanted to transcend their normal show experience and make something more memorable for the attendees.

They were on fire as they tore through one song after another, mainly focusing on the gems from further back in their catalog, which was fine with everybody.

“Them Bones” and “Down in a Hole” were just a couple of the favorites heard this night; DuVall roaming about the stage when he could and contributing another guitar to the mix when necessary.

It was impossible not to get caught up in the show, their energy and enthusiasm radiating from them, leading the masses that remained to marvel at them as they delivered a performance only a band of their stature could deliver.

No one wanted Alice in Chains to finish when they did, ending about an hour after they had taken the stage, though “Would?” and “Rooster” acted as nice parting gifts.

Everything that transpired from the late afternoon into the night was enough to almost make you forget about how the day had gone, those handful of talented bands that did get to perform helping wash away peoples’ feelings of being upset.

The only thing left to do was to go try to recover from the first day and hope Sunday would be even better.


Day II

Houston Open Air - Houston, TX 9/24-9/25 ©2016 James Villa Photography, All Rights Reserved
Houston Open Air – Houston, TX 9/24-9/25
©2016 James Villa Photography, All Rights Reserved

There was a severe case of déjà vu even before the second day of Houston Open Air got underway, people finding out via social media that the gate openings would be delayed a bit as they monitored some storms that were building out in the gulf. At least people found out early enough they knew not to rush to NRG Park to ensure they didn’t miss anybody.

On that note, a couple bands were forced to cancel their appearances as the schedule for the day was restructured, though all the main ones were still slated to perform.

Because of that, Mothership was now first up, the Dallas-based band having the pleasure of kicking off HOA this day… and they also closed it down.

Thanks to the heavy touring the three-piece rock outfit has done over the past years, making more than a few rounds across the U.S. and even doing a few trips over to Europe, they appeared to feel right at home on the Atlantis Stage, in front of several hundred people that were about to get their first taste of Mothership.

They cut right to the chase, Kyle Juett taking just a moment to introduce themselves and pump up the crowd before they ripped in to a dynamic set with “Lunar Master”. Their raw, gritty brand of rock was compelling to the throng of listeners, many having no trouble getting into the show, rocking out to the songs and excitedly shouting at the band as they did their thing.

Houston Open Air - Houston, TX 9/24-9/25 ©2016 James Villa Photography, All Rights Reserved

The reaction they garnered was no doubt a direct response to the performance they were giving the onlookers, holding nothing back and giving it everything they had. Kelley Juett was constantly on the move during that opening number, shredding on his guitar and often making some faces as he surveyed the crowd. Kyle then became more mobile as his brother took over to sing on “Hot Smoke and Heavy Blues”, the two even interacting a good bit as they jammed together.

While the main focus was on music from their first two albums, they also worked in a new one, the first single from their forthcoming third LP which was pure Mothership, being hard and heavy. Judge Smith held nothing back on it or anything else this afternoon as he hammered away on the drums and cymbals; their set flying by, despite the fact that it lasted a little more than half an hour.

Mothership had no trouble winning over some new fans this day and proving they are capable of holding their own at a festival of this scale.

It wasn’t much after they finished that everyone there was told they needed to leave as a storm was headed that way and they would reopen later in the day when or if it was possible.

Unlike the day before, rain did begin to fall shortly after people made their way out of the first gate, resulting in everyone hurrying for their cars before they got soaked.

That would be it for the day.

After a few hours of waiting the decision was made and subsequently announced that due to threat of potentially severe storms throughout the evening Houston Open Air couldn’t continue and was canceled.

It was disheartening to say the least, and many patrons were downright angry, which is understandable, though they were more focused on the here and now at that time instead of looking at the bigger picture, the bigger picture being what if the storms had proven to be serious and caused someone to lose their life?

What made it so difficult was the fact that the choice had to be made on pure speculation, not knowing for sure what would happen, but also having to do what would be in the best interest of the public, the musicians, and the staff. That meant ending the weekend far earlier than had been planned. It was unfortunate, but it was the right call to make in the grand scheme of things.

You can’t help but wonder how many people would have been raving about Houston Open Air had everything else gone as was planned. Honestly, Danny Wimmer Presents is pretty much in a class all their own when it comes to knowing how to pull off a festival, giving each one a ton of personal touches to ensure it’s a unique experience , one that’s built around the music but doesn’t rely solely on that to make the weekend such an extraordinary one.

Sadly, those who got their first experience with DWP on this particular weekend may not agree, but it is the truth. They’re the cream of the crop.

That said, hopefully the next Houston Open Air will be much better, as far as all the uncontrollable elements go. A perfect weekend had been planned for this final weekend of September. The lineup was amazing with bands people were desperate to see, but Mother Nature decided to throw a wrench in all of it. However, DWP has said they will be back to make HOA everything it was supposed to be and then some, and honestly, there’s no reason to doubt that.

James Villa