good kid, g.l.A.A.s.s. city: A Weekend at Houston's Inaugural Day for Night Festival
We spent the weekend at the festival tasked with making Houston—the fourth largest city in the country—a festival destination in Texas that isn't Austin.
All photos by Erin Dyer unless noted
On the sight of some studios and industrial buildings in the Sawyer Heights neighborhood, just above the booming Washington Avenue, Day for Night took on a mission of not just brining a festival to the traditionally dead December, but reviving a commercially successful but creatively stagnant festival culture. It also took on the task of making Houston, whose status as the country's fourth-largest city constantly gets overlooked because it's not Austin, into a festival destination. All the oil and gas money's going towards the operas and the modern art exhibits—popular music should benefit from that a little bit too, right? This might be the only festival where the headliners included both Kendrick Lamar and Philip Glass, and that sort of challenge—to find an audience who will appreciate both, who can get down to oft-kilter pop and totally insane noise, who are tired of the same fucking indie bands cut from the same fucking college dorm rooms—is noble. And Day for Night mostly succeeded. Here's a look at some of the festival's best moments and a few missteps.
DRAWN TO TASTE OF PHILIP GLASS
Photo by Alex Kacha
One of Day for Night's wildest experiments was putting one of its marquee acts, Philip Glass Ensemble, on at 1:30. You could interpret that as a cynical ploy to get as many people to come early as possible, then trap them so they have to spend more on ten dollars adult hot chocolate and $16 “Big wine.” Glass's music demands attention that you simply might not have by nine, or even at five, so his early placement actually made a little sense. I don't think I've seen that many people at a festival packed to see anyone at 1:30, let alone Philip fucking Glass. Glass performed a “hits” sets of sorts, which might seem a little odd for a composer like him, but it was an illumination into the roots of what you see in a lot of electronic music now. Mainly, Glass knows how to loop a rhythm for maximum hypnotic potential, making something so soothing also grand and even kind of absurd. He forces you to reckon with just how beautiful a melody can be, and more importantly, it's on you to give it meaning, whatever it may be. It's open, but also frighteningly initimate. On my way to Houston, I gave Oneohtrix Point Never's Garden of Delete another go, and it especially clicked on this listen. I saw shades of Oneohtrix's blissful detours, especially from “Mutant Standard,” in Glass' cascading ecstasies in the conclusion of the fifth part of Music in 12 Parts. “The Grid”'s staccato sax and the horn swells of “Facades” were two moments where the electronics took a back seat and the rest of the ensemble got to shine. While the dude blowing huge vape clouds during his set wasn't the most annoying thing, it had to be the first time someone's done that at a Philip Glass show, right? It wouldn't be a music a fest without some slight bro-isms.
DREAMS NEVER END, BUT YOU WILL
New Order closed out Friday night as the only real nostalgia act on the lineup. No Peter Hook felt even weirder than Ozzy Sabbath without Bill Ward or Van Halen minus Michael Anthony—even if Tom Chapman did an adequate job of playing bass, those lines are still Hook's trademark. They just didn't feel like Hook's lines, and “Ceremony” felt a little flatter because of it. When the band extended the jams, as they did with “True Faith” and “Bizarre Love Triangle,” whose remixes are superior to the album versions, they found their strength, favoring huge electronics over basslines. Despite being the senior act of the fest, save for Glass, Sumner's voice hasn't aged in over three decades. Even if the electronics that seemed so futuristic then are quaint now, his voice gave their show that timeless air. Those “oohs” in “Temptation” still sounded as playfully erotic as ever. For the encore, they paid tribute to Ian Curtis with “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and Sumner's innocence in his voice was even more heartbreaking than the Curtis blown up on the screen. Funny on how he still lords over the group, even when New Order were much more successful than Joy Division ever were. New Order did not put on a bad set by any means, but it wasn't as transcendent as Glass or Kendrick or Death Grips, all of which we'll get to in a minute.
New Order are arguably one of the biggest influences on dance and electronic music, and Day for Night was littered with its children. Two electronic performances of note came from Holly Herndon and Nicolas Jaar. Herndon floated abstract techno through visuals that distorated the mundane, sushi and ramen floating in free space and office spaces disintegrating and rotting. What I found most interesting was her use of text to communicate with the audience, an update on the tired banter rock bands have been using for eons. The distance was there, but its endurance also made Herndon feel closer to us, even as she was communicating in a form that can lead to greater isolation. Her smileys felt a little dated, as weird as that sounds—has anyone actively used emoji to communicate in concert yet? There has to be. (Miley, give me a finder's fee if you take this up.) This fest caters to the less poppy but not totally avant-garde fan (and that's despite including Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monae, and fucking Shamir, who we shall never speak of again), so it came as no surprise that “BEYONCE” got timid cheers, while the crowd erupted when “DJ SCREW” flashed across the screen. (No ZZ Top or Insect Warfare nods though?) Herndon also used her set as a platform for activism, dedicating the set to Chelsea Manning and criticizing anti-encryption politics from recent debates. Herndon's music is about finding humanity in electronic music, and as such, it didn't feel as preachy or as suffocating as a crust punk band yelling “SMASH THE SYSTEM!” Jaar, meanwhile, provided a new take on the more ambient side of IDM. There was no political thrust, leaving you, like in Glass's performance, to find you own meaning and liberation in Jaar's deceptively dancey rhythms. People were grooving—there was a strong crowd for him, actually—to grooves too soft to dance, but too hard to resist any motion. He obscured himself on stage but wasn't content with being brooding; red lasers and yellow lights cannoned into the crowd. You might have missed some of his set to catch Death Grips, but whatever you saw of him, it left an impression.
HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE KENDRICK LAMAR
People came out for Kendrick on Sunday. The youth was in full force: space leggings, Supreme headbands, the dying remnants of healthgoth in the Texas winter, bucket hats and plenty of Soundclouds with them, they were all out in full force. It's sort of the opposite of how music festival normally run, where the Saturdays are occupied by younger acts, and the older acts get the Sunday cooldown crowd. Even if To Pimp A Butterfly hasn't won you over, you should still see Kendrick if you get the opportunity. Behind a backdrop that simply said “Never Trust a Nigga with Cornrows” Butterfly's jazzy and funky airs made a live band essential, and Kendrick himself was especially on point with his verses. With his ability and the crowd's enthusiasm, it was difficult to not be overwhelmed. And while people got down for the Butterfly material, it was deeper into the catalog, such as “Backstreet Freestyle,” “Swimming Pools,” and closer “ADHD” where Kendrick was actually competing with the audience to be heard. There was a white aspiring rapper who got up on stage to rap some of “m.A.A.d. City,” Corporate Dough, and he nearly burst into tears saying that it was the greatest day in his life. His spirit was stronger than his ability, but Kendrick's a man of the people. The energy from everyone was unforgettable, a closing an inaugural festival needed—and got.
WHY YOU SHOULD STOP WORRYING AND LOVE DEATH GRIPS
With a stark white backdrop and their bodies reduced to shadows, Death Grips laid waste to your expectations of them. Kendrick was about using energy to bring people together, and Death Grips took their energy to project their rage and ectasty onto the crowd. Both are equally valid. Day for Night didn't get much more euphoric than when they burst into “I've Seen Footage,” whose sprighly beats translates beautifully into a festival setting. While the performance didn't feel as frantic on the crowd end, due to the spread-out nature of fests, Stefan Burnett sounded more vicious than he did during the summer. If nothing else, it's impossible to not find joy in zeroing in watching Zach Hill show no mercy on the drums. He had his monitors flank him on both ends, punishing himself so he can give you it all. Though they didn't focus on newer material except for “Inaminate Sensation” and closer “I Break My Mirrors with My Face in the United States,” this was no victory lap. Death Grips tore through their set with abandon, never stopping to acknowledge anything, not even themselves, as Hill would often keep banging in between songs. The common thread between Kendrick's and Death Grips' is that live performance matters, even in, and especially in, hip-hop. This is not to say that every chum with a soundcloud and bad taste in streetwear should find a live band, but showing up 30 minutes or an hour late to your performance, where you slur lines and the PA pumps the bass so high it drowns out your DJ, isn't gonna cut it anymore. And hey, that can be fun if you've got an engaging presence, but having your shit together is even cooler.
HOUSTON ISN'T JUST ABOUT SCREW
B L A C K I E
Day for Night's Blue Stage served partially as a showcase for Houston's experimental scene. Richard Ramirez, an anchor of Houston noise who's best known for his BDSM project Black Leather Jesus, immediately followed Glass with a set of his trademark noise walls. It felt a little timid for a harsh noise set, though that was more due to a lackluster outdoor sound than anything on his end. Walls of static and images of torsos contorting and drowning in televisions static shouldn't feel like a spring breeze. Future Blondes stretched and contorted dance and noise, sort of like a druggier L.A.-era Prurient. Strangely, they sound better outside than the dank clubs and spaces they usually perform in. Were it nighttime, instead of their 4:00 Saturday slot, we could have really summoned something wicked. The best local performance came from one-man provocateur B L A C K I E. There's a false sort of rivalry between B L A C K I E and Death Grips, since both came up around the same time with noise-laden interpretations of hip-hop. Not only does that narrative that both can't coexist, but it also doesn't do service to that B L A C K I E himself has changed his style, moving from noisey hip-hop to an amalgamation of punk confrontation. Flipper's sludge, and free-jazz skronk and noise. Still, his music isn't quite any one of those things; it's as pure of an expression of frustration and rage as you'll find. I suppose you could call haphazardly dropping a mic into your saxophone “punk,” but “punk” isn't always synonymous with “raw” now, and B L A C K I E was definitely raw. He had people following him in circles at the end of his set, where he was growling and banging around sleigh bells as some sort of improvised ritual. His set was a more of a purging of maladies than just screaming and wailing; he gave his pain to everyone. Only bummer about the local performances was that their crowds paled in comparison with the national and international acts. In fact, they didn't feel that much bigger than the shows they usually play, aside from the stage. It's almost universally true everywhere that locals only care about local bands when they find success elsewhere.
ROCK FOR LIGHT
Most everyone that played at Day for Night took visual presentation into consideration. Flying Lotus was one of the best sets of the weekends, and that would have been true even if the PA was silent the whole time. It was gloriously loud and vulgar clashes of gory anime and retro-futuristic psychedelia. If you dropped something, it better have been during his set. People were so entrenched, he manged to convince the crowd for a split second that Earl Sweatshirt was about to come out. Even less flashy gestures, like Glass's backdrop that could have been an alluring sunset, or the American flag tethered to B L A C K I E's saxophone, carried weight and felt important to performance. The fest billed itself with a strong visual arts component, and while there were some pretty interesting art exhibits that experimented heavily with light, they felt somewhat divorced from the festival as a whole. I'd like to see more exclusive collaborations with artists, something memorable and integrated. Still, it's great that even in its first year, Day for Night has already a more concrete identity than most fests. They created an experimental festival that didn't feel like an academic conference, and they also created a youth destination that didn't feel like an EDM Woodstock—aka, a bunch of drug use and living your life as a meme, without purpose. And with that, we're excited to see a second edition.
Andy O'Connor is a writer based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter.