"How is this Houston?" "How the hell is this Houston?" Aftermath couldn't stop saying that phrase over and over again to whoever we found ourselves walking with the past two days all over Eleanor Tinsley Park at the inaugural Free Press Summer Fest. Attendance figures of up to 30,000 (total) abounded by this morning, though a final number may not be ready for a few days. The two-day concert reminded us of a fun-size Austin City Limits Festival, with the best bits of Westheimer Block Parties of yore thrown in for good measure, with sprinkles of Houston's best and brightest personalities sprinkled throughout. The biggest treat was the seemingly vegetarian crowd, meaning there was no beef. The norm for Houston festivals in the past has been a tornado of male angst and posturing. Hugs and smiles abounded as old friends became reacquainted or people bonded together over beers, body paint, sweat, and music.
Saturday afternoon, organizers, attendees and musicians all seemed to be getting their bearings. The heat was oppressive, but we soon grew accustomed to the ever-present dripping sweat and parched throat. Even then, there was free Vitamin Water under a huge blue tent just yards from the main stage if you only wanted to pay up for booze. As the hill began to get thick with attendees, a sort of warmth washed over everyone that somehow Houston had come through. We caught up with the Muhammadali boys for their midday gig on the smaller, more local-centric second stage. Running through material from February's split tape with Black Congress, the band also trotted out one or two new songs including "Friends." Comparisons between this band and guys like Jesus Lizard and the Melvins are starting to sound stale; each gig they seem to be coalescing towards something bigger and all their own. A few hours later, Ryan Scroggins & the Trenchtown Texans played a sweet, soulful set, also on the small stage. Funny enough, this year's HPMA winner for Best Keyboards Scroggins was playing acoustic guitar a la Django Reinhardt. Maybe next year we should create a new category for Best Keyboardist Who Mostly Plays Acoustic Guitar. B L A C K I E and Cop Warmth battled audiences just an hour later with the rapper and the noise band going back and forth, trading off songs and raps. At one point the sweaty B L A C K I E was seen in the pit dancing to his own beats with the assembled crowd.
Austin's Sabbath-inspired metal gods The Sword closed out our day, opening with a new song before going into "Barael's Blade" from their first proper LP, 2006's Age Of Winters. The band has steadily gotten more aggressive as the years have gone on, and this past year's world-spanning tour with Metallica has only made them hungrier for maximum power and riffage. From the sound of the new stuff, the band took good notes during its time with Hetfield and company.
Sunday's festivities began with a small flood of rain that was over within 30 minutes. It made the initial few hours a steamy affair, but that quickly gave way to Houston's signature heat and haze. Chase Hamblin was doing his Kinksian thing on the main stage, dressed like a mod boy from Carnaby Street as we walked into the venue. We always find ourselves listening to Hamblin and having to remind our brain that these are new songs and not Kinks B-sides; he's that good already.
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Lucas Gorham's Grandfather Child project reminds us of a quick and dirtier Ben Harper, with an all-star band of Ryan Chavez, Geoffrey Mueller and Robert Ellis more than able to keep up with his manic steel-guitar slaying. Manning the headliner stage, Gorham at turns sounded like an unhinged Ray Charles, his black-rim glasses nearing falling off with every strum of his instrument.
Roky Moon & Bolt's set on the small stage was perfectly framed by the black clouds overhead, giving Mike Hardin's Bowie-by-way-of-Belushi howl a strangely cosmic tone. Now armed with keyboards, each song has a derailed edge to it, with the keys flailing over the band's Mick Ronson guitars. And damn if every song hasn't been injected with a ridiculous hook or guitar line. All told, Houston shone Saturday and Sunday. With each passing hour, smiles got bigger and expectations for next year's event began to grow. Rumors swirled about the Flaming Lips or Roky Erickson making the trip to ETP. Aftermath felt a real community magic going on this weekend, the variety of which must of us have never felt before. The thought of hearing "You're Gonna Miss Me" staring at the glassy Houston skyline or seeing Wayne Coyne floating his signature bubble into Buffalo Bayou just made our heart grow ten times its size.