Houston has had a year. In August, the world watched as Hurricane Harvey submerged the city in an incomprehensible amount of water, and as freeways turned into gushing rivers, the country turned to memories of Katrina and the vast devastation it caused. And a month after Harvey hit, the Houston Astros won their first World Series, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers for the title. Those two events put the city at the center of the national discourse this year.
The sprawling metropolis (home to around 2.3 million people) is also the location of the eclectic music festival known as Day For Night. The fest is in its third year, and the lineup is split between rising acts (like Princess Nokia, Priests, Rabit, Jenny Hval, and Forest Swords) and big-tent staples like Nine Inch Nails, St. Vincent, Solange, James Blake, Tyler, The Creator, and Thom Yorke. It takes place in Downtown Houston, in a defunct post office service building where mail was once sorted. Now, it’s a cavernous parking garage-like structure that feels only a little bit creepy. Fluorescent light fixtures hang from the ceiling, fog and lasers are plentiful, and concrete pillars line the space. The pillars are all labeled numerically, a relic of a time when this building was used for a greater purpose than a music festival. It gives off the illusion that you’re inside the film Transformers — industrial and gritty and wholly unlike any venue you’d typically go to.
We started off our own Houston adventure eating some incredible Oaxacan food and then hit the fest for the opening night, where the performances were largely streamlined to a single stage that was smokey and small, on the ground floor of the massive interior building. The first act we saw was Jenny Hval — she hasn’t released a new album since last year’s ridiculously great Blood Bitch, but she has been featured on a few tracks this year from Kelly Lee Owens and Lindstrøm. Hval brought along her frequent collaborator Zia Anger — who’s a video director and performance artist — and, while Hval sang, Anger texted people and played graphics off her phone, all of which was projected onto screens on the sides of the stage. Behind Hval was an endless scroll of #content, a mix of Twitter feeds and memes and Spotify windows cheerily announcing that something had gone wrong. Hval ended her set with a throbbing new disco number that felt like a leap forward for the Norwegian artist, blending “Conceptual Romance”‘s pop undercurrent with something even more accessible.
Hval was followed by Earl Sweatshirt, who brought his downtrodden rap to the stage with gusto. We’d seen the rapper on our flight from New York to Houston, and he was about as unassuming onstage as he was off. While asking the audience to participate, he let the more exhausted and skittish among us off the hook by saying stuff like, “Put your hands in the air for this next one, but only if you feel like it. Jump up and down, but only if you want to. This is consensual.” He did fan favorites like “Sunday” and broke out a few new tracks as well. After Earl, Kaytranada took the stage and closed out the festival’s first night.
Since neither of us had ever been to Houston, we thought it would be appropriate to spend part of the next day sightseeing. Houston is home to a massive Museum District, which hosts various attractions including the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel. The Chapel is remarkable, a room filled with massive blueish blackish purpleish Rothko paintings that evoke a sense of calm but also make you think about the inevitability of death. Last year, Solange told us that the Rothko Chapel inspired A Seat At The Table, and it was fitting to visit it while we were in Knowles’ hometown, a day before Solange herself was slated to perform at the fest. (She mentioned during her set that she had visited the Chapel on the same day we did.) After that, we checked out the Menil Collection’s Cy Twombly gallery as well as a large exhibition by the incredible Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum.
Houston is a city known for its art, and Day For Night honors that by hosting exhibitions on the second floor of its massive space. Most of them are experiential in nature, installations that focus on projections and lasers and what feel like auditory hallucinations. One particularly striking piece was Playmode’s Cluster, in which strings of fluorescent lights hung from the poles that break up the old post office building. They bathe the entire room in light and darkness as they sync up with ear-piercing zzz’s and zaps that alternate between harsh and comfortingly melodic. Standing in the midst of that harsh, electrifying sound felt like being in the Upside Down, which is a nerdy reference point but definitely the best descriptor. It was overwhelming and enveloping, much like the festival grounds itself.
The second day of the festival hosted the likes of Princess Nokia, Perfume Genius, Lil B, and of Montreal in the afternoon (the latter played Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer in its entirely). As the day progressed, however, it became clear that weather was going to be a problem. A heavy rain forecast adjusted the night-time schedule and pushed reigning queen of 2017 Cardi B onstage an hour earlier than her previously announced set time. Cardi was not fazed, however, as evidenced by the fact that she didn’t actually grace fans with her presence until 10 minutes before her Green Stage set was supposed to be over.
Hoodcelebrityy opened that set as planned, and after some 40 minutes of hyping and ’90s hip-hop from the DJ on stage, Cardi finally walked out looking like she was playing the part of the Queen Of England. She wore a red tartan double-breasted coat, thigh-high black boots, and a sassy beret. She told the audience that she was excited to be there, but wouldn’t perform long because of how cold she was. (It wasn’t that cold.) She opened with “Lick,” which is an excellent song, but it was clear that many people in the audience came (and waited) to see Cardi B for one reason: “Bodak Yellow.” She delivered soon enough (she only had 10 minutes, after all), and when she finally did perform it, the place erupted with fans screaming and thrusting their phones overhead. It felt like Cardi owned the entire world for the 12-ish minutes of her set, holding her mic with authority while showing off the Christmas nails she had recently ‘grammed.
It speaks to the eclecticism of Day For Night that you can watch Cardi B and then check out Laurie Anderson immediately after. The iconic performance artist brought her best storytelling and humor to the festival, and though she was billed against James Blake, a sizable crowd amassed for her set. Anderson is a Legend, so while she mostly read spoken-word pieces while playing ambient tracks, the audience was respectful and even eager to listen to her avant-garde work. The crowd laughed along to her jokes, which were quite funny, and cheered when Anderson talked about politics and brought up Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Her set leveled out with a song that incorporated the words of her deceased husband Lou Reed, which Anderson played along to on her signature violin.
As Anderson finished, the slight drizzle outdoors started to quicken, making us wonder whether or not Nine Inch Nails would have to cancel their headlining set. They didn’t, and the rain may have been a blessing in disguise. Had it not been pouring, people would have been shoving their way to the front, eager to get closer to their heroes. Instead, the rain gave us all a feeling of impermanence, a reminder that Trent Reznor could very well call the performance off at any moment, so we’d better dance and scream along and have a good time as our clothes got soggier. NIN played hits like “Piggy” and “Closer,” and recent singalong singles “Copy Of A” and “Less Than.” During “The Background World,” the rain turned into a downpour and as Reznor finished the song, he shouted, “I’m sorry but we can’t do this anymore! Goodnight.” The band ran offstage as the rest of us waded through massive puddles to get back inside the postal building, where everyone was wet and steamy and the bar line was tragically long. We dried off to a revelatory set from Jlin, who looked as joyous and grateful on stage as everyone did in the audience, and the night closed out with Jamie XX on the Blue Stage.
We started out the final day of the festival with Priests, one of the Stereogum staff’s favorite bands who also happened to make one of the best albums of the year. It was the DC group’s last show of 2017, and though a midday set on a huge stage will never be as intimate and intense as a set in a venue more appropriate to Priests’ punk roots, the energy that Katie Alice Greer and the rest of the band brings to the stage is, without fail, infectious and untamable. “Suck” was the final song they played in what’s been a whirlwind year for the band and society as a whole, and you can tell that Greer was savoring every last moment: “I was walking down the streeeet…”
Another notable and highly anticipated afternoon set came from underrated ’90s hitmakers En Vogue. Their lineup has been pared back to a trio from their heyday, and only two of the four original members remain, but they ended up being one of the most impressive acts of the weekend. Even after the sound barricade for their drummer’s kit fell down due to the set through sheer force of them rocking out, they didn’t miss a beat. They did their hits — “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It),” “Don’t Let Go,” “Free Your Mind,” — and even trotted out “Whatta Man,” the Salt ‘N Pepa song on which they sing the hook. They have a new album coming out in March, their first in 14 years, and their Day For Night set made that prospect more exciting than you’d think an En Vogue album could be in 2018.
The rest of the festival’s final night was largely dedicated to homecomings, with some of the biggest and best performances allocated to Texas natives. Earlier in the day, Houston-based producer Rabit and San Antonio collective House Of Kenzo brought the club scene to a festival setting on the inside stage, turning in a fierce and frenzied performance art piece that left the room melting. It was filled with Texas pride, a theme that extended to Solange’s set that night. It was the first time the Knowles sister had performed in the city since Hurricane Harvey, and she was vocal about her love for Houston and appreciative of the support that the audience gave her. “I remember growing up in Houston and thinking that I didn’t have people who were like-minded like me, and it’s so crazy to see a lineup like this here,” Solange said as she recounted all of her city’s favorite destinations that she visited while back in town. By the end of her set, she had retrieved a cowboy hat from the audience and wore it as she closed with “Don’t Touch My Hair.”
Over on the opposite outdoor stage, the Jesus Lizard played a riotous set for their home state, the final show in a short reunion tour that served as the Austin-bred band’s first performances in eight years. David Yow was an animated leader, though at times his demeanor was uncouth, perhaps indicative of his long time away from the stage and ignorance of new social mores. “Show us your tits!” he jokingly instructed the audience at one point, and they were not having it. If you’re to believe Yow, the band’s set at Day For Night could very well be their last, as he seemed to tell the crowd before their last song that it would be the final song of the final show that the band would ever play.
St. Vincent took the same stage soon after, kicking off with a run of hits from albums past and then leaping into her latest, MASSEDUCTION, in full, a set that mostly mirrored what she’s been doing on her Fear The Future tour. But she seemed re-energized to be back in her home state, and got emotional while talking about how much it meant to her to get to play to an audience made up of Texans. “When I come back to Texas, I’m fucking home, man,” she said. “No matter where you go, no matter where you are, you’re a Texan first. Because we’re nice to everybody and don’t get too big for our britches.” And St. Vincent’s set was a reminder of the sheer talent and personality of Annie Clark: alone on stage, humble but also worthy of awe, demonstrating what an incredible singular force she is.
The night ended with none other than Thom Yorke, performing a rare solo set that hewed closely to the ones he did in Los Angeles and Oakland last week as a warm-up for this. He played the new songs he’s been debuting live and enveloped the space in a warmth that felt like a fitting note for the festival to end on. It was an interesting choice to have Yorke play the inside stage, when one of the bigger outdoor stages would have better accommodated the crowd for arguably the most popular artist playing this weekend. It meant that the huge structure was packed to the gills and it was nearly impossible to see anything, but Yorke still managed to cast a spell all the same. There’s a reason he has so many diehard devotees, and in such a diverse and wide-ranging festival as Day For Night, it felt like that no matter what your main interests were, you were gonna pay your respects to Radiohead’s leading man. It’s telling that such a meditative set would attract such a large crowd, indicative of how much Day For Night festival is really centered around appreciating forward-thinking music and creating a unique festival experience.