Waiting on the Next Storm: (Just Barely) Surviving FPSF 2016, Day One
First Thing #1: Apologies for my slowness in getting this online; as happens with the whole having-kids thing, summertime means not only Free Press Summer Festival, but also Vacation Time. So I was still recovering from FPSF-induced/self-inflicted sunburns when we left town for the rest of the month, taking the kids to visit Alaska and Seattle. That’s just how it goes, some years.
First Thing #2: It broke my heart to hear the news about Megan Tilton, the young girl from The Woodlands who died of an overdose at FPSF this year. As I said above, I’ve been out of town and out of touch, so the news when we came home left me floored. As useless at it seems to me right now, we here at SCR just want to offer our sympathies to Ms. Tilton’s family and friends; I cannot imagine what they’ve gone through.
With that in mind, it’s been hard to get motivated to complete the writeups for this year — writing about bands and fans and sunstroke and whatever else seems ridiculously unimportant. This is what I’ve got in front of me, however, so I’ve got to do it. Here we go…
So, to put it bluntly, my experience as this year’s Free Press Summer Festival (aka FPSF 2016) was a little different from in years past. In some ways, it felt like The Festival I Was Not Meant to Attend, both because of events beforehand and during, and it was the first time I wasn’t able to see the headliners, which sucked, but it ended up being necessary for family-type reasons.
First, there were the floods. Those who live here are all too aware, I’m sure, but if you don’t live in Houston, you may not quite grasp how fucking terrible the flooding has been in our city this past year. For a while there, some neighborhoods — including my own — were literally flooding on a weekly basis. People near us have had feet of water in their homes four goddamn times since May of last year (keep an eye on that date; we’ll be back to that later).
We’ve been lucky, thankfully; only a little water in a back-room addition last May, and since then we’ve been trying hard to mitigate the torrential downpours and backed-up bayous as best we can. We’ve put up retaining walls, dug trenches, put up marine drywall, and used a crap-ton of sealant, and so far…like I said, we’ve been lucky. A lot of people, friends included, haven’t been; there’s been a lot of heartbreak in Houston this past year when it comes to storms.
So it felt all too familiar when just a handful of days before Summerfest was due to unfold, my wife and I were on the back porch, bailing water with buckets like castaways on a sinking rowboat. I watched the rain pouring off the roof in sheets and couldn’t help but wonder what in the hell the FPSF crew were going to do.
We knew by that point that the festival had been moved from Eleanor Tinsley Park to it’s now-second home at NRG Park, but even that area floods; at one point, I debated biking to NRG from the house, so my car wouldn’t end up underwater.
Then my son got sick. Vomiting, diarrhea, fever, cough, the whole nine yards. He did okay, though, and after a week, he was feeling better; all seemed good. And then, it hit me. The Thursday night before FPSF, I was standing in the hallway, wrapped in a blanket, wracked with fever and shivering so badly I couldn’t even move one leg in front of the other to get myself to bed.
Once I did, I was in and out of consciousness for hours, only waking just in time for the stomach part of the bug to kick in. I don’t remember much before finally being a semi-coherent/semi-awake at nearly 5PM the next day. Friday was rough. I had to isolate myself from the rest of the family, especially my wife, because there was no way in hell I could let her get sick, too.
Honestly? I thought I was done. I’ve rarely felt as bad as I did that first night of sickness, and I didn’t think there was any way I could possibly make it to FPSF this year; how could I, when I couldn’t go more than 30 feet from a bathroom?
In the end, though, stubbornness won out. I decided that come hell or high water — possibly literally, for the latter — I was going to NRG Park this past weekend, and I was going to FPSF, and I was going to see as many of these damn bands as I could. I’d committed to this thing; I’d see it through, via the wonders of modern pharmaceuticals and health-destroying stupidity.
Okay, so some of it was a need to not let you good people, The Readers, down, and some of it was also a purely selfish desire to actually see some of the folks playing; I’ll admit it. I’d missed Frank Turner multiple times in recent years, ditto for David Ramirez, I was excited to see X Ambassadors, Father John Misty promised be immensely entertaining, I’d always meant to/wanted to check out Built to Spill, and I was thoroughly manic to see the reunited Refused.
Beyond that, Late-’90s Me held out hope that Modest Mouse would be awesome, Gogol Bordello was sure to be good as always, my friend Rhonda’s raved for years about Against Me!, and I was hopeful about Wild Child, Sir the Baptist, King Finn, Allen Stone, Blue Healer, Young The Giant, Walker Lukens, Chicano Batman, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Now, since we’re on the subject…
- We had multiple bands (11, altogether) who’d played previous Summerfests: The Black Angels, Matt and Kim, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Gogol Bordello, 2 Chainz (although this time he was teamed with Lil Wayne as ColleGrove, it’s true), Young The Giant, Big Gigantic, Yung Lean, and Big Grams (which is actually a twofer, since both Phantogram and Big Boi have played previous FPSFs), plus locals Another Run and Children of Pop. That’s happened before, it’s true, but only with bands and musicians who were actually from here; this is the most re-runs we’ve seen of out-of-town acts.
- We had three whopping top-of-the-bill bands — Matt and Kim, The Black Angels, and Big Grams — with any major female presence, which at least seems pretty light when compared to years past.
- For the first time ever, there wasn’t a single actual metal band anywhere in sight; a far cry from years past, when folks like Baroness, Iron Age, Valient Thorr, The Sword, Kylesa, and Mastodon have played. The closest we got for 2016 was probably Refused, who are only “metal” if you squint really hard and go by “loud guitars” as the main indicator.
- Bleakest of all, at least from my personal perspective, FPSF this year had a very small group of local H-town bands playing, a mere 7 in total (maybe 8, actually; not sure where Private Excitement is from): Another Run, Children of Pop, Get A Life, King Finn, Ill Faded, Trae Tha Truth, and Nathan Quick. I did a little number-crunching, and local Houston acts made up 11% of the bill this year, the absolute lowest it’s ever been for Summerfest — the percentage was around 20% the two previous years, 30-40% the two years before that, and 50-75% for those first three years. 2016 was the smallest number, hands down, of any year.
Now, while the relative lack of women in the top tier of performers this year is worrisome, and the lack of metal (or even heavy rock, really) bums me out, it’s that last one above that really stings. FPSF started as primarily a local-music festival — no, I’m not an organizer, so I can’t claim that that was truly the intent behind it, but the fact is that back in 2009, there were only 11 non-Houston acts on a bill of 46 (and 5 of that 11 were from Austin). FPSF was a Houston-/Texas-music festival with some out-of-state acts thrown in on top for fun.
That held pretty true for the first few years of the festival, although the number of Houston acts playing has declined every single year except 2013, when it jumped up a bit from the 2012 numbers. Since FPSF 2014, though, it’s been a small percentage, with most local bands left out in the cold, and it’s only gotten steadily worse. FPSF this year felt like a festival that could be taking place anywhere, really (and yes, that’s partly the location forced on the organizers by the weather; we’ll get to that, don’t worry). It didn’t feel like it was our festival anymore.
Of course, I say that, but it’s been the case for several years now, for a number of reasons. Wristband prices went through the roof after the first two years (I think, anyway; I don’t have good numbers to judge when it happened, but it definitely did happen), and while I get the necessity — those stages don’t assemble themselves, and the bands really do need to get paid — it sucks that a lot of folks out there just can’t afford FPSF anymore.
This year the realization hit me hardest while sitting in the Media Tent. I looked around and suddenly realized that these people right here were now pretty much the only people I ever saw at Summerfest that I knew. At its inception, the festival felt like a big, friendly party where all your friends were invited — I could scarcely walk 100 feet without running into somebody I was at least acquainted with, whether because they were in a band or ran a label or just hung around the scene. These days, literally the only people I know are other media people.
