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Surviving Summerfest: Day One (or, How Houston Magically Turned Into a Truly Badass City, At Least for a Weekend) [8/12/2009 12:08:00 PM]:
Summerfest & downtown skyline at night I'm recovering, still. Recovering, but happy, I should say, because this past Saturday & Sunday at the Free Press Summerfest was a freaking blast, even if it smacked my aging old-dude ass to the ground. There were some glitches, to be sure -- I have yet to even hear of a music festival that didn't have 'em -- but even with that, I'm in awe of what Omar and the Free Press Houston crew have pulled off, here. It's a little premature to say it, I know, but I'll be damned if Summerfest didn't feel like the tipping point in terms of music in this city.

So here's my take on it, for what it's worth. I couldn't attend the whole thing, unfortunately, but I managed to survive about 7 hours on Saturday and another 4-5 on Sunday, which means my weekend feels like one big, long, telescoped day that I desperately wish I'd had a third day to recuperate from. I'll scatter some pics throughout, but if you feel like taking a look at the hundreds I actually took (more on that later), go here for the whole gory mess. Here's the first installment...

When I drove downtown on Saturday afternoon, I wasn't sure what to expect. I was later than I'd wanted to be, getting there around 2:30PM or so, so I missed some of the earlier acts I'd really, really wanted to catch, like The Tontons, Muhammidali, Perseph One, or I am Mesmer. Even still, I had no clue what the festival would be like -- would there even be a crowd?

I mean, this city's last attempt at something like this, the Texas Heat fest on Fourth of July weekend, crashed and burned hard. One friend who happened to drive past right in the middle of what was supposed to be the busiest part of the festival counted 6 people standing out in Jones Plaza, broiling themselves. (I really like the very gracious "thank you" post on their Website, btw; it would've been real easy to be bitter & recriminating about it, so I applaud the organizers for being classy folks.)

Would this be the same deal? Would our fickle, hip-radio-deficient (KTRU and KPFT are great, but nowhere near enough) city give the festival's organizers the same cold shoulder? I really, really hoped it wouldn't be the case; I had butterflies about it even as I parked my car a few blocks from the start of the Buffalo Bayou parks and started the hike in.

Road down to Summerfest I needn't have worried. There were probably 100 or so people waiting for tickets when I hit the line, and at the time I had no clue where the Will Call line was, much less that it was swamped. I just wanted to get inside in time to catch at least some of Fat Tony's set; I could hear "Invasion" starting up as I neared the staff check-in and ticket tents.

I should note here that dumb luck saved my ass, well and truly. I'd talked to Omar about snagging a pass to the show a while back, but never heard for sure if it'd been set up, so I lined on up to buy a wristband, figuring I could bug the folks at the booth once I got up there & hoping they wouldn't send me elsewhere if I did indeed have a pass waiting.

While in line, I chatted briefly with a nice older couple (who'd very wisely brought an umbrella; holy fuck, was that sun brutal) who turned out to be the Mom & Dad of the bassist & drummer from O Pioneers!!! -- whose names I will man up and admit I don't know; sorry, y'all. Dad mentioned that he figured he was the oldest person there by a few decades, but looking back, I'm not sure that was the case -- the crowd, in the end, covered a pretty damn wide spectrum.

As I neared the tents, I started noticing everybody around me swigging from water bottles of various types and shook my head, feeling all sage and concert-wise -- "don't you idiots know you're just going to have to throw it in the trash when you get to the gate? Security'll never let you in with bottles you didn't buy there." Little did I know that the rules in the Summerfest FAQ had been modified slightly since I'd looked at it last; I'd swear that when I checked it, it said "no outside food or beverages," but when I checked back on Sat. night after getting home, I saw that "Water" was on the list of stuff you could bring. Oh, fuck.

Call it Egregious Mistake #1. On Saturday, I was traveling light, light, light. No sunscreen, no water, no food, none of it. All I'd brought was a beach towel to sit on, the camera, the iPhone, and a solar charger that I used very briefly later that night before the iPhone drained it's battery.

At any rate, as I came up to the tent with a "Staff Sign-in" sign on the side, the ever-kind Brigitte Zabak (who writes for this site, her own excellent blog I Keep Mine Hidden, the Free Press, the Houston Press, and runs(?) another mag, Hater; just thinking about all that wears me out, I swear) was manning the staff table and had apparently spotted me, because when I glanced over and waved, she beckoned me over. She'd seen me waiting in line and checked the list, and lo and behold, my name was on it -- I did indeed have a pass waiting for me. Niiiiice.

