I’m Dying Man : One Man’s Sweaty View of Free Press Summer Fest 2011
It’s hard not to question the decision to do anything during Houston summers, let alone hold an outdoor musical festival. 95 °F plus heat combined with oppressive humidity almost guarantees that all but the foolishly brave are fastened to the easy comforts of their living room couch. Yet for the past three years, Free Press Houston has served tens of thousands of Houstonians a strong dose of sonic courage in the form of the weekend musical showcase known as Summer Fest. This year featured the most ambitious schedule since the festival’s inception : 162 acts stretched across eight stages on over half a mile of Eleanor Tinsley Park. Like all festivals, you had your good, you had your mediocre and you had your awful.
“That was the dankest shit I’ve ever heard!” – strung out teen during Weezer
The New : Free Press has always worn the label of an “indie” festival, meaning there’s a good chance that even the most fervent music lover was unfamiliar with a large portion of the scheduled performers. That’s the point : 162 bands. Seriously, 162 bands. There’s no excuse to limiting yourself and even the most stubborn and apathetic individual should make time to explore something new. For me, the find of the festival belongs to Houstonians turned Austonites Little Lo. The desperately stylized vocals that flavored a heavy dose of baroque pop were reason enough to justify their title as one of the best new Austin bands of 2011. With a new EP out later this summer, good things are expected from this delightful band.
The Bizzare : Concerts are as much about the visual as they are about the audio. In terms of performance theatrics, no act could touch New York’s Japanese punk rockers, Peelander Z. Dressed up in the uniquely Japanese super sentai style (think Power Rangers) Peelander Z put on a purely stylistic punk rock show consisting but not limited to a fight with a giant squid and group stretches to thank the sun. The band went so far as to include a female role, dressed in the customary pink, to play a fake guitar, scream into the microphone and hold up signs. It was the embodiment of a bizarre but wonderful take of American pop-culture through Japanese eyes.
The Wonderful: Denton once again proves size doesn’t matter when it comes to the city’s plethora of musical talent. For me, psychedelic rockers turn bearded folksmen Midlake will always be held in high regard, but relative new comers Neon Indian aren’t far behind. Their debut album Psychic Chasms, with its new wave tones sensibly drawn over a noise pop background, rightfully won over critics and audiences in 2009. Their addicting brand of pop, combined with some Morrissey inspired dance moves earned Neon Indian a personal best in show.
The Local : Houston bands had a good showing as well. Despite my previous efforts, this would be my first live experience with the Ton Tons, Muhammedali, Sideshow Tramps and Young Mammals. Whether it was the psychedelic charms of the Ton Tons or the eccentric country sounds of Sideshow Tramps, each band brought their best and didn’t disappoint. Though I was unable to attend , positive reports also rang out from twee royalty Wild Moccasins and experimental pop mainstays Giant Princess. Part of me was relieved that each band are beloved because of their music and not because of where they call home. Maybe it’s the inferiority complex talking, but I can’t lie to you and say that Houston will have a music scene on par with NYC or Nashville…. Or even Austin. For whatever reason, Houston’s music culture doesn’t run as deep. However, we have our fair share of exceptional bands here in Houston and I’ll stand my ground in saying they deserve more recognition beyond our fair city.
The Pitch : As with any major festival, the headliners make or break the show. For the most part, each headliner more than held their own. In terms of pure musicality, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings trumped even the inspiring performance of Weezer. The 55 year old singer shimmied and shook her way across the stage, belting out an addictive brand of funk and soul that conjured up images of the late James Brown. Having only briefly read her biography, I had subdued expectations for the set. Expectations were quickly shattered as her performance was so lively, I found myself wondering if she actually was had the energy to singing. Never have I seen anyone, let alone someone of Mrs. Jones’ age, both sing and dance with such presence and flair without having to take a break. Big Boi really missed his chance to bring her out on stage, but more on that a little bit later.
Speaking of hip hop, all three main acts (Bun B, Big Boi and Z-Ro) did their best to inject a bit of rhyme into the crowd. Bun B, the Bruce Springsteen of Houston, put on a typically Bun B performance : great as always, but having seen Professor B a half dozen times, you know what to expect. Big Boi on the other hand had years of Top 40 playtime on his side. Both he and his hype man brought a fair bit of life back into the crowd. However, being that this type of festival attracts a very specific audience, I was disappointed but not surprised that the crowd’s request for Ms. Jackson. We might as well continued the insult by asking Big Boi to sing Andre 3000’s “Hey Ya!” However, by the time both Trae tha Truth and Bun B reappeared, Big Boi displayed why he’s one of the preeminent emcees whose music extends beyond a few radio friendly tracks. Native Houstonian Z-Ro, for reasons unknown, was sent off to the wasteland that was the Gritsy/Reprogram Stage. The Houston native made the most of it, giving a devoted audience numerous tracks of both the acclaimed Crack and I’m Still Livin’ albums. However, his performance did feature a heavy smattering of gun clicks between each song, immediately followed by Z-Ro asking us to “Hold Up.” Quite strange, but weed and heat can make for a strange mix.
