Let The Bass Drop: Surviving FPSF 2013, Day One
If there’s anything I’ve learned in all the years I’ve spent doing critical writing, both in college and after, it’s that you can make anything have a theme. Not that everything actually has a theme, mind you, but rather that if you read/listen/watch selectively enough, heck, you can pull out enough to justify just about any overarching motif you feel like.
So, in that spirit, I’m going to declare that the theme for this year’s Free Press Summer Fest (or FPSF, for short; apparently the FPSF organizers are trying to get people to stop calling it “Summer Fest,” possibly because there’s already one of those, I think up in Michigan or something) is/was bass. Yes, bass, that ultra-low-frequency stuff that makes your chest cavity rattle and that dubstep/EDM people like to drop all the damn time.
Seriously, though, it may’ve been my imagination, but the bass was everywhere this year, all throughout the festival. Not only were most of the EDM sets I saw at least a teensy bit influenced by trap music — which, as far as I can tell, is all bass, just a solid wall of it that makes people go crazy — but the bass popped up in other places, too (like during Matt & Kim‘s set, for one).
It felt like everywhere I wandered throughout the course of the weekend, I was being trailed by that one specific sound. And hey, I’m fine with that, for the most part; it was just kind of a shift from years past, where I really didn’t get that same feeling.
Part of the reason, mind you, may be because this year FPSF (see? I can adapt…) felt like not one but two festivals, with distinct, almost separate audiences for each. On the one hand, you had the “main” FPSF crowd, the people who were there to see Cat Power or Iggy Pop or Gogol Bordello or Buxton or whoever; think of basically any other big music festival and imagine the people who’d go, and hey, you’ve got this segment of FPSF attendees nailed. Me, I tended to fall in with that part of the audience, mostly because, well, that stuff is all music I like — I’ll freely grant a bias towards it.
On the other hand, though, there seemed to be a whole other crowd, one that was attending some sideways version of FPSF where it was closer to Ultra or EDC than Pitchfork or Coachella. They weren’t there to see the same people I was, not at all, but instead specifically to see folks like Mord Fustang or Bassnectar or Super Mash Bros or Borgore, most of whom I’d never even heard of ’til I saw them on the festival lineup. Every time I gave up attempting to fight my way into the crowd at one of the stages to see a “main festival” headliner/sub-headliner, I inevitably wandered past an EDM stage that was somehow just as insanely packed, if not more so. Those kids were losing their shit for the electronic artists this year, honest.
Which is awesome, to me. It may not all be my cup of tea (although I did like Mord Fustang quite a bit), but I’m glad it’s somebody’s, and they’re out there dancing and sweating and grinning like fools, just like I was during Baroness‘s set. I’m psyched, actually, because for the first couple of years of FPSF it seemed like the hip-hop/electronic stages were an afterthought to most of the festival-goers. That’s most certainly not the case now.
I would honestly guess that there were more people watching/dancing to Calvin Harris at the end of Day One of the fest than there were watching/dancing to The Postal Service, and considering that I could get nowhere near The Postal Service’s actual stage, myself, and they were pretty much one of the handful of “marquee” acts of FPSF this year, that’s actually pretty significant.
Still, it felt a bit strange sometimes, like when I wandered over to catch part of an EDM set I’d slipped through a crack in realities, Neil Gaiman-style, and ended up in a Houston that’s not quite our Houston, but one very close by in the string of pearls that is the Infiniverse (or something).
Anyway. With my doctoral dissertation now out of the way, back to business: FPSF happened once more this year, and once more, it was phenomenal. I swear, I keep expecting to walk away some year feeling disappointed, like, “damn, man — FPSF used to be so cool, and now it’s just a bunch of shitty bands only douchebags care about.” So far, though, the festival organizers have delivered, every single freaking year. To which I say: nice.
Granted, I’ve got my issues with this festival at times (and don’t worry, I’ll get to those at some point in here), but as I’ve noted in years past, the FPSF crew actually appear to be listening to people’s complaints, year after year, and adjusting their setup accordingly. This year they cut back the number of stages, and hence the number of bands playing, and to tell you the truth, I’m okay with that (with a caveat we’ll get to later on). Last year, the sheer number of stages/bands/etc. got a little overwhelming.
They streamlined the layout of the festival this year & last, to boot, moving most of the stages more in line with where people are naturally going to be walking. Oh, and they named the stages after the planets in the solar system, which was a freaking brilliant — no, really, BRILLIANT — idea, and one that cost nobody any extra money or anything. Screw this: “Hey, let’s head over to the Budweiser Stage?” “Which one’s that?” “I dunno…is it over near the Night Owl Stage?” This, instead, was way cooler: “Alright, let’s hit the Mars Stage next, and then back over to the Neptune Stage.” “Sounds good to me, man.”
I’ll come back to that at the end of this thing, because I have to take a minute to sit back in awe of this year’s true bit of festival-related innovation: the FPSF smartphone app. I was skeptical when I first saw it, and I printed out my own schedule beforehand just in case, so I didn’t end up wandering aimlessly with no idea of the schedule like I did last year, but once I actually started using the app…oh, wow. It was incredible.
