How Summer Fest Was Born
Hate to disappoint anyone, but there won't be a Tupac Shakur-style hologram at Free Press Summer Fest. The slain rapper's translucent appearance with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (a FPSF 2012 headliner) at Coachella this spring did set a rather unique bar for other music festivals, but don't expect a surprise set by a reunited Beatles or Led Zeppelin this weekend.
"I don't take it seriously at all, but there is kind of a joke thing about doing that," says Jagi Katial, whose Pegstar Concerts owns half of Summer Fest as a partnership with Free Press Houston. "I sent Omar [FPH editor/publisher Afra] a text yesterday saying, 'Just please promise me we won't have any holograms of dead people at this festival.' His response was simply, 'Fuck, now I gotta redo everything.'"
Summer Fest is no joke these days. In just three years (2012 will be the fourth), it has gone from an idea no one thought would fly to an event Katial says local music fans "demand," and draws music lovers from places like Austin and Dallas. Significantly more than 60,000 people should stream through the gates of Eleanor Tinsley Park Saturday and Sunday, a big enough number to squash once and for all the notion that Houston is both too hot (in June) and not nearly hip enough (all year round) to support a Coachella-style music festival.
But not long ago, the city's reputation as a hostile environment for alternative and indie artists, which bottomed out with the 2006 Two Gallants/HPD brawl at Walter's on Washington, also meant it was a place with almost unlimited potential for the right promoter — someone who was willing to hear the word "no" enough times until he got a "yes."
Katial was a college student in 2001, wanting to be a part of the local music scene but feeling left out because he didn't play in a band. After September 11, some musician friends of his wanted to help out, but lacked the know-how to put together a show. Katial organized one for the Red Cross at Numbers in November 2001, which went well and gave him a "bug" to do more.
Some of his friends played in Houston synth-pop band Modulator, and Katial began managing them. His friend Tim Murrah ran the Metropol and then Stuka, two of the few Britpop-friendly places in town, and would urge him to ask improbable artists like Jam and Style Council founder Paul Weller to play Houston.
Weller didn't pan out, but Katial managed to book a show for Ash because Murrah was friends with the Irish punk-pop trio's manager. That show, at Stuka (now F Bar), was also a success, although Katial and Ash's manager almost came to blows over towels. (They were buddies by the end of the night, he adds.) Then he brought Oklahoma power-pop band Starlight Mints with Steve Burns of the children's TV show Blue's Clues to Stuka and sold it out again.
That show gave Katial more confidence because it involved a real contract instead of a favor. He booked as many local bands as Stuka would let him and kept an eye on acts coming through Texas that he wanted to see himself. His computer background helped, because he could find out how to get in touch with a band he wanted to book by tracking down who paid for their Web site. (This was long before Facebook.) But in those days, it was still a matter of what he calls "learning the business through rejection."
"Some psychologists might say that there's a problem in this philosophy, but to me 'no' just means 'try harder,'" he says. "It always has in everything, or else I'm just not doing the right thing."
Katial, who went to Klein Forest High School and both UT-Austin and U of H, eventually needed a name for his company, so he settled on Pegstar (for no particular reason, he says). About six and a half years ago, he recruited Jason Petzold, a local musician who plays in electro-rockers the Watermarks. Petzold volunteered to help at some shows Katial was doing at Stuka, and Katial kept adding odd jobs for him to do until the position became full-time.
In July 2010, Katial and Afra bought Fitzgerald's, the former Polish-American dance hall in the Heights that is one of Houston's longest-running live-music venues. Although Pegstar once in a while books shows at larger rooms like Warehouse Live, Fitz is very much a home base now. Pegstar has a two-man production staff that handles lighting, sound and such for the venue, and even another volunteer for whom Katial and Petzold are trying to figure out enough things to do.
After almost two years at Fitz, and many years before that bouncing his shows anywhere from Numbers to Mango's to Walter's, Katial says Houston isn't quite as tough a sell as it used to be — that more bands are realizing not only that they probably won't be attacked by the cops if they play Houston, but also that they might actually draw a crowd and make some money.
"I won't say we're there, but we've turned the corner, and [now] it's about maintaining that momentum," he says.
"We're on the right track, but the destination hasn't been reached," agrees Petzold.
"I feel like people don't [by default] dismiss Houston as much as a place to go perform the craft of playing music," Katial adds. "To me, fundamentally that was a flaw, that you were dismissing the fourth-largest city in the United States. But the truth is that it was dismissible."
By itself, Summer Fest — which has already brought in acts who hadn't played the city in years, like the Flaming Lips (see "Chatter"), Ween and the Descendents — has made Houston a more appealing market. Katial is careful to add that for Summer Fest, Pegstar and the FPH staff's duties often overlap, but that weekend he and Petzold are in charge of anything artist- and production-related.
They may not have to beg their friends to volunteer to work a gate or sell merch anymore, but they'll be finding last-minute hotels for bands if necessary and making sure all the artists get fed. If the sound goes out on the Budweiser Stage or a light rig falls from the rafters, they have to make sure it gets fixed.
"How hands-on am I?" asks Katial. "I'll probably wind up going to Home Depot sometime this week to buy duct tape. No joke."
Katial says Pegstar will start sending out availability e-mails for Summer Fest 2013 less than a month after this one is over. Petzold would rather it be the day after. As much as Summer Fest has become a grown-up music festival to be reckoned with, it still comes down to a guy trying to convince the bands he wants to see to come play his city.
"The festival is kind of back to what was happening at Pegstar eight, nine years ago," says Katial. "It was just hunting and pecking, like, 'I want that.'"
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