Look Back Into the Sun: One Writer’s Reminiscences from Eight Years of FPSFs Past

With FPSF 2017 less than a week away, it occurred to me that over the eight years this festival’s been alive and kicking, I’ve been fortunate enough to witness some really, truly awesome bands and musicians. So I thought it might be cool to trawl back through memories and notes and pictures and give some brief glimpses of some of my favorite times at FPSF/Summerfest/etc. (as well as a smaller number of some not-so-favorite times, just for the sake of fairness).

One caveat before I kick this off, though: as mentioned elsewhere recently, I’m old, and my memory sucks. The following is how I remember it, in my head, bolstered by whatever photos I happened to take. I’ll be as accurate as I can, but yeah, I’d guarantee that I don’t remember everything exactly like it happened. Just so you’re forewarned.

And with that, here, in no particular order, are some of my most vivid memories/performances from FPSFs gone by:

St. Vincent — 2015:
I’ll start off with one that very literally left me standing with my mouth gaping wide open. Going in, I had only a very limited knowledge of what St. Vincent sounded like, so I was unprepared for what I saw and heard…which was Annie Clark as Robotic Goddess of Techno-Art-Rock Glory. She was like this bizarre amalgam of Bowie, Prince, David Byrne, and Laurie Anderson, if those four icons could all be combined into one amazing cyborg creation in a sleek, raven-haired, bleakly sexy package. She seemed to be playing half the time to the crowd and half the time to the cameras, which captured her and projected her as a two-story-tall giant on either side of the stage.

On “Digital Witness,” in particular, Clark honed her Robotic Goddess imagery, her body moving with sharp, jerky, robotic motions and her voice and guitar blasting out over the enraptured festival-goers. Even with the quirky robot act, she hit every single note absolutely perfectly; I’d never realized until seeing her at FPSF just how stellar a guitarist she actually is. Out of everybody I saw at FPSF 2015, St. Vincent was one of just a couple of artists where I ran out right afterwards and bought the latest album, which is probably the best recommendation I can give.

Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls — 2016:
I’d been wanting desperately to see Frank Turner for years before finally getting the chance at FPSF 2016. I rank him up there with Joe Strummer and Billy Bragg as one of the best British singer-songwriters ever, no question, and watching him attack his guitar and bellow out tunes from Positive Songs for Negative People — it felt brilliantly appropriate to play “The Next Storm” in then-floodstruck Houston, and the crowd joined in with heartfelt fervor.

American Fangs — 2013:
Man. I seriously miss seeing these guys play at FPSF; for the first few years, they were honest-to-God regulars, and their live performances each summer were pretty phenomenal. Even when they played for less-than-huge crowds, the guys flung themselves all over the stage, rocking the fuck out like a band meant for much, much bigger, better things. That kind of raw, give-no-shits breed of rock is sorely lacking in the past few FPSFs I’ve witnessed. One particular set sticks in my head: right in the middle of their set, after roaring through iconic tune “Le Kick,” frontman Gabe Cavazos nonchalantly stepped to the front of the stage and puked, straight into the dirt and grass below. Turned out he’d had the flu, complete with a raging fever, but refused to let it stop him from playing. It doesn’t get any more punk than that.

Brandi Carlile — 2015:
One of the biggest surprises for me at FPSF 2015 was Brandi Carlile, a rootsy singer/songwriter of who my wife happens to be a huge fan. To be honest, I mostly added her to my festival schedule so I could tell the wife that yep, I saw her, but once I did, I was left reeling. That voice…wow. Carlile is one truly powerful singer, belting out her backwoods-tinged songs with a strength and fervor that I can’t help but love. Live she’s like Bonnie Raitt with a bit more of a rock edge, or maybe even like Willie Nelson in his prime, and not just because of the bandanna she wore up there on the stage. She’s the best parts of country music, without any of the filler or pop crap, and when she really cut loose near the start of signature tune “The Story,” it sent literal chills up my spine.

Tears for Fears — 2015:
Actually, 2015 was kind of a year for surprises, now that I’m thinking about it. I’ve always liked Tears for Fears pretty much the same way most folks of my generation do, just basically smiling and nodding along whenever their music comes on and just riding the overall nostalgia vibe; they’re like, say, R.E.M., where I can appreciate them but couldn’t really ever call myself a serious fan, and nowadays I don’t pay them a whole lot of attention.

At FPSF, though, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith were freaking rockstars, despite the fact that most of the festival attendees weren’t even born when they had their last major hit. Holy crap, were they good. They joked with and poked fun at the audience, at one point saying, “Okay, kids, you can go see your Dulcolax or whatever he is.” The duo started things off with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and later on hit “Shout,” “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” and “Mad World,” plus a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” and pulled it all off flawlessly. Plus, I got to hear Smith declare, in his very British accent, “It is hot as balls out here.” Now that’s a festival memory, right there.

Baroness — 2013:
One thing FPSF has always been light on, in my book, is metal. In the early days, yeah, there were a few acts a year (seeing The Sword for the first time at FPSF was excellent), but that’s steadily declined year after year, and sometimes even the metal acts that are booked are pretty lackluster. Not so with this one, though: Baroness are hands-down the single best metal band I think I’ve ever seen, not only at Summerfest but anywhere. They played mid-afternoon to a crowd that didn’t always seem to know who they were, but they sure didn’t appear to give a fuck. Hearing them blaze through “March to the Sea” and “Take My Bones Away” was jaw-dropping.

I should note, by the way, that Baroness’s FPSF set was not even a year after the band’s catastrophic bus crash while on tour in England, which saw frontman John Baizley breaking both his left arm and left leg and then-drummer Allen Blickle and then-bassist Matt Maggioni fracturing vertebrae. So FPSF was actually one of the band’s first post-crash shows, and also one of the first with new drummer Sebastian Thomson and bassist Nick Jost, as Blickle and Maggioni left the band because of their injuries. It was pretty humbling to see the band get back on its feet and not just keep playing but playing an amazing set like this one.

Belle and Sebastian — 2015:
Ah, yeah. This one just made me happy; after years and years of being a fan, I finally got to see Belle and Sebastian live, and it felt as fresh and full of life as I’d always hoped it would back when I first heard The Boy with the Arab Strap. As the sun set behind them, the band danced and sang and played like a band 20 years their junior, just an exuberant blast of twee-but-not-too-twee indie-pop wonderfulness. Watching, I felt a smile come creeping across my face, in spite of the heat and the crowd and the fact that my old-man feet hurt, and I suddenly felt like a fresh-faced college kid again.

Vampire Weekend — 2014:
Sometimes a show is less about the music than the moment, or the moment and who you happen to be hanging out with at the time. That’s how Vampire Weekend‘s headlining set at FPSF a few years ago was for me; I went in only slightly familiar with the band, but found myself enjoying the hell out of ’em, particularly the tracks off Modern Vampires of the City. The stage setup was strange, with the band’s floral-print backdrop looking weirdly like the wallpaper in somebody’s grandma’s house, but the band made up for it by playing like they were having absolutely the most fun ever. Oh, and it was extra-cool because I was hanging out with fellow writers Creg Lovett and Andrew Dansby, the latter of the Chronicle, just talking music and history and whatever the hell else. It was a damn good way to end the day, for me.

UME — 2013:
I know I saw Houston expat band UME a few times over the years, but the 2013 show stands out for me, for some reason, possibly because it was the first time I saw the band on one of the bigger stages. The larger stage was definitely where they belonged, in part because it allowed singer/guitarist Lauren Larson to seriously cut loose, thrashing around with abandon while she blasted her way through the band’s heavy-but-not-metal songs.

CHVRCHES — 2014:
My memory of seeing CHVRCHES play at FPSF at a couple of years back is hazy, largely because I almost didn’t get to see them at all, and those circumstances have kind of overwhelmed the memory of the actual performance. See, the Scottish trio was getting ready to play right when a big lightning storm started heading our way, which forced the festival organizers to evacuate everybody from the festival grounds, apparently for liability reasons. It was a weird, nonsensical mess, because people mostly “evacuated” to stand around in the street just outside the festival entrances or took shelter from the rain, once it started, in the parking garages across the street; we were all basically forced out of the festival to seek shelter less than 200 feet away or just stand around in the rain.