See, the maps were handy, particularly early on when I didn’t know what stage was where — I could just click the “Site” map and see where in Eleanor Tinsley Park my little push-pin showed up — and the schedules and quick link to the official FPSF Twitter feed were pretty useful, too, but the best feature, hands down, was the “Live” bar down along the bottom.
Click that, and you could immediately see A) who was currently playing at each and every stage; B) how much time was remaining in their set; and C) who was coming next on each stage. And it was all organized chronologically and updated in real-time, so that at one point during the weekend, I know the schedule I was looking at in the app was accurate, while the one printed from the FPSF Website the night before wasn’t. Heck, while last year I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for a damn printed schedule, this year it didn’t even cross my mind. The app is/was a beautiful thing, and I hope to God they do it again next year.
On the first day of FPSF 2013, I got over to Downtown later than I’d hoped, unfortunately — as it pretty much always happens with things that require me to leave my wife alone with our two munchkins, none of whom are generally keen on me vanishing for two solid days — parking and meandering westwards to Eleanor Tinsley around noon, which meant that I was almost immediately bummed out to realize (thanks to the FPSF app) that I’d already missed both Rivers and Born Again Virgins.
Still, at least I’d made it in time for the bulk of the day’s bands; I hit the Press check-in booth (staffed once again this year by the always-awesome Brigitte Zabak, who these days is the Managing Editor over at the Free Press Houston), and then myself and Chris Gray and Corey Deiterman of the Houston Press were all led by a kindly volunteer down, around, and behind the main festival grounds to the super-secret Media Entrance, which dumped us off next to the Mercury Stage.
And with that, it was off to the races. It felt like I hardly had time to stop and breathe for most of Saturday, continually bouncing from one stage/band to another, always racing to catch this show or that show before the next band took the stage. After a while, that awesome little FPSF iPhone app felt less like a brilliant tool and more like a relentless, never-tiring nag; by about mid-afternoon, I flat-out resented the little bastard and wanted to ignore it completely, maybe even delete it from my phone.
But I couldn’t, because dammit, the show (er, festival) must go on.
So, here’s my little writeup of Day One of this year’s FPSF; I didn’t get to see everybody I wanted to see, no, but I saw some people I didn’t expect to see, and there were some awesome, brilliant surprises amidst the sweat and heat and noise and insanity. As always, I took plenty of pictures, which you can check out below or on Flickr…
Oh, and I’d be horribly, stupidly remiss if I didn’t point you over to the recently-released Official FPSF 2013 Recap video, which is far, far cooler than my lame-ass pictures and has Japandroids‘ badass “The House That Heaven Built” over it, to boot. This, people, is what you missed, and yes, it was glorious:
Now, with all that stuff out of the way, here goes:
TRVP LORDZ & BUDA LOVE: And, true to my self-proclaimed festival theme, I began with bass. Lots of it, in fact, courtesy of TRVP LORDZ and rapper Buda Love, who as I passed through, provided a quick crash course in what the hell “trap” actually sounds like these days, now that it’s been assimilated by EDM (aside from way, way too many versions of “Harlem Shake”). In brief: chest-rattling, skull-filling, nearly atonal bass, with Love’s smirking rhymes bouncing along over the top. And y’know, it wasn’t bad.
It helped, by the by, that the group had an actual rapper/frontman to keep the crowd’s attention when it started to wander and people began to drift off to see what was going on elsewhere. While a lone backup dancer gyrated in front of the decks, Buda Love kept up the impressively sarcastic patter the whole time, ordering at one point, “Everybody get butt naked, right now! Not you, Hawaiian Shirt!” I couldn’t stick around for long, unfortunately, late as I was, but as I headed on up the road, he was poking fun at the smallish but appreciative crowd there for the group’s early-early set: “I know half y’all thought I was Paul Wall.”
BLACKMARKET SYNDICATE: On up to the main drag of FPSF, that stretch of Allen Parkway the festival takes over every year, and lo and behold, there’s Blackmarket Syndicate. With last year’s And the Peasants Rejoiced, the quartet’s lunged back to the forefront of my personal pile of favorite straight-up punk bands ever (and no, I really do mean that), channeling the rage and frustration of America’s shunted-aside youth into a blast of anti-everything fury that’s sharp-edged but still hopeful at the end of the day, and I was excited as hell to finally — finally — get to see ‘em live, if only briefly.
In person, they were loud but not really all that raw or harsh, and hey, that’s cool by me, because it made it easier to focus on singer/guitarist Randy Rost‘s gravelly-throated, rootsy (almost countryish, at points) story-song ruminations on how utterly fucked modern society happens to be. This isn’t some dumbass party-down punk band, but rather a smart, passionate, but grimly pessimistic outfit that’s heir to the original sociopolitically-minded punks of the ’70s and early ’80s — in short, they’re the kind of punk band that barely exists anymore, and that’s a tragedy.
