Saturday didn't start out very promising: Almost as soon as Rocks Off arrived at the intersection of Washington and Silver, where the Bud Light main stage was set up, the sky darkened, then drizzled, then began pouring rain.
The downpour barely lasted 15 minutes, however, and when it cleared up, the rain didn't return for the rest of the day. Encouraged, we caught the first Washington Wave jitney and started our day, chatting with a friendly pair of lesbians who were excited to be enjoying their first music festival as a couple. Lots of cuddling and pecks on the cheek; it was really sweet.
We caught the tail end of Yoko Mono's set at the Washington Avenue Drinkery, and found their Latin-infused math rock a fine way to start off the day, even if everything was mixed a tad loud. Indeed, our colleague William Michael Smith assured us that the four acts he'd seen so far had all been turned up too loud for reasons unknown.
As if he'd heard us talking, Lee Alexander came out and played his catchy brand of folk-rock at a much more reasonable volume. It was then that we noticed: people were being quiet. They were paying attention to the artist. We chalked it up to the fact that it was still early and people weren't really drinking yet, and contentedly watched Alexander perform.
Rocks Off strolled next door to Walter's On Washington, ruefully passing up the Snow Vice sno-cone stand, as we are currently attempting to save money, and caught the last few songs from The American Heist, who were - no hyperbole intended - fantastic. The next time you hear one of your friends bitching about there being no decent punk rock in Houston, force that person to go see this band: Four swarthy fellows playing blistering street-punk in the vein of early Screeching Weasel, the Humpers and the Dead Kennedys.
As our own swarthy Craig Hlavaty might tweet: GIT SUM. We were somewhat disappointed that there was no moshing going on during their set, but again, we reasoned that it was still pretty early for that kind of thing.
A trip via packed-full Washington Wave to the band VIP lounge over at Ei8ht yielded a chance to greet the Tontons, enjoy some Pink's pizza and rest for a brief spell on the porch while chatting with the violin player from a local band whose name Rocks Off can't remember, although I do recall her name (Veronica). Then it was back over to Walter's to catch the Manichean, whom we had heard very good things about them from multiple friends.
Rocks Off arrived in time to catch the end of Something Fierce's set, and was happy to see that some of the punks had, indeed, begun moshing. Once Something Fierce were finished playing, the wait for the Manichean began... and continued... and continued. Apparently their bassist was stuck in traffic, which delayed the start of the show considerably.
This led to Rocks Off's favorite moment of the entire festival: To tide the audience over until the Manichean were prepared, the microphone was turned over to Al "The Plastic Clown" Pennison, a longtime veteran of the local poetry scene. He read three poems with a rock and roll theme, including one in which Joan Jett rips Superman's heart from his chest and then rides off on her Harley.
It's not just the fact that the poetry was humorous and poignant that made this performance so much fun to be a part of, it was the audience. A little unsure of what they were witnessing at first, they were nonetheless open-minded and, about halfway through the first poem, were fully behind Pennison, cheering and applauding as if he was one of the scheduled artists. Nobody talked too loud over the artist onstage, no one jeered or complained... it was one of those rare moments where you feel a proud kinship with the crowd you're standing in.
Once the Plastic Clown had finished, however, there was still a long pause while the Manichean waited for their bassist, who we passed coming in on our way out. Houston rap mainstay Fat Tony was playing across the street at Pearl Bar, and Rocks Off wanted to at least pop in and see how it was going. Of course it was going well; we watched Fat Tony stride confidently among his good-sized crowd as he tore through a few songs, none longer than a minute and a half apiece. We couldn't stay long, though, as we had to get back across the street.
The Manichean are an extremely unique band. Their theatrical brand of progressive rock isn't for everyone, and the crowd was noticeably smaller than it had been for Something Fierce. Still, those who stayed seemed to be enjoying themselves, especially a quartet of loyal fans near the front of the stage who knew all the words. The Manichean's music is gorgeous and powerful, augmented with a violin and propelled by frequent fire-in-the-belly poetic interludes, and although they may not be the biggest draw at festivals like this one, we're willing to bet a few converts were made.
Once these guys find their audience, they're going to be big. The crowd seemed more and more willing to give themselves over to the experience as the show went on, no doubt helped along by the lead singer's frequent excursions into the audience, one of which had us hastily putting away my cell phone, in the middle of tweeting how much we liked the band, for fear of being seen as not paying attention.
Once they'd finished, Rocks Off strolled across the street to catch one of Houston's most underrated acts, The Literary Greats. As we were watching them rock out inside Salt Bar, we realized how much we were enjoying ourselves. The attendance far outweighed what we had expected; so far, no venue we visited to had been even close to empty, and the crowds were all behaving themselves.
Rocks Off didn't see any fights, nor hear any boos, nor think to ourselves, "Why doesn't everybody shut the fuck up and watch the goddamn band?" like we often do at Houston shows. People were paying attention, showing appreciation to the artists, and tipping their bartenders. It was almost as if some local blog or alt-weekly had been complaining about poor concert etiquette for years, and people were finally starting to listen.
The event wasn't perfect, but its problems were far too petty to be dwelled on. Not having wristbands available at the door at every venue right off the bat was difficult, but that problem was quickly and professionally remedied. Parking was a bit of an issue, as it always is on Washington Avenue, but that problem was alleviated greatly by the Washington Wave honoring each HPMA wristband as a free day pass, even handing out free Vitamin Water to thirsty travelers.
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Another problem: Whenever two artists you really wanted to see were playing at the same time. A good problem to have, really. Part of the fun was hopping from place to place, seeing what each had to offer.
After the Literary Greats finished their impressive set, Rocks Off met up with some friends and fellow Houston writers and headed over to the Bud Light main stage, waiting in line for drinks in the VIP tent while Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights Southern-rocked the sizeable crowd.
The sun went down. Matt & Kim came out. Balloons were bounced around the crowd. Singalongs were sung along to, and nearly everybody danced. Kim said we, as a city, had never let them down. They seemed to genuinely like Houston, and I was happy to remember that I agreed with them.
Sometimes we bitch about various problems plaguing our fair city, but at the end of the day, we really wouldn't want to be anywhere else. Thanks for the reminder, Houston.