Despite unfortunate weather and some logistical mishaps, Houston pulled off one of the best festivals of the year.
When you think of a music festival in 2016, an abandoned post office doesn’t generally come to mind, so when I learned that Houston’s second annual Day for Night festival would be held at the old Barbara Jordan Post Office building, I was intrigued. A quick perusal of the festival’s website offered a little more insight into the unusual location choice. A digital map of the grounds detailed a sprawling concrete outdoor area with three stages as well as food and merch spots, and an indoor area (the post office itself) with a fourth stage and a number of art installations.
Many festivals today (Voodoo and Buku, for instance) market themselves as “art experiences,” implying that the music is only part of the entertainment. Generally, the art experience boils down to a few trippy, “interactive” installations that provide festivalgoers with selfie opportunities, but Day for Night alleged that they were taking it a step further. A separate “Light” lineup touted artists like Tundra, Ezra Miller, and Alex Czetwertynski, whose multimedia projects were on display inside the post office.
The biggest draw, however, was still the “Sound” lineup, the most forward-thinking conglomeration of musical acts I’ve seen this year. While last year’s headliners (Kendrick Lamar, Philip Glass, Flying Lotus, Janelle Monae, Death Grips) were impressive, it was the undercard that stood out this time around. As I looked down a list of names that began with Aphex Twin, Bjork, and Travis Scott, I had to pinch myself more than once as, nearing the bottom, names like Nothing, Soulection, and The Suffers' Kam Franklin were still popping up.
Not surprisingly for a December festival, Day for Night had issues. The biggest was the weather, which was obviously beyond anyone’s control. When Day for Night opened on Saturday, the temperature was hovering around 80 degrees despite an overcast sky. That night, though, the storm clouds finally broke over downtown Houston, with gusts of wind that sent small items flying and almost knocked over one of the VIP tents. The storm ushered in a vicious cold front, bringing Saturday’s lows into the 30s. Many out-of-towners had not prepared for such frigid conditions in Houston, and the second-day attendance dropped significantly (although not as drastically as the temperature did).
Beyond the weather, there were other kinks that needed ironing out as well. The post office was vast and dark, which gave it a spooky vibe that worked in its favor, but also made it disorienting in a less productive way. Art exhibits, which usually function as good meeting spots at big festivals, were often difficult to find twice. On Friday, travel from place to place inside the building was mostly unrestricted, but by Saturday, the media lounge and several of the art exhibits were capped at ridiculously low head counts at the request of the fire marshal. Long lines ensued. To facilitate crowd flow, entrances and exits were separated and diligently patrolled by security, but getting out was always much more difficult than getting in, which seems counterintuitive. The age of the building also led to some unsavory sewage issues, with restrooms clearly not designed to consume the creative output of thousands of drunk urinators, defecators, and (worst of all) regurgitators. In the absence of a fire hazard, biohazard issues were much more pressing.
Finally, the art itself was mostly underwhelming. Some exhibits, like Tundra’s laser-based “Outlines” and Shoplifter’s “Ghostbeast” were mesmerizing, but most were the kind of thing a sober person looks at and says “I could totally stare at this for a long time if I was on drugs.” Luckily, most people seemed to be on drugs.
The Björk Digital exhibit, a major draw for many ticket buyers, was unable to meet the overwhelming demand due to its personalized quality, and an hours-long standby line made it impossible to see if one had any interest in checking out the music. The United Visual Artists project “Musica Universalis," another exhibit with a not-quite-as-insane line, was kind of cool but not worth the wait.
Mostly, it seemed as though the festival had simply underestimated the staff and additional vendors it would need to run smoothly. While the post office building itself was big enough to house maybe double the crowd it did, smaller spaces within it were always overcrowded or “at capacity,” and food and drink lines were absurd both inside and out. Day for Night’s press team claims the festival will continue to move to new locations each year, so many of this year's issues will be irrelevant in the future, but new ones will inevitably arise. No location is without its pitfalls, and no music festival is without its share of annoyances. Such is life.
Still, Day for Night was a success in my book. It was, after all, a music festival, and the music was phenomenal. The organizers did an excellent job at maximizing their budget by taking some of the best artists from under-appreciated genres and giving them space to shine.
The festival may have been heavy on electronic acts, but other styles had their place too. On Friday, black metal goddess Chelsea Wolfe took the stage and spooked the crowd into submission with her ethereal shouts and Satanist visual aesthetic. On Saturday, noise rock titans Lightning Bolt blasted through a high-energy set in the freezing cold. Fans rushed to the front to mosh for warmth, and Brian Chippendale’s insane drumming gave them the perfect excuse.
