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Culture / Entertainment

9 Lessons of Day for Night

These are the Real Truths of Houston’s Imperfectly Wonderful Music Fest

BY // 12.24.16

Editor’s note: With Bjork accusing her festival critics of being sexist, some VIP ticket buyers irate over the perks they didn’t receive and debate over Day For Night going far beyond the Houston city limits, the Bayou City’s winter music and arts festival certainly was memorable in year two. A few days removed from the furor, music writer Matthew Ramirez looks back.

These are the nine truths of Day For Night. 

1. In the first year of any festival, hiccups and mistakes are forgiven. In the second year, it’s only human nature to compare and contrast. In its second frame, Day For Night moved locations to the former Barbara Jordan Post Office.

While the campus is large and the façade of the building is beautiful and worthy of preservation (designed by the same firm that designed the Astrodome), Silver Street Studios, last year’s venue, just might have been the perfect venue for Day For Night.

There was ample outdoor space for small to huge stages, and tons of indoor space perfect for art (a given, because Silver Street’s normal use is gallery space). In the post office, however, the building was almost intimidating, and with so much real estate given to the five Bjork Digital rooms, it had less of a cozy, inviting atmosphere for which to enjoy art.

What the first Day for Night did really well was create a space for the two things to coexist — you didn’t really experience the first festival if you saw none of the art. I think you could say you experienced Day for Night this year without experiencing any art, which is a major difference.

Between Bjork, Damien Echols, United Visual Artists, and Nonotak, a lot of artists had scheduled/reserved performances, which created another wrinkle in an already busy lineup. I’m curious to where next year’s festival will be, if only because I want the art to be great, and also, I’m greedy and I want it to remain small and charming.

Day For Night Year Two felt almost overly ambitious, which is hardly the worst sin, but I would like to see a different venue (or a reshuffling of the Post) next year.

2. Blood Orange was the best performance all weekend, and not just because I’m already a big fan of the amorphous pop/disco/soft-rock/quiet storm collective led by Devonte Hynes. Hynes didn’t do any festival gimmicks — no big guests (even though Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, and Empress Of all have essential features on his great 2016 album, Freetown Sound), and he didn’t only play their biggest, most energetic songs.

In fact he started his set on a chair, playing the piano riff of “Numb,” the final track and most quiet song on Freetown Sound. Instead of dumbing down the material, Hynes displayed utmost confidence not only in his abilities as a performer, songwriter, and singer (and OMG, dancer!), but in the crowd, knowing that we would follow every turn. I wish the temperature had been a few clicks cooler, but everything else was nearly perfect. The mix was good too, neither overwhelming or distorted (though Hynes had a bit of trouble with his mic), and everything translated well, from the sax-heavy arrangements to Hynes’s impeccable guitar playing.

A thrilling set from a musician who rarely goes on tour, the Blood Orange performance was something special, the kind of unique experience Day For Night aspires to in its loftiest vision.

3. Aphex Twin, the once-mysterious and now prolific British electronic guru who influenced generations of producers (and generations of music video directors, too) has a prickly sense of humor, evidenced by his whimsical video projections, some of which featured Texans such as JJ Watt, the entire Dynamo team, Ted Cruz, Beyonce, some of the Enron guys, etc.

From a distance, as the temperature cooled from 70-degrees-plus down into the forties in the span of literally minutes, Aphex Twin was the perfect complement — a disarming, dizzying set of unreleased new material, other people’s stuff (shout out to Jlin), and a dazzling light show.

A surprise and extremely limited vinyl 12” of new music was for sale only at the festival. As in, nowhere else in the world but Houston. You felt like you saw a unicorn if you saw someone walking around with unmarked, white vinyl sleeves in their hands.

Aphex Twin. (Photo by Roger Ho)

4. Biggest surprises of the fest: Clams Casino at the indoor stage, whose murky, spacey productions come to life under blue lights, inside a cavernous space; and Mykki Blanco, who I’m a fan of from a distance, but couldn’t give you the name of one of his songs he’s recorded since 2012. His performance was a raucous, rowdy, and fun time, and the indoor space made it feel nice and cozy, like you were at a small show at a “regular” venue.