Fat Tony And not only that, but it was a VIP pass, somehow -- she apologized and said they'd run out of the VIP wristbands earlier on, so my "VIP wristband" was actually a regular wristband turned inside out with "VIP" and her initials written on it. I was a little skeptical, I'll admit, but nobody once gave me grief over it, not even when the folks at the door to the VIP/High Roller tent checked it. Brigitte and Omar, y'all both rule.

So, with a high-five to Brigitte, I had my wristband, I had my woefully-understocked backpack, and dammit, I was in. Hoo-ah. On to the music...

FAT TONY: Yep, I made it in time to see Fat Tony. Well, kind of. By the time I made my way down the long, steep path to the main stage, Tony and his cohort (whose name I didn't catch) were sadly already winding things up. Even still, though, they had a nice flow and worked the crowd ridiculously well -- some of the Rock Dudes I saw at the fest could learn to be that engaging, I swear -- throwing out a tongue-in-cheek track called (I think?) "The Merch Table's Right Over There" that was, duh, meant to drive the music-watching masses on over to get some merch. And then that was pretty much it.

(Stupidly, I didn't hit Tony's merch table immediately, and I should've, because when I swung back by later on, there was no sign of his stuff. Argh.)

B L A C K I E & Cop Warmth B L A C K I E/ COP WARMTH: But hey, that's okay, because I'd already spotted B L A C K I E tearing it up over on the second stage and was making a beeline straight over there. The set was billed as "B L A C K I E vs. Cop Warmth", so while B L A C K I E spit his angry-as-hell verses out over a packed-tight crowd of onlookers (which may be, btw, the first and only time I've ever seen him perform on an actual stage), his fellow Pasadena-dwellers just kinda hung around on stage, looking bored. (Or maybe tired, since I think they'd already done at least one set by the time I wandered over.)

Which is okay, honestly, but I think I prefer witnessing B L A C K I E alone, just him and that bone-crushing sound, and seeing him in a well-lit area and not wearing the trademark hoodie was way trippy. When I pointed him out to a friend later on, the friend (who'd seen him perform at Numbers a year or so ago) didn't believe me -- he said something like "that's the guy?" I couldn't get real close to the stage, though, because of an impressive crush of people watching the show, so I bailed before Cop Warmth got back on (sorry, guys) and walked back over to the main stage.

H.I.S.D. H.I.S.D.: Been wanting to see H.I.S.D. a while now, since getting a chance to check out their Summer Sessions release on FWMJ's Rappers I Know a while back. And the HUEston Independent Spit District were pretty impressive, in part because I was cracking up at their freeze-frame switchoffs, where one or two of the four emcees (who I think were Scottie Spitten, Savvi, LdaVoice, & Equality, but never having seen 'em before, don't hold me to that) would do their thing while the others pretended to be statues and vice-versa.

Couldn't catch enough of the rhymes to really form a solid opinion, unfortunately, but I liked the laidback party vibe they had going on, nicely funky and reminiscent of Tribe Called Quest or maybe Blackalicious' less-highbrow moments. (On a side note, how freaking cool would it've been if Prince Paul had made an appearance on the stage with H.I.S.D.? Maybe next time?) Of any act I caught all weekend, these guys were probably the tightest, performance-wise -- they really had it wired.

O Pioneers!!! O PIONEERS!!!: I figured that since I'd already met Mom & Dad O Pioneer!!!, yeah, I'd better make it to the O Pioneers!!! damn set. (Not that they'd likely care, but still. I offer up heartfelt applause for anybody willing to brave insane heat and hordes of teenagers to watch their kids perform.) A relatively easy decision to make, though, considering how much I like these guys. Neon Creeps has lived in my backpack/car since February, and I swear that every time I hear it, I find new reasons to like it. I can't help but like a band that sucks in equal parts Avail and Braid and comes out sounding like electrified folk-rock, seriously.

Live, they were actually better than I remembered from the one other time (cringe) I've managed to see 'em, which I think may've been with a completely different band backing frontman Eric Solomon. This time out they were as loud and raw as ever but less wild-and-crazy, focusing more on the songs and less on the punk abandon. Which, honestly, is as it should be, to me. Their song "Dead City Sound" is an anthem for this never-stopping, destroy-and-rebuild place I call home, and I want to hear (and yell along with) every damn word Solomon sings in that rough-edged, scratchy-but-in-tune voice of his. (He wins bonus points, btw, for his American Steel t-shirt -- I truly believe the SF band is the closest thing to musical kin the Pioneers have...)