Indie rock showed up in full force too, with the legendary Ariel Pink mumbling through a low-energy, feel-good set, his bad all dressed in Santa garb to combat the cold. Shoegazers The Jesus and Mary Chain made the crowd wait patiently as they jammed through their ‘90s catalogue, but finished strong with a great run of tracks from their 1985 classic Psychocandy. The notoriously weird Butthole Surfers goofed around a little too much for their own good and singer Gibby Haynes had some issues with his sound, but their set was still a lot of fun.
There wasn’t much jazz or R&B at Day for Night, but the acts they did choose put on some of the best performances of the weekend. Self-proclaimed “Bass God” Thundercat shredded through a fun set Friday afternoon that would have been better served by a more intimate setting.
Kamasi Washington, the only straight jazz act booked at Day for Night, is also better at smaller shows, and being from L.A., the cold clearly made matters worse. When I saw him at One Eyed Jacks during Jazz Fest this year, I was blown away by the incredible sound he produced with his tenor sax, but the sound quality didn’t fully translate over festival speakers and in freezing air. His fingers also seemed to be suffering, as he kept them in the pockets of his massive black trench coat whenever he wasn’t playing. Washington took much shorter and less virtuosic solos than he usually does, perhaps for that reason. Luckily, he was saved by Thundercat, who returned to perform as a special guest with the band. His characteristic balls-to-the-wall bass solos made up for whatever Washington was unable to provide.
Blood Orange, the current pet project of Dev Hynes (who critics have recently been hailing as the second coming of Prince) also put on a stellar show. His technically impressive yet endearingly goofy dance moves, his effortless mastery of every instrument he picked up, and his seductively androgynous voice won over Friday’s crowd.
The hip-hop selection may have been Day for Night's weakest point, but the festival still managed to pull Bernie Sanders’ in-house rap group Run the Jewels, queer rap pioneer Mykki Blanco, and Wu Tang founder RZA, who played a nostalgia-heavy set backed by funky R&B band Stone Mecca.
I had to miss the Welcome to Houston set on Friday afternoon, which featured some of the greatest rappers the city has produced, including Devin the Dude, Slim Thug, Mike Jones, and Bun B. As a consolation, I did get to shake hands with people’s champ Paul Wall, who was peddling his new album Houston Oiler at the merch stand. Fittingly, the festival closed out its hip-hop lineup with Buku 2017 performer Travis Scott, the heir apparent to the Houston throne. While I didn’t think his last album Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight was anything special, I was blown away by his stage presence and the way he put on for his city. Over the course of his set, he brought James Harden onstage and took an audience member’s phone for a goofy lead-up to “Pick Up the Phone.” Then, in the most memorable moment of the weekend, he gave a fan the mic to rap a verse of “3500.” When a security guard tried to take it back, Scott stopped the show to berate him in front of the entire crowd.
More than anything else, Day For Night was dedicated to electronic music and electronic visual art. Experimental artist Oneohtrix Point Never put on a bizarre, abstract set that ranged from grooving dance rhythms to atonal textures to screeching walls of sound. Cinema icon John Carpenter brought out a live band (including his son on the keyboards) to relive the scores of some of his most beloved movies, and Venezuelan producer Arca closed out the festival and Saturday with a fast-paced hardstyle set.
Björk (doing a DJ set as Bjork Digital) and Aphex Twin were two of the festival’s biggest draws, but both put on bizarre and genre-spanning performances while remaining mostly hidden during their sets. Björk played sounds from all over the world, sampling everything from sitars to pan flutes to calliopes (a strange choice for a bizarre rendition of “New York, New York”), all from a secluded spot in a wooded glen constructed for her on stage. There were moments of inaccessibility during her set, but she offset them with stretches of pop music, giving us her take on Lil’ Yachty’s ubiquitous “Minnesota.”
Aphex had the misfortune of playing his first US gig in eight years outdoors on Friday just as the storm hit, but he made the best of it. Aside from a brief goodbye at the very end of the night, Aphex made himself scarce, crate digging for vinyl behind a wall of screens. His set, though, was explosive and undeniably present. He seemed to touch every base of electronic music, from footwork to trap to techno to drone. Fans stuck it out through the rain to hear the legendary recluse power through his set, and were handsomely rewarded with a generous helping of hyperkinetic sound.
Despite the conditions, Day for Night was a top-notch music festival and the staff did a commendable job. They are still only in their second year, so as long as they continue to learn and improve, they should feel totally justified in telling those disgruntled festivalgoers exactly what to do with their complaints.