5. Best artists I heard from a distance while walking/trying to find a port-a-potty, drinks, friends, cellphone service or the food truck with the shortest line: Tobacco, Little Dragon, The Jesus and Mary Chain (who sounded like three airplanes circling a tarmac), and Lightning Bolt.

6. Other big surprise of the festival: I’m an Ariel Pink fan, but the surprise was at how tight and good the band sounded live, they weren’t phoning it in, and braved cold and wind with a good face on Sunday, dressed as Santas. I’m also really glad he didn’t have a breakdown on stage/refuse to perform/go on a misogynistic rant.

7. Welcome to Houston was really fun, but I thought they went on too early! Also: why did Lil Flip do an awful dubstep version “The Way We Ball”??? I loved that Bun B only did the Pimp C verse of “International Players’ Anthem.” Everyone did their thing, down to Johnny Dang, dancing behind DJ Michael “5000” Watts.

Travis Scott. (Photo by Daemaine Hines)

8. Hometown hero Travis Scott is not really a rapper or a musician or a DJ. He’s the best director of vibes in existence. His set — which started fashionably late, in true rock star fashion — was a hit parade that managed every one of his best songs (sadly, no “Mamacita”).

He brought out Houston Rockets star James Harden, whom he declared the NBA’s MVP, and Harden danced onstage. Scott also said the Rockets were the best team in the league (at the time, they were celebrating a fantastic come-from-behind win over the Minnesota Timberwolves and were on a 10-game winning streak, so it was hardly a fantastical statement).

He said “RIP V Live,” paying homage to the recently shuttered by the feds gentlemen’s club in Houston frequented by rappers and athletes and any number of well-to-do people around town. He kicked out a security guard in what appeared to be a scripted interaction. Before launching into his 2015 mega-hit “Antidote,” Scott said he wanted to see everybody jump up and down — launch into the sky like a Houston rocket — as if they were going to high-five the recently deceased Craig Sager, the NBA’s father figure and emotional center, who was the best, most affable ambassador the game had for decades — and I did not ask to experience those feelings at a Travis Scott show.

However, what was there really, beyond the spectacle? Travis Scott started up a good song of his, “Maria, I’m Drunk” and let the instrumental play, singing a brief hook before cutting the song short before his verse. One of the best songs of the year, “Pick Up the Phone,” which in its recorded version features Quavo of Migos and Young Thug, was set up by a long intro wherein Scott asked for a fan’s phone and called a number that was not in use. Once the beat dropped to the roar of the crowd he mumbled through his short verse then rapped Young Thug’s longer, more vivid verse, too.

It made me realize that Scott wasn’t here to rap, he was delivering the moments everyone wanted to have. On an extremely cold December night, after a long weekend full of overflowing plumbing, limited water, a rash of robberies, a 30-degree temperature change in the span of minutes, and Blonde Redhead missing their flight, what I wanted to do to cap it all off was hear “Pick Up the Phone” as loud as possible.

Last year ended with a communal gathering led by pastor Kendrick Lamar. This year, as the festival got bigger, bolder, a little unwieldy, Scott brought it together, forgoing a lot of rapping for sheer showmanship.

9. Argentinian electronic star (and fellow Kanye West collaborator) Arca held court just yards away inside and he had the party going by the time Scott’s set was over. His was a delirious set (he blended Selena into original compositions into Rihanna) almost twice as intense as Scott’s. Both delivered adrenaline rushes and pure dopamine highs.

As the clock ran out on 2016, there was no better way to do it than by freezing in the cold, letting spectacles wash over you, and then, after everything, thinking only to yourself, “it’s lit.”

James Harden and Travis Scott. (Photo by Greg Noire)
James Harden and Travis Scott. (Photo by Greg Noire)

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