BUXTON: Can’t stop, can’t stop, got to keep moving moving moving moving… On down the hill and over to the Mars Stage for the first time, eager to catch at least a little bit of roots-folk-pop crew Buxton before that goddamn FPSF mobile app drives me onward. And I’m glad I did, because it’s been a few years since I last saw the band live; too long, really.
Not a whole lot’s changed, it’s true, even with their signing to New West Records and bigger profile outside of our fair city, but they’ve honed their sound down into something that feels damn near effortless, laidback but fiery at the same time. Sergio Trevino crooned and yelped as the band rumbled through most of the band’s most recent album, 2012′s Nothing Here Seems Strange, nonchalantly throwing out these awesome little gem songs that were halfway between Steve Earle and Fleet Foxes. I wish I could’ve stuck around for longer, but y’know, I had to see the next guy.
JANDEK: Yes, Jandek, Houston’s own musical enigma, the man who’s released something like 50 albums pretty much into the ether over the course of three decades, seemingly never giving a shit whether or not anybody else happened to be listening. And then, there he was, the “Representative From Corwood,” standing up there on a stage in the hot summer sun wearing black from head to toe and strumming/plucking away at a guitar.
There wasn’t much in the way of audience interaction, obviously, but Jandek and his backing band, composed of ex-Minutemen/fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt and longtime avant-garde drummer Stefan Gonzalez rolled gamely along in one big, long jam session, sometimes with words and sometimes without. There weren’t any recognizable “songs,” per se, but just a neverending piece of funky, jazzy, utterly strange music that was at times pretty mesmerizing and hypnotic.
I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest Jandek fan in the universe — frankly, I was geeking out about being barely thirty feet from Mike Watt more than anything else — but it was definitely something to see and hear. It was a unique performance for the weekend, that’s for damn sure, listening to an avant garde icon do what he does up in front of a crowd of devoted Jandek diehards and complete skeptics, standing on a hillside carpeted (at least at that point) with surreally blue-green seed starter mulch.
It wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea out in the crowd, of course; as I made my way back up the hill, one festival-goer declared to his friends, “I can’t get far enough away from it!” And looking back towards the stage, yeah, I got the absurdity of it: a weird dude in black, haphazardly strumming at a guitar while reciting Beat poetry in a Frank Zappa-esque voice on a stage sponsored by Cracker Jacks‘ new “Cracker Jack’D” snacks, all while shirtless kids milled around in the sun.
MIDNIGHT NORMA LANE: Back at the road, I had a stroke of luck and stumbled across Midnight Norma Lane, a band of relative newcomers to the scene and one I’d been hoping to catch at some point during the festival. From listening to the band’s debut release, the excellent Moxy Kid EP, I figured they’d be a pretty straightforwardly indie-pop-y band live, but despite singer/guitarist Laila Mendoza‘s flowery dress and pink guitar, the quartet was surprisingly heavy and aggro, each song practically crackling with distortion the way fave track “Dead Actress” does on the EP.
Through it all, drummer David Michalak and bassist Mic Castillo rocked the fuck out, thrashing and slamming around like they were playing in a metal band rather than in a generally-hazy indie-rock outfit, while guitarist Jonah Perez just kept smiling like he couldn’t believe he was actually there. For her part, Mendoza seemed nervous and shy at first, and her voice suffered a bit of a warble near the start, but she got more confident as Midnight Norma Lane’s set continued, and hell, it worked either way. I’m going to need to see this band again, and soon.
AMERICAN FANGS: Believe it or not, I think I’ve now seen American Fangs at four out of five FPSFs so far; they’re one of only a couple of bands I’ve seen more than twice at these festivals, and for good fucking reason. Simply put, they are one hell of a rock band.
I can’t even attach subgenre qualifiers to it, y’know? They’re just a capital-R Rock band, the kind that plays loud, arena-sized songs that are melodic and catchy but still make dudes want to dive into the pit and tear shit up. They’re fast but not too fast, sharp-edged but not metal, and heavy but still somehow poppy, the kind of band that rightfully should be on the radio every damn day. And live, they’re all those things times about twelve.
The band tore through the bulk of their then-brand-new self-titled full-length, truly hitting their stride on tracks like “River You Bought,” party anthem “Pomona,” and their by-now-trademark song, “Le Kick,” playing to a psyched-up crowd that seemed (unlike a few past FPSF performances) to know all the words to every freaking song. And American Fangs, for their part, were an unstoppable machine. At one point during the set, frontman Gabe Cavazos — who was very obviously ailing but still doing his best up there — nonchalantly leaned over mid-song and puked right off the front of the stage into the photo pit, right before charging back in. Now that’s a freaking Rock band, right there. Why aren’t these guys huge already?
JAPANDROIDS: Honestly, I hadn’t had much exposure to Vancouver duo Japandroids before now, and for not even really any kind of good reason. The name came up, friends recommended ‘em, I meant to check ‘em out, and yet, they fell by the wayside somehow. And after seeing them at FPSF, I’m kicking myself pretty damn hard for letting that happen.