The Pioneers are about to head out on tour, by the by -- they're off to Oklahoma on August 20th, then heading up through Nevada and Colorado, on to the wilds of Montana before swinging through the NW and on down to California. Those that live elsewhere & read this, keep an eye out.

The Riff Tiffs THE RIFF TIFFS: Been a while since I'd seen The Riff Tiffs last, so I was keen to see what they've been up to... No major changes, sound-wise, although injured bassist Althea is sadly gone (I believe the last show I saw was also her last show), replaced by Tontons bassist Tom Nguyen. The band's fuzzy-edged, guitar-heavy psych-rock worked well out there in the hazy heat, drifting out over the crowd like a billowing, hypnotic flame.

I'd forgotten, actually, how much I love the Tiffs -- Chris Rehm's high-pitched, Wolf Parade-esque warble, he and brother Curran's roaring, meandering guitars, and drummer Sean Hart's tight rhythms (and now Tom's laidback bass, to boot). Since Chris & Sean are now off at school in New Orleans for half the year, the Tiffs have gotten kind of overshadowed by ostensible "side project" Caddywhompus (which is also a sweet-ass thing, btw), and I really hope this means they'll be playing more as the full Riff Tiffs band. And hey, what the heck happened to those plans last year for recording new stuff, y'all?

The Sword THE SWORD: Much as I love the other folks I managed to catch today, I have to say it: The Sword was one of the two bands I really, truly, supremely wanted to see. I was blown away by the Austin metalheads' latest, Gods of the Earth, but I missed their last show here, over at Rudyard's, so I was excited to finally see these guys. I nearly skipped eating dinner to catch their set up-close, actually -- I'd gotten light-headed and decided to stand in the long-ass line for a burger, and when I heard the band sound-checking down at the bottom of the hill, I very nearly bailed on the line to get down there.

Luckily, by the time I wolfed down the burger, we were able to get down the hill and weasel in towards the side of the stage to see the band rock out. Couldn't get into the mass of people crowding the front of the stage, but honestly, that was about as close as I wanted to get -- it was gratifying as hell to see a bona-fide mosh pit going out there in the middle, but I'm too damn old for that crap.

As far as the band goes...ah, metal. I mean, c'mon. What else can I say for a band that plays songs like "Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians"? They're the kind of band that makes me smile and shake my head one second, then give over to full-on headbanging the next. I love the fact that they're the sort of throwback metal that's making a comeback, metal minus the Cookie Monster vocals, plus the cool Frank Frazetta imagery and thundering guitars.

Broken Social Scene BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE: I've got to admit it -- I was seriously starting to feel like a beaten-up Old Dude by the time Canadian superstars Broken Social Scene hit the stage. It'd been several hours in the hot-ass sun, so homeboy Jowell and I utilized the magical powers of the VIP pass to skate on in to the High Roller tent, which was kinda-sorta air-conditioned and had drinks you didn't have to use tickets for(!). Chilled out in the shade there for a bit, said "hi" to a few people (hey, Toni B.!), and then charged back into the breach in time for BSS.

And holy fuck, when we came back out into the light, the crowd waiting eagerly for the Canadians to take the stage was immense. "Who the heck are these people?," I found myself wondering aloud. "How are there this many rabid Broken Social Scene fans in Houston? Did we bus 'em in from Austin or something?"

I'm serious about this -- I can't remember when I saw a crowd this gigantic to see an indie band from out-of-town, especially one that never, never, never gets airplay on anything but the most underground radio shows in this city. People were into it, in a big way. Just witnessing the fervor made my jaw drop, literally.

Crowd watching Broken Social Scene I was also impressed with how the band handled two drunken morons brawling in the middle of their set; the frontman of the musical collective (Kevin Drew or Brendan Canning, not sure which) stopped in mid-song, yelling at the two fuckwits to chill out, something like, "One shithead go one way, and the other shithead go the other. There; thanks for stopping the show, idiots." The crowd cheered, the band kicked back in, and on went the show.

Now for the bad part: in the end, the music was just kind of eh for me. Admittedly, I didn't go into this a fanboy; the one album I own is You Forgot It in People, and even that I've always been sort of lukewarm on. Some incredible songs ("Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl"), but some just, well, eh. And that's sort of how the performance hit me -- nice enough, and it was cool to finally get to see 'em, but certainly not the be-all and end-all of music.