That’s a result of both the rising wristband prices and the lack of local bands, I think — even back when the prices had gone up, if you were in a band you might still get to hang out at FPSF and maybe even share a freaking stage with one of your idols. When I was in a band, my head would’ve exploded at the thought that I’d play on a stage where, later in the day, Iggy Pop would be playing.
It also sucks because FPSF was and is a big platform to get your name out there. Robert Ellis and The Suffers made a lot of new fans playing Summerfests past; the same went for The Tontons, The Wild Moccasins, and New York City Queens (R.I.P.). Bands who people in the Houston scene might never even have heard of, like The Small Sounds (also sadly R.I.P., I think) or Dead Roses, had a chance to make themselves heard. These days that only happens for a half-dozen extremely lucky bands, and that’s a damn shame.
And holy shit, remember the first year they did the whole Welcome To Houston thing? That was insane. The solid wall of bodies watching the show as all those H-town hip-hop legends got together onstage was hands down the single biggest crowd I’ve seen at any festival ever. Hell, they drew a bigger crowd than the fucking Wu-Tang Clan.
My point here is that it’s pretty obvious people want to hear Houston music at Summerfest. Even this year and even early-ass in the day, I saw both Nathan Quick and Ill Faded draw decent-sized crowds, and the crowd for Trae was incredible. Last year, The Suffers drew one of the largest crowds I saw outside of the headliners, and Buxton didn’t do too badly, either.
To the FPSF Organizers, I’d say this: bring back more local bands. Please. Seriously, it’s something that benefits the festival, the fans, and the bands themselves, and something that makes FPSF a uniquely “Houston” festival. Does the world really need another generic, hey-who’s-on-tour-now? summer festival? I don’t think it does. I don’t mean any disrespect to the folks who book and run the festival, believe me — it’s just that this year I found myself seriously missing Summerfest’s previous Houston-ness, and dammit, I want it back.
Alright, that’s my rant/plea done, at least for the moment.
I woke up Saturday morning feeling marginally better, and doped myself up with multiple kinds of medications until I felt kinda-sorta okay, or “okay” enough that I wouldn’t pass out (or worse) while driving down the freeway.
I was going to do this…at least, for a while, until I felt like I needed to get the hell home, which I privately figured was pretty likely. I hoped I could stick it out a while, see some of the evening bands, even if I didn’t make it to the headliners. Which would turn out to be pretty prescient, but not for the reasons I’d thought.
I couldn’t find the close-in lot I’d used on Day 2 last year at NRG Park, after the death march from the METRORail stop I’d stupidly set myself up for on Day 1, and ended up in the Red Lot, which was further but still not too bad of a slog. I was prepared for the worst, weather-wise, with towels and dry clothes stashed in the car, a spare pair of shoes to drive home in, and anything even remotely damage-able in a drybag within my backpack.
So off I trooped under gloomy, cloud-heavy skies, joining the line of meandering FPSF-goers snaking their way over and down to the festival entrance. Got my wristband — which was kinda neat, an RFID-equipped thing made of actual cloth, rather than the waxed paper of most previous years — had my bag searched, and I was in.
I’d already missed a few bands I’d hoped to see, due to illness and general slowness, so instead I made a beeline right for the Media Tent, marking only the second year of FPSF where I’ve actually found the damn thing. Kudos to the Media Team for not only giving us press people maps showing exactly where it was, but also for putting a nice little sign on the fence out front.
Inside, I met up briefly with fellow SCR people Creg Lovett and Jason Smith, and then off we all went, back out into the festival. Creg, it turned out, wasn’t doing too well with the heat — and despite the threatened rain, it was still pretty damn hot — see we made multiple trips to and from the Media Tent to escape it and recuperate a bit. I joked that I was the one who was supposed to be sick, goddamn it, and yet here he was, looking far worse than I felt.
The afternoon rolled on, and I caught as many bands as I could, feeling pretty lucky that I was doing okay; either the drugs had done the trick, or I’d kicked the thing in record time. I was flying and having a blast. This was gonna work.
