The third annual edition of Houston’s premier music festival was a futuristic 3-day party that made the end of days look fun.
In most locales north of the equator, festival season is over, but the Gulf South stays warm long enough to extend its debauchery well into the fall. Even in Houston, though, a mid-December music festival seems ill-advised. Last year during Day for Night, the weather almost cut the party short as gale-force winds toppled tents and brought in a cold front that dropped the temperature into the 30s at night.
Mother Nature struck again this year, sending in heavy rains to pummel the sinners assembled outside the old Barbara Jordan Post Office Saturday, December 16. The organizers were slightly better prepared this time, and it made a difference. Small but significant schedule shifts were made hours before the rain hit, pushing the outdoor headliners’ time slots up to save them from the worst of the storm. The situation could have turned sour quickly with attendees crowding into the post office (the festival’s only indoor space) to seek shelter, but it didn’t. The show went on, and the rain worked in favor of the festival’s dark aura.
Music festivals often feel apocalyptic by default. Many of them are held on farms or in the forest, far from civilization. Patrons camp out, barter for sustenance and mind-altering substances, and leave behind grounds scarred with their footprints and porta potties overflowing with their excrement. But Day for Night is held in the middle of downtown Houston, and urban festivals (ACL, Governor’s Ball, Voodoo) generally feel more controlled than their rural counterparts. Still, Free Press Houston (Day for Night’s organizers) doubled down on the current American zeitgeist of existential despair, creating a festival for the times we live in. The artists, the speakers at Friday’s summit, and the industrial setting all felt curated to represent an age of political unrest, digitization and paradigm shift. What does art sound like and look like in an era that’s terrifying to live in, but exciting because it is?
The festivities kicked off on Friday with a series of somber speeches by artists and icons from distant regions and far-flung fields of thought. The unifying theme between the speakers was survival—in the digital age, in Trump’s America, and even in prison.
First up was writer, composer, musician, film director and visual/performance artist Laurie Anderson, who spoke about her cross-platform storytelling and the importance of ambiguity in her work. She discussed her struggle with endings as the clock wound down on her segment. Luckily for her, Day for Night facilitated such soft finishes by segueing each presentation into the next with a conversation between consecutive speakers.
Anderson was followed by Lauren McCarthy, another multimedia artist and a programmer and digital entrepreneur, of sorts. Her interaction with Anderson felt more like an interview than a conversation between peers, with McCarthy playing the nervous young journalist, asking most of the questions while Anderson, now an elder stateswoman of the avant garde, dished out life advice and waxed philosophical on the sorry state of the world. Before leaving the stage, Anderson offered three rules to live by: don’t be afraid of anyone, keep a good bullshit detector, and be tender. While the first two felt rote, the last was unexpected from someone so seasoned, and it struck a chord.
McCarthy moved on to speak about her own projects, and it soon became evident that she was much more accomplished than she let on in her conversation with Anderson. She started off by discussing one of her more practical endeavors, an open-source coding program called p5.js, whose purpose is to make coding (a field dominated by men) accessible to everyone. She then detailed some of her more exploratory work, mostly based in social media. Her projects include crowdsourcing her dates, following folks around while they document their days for her alone, and devoting weeks of her life to operating as a human smart home for willing participants, whose testimonials she broadcast on the screens during her presentation. Each of her projects explored a different facet of human-machine interaction, but they all shared an unflinching creepiness, which has become the defining feature of McCarthy’s work.
Her speech was followed by a spoken-word poem from the enigmatic Saul Williams, who asked a series of rhetorical, existential questions on hot-button issues, from eating disorders to overreliance on social media, and concluded that dancing is really what it’s all about.
Next up was Chelsea Manning, one of the most polarizing figures in recent American history. An ex-intelligence analyst for the U.S. military, Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of classified army documents in 2010, an offense that earned her an indefinite prison sentence, though it was eventually commuted by President Obama at the start of this year. Manning is also a trans icon and an activist for LGBTQ rights, and has been alternately demonized and deified in the mainstream media.