I remember hanging out on one of the upper floors of the parking garage, watching the crowds mill around below and worrying that CHVRCHES’ set would be cancelled completely — or, hell, that maybe the rest of the festival would. Happily, the gates eventually reopened, and I tromped back in in time to see Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty up on the stage, just getting started on what would be an abbreviated but still excellent set. It may’ve been my imagination, or possibly just her general onstage persona, but Mayberry seemed pissed-off throughout, which actually made her performance feel more alive, more electric than I’d been expecting. I was wet and frustrated by the delays and the other cancelled/shifted-around sets on the lineup, but damn, I was glad to be where I was, at least for that moment.

Blue Healer — 2016:
I was pretty new to Blue Healer, the new-ish band that includes David Beck of now-defunct Austin band Sons of Fathers, but seeing them at FPSF has me completely on-board. They were soulful and bluesy but surprisingly modern at the same time, with Beck’s upright bass melding near-perfectly with the keys and samples, combining Americana instrumentation with more contemporary electronic touches. If you’d tried to sell me on it beforehand, without hearing what Blue Healer actually sounded like? Yeah, I’d have probably smiled politely and tried to get away from you.

Iggy and the Stooges — 2013:
Watching Iggy Pop do his thing up on the stage was truly, truly weird, at least for me. It was cool, definitely, especially near the end when Pop and his crew started pulling people up out of the crowd and onto the low stage for an ecstatic yell-along/mosh-put. But it was also weird because I knew in my brain that this guy has been literally doing the exact same thing (well, okay, minus some of the blood) since nearly a decade before I was even born, and yet, there he was, rocking out shirtless like a guy a third his age and not missing a step. Iggy Pop is apparently an unkillable, unstoppable, damn-near-unchanging punk rock robot, sent here to fuck shit up, and he’s still working hard at that mission.

Quintron & Miss Pussycat — 2012:
My memories of this particular performance are pretty hazy; it was getting late in the afternoon, if I remember right, and my brain had been pretty well cooked by the sun by this point. I just remember packing into the weird, half-finished geodesic dome stage with a slew of sketchy-looking, largely tattooed people and going nuts while Quintron & Miss Pussycat tore through “Swamp Buggy Badass.” I felt like I was in some bizarro backwoods-Louisiana version of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

White Sea — 2014:
Whoa. If I’d bothered to order this list in any way other than the way it popped into my skull, White Sea‘s set would be right up near the top. Morgan Kibby and her band had a fairly terrible spot to play, essentially under an overpass on the outer edge of the festival grounds in the heat of the day, but they were flat-out amazing. Up to this point, I’d mostly known Kibby for her excellent work with M83, but one of the first things I did after FPSF was get a copy of In Cold Blood, her debut as White Sea. Live, she was mesmerizing, just a magnetic presence with a voice several sizes too big for the tiny stage that enclosed her and layer upon layer of synths and drums bursting out around the sides.

B L A C K I E — 2011:
I’d nearly forgotten about this one until I started digging back through old photos, and then it alllll came flooding back. He’d performed both of the previous two years, but the 2011 set on the big stage was B L A C K I E‘s moment, that’s for damn sure, and it was pretty epic. The crowd was damn big, and they were absolutely into it, headbanging along as Michael LaCour spat his lyrics, then dove off the stage into the crowd, emerging with no shirt on and climbing back onto the stage with an American flag wrapped around his body. I saw some of the FPSF crew watching him closely, seemingly nervous about what he was going to do next; I mean, honestly, you never really know.

The Mountain Goats — 2015:
God damn, I love John Darnielle. It may’ve been hot enough to cook eggs on the asphalt of NRG Park by the time he and his fellow members of The Mountain Goats played, but you couldn’t tell from his demeanor once the band got going; he just looked happy as hell to be there, wandering his way through then-new album Beat the Champ, playing indie-rock/pop songs about Darnielle’s own pro wrestling heroes that work far, far better than they really have any right to. And believe it or not, it turns out to be really, really fun to yell along with lines like, “I’m gonna stab you in the eye / With a foreign object.”

Explosions in the Sky — 2009:
My own personal inaugural Summerfest ended pretty awesomely. My friend Jowell and I had met up at Eleanor Tinsley Park and roamed the festival all day long, slowly cooking in the heat but loving it. When night fell, we crashed out on the grassy hillside (something that ended up being a whole lot harder to do in subsequent years, with all the people who started camping out super-early for the nighttime headliners) and just let Explosions in the Sky‘s grand, sweeping, gorgeously emotional noise wash over us as we watched the lights come on in the Downtown skyscrapers. It was freaking magic.

