As they played barefoot to a packed crowd on a tiny sidestage under a freeway at the 2012 Free Press Summer Fest, a five-piece rock band from Kingwood—New York City Queens—was still getting its bearings. “We were like a baby band,” singer/guitarist John Stephens recently recalled. “We had been playing together for probably eight months.”
Two years later, the band, much matured, is appearing again, this time as one of 120 groups on the 2014 docket, with Jack White, Lauryn Hill, and the Wu-Tang Clan headlining. Asked about the upcoming festival, Stephens lights up.
“Summer Fest is such a pivotal event for Houston,” he says. “I feel like the cultural scene here is just on the verge of breaking into a national response, and it just takes one catalyst. When we found out they wanted us to play, we couldn’t have been more excited.”
He’s right—Houston is changing, and Summer Fest is evidence of that. The first festival, in 2009, featured only 40 or so bands, most of them regional talents. Houston had never hosted a music festival of such size, and organizers weren’t sure what to expect. “We didn’t even know how many people would come—there was nothing to gauge it against,” remembers Free Press publisher Omar Afra. (Thirty thousand ended up attending.) “There was one food booth, the main stage was super-small, we were underprepared for everything. But despite all the mistakes we made, people were obviously hungry for this kind of thing.”
Last year’s festival attracted around 90,000, and organizers expect this year’s audiences to be even bigger. “It’s been very gratifying to watch it grow—you’re watching this idea come to fruition,” Afra says. “It takes the whole community to put it on, from the musicians, to the sponsors, the people building the stages, the cleanup folks, the beer and food distributors.”
Unfortunately, one unintended consequence of the festival’s success in attracting major acts (Snoop Dogg, Macklemore, and the Flaming Lips have headlined in recent years) is the diminishing space for homegrown bands like NYCQ. “It’s grown to be more top-heavy,” Afra admitted. “At the same time, we’ve always been committed to featuring local bands. But because there’s less and less room in the line-up, we have to be careful in selecting the bands—we try to represent all the different genres going on in Houston, from hip-hop to underground.” Other Houston acts this year include The Tontons, Los Skarnales, and DeWayne Jackson.
As for NYCQ, at the moment their style is heavily influenced by the woozy, computer-programmed atmospherics of bands like Radiohead and Beach House—a definite departure from the three-guitar wall of sound that first brought them to prominence. Expect the new stuff at Summer Fest. “We did what we could with that sound,” Stephens says. “We pushed it as far as we could. Now I want to try something different, push that as far as we can.”