There were several signs that the attendance for this year’s Free Press Summer Fest exceeded even the expectations of its organizers: beer tents that sold through their merchandise, clogged passages from the two main stages, lines at the gates and food stands. That said, from a visual standpoint the turnout was impressive. The suggestion that this year’s lineup wasn’t the biggest in the festival’s four years was quite simply proven wrong by FPSF’s second stage which drew a tremendous crowd for the entirety of Day 1, capped by a seemingly endless expanse of people for the Flaming Lips set, which took place while a crowd about equal in size gathered for Afrojack’s turn at the turntables on the main stage.
As for the music itself, it was a perfectly curated mix spread throughout Eleanor Tinsley Park. I typically prefer to stay for entire sets, but found myself early on spending 15 to 20 minutes at as many performances as I could take in. Early sets by locals the Wheel Workers and Sideshow Tramps were full energetic despite the hour and the heat. Tramps frontman Craig Kinsey’s “I’m not moving to Austin” shirt proved a hit.
Clockpole again churned out a set of music that you wouldn’t dare call song-based, but there was a nice little crowd for the body-paint and confetti-filled mayhem. I’d thought Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah had run their course, but their prickly, yelpy sort of indie rock sounded vibrant and drew a sizable crowd of a few hundred at an hour when poor Junior Brown only had about 20 listeners last year.
STRFKR’s electro-indie pop was an early standout. And I found the bit of Best Coast I saw to be more engaged and energized than a flaccid Fitzgerald’s set from a few years back. They played at 2:40 and ended up playing to a pretty full hill on the second stage. Since Morris Day was running late, I took in some of Diplo’s set on Stage 3. Minutes before starting one of the table legs collapsed and his gear slid to the stage but he quickly rallied. “I guess I won’t be standing on that table,” he said. He quickly set about stirring up the crowd in the domed stage.
A friend justified the delay by saying “They’re not called Morris Day and the on-Time.” There was no “Jungle Love,” possibly because the delay resulted in a shortened set, but Day and the Time still put together a vibrant and interactive set with dance party fare like “The Oak Tree,” “The Bird” and “Fishnet.” They also suited up admirably, with full regalia at 3 p.m. which was about the height of the heat.
After Day there was a small migration away from the main stage for Z-Ro, though those who remained were clearly not the out-of-towners because every word of every song was shouted back to the Houston rapper.
By the time I made my way back to Stage 2 for Two Door Cinema Club the crowd had spread itself across the hill and good vantage points had to be earned by threading through the throng. The music – a lean and angular new wave-inspired sort of electro-indie rock – suggested nighttime, but the relentless sun didn’t stop frontman Alex Trimble from one, wearing tight red jeans that didn’t look terribly weather appropriate and two, stirring up the crowd into a pogo-ing mass.
At this point both stages seemed to be well populated and the byway between them was clogged. A design complaint that will likely be addressed next year was the giant merch tent between the two stages on Allen Parkway, which caused clogging on either side, and also created some testy moments between festival goers and volunteers trying to schlep things like ice and drinks from one side to the other.
At that point I decided to quit ping-ponging and cast my lot with stage 2. Erykah Badu started a bit late and a bit shaky but the unorthodox instrumentation of her Cannabinoids – two keyboardists and a bunch of guys on laptops and other digital gadgets -- gradually gelled and made for some interesting 21st century R&B. She played a tune from an album due at the end of the year. I didn’t get the title (possibly “Money Can’t Buy”) but if a mini-rant/speech at the end of the set is any indication, she’ll be continuing her World War series only this one (the fifth) is, she says, “the war of the people against their minds.” Perhaps a further clue was available on the shirts of her Cannibinoids which read, “Welcome to the human brain and the science of addiction.” She also worked through her catalog with “The Healer” and “Soldier” and digging back to her debut with “Appletree.”
The hill thinned out after her set, likely people trying to squeeze their way into Snoop Dogg. By the time the Flaming Lips took the stage close to 8:30 there was no visible grass on the hillside. Actually before getting to the Lips, I’ll say that there was visible weed for much of the rest of the day. From Houston’s Wheel Workers at noon to the last notes of the Lips’ “Dark Side” the air was thick with it. I can only imagine there’ll be a pot drought for the record books coming Houston’s way.
So the Lips: Even when you know what’s coming – and people pretty much knew what was coming – it remains a singular and uplifting experience watching this band. They’ve perfected the concert as shared experience, with all the costuming, confetti guns, lights and human hamster balls that you’ve seen time and again. Yet they continue to customize it to where each one of these shows feels special. The band opened with a short set of its own music, fairly obvious pleasers for those who got hip to the band around the release of “The Soft Bulletin”: between opener “Race for the Prize” and closer “Do You Realize?” were singalongs like “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1.”
Then, under a full moon that frontman Wayne Coyne repeatedly acknowledged, the band played Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” with Phantogram’s Josh Carter (guitar) and Sarah Barthel (keys) in tow. The ubiquitous nature of “Dark Side” has over the years washed away the sense of it as a very weird album. It must’ve seen especially that way when it was released 39 years ago. But having a gaggle of DIY art weirdos like the Lips have their way with it both recast it as something intriguing and new – the presentation was reverent but hardly formal – while underscoring how radical it was in its day. I had reservations about “Dark Side” in lieu of a Lips set, but with few exceptions they wholly believe in their sometimes bizarre doings and they sell them relentlessly as products of shared joy. And that’s what was done with “Dark Side.” Coyne’s reverence for the music was clear, but he also made clear this was a Flaming Lips show.
This was perhaps most evident in the playing of Steven Drozd, the native son who kept giving shout outs to Fort Bend County. It’s no secret that Drozd is the key element in executing Coyne’s vision, but he’s particularly valuable in executing a vision that’s one step removed from Coyne’s strange and wonderful mind. In this case he was tasked with the way of serving up some of “Dark Side”’s weird vocals and more dauntingly David Gilmour’s guitar parts in a way that was respectful but different. His solo on “Time” was a majestic thing to behold, much like the one Prince played on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame years ago. It clearly referenced its source material, while allowing Drozd to dance in its darkness with his own little improvisations. Less visceral but more moving was the beautiful jazzy figure he played on “Us and Them.”
The Lips were the first act I saw that didn’t reference the heat, but by then the sun was down and a breeze blew. Still Coyne’s decision to wear a wintery coat with a foil cape seemed suspect; further proof of his commitment to his cause.
And as he’s done for weeks now, he cheered on FPSF and Houston, a city that clearly harbors a strong freak culture scene amid its big energy business, which must appeal to the gaggle of oddballs from Oklahoma City. He suggested the Lips would play FPSF any year, they just need the call. “Three years,” he said. “I think this will be the biggest, coolest festival in the country in three years.”
But first, we enjoy Day 2 of year 2012.
What you can get at Summer Fest: Click below for a gallery of crazy things available for free or for purchase: