By Chris Baldwin
Photography by Max Burkhalter
Will Garwood spotted Will Thomas across the Kirby Whole Foods parking lot and knew he had to act. Enough dickering around with the dream, getting it done required firm action. “I’m going for it,” Garwood told himself.
As grocery store parking lot bump-ins go, it doesn’t get any more serendipitous than this.
With their young kids at their sides (daughter Lila for Garwood, son Walker for Thomas), the two men would commit to partnering on an audacious new concert venue, one that carries the potential to change Houston’s music scene forever — no matter how much controversy it finds. More acquaintances than close friends at this point, Garwood and Thomas first talked about the idea at a party six weeks prior. But it seemed like one of those dreamy late-night gab sessions that never actually amount to anything. In the light of the Whole Foods parking lot, powered by a chance meeting amidst the clanging carts and power shoppers, it started to morph into reality.
The two lifelong Houstonians agreed to partner up on a tract of land Garwood found at 2915 North Main Street along Little White Oak Bayou. Of course, they’d still need to secure $5.5 million from other investors to ever hear the music. “You need so much to go right,” Garwood says. “You go in ignorant of what you need to go right and if you knew what you needed to go right, you would never do it in the first place because you would recognize how much luck you need.”
Garwood observes this while sitting atop the Raven Tower, one of five stages at the two Wills’ new White Oak Music Hall complex, looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows at a picture-postcard view of the downtown Houston skyline. Three years after that fateful parking lot encounter, it all came together with a late August bonanza of concerts sounding the official grand opening of a new venue that the Wills expect to host at least 500 shows a year. More than 8,000 people — including legendary Texas socialite Lynn Wyatt, who made a surprise appearance — and 19 bands were packed into the opening weekend alone.
This is a $10 million-plus project. More than $800,000 went into just the top-of-the-line sound system and lights of the Main Hall — White Oak’s 1,500-person capacity large indoor space — alone. There’s also a more intimate 400-person indoor room, a 3,000-crowd-accommodating outdoor lawn, the four-story-tall Raven Tower with its bar and small stage, and an outdoor patio music venue below the tower.
That’s a lot of room for a lot of acts and the two Wills (Garwood and Thomas’ friends sometimes call them Will Squared) made sure they could fill it by enlisting Houston music industry vets Johnny So and Jagi Katial of Pegstar Concerts as equity partners and talent bookers. To build early support and cement a long-term legacy, the Wills hired respected local architect Troy Schaum and entrusted Gin Braverman with making the interior design both cutting edge and fitting of the type of old-time music hall they desperately want to channel.
It takes a village to change the fourth-largest city in America. “This is the music venue, I always wanted to have growing up in Houston,” Thomas says.
Rebels In Corporate Clothes
The two Wills are something of an unlikely pair to be pulling it off together. The 34-year-old Garwood shows up for an interview in pressed slacks, a polo and dress shoes. The 37-year-old Thomas prefers trucker hats, cowboy boots and blue jeans. Garwood’s clean shaven; Thomas sports a bushy brownish red beard and frequently has a toothpick perched between his lips. Garwood went to St. John’s, graduated from Princeton in 2005 and worked at JPMorgan as an investment banker in New York. Thomas attended Episcopal High School in Bellaire, the University of Denver and the South Texas College of Law (now the Houston College of Law), emerging as a criminal defense attorney. Neither man ever felt quite enamored with their seemingly high-powered careers, though.
“For me, I knew I wasn’t going to work my way up at JPMorgan,” Garwood says. “I’m more interested in building something than building a career.” Thomas’ own epiphany came after he got turned down for a job he thought he wanted. “I once interviewed at the Galveston County’s DA office,” he says. “Not getting that job was the greatest thing ever.”
Garwood shoots a look of mock surprise across the table. “Think of how many meth heads you could have put in jail,” he deadpans.
This easy rapport has come with chasing their shared vision. In a way, they’re doing a very Austin thing in Houston, betting that the city’s ready to embrace having cool things of its own. Maybe it’s no surprise that East Austin’s not-uncontroversial development from a historic, largely white-shunned neighborhood into a hip restaurant and arts enclave is something of a model for them.
