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GhoulsFest: A Haunted Festival In More Ways Than One

Everyday People: Macy Gray at GhoulsFest
Everyday People: Macy Gray at GhoulsFest
Marco Torres

For lots more photos from Saturday's festival, see our slideshow here.

GhoulsFest had everything going for it Saturday except one rather important detail: People.

It felt... well, haunted. Normally, that would be an excellent thing to say about anything happening on Halloween weekend - except possibly a music festival where a few thousand people were expected to show up and only a few hundred did.

And to be quite honest, since we weren't footing the bill for GhoulsFest, the sparse crowd that showed up to Tom Bass Regional Park just outside Pearland probably made Aftermath enjoy it that much more. The weather was perfect, the food was tasty and we'd much rather pay $4 for a cold St. Arnold's than a watery Coors Light.

The two stages, one in the park's pre-existing amphitheater and the other a large platform comparable to the main stage at Summer Fest, were within minimal walking distance of each other. Facing opposite directions meant the two also had minimal sound bleedover between them - something other festivals much larger and much more famous still haven't figured out how to get right.

More importantly, we hardly heard a musical misstep all day long.

Roky Moon & BOLT... Well, just Roky Moon, really.
Roky Moon & BOLT... Well, just Roky Moon, really.
Marc Brubaker

The stately piano tones of Roky Moon & BOLT played us in, momentarily making us mistake Roky Moon for Rocky Horror. We caught local math-metal crew Scale the Summit for the first time, marveling at their jazz-flecked instrumental prowess even as we wondered whether or not they were old enough to shave.

Girl In a Coma's Nina Diaz nearly shook herself off stage during a hair-raising cover of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead's Jason Reece and Conrad Keely revealed their inner Martin & Lewis bantering about the sound mix - when they weren't giving the sound guy all he could handle with some blistering speed-punk.

Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston
Marc Brubaker

Daniel Johnston didn't look so good - overweight, unshaven and generally like he just rolled out of bed. Still, the manchild songwriter savant's fractured yet heartfelt pop was as endearingly odd as ever, whether accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar or beefed up by Spain Colored Orange on a fun reading of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away."

Speaking of odd, Macy Gray, put on an after-dark show of up-with-people space-funk that stole a few pages from Sly Stone himself. Certainly the people giving it up and shaking their groove thang down front didn't seem to care there was a half-empty amphitheater behind them.

So what went wrong? Hard to say.

 

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, between jokes.
...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, between jokes.
Marc Brubaker

Too far out of town?

Possibly. The carless Aftermath was counting on our buddy for a ride, so when he got called into work at the last minute, figuring out how to get to Pearland caused us a fair amount of hand-wringing until his girlfriend came through in time for us to only miss a couple of acts.

It was about a 15-minute ride doorstep to parking lot, though, and once we were at the park, Aftermath didn't give it a second thought. Since we're guessing about 98 percent of the Greater Houston driving-age, festival-going population doesn't share our particular predicament, it's hard to see how this could have been that big a deal.

Giant Princess strikes back
Giant Princess strikes back
Marco Torres

A weak bill?

Could be. Not weak per se, just disjointed, mismatched and lacking a sure-fire draw. A couple of fellow local scene-trackers we bumped into Saturday told us they thought the festival could have promoted a lot better. And by themselves, none of the GhoulsFest performers probably could have done any better than Fitzgerald's upstairs on their own, but together they made a most interesting mix.

Still, we suspect no one is going to pay $45 just to see Bad Brains, although they would have gotten their money's worth. As for the locals, it's more like "Eh, we can see them at Fitz's/Rudz/Walter's/The Mink in a week or two." That, we suspect, is not going to change anytime soon.

H.R. of Bad Brains
H.R. of Bad Brains
Marco Torres

Bad timing?

Maybe. It's difficult to call a festival GhoulsFest and hold it anywhere besides real, real close to Halloween. On the other hand, Halloween weekend is second only to New Years Eve in terms of social engagements in most people's datebooks. Unlike Summer Fest, which happens in the relatively uncrowded days of early June, GhoulsFest also fell smack in the middle of a heavy autumn touring season.

Not long before Bad Brains closed out the night with swift and serrated hardcore punk balanced with filling-rattling reggae and dub - a combination that sounds like oil and water but went down like peas and carrots, front man H.R.'s lilting speaking voice and exceptionally gracious demeanor helping smooth the transition - Aftermath ran into GhoulsFest promoter Hector del Valle in a VIP area that was as empty as the rest of the park.

