A simple piece of downtown real estate caused City Tavern owner and Homegrown Fest organizer Josh Florence to have an epiphany back in January 2010, when he was trying to think of a way to get local bands in front of a bigger audience.
"As soon as I saw Main Street Garden Park completed, it just screamed to me, music festival," he says. "The park, coupled with [me] being tired of seeing amazing bands play to small crowds at City Tavern and other venues, made me wonder if we could somehow get these awesome bands playing to 30 or 40 people at clubs in front of 1,000 people, and if that would help spread the word about what was going on with the music scene in the metroplex."
He delivered the concept to Downtown Dallas, Inc., which manages Main Street Garden. "They jumped all over it," he says. "They offered to help by sponsoring our little music festival. They jumped on board pretty much immediately. I remember thinking, 'I guess we're really doing this.'"
Homegrown Music Arts Festival takes place Saturday, May 26, at Main Street Garden Park.
He then recruited John Solis, who books bands for Club Dada and Florence's City Tavern, to help with promoting the festival and booking bands, and Dusty Pope, who works between the two clubs, to help run it.
It's a novel idea, a local music fest that's not pinned to one genre or demographic. By economical design, most big city fests are anchored with better known national names, and the locals are relegated to early slots. But Florence is flipping the script, putting locals in the spotlight, which takes a certain level of faith in their talent and draw. It's also a big risk. If you want to put a local fest together, you have to have faith that the community is going to be there to support it, especially in a city where those who get praise are often shot down and optimism about local music is sometimes met with a blank stare or a heavy sigh.
That first year, 12 local bands performed and about 1,100 people showed up. Last year, the number went up to 14 bands and roughly 3,300 in attendance. This year, they opened it up to all Texas bands, and Florence says that while he's not sure they'll triple attendance in 2012, that was the idea all along.
"The plan from day one, assuming we made it past day one, was to eventually draw talent from the entire state of Texas," he says. "In my estimation, in order for a festival to be successful and have a chance to continue to a second and third year, you've got to have enough people there buying tickets and drinking beer to cover the expense of producing a festival, which is considerable. In order to draw the number of people we need to survive, we thought it would be a good idea to include bands from the whole state.
"There are still tons of awesome bands from the metroplex that haven't played Homegrown yet that we hope to have on future bills," Florence continues. "We will always have a large mix of bands from DFW. This year, seven of the bands on the roster are from the North Texas area, five are from Austin, two from Houston and one from San Antonio. We feel like it's a really good mix."
That mix includes Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Hayes Carll, Ben Kweller, Eisley, Centro-matic, the Octopus Project, Robert Ellis, Mystery Skulls, Bright Light Social Hour, Ume, Mohicans, Girl in a Coma, Low Dark Hills, Bird Dogs and Madisons, all acts with varying degrees of recognition. This year, Homegrown used the Observer's three-weekend Rock the Park battle-of-the-bands event to snag a local opener, the aforementioned Madisons. The art and food trucks will all be Dallas-centric. It comes back to that central thread, Florence says: having pride in your city and wanting artists to succeed.
"It's always been important to John Solis and me that the talent for Homegrown is not stuck in one specific genre," he says. "We love the idea of having Hayes Carll playing right before Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, on a bill that also includes Ume, Girl in a Coma, Centro-matic and Octopus Project. To be honest, these are all bands we love. That's the long and short. We love these bands and can't wait to see them play in the heart of downtown Dallas."
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35 Denton proved that yes, it's possible to put on a successful festival booking bands you love, even with bigger national names attached to their lineup, and the geography of DFW certainly makes it appealing to have locals in one central place. But 35 Denton and Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin didn't quite hit their stride until the third or fourth year. Dallas is generally cautious about its music, never wanting to jump on the bandwagon too soon, but Florence never backtracked after that Main Street Garden epiphany.
"At the time we were planning the first Homegrown ... I did feel like Dallas had room for more music festivals," Florence explains. "I'm not sure if my music consciousness has grown or if there are just more festivals these days, but I'm a big fan of 35 Denton. I think those guys are doing an amazing job. I'm really looking forward to KXT's [Summer Cut] festival the weekend after Homegrown and H20 looks pretty cool too. And, of course, John Iskander's BroFest is always a favorite every year. Oh, and the DOMA festival and the Dallas Observer St. Patty's Day event."
Dallas, he seems to be saying, has become a festival town, and Florence remains almost inhumanly optimistic.
"Since part of the catalyst for Homegrown was the park itself, I think that had a lot to do with how we designed the layout: Two stages, where the vendors go, etc. Considering the talent, we just wanted to keep it local and all-Texas. We've got plenty of talent here to have a killer festival for many more years to come, without ever having to grab talent from another state. I must admit, I'm a native Texan and I get sucked into the Texas pride."