While Thomas admits to being a semi-frustrated musician (he’s the lead singer of local band Grand Old Grizzly on the side), both Wills see White Oak building plenty on top of the music. They also own four acres on the other side of the bayou from White Oak Music Hall and there are deals in place to bring a sand volleyball themed bar in partnership with GUS (Grown Up Sports) and a much more ambitious Les Givral’s restaurant along the water somewhat modeled after Austin’s beloved Mozart’s Coffee to that site.
If you bring the music, they will come?
“It’s going to make you feel like we’re in the heart of where music is relevant,” Garwood says. “Like New Orleans or something like that. It’s not a franchised music experience. It’s something for the masses.”
For Garwood — who returned to Houston in 2010 and found himself blown away by all the luxury high-rise and mid-rise apartment buildings going up, remembering how he used to think, “it was weird when people lived in a tower” — it’s a simple equation. All these young people pouring into Houston need something to do. They need music, a place they can see hot rock band The Flaming Lips one night and country music icon Sturgill Simpson the next.
Not everyone in the Near Northside neighborhood is convinced they want the Wills — or anyone else — changing their slice of Houston. The police received 17 noise complaints during the venue’s first outdoor show in April, months before the official opening weekend. The Wills are contesting a noise ordinance citation issued with Thomas representing White Oak Music Hall in court. Two noise violations that stick in three years could result in the venue losing its sound ordinance.
The Wills executed a 380 agreement with the City of Houston and Andy Icken, who former Mayor Annise Parker appointed as the City’s Chief Developmental Officer. The 380 gives White Oak sales tax reimbursements for infrastructure improvements they’ve made during development valued at $1.1 million over 10 years. New Mayor Sylvester Turner has already publicly rebuked the Two Wills for trying to rely on a temporary outdoor stage and vows that they’ll have to be successfully permitted for a permanent stage to continue outdoor shows.
That showdown is coming to a head — with White Oak’s next outdoor concert scheduled for Oct. 22 and music fans still in the dark about what will happen. For the Wills part, Thomas says there is “ongoing dialogue” between the developers and the neighborhood on all the issues.
Houston’s no-zoning status does not necessarily mean that it is easy to do something new and groundbreaking in the city. “You don’t see a lot of rock venues being built from the ground up and there’s a reason for that,” Thomas says.
A Music City?
The Wills figure the music will carry the day in the end. Houston’s music roots run deeper than many realize. The first rock song ever recorded was done in Houston when a little-known teenage musician named Goree Carter laid down the track to “Rock Awhile” in 1949. Still, the city’s never had a unique iconic venue along the lines of Denver’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre or Berkeley, California’s legendary Greek Theatre or even Austin’s Stubb’s. White Oak’s developers yearn to get Houston a seat at that music table. With the flawed and much-less-ambitious Fitzgerald’s in flux, the need for a new music venue has arguably never been greater.
“There’s no reason to confine Houston,” Garwood says. “I think anything that’s possible anywhere is possible in Houston. The demand was there all along. The love was there. We’re excited that this will bridge that gap to feeling excited about seeing music in Houston. We want Houston to be a place you can go to see music. We think this is Houston’s first destination music experience.”
Sitting on top of Raven Tower, a converted 1970s metal fabrication shop that became one of 11 separate transactions that secured Will Squared the five acres that make up White Oak Music Hall, it’s easy to imagine you’re seeing the future. Ghostland Observatory, an electro rock and funk duo who’ve drawn raves at major music festivals such as Palm Springs’ Coachella, emerged as one of White Oak’s first headliners. Taylor Swift buddy Kelsea Ballerini played the Raven, a venue where fans can get very up close and personal with the performers.
“You can meet the artist afterwards. Have a beer with the artist afterwards. Can have three beers with the artist afterwards,” Garwood laughs.
It something new for Houston, something that likely never happens if Garwood and Thomas do not reject the corporate fast track with the fearlessness and faith of a rock concert crowd surfer. “I was looking for more for sure,” Thomas says. “I don’t think I was a very good attorney.” The two men grew into close friends as they experienced a crash course in everything from construction management to show activation to big event security procedures.
“Obviously, Will and I are risk takers,” Garwood says. “That’s part of what has gotten us this far. There is an inordinate amount of risk.” Anything for the music — and a dream hatched in a Whole Foods parking lot.