[1 August 2011]
Houston’s Free Press Summerfest, now in its third year, is beginning to establish itself as a major music event. While it may never be mentioned in the same breath as Coachella or Bonnaroo or even the ACL Festival down the road in Austin, it has a vibe and energy all its own. Summerfest brings in plenty of national acts, but the organizers are committed to providing a forum for local bands to play, so about 60% of the 140-plus acts are from the Houston area. It’s also way more affordable than the better-known festivals, with a ticket to the two-day show running less than $50. The show is held in downtown Houston’s Eleanor Tinsley Park, whose main advantage is, well, its central location. The park is a thin strip of land that runs from a road down a 100-foot hill to the banks of Buffalo Bayou, the river that winds through the downtown area. Five of the festival’s eight stages are up top on or near the road, while the main stage and two others are tucked in between the bayou and the bottom of the hill.
Back in 2009, the inaugural festival was held in mid-August, generally the worst time of the year to be outside in Houston. The show has since moved to the first weekend of June. Still hot, sure, but theoretically more tolerable than the dog days of August. It didn’t work out that way this year, as this ended up being the hottest June weekend on record, with temperatures cresting 100 degrees on Saturday and getting to a blistering 105 on Sunday afternoon. Most attendees seemed prepared to combat the heat by drinking plenty of water. The festival provided two free water stations, each of which tended to have 20-minute lines. Cannily, organizers also had another half-dozen stations selling bottles of water for $2 apiece. It was often worth it to just pay the $2 and skip the line to get to the next band.
My Saturday schedule only allowed for a quick stop at the festival, so I missed plenty of sets I’d like to have seen, including Beirut, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Fucked Up, and Houston fixtures Wild Moccasins and Spain Colored Orange. I did manage to catch Big Boi‘s performance, though, and it was a good one. Backed by a hype man, a DJ, and a live drummer, he stalked the stage in what looked like heavy green army jacket and pants, despite the heat. Since this was a festival setting, his set included mostly OutKast hits and only a bare handful of songs from last year’s Lucious Left Foot album. The main stage crowd was a multi-ethnic mixture of folks out to have a good time and ready to sing along with all their favorite OutKast tracks. Which was good, because having to rely on crowd participation and recordings to do the Andre 3000 parts left those songs feeling a bit empty. Still, the audience enthusiastically sang along to “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh, So Clean” and danced their asses off to “Ghettomusik” and “The Way You Move.” The set often resembled a medley, as Big Boi tended to do about half to two-thirds of tracks before moving on to the next one; case in point, we only got to hear the Big Boi-oriented chunk of “B.O.B.”, which made sense but sort of left me wondering why he even bothered. Still, the man knows how to play to a crowd. He got a huge response by bringing Houstonian (and former UGK member) Bun B out to do a song, and closed the set with a strong performance of “Shutterbug”, to the crowd’s delight.
Sunday was more or less a full day at the festival. I started with the roaring metal of Kylesa, who played with stunning intensity despite the 105-degree heat as volunteers continuously sprayed water on the crowd from giant water guns. Despite playing on the festival’s ostensible second stage, the band only drew maybe 150-200 fans down in front, with a couple hundred more scattered under the shade trees far up on the hillside. Their set drew mostly from 2010’s Spiral Shadow but they threw in some earlier tracks as well. The band’s front line of Laura Pleasants, Corey Barhorst, and Phillip Cope traded the vocals around while their two drummers pounded away in back. Pleasants handles most of the lead guitar duties while Barhorst and Cope switch to keyboards and theremin(!) as often as they play bass and guitar, respectively. This all gives Kylesa a unique sound that often resembles psychedelic stoner rock as much as it does metal. Even as the sweat poured off the band, their intensity didn’t waver and they put on a hell of a show.
On the way back up the hill, I stopped to catch a few songs from Houston’s Peekaboo Theory. They played a brand of rock that combines funk-driven bass and keyboards with more angular, post-rock guitars. They also had a charismatic lead singer who seemed excited to chat with the crowd. At this point, clouds had rolled in over the park and the heat wasn’t nearly as bad. Moving on, I saw the tail end of The Watermarks’ set. These guys were a catchy synth-pop act that seemed to be having a lot of fun. As they wrapped up their set, the wind picked up to ridiculous levels, blowing over unsecured sound, water, and merch tents as rain started spitting out of the sky. Drought-plagued Houston could really have used the rain, but festival-goers were spared, as the wind and rain died down in about 30 minutes.
Alt-country singer Maria Taylor was scheduled to play her set on the festival’s easternmost stage at 4:45, but due to the rain or perhaps some other reason, she didn’t get started until almost 5:10. So I wandered back over to watch Houston punk band Muhammedali‘s set. They were intense, loud, and fast, everything you’d want out of a punk group. Their energy rubbed off on the crowd, who responded enthusiastically to everything they played. This is a band I will definitely be on the lookout to see again around town. Once Maria Taylor finally got going, she and her band played a brand of pleasantly rolling music before her set was abruptly stopped at 5:40 to make way for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.
I’m a big fan of Isbell dating back, of course, to his days in the Drive-By Truckers, so I was excited to see him play. But the delay on his stage brought forth the dreaded festival scheduling issues. Isbell was originally supposed to start at 5:35, which was perfect timing for me to watch his whole set and then go see Japanese punk stalwarts Guitar Wolf at 6:30. But even with Taylor finishing at 5:40 and Isbell and his crew starting their setup immediately, they didn’t get started until 6:15. So I split the difference and hung around for about half of Isbell’s set. What I saw was impressive. Isbell seems very comfortable with his band these days, and the 400 Unit switches easily from laid-back songs like “Tour of Duty” to intense hard-rockers like “Try.” The latter featured a blistering extended guitar solo from Browan Lollar, whom Isbell lets take a majority of the guitar leads. The band also hit the Drive-By Truckers’-era “Goddamn Lonely Love” early in the set, and it was as achingly beautiful when played by the 400 Unit as it was back in Isbell’s Truckers days.
As much as I would’ve liked to have stayed, I knew I’d be seeing Isbell again sometime. Guitar Wolf, on the other hand, seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve been a casual fan of the band ever since seeing their ridiculous movie Wild Zero years back, in which the band helps a couple of hapless teens save the world from an aliens-and-zombie invasion using their rock’n'roll superpowers. So I made the half-mile trek across the grounds to the westernmost stage to find a large, appreciative crowd already rocking out. The trio was clad in their traditional full leather gear despite the heat, although Drum Wolf shed his pretty quickly. The bands songs were loud, catchy, and sung alternately in Japanese or incoherent English. But they had a ton of energy and were hugely fun to watch. The lead singer, the titular Guitar Wolf, punctuated his between-song banter with what sounded like random phrases, like “Houston, rock and roll!!” and “UFO, motherfucker!” Eventually, he brought up a teenager from the audience to play his guitar and jump around. The kid could play, but he wanted no part of trying to do a rock star jump with the guitar. He looked like he was afraid he would accidentally break it. But Guitar Wolf persisted, telling him “Jump!” over and over again, and eventually the kid was able to get both feet in the air. The set ended with Guitar Wolf pushing his entire microphone stand onto the outstretched hands of the crowd and following. So there he was, crowd-surfing vertically and shout-singing into the mike as Bass Wolf, Drum Wolf, and the kid played away onstage, and Summerfest had one of those festival moments people talk about for years.
The festival wrapped up with a set from Weezer on Sunday night. I found a good vantage point at the top of the very crowded hill to watch as the other stages finished up, leaving Cut Copy playing on the main stage to an ever-growing crowd. Cut Copy has developed quite a reputation over the past few years based on the strength of their album In Ghost Colours, but I never quite got into them. Sadly, their live set didn’t do much to win me over. The performance was energetic, but their combination of disco beats and ‘70s pop stylings didn’t translate to the kind of music that really gets a crowd moving at a festival.
Weezer, on the other hand, know how to put on a show and work a crowd. The last time I saw them live, back in 2001, their performance was pretty good. Rivers Cuomo had all the rock star moves then, but it seemed like his heart wasn’t in it, that he didn’t really believe he was a rock star. Well, he believes it now and so does the rest of the band. Cuomo came out clad in a blue raincoat even though the rain had stopped hours ago, and the band opened with “Undone (The Sweater Song)”, much to the crowd’s delight. Despite having released two new albums in the fall of 2010, the band didn’t actually play any songs from Hurley or Death to False Metal. Instead they focused largely on their singles and songs from their debut album and got huge, appreciative reactions for nearly every song.
This was a set geared to the festival crowd, the people who stopped paying attention to Weezer’s albums years ago but still treasure those two landmark records from the ‘90s. And it was awesome. The early part of the set had hits like “Perfect Situation” and “Island in the Sun” mixed in with older songs like “Say It Ain’t So” and Pinkerton highlight “El Scorcho.” The band also pulled out their cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, which was note-perfect. They even threw in the excellent Blue Album b-side “Susanne”, a song which I never thought I’d hear live. All the while, lightning flashed brilliantly around the downtown area but the rain stayed away.
The strangest thing about seeing Weezer live these days is that the band has an extra touring member. In and of itself this isn’t that weird; the oddness comes from the fact that the touring member is their drummer. Original drummer Pat Wilson now spends about 75% of the set out front playing guitar and only steps behind the kit for what looks like nostalgia purposes, when there’s absolutely no need for a third guitar player. So he actually played drums on several of the songs in the back half of the set as the band really focused on the Blue Album. They played non-singles like “Surf Wax America”, “in the Garage”, and “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” before closing the main set with the 8-minute long “Only in Dreams.” Then they came back out for a quick encore of “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” and “Buddy Holly” and sent the massive Free Press Summerfest crowd home happy as fireworks exploded in the sky from across the bayou. Say what you will about Weezer’s output since 2000, they know how to put on a festival show.