Lewis Del Mar — 2016:
I’ve already mentioned these guys recently, I think, but hell, it’s worth mentioning again. Rockaway Beach duo Lewis Del Mar started off playing to nearly nobody, it looked like, and yeah, even I wandered on past, not really thinking much about it. Then they kicked things into gear, and by the time the sound lured me back from the next stage over, the crowd had swelled to an impressive number. And after hearing the band for a few minutes more, yeah, I could totally get why — they were raw but still tightly-wound, aggressive and full of fire, and it was damn, damn good.

Morris Day and The Time — 2012:
Oh, wow. When I first saw Morris Day on the bill, I laughed outright; seriously? Wasn’t he Prince‘s arch-enemy in Purple Rain? (Answer: yes. Yes, he was.) I had to see them perform, but I didn’t have the highest of hopes, honestly. To my surprise, they bowled me over. Funky, slick, and utterly tight, Day and his band took their shtick all the damn way, to the point where one of the backing vocalists came out carrying a full-sized mirror for Day to preen in.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings — 2011:
I’d seen Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings just a year or two before, in a much more intimate setting up at the old Walter’s on Washington, so it was a little odd seeing them play in their full suits, standing up there in the broiling H-town summer heat. That said, though, they were still freaking great, and the late Sharon Jones was stunning. I’m also still a teensy bit starstruck, six years on, from earlier that day, when I ran into guitarist Binky Griptite just outside the festival grounds and tried to help him with directions in Downtown.

Japandroids — 2013:
Japandroids‘ set at FPSF 2013 was one of the few, few times where I’ve thought, “well, crap; I really wish I could be right up at the stage right now.” Because the Vancouver duo were on fire up there, and not just because it was so goddamn hot; they blazed through songs from 2012’s Celebration Rock like it was the only thing they’d ever done — or even wanted to do — in their lives. When they played “The House That Heaven Built,” I felt like I was watching Hüsker Dü in their prime.

Weird Party — 2010:
Weird Party played a couple of FPSFs, I believe, but 2010 was the the best performance I witnessed, at least. A torrential downpour kicked in just as the band started to play, but they refused to quit, and huddled tighter and tighter in on the stage as the rain started to blow sideways over the band and all the gear. The crew scrambled to cover everything with garbage bags, but Shawn Adolph still screamed and thrashed, throwing his body across the stage, not giving a shit that he was getting drenched. It was awesome to behold.

Robert Ellis — 2015:
2015 was Robert Ellis‘s homecoming year at FPSF, so to speak. Since the last time he’d performed there, he’d moved fully out of Houston, heading on up to Nashville and cutting his long-like-Willie hair, and released a stunning new album, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, which I love dearly. So it was bittersweet to see him back on the stage, knowing he wasn’t around much these days but happy like hell to be seeing/hearing him again. If anything, the days in Nashville seemed to have polished him up nicely, and his voice sounded the best I’ve ever heard it. By the time he got to “Houston,” where he sings about his reasons why he’s leaving us all behind, I felt near to tears (manly ones, of course, but still).

The best part, though, came close to the end of his set, when an inebriated (I’m assuming?) guy in the crowd started cheering Ellis on, but then began yelling “BUUUUUXTONNNN!” Ellis laughed, shook his head, then genially replied, “Buxton? That’s a different band. But thanks for coming out!”

The Eastern Sea — 2009:
Once upon a time, a highlight of Summerfest every single year was getting to see Austin pop band The Eastern Sea and chat a bit with frontman Matthew Hines. I took a picture each year when I ran into him there, so it’s almost like one of those aging-through-the-years things if you look at ’em side-by-side. Sadly, while the band’s still around (um, as far as I’m aware, anyway), they haven’t been on the bill in a few years, which is a damn shame. They were always relegated to the small stages, to be sure, but each and every time I saw ’em play, they blew me away with their easy grace, intelligence, and energy.