They came off like a somnolent Kings of Leon at points, the resemblance helped along by the sleazy porno 'staches all the dudes in the band seemed to be sporting, and while it could've been my energy ebbing in general, dammit, the performance made me want to take a nap. Sorry, y'all. It still made me smile to see the crowd go nuts for the Canucks, though. Hopefully they -- and the other out-of-towners, all of whom got great receptions, from what I saw/heard -- will be back.

Explosions in the Sky EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY: And last but not least, the ultimate act of the first day of Summerfest, and another one I'd been seriously looking forward to. Been listening to Explosions in the Sky for several years now, and given the open-sky atmospherics they're known for, I figured, why fight the crowds? It was time to sit and relax. Beyond my old-ass self no longer being able to stand up properly, EitS just lend themselves nicely to sitting on a blanket in the grass, nodding and smiling along while the sun slowly sets.

So that's exactly what we did; we made our way up the hill (via the cardboard-sledding slope from earlier in the day) and then tried to worm our way to an open spot a little ways down. No mean feat, really, because the hillside was ridiculously packed by that point, but we found a spot and crashed. As the band wound its way through alternately gentle and thundering instro-rock, we could survey the whole scene, from the shining skyscrapers to the east over to the hardcore volleyball players to the west, and as the sun went down, we could even watch the skaters at Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark, across the bayou. Everybody nearby was smiling and laughing as the music echoed off the hillside; it was honestly pretty much the perfect setting for it.

We hung out 'til close to the end of the festival, then headed down to see things from the ground level for a little while before things wound down. Explosions themselves seemed louder now than most of what I'd heard in the past; there were more furious crescendoes than I'd expected, with the band's two guitarists and bassist thrashing around onstage and dropping to their knees to pound away at their guitars. The basic foundation remained the same, though, with those haunting, distant, somehow West Texas-feeling melodies and determined rhythms.

Walking back down Allen Parkway towards downtown As soon as the band put down their instruments and waved goodbye, the mass of people surged all at once up the hill like a tidal wave in reverse. Crowds of strangers spilled out onto the darkened Allen Parkway, most seemingly headed towards downtown; it was kind of an eerie sight. Jowell jokingly suggested we should start doing a zombie lurch/walk, and it felt pretty appropriate -- if anybody'd been passing by and seen the horde of people on foot in the middle of the road, passing in and out of the streetlights, they'd be forgiven for freaking out a little bit.

Off Allen Parkway, into downtown, and back to the car (which was still there, thankfully, despite my fear that the garage might close earlier than the listed time of 10:30PM). And then on home to attempt to recuperate.


  • First off, yes, I did indeed go a little crazy with the photos -- what can I say? I don't often get the chance to take pictures of bands during daylight hours, and that's really where my little Canon point-and-shoot does best, so I figured I ought to take advantage. I'm going to swipe a page from Ramon's playbook here and include a handy-dandy little slideshow, too:

  • In a fit of manly pique Saturday morning, I decided to skip any form of sunscreen in favor of my trusty baseball cap. (What can I say? It covers the bald spot my daughter keeps pointing out.) And then, because shoes seemed too damn hot, I grabbed the sandals and tossed the Merrells in the trunk. Which would've been great, except that about five minutes into the first band I saw, my feet felt like they were on fire.

    I am such an idiot. When do I ever, ever, ever tan my freaking toes? Answer: never. They went up like snowballs on Satan's doorstep. I could feel the skin searing, literally, fried by the sun's unforgiving rays. Call this one Egregious Mistake #2. Big, big, big "thank you" to Lance Higdon of Tambersauro & Golden Cities, drummer and Latin teacher extraordinaire, for selflessly lending me his sunscreen to slather on my rapidly-reddening feet. You saved my ass, man. Walking to and from Day Two of the festival would've been excrutiating, I suspect, had my sandaled feet been burnt to a crisp on Day One.

    David Cobb, Benjamin Wesley, & Adam Newton

  • It turned out that I really lucked out when it came to my choice of lines to stand in when I got to the festival. I had no idea that the Will Call line started at the opposite end of the festival area from where I was, and that worked in my favor, because from all reports I heard, that line was insanely huge. David Cobb waited in line for something like an hour and a half for his pre-purchased wristband, and Brandon Lemons (Co-pilot/Springfield Riots) told me that after two hours of waiting in the Will Call line, he nearly gave up and bought a whole new wristband, chalking the already-purchased one up as a loss. Ouch. Lines suck.

    I can't say for sure, but I suspect that nobody, not even the festival organizers, planned on the crowd being as gigantic as it ended up being. The number I heard a day or two ago was 30,000 people, and y'know, having been there, that sounds plausible. (I'm notoriously bad at guesstimating numbers of people/things, though, so take my opinion for what it's worth.)

