August 12th, 2009
Summerfest 2009 (Day One)
“Music festival” conjures up many images. Flower children. Mosh pits. Crowd surfing. A great swell of people, as they ebb and flow to the bombardment of live music. And, dare I mention it? ACL. Unfortunately, visions of Houston don’t come to mind. Sure, we’ve had our Buzzfests and Arrowfests and Freedomfests. Those are of a different breed. This year Free Press Houston had different ideas. They set out to create a Houston music festival that could potentially grow into something synonymous with Bonnaroo, Wakarusa, Sasquatch and yes, even Austin City Limits.
When I first heard about it months back I couldn’t believe it. When someone sent me the link, I passed it off as a scam. It seemed like it was just some sort of complicated pyramid scheme. In my mind there had to be a catch. Then, the list of bands was released and I couldn’t take it anymore. It was too enticing. Pyramid scheme or not, I had to be there. Two “Fancy Pants” tickets were purchased and I bide my time until the floor would inevitably fall from underneath me.
Around 2:00PM Yellow Cab sends a van to my humble abode to pick up our party of four. I have a backpack stuffed with sunscreen, bug spray, towels, water, water and more water. This shall surely carry me through the event which has already started, unfortunately. The only travesty thus far was missing The Tontons whom I really wanted to see live. (Why put on a popular Houston band so early in the afternoon?)
Our cabbie drops us off as the Federal Mint building on the corner of Gillette and Allen Parkway, leaving us to walk the half mile up to the gates. One half of Allen Parkway is completely blocked for the festival. There will be no traffic exiting 45 for us to worry about as we skip up the street eager for the afternoon to truly start. We can already hear the band, their sound echoing within the banks of the Buffalo Bayou and out into the sun drenched afternoon air.
The first thing we are met with as we approach the gate is the the line, snaking its way along Allen Parkway seemingly all the way to the buildings of downtown. This is not good. There is nothing quite like being so close yet so far. We are being nothing more than teased right now on the outside looking in. We send a scout to the front of the line as we stand dutifully with like-minded peers waiting for our entrance-granting bracelets. The call comes back from the front of the line, “come up here, they have a separate line for last names M thru Z.” Possibly the first time having a name at the end of the alphabet has paid off since my second grade teacher decided on a whim to order the lunch line from Z to A.
With only one table handing out bracelets it’s no wonder that the line stretches a good half mile to the gate, but as we luck out and grab our orange Fancy Pants bracelets we wave goodbye to the lemming-like line and walk in the gate. They will learn soon enough the secret to prompt service.
Young Mammals is shredding on the stage as we walk along the hill that overlooks the venue. Tents scattered here and there for peddlers and promoters alike. A line of port-o-potties 30 long are near the entrance that we’ve just passed through. There are people wandering around every nook of the south side of Eleanor Tinsley Park taking in all of the scene. It seems that the fans here are as much in awe as I am that Summerfest is not a myth.
We walk down the hill making sure not to slip on the steep pitch. This is no easy task. People sitting and laying on towels make for obstacles to swerve around and hurdle. It’s not full enough to take baby steps down the hill. It still feels like there is a full step between each group of lounging fans. I assure you, there is not. Our adventure takes us over to the side stage set up at the Eastern edge of the park. With the full effect having been experienced we decide it’s best to grab a beverage and find a place to hunker down in front of the main stage.
Looking outside the confines, passed the temporary fence, the line grows at the second entrance. It disappears behind the trees as the park reaches out to touch 45. People keep streaming in, immediately finding a place in another line to buy tickets in order to exchange for concessions. With our Fancy Pants passes we’ve already been rewarded with four $5 tickets a piece. All is well, until the rumblings of hunger inevitably begin.
This is exactly what happens to me as Fat Tony starts talking about the recession in progress and finding it hard to come across two pennies to rub together. With that the song starts with the line “but, if you have five dollars then buy my shit.” I definitely need to buy something, but not your merch, Fat Tony. I need a burger.
The line in front of the burger stand is like every other, long. I ask a friend that I see eating a burger, “is it worth it?” She says, “no.” But, I’m stubborn and seeing it’s either this or Amy’s Ice Cream on top of the hill I opt to wait it out. The line moves relatively quickly, but that might just be because I’m blacking out due to hunger. I’m the next in line as the man working the stands yells out, “veggie burgers on the left” waving his hand in my general direction, “beef on the other,” raising up his hand in a Hitler-like salute over the throng of people to my right. As any other logical person would do I decide this place is not for me, I leave instead of trying to merge with the other group of hungry fans.
