Photography by David Brendan Hall
With the proliferation of music festivals today, it’s hard to get excited about an event simply because it is new. Harder still is trusting promotional claims that a new festival will offer a “unique experience.” The plentiful mediocrity of lineups and festival designs often blurs together. For Houston’s inaugural Day for Night Festival, however, mystery piqued our interest, and their ambition delivered in spades. Describing Day for Night was a struggle even for those closest to the festival; videos called it a “music festival inside an art installation,” but with six acres filled with visual artists and musicians, it was hard to conceptualize just what that would mean. Even after speaking with one of the head event promoters, my brain was still spinning for a reference point as we approached the entrance early Saturday afternoon.
Walking through the gates was a whirlwind — box office confusion and lax security were par for the course, as far as first-year logistics. After some short waiting and heavy radio chatter, everyone seemed to find their rhythm. Even once on-site, it took a while to wrap your arms around exactly where we were: It was a sea of concrete, warehouses, and makeshift carpet fields. As my bearings cemented, Day for Night’s layout revealed itself to be surprisingly cohesive. Three stages supported the musical acts: Red for the biggest names, Green for the electronic or atmospheric acts, and Blue for the homegrown or excessively weird performers. Speckled between these stages were two different warehouse-encased installations and a separate gallery showcasing exhibitions from renowned digital and multimedia artists. Day for Night’s confluence of art and music seemed to be best exemplified by the Green stage and adjacent art gallery. One moment patrons could be listening to Nicolas Jaar or Dan Deacon within a massive rectangular warehouse, the next they could step through an opening in the white brick side-wall into a world of projections like that of Casey Reyes, whose piece played both on abrasive musical ambiance and multilayered digital images that confounded normal visual processes.
This fusion raised another question: Who was Day for Night aimed at? It’s a question that can’t really be answered demographically. At its simplest, Day for Night was a festival for the fringe, for the weirdos and the obsessively hip alike. But for those not in either category, there was no air of pretension or inaccessibility. Whether you wanted to investigate the intention behind the light and sound around you, or just take some drugs, giggle, and observe, Day for Night created an atmosphere that left the choice to its audience.
A drawback of this wide-ranging appeal is that things may have been spread too thin for a first-year festival. Although headlining shows garnered sizable crowds and select daytime acts fared well, even prominent events seemed to draw only a few thousand people. This did, however, lead to an ease of mobility and an intimacy with the artists — one could easily spot the likes of Shamir and members of HEALTH strolling the grounds. Also notable was the lack of gaudy corporate sponsors. The sparse attendance and lack of corporate involvement does bring into question the fest’s sustainability, though; the current festival scene isn’t always kind to those who ignore the powers that be. With year one under their belt, hopefully the strength of fan appreciation will allow DFN to grow while holding onto its individuality.
By Sunday evening, several unforgettable performances had been delivered, with New Order and Kendrick Lamar providing a one-two punch on par with any major festival this year. Rarities like Philip Glass added a depth and variety that made for a positively singular experience. The timing of the festival gives it few direct competitors, and Day for Night has undoubtedly taken great risks in creating a framework that effectively sets it apart. It will be interesting to see just how far this festival can go. –Kevin McMahon
Click through to see our top 15 moments from the inaugural year.
15. Most Inspiring Use of Code
School For Poetic Computation
With so many visual installations, it’s hard to select merely one highlight, but there was no better example of the “digital art” aesthetic Day for Night promoted than the School for Poetic Computation. The NYC-based collective curates 10-week, project-oriented classes that hone in on specific dialects and manifestations of backend-led art. Their DFN exhibit was a large two-screen display rendered digital sketches of artwork created by early pioneers like Vera Molnar and Bridget Riley, alongside many other revolutionary tech-art figures from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
The left screen showed the artwork, which shifted at the whim of the right screen, which showed the raw code producing the artwork. Interestingly, the right screen brightly highlighted elements of the code that were being manipulated live, connecting the progression of images in a way that the programming illiterate (like yours truly) could understand. Thematically, SFPC’s pieces stayed true to the artists’ original ideas of visual tension, geometric manipulation, and the general beauty and mystery of computer language. SFPC aims to develop an appreciation for the endless capabilities of computer-generated, and finding the right poetry in a limitless world of algorithms is a daunting task. –Kevin McMahon
14. Best Approximation of a Vegas Dance Party
On one hand, getting to see Shamir Bailey play the main stage in the late afternoon was a good sign of growth for the Vegas dance pop artist at the end of his breakout year. It took a few songs for Shamir and his band to lock in after a bit of a rocky start, but once they jumped into more upbeat tracks like “On the Regular”, the crowd began to liven up. The set felt well-practiced after a year of playing the festival circuit, but it felt a bit like going through the motions. Whether it was too early in the day or too large a stage, Shamir’s set didn’t quite capture what made his record so enthralling. –David Sackllah
13.Best On-Stage Gyration
For people who strolled over to the more local-oriented Blue stage in the afternoon unaware of what they were going to see, they were in for a harsh awakening when they saw Future Blondes. The Texas-based noise collective delivered a brutal noise set for 40 minutes, driven by wailing vocals and one member whose main purpose was to gyrate around the stage while the others played. The group’s brand of noise wasn’t for everyone (and the same could be said for Houston’s Richard Ramirez who played earlier in the day), but the fact that they were playing just one stage over from Janelle Monae was a sign of how eclectic the lineup ultimately was. –David Sackllah
12. Best Overcast Goth Rave
Although the gloomy skies served as a nice companion to HEALTH’s goth electronic music, their set was another one that likely would have been a better fit for a crowded indoor stage rather than the larger, sparsely attended outdoor stage — but the fans that did pack near the stage were rabid. The group did their best to get the crowd engaged, head-banging continuously and flailing at extra drums to push a frenetic pace. The set began with vocals that teetered a bit too hard on screaming, shining more when the group embraced more melodic songs like recent single “New Coke”. Once they began to gel, the set picked up for the light but dedicated crowd. –David Sackllah
11. Most Death Grips Comparisons
B L A C K I E
B L A C K I E is the undisputed king of the Houston underground noise rap scene. Holding the torch carried by the likes of DJ Screw and Bun B in his own manic manner, B L A C K I E’s passion has never been up for debate. His sound’s resemblance to that of Death Grips, however, is another story. In fact, I had several conversations in which locals insisted me that Death Grips were nothing more than a homogenized version of Michael LaCour’s intensity. True, they share some similarities, and B L A C K I E did make his foray into experimental rap years before Death Grips, but the real argument seems to stem from anger at B L A C K I E’s comparative obscurity. The Houstonian, for his part, seems unconcerned with anything as trivial as that argument, instead ripping murderously dissonant phrases and screaming vigorously into its the mic clipped onto the bell of his saxophone. His energy and reckless abandon were met with curiosity and applause from an audience that seemed to hold just as many die-hards as first time listeners. After seeing Death Grips and B L A C K I E back to back, it’s safe to say that the two occupy very different corners. –Kevin McMahon
10. Best Use of Sunglasses at Night
Playing the smaller stage right as the sun set, Houston psych rock group Indian Jewelry naturally drew a crowd of locals but also won many more over. Decked out in sunglasses, leather jackets, and trench coats, the group’s use of red lights and smoke machines bordered on kitsch, but their driving momentum and talent kept it from being derivative. The band’s set felt like a heavier version of a Chromatics show, with a similar brand of enticing throwback dance rock. The group oozed a sense of cool, and though the crowd in attendance was small, those that came enjoyed the band’s grooving, hypnotic set. –David Sackllah
9. Best Jam Session
After a full day of mostly electronic and dance acts in the warehouse, Battles took over the long room and put on a showcase of their thrilling jams. More than any act prior, they packed the room with a mass of people dancing in the pit as if they were at one of the DJ sets. Cameras from overhead the band caught an aerial view that they displayed on screens throughout the warehouse, giving the whole room a chance to feel up close with the band, who tore through a number of songs from their new record, La Di Da Di. The rubbery nature of their music gave it an open, jubilant feel that was also clearly tightly controlled, full of repetition not dissimilar from Philip Glass’s performance seven hours earlier. As one of the few more traditional rock bands on the bill, their loose, improvisational nature was a great fit for the festival. –David Sackllah
8. Biggest Tease
Accompanied by the most intense multilayered visualizer of the festival (and believe me, at Day for Night, that’s saying something), Flying Lotus had the crowd in the palm of his hand. After being introduced by Houston’s own Bun B, the set seemed poised for collaboration and guest appearances. His cosmic blue and green color scheme interwove shapes and letters on a slightly off-kilter axis, and judging by the amount of gaping mouths and vacant stares, it was an effective tactic. Musically, he spun a balanced set showcasing FlyLo highlights, as well as his work as Captain Murphy. Halfway through the set, a gentleman in the front row passed him a large blunt, and the teasing began: First he jested that Kendrick was coming out, then Earl Sweatshirt, and then Kendrick again. As the introductory notes for “Never Catch Me” began, complemented by the knowledge that Kendrick was set to take same stage in less than 45 minutes, it was hard not to assume that K-Dot would come out for his bars. Sadly, we got the recording; not so sadly, we got the real thing an hour later. –Kevin McMahon
7. Least Fucks Given
By now, the fact that Death Grips do not give a fuck is well documented. That Day for Night was able to lure the trio out from wherever it is spectral satanic hip-hop artists go in their off-time, however, is much more interesting. The set deviated little from the well-rehearsed nature of the rest of their tour, but its entertainment value was in no way diminished. Their energy is unparalleled, and no matter how many times one sees Death Grips in action, Zach Hill’s ability to sustain such a high level of uninterrupted drumming is nothing short of incredible. From “Come Up and Get Me” through “Takyon”, the performance is so explosive it’s hard to imagine having any pent-up emotion left afterwards. As Ride emphatically dropped his mic to the floor and walked off stage (10 minutes early, of course), Flatlander gave a passive wave to the crowd. It’s the closest I’ve seen the group come to acknowledging an audience’s existence. It’s this unflinching indifference that has thrown many off their bandwagon, yet bound those remaining even tighter. –Kevin McMahon
6. Best Use of CGI Fruit
Experimental electronic artist Holly Herndon has built a reputation this year for her engrossing, interactive live set. Performing in front of a large projection of her computer screen, she communicated with the audience by typing out messages. She began by emphasizing the importance of volatility in a live setting, speaking out against automation and warning the audience that by embracing a more spontaneous approach, there was the risk the set would end up like shit. Thankfully, that was far from the case. Her set was full of dissonant noise, staggered beats, serene choral vocals, and a multitude of disparate elements that came together to create something immersive and colossal. Herndon took the time to express political sentiments as well, and through her text she espoused the merits of encryption, expressed solidarity with journalists exiled from the US, and dedicated the performance to Chelsea Manning. When she wasn’t typing, she displayed a collection of imagery from computer generated fruit & guitars to photos of the Houston skyline, putting up a surreal, slightly interactive visual experience for the crowd. For music that often sounds harsh and otherworldly, Herndon’s performance was a reminder of how human it really is, full of flaws, fluctuations, and a sign that something great can rise out of dark, damaged sounds. –David Sackllah
5.Most Faithful James Brown Cover
Some artists have an electric personality that transcends their music, and Janelle Monae is a prime example. Leading a band dressed in matching black and white-striped outfits, Monáe put together a meticulously crafted set. Each member hit every cue and mark perfectly. There was a theatrical flair to the performance, from Monáe being wheeled onstage in a Hannibal Lecter-esque straightjacket to a bit towards the end where she collapsed on the stage while her band members worked to resuscitate her in step with the music playing. As it’s been over two years since her last album, The Electric Lady, Monáe has had plenty of time to hone her setlist down to a tight mix of favorites, alongside covers of legends like James Brown and the Jackson 5. The covers felt like a natural extension of Monáe’s own sound, which has always focused on paying homage to ‘70s soul while adding a contemporary twist. She carefully built up momentum throughout the set, leading to big moments in the second half, including rousing renditions of singles like “Primetime” and “Tightrope”. As an outspoken advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement, Monáe took a few moments during the set to speak politically. Before going into “Cold War”, she gave a brief speech encouraging the crowd to speak out against certain presidential candidates known for hateful rhetoric. As a whole, her set was an excellent showcase of one of the most talented performers in music today. –David Sackllah
4. Most Energetic Composer
Phillip Glass Ensemble
Everything about Phillip Glass’ performance Saturday afternoon was indicative of what made Day for Night such a unique draw. Housed in a carpeted warehouse at 1:30 p.m., Glass’ performance with a seven-piece ensemble was the kind of experience that just doesn’t happen at many other music festivals. A large crowd stood in hushed reverence throughout the 75-minute performance. For many, Glass was probably the main reason for attending the festival. The composer was in a jovial mood, addressing the crowd between each piece, joking around and providing background information. For someone who rarely plays music festivals, he seemed quite taken by the audience’s warm reception and was visibly appreciative of the rapturous applause.
The ensemble was extremely talented, locking in and playing with a focused intensity that never let up. Glass led them through a handful of recognizable pieces taken from throughout his career, including “The Grid” from his 1983 score to the film Koyaanisqatsi and concluding with an excerpt from act three of The Photographer, an opera of sorts that he wrote and performed throughout the early ‘80s. Glass was an emotive performer, using hypnotic repetition to build dramatic crescendos. As one of the most legendary composers of the past century, Glass showed that a background in music theory or composition isn’t necessary in order to appreciate his music. The ensemble’s performance set a high bar for the rest of the acts playing over the weekend, and was undoubtedly a peak for those who made it out early to watch. –David Sackllah
3. Most Patient Performance
For the first 18 minutes of his set, Nicolas Jaar built tension tantamount to a college freshman on the verge of his/her first sexual experience — albeit with a much darker undertone. During much of this time, the audience dangled on the edge of a sample featuring a nihilistic rant, delivered in a child’s voice, about the emptiness of existence and the “misfortunes of desire.” Jaar stood coyly below the brim of his baseball cap, taking ample time to create the brooding ambience that would underpin his set. When he finally released the first pulsating 808-kick loop, the crowd collectively exhaled. Jaar looked up only once, scanning the crowd with intent, and astutely transitioning from very dark deep house, to lighter melodic notions from “No One is Looking at U”, a track from his 2015 Nymphs II EP. His patience was met with appreciation from the audience, a testament to the respect he’s built over the past seven-plus years of his short yet prolific career. If patience is cool, Jaar could be considered the next Miles Davis. –Kevin McMahon
2. Most Overdue Return
For the city of Houston, part of the big draw of Day for Night was the chance to see artists who rarely come to the city; many performances came from artists playing the city for the first time in years, or even the first time ever. The longest wait came from fans anxious to see New Order, who hadn’t played the city in 26 years, but made their triumphant return juxtaposed against the downtown skyline. The set marked their only US performance in 2015, a year that found the group releasing their well-received 10th studio album, Music Complete. The album was surprisingly strong for a band well into their fourth decade together. For the first half of their set, they mostly stuck to strong cuts from the new record, interspersed with a couple old favorites like “Ceremony” and “Your Silent Face”. While most in the crowd were obviously there for the older songs, no one seemed disappointed.
Once the group reached the second half and stuck to the classics, the crowd reaction intensified, culminating in an hour-long dance party where people of all ages were singing along to songs like “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Temptation”. While age affected Bernard Sumner’s voice slightly, the songs didn’t sound any less energetic or essential in 2015 than they did in 1985. After playing for over an hour and a half, they began an encore with Sumner stating, “We forgot to play a couple of songs,” before launching into Joy Division classics “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. The final song was an extended, enthralling version of “Blue Monday”. As Sumner strutted across the stage in a cowboy hat, it was clear the band were enjoying themselves as much as the crowd was. New Order have more than proved themselves one of the most influential bands of their generation, and their performance at Day for Night showed that they are still one of the most relevant today. –David Sackllah
1. Best Test of How Well Audience Members Know Lyrics
As the year wrapped up and critical lists and Grammy nominations rolled out, it became clear that Kendrick Lamar was the most important artist of 2015, with To Pimp A Butterfly topping nearly every year-end list. Time has proven that critical consensus doesn’t always sync up with audience tastes, but Kendrick Lamar has proven one of the rare cases where an artist lives up to the hype and is upheld as one of the most distinct voices of a generation. While an artist at that level could easily phone it in, Kendrick lays it all on the line for every performance, working his hardest onstage to give the crowd a night they’ll never forget.
Kendrick did that in part by delivering a performance he hadn’t necessarily put together before. In the months after putting out To Pimp A Butterfly, he headlined festivals around the world, playing sets composed primarily of older songs, dropping in a new song or two but not deviating much from the festival set he’s played for the last three years. That changed late this fall when he embarked on the Kunta Groove Sessions tour, a jaunt through medium-sized venues around the country. He finally started playing a set driven largely by his new album, and moving away from his earlier material.
Day for Night marked the first festival set since that tour, and those anxious to see what he would do next were in for a welcome surprise, as Kendrick put together a solid blend of newer cuts like “Hood Politics” and “Wesley’s Theory”, along with old favorites like “Money Trees” and “Backseat Freestyle”. He communed with the enraptured crowd with the deeply pained and personal “U”, sharing his anxieties onstage.
Even though his set didn’t reach back before 2012 for songs — outside of closing the performance with fan favorite “A.D.H.D.” — Kendrick still repeatedly called out his day one fans. He also brought an audience member onstage to rap the first verse to “m.A.A.d City”, a long-time staple of his live sets, trying four different people before he found someone who actually knew all the words. For an artist whose latest album was a 70-minute experimental jazz-rap hybrid that winds down with a 10-minute interview with Tupac, it was encouraging to find Kendrick not taking himself too seriously and engaging the crowd in humorous interactions.
The moment that stood out the most was when Kendrick left the stage before the encore. As he walked off, rather than yelling out his name or “one more song,” the crowd, without missing a step started shouting “We gon’ be alright.” A mantra heard everywhere this year from dance parties to Black Lives Matter protests, the statement has become a sentiment for many that has grown far beyond just the chorus in a popular song. The chanting grew louder in the minutes that passed, and once he ran out, he led the crowd in singing “Alright”, repeating the chorus over and over. Kendrick has created a moment much bigger than himself with both that song and the album as a whole. He created a message of hope for a generation and an era full of doubt and uncertainty, a piece of a cultural movement that will likely be remembered years down the line. On a Sunday night in Houston, a crowd of thousands got to be a part of that moment with him. –David Sackllah
Photographer: David Brendan Hall