Words // Garrett Smith – Photos // Ellie Alonzo and Garrett Smith
Blossoms parade the air like snow on vacation, with a light swelter born of humidity. We’ve touched down in Houston and, after a night spent acquainting with the city and its watering holes, we’re rested and ready to go. It’s time for In Bloom Fest 2018, here in Eleanor Tinsley Park, y’all: what was once Free Press Summer Festival has blossomed and been reborn into its own incarnation, as fertile and frightfully packed with all of the amazing vibes and tunes that fest-goers had come to expect from the late Houston festival.
We’ve got quite the lineup ahead – so let’s say we get started?
// DAY 1
Kicking the day off, of course, were a slew of supercharged locals, ready to kick the day off as if they were stadium-sellout closers. As we caught our bearings, grabbed some food and hydration, and learned the layout, we caught sounds of all kinds – first, with the brazen, in-your-face hip hop of Ying-Yang Twins or STS, and then the equally energized indie-pop duo Say Girl Say. Leave the caffeine behind – just kick your day off with the high-energy stage presence of these quick-spitting performers, and you’ve got all the boost you’ve need.
We changed up our pace after that, though, and set our sites on a man who’s never needed an introduction his whole life: Dhani Harrison. With a sound like late 80s/early 90s Rush, and a voice that could’ve just as well been the descendant of Geddy Lee as it was George Harrison’s, Dhani delivered a punchy performance that held us captivated us for the whole set – a difficult feat with so much music going on and in need of our coverage. It was a performance hitting you from every angle: from screeching rock guitars to proggy breakdowns and a bit of electronic experimentation thrown in for good measure, Harrison and his backing band gave us plenty to appreciate.
Despite, funnily enough, thanking the crowd for dealing with and tolerating “the weird stuff”.
However, the next few bands were decidedly “not weird”, though if only because both are anthemic radio-rockers – frat party turned pop-punk players The Frights, with their spring break on the beach energy and their accompaniment on stage by wacky infalatable waving armed tube men that even the worst of us can dance to; and the indie-with-teeth Londoners Wolf Alice, who charmed us with their ear-worm melodies, but left us with heartwrenching, gritted-teeth growls from frontwoman Ellie Rowswell.
Now, briefly after this pairing, we did throwback to the hip-hop that began the day, albeit with a bit of a comic twist for garnish: Lil Dicky was on the Houston scene, and to be honest, we couldn’t believe we were catching him live. And he did not disappoint, with rapidfire lyricism and a disarming self-aware charm, it’s hard for even the harshest of critics or the most disinterested of viewer to remain sour or apathetic during such a performance.
Whether it was the goofy quotability of “Pillow Talkin’”, or the interlude wherein Dicky brought someone on stage to receive a complimentary lapdance from the man himself while they, not Dicky, rapped the song – the show, like any good rodeo, circus, or rodeo clown (which Dicky, a Philly-born Jew-cum-rapper, feels closest to), was hard to tear oneself away from.
There was little room to breathe before taking another about-face, and returning to the indie side – this time for indie legends themselves Grizzly Bear. Despite having made a name for themselves through strange arrangements, a diverse sound, and often otherworldly art and music videos, their set was decidedly crowd-pleasing – blending a healthy dose of hits with only a smattering of newer, less known material. And you know what? We welcome that. It’s always respectable for an artist to play what they want to – and understandable when they grow tired of aged, overplayed chart-toppers – but hats off to Grizzly Bear for giving us exactly what we wanted.
We can only hope they enjoyed it as much as the crowd did.
Before we make it to Day 1’s headliners, we had two bands that could’ve been headliners on any other festival with no less clout. Broken Social Scene came on first, and followed Grizzly’s lead with a great cocktail of sounds from their collection. Whether it was the galloping desperation of the almost protagonistic “Fire Eye’d Boy”, or the totally unexpected dropping of fan-favorite lawnchair anthem “Texico Bitches”, the band was in the mood for mingling surprise and expectation. From the dramatic and varying lighting, to the modular lineup featuring new and old collaborators, it was a truly “broken” performance, in need of no fixing whatsoever.
In stark, monochromatic contrast to BSS came pillow-side criers Cigarettes After Sex, delivering a spirited performance perfect for le petite mort that their name suggests. Lit moodily with dramatic white lighting on black stage, the band seemed implicit, ambient inheritor to the dramatic, emotional presence of figures like Robert Smith or Siouxsie Soux – albeit, with less in the way of black-eyeliner and Scissorhands hair, and more in the way of heartbreak crooning and melancholic melody. Your writer has personally fallen asleep or fallen further down the rabbithole of a bottle of wine to such songs as “Affection” or “K.” – and this performance felt no different live than having some across-the-room speakers play pre-or-post-coital soundtracks to every heartbreak or headed-that-way relationship.