It gives me another opportunity to survey the grounds. I walk down the opposite side of the hill toward the large cooling tent that they have set up for everyone. It’s full. Hardly an inch is available beneath the commons’ refuge from the sun. From the top of the hill I saw “BC Smokehouse” just beyond the cool-off tent. I am almost there. I look up to see a sign that crushes my spirit, “BC Smokeshop.” Instead of ribs and chopped beef all I see are pipes and zig-zags. Defeat! The unrelenting sun is playing tricks on my mind. A mirage in the midst of Eleanor Tinsley Park.
I make my way back up the hill to deal with the Seinfeldesque Burger Nazi. Perhaps if I offer him my forgiveness he will allow me one of his fare. He does me one better and allows me to trade two tickets for a cheeseburger and a sausage on a stick. In the process, I earn myself a free cup of Amy’s Ice Cream by agreeing to stand in line for the man working the station. The concessions gods smile upon me this day.
A couple of my friends sit on blanket beneath a tree at the top of the hill. It’s a perfect time to sit down, enjoy my meal and enjoy their company. Also, my shoulders could use a rest. They’ve already been burdened with three coats of sunscreen. Thank goodness the flyer said to remember that SPF savior. After sitting and joking through a couple sets of music I decide it’s best to hunker down on the hill for the main acts of the night. More and more people continue to pour through the gates, a sure sign that the number one concern for most fans was a 10-hour festival in this early August heat.
We make a deal that they will come join the group on the hill for the evening in view of the stage and I make my way back through the throng. Twenty-five yards in something goes horribly wrong. I lose my traction and am up-ended, on my back, foot firmly on the shoulder of a patron sitting idly on a towel. “Are you ok,” the people above me ask. I can’t answer them, I’m too busy trying to pretend like I am supposed to be sitting here. It was all part of the plan. They ask again and I can no longer avoid them. “Oh, yeah, sure. I’m great,” I reply. Aware of the position of my wayward foot I ask the innocent girl in front of me, “are you ok? I just kicked you in the head.” She’s a trooper and shakes it off.
With my confidence rattled I make an overly cautious trip back to my friends who are busy waiting for Octopus Project to take the stage with their synthesizers and music machines. They laugh at my story, but more so as we spot someone wearing an old Wu-Tang shirt – “CREAM: Cash Rules Everything Around Me.” The shirt may actually be older than it’s wearer. In fact, the average age around the grounds is an under-estimated 19.5 years old. Those with the white “Responsibility Matters” bracelet designating drinkers are definitely in the minority compared to those with bare wrists.
The sets double in length after aptly named H.I.S.D. leaves the stage. Gone are the thirty minute teasers. Hour-long jam sessions take their place. The Octopus Project rotates around the stage picking up each other’s instruments at the end of each song. It’s like a new band for each number, but the most intriguing thing is Yvonne Lambert on the theremin (which I had to look up), a synthesizer that she operates by waving her hand in the space above the machine. The sound is full and sweet. A literally hand-made aria coming from the speakers.
Changing the pace completely, The Octopus Project give way to The Sword, a heavy metal band from Austin. Gone are the theremins and glockenspiels. Their replacements are axes and Black Sabbath-type vocals. The crowd is by all accounts three times as big as it was two hours ago and the people packed in at the front of the stage show their first signs of aggression slamdancing, mosh pitting, whatever you want to call it in a circle in the middle of the throng. The Sword finishes their set as fans scream for more.
Giving Summerfest a bit of international flair, Canadian band Broken Social Scene faces the revved up audience next. Nearly twenty musicians wander the stage, from trombone to maracas to viola, its a cornacopia of instrument representation. Amidst one of their grandiose numbers Kevin Drew signals the music to stop. “Stop the show! Are you guys happy now? You stopped the show. Do you want to fight someone? Come fight me. Tell you what, dick number one go that way. Dick number two go that way.” The hush over Houston is replaced by laughter and taunting aimed at the pugilists that stopped Broken Social Scene mid-song.
The final act of the night is Explosions in the Sky, a band that I’ve heard good things about but have never taken the time to seek out. They immediately make me regret my lack of curiosity. Their intense instrumental set has the entire crowd reaching for the stars, dancing around and all around in awe. Maybe I’m projecting, but the music has taken over the venue. With the skyline of Houston smiling down upon the park Explosions’ lead guitarist finishes the final song on his knees, shredding the final note into oblivion. It is a perfect way to end the evening.
There is no room for encores tonight. The crowd does not even beg. Everyone turns on their heel letting the final intense moments of the show ruminate as they head for the gate. Getting out is a lot easier than getting in to the park.
Exhausted, we call a cab hoping to be picked up quickly. The whole night is ahead of us, it’s barely 10:30.Leon’s Lounge. We have made a date with dive bar,
[Pictures by Paul and Michelle]