Saturday: Buzzfest XXVIII at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion

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Buzzfest XXVIII Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion April 21, 2012

See lots more Buzzfest action in our slideshow.

Buzzfest has evolved beyond a local live-music institution at this point. It's closer to a rite of passage, a biannual keystone concert event for Houston's great, eager suburban hordes. Saturday marked the radio-sponsored festival's twenty-eighth iteration, another sold-out milestone in KTBZ-FM's march toward two solid decades of rock-radio supremacy.

Though familiar, the rituals that make up the Buzzfest experience remain potent touchstones for concert-goers. The drive north, the search for free parking, the long hike toward the Pavilion and the careful crotching of marijuana are as much a part of Buzzfest as the music.

As the crowd filed in gradually over the fest's first couple of hours, everyone was all smiles and high-fives. No one seemed to mind the little inconveniences associated with packing 14 bands into one of the country's pre-eminent sheds.

By far, the biggest inconvenience of the day was the awkward placement of the side stage. In order to check out half of the acts scheduled, the crowd had to hustle, filing out of the Pavilion itself and into a parking lot next door that was notably bereft of bathrooms. It was quite a hike, especially for audience members on the north end of the hill, who had to circle around the entire venue to reach the side stage.

Assuming they bothered to find it at all, of course -- it took me a bit of asking around before I discovered the proper route. By the time I arrived at the tail end of Dead Sara's set, I was almost immediately carried back by a sea of people to the main stage for Mutemath.

Just as they did at their headlining show at House of Blues in January, the New Orleans band pumped out a set filled with gospel-inflected boogie-rock highlighted by the slick shuffle of "Blood Pressure" and organ squalls of "Tell Your Heart Heads Up" from last year's Odd Soul.

Mutemath's frenetic drummer, Darren King, was joined on skins by singer Paul Meany and bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas for a percussive orgy of sound featuring guitarist Todd Gummerman playing his many guitar pedals with his hands for an impressive close to the set. It was all received very politely by the folks in the seats around me, who whipped out cameraphones like quick-draw gunfighters when Meany jumped into the pit.

There was no time to grab a beer or take a piss if you wanted to catch the beginning of the Band of Skulls' set, and so off we were to the side stage. Here, the atmosphere more closely resembled a traditional music festival, replete with beach balls and crowd surfers.

The English trio had feet stomping with its brand of grungy, bluesy alternative, including cuts like "Bruises," "The Devil Takes Care of His Own" and the title track from this year's Sweet Sour. A glimmer of recognition lit up many faces in the crowd during "Light of the Morning," a song I recalled from an old Ford Mustang commercial.

Band of Skulls wasn't the only group on Saturday's bill to achieve notoriety with the help of television advertising. Neon Trees' "Everybody Talks" is the soundtrack to a much-played Buick ad. No one at the side stage seemed concerned with the tricky politics of "selling out," though --They were having too much fun. A pink Power Ranger crowd-surfed toward the front of the stage as the Trees pumped out their driving guitar pop.

"Only in Houston would there be a pit at a Neon Trees show on song number three," exclaimed the group's delighted singer, Tyler Glenn. "You guys are insane!"

Meanwhile, back on the main stage, Cage the Elephant delivered one of the day's strongest performances. The band's neo-grunge sound harkens back to the first wave of '90s alternative acts upon whom the Buzz built its original audience.

Songs like "2024" and "Back Against the Wall" were interesting enough to make my iPod rotation, and the first real roar of the day went up for "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked." One thinks this won't be the last Buzzfest for CTE.

By now, the sun was setting, but it was still plenty bright. The crowd on the hill sipped gigantic $11 beers and snuck furtive tokes as their skin crisped in the sun. For that reason, perhaps, the crowd was a tad subdued for locals Blue October.

The band's electronica-drenched alterna-pop had heads nodding, especially during "Anyone Can Disappear" and "Libby I'm Listening," but for the most part folks on the hill seemed to enjoy simply chilling out in the sun, waiting for the mighty Korn. "Hate Me Now" did achieve a nice sing-a-long moment, though.

The party atmosphere was much wilder over at the side stage, where the Dirty Heads had the white girls dancin' for real. Heavily influenced by the Beastie Boys, this SoCal outfit has grabbed the stoner-jamz torch passed down from Sublime and 311 and run with it.

Packed into the long, narrow lot in front of the stage, the crowd enjoyed itself tremendously as the Dirty Heads rapped out tunes including "Taint" and "Spread Too Thin." The air got mighty fragrant, and strangers were high-fiving each other at a rate not typically experienced at, say, your typical Evanescence concert.

That's not to say that Amy Lee and her band of ringers wasn't well-received back at the main stage. Lee put her whole body into belting out rockers like "Sick" and "Going Under." Her stage presence has been undoubtedly honed by dozens of these radio festivals.

The screams after Evanescence finished up each song on the main stage were decidedly higher-pitched than those to come. Lee appears to have officially joined the ranks of female role models in rock.

Teen girls could certainly pick worse heroines, considering her impressive talent. The band's sing-a-long set closers, "My Immortal" and "Bring Me to Life," displayed her nifty keyboard chops along with her powerful range.

At night, the Pavilion's massive lighting rig makes the venue a much more impressive place to watch a band than it is in the daylight. As dusk passed, many of the old folks in the seats (myself included) opted to skip Evans Blue on the side stage and settle in for Korn. Thirteen years ago, I'd have killed to hear Korn on the Buzz, but by now the nu-metal godfathers are plenty established enough to headline the station's showcase.

The band opened its set with the heavy, stripped-down sound of "Predictable," a song from its highly influential 1994 debut. Singer Jonathan Davis looked noticeably slimmer on stage, his energy little diminished from the band's late-'90s salad days. "No Place to Hide" led right into another older cut from Life is Peachy, "Good God," that sent dreadlocks flying.

Next, Korn broke out a suite from its new electronic, dubstep-heavy album, The Path of Totality. Tunes like "Chaos Lives in Everything" and "Get Up" were powerful, but didn't quite produce the stomp that the band's classic sound elicited.

Undaunted, Korn reminded everyone that it's "Here to Stay" with that 2002 track and its classic "Freak on a Leash." They even managed to produce the first mosh pit to a Pink Floyd song I've ever seen outside of a junior high dance with their version of "Another Brick in the Wall."

Jonathan Davis' bagpipes were actually drowned out by the roar of the crowd during the band's encore of "Shoots and Ladders," and "Got the Life" and "Blind" brought the day's proceedings to an orgiastic, head-banging conclusion.

"We have been a band for 18 fucking years," screamed Davis as the crowd clapped and hooted. "And it's all because of you people!"

Damn, 18 years. That's longer than even Buzzfest has been around. But without a single ticket unsold on Saturday, it seems only a matter of time until the fest catches up.

Personal Bias: I've been a Houstonian long enough to remember when the Buzz broadcast on 107.5 FM, but this was my first Buzzfest.

The Crowd: Not one single spirit hood.

Overheard in the Crowd: "Where the fuck is the side stage?"

Random Notebook Dump: Couldn't have been a more gorgeous day. Great calendar planning, Buzzfest!

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