Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A hot mess of music: remembrances of Summer Fest

"I remember when this shit cost $15."

So read a sign near one of the main stages at the fifth annual Free Press Summer Fest in Houston. I'm not exactly OG FPSF, and did not pay $15 my first year, but I paid far less than the $170 tickets were going for this year before they sold out (I paid about $70, having bought earlyish).

This was my third Summer Fest in as many years, and there is no doubt that it's getting huge. The big joke going around this year is that the organizers are a bunch of sellouts, literally true as tickets sold out for the first time in the event's five-year history. They supposedly sold 100,000 tickets. Wow.

I'm not sure if there were that many people there over the two days on that June weekend, but it was undoubtedly a crowded scene just a few blocks away from the towers of downtown. As the event has ballooned in size, so has the ability of the Free Press folks to deal with the hordes. Last year we waited in line more than an hour just to get in the gates. Breezed right in this time.

But who cares about all that. This is about the music, the quality of which is never in question at Summer Fest. And of course the heat. It was hot and humid as shit, but for us Summer Fest vets, you just gotta bear it and find the shade when it's there...

We rolled in on Saturday in time to see the last half of Japandroids' set. The duo from Vancouver played with happy energy and an overall exuberance that you can't help but enjoy. Nothing about them blew me away, and yet I was thoroughly entertained for the entire 25 minutes or so I watched them.

They wrapped up and I bounced over to the Neptune stage to see Paul Banks, the lead singer of Interpol who has a healthy solo catalogue under his belt (the stages were arranged, accurately, to align with the planets of the solar system, save for earth and Uranus, and of course the rock formerly known as the planet Pluto). I thought of him pretty much exactly what I think of Interpol - some very attractive, hefty riffs that can at times be well complemented and at times overshadowed by Banks' distinctive baritone drone. I really like about half of it, and find myself distracted in the other half.

Next up at the main Saturn stage was the super buzzy Alabama Shakes. It seems like this band has been all over the place, spreading their bluesy gospel rock like, well, the gospel. Early in the day, the frequent refrain was how excited everyone was to see them play, myself included. The proclaimed genre is not really my thing, but damned if I was not blown away. Lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard is the clear attraction. Big, boisterous and every ounce a badass, she commands the stage. She starts singing and there is no fighting the urge to move. Easily the highlight of Day 1. The show was in the middle of the afternoon, and the sun was blazing. Howard was wearing a a big dress and stocking and must of been boiling up there. And yet she said "y'all are stone cold warriors" for grooving with her in the sweltering heat. I'd do it again.

That Shakes, who "really are from Alabama", marked the high point of the day. Arctic Monkeys were forgettable. Action Bronson  was abrasive and loud and just not that entertaining. He came out pulling a seemingly empty roller suitcase behind him, some kind of superfluous prop, I guess. Nearby, on a patch of grass near the stage hidden below an onramp to I-45, a victim of excess substance intake writhed in the shade. (I guess Passion Pit was in there somewhere too, but that experience has completely vacated my mind. Guess they didn't leave much of an impression. Frankly, I'm not surprised...)

It was dinner time and I was scorched and weary, so I did not pay close enough attention to the ageless wonder Iggy Pop & the Stooges, slithering shirtless, sweaty all over the Neptune Stage. I was there long enough to hear him play "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (the name of which I did not know until I looked it up just now and realized I recognize it from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Surprising since I have not seen that film in well over a decade... great track though). A friend later told me that she saw the guitarist from Japandroids standing in the rafters backstage dancing and singing all the words to every song Iggy played. That's cool. I wish I had stayed...

... but I had to go see The Postal Service, out of obligation more than anything. I have spent a fair amount of time with the duo's one and only record, the decade old Give Up. It's a pretty solid piece of music making, and is legitimized, in my mind, by the fact that the top hit, "Such Great Heights", was covered so effectively by Iron & Wine that most people think Sam Beam wrote it. Both versions are superb. Less superb, however, is the experience of watching Postal Service live. I think they made the right decision not touring initially. The music, for one thing, feels dated. I begrudgingly admit that Ben Gibbard is a fantastic lyricist and his voice is not awful. But he's so damn... Ben Gibbardy. Just very into his own vibe, kind of falsely modest and, at this point, way too fancy for himself. Death Cab For Cutie was a great band when they were young, and I still enjoy cuts from those early records. But it was so easy to lose interest; they just kinda hit the stratosphere and vanished from the realm of relevance (to me). But I digress - nothing about the Postal Service's performance moved me. (They did play a cover of "Our Secret" by Beat Happening, which was probably their best song of the night.) Indeed, it is now more than a month later and Postal Service has since appeared on The Colbert Report. It was just flat out boring. Great record though...