Quite a few of the main acts mesmerized their audiences, namely Cut Copy. Despite a strong attraction to nearly all thing new wave, I’m not really a fan of much of the current dance-pop movement that has engulfed the music scene. Cut Copy was no exception. However, to see tens of thousands of people responding to the musical whims of a few Australians was absolutely breath taking. Personally the performance was enjoyed vicariously , but to everyone else, Cut Copy appeared to be the highlight and only reason to attend the festival.
While it pains me to say it, both Yeasayer and Beirut appear to suffer from an acute case of Coldplay syndrome : beautiful musically but visually tepid. Zach Condon has written some of the most beautifully nostalgic music in recent memory but it’s frustratingly difficult to sit and simply appreciate good music after a day of such oppressive weather. The same could be said of Yeasayer. While not quite as beautiful as Beirut, Yeasayer’s Eastern-sounding experimental rock had both more audio and visual intrigue. The heat certainly did the Brooklyn natives no services as singer Chris Keating constantly commented on the weather. However in the end, both performances were well received and quite enjoyable, just a bit tame considering the setting.
The final day, as we all know, was headlined by Weezer. I had my reservations and even objected to the inclusion of the band. Despite Pinkerton’s standing as one of the pivotal albums of a generation, in the minds of many, Weezer has turned from geek-rock all-stars into aging has-beens. While certain bands of their generation have had the sense to go underground or die young, Weezer choose to mail it in with turds like “Beverly Hills” and “Pork and Beans”. However, in a strange sort of way, Weezer put on the show my high school persona always wanted to see. Outside of three tracks, Weezer quietly acknowledged that the last 10 years were shit and that the audience deserved a more memorable set, one that included a fantastic cover of “Paranoid Android”. For a brief hour and a half, the audience sung and cheered as Weezer took us back with songs we forgot we loved. I began the set slightly embarrassed of the fact that Weezer was one of my formative bands, a gateway into my musical exploration. A decade of seeing your heroes grow fat and bloated never sits in well. I left knowing that inside that married 40 year old man, lies the heart of a 20-something who surfs, plays D&D and loves those God damn half Japanese girls.
“Oh my God! I’m sweating so much!!!”
– woman failing to grasp the concept of summer while watching Bun B
The Grounds : Parts of the newly formatted FPSF didn’t work out too well. For someone wanting to get the most out of their festival experience, the distance and placement of stages posed a bit of a logistical nightmare. Take the Super Happy Fun Land stage which was so remote, I actually thought it was an unofficial offshoot stage put on by bands wanting to use Summer Fest’s foot traffic for free promotion. On the opposite end of the park was the Gritsy/Reprogram stage which was not only secluded, but so poorly amped that both the wobbly bass of 12 Planet’s dubstep mix and Z-Ro’s gun-cocking, smoke filled, “Hold Up!” set were barely audible over the bands at the Warehouse Live stage, the traffic off Memorial or the Circa Select merchandise booth. One would expect festival goers would first entertain these fringe stages upon entering the park, however, by being so far from the main stage, it was apparent that people weren’t willing to make the trek back. This problem of ill-conceived peripheral stages was only compounded by, albeit logically, the central location of the majority of vendors.
Not to say all the changes were bad. The addition of two watering stations provided much needed relief (I drank four liters on the first day alone) despite having to wait 20-30 minutes to fill up. Food and beverage prices were kept low and often chose local establishments like Pink’s over larger chains further reinforcing the Free Press mantra that this is Houston’s festival. Side note : I love you Goodpop. Ticket prices remained unreasonably cheap considering the number of acts : at the discounted presale price of $15, you’re paying less than a dime per act. Better still, the low cost of attending FPSF didn’t appear to effect any actual performances as most musicians were able to take the stage on time, or as on time as one would expect from a festival.
The Disappointment : In terms of music, I simply didn’t get Ween and neither did much of the audience as most bolted for the exits after a few tracks. Ween certainly had their fair share of supporters, unfortunately, they failed to win over any new fans. According to our friends at Houston Press, one attendee responded to the performance with a snarky “They call they music?” I hate to admit it but I’ll agree. Ween suffered from the same problems plaguing 90s alternative rock gods Dinosaur Jr. : the inclusion of pointless guitar solos in every song. Combine that with some strange and off putting vocal effects, Ween was basically disagreeable to a large portion of the audience. Part of me feels like I missing something, like walking into a great movie 10 minutes before the end. However, Saturday’s performance just didn’t click and certainly a few thousand people would agree.