Onwards, then, to the headliners
With our tearful catharsis for the day out of the way – and trust us, both days had their singular band for this purpose – we headed to the first day’s big finales: Incubus and Beck. The former was, of course, rife with crowd-pleasing throwbacks to summer days spent driving our first cars, finding our first loves, committing our first treasonous acts against oppressive parents as we came into our own beings. And what would an Incubus show be without Brandon Boyd being demanded to take his shirt off? Alas, his shirt did come off – only to reveal a tank-top beneath – and just like the associations that go with their music, feelings like nostalgia are as fleeting as these performances tend to feel.
Of course, we couldn’t solely catch Incubus; we had to split custody and make sure to give Beck his due. Now, we honestly didn’t know what to expect from Beck; he has, after all, made a career of shifting sands and strange turns down various music lanes. From rapper, to crooner, to multi-instrumental artistic virtuoso and minimalist electronic performer – this music industry rebel turned golden child and Grammy winner made for a strangely crowd-pleasing set. We wouldn’t have pinned Beck for having interest in his audience’s hopes or expectations, and we certainly wouldn’t have guessed he’d open up with his career’s iron lung, “Loser” – but that he did.
Of course, he mixed in the hits from every era of his, mixed with some deep-cuts and cult-classics, like the playful “Que Onde Guerro”, and even a cover-medley during “Where It’s At” that we never would’ve predicted. The man is, despite any medley of moniker, an entertainer, at the end of the day – and he sure knew how to work a crowd. With a bit of off-the-cuff heckling of an audience member wearing shades at nighttime, Beck invited donations of sunglasses, to which many responded by showing off MLB pitching prospects with their far-flung eyewear care packages.
Hopefully, come tomorrow morning, our post-fest destressing won’t leave us in need of a pair of concealing sunglasses.
// DAY 2
Today – shades were required. Not for a hangover, however, but for the removal of overcast skies replaced by happy-to-sunburn cloudless sunny daze. We jumped into the festival as soon as we were rested, battery-charged and full-bellied.
So – are you ready for Bloom round 2?
It was a great blend of music today overall: we caught several electronic talents on the Ostara stage with heavyweights like Young Bombs, Shiba San, and Gramatik. Matt Maeson, Son Little and H.E.R.delivered singularly soulful, vocal-driven narratives that kept audiences entranced and, despite being early in the day, captivated a decent number of onlookers with their fire-and-brimstone revival vibes. With artists like Taal, however, came a surprise eclecticism – and inclusion – in showcasing Indian rhythms; hence “taal”, which is the word for rhythmic clapping, tapping, or other timekeeping meter used in Indian music. Taal added to the day’s variety by blending traditional drums and sitar with top 40 billboard samples and EDM breakdowns.
T-Pain jumped in as an unlikely candidate for an Austere viewing, but delivered us our daily cheddar with high-energy musical returns and, of course, that sweet, sweet trademark auto-tune that few can do better. We threw into this mix a happy handful of alt-pop radio stars Moon Taxi and Houndmouth, both delivering boyish tenor crooning with bright, almost beachy guitar playing; in other words, two standard-bearers in the scene led by the like of The Lumineers or Imagine Dragons, delivering folksy vocals and easy-listening radio friendly rock tinged with a tincture of alt-rock experimentation on the 3 chord standard.
Now, on the other hand of pop comes Sylvan Esso – our second sighting in a month; or rather, the second time that our photographer has caught them. It is, however, this writer’s first chance to catch a set, and so take this as a fresh perspective – because fresh was the name of this set. Never did a single moment feel like anything frozen or preserved – a hit revived from its radio malaise, overheard and losing its meaning like a word repeated one too many times. Instead, even songs like “Coffee” felt like an unreleased single, being performed for the first time live.
Many songs added lengthier breakdowns, or felt skillfully improvised in ways almost undetectable to the ear. It was, more likely than not, simply the sensation of improvisation; there was no sterility, no hint of boredom or going-through-the-motions with these indie-poppers. And on the flip-side, their newer hit singles – like “Die Young” or “PARAD(w/m)E” – felt like well-weathered, time-tested fan favorites. And with the meteoric rise this duo has had, it comes as no surprise that this was the vibe. The electropop gods have spoken: their chosen torchbearers, Sylvan Esso, are here to stay.