Day Two

The second day was hands down more enjoyable than Day One - a rainstorm had cooled the climate, the bands were way better and there were way less people.

I made it down relatively early for Baroness, a solid stoner rock foursome that just blew me away. I had listened to their recordings a few times and been a bit ambivalent. That sound is very tough to pull off on record without sounding like Creed or Staind, and while I don't equate Baroness to any of th
at drivel, it's just not my favorite thing to listen to. Live, however, they totally kill it. Intricate mathy passages and sick interplay between lead man John Baizley and lead hair guy Peter Adams - awesome. They play sensitive stoner riffs disrupted by sludgy blasts and soothed out by edgy moments of calm clapalong. Dressed in requisite all black, Baizley chugged a bottle of water and exclaimed "Wow! It's hot!" So true. Watching Baroness was the first time all weekend I got chills, and it was in the upper 90s.

Mavis Staples
Out of curiosity, I trucked over to watch Mavis Staples perform. She's been kinda the rage lately after putting out her latest record with Jeff Tweedy, and has since been all but omnipresent. But at the point of Summer Fest, she was still just a legend slumming on the Mars stage at 2pm. But man, I was transfixed. She just has that thing. I'm no gospel fan, but damned if I wasn't there clappin' and cheering at every chance. Sister's got soul, alright. It's not every day that you get to see someone who can legitimately invoke Dr. King and call for us to keep pushing until his dream is realized. Sing it! Later in the set she pulled out a cane for
some support - I think a 73-year-old woman deserves that much. "I rebuke you, Satan!" she cried. "I'm going to Houston, Texas!" And she wasn't above giving us a little ribbing (despite the adoration that was pouring forth toward her). When she asked for a cheer she told us we sounded more like Midland, Texas. Ouch. She got a big one after that. Even the police/security guy back stage was smiling and taking pictures.

Cat Power
I have, of course, known of Cat Power for years, but it kind of surprised me when I realized that I had never knowingly really listened to her music before. I was trying to explain to someone what she sounded like and discovered that I had no idea whatsoever. Whatever the case, she opened up with a track that completely took me off guard with its heaviness and angst. It was nasty, and had me spinning.   The set continued on like that, with very few lulls, just power. All the more surprising as she came out with a cup of tea, which she placed on the ground and sipped between numbers. She later revealed that her back was in a bad way, entirely evident by the way she hobbled around the stage. "Is anyone a homeopathic chiropractor?" she asked at one point, wincing in pain. "I've got a problem." What a trooper. She blew me away. (I caught part of Of Monsters and Men, heard the hits, moved on. I must say that I find the song "Little Talk" more appealing now than I did previously. I guess that says something. I also managed to catch Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis just in time for them to play "Thrift Shop". Way too crowded to get even within sight of the stage, but it's a fine song.)

The two bands I wanted to see most - indeed, the acts that convinced me to buy the tickets in the first place - were cruelly scheduled to overlap on separate stages. TV on the Radio, who was the one band I could not miss, played first. We camped out for an hour after Cat Power to get decent positioning, and it was well worth it. My notes on the performance are not good, so all I can say is that it lived up to my high expectations. They have such an unusual sound, and to see them reproduce it live is really quite something. One moment I did transcribe was when they were playing "Staring at the Sun," right at sunset, with a picture of a sunset on the backdrop. It sounds less impressive written down, but at the time it was a real Ouroboros moment.
TV on the Radio

The final act of the marathon, for me, was the last half of Gogol Bordello, the definitive gypsy punks. They were just awesome, in every meaning of the word. You've never seen an accordion rocked out so hard. With nine band members on stage (or so; I lost count), they are just, collectively, a writing ball of energy. The most memorable moment, which I gather is a fairly regular occurrence for a Gogol Bordello show, came during the song "Start Wearing Purple" where lead gypsy Eugene Hütz chugged a bottle of red win, vertically, spit some of it out in a purple spray in the direction of the audience, poured it all over his naked chest, drank some more, splashed the remaining contents onto those in the front row, and then started banging the bass drum with the empty bottle. Wild.

Life changes and new life forms may prevent me from attending Summer Fest next year, but it really does seem to get better each year. We're a far cry from when it was just 15 bones. As long as I don't get priced out - an increasingly likely scenario - I will try to be there.

Gogol Bordello

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