And then, around 3PM, I got a text from my wife — a picture, actually, showing her hand all mangled and turning purple. It turned out that while she was out with the kids, she’d slammed her hand in the van door, badly enough that she went into shock and almost passed out with both kids in the car in a shopping center parking lot. She made it home safely, thankfully, but was in bad shape and was afraid she’d broken her hand.
I called her and told her I’d come home right away, but being the tough lady she is, she put me off, saying she’d just lay down for a while and see what happened. She promised to call me at 5PM and let me know how it went.
For the next two hours, I watched bands and checked my phone nervously, figuring I might have to run at any minute; I felt guilty as hell for still being there, when she was in pain back at home. I didn’t hear anything, but it ate away at me anyway, and I decided that fuck it, call or no call, she needed me there. I resolved to stay for 10 minutes’ worth of Refused‘s set and then get home.
And so I had to leave early from Day 1 of FPSF 2016, although not for any of the reasons I’d imagined. When my 10 (glorious, jaw-dropping) minutes of Swedish hardcore noise were up, I turned and headed for the entrance, just as the sky opened up on us. Not wanting to be weighted down, I lent Creg my poncho and secured anything that might get wet, and then, once I got to the street, I ran for the car.
(Now, I know the Mythbusters did a thing where they discovered you don’t stay any drier by running in the rain than you do by walking, but they missed a salient point in that one: even if you do get wet, you at least can get out of the rain faster. Just sayin’.)
One couple heading the same direction I was saw me pass, and the guy yelled out encouragingly, “Yeah! That’s how you do it!” And then, not long after: “Hey, can you carry us?” Nope, nope, nope. Now I was feeling like shit; all the good feeling from earlier had evaporated.
I ran, walked, and stumbled back to the car, traded my wet t-shirt for a dry one, threw my smelly-muck-covered shoes in the trunk, and sat on a towel as I barreled out of the lot, heading home to my injured wife.
While I missed a whole lot of bands I’d hoped to see, there were definitely still some I did see, and enjoyed quite a bit. Here goes:
DAVID RAMIREZ: One of the people I was looking forward to most this year was Austinite David Ramirez; I’ve loved his last three releases, full-length albums Apologies and Fables and EP The Rooster, and have been bowled over by the man’s voice and songwriting and crush-your-heart-to-dust sincerity, but I’d missed multiple chances to see him live. I’d been kicking myself about that for quite a while, actually, pretty much ever since Fables was released, and I first heard “How Do You Get ‘Em Back,” which manages to be ferocious and heartbroken at the same time. Now, I’d finally get my chance.
And no, Ramirez didn’t disappoint, not in the least. He was serious and intense up there on the stage, a man on a mission. Backed by a full band, he roared and rambled through songs that covered all three of the releases I’ve heard (and possibly a few others I didn’t recognize), including “How Do You Get ‘Em Back,” which carried all that fervor and desperation and made it real out there under the hot, hot sun. Looking back at it now, I really, truly wish I’d stayed to see the full set — I only got to see five or six songs’ worth — but I was running late and had a bunch of other folks I needed to check out, so… I seriously need to see a “real” show, though, and soon.
THE HEAVY: And here’s one reason I had to keep moving, shark-style, right here. I’d never heard of Bath, England, band The Heavy til I was doing research for this year’s FPSF rundowns, although it turned out I had heard them, in snippets, in commercials; there’s at least one movie trailer that uses their song “How You Like Me Now?,” with its gritty snarl and blast of James Brown-esque funky goodness, and I remember hearing it and thinking, “Hey, that’s cool; I wonder who the hell that is?,” but never following it up.
Fast-forward to Summerfest, and there’s The Heavy right there, in all their glory, decked out all in black except for frontman Kelvin Swaby, who looked like he should be the frontman for a mid-’80s British ska band in his white shirt and pork pie hat. They weren’t quite as, um, heavy as I’d hoped they’d be, in person, but hey, given the weather, I can’t complain; they were funky and raw but mostly chilled-out, and it worked for ’em. My only gripe was that it felt kind of weird to see the band out under the afternoon sun — I think it’d more appropriate, somehow, to see ’em in some lights-down-low club at night. That’s fairly minor, though, as this stuff goes.