    At the end of the day, though, I think it worked as well as it really could have. Everybody I spoke to, even folks who had to wait more than an hour in line, was still psyched as hell to be there to witness this thing; I didn't meet a single person during the time I was there who didn't think the occasional hassles and logistical issues were worth it to see the bands, hang out in the H-town sun, and stand around grinning with friends. I can only recall seeing one guy who looked like he'd rather be somewhere else, and I think that was because he was either sunstroked or utterly drunk and was about to puke on his pants. For all the rest, it was nothing but enthusiasm & smiling faces. (Okay, but I'm still very, very glad I chose to stand in the buy-a-pass line, rather than the pick-up-my-pass line.)

  • While I'm on the subject, though, let me take a moment to vent a bit. Lines suck, hard, sure but lines to get tickets so you can get in more lines suck harder. So it was doubly painful to have to wait in line for coupons to get food and beverages, then get in line to actually get the food and beverages. Man. Waiting in line at the one booth I'd found that sold water was one of the few really frustrating experiences of the weekend. I have to ask: what's up with the coupons? Is that some kind of TABC-mandated thing? It just didn't make much sense.

  • Bands I Didn't Get to See/Missed -- Ghost Town Electric, Juzcoz, Mechanical Boy, Perseph One (who, sadly, was one of my top must-sees; got there too damn late), The Tontons (seriously need a copy of that new album), The Watermarks, I am Mesmer, Muhammidali, Los Skarnales, Ryan Scroggins & the Trenchtown Texans (caught part of 'em through the fence while waiting in line), Young Mammals, The Octopus Project, & Tha Fucking Transmissions.

    People sliding down hill

  • While I'd initially scoffed at the idea of everybody wearing swimsuits, the beach-party vibe for the whole thing was freaking awesome. At times it felt less like a festival and more like a gigantic crowd of park-goers just hanging out and having a good time doing whatever the felt like doing -- playing volleyball, listening to music, dancing, painting, hanging with friends, whatever. The folks who decided it'd be fun to sled down the hillside on cardboard boxes made me smile; I haven't done that since I was in 4th grade...

  • I grabbed hold of event organizer/artist/musician Shelby Hohl as he sped by at one point (he'd just rushed the crowd in front of the main stage with a case full of water bottles, handing 'em out to anybody in the mass of people who could grab one) and said, "you're in American Fangs, right?" He shook his head and said he used to be, but not anymore. When I asked him why, he just grinned and said, "Because I had better things to do. Like this!" Which is interesting, since the Fangs were originally supposed to play Summerfest, but are instead out on tour right now with Burn Halo...

  • Finally got to introduce myself in person to the aforementioned B L A C K I E (aka Michael LaCour), who not surprisingly is a very nice, very down-to-earth guy. When I told him I was liking the online Dope & Doper EP, he mentioned he was taking his time working on a full-length, trying to get it exactly right, and had a 7" in the works, plus the long-threatened split cassette with Cop Warmth, to boot. Looking forward to all of it.

    Crazy kid dancing to Riff Tiffs

  • I think I saw Ralf Armin of Dead Roses roaming about the festival -- he was standing not far from me during The Sword's set -- dressed up as some kind of crazed indie superhero, tights, cape, and all. Um. Does he do that often?

  • Ran into photog/musician Marc Brubaker once again at the Summerfest; does that guy go to every freaking show? Good to hang out with him again, though -- he & cohort Adam Newton are psyched to be playing yet again as Prairie Cadets coming up, this time August 16th at The Mink with cool folks Benjamin Wesley, The Julys, & Finnegan. Record more songs, guys, eh?

  • Anybody want to claim the strange little Asian guy who seemed to be everywhere, dancing like some kind of serene, X-ed out Buddhist monk with long, grassy hair? He was damned entertaining, and I've got to respect somebody who's that willing to just, well, do whatever the hell they're gonna do and not care that people are laughing or pointing or whatever. I remember him dancing at the last Block Party, too, when the joint Limb/Narreme set was going on...

    The only name I've seen for him is "Happy," and who knows? It definitely fits. By the end of the weekend, he was getting hugs from random people and making friends all over the place. I missed it, but apparently during Bolt's set (I think it was Bolt?) on Sunday, he was lying underneath the big trailer parked next to the second stage and suddenly emerged, "like he was being born" (in the words of somebody who witnessed it), as the band exploded onto the stage. Wow. The guy was something else.

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