Godspeed to any who deign to dethrone them.
Highly Suspect was anything but in their delivery – we got everything expected and more for the impassionately inflamed punk politics of these hard-rock tongue-lashers. Whether it be an always-welcome suggestion of self-fornication to our always-in-need President, or simply a hearttfelt message of equality and inclusion backed by growling guitars and blood-curdling vocals, the trio made sure to deliver an action-packed, high voltage show.
Despite their name – or maybe, in spite of it, because of all the chaos in our world that constantly has the overhead bins of our minds full of stress, compartmentalized – Explosions in the Sky make us feel okay. Their is a desperate optimism to their music, and this is only amplified live. Because, listen: you can literally see it in the crowd – from the guy clapping prone on his back, overcome by the music in the same way as a person encumbered with a belly full of food; to the person jumping up and down, incapable of controlling emotions, only in control of how they channel them. They don’t need lyrics to create that linguistic connection;
their music itself communicates so much on its own.
I’m going to break standard right now – already have, actually – because this band, above most, deserves the personal. I have neared sleep so many times, crying, and alone, and no words could help – but music like this did. It kept me going. This band is emotion incarnate: raw, broken souls baring all on a world stage, and bearing all that their audience brings to the table. It is hope personified, ripping asunder every bit of baggage that we carry, spilling it at our feet and demanding that we give it a name. The music gives stage to our demons, and it gives praise to our vulnerability; telling us, again, that we are okay. There’s no ticket price, line length, or drive time that can equate to that.
And I, for one, dear readers, would give anything to see this set again. Explosions isn’t just a set, a time slot, a performer – they’re one of the rare few that become a vessel for something beyond expressable terms. I think the best we can hope for in pinning such sounds down is associations: the single flickering candlelight amidst a sea of encroaching darkness. The righteous, burning fury emitting from that pinpoint of present pain. The name for the unnamable whirlwind flurry of emotions that we feel in the most turbulent of times.
I cried, recognizing all of this. I wept along with our photographer, feeling the sheer weight of the experiences that everyone in that crowd had felt while Explosions played soundscape and soundtrack to their lives. That sheer, almost tribal community was unspoken, yet all-surrounding – and my words can only do so much. Whatever collective scroll that our tears, flowing down our cheeks may have written? let that be our sworn account.
Now, let’s square our shoulders, stiffen our lips, and finish this strong, okay?
We had to choose between Martin Garrix and Queens of the Stone Age in our coverage, and, inevitably, when one gets hand selected to cover QOTSA – they don’t share custody. But this writer did share a moment – and a swig of whiskey – with the only guy nearby who knew the slow build open to QOTSA’s first song of the night, “If I Had A Tail”, and it was all excited screaming and garbled sing-alongs from there. Josh Homme was in peak form tonight, as well as the rest of the band. With their signature minefield of light poles donning the stage and the cocky moxie on the part of their seasoned frontman, the band had plenty to play with on this star-studded evening.
It was everything one could hope for from the Queens themselves: the swaggerly, siren-song swoon of “Sat By the Ocean”; the staccato bravado of hard-rock hero “No One Knows”; and the newly crowned, crunchy guitar classic “The Way You Used To Do”. Every facet of these prolific, grunge-inheriting rockers was explored in the set – including Homme’s recognition of one fan’s sign saying “Kick me in the face, Josh” with a playfully positive remark, and similarly, Homme’s lurid, locker-room remarks when realizing that the sign-language interpreter had to “say everything I say”.
This bravado felt like a callback to the days of glam and hair metal, where boistrous rule-breakers ruled the day, and FCC censorship was less opressive regime and more a badge of honor for the intentionally divisive, say-anything proto-punk frontmen. Josh and the gang gave us something that only shared swigs of liquor or communal nerding-out can communicate: community, comraderie, and debauchery. If you’re not satisfied with that menage a trois, then we’re not sure what will.
With all that we saw, it’s difficult to wrap this one up with a neat little bow, pick up our pens and our lenses, and simply move on. Every experience holds its own weight in the ring, and going toe-to-toe with a heavyweight is no walk-away matter. We’re overcome, leaving this behind, but we know that there’s only more in store.
If this new iteration of FPSF was simply In Bloom this year – we can’t wait to see the fruits of next spring’s labors.
Keep up at the official site here, and be sure to join us again at In Bloom 2019, y’all.
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