Why? Well, mostly because the pair — Brian King on guitar and vocals and David Prowse on drums and vocals, apparently — play heavily ’80s/’90s-influenced post-punk/indie-rock a la Hüsker Dü, early Soul Asylum, and H-town’s own Alkari, the kind I really, really love, with fervent yelled/sung vocals, noisy/droney guitars, and propulsive rhythms. Watching the band play, I found myself amazed that those two guys alone were making all that gorgeous, gorgeous noise, and I was thoroughly won over by both the music and by the Canadians’ self-effacing friendliness. I wasn’t the only one, either, judging by the spontaneous chant of “Ca-na-da! Ca-na-da!” that popped up at one point…
PAUL BANKS: After a break in the air-conditioned heaven that was the Blaffer Gallery‘s Fancy Pants Tent, it was over to the west side of the festival, to briefly check out Paul Banks at the Neptune Stage. Unfortunately, the Interpol singer/guitarist didn’t make much of an impression, I’m afraid; little enough, in fact, that I somehow didn’t take a single note about his set. What I heard, though, reminded me pretty strongly of the guy’s main band — which is something that’s not real surprising, considering his baritone is that band’s primary “face.” It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t really grab me, either.
ALABAMA SHAKES: So, back I went to the Mars Stage, hoping I’d be in time to see Alabama Shakes. And I was…kind of. See, the crowd by that point was so jam-packed solid that I couldn’t actually make my way to where I could see the band, but I could at least hear them pretty damn well.
Which was a good thing, because Brittany Howard and company were awesomely soulful and gritty and bluesy, with Howard as the main attraction — her voice is bridges the gap between Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, and Bessie Smith, and it’s a joy to just listen to her. The whole thing came off like an intense tent-revival, and even the broiling heat couldn’t drive folks away.
GETO BOYS: There were several acts this year that I’ve been wanting to see for a long while now, sometimes even for a decade or so, but it was the Geto Boys that I’d wanted to see live since my junior year of high school — that is, I’d been dying to see Houston’s most iconic rap trio for 30 years. No, I’m not even kidding.
And then, there they were. Well, two-thirds of ‘em, anyway — Bushwick Bill, as most of the Geto Boys-observing universe now knows, showed up after his compatriots Scarface and Willie D had already left the stage, at which point I’m told they read him the Riot Act in the backstage area for fucking up their reunion show. I hear a lot of folks were pissed, feeling like they’d paid to see three Geto Boys — was DJ Ready Red there, too? — and only got two. Hell, the FPSF organizers even had a “make-up” show on July 5th, but fuck it; I don’t care, not one bit.
As it was, I got to see two of Houston’s elder statesmen of hip-hop school the crowd — most of whom weren’t even in elementary school when We Can’t Be Stopped or Till Death Do Us Part came out (and yes, that was likely the whitest crowd ever at a Geto Boys show) — and so all I could do was sit back and smile. Scarface and Willie totally delivered, in my book; watching the two of ‘em interact on the stage and play to the festival-goers was like observing a master class in hip-hop.
The best part was that the duo didn’t take themselves too seriously, declaring “Let’s do the Chrysler ad!” before launching into “G-Code,” off 2005′s The Foundation and irreverently poking at their own legacy and style. And then there was Willie D’s exposition on, um, a part of the female anatomy: “I like pussy so much that I wrote a song about it! I put a lot of thought into this shit!”
“And if you call me ‘nasty,’” he continued, “you’re talking ’bout your Momma and your Daddy.” Truth.
HELLO CHIEF: Still flying high off my high-school-dreams-fulfilled buzz, I headed back uphill, to the Jupiter Stage, where Beaumont’s Hello Chief was already underway. Now, I’ll shamefacedly admit that I’ve tended to look down at Beaumont, in the past — I’ve never really visited the city itself, just passed through on my way to places further east, and yeah, I’ve always kind of thought of it as the Reno to Houston’s Las Vegas (if that metaphor makes any damn sense at all).
Lately, though, I’ve had to sit up and revise that opinion, mostly because it seems like every band I’ve heard lately out of Beaumont is freaking great. There’s Purple, and there’s We Were Wolves (who decamped to H-town last year), and then there’s the unlikely-looking trio of Hello Chief, who play this insane kind of indie-pop that draws in tropicalia, jazz, prog, and reggae and comes out sweet and warm and cheery and strange and frighteningly addictive.
And live at FPSF this year, they brought that whole crazy monster to life, all playing barefoot as they bounced their way through a set that came across like Vampire Weekend if they hung out with a bunch of Chicago post-rock bands and then decided they wanted to pull a Police and play reggae. It was fun and sunshiny as hell, but at the same time there was a weirdly intricate backbone to it, one that belies the band’s overall cheery poppiness, and damn, it was good.
