Concert Review: Why the Homegrown Music Festival Is No Longer Serving Its Original Mission

There is a pineapple printed on the ceiling above my head in this loudly hued hotel bar. I’m inside of Hotel Indigo, at the corner of Harwood and Main Street in Downtown Dallas. At one time, it was the largest and most expensive of Conrad Hilton’s empire, and was the first Hilton hotel proper. On the average weekday, the bar usually serves “corporate customers,” according to the barkeep. Today I see lead singer after lead singer walk through the doors unmolested. If a fan wanted to meet Britt Daniel, and trust me, they do; this is where you should have been hanging out last weekend. It’s the fourth annual Homegrown event at Main Street Garden Park, the festival with the rather unfortunate hashtag, “#HGIV.”

A woman working in PR is talking to my photographer and me in tumbling rhythms, like toddlers down a slide. She’s making a very good point about the gaps around the trees that line Main Street Garden and what a hazard they pose to pedestrians. She shows us the icepack that she obtained from an onsite medic following a spill in just such a gap. She claims the medic was rude. Meanwhile, the Indigo Hotel bartender is stoic and professional. The well drinks here would be top shelf elsewhere he explains politely, without any residue of pretense. We are both fixated on the Memphis Grizzlies, who are currently banging the OKC Thunder into submission on live television. I’m so relaxed that I forget I’m at yet another music festival, which gently blasts just outside of the building’s Sullivanesque facade. I ask him how the event has affected his business. “Not very much,” he says.

The park across the street may be full of families taking in a sunny day of local music, but as far as the event’s mark on Dallas festival and local music culture, “not very much” is probably where we still sit after four years of this event. This year, Homegrown decided to get even more local, something that seemed almost impossible, by ditching the national acts of previous years who hailed from other Texas cities — or other cities altogether — but had Texas roots. This year, Divine Fits was the lone exception. Homegrown is now as focused on Dallas as it was in its inaugural year, thus making it perhaps one of the only festivals in history to purposely devolve and shrink rather than expand. Its aggressive dedication to insularity is almost commendable in its unlikeliness.

Hotel Indigo bar
The bar at Hotel Indigo

Somebody’s Darling has just finished a competent set of music that sounds like a band in a Cameron Crowe film acting like a rock band. They look the part as well, dressing like any group my father probably saw practicing in Dallas garages in the nineteen-seventies. But the band doesn’t just seem familiar for those superficial reasons of artificial media memory. It’s because Somebody’s Darling already played Homegrown before as part of the festival’s inaugural lineup in 2010. In fact, of the thirteen or so acts who played the first year of Homegrown, five of them have played again over the past four years. That is not specific to year-one-acts either. The problem with such intense dedication to your front yard is that you start to repeat yourself.

That’s why, besides being somewhat delightful in urban-bucolic setting, it is hard to see who this egocentric get-together is ultimately benefiting, well,  besides the obvious: the very small group of organizers and their sympathizers in the local press, traditional and blog-oriented. Certain writers seem confused. On any given day, one is telling you that Homegrown is the best day in Dallas. Or wait, just last month, maybe it was Record Store Day. Maybe every day is the best day in Dallas!

But it was nice to see that blogs have such an easy time getting press credentials in 2013. I worked for one for five years, and getting access did not always go so smoothly. However, according to more than one Observer writer, it was actually somewhat difficult to acquire proper press credentials for the fest. New Dallas Observer music editor Kiernan Maletsky even used the word “finagling” in reference to the process. That seems odd. I thought these Homegrown guys were all about Dallas. I guess we all might have an easier time next year if one of us will also just type that it’s the best day in Dallas. So, here goes: Homegrown Fest is the best day in Dallas, okay? It’s better than the first day of the State Fair, it’s better than Cinco de Mayo, and it’s better than the newly christened Dallas Arts Week. Does that get me a badge in 2014?

Anyway, to continue on the point of repetitiveness, I had to see a top hat on stage again during Larry g(EE)’s set, which means I’ve seen a top hat on stage three out of the four years I’ve attended Homegrown. I don’t find that fair. What else is not fair? Here are the following acts who were billed to play Homegrown multiple times:

This Will Destroy You (Booked in 2010 and 2011)
The O’s (Booked in 2010, 2011, and 2013)
Somebody’s Darling (Booked in 2010 and 2013)
Ishi (Booked in 2010 and 2011)
Grant Jones and the Pistol Grip Lassos (Booked in 2010 and 2011)
The Burning Hotels (Booked in 2011 and 2013)
Larry g(EE) (Booked in 2011 and 2013)

It could be argued that festivals such as 35 Denton also have acts perform more than once from year to year. But they have also opened their aesthetic doors to the world at large, something that has surely brought plenty of national attention and goodwill to our tiny neighbor to the north. Should the booking situation at 35 Denton ever change, large scale live music in North Texas is in serious trouble. That organization actually does showcase smaller acts, taking chances on actual little-known names in our community especially, in addition to their work outside of the state, and even abroad.

If Homegrown was started as a way to supposedly “highlight” such music, how is it that we have ended up with the Polyphonic Spree as one of the headliners in 2013? Is the Polyphonic Spree having trouble with its profile locally? It was just a little over six months ago that they were playing the inaugural evening of Klyde Warren Park, and the redundancy between the two events was startling. For all of the group’s paisley-covered excess, they did little more than prove that even with a hundred people onstage, they can’t do the measly four in The Who any justice.

Fully enjoying a revival of their once overlooked music, the Relatives stood out as one of the only examples of accomplishing Homegrown’s original stated goals of showcasing underrated talent to the people of Dallas. The Relatives are a Dallas R&B group that enjoyed modest success in the 1970s before being all but forgotten locally. When The Relatives took the stage, the tone of the event changed. I saw lavender suits expertly worn by gentlemen instead of a top hat on some young joker. The group’s stage outfits matched the boldness of the rather unsubtle paint job inside the Hotel Indigo. Perhaps these wouldn’t be your first color choices if you were to be retrofitting a historic hotel or a historic gospel funk group, but both reflected a Dallas worth feeling proud about. It was also a reminder that real character of this city usual dwells just below the surface. I was happy to see The Relatives on stage at Homegrown, but at the same time, it made me wonder what under-acclaimed acts active today were being similarly ignored.

“What’s Wrong with America?” the Relatives sing in their lost classic entitled, “Speak to Me,” which addressed ethnicity following the Vietnam War. A much less important question—and one that I thought I had retired—was also resurrected after this weekend: “What’s wrong with Dallas?” Homegrown Fest was originally started to shed light on lesser known acts and offer an annual event downtown. But since its founding the event has given up on the former goal for a full indulgence of the latter. The result is a very light and fluffy affair. The crowds that fill Main Street Garden each year are not the demographic we need to fill Tuesday nights in empty live rooms across town. Instead, Homegrown Festival is a decent and inexpensive way to take your kids hear the same local bands every year. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there was a moment in this festival’s history when they had the younger, cooler acts that appealed to the 18-24 crowd. It now seems like they have forsaken this completely, which doesn’t bode well for the festival’s longevity as a music event that matters musically, instead of just an anodyne survey of some bands from Texas. And that’s a shame, because Downtown Dallas – from the developments on Main Street to the off-kilter chic of the Hotel Indigo – is becoming more sophisticated. It deserves a music event that can match this sophistication.

Photos by Andi Harman.