I woke up this morning exhausted and exhilarated from a great weekend of music. Since I'm still processing the festival, and because (if you're like me) you're a bit tired of blow-by-blow recaps, I decided instead to describe the five moments that seemed to sum the festival up for me. Watch this space later this afternoon for a Summer Fest slideshow.
Saturday Morning, NRG Fancy Pants Tent
On Saturday morning, an hour before the festival’s gates officially open, several hundred people are packed into the NRG Fancy Pants Tent to experience a reprise of last year’s much-heralded collaboration between rapper Bun B and Uchi chef Philip Speer. Bun B, wearing a black hat reading “Trill Gladiator,” takes the mic and announces that unlike last time, when Speer created courses based on UGK classics (“Choppin Blades” inspired a fried pork chop with green eggs and shredded crystal lettuce), this year he had written all-new raps for the occasion. He says he spent the previous day in the studio, perfecting the lyrics.
As a small army of servers delivers plates of quail eggs served on a crispy chicharron, DJ Dan the Automator (the Gorillaz, Deltron 3030) drops the beat and Bun begins to rap: “It’s not just music and it’s not just food / It’s the combination that will put you in the right mood.” I wouldn’t look for the track on Bun’s next album.
The next course is a “Thai coconut pancake” topped with ginger butter, kaffir syrup, and a curry leaf, followed by a fried chicken dumpling with spicy kimchi. Bun B accompanies each course with a new rap and is all set to launch into his next number, which I can only assume would have provided the perfect soundtrack to the corn pudding I had started eating, when the lights go out, the huge blow-up flowers festooning the ceiling deflate, and Bun’s mic goes dead. That’s right: the NRG Energy tent has just lost power. Welcome to Summer Fest!
Saturday Afternoon, Saturn Stage
Mariachi El Bronx—seven white guys in matching black embroidered suits—are in the middle of a dirge-like song called “Holy,” about a killer terrified of being sent to hell for his crimes, when a disembodied voice cuts in, announcing a festival-wide evacuation due to an impending lightning storm. The crowd boos. “Okay, if you want to get struck by lightning, climb the nearest pole,” the voice responds peevishly. The band members joke that their song has incurred divine wrath. “The judgment of God is upon you, Houston,” one of them declares. “You’re being judged!
They weren’t the only ones worried about the souls of festival attendees. Outside the festival, at the base of Heritage Plaza, about a dozen African American men in matching purple T-shirts reading “Israel United in Christ” are standing on the sidewalk, proselytizing to a captive audience of evacuees. At their feet are cardboard signs depicting hand-drawn scenes from the “Southern Kingdom of Israel (Negroes)” and an image of a white Jesus next to the words “Image of the Beast.” A 20-something concertgoer in a Hawaiian shirt—he looks a bit like the white Jesus, except dressed to go on a cruise—argues theology with a man wearing a fringed purple robe who seems to be the “Israel United in Christ” leader. In response to Hawaiian shirt guy’s questions, the man screams verses from the Old Testament. As I’m walking away, a man wearing a “Frat Hard” tank top has just joined the discussion.
Sunday afternoon, NRG Fancy Pants Tent
Aside from the brief storm, Saturday’s weather was remarkably mild. Not so on Sunday, when the sun comes back with a vengeance. I stand in the scorching heat for about 15 minutes, watching a high-energy performance from The Naked and The Dead. Despite the weather, the male singer insists on buttoning his long-sleeved shirt all the way to the top, in classic hipster fashion. Drenched in sweat, I beat a tactical retreat to the nearby NRG Tent, now with full power, although the A/C is all but imperceptible.
All the seats being occupied by similarly sweaty festivalgoers nursing tall boys and fanning themselves with cheap giveaway hand fans, I take a seat on the plastic artificial grass to recuperate and plan my next move. To my left, a girl takes out a plastic sandwich bag of weed and, without making any effort at concealment, begins patiently deseeding it onto the pages of journal she has open in her lap. I watch as she then empties tobacco from a cigarette onto the pile, takes out a package of rolling paper, makes a tight spliff, and tucks it away for later.
Sunday Evening, Mars Stage
As I’m waiting for Lauryn Hill to come on, I take the opportunity to read through her long, detailed Wikipedia page on my iPhone, and am reminded of her erratic behavior, inconsistent performances, and penchant for showing up several hours late to concerts. So I’m pleasantly surprised when, only 10 minutes after the concert’s scheduled to begin, an announcement appears on the giant video screens flanking the stage. The message is from Hill and says that, despite the weather, she will be wearing a hat, long sleeves and a long dress to avoid the sun: “I may look like a fool, but I’ll look good when I’m old,” the message concludes.
Sure enough, Hill takes the stage in a floral print top over a sheer black long-sleeved shirt, a skirt in a different floral pattern, and a broad-brimmed straw hat adorned with an emerald-green ribbon. She looks like someone from witness protection. (It’s not out of the question—she was just released from prison last October after serving a three-month sentence for tax evasion.) But any concerns about the performance are quickly put to rest by Hill’s soulful rendition of her famous “Killing Me Softly” cover, which segues into “Everything Is Everything” from 1998’s universally beloved The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her last full studio album. Her voice sounds powerful, and her rapping is on point. “You tell ’em, Lauryn!” yells a musclebound, tank top–wearing man next to me.
Later Sunday Evening, 1100 Smith Street Parking Garage
After watching a series of spectacular performances by South African group Die Antwoord, the Wu-Tang Clan (minus Method Man, but plus Willie D and Bushwick Bill), and Jack White (who tells us he took his kids to an Astros game the previous day, receiving a mixture of applause and boos), the 100,000 or so festival attendees stream en masse out of the gates and towards their cars.
Unfortunately, a good percentage of those cars are parked, along with mine, a few blocks away at the 1100 Smith Street garage, where I left my Camry on the 12th and highest floor earlier in the day. By the time I get to the roof, the line of cars has stalled in place, where it will stay for the next hour and 23 minutes—yes, I timed it—as the lower floors slowly empty out. People turn off their engines, roll down their windows, and listen to their stereos as they wait for the line to move. Like many others, I get out of my car and walk around. A man sits on the rear bumper of his SUV, playing a ukulele while a circle of friends sings along. Two teenage girls twerk by themselves in the bed of a pickup. An impromptu party forms around a BMW blasting Notorious B.I.G., with dozens of high schoolers dancing and passing joints around. When the joint’s finished, one guy walks to the edge of the roof and flicks it into the night.
At Summer Fest, the lines may go on forever but the party never ends.