LEWIS DEL MAR: I roamed a bit more, then ran back to the Media Tent for a little while to recover from the brutal heat. While there, I half-listened in as a band of four young, cheery guys were interviewed, with no idea who the hell they were; they seemed nice, and way, way young, but I didn’t think much about it. Interview over, they left, and I did the same not long after; I rounded the corner to the Mars Stage, intrigued as to who was playing, and lo and behold, it was the four interviewees — turns out they were/are Lewis Del Mar.
The band danced across the line between guitar folk and electronicized pop, and they did it damned well, I have to say. Singer/guitarist Danny Miller alternately sang and howled, with a surprisingly, pleasantly soulful voice, while his cohorts backed him up on dance-y drums (courtesy of the other “main” member of the band, Max Harwood), bubbly bass, and keyboards that I swear to God were being played by a fourteen-year-old.
Put all together, there was some resemblance to fellow FPSF-ers X Ambassadors (more on them later), but more than that, I kept coming back to Citizen Cope. Lewis Del Mar has the same languid, heavy-lidded delivery, and the same ability to ramp things up when necessary and get freaking loud, and the whole melding of jangly, rootsy guitars with electronics and funky rhythms made me think of Cope, too. And hey, that’s no bad comparison, at least not in my book.
BUILT TO SPILL: I’ve always felt kind of weird about Built to Spill. The band’s just about a picture-perfect match to my indie-rock-loving tastes, and I first ran across them back in the early ’90s, with Ultimate Alternative Wavers, I wanted to love ’em, but…it just never really clicked. I can’t explain it. Pavement, Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Spoon, hell, even Doug Martsch‘s previous band, Treepeople — I dug all of those bands, but with BTS, I was just “eh,” y’know? I tried a few more times over the years to get into ’em, but it never really took.
Seeing them live at long last, though, I think I finally got it. On stage, Martsch and company were a group of bona-fide elder statesmen who just got up there and rocked the fuck out for a bunch of kids, many of whom probably had no idea who they were, and they did it with such nonchalant, casual ease it was amazing to witness. Martsch ripped beautifully through the songs, often playing through a layer of distortion so thick it would’ve made Neil Young blush.
In fact, Young kept popping into my head as I watched the band roll along; Young and Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, who drinks from that same well. The songs sounded raw and rough-edged, but there were these great melodic lines lurking beneath, and Martsch’s surprisingly high-end croon over the top made me think of a more languid, less fucked-up Lou Barlow, or maybe Silversun Pickups’ Brian Aubert. I found myself grinning and chuckling as I watched, feeling like a door had finally opened that I’d been trying to figure out how to unlock for the better part of two decades.
Weirdly, it also seemed like Built to Spill were the band least affected by the heat, at least as far as I could tell. They barely looked like they’d broken a sweat up there, which was pretty impressive.
FRANK TURNER & THE SLEEPING SOULS: Oh, yes. Yes. Words cannot express how freaking excited I was to see Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls. The man is honestly one of my favorite songwriters, and if you don’t get why, you need to go listen to “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous” or “The Real Damage,” and then come talk to me. He’s got a sardonic wit to his lyrics that I can’t help but love, not to mention a way of crafting these lovable losers in each of his songs, people who won’t ever quite make it but keep trying (and usually failing) anyway.
Live, he burned brightly, bouncing around the stage and alternately pounding on his acoustic guitar and sing/shouting into the mic, and it was amazing to see (and hear, obviously). Creg offered that Turner sounded like Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, but nah — for my money, there’s a lot more Joe Strummer in there, and a whole lot of Bruce Springsteen, as well. Like Springsteen and Strummer, Turner’s got that “blue-collar everyman” thing going on, and while his roots are in the folk realm, the music he plays is far more rock-like than most of what MacGowan (whom I love, don’t get me wrong) does.