We shook hands, and del Valle thanked us for the interviews with Girl In a Coma and Bad Brains the Press ran in last week's issue. Then we both just kind of looked at each other and shrugged.

"We tried," del Valle said.

Fat Tony rocks it Simpsons-style
Fat Tony rocks it Simpsons-style
Marc Brubaker

They did, and they deserve another shot. Aftermath suggests the weekend before Halloween next year. Because, empty fields and all, Ghoulsfest had too much going for it to be one-and-done.

A little earlier, the sun was beginning to set and Aftermath was enjoying the free video games in the Joystix tent. In the background, Spain Colored Orange's frisky, orchestral, Elvis Costello-esque power-pop had given way to the rhythmic rise and fall of Giant Princess' indie guitar exercises.

We were playing Mario Bros., we believe, when Fat Tony came up and helped us put GhoulsFest in perspective. Aftermath and the local rapper, who performed before we got there and who we glimpsed rocking out to Bad Brains shortly before "Pay to Cum" punched GhoulsFest's first-year card, agreed that up to that point, neither of us had had a bad time at all.

"Put it this way," Tony said. "It's got everything any other music festival has - except for the long lines."

True enough. For better and worse. - Chris Gray

For another, Rashomon-style opinion of Ghoulsfest, keep reading...

 

Tax the Wolf
Tax the Wolf
Marc Brubaker

Ever since Summer Fest has surprised even its most ardent supporters for two years running, we've had a kind of hope for the youth of Houston, a hope that music might begin to flourish here in a way that it never has before.

On Saturday, at the first ever GhoulsFest in Tom Bass Park in Pearland, that dream seemed nearer. As we arrived at the festival just before 1 p.m., we were greeted by warm weather with a light wind; it was the kind of weather people on the West Coast brag about (or so we hear).

At first, Aftermath was a bit hesitant about driving all the way out to Pearland, but the weather - coupled with plenty of good tunes - made the trip more than worthwhile.

Smash Bro
Smash Bro
Marc Brubaker

Upon entering, after passing a few speakers blaring a remix of M.I.A's "Paper Planes" featuring Bun B, our ears were addressed by Tax the Wolf, and we rushed toward the Mini Cooper Stage hoping to get a good spot. It was slightly disheartening to see the park so empty, but the one-day music festival had just started, after all, so we held out hope and enjoyed TTW's set anyway, along with a few dozen others.

Their set had a few technical issues, but TTW played through them admirably, constantly thanking the crowd for coming out, GhoulsFest for hosting the event and keeping onlookers entertained with plenty of spacey rock ballads, all of which had members of the crowd bobbing their heads.

Meanwhile, on the Saint Arnold's Stage, Fat Tony and Smash Bro performed and promoted Tony's recently-released album, RABDARGAB, even showcasing a few songs we've never heard before. Like, hell yeah.

Afterward, The Live Lights took to the stage and performed an upbeat, alternative, sometimes poppy set. Similar to TTW, The Live Light's set was riddled with technical difficulties, specifically a feedback issue with the lead vocalist's mike at a time when the song was only vocals and piano. The band communicated well onstage, watching each other for signals and kept calm.

For most of their set, Aftermath was rocking along in a way we haven't since watching Cage the Elephant perform at Austin City Limits. Then we turned around and were again discouraged by the turnout, or lack thereof.

 

Scale the Summit
Scale the Summit
Marc Brubaker

Nevertheless, we love our city and its music, and as The Live Lights finished up, we trekked back to the Mini Cooper Stage to watch Roky, Moon & BOLT!, then back to the Saint Arnold's Stage to enjoy Scale the Summet's hour-long jam session.

It was the perfect kind of music for such a beautiful day. We sat there, sipping on an iced coffee, skimming through the pages of a magazine while eagerly absorbing ourselves in Scale the Summit. Our only wish was that more Houstonians were there to enjoy it all with us.

Perhaps the $45 ticket turned away the masses; now that we think about it, we're sure that was the case. It couldn't have been the location, which was honestly only 10 minutes away from downtown, and it most definitely wasn't the weather, which was as nice as it's been since that tease of a cold front we had a few weeks back.

Or maybe, just maybe, the festival didn't work for the same reason Houston's music scene doesn't get as much attention as it deserves: It's too eclectic, and people have a hard time validating a cover charge to be put out of their comfort zones.

Whatever the reason for its failings, we hope GhoulsFest happens again, that more Houstonians show up next year and that Ghoulsfest's organizers realize what did and didn't work, capitalizing on the former and letting the latter go. - Matthew Keever


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