At Day for Night, Manning mostly came off unprepared. Her speech had poignant moments, but it was also filled with long, awkward pauses, in which she seemed to lose her train of thought. She often opted for broad generalizations like “There are more of us than there are of them,” “Corporations and big data are out to get us,” and “We all have hope inside us,” in lieu of specific methods of resistance. The presentation was disappointing, especially given that public speaking has been Manning’s full-time occupation since her release from prison.
Manning opened up a bit more during her conversation with the next speaker, Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova, from the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot. They spoke about their shared histories of political imprisonment. Unlike Manning, who was court-marshalled and found in violation of the Espionage Act, Nadya’s crime was purely ideological. She was arrested alongside fellow band member Maria Alyokhina in 2012 on trumped up charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after a Pussy Riot performance protesting the Putin regime in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. She was released in late 2013, and has spent her time since crusading against tyranny in Russia and across the globe. Aside from her work with Pussy Riot, she has started Zona Prava ("Justice Zone"), an organization that protects prisoners’ rights, and MediaZona, a full team of journalists dedicated to delivering *real news* to Russians.
The interaction prompted Manning’s most interesting insight of the evening—that “prison reform” doesn‘t address the root of the problem. Selling “better prisons” to the American public, she posited, ignores the fact that prisons are immoral to begin with, and should be abolished altogether.
Nadya, however, quickly established herself as the star speaker of the summit. She came onstage in sweatpants and a hoodie with a big cat bedazzled on its back a la Maureen Ponderosa, and sat cross-legged for the first half of her presentation, exuding a quiet confidence unmatched by anyone else in the room, despite her heavily accented English.
In her talk, she detailed the bizarre origin of Pussy Riot— “an accident,” in her words. When Nadya and other members of the anarchist art collective Voina were asked to give a lecture on “punk feminism” in Russia six years ago, they realized there was no such thing, so they created their own feminist punk band. None of the members of the band started out as musicians, but they found musical performance the perfect avenue for their conceptual protest art.
Their rage is mostly aimed at the Russian government, particularly Putin. Nadya spent much of her speech berating her homeland’s leader, who she referred to as an “empty space” and a “puppet of the oligarchy” with “no coherent beliefs.” Recently, though, they’ve also been intensely critical of Trump, in whom they see many similar issues to those they’ve witnessed in Putin for three terms. Their 2016 song/video, “Make America Great Again,” while somewhat heavy-handed, is an interesting view of our situation from an outsider’s perspective. (It doesn’t look any better from across the pond.)
Jenny Hval’s set was one of the best of the entire weekend. Her setup was simple: Hval on the mic, her DJ, Håvard, on the track, and her friend Zia on the visuals, which were screen-shared from directly her phone. This technique was both distracting from--and integral to--the set. Zia started simple with live video of Hval performing, but then expanded to data-moshed footage from music videos, selfies with the new iPhone X filters, and a long text conversation with Zia’s cousin (or at least someone listed in her contacts as “Cousin”) that continued throughout the set. The images projected behind Hval were equally arresting. They were screenshots of everything from fake error messages (e.g. “Something bad happened”) to Spider-Man and Elsa YouTube videos. They were threaded together by the same sense of digital dread that connected the summit talks.
Hval’s irony-laden presentation extended to her own work. One of the more prominent screenshots was a Pitchfork Facebook post proclaiming her 2016 album Blood Bitch “Best New…” with “Algorithm” scribbled sloppily over “Music.” That music was excellent as her voice moved from Björkesque melisma to monotone sing-talk to hellacious screeching, floating over droning synths and driving drumbeats.
Earl Sweatshirt, an Odd Future devil-child turned gloomy rap outsider, put on an appropriately austere set, his off-kilter flow jutting out from behind the beat at awkward angles. Kaytranada closed out the night with a crisply curated thread of funk and Afrobeat jams. The hit list he’s compiled in the past two years is probably the longest of any non-trap producer, but his upbeat, inoffensive vibes didn’t fit Day for Night’s end-of-days aesthetic. He also struggled with a broken personal mic, and seemed somewhat uncomfortable performing on the dimly lit “Blue Stage,” against the post office’s echoing concrete backdrop. These Blue Stage issues would persist throughout the festival.
