Bayou City

Houston's 11 Best Music Festivals

Updated (7/21/2016, 11 a.m.) to reflect that FPSF's "Welcome to Houston" set is no longer an annual event.

Especially if they don’t live in Houston, people can perhaps be forgiven for not thinking of this city as a “festival town,” at least in the same sense that Austin, Chicago or New Orleans is. It just gives those of us who live here a chance to sound one of Houston’s favorite rallying cries; namely, that those outsiders just aren’t paying enough attention. Maybe a decade ago, when all but one or two of these fests weren’t even around, they might have had a point. Not anymore. But since Houston is now entering high festival season, with the rodeo getting under way a few hours after the 2016 Free Press Summer Fest lineup is revealed tomorrow morning, it seemed like a good time to try a list of the city's best music festivals, the first of its kind (that we know of). We started here by shooting for the industry standard of ten, and the next thing we knew, one more fest that was too essential to cut had slipped in the back door, so now this list goes to 11. As we hope you’ll see in a moment, the Bayou City’s music lovers have a lot more to be proud of — and a lot more to explore — than just two marquee events. One of Houston's old nicknames was "the action town." Obviously, it still is.

It may only be a year old, but Day For Night made quite a first impression. Promising to rewrite the festival rulebook by fusing music and avant-garde art, much of it digital in nature, it delivered a unique event full of surprises that turned out to be brilliant little “eureka” moments of a heightened festival experience — something as simple as spreading out a giant rug in front of the main-stage area, to name but one example. Whether walking through a warehouse full of strobe lights and PVC pipe or witnessing New Order’s first visit to Houston in more than two decades and a killer set by future Grammy knockout Kendrick Lamar, everything about Day For Night felt, well, different. In a good way. True, a lot of its charm came from how much of a pleasant surprise it turned out to be, a quality that will inevitably be lost (or at least diminished) in future years. But even if it eventually grows to be as (over)crowded as its summer counterpart, it still has the potential to be a Houston holiday perennial, just like the Thanksgiving Day parade or City Hall tree lighting.

The 11th installment of the always-free and ever-growing For The Community Fest returns to Last Concert Café and Eastdown Warehouse March 18-20. There’s art, poetry and activism occurring at this grass-roots event, but at the core, it’s about music. Literally dozens of bands are booked for each of the biannual installments. Some of those first gatherings were just a handful of friends of sponsors Visionary Noise and the Houston Free Thinkers, but with each new addition, new faces, looking solely for the best in local music, have found their ways to FTC, and they have not been disappointed. Too many local bands to count have played the festival, but a few to look forward to at FTC 11 are FLCON FCKER, Muddy Belle and Houston headliner B L A C K I E.

Don’t plan on getting any work done on your face or starting that master cleanse during Bad Ass Weekend. You may be needing that extra face leather in the event that a fellow reveler’s spiked accoutrement awards you a non­elective piercing while you're in the circle pit, and the extra blood sugar to keep up with an intense schedule of events that this year crisscrossed three Warehouse District venues and nearby screen-printing shop Donkey Paw. Just wrapping its fourth cycle last night, BAW is a celebration of everything bristly, blast­-beaten and feedback-intensive, a cavalcade of heavy rockers from the UK, Mexico, Canada and all­ over the USA, this year including legends such as Skullflower, Warwound, Hellbastard, Excel, Rusted Shut and Black Leather Jesus, as well as modern miscreants like Total Abuse, Protomartyr, Calafia Puta, Cryptic Void, Cop Warmth, Spray Paint, Alimanas, Muhammad Ali, Rosemary Malign, Battle Rifle and many more worthies, old and new. Bad Ass Weekend is the time, as festival organizer Juan Carlos Newton says, “for the true weirdos to come out of the woodwork.” Arrive a connoisseur, depart in ribbons.

Suppose an act that’s gone national like The Suffers drew the attention of music dream-makers in L.A. or NYC. Then, imagine that their interest was piqued enough to grab the phone and call for someone with Houston Press Music to learn about “the next big Houston band." Then pretend that these music honchos asked us to put together a music fest of Houston-based bands. Our work would be done before the call ended, since we’d just direct them to Yes, Indeed!.  Last year, the event shined its spotlight on two dozen acts, most of which call Houston home, and nearly all of which have strong local followings. Yes, Indeed! is the second of two fests hosted by Jason Smith and Phil "Bassman Pep" Peterson which bookend the summer. The Madness on Main Street Music Festival drops in May. So, those theoretical A&R folks could pick May or September (virtually the same in Houston) to come catch the excellent folk, soul, funk, electronica, rock and rap acts we saw at these fests last year.

Houston’s hardcore scene is bound to have plenty of good nights over the course of a year, but only one great weekend. For the past 15 years, Fallcore has provided a showcase for some of the biggest and best hardcore bands in the state, like Will to Live, Power Trip and Die Young. And just to up the unmissability factor, the two-day fest always seems to score a couple of choice national acts to get circle-pitters through the door, including Wisdom in Chains, the Rival Mob, Foundation and D.R.I., just to name a few. Other than Walters Downtown, Fallcore’s traditional home turf, it’s pretty much the only hardcore institution in town that matters, and it draws tough guys from all over Texas and beyond on reputation alone. If you only a single windmill punch in the pit in 2016, do yourself a favor and save it for December. It’ll make a better story if it happens at Fallcore.