Rocket From The Crypt — 2015:
Sadly, I don’t often get to see a full set by anybody at FPSF. It’s true; I’ve usually got to be bouncing from stage to stage to stage, trying to catch as many bands and musicians as I can, and I typically get to catch maybe four songs at each, max. Sometimes, though, I make exceptions. Rocket From The Crypt was one of those — I stood there and went nuts for every damn second of RFTC’s set, sunburning the shit out of my shoulders, head, and arms in the process. And it was worth it. It’d been more than 20 years since I last saw John “Speedo” Reis and crew do their thing, and despite the added years, they were firing on all cylinders. Hell, this time Reis himself looked healthier than he had back in the day, which was nice to see, and he looked to be having as much of a blast as I was.

As an added bonus, it was awesome to see Jeoaf Johnson and Chris Wertz of Knights of the Fire Kingdom up on the side of the stage, rocking out like the superfans they are. I was truly, truly jealous, I’ve gotta admit…

Bad Veins — 2012:
I wasn’t real familiar with Ohioans Bad Veins until I wandered up to the stage to watch the two-man-band play, but I was hooked pretty quickly. Singer/guitarist Ben Davis sang and played through a weird variety of homemade microphones and other equipment, including one built from an old-school home phone like my parents used to have. The crowd wasn’t huge, no, but the duo were seriously intense in spite of that.

Grandfather Child — 2009:
Lucas Gorham and his little quasi-supergroup Grandfather Child played FPSF a few times over the first couple of years, but damn, that first set was utterly magnetic. Most eyes were on Gorham, naturally, as he attacked the pedal steel and alternately crooned and howled like a man possessed, but looking back now I realize I’d totally forgotten Robert Ellis was in the band back then (on the bass, no less), alongside Gorham, scene icon/drummer Ryan Chavez, and Geoffrey Muller. Crazy to think that Ellis would become a rising star in later years.

The Manichean — 2012:
Ah, The Manichean. Damn, I miss those guys; they were so much fun live, especially frontman Cory Sinclair. By this point I’d seen them a few times, but this particular set was just this unabashed, totally wide-open expression of joy, and it was incredible to see. Midway through their set, Cory hopped down from the stage and roved through the crowd, hanging flower petals to everybody he could get to take ’em; then, at the crescendo of the next song, he signaled the crowd, and what looked like thousands of red and white petals went flying into the air. The look on his face was just pure happiness — I actually think he was surprised it worked.

And there we go; I feel like I’m giving short shrift to a lot of awesome people I’ve seen at FPSF over the years, and I really, truly don’t mean to give anybody the cold shoulder here. This list is just pretty much what popped into my head and out onto the page, y’know? No offense intended to anybody I’ve left out.

I also feel compelled to note that looking back through all the photos I’ve taken these last 8 years has me bummed out, not because “aw, man, the bands used to be awesome, but now they suck,” but because in those first few years, FPSF wasn’t just a concert but a place to meet up with friends and hang (as I feel fairly certain I’ve mentioned recently).

I always try to take pictures of the folks I know that I run into, and it made me smile to see pics of folks like Lance Higdon, Brandon Lemons, Adam Newton, Marc Brubaker, Benjamin Wesley, Paul Chavez, Eric Dick, Daniel Yuan, Melissa Lonchambon Ryan, Jowell Lydon, Mark C. Austin, Charlie Ebersbaker, Aaron Echegaray, Cory Sinclair, Ian Hlavacek & Sarah Hirsch, Jacob Calle, David Cobb, Joe Folladori, Angela Stagg, Craig Kinsey, Dwayne Cathey, Craig Hlavaty, Chris Wise, Kwesi Sackey, Ramon Medina, and Jeoaf Johnson, among others. Hell, I’ve even got pictures I seriously don’t remember taking, like one with Lance Higdon, Robert Ellis, Meghan Hendley Lopez, and “Lance’s mystery friend,” who I’m now realizing was Sandy Ewen, a few years before I ever saw her play live.

(I’d include Jason Smith and Creg Lovett in the list of people I’ve taken pictures of, but heck, I actually do still see them, for obvious reasons…)

That’s it for now — I was originally going to talk about some of the lowlights of these past eight years, but y’know what? Fuck it. I’ve got complaints, sure, but just thinking back about all this stuff has made me realize how severely the good outweighs the bad. So that right there is what I’m going to hold onto for FPSF 2016; it may not have the lineup I’d really like, in a lot of ways, but I’ve been surprised before. Fingers crossed I’ll be surprised again.

Live review by . Live review posted Wednesday, May 31st, 2017. Filed under Features, Live Reviews.

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