ARCTIC MONKEYS: Alright, so I made a mistake with this one. Maybe it was the heat finally getting to me, or my general cantankerousness, but after sitting and waiting and then hearing Brit-rock band Arctic Monkeys over at the big-ol’ Mars Stage, I found myself wishing I’d stuck around the Hello Chief stage. They weren’t bad, really, but were only on the level of “decent,” to my ears, especially as their set rolled on and started to sound more same-y.
With the jangly guitars, Beatlesque melodies, Smiths-y arrangements, and Chris Isaak-clone frontman Alex Turner‘s pleasant-but-not-mindblowing vocals, it all blended together for me. The highlight of the band’s set, honestly, was when I realized we’d inadvertently sat down right behind Sarah Hirsch and Ian Hlavacek of Jealous Creatures, because hey, they’re awesome people.
BORGORE: I can’t really claim to have “seen” Israeli dubstep hero Borgore, it’s true, but I sure as fuck heard him. See, my friend Jowell and I decided after about half of the Monkeys’ set that we were hungry, so we hit Bernie’s Burger Bus, parked down at the far-west end of the festival, for dinner. The bus also happened to be located directly alongside the Neptune Stage, which was then occuped by Borgore, and by the time the Bernie’s folks — who I love with all my soul, don’t get me wrong — finally got us our burgers, we’d been punished for more than 20 straight minutes by that head-rattling, psyche-crumbling bass.
Remember how I said it seemed to follow me everywhere at FPSF this year? Well, from the side of the stage we could hear nothing but the bass — if there were lyrics, they got eaten up by the lower frequencies — and this was where I started to hate it, because it took the heat and the soreness and everything else and added a crushing headache to the mix. Now, for the weird part: after those 20 minutes had passed, and my skull was about to implode, I found myself actually kinda liking Borgore. I don’t know if that means that his music was good or that it simply pummeled me into submission; take it however you want.
THE HEAD AND THE HEART: After retreating from the sounds and the sun for a while, we ventured back out to the west side, this time partway down to the Saturn Stage, where The Head and the Heart were already playing. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it ended up being a refreshing burst of free-spirited roots-folk-poppiness, with hints of Fleet Foxes and festival-mates Of Monsters and Men but also pointing backwards towards Buffalo Springfield and Gram Parsons (which made an odd kind of sense, given the band’s beardiness and overall hippie vibe). There’s something about this gang of Seattleites that’s countryish while not being country, kind of like Buxton from earlier in the day albeit without some of that band’s solidity; I enjoyed THATH’s rambling, understated, sweet rootsiness quite a bit.
IGGY AND THE STOOGES: To be honest, I was a little skeptical about Iggy and The Stooges. I mean, c’mon — 1970 was a long, long goddamn time ago, and time hasn’t been especially kind to the band, losing Dave Alexander, Zeke Zettner, Ron Asheton along the way. Beyond that, these days Iggy Pop is doing commercials for Chrysler alongside John Varvatos (although, okay, both are from Detroit, so there’s at least the repping-the-hometown aspect to that), and he’s looking rougher and more rawhide-like than he’s ever looked before. So I was nervous about this set; I was afraid it’d be lackluster and lack the energy the band had Back In The Day.
As it turns out, I was absolutely, completely wrong, because The Stooges’ set was insane. Pop barely stopped moving the entire time, circling the stage like a beef-jerky-tinted shark in front of a crowd of rabid, eyes-bugging-out fans who seemed to know every damn word. He twitched and jumped and snaked his way back and forth, swaggering and spitting out the lyrics like 1970 really wasn’t that long ago, like he’d stepped into some kind of time machine and come to visit us here in the future. And yeah, it was pretty freaking amazing.
The rest of the band was a little more reserved, admittedly, with the exception of Mike Watt, who did a very different performance from his stint as Jandek sideman early in the day — Watt at one point started humping his bass cabinet, and the faces he kept making throughout made me crack up. I couldn’t help but notice the Stooges’ white-shirted roadie/tour manager, as well, who I think may’ve been the now-infamous Jos Grain, the guy behind the band’s tour rider, which is entertaining as hell to read (and if the FPSF staff were able to do all this crap, well, wow). He carried the mic cord around after Iggy several times during the band’s set and kept chasing the FPSF-supplied sound guy off the stage.
Of course, things got steadily crazier and more chaotic as the show went on, with dragging a couple dozen lucky souls up on the stage with the band and inviting them to dance their asses off — as most did, rocking out like true fans, although the one Backpack Hip-Hop Dude up there seemed to have no idea where he was. By the end, I was left with a grin plastered across my sweaty, grimy face, pumping my fist in the air and screaming ’til my throat felt like I’d been gargling asphalt. And again: it was pretty freaking amazing. I watched a band made up of dudes my dad’s age, and they kicked the shit out of half the bands I saw on Saturday, even the ones I liked.
THE POSTAL SERVICE: Finally, it was back over to the Saturn Stage for the night’s co-headliner, The Postal Service. Having been a fan of the band for a decade (like most people my age who listen to any type of indie-pop music, I’m guessing), and having witnessed the explosion of Postal Service-like bands during those years, I was seriously, seriously excited to see what Ben Gibbard — who, by the by, looks more like Will Forte to me every time I see him — and Jimmy Tamborello‘s creation would sound like live.