Sidemen The Sleeping Souls did a fine, fine job, as well; apparently they’re all three members of another British band, called Dive Dive, but have been Turner’s touring band since the early days. Guitarist Ben Lloyd, bassist Tarrant Anderson, and drummer Nigel Powell looked like the pub-rock band you might catch at your neighborhood local but played like something absolutely miles above that — and Anderson does the best Bassist Face I think I’ve ever seen.
Right before the band started, the weather started to turn ugly — the sun disappeared (thank God for that), the wind picked up, and the clouds looked a lot more menacing. We’d been expecting some rain, but it hadn’t happened yet that day, not until partway through Turner’s set. Fittingly, drops started to fall — not a lot of ’em, no, but a few — while Turner belted out the excellent “The Next Storm,” off 2015 album Positive Songs for Negative People, and it worked freaking perfectly, with the wind and the rain and Turner’s powerful, strident voice.
I stayed as long as I could, feeling seriously torn between the need to keep bouncing from stage to stage and the desire to just stay there, rooted and wide-smiling, in front of Turner and his little gang as they played their hearts out. In the end, The Job won, so off I went…
X AMBASSADORS: …and, unfortunately, I wished almost immediately that I hadn’t. Okay, okay, that’s not entirely fair, but bear with me a minute. I’d been looking forward to seeing X Ambassadors almost as much as I had Frank Turner, having been a fan of the band since before they added the “X” to their name, with their debut album Litost. I’d missed them a few times already, so this was going to be the moment. My daughter, I should note, was severely jealous.
And yet, I didn’t like it. The band’s funky, soulful, murky rock just didn’t work out in the light of day, at least not for me; rather than come off as something cool and interesting, it came off like a second-rate Coldplay retread, and that is nowhere you want to be as a band. I’d dragged Creg along with me from the stage where we’d watched Turner play, and he gagged almost immediately. “This is fucking terrible,” he grumbled, and after a few minutes, I couldn’t help but agree.
Maybe it’s because I’ve yet to listen to all of VHS, X Ambassadors’ most recent effort, or maybe it’s because I didn’t hear any of my favorite, older, pre-“X” songs while I was standing there next to the sound booth (the crowd, for what it’s worth, was massive, especially for being only mid-way through Day 1), but it just came off like Adult Alternative pap. Not bad, strictly speaking, but not good, either. Just kind of middle-of-the-road, which is almost worse.
I dunno. I’ve listened to Litost during the days since, and “Unconsolable” and “Falls” still hit me square in the chest, just like they should; I’m still holding onto hope that maybe it was just a wrong-time, wrong-place sort of situation. Maybe another time, I’ll be able to give the band a second chance. This time, though, was one of the biggest disappointments of FPSF, for me.
ZOLA JESUS: And after that, a nice surprise. Like with The Heavy, above, I’d never heard of Zola Jesus until going through the randomly-chosen FPSF previews/rundowns, but I was intrigued by what I heard — raised in the backwoods of Wisconsin by quasi-survivalist Russian emigré parents, learned at an early age to sing opera, and now making moody, murky darkwave-ish music.
At the festival itself, it’s really Creg’s fault; he had remembered seeing Zola (Jesus? Ms. Jesus?) in the Media Tent, so he dragged me away from the stage where X Ambassadors were playing to the much smaller Mercury Stage, where a decent-sized crowd had gathered to watch a tiny, tiny woman in a red dress ramble around. Live, it was like watching some sort of strange melding of Kate Bush and Trent Reznor, with the latter’s industrial-tinged aesthetic and overall sound and the former’s vocal skills. And I’ve got to say, the little bit I was able to catch was pretty damn good. Strange, yes, but good.
REFUSED: Alright, so I sorta already blew the punchline on this one, but I’ll put some meat on the bones if I can. When I walked over to the Saturn Stage, it looked like there was already some kind of commotion going on down on the ground in front of the stage; I couldn’t see what was happening, but it looked like every single person had a camera or a cellphone up in the air, taking a picture of something.
