They said it couldn't be done, that no one in Houston would dream of spending two days in the punishing August heat at an outdoor music festival.
Rightfully (somewhat), the Bayou City has acquired a reputation where indie-minded bands like Explosions in the Sky and Of Montreal went to die before they stopped coming here at all. And although there has never been a shortage of talented local musicians, the party line is that most of them play around town so often that only a fool would show up to see them somewhere without much shade and no air conditioning at all. That's what they'd have you believe, anyway, "they" being those cultural observers in and out of town who insist Houston is too spread out, corporate-controlled and cover-band crazy for an original music scene to ever acquire the kind of critical mass where people could mention it in the same breath as Austin or Dallas without snickering. That's just the way things are, they said. Always have been, always will be - if you really want people to take your music seriously, Austin is three hours to the left. But they were wrong.
Free Press Houston's Summer Fest, which brought thousands upon thousands of Houstonians to Eleanor Tinsley Park Saturday and Sunday, wasn't perfect, but for a first-time festival it went remarkably well. It was hotter than hell (surprise) and took some people upwards of two hours to get in Saturday, while a midday thunderstorm Sunday added suffocating humidity and caused one stage to run between one and two hours late. But they all got through it, mainly by wearing as little clothing as possible, providing their own shade via umbrellas and camping canopies and taking full advantage of the free Vitamin Water on hand. Summer Fest was hardly built in a day, of course. Free Press editor/publisher and festival producer Omar Afra has been using the biannual Westheimer Block Parties as de facto dress rehearsals for the past few years. Over about the same time span, his Summer Fest partner Jagi Katial of Pegstar Concerts has made enough connections within the indie-rock hemisphere to convince at least some artists to give Houston another chance. Meanwhile, enough people in the media and online have been beating the drum that enough local music is as worthy of listeners' attention as anything coming out of indie capitals such as Brooklyn, Austin or Chicago that people have started to take notice.
All that came to a head Saturday and Sunday. Estimates of Saturday's crowd varied wildly, from Afra's 18-22,000 to a more conservative 7,500. Either way, by the time Explosions in the Sky took the stage at around 8:30 p.m., "you couldn't move," Afra told Aftermath Sunday. (Aftermath had to leave Summer Fest at about 6:30 p.m. to cover Green Day, but enough people we talked to Saturday night and Sunday said the same thing that we believe him.) Due no doubt to the rain and subsequent wicked humidity, Sunday wasn't nearly that crowded, but Aftermath would guess there were still between 6,000 and 8,000 on hand when Of Montreal went on at 9 p.m. But however many people showed up, Summer Fest wasn't a success because of the numbers. It worked because it presented local acts - those same local acts that play all the time - as more than adequate table-setters for the headliners, and those acts delivered.
A short list of personal highlights would have to include Ghost Town Electric's metallic squall, H.I.S.D.'s lickity-split hip-hop interplay, Young Mammals' echo-laden indie-rock symphonies (best witnessed from the top tier of the festival grounds, overlooking the steep incline to the stage), Grandfather Child's back-porch blues stomp, Southern Backtones' True Blood-touched alt-rock and the one and only Devin the Dude, alternately stoking and and teasing the enthusiastic Sunday-evening crowd with aromatic, head-nodding odes to marijuana and even baser pleasures. Former Houstonians likewise came strong: the Octopus Project, the Sword and Ume gave stout Texas twists to electro-kissed prog-rock, hair-flipping heavy metal and sleek, snarling Sonic Youth post-punk, respectively.
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Whether or not Summer Fest's organizers meant to put the festival on the same weekend the national and international music media's eyes and ears were attuned to Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park, they couldn't have set up a better analogy. Every time Aftermath glanced up from one of the stages to the downtown skyline across I-45, it reminded him of being at Lollapalooza's first fixed-location festival in 2005.
And then every time we glanced back at the stage and saw Los Skarnales singer Felipe Galvan slapping hands with fans in the front row, Sideshow Tramps' Craig Kinsey standing on the monitors, one hand lifted skyward as he shouted down "John the Revelator," or the same people eagerly dancing to the blissful indie-pop of Wild Moccasins and the Eastern Sea as would later wave their hands from side to side during Devin, it made us wonder how anyone watching Depeche Mode or Kings of Leon in Grant Park could possibly be having as much fun. The short answer is, they probably weren't. Winding down from Green Day at the Big Top late Saturday night, Aftermath bumped into a Summer Fest staffer who showed him a picture he took from the stage as Explosions in the Sky was beginning its set. It was wall to wall, the same sea of people the Austin instrumental rockers have seen gazing out their own Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits festival crowds. "I think Houston has changed," our friend said. Perhaps. Closer to the truth, probably, is that the demand for a festival like Summer Fest has always been there, but the people with the wherewithal to tap into it and create a successful event - both artistically and logistically - haven't. Now that they have, Houston got both a self-esteem shot in the arm this past weekend and something that has the potential to define the music climate in these parts for years to come.