And the answer was…well, okay. It was okay. Looking back at it now, I can’t even put my finger on what the problem was, but after watching the band — and yes, I was for some reason kinda surprised there was an actual band up there playing — for a handful of songs, I just wasn’t enjoying it like I’d hoped I would, not even with the added enticement of ex-Rilo Kiley singer/guitarist Jenny Lewis, whom I like quite a bit on her own. Watching (from a distance, since the stage was packed so deep you couldn’t really get very close) the interplay between Gibbard and Lewis, it felt a little forced somehow, with both musicians playing their nerdy-but-cool selves off of one another and not quite connecting.
The music sounded good, don’t get me wrong; it sounded absolutely perfect, in fact, so much so that I could close my eyes and pretend I was listening to the album on my headphones for the quadrillionth time. But a live show has to be something special, at least to me, and if a show is just like listening to That One Album I Used To (And Still Do) Love on my iPod, then what’s the point of leaving the damn couch?
I dunno. Maybe it was me being utterly deep-fried by the sun and half-delirious and headachy, or maybe it was that I’d just stumbled over from having my mind dragged back to those hormonal teenage years (which, given my age, were long before I ever heard Give Up for the first time) when fighting, rocking, and screwing all the time seemed like the only way to really live, or maybe it was that goddamn bass, haunting me yet again, thumping out from the Saturn Stage speakers like it had up the hill with Borgore and driving a big two-by-four into my head, or maybe it was the venue, with a stage that seemed almost too big for the intimate sounds I’d loved hearing in my earbuds, right up next to me; whatever the reason, I ended up saying “fuck it” and walking away from The Postal Service.
Would I go see them again, if given the chance? Yeah, maybe. But on this night, on this stage, they just didn’t work for me. Sorry, Postal Service folks (and fans), but that’s just how I felt about the show; and yes, I’m sure that Gibbard, Tamborello, and Lewis are utterly heartbroken that some schmuck blogger in Houston didn’t like their set and walked away disappointed. (Riiiiiight.) For me, at least, this ended up being one of the two big disappointments of FPSF 2013, the second of which astute festival-goers might be able to guess at, considering how many other folks blogged/posted/tweeted about it afterwards.
- Alright, so I feel compelled to say it: that was a lot of people, y’all. I mean, a lot “a lot,” with no exaggeration necessary. I don’t know the numbers, but there were thousands and thousands of people roaming from stage to stage, and as some of the signs cheekily proclaimed, yes, the whole of FPSF was indeed sold the fuck out. Wow. Has that ever happened with a festival in this city, of any type? If so, I’ve never heard about it. On the one hand, my quasi-agoraphobic self cringes at the thought of all those people standing, dancing, singing, etc., right next to me, but on the other, I’m filled with admiration for the folks behind FPSF and pride for my oft-slighted, much-maligned city.
- Amazingly, despite the tickets selling out completely, I barely saw any lines to get into the festival, at least not on the eastern side of the fest. Which was an awesome change from years past. High-five from me over here, FPSF Crew.
- I know the High Roller tickets all sold out, but I sure didn’t see any of those folks, as in years past. I guess the cabana thing isn’t happening any more? Not picking, just curious…
- Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I bitch & moan about this every freaking year, and I know it’s not going to change unless the FPSF organizers shift gears and move the damn thing to winter or spring (which I’m fairly sure won’t be happening), but I’m going to go ahead and say it once again: oh, holyfuckingsweetjesus, was it hot. Wow. Looking back on it now, I’m kind of amazed I didn’t spend more time in the Fancy Pants tents, because the sun was cripplingly, soul-shreddingly brutal, beating down on one and all like the vengeful hammer of Apollo (Apollo has a hammer, right?). At some point on Saturday, I scribbled the following unsteadily in my notebook, completely sans punctuation: “fuck why won’t the sun go DOWN dammit I feel like an ant under a magnifying glass”. And no, I wasn’t kidding. That heat was merciless, that first day of FPSF 2013, and it sapped my goddamn will to live.
- Speaking tangentially of the Fancy Pants Tents, I just want to say it makes me very happy that now they’re all over the damn festival, seemingly even moreso than last year. Wherever I marched/stumbled/staggered, there always seemed to be an FP tent looming nearby, offering shelter from the heat and an array of uncomfortable, wordless encounters with total strangers who seemed perturbed that this weird, sweaty, bearded guy with a backpack was crashing down near where they’d camped out. (Sorry, folks, but just because you bought an FP wristband, that doesn’t mean you own the damn place.) The one bad thing about this year’s FP tents? No more clear plastic walls on one end — damn. I actually really enjoyed watching part of Two Door Cinema‘s set through one of those last year. sigh.
- This year all of the Fancy Pants tents seemed to be sponsored by somebody or another, which was cool by me, since it kind of gave each tent its own distinct vibe/theme. In particular, the Blaffer Galllery‘s FP tent was nice, with a Valentine’s Day-esque color scheme, a pair of swing sets(!), and tons of balloons/beach balls, although I didn’t really get what the balloons were for, inside or outside. Were there instructions somewhere? If so, I completely missed ‘em.
- Bands I Didn’t Get to See/Missed — Even with the handy-dandy FPSF mobile app, I can’t be everywhere at once. And between that and me not being able to get my shit together to get to the festival early enough, I missed quite a few folks I’d really, truly wanted to see. I damn near ran half the length of the festival grounds to try to catch The Niceguys‘ set, for one, only to finally make it to the Venus Stage in time to see them thank the crowd and make their way off the stage. Argh. On the too-early-for-my-lame-ass end of things, I missed out on Rivers, Born Again Virgins, Deep Cuts, Infinite Apaches, and Chase Hamblin & The Roustabouts, literally all of whom I’d seriously been hoping to see.
Of course, you’ve got to make choices. Which is why I had to forego seeing excellent Austin pop outfit The Sour Notes again this year — sorry, y’all — and see The Stooges, instead. I had to miss A Place To Bury Strangers (who, it must be said, probably had the worst slot of any at the fest, started midway through The Stooges and going over into The Postal Service) for the same reason, sadly. For Vintage Trouble, I had to choose between them and Japandroids, and that was a rough one, too, considering the awesome things I heard about their set; I passed the band in the crowd after they finished, and their trademark suits were all drenched with sweat.
And hey, I’ve gotta eat, which is why I missed out on seeing Young Mammals, despite really looking forward to catching ‘em live again for the first time in several years. The only musician I didn’t see that I really can’t explain not seeing is H-town’s own Devin The Dude — I was all set to finally, finally see the guy live for the first time, and yet…where the hell was I? I honestly have no idea, but either way, I blew it.
- One of the coolest things about going to FPSF isn’t the music, but the art you encounter while rambling across the grass. There’s the bigger-scale stuff, of course, like the giant metal cockroach looming over the entrance to the Saturn Stage area, or the cool sculpture park between the top-of-the-hill stages (which I’m pretty sure is a permanent installation), or the funky wooden spinning-tower thing along Allen Parkway. But there’s also neat little, lower-key stuff, too, like the Darth Mod posters, or the freaky painted/smeared crow on the back of a park sign, or Dr. Gorilla painting live in one of the FP tents, or the awesome Ms. Pac-Man sidewalk art down near the Mars Stage.
- On the other hand, that goddamn Roseanne Barr head at the Super Happy Fun Land DIY puppet theater stage/trailer creeps me the fuck out. I swear to God, it’s little piggy eyes followed me wherever I went.
- These days, I don’t get out to shows all that much, partly because I’ve got a (very kind) wife and two little munchkins at home, a day job that sometimes requires nighttime meetings and work after hours, and hell, I’m just getting — and feeling — old, y’know? Some nights it takes a monumental effort to get off the couch and out to see bands, and a lot of the time, I just can’t do it.
I say that illustrate why I love being able to see and catch up with folks at FPSF, even if briefly. It was great to see the unstoppable Houston Press editor dude Chris Gray early in the day, along with young HP scribe Corey Deiterman, who I stupidly didn’t introduce myself to because I wasn’t sure if he was, um, him or Matthew Keever. Then there’s photogs Mark C. Austin and SCR‘s own Jason Smith, who I ran into multiple times and who are awesome dudes both, as well as the Energizer Bunny-like Jacob Calle (who was one of the official FPSF videographers) and newly-minted Chron writer Craig Hlavaty.
On the band side of things, I didn’t see a whole lot of folks I knew, but I did end up sitting behind previously-mentioned Western-indie-rocker cool people Sarah Hirsch and Ian Hlavacek of Jealous Creatures during part of the Arctic Monkeys’ set, and ran into badass guitarist Buxton Jason Willis — good to see y’all, everybody, and apologies to anybody I’m blanking on right now…
- I still didn’t see signs saying “Now Playing: Blah” on any of the stages, no, but I was excited (and probably overly so, considering) to see “Up Next:” displays on the big screens at the big stages — Mars, Saturn, and (I think) Neptune. It was extremely cool to be passing by, glance up, and say, “oh! So Alabama Shakes will be up next; I’d better get that water and come back quick!” Kudos, y’all.
- I am saddened to report that as of FPSF 2013, my secret, ultra-cheap, magical parking spot is no longer secret or cheap. Argh. Apparently the management of the parking garage I’ve parked at every single year I’ve gone to this thing has finally caught on (after five years!) and started charging $10 for “event parking,” rather than just the all-day $3 parking they used to have. Dang. Guess it was too good/cheap to last; hell, I parked there anyway.