The “something” turned out to be Refused singer Dennis Lyxzen, who was down on the ground doing, um, I don’t actually know what, because as soon as I got near, he burst back out of the crowd and hurled himself onto the stage. Gone were the kinda-creepy schoolboy outfit and Beatles haircut of old-school Refused, or even the Mod-meets-Green Day look of The International Noise Conspiracy; in their place was a full-on retro-rock dude, complete with red Vegas-style lounge lizard suit, big belt buckle, and a mop of lank hair. (Actually, he looked weirdly like Houston’s own Chase Hamblin, at least from a distance, and that totally threw me for a loop.) The rest of the band fit the overall theme, mostly wearing black and red suit shirts and black slacks.
It wasn’t quite what I’d been expecting — although I couldn’t really tell you what I was expecting — but while the clothing had changed, the band’s energy remained fully intact. The guitars were loud as fuck, Lyxzen’s vocals were in full-on shriek mode, and the man himself was all over the stage, jumping and dancing and sprawling on the ground. He played with the mic like a majorette with a baton, throwing it high in the air and catching it and spinning it out on its cord before yanking it back into his hand.
I know they’ve been back and touring for a few years already, but even with that in mind, I was knocked flat. Refused didn’t look like a band that broke up in 1998 and reunited almost 15 years later; they looked like a band that never fucking left the stage, that just kept honing and honing and winding things down tighter and tighter, until they reached that level where they’ve got it completely nailed: the music and the showmanship both.
It killed me to look at my watch and realize that, shit, I’ve got to go, but dammit, I had to. So off I went, out into the street and the rain, leaving Day One of FPSF 2016 behind and hoping for a better — or at least longer — day on Day Two. (That part will be coming in a few days.)
- The mud. We have to talk about the mud, we really do. I get that this was a last-minute move to NRG from Eleanor Tinsley, and the grounds may not have been as prepared as they could’ve been otherwise; that’s totally understandable. What really freaked me out, though, was the smell of the mud, particularly in front of the Mars Stage. I swear to God, it smelled like manure — or something even worse — bad enough that I tried my best to not touch any of it, for fear that it’d get dysentery or something. I dunno; is that particular lot of NRG Park where the horses or cows get stabled before the Rodeo kicks off, or something?
- For the first time since the start of Summerfest, this year I was never able to go inside any of the Fancy Pants Tents; Creg even checked with one of the security guards outside one of the FP tents, and he showed us a diagram with pictures of the different wristbands, and our “Media” wristbands were definitely on the do-not-allow list. Which, okay, I get it — I was able to cool down in the Media Tent anyway, so that was fine, and I certainly didn’t miss having to fight several hundred strangers for space near the AC vent every time I went inside. It was a bit disappointing, though, given the way the Fancy Pants tents were set up in years past; I don’t have a clue if there were any of the artistic touches like there’ve been at previous FPSFs. Anybody know?
- Now, as for the Media Tent itself, I have to say that it was pretty cool. We didn’t have anything actual set up for there, interview-wise, but when I passed through there and tried to cool off and recharge my cellphone a bit (having powerstrips at every table was awesome, y’all), I ended up accidentally seeing/overhearing other people’s interviews. It was a little surreal to just be sitting there, chatting, and see Zola Jesus walk in with her minder and start talking to the people at the table behind, or look up from my phone and realize that Sir The Baptist and his entourage had just rolled in.
- As I noted earlier, as with every year, I got to see and hang out with some truly cool people this year. Obviously, I palled around with Creg Lovett for most of the day, and met up with Jason Smith once or twice, as well, but y’know, I was supposed to see those guys, right?
In terms of other, non-planned meetings, though…right after I arrived, I ran into ex-photog/now-manager extraordinaire Mark C. Austin and the excellent Walker Lukens, whose set I was disappointed to have missed (sorry!) but who is damn cool anyway. Later on, got to chat with the Houston Chronicle‘s Andrew Dansby, who is one hell of a nice guy, and the indefatigable Craig Hlavaty, who’s also over at the Chron these days himself.