Why pay hundreds of dollars to see an act from a quarter-mile away when Houston Whatever Fest offers a more personal festival experience?  Spreading out over EaDo Party Park and using Warehouse Live as a focal point gives fest-goers an indoor-outdoor component that’s nice. Best of all, though, your ticket gets you up close and personal with some exciting acts.  Two Augusts ago, you could see the sweat bead on the faces of acts like The Hold Steady and Helmet. Last year, when the festival was moved to November, we bundled up a bit for GWAR, Metric and Front Bottoms. Comic T.J. Miller led an audience into the streets for a faux-protest in 2014 and last year Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA performed half his set from the crowd. How’s that for up close and personal? HWF’s following grows with its reputation, so we may not have these close encounters for long. Better get there this year and enjoy it while it lasts.

You know who loves music? Like, actually genuinely, unironically, willing to pay for their favorites, loves music? Modern-rock fans. Sure, it's easy to mock them and their perceived lack of taste, but unlike a lot of other festivals that struggle to get people in the door, Buzzfest never has that problem. Modern-rock fans show up. They know the words. They buy the shirt. They have a damn good afternoon. The lineups, skewed as they are toward old favorites and bands you probably don't know exist, satisfy a demand. Modern-rock fans need festivals too. Rock music fans want to party in the sun and sing some songs. So yeah, make fun of Buzzfest if you want. No crowd in this city goes home happier than this one.

There are a lot of EDM fans in the city of Houston, but Houston isn't exactly an EDM stronghold. While you can go out and support your favorite local DJs week in and week out, you don't have a ton of options when it comes to seeing the big names in the world of dance music. This is probably why Something Wicked is something close to a holy day for local EDM fans, because it's the one time the world of EDM converges on Houston for a weekend of big beats, neon and dancing. Something Wicked also has maybe the best theming of any festival in Houston. The promoters put a ton of money into making Something Wicked look epic, and seeing thousands of folks in their Halloween best coming together to rage at the biggest dance party of the year is a sight to see. You might see famous DJs at other Houston festivals, but they're never going to look as cool as they do on the Something Wicked stage.

In theory, Trae Day is a festival whose sole benefit is to engage the community and provide items — whether those be gifts, school supplies, toys or a carnival-like atmosphere. It has been Trae's baby for almost a decade now, created during the Bill White administration and now stretching into the Sylvester Turner regime. At the center of it all is Trae Tha Truth, no matter how vast the guest list may be, nor how many friends and supporters from all over the country he can call in to rouse fans up. It's his day and every year, moving around like a satellite and landing at whatever venue can possibly fit it within the city limits. Trae's touch gives the city of Houston one of its few fully fleshed-out rap festivals, but if you ask him, it’s just another day of giving back to the community.

Think about how much Houston has changed since the first Free Press Summer Fest in 2009, and then about how much the festival itself has grown. It’s not much of an understatement to say that it has fundamentally and radically changed the way Houstonians — or a significant percentage of them, anyway — think about the city we are all blessed to call home. With all due respect to iFest (R.I.P.), before FPSF came along, music lovers here who yearned for the multi-day festival life were pretty much forced to make their way to Austin City Limits and/or Jazz Fest. Free Press Houston and Pegstar created something similar to both, only substituting mucho H-Town flavor for all those damn travel costs. In the process, FPSF has also created all sorts of fringe benefits for the city, such as the abundant opportunities for Houston’s finest culinary and visual artists to showcase their creations, or Pegstar’s emergence as a major player in the regional concert-promotion game. Almost going without saying are all the spectacular performances over the years, many from acts who had not been through Houston in years (if ever), and one stroke of stone-cold genius in 2014 and 2015's “Welcome to Houston” set of H-Town rap all-stars, which may yet return (hopefully). Today, everyone has a favorite FPSF moment, if not several, with the promise of many more to come.

The stages in Houston don't get any bigger year in and year out than the one at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Legends as big as any in music have taken their turn on the revolving stage, and odds are good that if you've been in Houston in March, you have at least one great Rodeo memory. The rodeo is the feel-good event of the year: If carnival rides, unhealthy food and mutton-busting don't bring a smile to your face, you're probably living in the wrong state.  The Rodeo is really Houston at its biggest and best. Yeah, it's a little bit cheesy and a little bit old-fashioned, but when the weather is good, the baby animals are playful, your favorite foods are fried and the right song for 70,000 people to sing along to comes on, Houston is about as magical as it can get. Remember: No matter how hard you try, you're never too cool for the Rodeo.

Written by Brandon Caldwell, Cory Garcia, Chris Gray, Tex Kerschen, Jesse Sendejas Jr. and Nathan Smith
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
The Houston Press is a nationally award-winning, 33-year-old publication ruled by endless curiosity, a certain amount of irreverence, the desire to get to the truth and to point out the absurd as well as the glorious.
Contact: Houston Press