June 8th, 2010
Free Press Summer Fest 2010: Something to Call Our Own
Houston has a big hole to dig ourselves out of, but at least we now have a shovel. The biggest complaints about the city always seem to include our nightlife and the music scene. Though, I contest both points, Free Press Summer Fest is exactly the kind of thing that is needed to change perceptions. Big, eccentric venue plus big, eccentric bands equals a big, city-wide impact on even the most casual of Houston’s fans. With The Flaming Lips headlining the final day of Free Press Summer Fest this year, it’s not obvious which band qualification won out: Are they bigger or eccentric-er and can they bring in the ears and eyes to give some of Houston’s own scene some more exposure?
Last year, I questioned whether or not Free Press Summer Fest was trying to get on the same stage as the big boys. As I left Eleanor Tinsley Park this past Sunday night, the answer was obvious. Summer Fest is indeed trying to muscle its way into the music festival circuit, but is doing it in a way that is uniquely Houston.
Ignore all the hiccups of a festival that is still muddling through laying the foundation of an annual event and the identity of Houston breaks through like the looming skyline. You walk into the venue amidst rows of tents selling everything from cupcakes, crepes, insurance and incense. There is no rhyme nor reason to what vendor is placed to the next. There’s no telling what costumed mascot will pop out for a photo-op. The line-up of tents is as unpredictable as the line-up of acts from stage to stage.
This year, Summer Fest added two small stages near each of the two entrances. Unfortunately, with the way the times were staggered, this didn’t allow for much skipping around the event to catch the lesser known acts on the smaller stages. With so many Houston bands on the card, it seemed like only the die-hard fans or those stragglers unlucky enough to be separated from their groups were crowding around the mini-venues.
For our party, we spent most of our time hovering around the Main Stage and the Dos Equis Stage. Our first trip was to see the ever-exciting Sideshow Tramps perform. Nothing could have put us into the spirit quicker than the fast-paced, high-octane set from the Tramps. Every time I see them live it reaffirms my stance that they’re on the short list of Houston bands that you have to see. Fortunately for our group, Tyagaraja took the stage immediately for the following set. I was informed early and often that we needed to stick around for the man swathed in bright orange fabric. I’m an easy sell and the performance reinforced all the accolades, putting yet another Houston band on my radar. With a sitar on stage and lyrics that dive beneath fathoms of cliched rhymes, Tyagaraja blew through their album release performance and garnered at least one more fan.
As the crowds started to gather on the slope facing the main stage, claiming beach toweled territory like conquistadors, you start to realize that it’s pretty easy to be a fan of the Houston “underdogs” like Sideshow Tramps and Tyagaraja. Knowing that these bands, given a little bit of luck and exposure that all groups need, could easily be usurping the national acts is even more comforting, even if that means you might have to sacrifice a better spot on the lawn. Those people that are beating you to the prime, unobstructed views on the hill aren’t to be criticized. In the end, they’re all part of the solution. Each ticket purchased, each head passing through the gate, each set of ears is yet another victory for the Houston music scene that people keep proclaiming to be non-existent.
It’s not just the Houston bands that are trying to make a name for themselves at Summer Fest. Venturing out to find food, I come across Melange Creperie who has moved his permanently temporary stand to the south fence of the grounds. We’ve written about the Melange before, but I’ve never made the time to drop by myself. The line isn’t long, but the wait is since they can only dish out two of the folded delights at a time. Some aren’t as patient as they walk away after being told they could be standing around crepe-less for forty minutes. They’re missing out as it is a welcome opportunity to sit down on the median and listen to the muted sounds of Ra Ra Riot.
The only less than stellar moment of the day came at the hands of Detroit Cobras and their decidedly nonplussed attitude about being in Houston which took the wind out of the previous act, Kid Sister’s upbeat performance. If hearing a woman burp into a microphone was on your bucket list, then you were smart to sit through the set. Other than that, I was a little embarrassed by trying to sell so many people on sticking around for Detroit Cobras. Thankfully, Girl Talk finished out day one with his usual stage full of dancing fans and bouncing exuberance Girl Talk always seems to live up to the billing. He might not be a DJ, but his mash-ups of classic rock anthems and current hip-hop hits along with the firework display from the other side of Buffalo Bayou were enough to send the entire hill gyrating.
Day two of the event took on a slightly different feel. By “slightly different” I mean “soggy, mud-caked, drenched, slippery.” It’s not Summer unless an impromptu storm rolls through with two-ounce rain drops putting every piece of personal electronics on your person at risk. For our digeratti generation, that means that our collective sanity is at risk too. The bands plugged on, probably drawing from the energy of painted and muddied people careening down the hill on their butts and bellies. I was decidedly less adventurous, as I tried to keep my camera dry under a tent until I was finally forced to barter with the people of Sweet (wish I could find a link for these people), a cupcake vendor, for trash bags and rice krispie confections. Sweet served as a bright spot, even with the sky still bearing down on the grounds, and their devils food cupcake almost made me forget about how perilous my return down the hill would be.
Stars, Slim Thug and Bun B prepped the crowd for the finale of the festival as the rain relented and the masses took back their original, albeit much squishier, spots in front of the stage. A new throng of people continuously came through each of the gates to fill up any empty spots, even claiming territory on the staircase of the Allen Parkway footbridge to get a better view of the spectacle that was yet to come.Then again, Slim Thug did his fair share of creating his own spectacle on stage (check the rest of the videos on that link too) and yesterday with a blog post. But he didn’t come out on to the stage via a hypercolor vagina. That could only be the mark of one band.
I’ll take this moment to be honest. With the rain and the exhaustion from day one and the realization that I still had to go to work on Monday, I considered skipping out early on The Flaming Lips. Sacrilege! Blasphemy! Yes, I know. I sit before you now as I recount glad that I stood ankle-deep in mud to witness. Raining confetti, dozens of over-sized balloons, sitting on top of a bear’s shoulders with a megaphone, a gong that lit up every time it was struck, a camera installed on the microphone so you could see every twitch of the lip of Wayne Coyne and all the idiosyncrasies in between, The Flaming Lips destroyed any reason to leave Summer Fest before the final tuning fork had been stuck.
The staff of Summer Fest seemed to be pretty high on themselves for putting everything together this year. They should be. As long as they continue to organize the event, I will buy passes. Do the bands matter? To a certain extent, they do. What matters more is if Summer Fest can continue to grow in the organic way that it has over the last two years, maintaining the uniquely Houston vibe of the event and shedding the “little brother” complex that it feels being compared to ACL. There isn’t a need whatsoever to ask “who has their friends from Austin crashing on their couch this weekend?” That inquiry is moot.
Summer Fest has the makings of a great music festival in its own right, not to be stacked up against the 30-year veterans of the festival business. Attracting 30-year veterans of the music industry like The Flaming Lips is just one step to credibility, but the first step is being credible in your own hometown. The sincerest form of flattery is imitation. Preferably we wouldn’t deign Austin with even a hint. Keep Austin weird and keep it as far away as possible. Make Summer Fest ours and an event Houston can hang its hat on. 2010 is yet another move in that direction and only makes me look forward to more progress in 2011.