Strangely, this was the first year I didn’t run into anybody from the Houston Press — it’s been a hallmark of FPSF for me that every dang year, I see Music Editor Chris Gray, but this year, I didn’t see him or any of the HP crew. Weird.
- And speaking of journalistic types… One person I talked to a fair bit on Saturday let slip that apparently I’ve got a music-writer beef going that I didn’t even know about. I’m not going to say the other person’s name, but apparently he hates my guts, thinks I’ve got shit taste in music, blah, blah, blah, and I had no freaking idea. Once I got over the initial surprise, naturally, I laughed my ass off, because seriously, who gives a shit? The whole thing makes me grin and shake my head, even thinking about it now.
- To take a sideways step from the bit above, I had a couple of long conversations during Day One about what is and what isn’t “good” music. So I figured I’d (briefly) lay out my own personal manifesto, which is fairly simple: either you like something, and it speaks to you, clicks for you, or it doesn’t. Overthinking it beyond that point is a waste of time and energy. I’ll admit that I went through a phase in my youth where in order for music (or movies, or books, or really any kind of art, to be honest) to be deemed capital-G Good, it had to meet certain criteria. Even if I liked something, it didn’t always make the cut.
These days, I say fuck all kinds of that. Like what you like and call it Good, then defend it, or don’t, and that’s it. There should be no “guilty pleasures,” as far as I’m concerned. It may sound weird coming from somebody who spends a (sadly-shrinking) chunk of his life writing about music, but I’m serious. If you like something, and somebody else doesn’t, fine; that doesn’t mean one of you is wrong and needs to be “corrected” and shown the right way to think. That kind of bullshit is elitism of the worst kind, on the level of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Don’t be that.
- Bands I Didn’t Get to See/Missed — sigh. Needless to say, there were a shitload of bands I wanted to see at Summerfest this year but that I didn’t get to. I got there too late to catch King Finn, a local crew I’d wanted to see (although I did get to meet ’em in the Media Tent), the aforementioned Walker Lukens, and Sir The Baptist, and then because of my unplanned emergency exit from FPSF Day One, I didn’t get to see Gogol Bordello, who I love (although I’ve seen ’em twice before, so y’know), Matt and Kim, White Denim, and Modest Mouse, who I’d been crossing fingers would be awesome; no clue how that set even went.
I’d also been curious to see Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz‘ ColleGrove collaboration, although it wasn’t the absolute highest thing on my list; I was mostly wondering how it would stand up to the hype. I missed that, too, but Creg caught it and declared that it was mind-blowing. So I’m a little bummed about that one…
- The funny thing about me having to leave FPSF early is that I ended up going right when the crowds started to get truly huge…which, despite me not getting to see some of those later bands, was kind of a nice change for me. I’m never super-comfortable around crowds, so my absolute favorite part of a festival like this is early in the day, when there’s room to move around, fewer sweaty people to bump into, and a decent chance at getting up close to see a band or musician play. I mean, c’mon — there is no way I would’ve gotten as close to Matt and Kim as I did Frank Turner. I know, because I was there the previous time Matt and Kim played FPSF; it was like a mosh pit full of insanely cheery, chipper, fit people. So in a way, my getting-too-old-for-this-shit self escaped from FPSF 2016, Day One, at the perfect time. (Well, minus the whole “sprinting in the rain” bit, which totally fucked me up the next day, but still.)
(Photos in review [top to bottom]: Clouds over the Mars Stage; artwork from near the FPSF entrance; Frank Turner; art in progress; entering FPSF; food stalls; one of the Fancy Pants tents; The Heavy; Creg Lovett & Jason Smith in the Media Tent; David Ramirez; The Heavy; Lewis Del Mar; Built to Spill; Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls; X Ambassadors; Zola Jesus; Refused; the muck near the Media Tent; Walker Lukens & Mark C. Austin; Creg Lovett & Andrew Dansby; Refused; merch stalls. All photos by J. Hart.)