- And speaking of things different and not-good, this year marks the first year of Free Press Summer Fest where I didn’t get to see Austin indie-pop heroes The Eastern Sea and chat with frontman Matthew Hines. Seriously, for the previous four years, I’ve seen and talked to Hines and his band down at Eleanor Tinsley. And every year, I take Matthew’s picture in the exact same pose — it’s our little joke/tradition, and this time I’d hoped to continue it for a fifth year. But it was not to be, unfortunately; damn.
- I’m not sure if it’s just my perception of it or what, but it sure seemed like this year there were fewer generic head shop-type booths and more quirky, funky, one-of-a-kind local outfits trying to get their name & brand out there, and I found myself fascinated by ‘em. The guys at the Bici Cyclery tent were super nice — and nearly managed to sell me on a fixie (for my wife; I’m still a mountain bike kind of guy) I literally had no way to get home in my dinky little car.
Then there were a trio of cool-ass clothing stalls, for Trill City, whose Hank Hill-themed “King of the Trill” designs I chuckled at, ENJOYMUSIC ENJOYLIFE, whose proprietor, David, was remarkably earnest and heartfelt (I got a shirt for my daughter), and — possibly best of all — Fuck You Houston’s Awesome, which I think is the brainchild of Born Again Virgins’ Adria Taylor. I really wanted to get a T-shirt from the latter, but I would honestly be able to wear it maybe three days a year, when A) I’m not at work and B) the kids aren’t around. One of these damn days.
- Okay, so you remember the part where I praised the FPSF staff for coming up with the genius idea of naming the stages after planets in the solar system? Well, it wasn’t ’til early on Sunday that my friend Jowell pointed out that, DUH, they were also in planetary order, going from the Mercury Stage on the east side all the way to the Neptune Stage in the west (Pluto, sadly, was nowhere to be found). facepalm. Yes, I’m an idiot. However, this revelation made the stage-organization even more genius, because while I can’t necessarily recall what randomly-named stage was located where, I can sure as hell remember the order the planets go in.
- Did I mention the weird blue-green Chem-Lawn crap sprayed all over the ground in front of the Saturn Stage during the Jandek set? Yeah, well, did I mention how freaking slippery it was? I nearly wiped out and landed on my ass in the gunk as I turned to hike back up the hill from the stage.
- Since I’m hitting with the grumpy-old-man complaints, would it be maybe, maybe, maybe possible to set up the FPSF fences so you didn’t necessarily have to trudge up and around to get from one of the two “main” stages to the other? At the bottom of the hill near the Mars Stage, we thought we’d found some super-secret back way to go from Mars to Saturn without having to hike up the damn hill and then squish our way through the crowds…and then, just as we could see the Saturn stage, our magical pathway took a quick switchback and dumped us almost where we’d started, just up next to the FP tent. Dang.
- Which brings me to something that worries me a bit. FPSF 2013 was the biggest this thing’s been in its five years of existence, both numbers-wise and space-wise, despite the smaller pile of bands, stretching all the damn way down the bayou; where can the FPSF crew go from here? Looking around this year, I started getting nervous that the next logical step might be to move FPSF to a different location, one where the festival could sprawl a bit more without becoming unwieldy.
With that, I just want to say that I really, really hope that doesn’t happen. I hope FPSF stays right where it it, in perpetuity, warts and all. Why? Well, because part of the appeal of FPSF is the location — right next to Downtown, beside Buffalo Bayou, in that wondrous stretch of greenery that extends westwards from the home of tycoons and loft-dwellers. Going under those overpasses on Allen Parkway feels like you’re passing through the gates of some magical kingdom where everybody’s friendly (well, mostly), there’s awesome music everywhere, and anything goes as long as nobody gets hurt.
There’s something fucking beautiful about all this amazing, amazing music happening right in the shadow of those big glass-and-metal towers, and if it were to move down to, say, the Reliant Park area, it’d go from being this cool festival-in-the-city thing to being just another deathmarch of a festival on hot, hot concrete. So please, you magical elves who make FPSF the badass experience it is: don’t do it. Please? You have no idea how happy I would be to be able to take my daughter to her first FPSF in a couple of years and see the look in her eyes as we sit on the hill next to the lights of downtown watching one of her favorite bands (she has her parents’ eclectic musical tastes, so it’s a safe bet) exploding on the stage below.
(Photos in review [top to bottom]: Buxton; crowd for The Postal Service; FPSF entrance; Super Happy Fun Land puppet theater; levitating beach ball; Blaffer Gallery Fancy Pants Tent; TRVP LORDZ & Buda Love; Blackmarket Syndicate; Buxton; Jandek; Midnight Norma Lane; American Fangs; Japandroids; FPSF banner; Geto Boys; Hello Chief; The Head and the Heart; Iggy and The Stooges #1; Iggy and The Stooges #2; Iggy and The Stooges & the crowd; The Postal Service; festival-goers heading home; FPSF crowd; outside of Blaffer Gallery tent; Bernie’s Burger Bus; Ms. Pac-Man; Chris Gray & Corey Deiterman; Jason Willis; Fuck You Houston’s Awesome booth; setting sun; downtown Houston skyline from FPSF. All photos by J. Hart.)