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Day for Night puts Houston on the festival map

Day For Night (Photo: Chad Wadsworth)

Day For Night (Photo: Chad Wadsworth)

After a wildly successful debut in 2015, Day For Night returned to Houston last weekend for an eclectic and wholly original festival experience.  Day For Night’s organizers made good on the promise of combining the best in alternative music and visual art to create something completely unique and vastly different from the crowded major festival landscape.  For a city not often associated with forward-thinking art, Houston proved to be an ideal setting for this funky new festival thanks to a moderate winter climate and an easily accessible downtown. The festival was a major boom for the city as well--with over 70% of ticket sales coming from outside of the metro area.

This year the festival relocated to the historic Barbara Jordan Post Office building located smack dab in the middle of downtown Houston.  The post office, which was used as a mail sorting center for decades, was transformed into a gritty post-industrial warehouse for visual artists to display their work across two floors.  The darkened walkways and ambient sounds emanating between installations lent the whole building a futuristic haunted house vibe while outside three main stages kept the crowds dancing.  The outdoor stages featured no shortage of visual stimuli, with gigantic interactive projections on the exterior of the building and sweeping views of the Houston skyline.

While the unique mix of music and visual art was perfectly curated, the festival struggled to deliver on a few logistical necessities.  The sound quality at the main stages was hit or miss, with considerable technical difficulties plaguing some of the biggest names of the weekend (Butthole Surfers, Blood Orange, Kamasi Washington).  Festival organizers were also not prepared for the large crowds that showed up and lines for food, drinks, and bathrooms were excessively long throughout the weekend.  Some growing pains are to be expected in a major festival’s second year; here's hoping Day For Night sorts through these issues for the 2017 edition.

Logistical difficulties aside, Day For Night managed to satisfy music and art lovers from around the country in an exciting space that made for an unforgettable festival experience.  Here are some of my highlights from the weekend:

Nick Murphy

Nick Murphy

Nick Murphy (Chet Faker)

After making a name for himself as a chilled-out pop crooner, the producer formerly known as Chet Faker recently reverted back to his birth name and promised an “evolution” in his music.  Murphy’s set at Day For Night pointed towards a clear shift in his sound with an emphasis on tighter musicianship thanks to an ace backing band.  Murphy emerged solo on an electric guitar before the rest of his band jumped in for his breakout hit “Gold.”  From there the band stayed locked in with an endless supply of grooves, keeping the crowd moving as Murphy dashed between guitar and piano while throwing in a few pop-star dance moves for good measure.  A name change can be career suicide, but Murphy’s new identity and killer band are clearly making way for bigger and better things.

Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels

Killer Mike and El-P, the dynamic duo that make up Run the Jewels, are a two-man wrecking crew who use their breakneck rhymes and pummeling beats to speak out against injustice with an infectious mix of humor and aggression that feels just right for these troubling times.  Strolling triumphantly onstage to the victory march of “We Are The Champions,” the duo launched into “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” as their loyal fans erupted into a moving mass of jumping bodies.  Run the Jewels has been hard at work on their third album (set for a January release date), but this show was a victory lap as it showcased all the songs the fans know and love with only one new song thrown in for good measure.  Halfway through the show the temperature took a sharp drop and the skies opened up with a rainstorm that soaked the crowd and added to the intensity of the high-energy set.  The fans stuck it out through the cold rain, refusing to move an inch at the end of the show and erupting in chants of “RTJ!” until the duo came out for an encore.

RZA feat. Stone Mecca

RZA feat. Stone Mecca

RZA feat. Stone Mecca

RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan mastermind, is a force to be reckoned with whether he’s making beats, spitting rhymes, directing, or acting.  Even though he spends most of his time in movie studios these days, RZA showed that his musical abilities are still some of the sharpest in the game with an inspired set backed by the band Stone Mecca.  The group blasted through some new original music before RZA led them through a run of Wu-Tang classics that still sound as fresh today as they did in the 90s.  RZA had no problem handling vocal duties for his Wu-Tang brethren on "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit" and offering a spot-on tribute to Ol' Dirty Bastard with "Shimmy Shimmy Ya."  At a festival featuring young hip hop stars getting their first taste of success, it's refreshing to see an elder statesmen of the game showing them how it's done.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra have been touring for over a year now and quietly making a case as one of the best rock bands on the road today (their show at Republic last February was a standout for me).  Frontman Ruban Nielson has managed to transform his low-key freaky rock songs into groove-heavy psychedelic party jams that hook in newcomers and keep hardcore fans coming back for more.  The band jumped across all three of their excellent albums and included impressive new versions of classics “How Can You Luv Me” and “So Good At Being In Trouble.”  The band took frequent instrumental detours, with Nielson sitting down to stretch out his exploratory solos and new drummer Amber Baker providing seamless transitions between songs.  The closing run of “Multi-Love” and “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” had the crowd dancing to the last note and screaming for more.

Shane Colman writes about music for NolaVie. Email him at shane@nolavie.com. Follow him on Twitter @canesholman and on Instagram at shawncoolman.