Princess Nokia rocked an all-pink Supreme tracksuit, took full control of the stage, and launched herself into the crowd on Saturday, but her showmanship was only half the story. She also made a point to emphasize her Puerto Rican heritage and her passion for feminist activism, a bold move for a young woman coming up in the notoriously sexist hip-hop hierarchy.
Next up was Perfume Genius, a queer pop icon with a penchant for maximalist walls of synth and pulsing dance drums. He flowed across the stage Saturday like a reptile, his tight turtleneck clinging to his wiry frame as he gyrated to the beat in ways that could have made Elvis faint.
Later that day, Pussy Riot’s set was much more comprehensible than it would have been without Nadya’s Friday speech. Four female members danced and sung/rapped in unison, mostly in Russian with English subtitles projected behind them, while a male DJ spun behind them. They wore their signature pink ski masks for most of their set, though Nadya showed her face at points, broadcasting her confident aura on a larger scale this time.
When James Blake played the Orpheum last fall, he put on a gorgeous set, mostly focusing on his 2016 album, The Colour in Anything. This time, he started out with familiar music from that album and his 2013 breakthrough sophomore record, Overgrown, but he finished with three new tracks, a bold move for a festival set. The new songs were spaced out ballads with drifting rhythms and lilting melodies, far removed from the gloom of Blake’s earlier work. Even more shocking was the fact that Blake abandoned his post behind his keyboard fortress to stand at the mic for his new material. He’s 6’5’’, so the shift in his stage presence felt seismic. In the face of impending rain, and at a festival as apocalyptic as Day For Night, Blake’s newfound optimism was moving.
The beauty of Blake’s set provided a brief respite from the doom and gloom hanging over the festival, but the bleakness was back full force when the downpour began, and Trent Reznor and the current Nine Inch Nails stepped onstage, as if drawn forth from his personal crypt by the sound of thunder. At the same time, Tyler the Creator was evil in an entirely different way from Reznor, and there was a time when some folks genuinely wondered if he was the Antichrist. He’s toned his terrifying lyrics down in recent years, drifting slowly but surely towards lush soul grooves and sung hooks, a move his teen self surely would have laughed at. Signs of this switch were audible as early as his 2013 sophomore album, Wolf, and surfaced more visibly on Cherry Bomb (2015), but he didn’t fully capture his jazzy side until this year’s Flower Boy, which is nominated for the Best New Rap Album Grammy.
On Saturday, Tyler capitalized on his new-found mainstream appeal, focusing on Flower Boy for most of his set. His edges felt smoother than in past performances, but it worked in his favor. He still loves to shock, but this time he swapped the misogyny and homophobia of his early lyrics for subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints that he might be gay--lyrics that set the blogosphere ablaze with speculation.
His set still isn’t quite the field of sunflowers his album art suggests, though. Alone onstage, he rapped forcefully, with less between-song banter than usual. He seemed to be putting his entire body behind every lyric, contorting himself into unlikely shapes and awing the crowd with his raw physicality.
After a long stretch of Flower Boy tracks, Tyler took a pause and said he wanted to play some older stuff. The crowd tensed visibly, anticipating the unchained anger of his early albums, and he brought it. He spat venom on tracks like “Tamale” and “Deathcamp,” and got the crowd going wild for “Who Dat Boy,” Flower Boy’s only real callback to his angrier days. But the performance felt curated and content-driven, not tastelessly cruel.
The weather seemed to move with Tyler’s mood. As his music got angrier, the rain fell harder, to the point where it was leaking through the not-so-weatherproof rain flaps covering the stage, leaving Tyler as soaked as his spectators. He referenced the wetness at one point, saying something like “It’s really raining, huh?” But other than that, he seemed unphased, like he’d planned the whole thing. He ended his set on the soft side with “See You Again,” the catchiest track on Flower Boy, proving that if he really has been sent to bring about the end of days, he’s going to make it fun, at least.
