What You Really, Really Want?

This Year’s Fall Edition Of The So What?! Music Festival Attempted To Grow Up A Bit. Did It Work?

On Saturday night, during his band’s headlining slot at Three Links as part of this past weekend’s three-day So What?! Music Festival (Fall Edition) that stretched across various Deep Ellum stages, Hawthorne Heights frontman J.T. Woodruff took a moment to address the packed house before him and congratulate Third String Productions head Mike Ziemer — by name — on a job well done at this year’s affair.

“I really like this new format a lot,” Woodruff said, speaking to the fact that, unlike previous incarnations of this festival or the springtime O.G. event from which this version sprung, this year’s event wasn’t held in some field or area stadium, but rather as a walkable deal with a number of indoor, already-established venues providing its stages.

It was a telling moment for a few reasons. For one, try as he might to put the So What?! brand ahead of his own name, Ziemer is still known far and wide as the mind behind this event — a figure familiar to his festival’s fans and performers alike. For another, even to a band as road-tested as Hawthorne Heights, which has been touring around the county to various grueling degrees since forming in 2001 as A Day In The Life, this past weekend’s offering felt remarkably different from past Third String efforts.

Sure, the promotional copy may have been similar enough — “200+ Bands, 9 Stages, 3 Days” — but going the route of recent Deep Ellum-hosted fests such as Spillover, Index and even the Dallas Observer Music Awards Showcase, and taking advantage of the neighborhood’s in-place infrastructure, was unique for the TSPR brand.

Did it work? On the surface level… um, kinda? As is par for course on any weekend these days, Deep Ellum was hopping throughout the course of So What?!’s run, with many a show-goer actively following the fest’s encouragements to bounce from one room to another and make their experiences as unique as possible. As happens in such formats, this led to a few shows getting snubbed in favor of the crowds deciding en masse to attend another. On Friday, the weakest of the three days’ lineups, that meant pretty decent crowds for Hatebreed and DevilDriver at the Prophet Bar, a strong turnout for The ’68 at Curtain Club and a good crowd for Acceptance at Dada. On Saturday, that meant near-capacity numbers for Hawthorne Heights at Three Links and a borderline excessive turnout for Dance Gavin Dance at The Prophet Bar, with things doubly miserable over there once the room’s air conditioning units crapped out at the sweatiest, most inopportune time (Prophet Bar gon’ Prophet Bar). On Sunday, well… I don’t really know what happened on Sunday because my aging ass was pretty fested out at that point, but I presume local boy The Rocket Summer was the big draw he was expected to be, although I can’t say for sure. I do know, though, that the addition of an all-local, all-hip-hop stage at Liquid Lounge was more than just a nice touch, with many a local music fan purchasing passes for just that stage and many a festival-goer peeking in and keeping that room, although small, well-attended throughout the weekend.

But on the occasions in which I ran into Ziemer over the course of the weekend, he acknowledged as I did the new format’s flaws.

First of all, the big shows definitely came at the expense of smaller ones, even the not-that-small ones; a more concerted effort at staggering the bigger names from the weekend might’ve gone a long way toward spreading out audience across the many participating venues.

But, far more than that, the eye test was the biggest indicator of a change at play this weekend: Often to his detriment, Ziemer and TSPR’s shows are known in Dallas for drawing younger crowds; but that wasn’t necessarily the case this weekend. Sure, there were still plenty of Xs on the hands of So What?!’s attendees, but I was more struck by how old this crowd really was. If I had to pinpoint it, I’d put the average age of this fest’s attendees right around the 24-year-old mark — older, I’d say, than your average TSPR turnout. Perhaps that was due to this all-ages event’s younger market demos (or their parents) being intimidated by the prospect of bouncing around Big Bad Deep Ellum as opposed to the friendly, highly regulated confines of an area minor league ballpark.

As Ziemer told me, that’s something that surprised him too about this weekend’s draw — and something he already was hoping to correct for future versions of this festival, likely by playing less to his own young crowds and slightly more to Deep Ellum’s already-in-place show-goers. I agree that such a direction would be beneficial.

None of the above is to say that this weekend was without its highlights. As mentioned earlier, the hip-hop stage, curated by All/Everything’s John Stewart was a smart and successful play for Deep Ellum’s hip-hop fans. Meanwhile, the fest’s use of rooms like oft-forgotten rooms like Reno’s, Liquid Lounge and Curtain Club served as much-needed reminders of these space’s viability. And there were truly some great performances, too. My personal highlights: The ’68, which saw former Norma Jean and The Chariot frontman Josh Scogin performing an incendiary brand of syncopated punk with drummer Michael McClellan, at Curtain Club on Friday; somewhat forgotten pop-punk favorites’ Acceptance inspired showing at Dada on Friday; the Fort Worth-based Urizen’s epic and theatrical (with mechanical villains and everything!) eight-bit metal display at Curtain Club on Saturday; and Dallas rapper Xes’ latest clamoring for more a bigger spotlight at Liquid Lounge on Saturday.

Those shows were enough to show this fest’s promise — ones that, if the fest indeed returns to this format in 2017, bode well for its future, even if this year’s offering bode well for its future.

Hawthorne Heights’ Woodruff was right on Saturday night to congratulate Ziemer on his efforts this year. I’d wager, though, that next year is when those efforts will truly start to pay off.

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