Thousands gathered in Galveston's Saengerfest Park Saturday night, crowding the stage around the headlining Blue October, quickly spilling beyond the park's borders into surrounding streets and balconies. Before the closing notes of the opening track, the small park — which butts up against the Strand's famous Yaga's Cafe — was so tightly packed that approaching the stage became impossible. Mardi Gras Galveston 2020 was in full swing.
The Houston natives and multi-platinum rockers were tapped to headline the annual festival's opening weekend, drawing one of the largest crowds the biggest Mardi Gras in Texas has ever seen; thanks, in part, to the group's cult-like following.
"At least a dozen since he's been sober," recalled a particularly loyal fan as she recounted seeing them over 20 times. The he in question being Blue October frontman Justin Furstenfeld, whose autobiographical lyrics reveal intimate details of his mental illness and addiction struggles. A facet of his art that has endeared him to fans, — a reality made evident by the hundreds who attended a pre-show meet and greet, waiting in line for over an hour for a ten-second photo opp.
As Furstenfeld and company blazed through their nine-album, two-decade discography, despite poor acoustics beyond the confines of the park, fans joined in recognition of every B-side track and throwaway single from albums both new and old. When, early in their set, they played their 2006 platinum hit "Into the Ocean," a sea of ecstatic (if not remotely sober) voices rang out in unison.
Throughout the tight 90-minute set, which featured an extended four-song encore led off by a moving violin solo, the group's musical evolution was on display. Emerging in the late '90s as a rock project with Texas Hill Country influence, their 2006 breakout album, Foiled, would feature an emo sound more characteristic of the era.
Touching on both versions of themselves, their set transitioned from the polka-driven 1998 "Italian Radio" to their other 2006 platinum single "Hate Me" with the ease of a veteran band 21 years on the road.
By the closing notes of their final song, although the night was young and Sunday's parades and activities loomed on the horizon, the audience members who'd packed the stage and surrounding second floor balconies took a moment to collect themselves. The party would go on, but somewhere else.