Year 2 of Houston Whatever Fest Welcomes Bigger Crowds, More Fun

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“Mark Wahlburg” telling Houstonians his plans to displace J.J. Watt and take on the entire New York Jets football team single-handedly. Kanye West’s skin peeled from his body, leaving people awash in pools of his blood. One of rap’s geniuses refusing to perform from the stage and doing his entire set amid us commoners in the audience. Little people in a little ring raising big cheers from crowds of wrasslin’ lovers.

Or, as comedian Doug Benson put it, “That’s right, folks, we’re at Whatever Fest where, whatever happens, who gives a fuck? Let’s have fun!”

Lots of people were doing just that at Houston Whatever Fest this weekend, whose much-improved attendance (especially Saturday) was a beautiful thing to see. Last year’s event boasted plenty of comedic and musical talent, but endured the light crowds associated with something all-new. We advocated for the event’s return and were happy to pencil it in for November this year rather than August, just one of the subtle changes HWF made to its well-considered festival template.

What makes this festival attractive is its melding of comedy and music, seen elsewhere at Fun Fun Fun Fest and Bonnaroo but not in Houston. We’ll focus primarily on the music from here on out, but it must be mentioned that Houston is ravenous for quality comedy. We saw it last year, when some of the larger crowds at HWF gathered for acts like Iliza Shlesinger and Bobcat Goldthwait. This year, the masses showed love for Benson, T.J. Miller (making his second HWF appearance) and many of the Houston comedians who are actively working to make this a second Second City. Or, a less-secret Secret Group, as it were.

Music-wise, we’ll start with Battlecross. Admittedly, we didn’t know the music, but it didn’t matter because, by the end of a gloriously brutal headbanging set — at 4:30 in the afternoon, no less — we all wanted to know more about this Detroit thrash-metal act. (A side note: HWF is now on a streak for bringing great Michigan bands to Houston after Lansing’s Cheap Girls last year. Who will the fest book next year from the Great Lakes area?)

“Does anyone want to hear some new songs?” asked front man Kyle “Gumby” Gunther. A crowd eager to hear metal on a Saturday afternoon erupted.

“That’s good ‘cause the last two were new, and I’d feel like a dick if anyone wasn’t ready,” he said.

That wasn’t Battlecross goofing on us newbs, it was an acknowledgment that savvy artists understand music fans at fests like HWF. Yes, there were worthy headliners like Metric, Ghostland Observatory and GWAR, but the bigger appeal might be the dozens of acts who deserve broader audiences. If you’re adventurous enough to find them, you may happen upon something awesome you can see and hear from up close before they become headlining acts.

Take New Jersey band the Front Bottoms. We’ve been listening to the group’s wry lyrics and well-crafted songs for a minute now, tracks like “The Plan (Fuck Jobs)” and “Twin Size Mattress,” the last song in the band’s well-attended Saturday-evening set. Lots of you have been listening too, judging from how so many of you were singing along to the songs. But seeing the live set gave us even more to love. And those who we dragged along who’d never heard the band are now eager to catch up with us.

That’s important not just for traveling working acts like Elvis Depressedly, Grupo Fantasma and Heartless Bastards, but also local acts. Even with all the strides Houston music is making, it’s sad to admit that some people never see the musicians who play this city regularly unless they’re drawn to see Metric or GWAR. So, welcome aboard to everyone who learned about some of our favorites here this weekend, like MNYNMS, We Were Wolves, Guilla, Say Girl Say, thelastplaceyoulook, Birdmagic and Dead to the World, to name a handful we saw.

If you’re going to say whatever, you’re going to have some surprises. “Mark Wahlburg” appearing in Houston for the Doug Loves Movies bit at the comedy stage was one. In this instance, Wahlburg was the character being played by Benson cohort Dan Van Kirk. He, Miller and Austin comic Chris Cubas joined Benson to the delight of fans. There was no surprise associated with GWAR’s unending and cartoonish assault on good taste, but it was weird watching them immolate Kanye, rip Hillary Clinton’s breasts from her body and bait ISIS barely a week after the Paris attacks. It would have been incredibly surprising had the stagehands not turned the mike back on for Shock G, who ran over his time before he could get to “The Humpty Dance,” which was demanded by the crowd. The best of these never-will-happen-again moments was when Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA proclaimed the energy wrong for his set, which was a mixture of snippets from Wu-Tang classics and tracks from Liquid Swords. To get it right, he said he had to be in the crowd, with the audience. So he stepped out into the gathered adoring fans and turnt up. At least two-thirds of the set, which included an Old Dirty Bastard shout-out on “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and closed with “Liquid Swords,” was delivered from the crowd.

Some things weren’t surprising at all. For instance, the sweet aroma of the sticky-icky at Benson’s set. Gio Chamba proving once again to be the enemy of novice photographers with no idea how to set a low-light shutter speed, with moves as fast and cool as those Ghostland Observatory lasers. Lil Flip went on two hours after his scheduled time and came with his own “scrippers” who writhed behind him on songs like “Game Over” and “This Is the Way We Ball.” (Just an assumption, really, but if they in fact are not strippers, they should quit their accounting jobs and follow their passion, which seems to be grinding on rappers and their posses.)

Organizers gave us lots of extracurricular activity, too. Micro Wrestling went on all weekend and ended with several of its combatants in a small-person free-for-all. There was Air Guitar action and, for those who wanted to take it a notch higher, an Air Sex competition. A rave tent with 3-D trippiness and active art installments almost made for sensory overload with everything else going on.

Metric closed the event out, which was a great choice, since the band has a solid Houston following. Front woman Emily Haines told the crowd she felt as if she were back home in Canada, not because of the cool temps, but because of the warm reception. There’s something about the band that gets your heart beating like a hammer, to borrow a quote. You’re rejuvenated by it. We danced and celebrated all we’d seen over the weekend to its set. By the time Metric closed with “Breathing Underwater” and sent us back to do whatever we do when we’re not doing Whatever, we were ready to do it the best way we could.  

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