Daniel Johnston didn't hide his love of the Beatles.
Daniel Johnston didn't hide his love of the Beatles.
Marc Brubaker


GhoulsFest had everything going for it last 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 us enjoy it that much more. The weather was perfect, the food was tasty and we'd much rather pay $4 for a cold Saint 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 bleed-over between them — something other festivals much larger and much more famous still haven't figured out how to get right.

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

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 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.

Too Far Out of Town?

Possibly. But probably not. We're guessing about 98 percent of the Greater Houston driving-age, festival-going population doesn't share our own car-less predicament, so it's hard to see how this could have been that big a deal.

A Weak Bill?

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

Still, we suspect no one is going to pay $45 just to see Macy Gray or Bad Brains, although they would have gotten their money's worth had either or both been all they saw. 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.

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 Year's 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 — we 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 Houston Press ran in last week's issue. Then we both just kind of looked at each other and shrugged.

"We tried," del Valle said.

They did, and they deserve another shot — we suggest 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 we were 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's indie guitar exercises.

We were playing Mario Bros., we believe, when Fat Tony came up and helped us put GhoulsFest in perspective.

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 with us 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.


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