The Top Five Summer Fest Bands: Day 1

Forget Jack White and Lauryn Hill. Here are the best under-the-radar bands you should be watching on Saturday.

By Dean Davis May 29, 2014

Image: Todd Spoth

Free Press Summer Fest
May 31 & June 1 11–8
Eleanor Tinsley Park
500 Allen Pkwy.

With dozens of blockbuster music festivals around the country every year, from Austin City Limits to Coachella, Lollapalooza to Pitchfork, it gets harder and harder to tell them apart—especially when so many seem to share mix-and-match versions of the same lineup. Big-name headliners are so ubiquitous that no one batted an eye when OutKast announced a 40-festival reunion tour earlier this year.

Fortunately, Free Press Summer Fest, in addition to headliners like the Wu-Tang Clan and Vampire Weekend, still offers an undercard full of acts you won’t many other places, including a robust complement of local bands.

Here are our top five picks for Saturday—and watch this space tomorrow for our Sunday picks.

The Caldwell 

A few years ago, I went to a solo show at the House of Blues by The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas. I think I expected a stripped-down, slightly more vulnerable version of The Strokes’s bored swagger, a simple sexiness that would be all the better because the band wasn’t there to distract from Casablancas’s charm. I walked away disappointed, but several years later I’ve found what I was looking for in Houston’s own The Caldwell. The five-piece band formed last year around Modern Love, a full-length album written by frontman James Essary. On songs like “Hold On” Essary wails his hopes and frustrations in a near-monotone that sounds as though he’s trying simultaneously to project to the back of the room and pretend he doesn’t care if he’s heard—sort of like The National’s Matt Berninger, if he yelled instead of muttering.

Mars Stage, 11:40 am


BLSHS (pronounced “blushes”) is a synthpop trio (think 808s and keytars) from Houston. They released their first EP, Abstract Desires, a six-song blast of dance-ready music, in January. Since then, BLSHS has blitzed the city, playing a long string of shows to establish themselves as a serious presence here. Earlier this month they released a music video for their song “Another Tuesday.” Their sound—an echoing, crystalline, synthesized landscape that seems to be constructed of deep blues and purples—feels more suited to a late night at Numbers than a sunny afternoon at Eleanor Tinsley Park. Still, the songs have strong bones. With singer Michelle Miears’s plaintive vocals and a healthy amount of bass underneath their bubbling synths, they’ll fill the Mercury stage, even if it is under the freeway on the edge of downtown this year. 

Mercury Stage, 1:00 pm 

Mariachi El Bronx 

Here in Houston, we’re predisposed to see our slice of Mexican American culture as complete and just a little bit superior. Mariachi El Bronx is a challenge to that cockiness, in the form of a seven-piece honest-to-goodness mariachi band from Los Angeles. The whole package is on display: the matching embroidered suits, the brassy trumpets, the airy, chopped acoustic guitars, and the ballads of sadness, love, loss, and faith. The band started as The Bronx in 2002, and put out several albums of hardcore punk before dipping their toes, and eventually plunging all the way, into traditional mariachi style. It will be strange to take in a set of such unabashedly traditionalist folk music in the middle of a festival geared towards giving the kids as much excitement as possible. But as the band itself learned when it got into mariachi, it’s surprising what connects with audiences.

Saturn Stage, 1:40 pm

Welcome to Houston 

If any show at this year’s FPSF is at the heart of the event, it’s this one. Featuring rappers Bun B, Slim Thug, Z-Ro, Paul Wall, Devin the Dude, and Mike Jones, “Welcome to Houston” is a chance to see the group of artists who put Houston hip-hop on the map. Bun B is perhaps the biggest star—from his early career as half of the group UGK to a busy solo career following partner Pimp C’s death in 2007 that has included such unlikely stints as lecturing at Rice University and performing with the Houston Symphony, he’s universally adored and respected. Z-Ro’s rapidly growing catalogue—he’s released five albums in the last six years—has cemented his place in Houston. Devin The Dude is a “weed rapper” as prolific and almost as established as Snoop Dogg himself, so much so that he recently merited a “Devin The Dude’s 10 Best Weed Songs” article from the Houston Press. Mike Jones is the only one here who’s never appeared at FPSF, so it’ll be a treat to see him reunite with former Swishahouse labelmates Slim Thug and Paul Wall.

And yes, you can still buy grills from Paul Wall.

Neptune Stage, 6:10 pm 

King Khan and The Shrines 

King Khan is a German-by-way-of-Canada garage rocker who fronts the nine-piece “psychedelic soul” band The Shrines, when he’s not playing in one of a half-dozen other projects. Since 1999, King Khan and the Shrines have released eight albums of explosive, tongue-in-cheek big-band soul. Khan’s concurrent adventures in punk and garage rock inform his on-stage antics, which include careening around in a sweaty fervor wearing strange, low-budget, skimpy outfits. The band’s latest album, 2013’s Idle No More, includes the spooky “Darkness” and the sharp-edged menace of “Born To Die,” all orchestrated with organ, strings, and brass that fit uneasily with Khan’s playful lyrical delivery. There’s no telling exactly what will happen at a King Khan show except that it will be strange, beautiful, and, if you give in to it, cathartic.

Venus Stage, 7:10 pm

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