The Nearly Unspeakably Awful
“Alright, I’m done.”
– out of place youths at Z-Ro
The Hills : With this many acts in this large of a stage, you’ll inevitably encounter your share of regrettable moments. This year’s most cringe worthy moment belongs to Big Boi and his hype man. Midway through the set, a dozen or so girls were brought to the stage to awkwardly , and I do mean awkwardly, dance in the background. Rather than actually dance, most took the opportunity to indulge their vanity , taking pictures of themselves, waving to friends and otherwise looking as out of place… well, as out of place as a bunch of white girls on stage with one of the nation’s greatest emcees.
The Trash : Gorealah Soul ties Commie Hilfiger for the worst performances I’ve seen in quiet sometime. Both had elaborate concepts with the former involving a fat, sweaty white guy wheezing out raunchy R&B ballads while trashy space themed dancers worked their way through the crowd. It’s entirely possible that every Gorealah Soul performance is an elaborate joke, but a joke this terrible shouldn’t see the light of day. Commie Hilfiger was ultimately let down by their in ability to live up to their own hype. Marching on stage in their military garb to the tune of the Soviet national anthem while spewing anti-capitalist rhetoric at the “protestors” was a sure way to get a crowd. However, the routine carried on for too long and the crowd began to thin as the lead singer continued to use a fake Russian accent to try to provide a bit of intrigue to bland and generic punk rock. I’m sure at some point their music took the lead over their performance art, but I wasn’t willing to wait.
The Unfortunate : In an attempt to differentiate itself from other, more established music festivals, Summer Fest has placed a strong emphasis on featuring the best Texas has to offer, even going so far as to give fan voted local acts a chance to “open” for festival headliners. Hang my treasonous heart, but neither Limb nor BLACKIE seized their opportunities to become Houston’s musical champion. Both appeared to alienate the audience and I distinctly heard from festival goers rate Limb as “ the worst thing I’ve ever”, a performance so bad some speculated that “they forced him off the stage”. I understand the visceral appeal of BLACKIE’s annihilating brand of “hip hop” as it is so unlike anything else at the festival, let alone in the musical world. A smaller setting better suits his vision as his intensity reflects off the walls, sending audience members into a frenzy. However, here among the thousands, the energy escapes and very little was appreciated. Place a bomb in a crowded room and you’ll do some damage but place it in an parking lot and most people wonder “What was that noise?” While BLACKIE diehards flailed and moshed, the uninitiated were lost, a point clearly illustrated by the hundred or so frantic teens surrounded by thousands of blank faced on lookers. It begs the question of whether a more palatable act could have been chosen by someone other than the fans as they might have taken advantage of the less aggressive, dance happy crowd.
The Shame : On a side note and at risk of sounding like an out of touch old man, Houston should be scolded for once again trashing the grounds. The first year, there simply were not enough trashcans to support the number of people, this year, there was a complete disregard for the idea of running a green, carbon neutral festival. What boggles the mind was the amount of red and blue beer bottles on the ground : good for you if you were able to drink and avoid heat stroke. On the same note, the smoking, my God the smoking. A stress smoker in college, I never once coughed up the filth that greeted me each Summer Fest night. Kudos to you for making our ugly city uglier and our air quality problem more problematic.
You wonder about the future of Summer Fest. The comparisons to ACL are tired but absolutely appropriate. ACL was once a festival for locals to showcase their talents alongside national acts, but a mere 10 years later has changed it into a powerful but generic weekend. It seems a potent mix of easy access to the next big musical movement, combined with Summer Fests inevitable growth will eventually mold the festival into an ACL alternative rather than eliminating the comparison all together. We all know that the national acts attract the vast majority of the audience, but participation away from the main stage was less than encouraging. So far, the good people at Free Press have tried their hardest to avoid the prevailing need to cast local musicians to the side in favor of what’s popular. For my part, I hope they avoid this and continue to display the wonders of Houston/Texas music to a wider audience. I hope they push to bring in more hip hop ( why not Jay Electronica, Fashawn or Curren$y?) as Houston and hip hop are nearly synonymous. I hope they find better ways to incorporate Texas musicians to show audiences that there is plenty of good music to tie you over till next June. I hope, more then anything else, that Summer Fest remains a uniquely Houston experience and ten years from now, Summer Fest still looks like Summer Fest.