The sun came out again on Sunday, and with it came a sunnier Phantogram, one that sounded like The Lumineers went electric. At the same time, Babyfather, a side project of the elusive Dean Blunt, sounded raw and insanely suave. He emanated a careless confidence similar to Nadya’s, and perhaps not surprisingly, she danced in crowd during his set. His ice-cold, monotone flow is evidence that not all British rap needs to sound like Skepta, another significant silver lining to our planet’s demise.
Sunday got serious around 6 p.m., when the sky grew pitch black and Godspeed You! Black Emperor graced the Green Stage with a set full of protracted instrumental ballads. They were followed by The Jesus Lizard, but both were eclipsed by Solange’s Red Stage arrival, the most inspiring moment of the entire festival. The New Orleans-based diva made up for her truancy from the Friday summit the second she stepped on. Her band entered the bizarrely designed stage, which featured Greek columns, a Japanese rising sun, and an Egyptian pyramid (all put up just before her set and taken down immediately after), dressed in loose-fitting red and white outfits designed for ultra-advanced inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic Pangaean super-society.
She started things off with an extended version of “Rise,” the opening track of her breakthrough 2016 LP,A Seat at the Table. Her set was almost entirely composed of material from that album, and each component of her performance felt through-composed, from the meticulously choreographed dance moves to the orchestral noodlings of horn players from the University of Houston jazz program, with Solange playing conductor.
Solange and her band left the stage after a blissed out rendering of her 2012 smash hit “Losing You,” but returned shortly for an encore, a rare move for a mid-festival set. Solange made her only extended speech of the night, a joyful shoutout to Houston, the city where she was born and raised. She closed it out on a serious note, emphasizing the importance of her upbringing in the city’s famous Third Ward (“The Tre") and beseeched its current residents not to let it gentrify. She then launched into “Don’t Touch My Hair,” a fitting ending to a set that felt like an honor to witness.
St. Vincent was another highlight. Her set was a feminist statement, though she rarely made any explicit ones. Dressed in a pink, patent leather leotard, she stood alone onstage with her guitars, which she rotated throughout the set. Displaying a rock star attitude much more staged than Nadya’s or Babyfather’s but no less effective, she focused on tracks from her new album, MASSEDUCTION, lacing in crowd-pleasing callbacks like “Cheerleader” and “Birth in Reverse,” as well as a forced shoutout to Texas (where she hasn’t lived in years), including cringy colloquialisms such as “I’m fixin’ to play some songs!”
Despite her sometimes awkward banter, St. Vincent’s set was phenomenal. While her stage presence was anything but subtle, her visuals were strange and arresting. They weren’t as purely ironic as Jenny Hval’s, but they dealt with similar themes—technological dependence was depicted through an edible phone, while the male gaze was dissected through unusual shots of female body parts (elbows, knees, foreheads).
Dav for Night concluded indoors, where Corbin followed St. Vincent with a masterclass in moodiness. Since his start as viral sad boy R&B sensation Spooky Black, he’s wisely rebranded himself as a singer somewhere between King Krule and James Blake, and arguably sadder than either. His debut album, Mourn, was uniformly bleak, but his voice warps wildly enough through his dimly lit landscapes to keep things interesting. His Sunday set was one of the best to grace the Blue Stage all weekend.
Day for Night 2017’s closing act, was Thom Yorke, who made some typically snide but (in this case) warranted comments about the Blue Stage’s setup and told an unlucky rave girl to kindly shove her obnoxious light-up tambourine up her ass, prompting a cheer from the sea of men who packed the post office almost to its back wall for the first time. Yorke’s set played like a curated collection of rarities, which made sense, since his solo career is essentially a massive Radiohead B-side album. He sounded great, though. Aside from the reverse heckling at the beginning, he kept crowd interaction to the minimum, instead stretching his voice to the limits of Yorke-ian whininess. The set, like much of Day for Night, was too dark to take at face value, but so much fun it didn’t matter.