What’s the goal of a music festival in 2016? That’s the question I found myself mulling over as I traveled to Houston this weekend, one of the many trips I’ve taken this fall to experience music in other cities, to join fans gathering for events like Day For Night and watch what can feel like limitless sets from musicians who fall on a spectrum of like, to love, to must-see historical events.
Day For Night boasted several of the former and one of the latter — the idiosyncratic electronic music legend Aphex Twin would be performing his first stateside show in eight years, and this, combined with the added appeal of extensive digital art installments, and Houston’s own rising mumble-trap rapper Travis Scott, made the festival yet another trip that seemed too important to miss. So, despite the fact that I was moving into a new apartment the same day, I hopped on a red eye flight last Thursday night to attend the festival’s second-ever iteration. And I’ll tell you right now, Travis Scott alone would’ve made the whole thing worth it.
Despite near-freezing temperatures, Scott cavorted around the stage, lighting it up with his infectious enthusiasm, shouting out Kanye, Kid Cudi, H-Town — which he claimed will be the name of his new album — and the Greyhound bus around the corner that he used to catch before he hit it big. Scott brought out James Harden for a quick onstage hug, took layers on and off, and gave a Friday night level of energy to a Sunday night closing set. Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight remains one of my favorite rap releases of the year, and the chance to see Scott perform those tracks live for the first time in his hometown was a joy.
But, even if Scott’s final set of the fest was a personal highlight, it’s hard to overstate the impact of Aphex Twin’s performance had on my own, and probably everyone else’s, experience in Houston. Admittedly, electronic music was something of a blind spot in my musical education growing up, and it’s only as an adult that I’ve begun to unpack the significant depths of this genre. So though I’ve listened to an Aphex Twin record or song here and there, I didn’t really see the appeal or “get” why he was so widely regarded as a visionary. Now, I do.
It’s not that visual element is necessary to connect with Aphex Twin’s music, but witnessing the level of care and craft that went into creating a live show helped me understand and fully immerse myself in the same intricacies contained in Richard James’ music. A whole Fantasia-style set-up helped make the rare performance feel even bigger than the music, and feeling the pulse in my bones and my blood drove home the point that this genre is meant to be physically experienced. Of course, it’s not possible that James orchestrated the deluge of wind and rain that followed about 30 minutes after his set started, but in the moment, it seemed like perhaps he had. The droves of fans would’ve abandoned ship for any other artist, but Aphex Twin’s loyal cohort stuck out the weather.
I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d have a new favorite live performance of the year so close to the end of it, but James’s show reminded me of something that gets lost a lot now that music festival market is oversaturated, and shows are so often streamed and communicated digitally while they’re happening. Aphex Twin’s show argued for the power of being there, of experiencing music with those around you and fully giving into the present. It offered an escapism from the looming darkness of the future, and 2016’s long, yawning record of disappointments.
Since the music is wordless, there was no grammar or story to parse, just the movement of the rhythm and the melody, out in the dark rainy night. I didn’t take many notes or even photos to capture the experience, because I mostly want it to live on just in that moment. No artist has made me feel the preciousness of the moment to such a degree in 2016, no live show has better allowed me to escape the outside world.
Throughout the festival, I kept returning to the idea of escapism, and how festivals can facilitate that in different ways. Day For Night was hosted this year in Houston’s old downtown post office complex, which allowed for a stage inside the dark, dimly-lit warehouse space and several more outdoors, in the expansive parking lots and fields surrounding the building. While the outdoor experience mimicked a lot of the festivals I’ve attended, being indoors felt more akin to an episode of Stranger Things than a music festival.
Art installments were sprinkled throughout the two floors of the warehouse, tucked in corners and around hidden bends, creating a sense of discovery for the viewer even if you’d been over the grounds several times before. Shoplifter’s living, breathing hair sculpture Ghostbeast was a highlight, as were Damien Echols magick light sigils. You can read more about the art exhibits here, in my preview piece, but suffice it to say that the chance to wander completely free through this space was a welcome respite to the crush of the crowd when performers like Kamasi Washington, Sophie, or Jesus And The Mary Chain were gracing various stages. The elevation of visual art to the same level as the musicians gave the event a well-rounded aspect that few festivals attain, even well into their tenure, let alone after only two attempts.
Day For Night succeeded because they understand that a festival should function a bit like a wormhole, that attendees can sink into and lose themselves in the music, in the darkness and light, and in the escape from the outside world. No matter who was playing, this little pocket of Houston managed to feel like its own universe, one that wasn’t impacted or effected by what was going on elsewhere. Given our constant state of connectivity and information overload, focusing on the small, impressively weird world that Day For Night presented felt like a relief in a jam-packed year.
On the plane back to my new apartment, I realized that music festivals are perfect for escaping, precisely because the break from reality reminds me how much I really do love the flawed and mundane outside world. Escape doesn’t necessarily have to be permanent, and sometimes a trip down the wormhole is all you need to settle back into daily routine. Kudos to Day For Night for providing an out of this world weekend, I’m looking forward to what they’ll accomplish in 2017.