Janelle Monae (Photo by Matthew Ramirez)
Roman GianArthur (Photo by Matthew Ramirez)
New Order (Photo by Jay Tovar)
The crowd under the Houston skyline (Photo by Jay Tovar)
New Order's Bernard Sumner (Photo by Jay Tovar)
Kendrick Lamar (Photo by Matthew Ramirez)
Here are the top five music acts we loved at this past weekend’s inaugural Day for Night winter festival, which took place at Silver Street Studios and the surrounding Washington Avenue Arts District:
1. Janelle Monae
Monae is an honest-to-god performer and auteur whose solo work has become increasingly experimental and layered on record, but live she is as old-fashioned an experience as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Monae is a perfect festival artist — she’s someone I admire from afar and would perhaps not seek out at a solo show, but in a festival setting, where a choice might be sour-faced bros leering from behind Macbooks or Monae, I would pick a dynamic performer like Monae every time. She covered “I Feel Good” and “I Want You Back” and it didn’t matter if those are “obvious” choices, because they were as electric as her solo stuff — speaking of which, don’t sleep on her non-“Tightrope” or “Cold War” songs, Monae’s catalog is long and winding and conceptual, and it achieved peak form in 2013’s The Electric Lady and its spectacular single, “Q.U.E.E.N.” I was semi-disappointed in the crowd, and there were shots of Monae on the big screen in which she seemed to be expecting more audience participation, but she performed with gusto nonetheless and won me over.
2. Roman GianArthur
The surprise of the weekend. I wanted to catch GianArthur, known to me beforehand as the non-Jidenna guy on “Classic Man,” on the off-chance he would play “Classic Man.” (Wondaland Records, spearheaded by Monae, claims Jidenna and GianArthur as her own artists.) I had no idea what to expect, and when I arrived his set was probably half over and GianArthur was shirtless in 50-degree weather playing a guitar blindfolded. (He did mention later that he had been cold.) He was dynamic and sultry and sounded like a great mix of Prince, Miguel, even Usher. It’s refreshing in 2015 to hear an artist obviously indebted to R&B who doesn’t make moody, dour music. GianArthrur covered Radiohead’s “High & Dry” which might be a milemarker for the loftier aspirations of his R&B meets prog-rock sound. He is also not a rapper, so that means we were not treated to even a token encore rendition of “Classic Man,” and trust me, I requested it loudly several times. The crowd was only about 50-people deep, but GianArthur and his band delivered a raucous, memorable performance with some inspired visuals, and I couldn’t help but feel that he’ll in the not too distant future be in front of much larger audiences.
3. New Order
New Order appealed to me less than their edgier Manchester counterparts, but with Morrissey running hot and cold as a cranky old man and the early’00s post-punk scene of bands with awful names (like Interpol or Editors) making joyless simulacra of New Order’s music having died out, I’ve come around. New Order’s strength was never their songwriting or hidden emotional depth, but, rather, pure dopamine delivered straight on a 12-inch platter for upwards of eight minutes at a time. This set, their first in Houston in 26 years, made good use of the festival’s winter setting and industrial atmosphere, which recalled Manchester itself — flashing lights, pulsing beats, silos, warehouses, trains zooming by, cool weather, Bernard Sumner’s perfectly serviceable vocals. The band didn’t just cash a check, either — Sumner made note of the beautiful Houston skyline, and even the new stuff was met with enthusiasm from the crowd.
4. B L A C K I E
Day For Night advertised a unique arts-and-music festival experience that mostly delivered. The art space inside Silver Street Studios was expertly used by unique, innovative artists who play with light, sound, computer programming and robotics. The NONOTAK warehouse installation (18,000 square feet in size) was exceptional, like something straight out of The Matrix or The Prestige with a soundtrack composed by the artists (both French) to match the timing of the lights. An installation called the Infinity Room demanded an hour-long wait to enter was controversial just for the length of the line and the general disappointment from people I spoke to about the interactive chamber. However, one of the most immersive and unique experiences of the weekend still belonged to Houston’s own B L A C K I E. When he was bringing down the house at the Westheimer Block Party (R.I.P.) or at one of the earliest editions of Summer Fest B L A C K I E could still reasonably be considered a rapper. In the past year, however, he has become something else entirely — he still uses backing tracks like a hip-hop artist and a delay/effects pedal on his vocals like a post-punk band, but he’s now added saxophone to the mix. The results are stunning, a crushing, genre-less physical wall of sound that overwhelms your body. No matter how many times I’ve seen him perform, B L A C K I E always adds a new wrinkle to his live show: This weekend he hopped off the stage and stalked the crowd, to the chagrin of every security guard, all of who immediately radioed one other in nervousness. They should’ve relaxed: B L A C K I E is a threat to no human, only delicate sensibilities.
5. Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly from this year is as important to hip-hop as a genre as Straight Outta Compton or The Blueprint or The College Dropout, and if you don’t believe me, you should have seen tens of thousands of people rap along to every single word. (This reached some kind of logical conclusion with Lamar requesting audience members to join him onstage. Shout-out one time to Corporate Dough.) Whether it’s revisiting the highs of good kid, mAAd city or taking a brisk trip down memory lane via the briefest glimpses of his pre-2012 output, the enormity of Lamar’s catalog and how it has expanded in just five years is staggering. He’s really grown as a performer, too, and he plays the crowd like an instrument, knowing full well he has the attention of any audience, no matter the size or location. You see how this communal, churchy approach to shows has influenced a generation of guys like Chicago’s Chance the Rapper or Lamar’s west coast counterpart Vince Staples: by the time he brought out Houston legend Trae tha Truth onstage, a surge of hometown pride hit me like the numerous clouds of weed smoke all around me down in the claustrophobic VIP pit. There was no better way to end this festival than by hearing the songs of the year’s best album live. Kendrick is special, and Day for Night earns tons of kudos for having him be the signature movement to their innovative and progressive festival. Let’s just hope it doesn’t sell out to corporate overlords in the next few years and lose its personality.