In theory, Houston Whatever Fest is kind of “The Big Lebowski’s” Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski of fests.
It’s chill and relaxed, yes — the “Whatever” being a sort of self-aware, lol-inducing trick designed to tickle out laughs — but in practice the fest’s not even remotely blasé, not in execution or identity, and is actually really anything but Whatever.
This was only the second year of HWF, its inaugural year taking place in August of 2014. Moving the festival back a few months to November was a wise choice: although Andrew WK, Goldlink, Kreayshawn, Mute Math, Neon Indian, Passion Pit and others were on the roster last year, it suffered from low attendance.
But from the very beginning, you could tell that this year’s HWF was going to suffer no such problem—people were no longer whatever about Whatever. Part of the reason for the popularity was the refreshingly local lineup, which wasn’t so much the gimmicky “Support Your Local Fest” local, as much as it was the “Nationally Recognized Musicians Who Happen to be from Houston” local.
If you’re not a Houston native though, it’s easy to forget—or simply not know—that Houston is as artistically rich as it is. Sure, you’re aware of Beyonce, DJ Screw and UGK, and maybe you remember the early 2000s takeover by Lil Flip, Mike Jones and Paul Wall, but the Houston scene has in no way stagnated since then, and in fact continues to produce great artists that are contributing to, redefining and expanding their respective genres.
The first person to come to mind is B L A C K I E, Houston’s “DIY pioneer of American trash and noise rap.” His set was pure chaos, beginning when he jumped offstage into the audience. The crowd parted at his presence, the Moses of avant-garde rap and the audience, his curious disciples.
Some onlookers knew what to expect with B L A C K I E, but most didn’t. They stood, mouths agape and bodies immobile, furtively pointing their phones before hurriedly pocketing them when he headed in their direction. Photographers brave enough to step into his path were greeted with a push and one of the most menacing gazes I’ve ever witnessed.
“B L A C K I E All Caps / Act like you know” he screamed, flanked by the buzzing distortion coming from his collection of amplifiers. If you didn’t know of B L A C K I E before his show, you definitely did after it. And just as soon as his set had begun it had ended, the rapper climbing over the barricade, falling on his back and crawling onstage. We cheered and clapped as the distortion and feedback went silent. “I’m B L A C K I E from Houston,” he said, waving.
Then there was Vockah Redu, the Houston-by-New Orleans bounce artist that kicked off the festival with his two backup dancers; We Were Wolves, a group of sunglasses-wearing, enthusiastic headbangers whose ability to blend heavy riffs with pop hooks immediately won over any skeptics in the crowd, and Fat Tony, one of the best up-and-coming regional rappers I’ve seen in awhile, accompanied by the self-proclaimed “Rap Game Axl Rose,” Ill Faded (who served as Fat Tony’s DJ).
I’d heard of Fat Tony before his set at HWF, but didn’t know what to expect. What me and many other spectators received was a full set of turnt anthems, distortion and reverb (he likes to use effects on his vocals, which is a refreshing touch from most straightforward rap shows), as well as a running homage to Houston rap old and new.
Fat Tony shouted out fellow up-and-coming rapper Maxo Kream, whose most recent mixtape #MAXO187, was so critically well received earlier this year that I briefly wondered why he wasn’t a part of the HWF lineup.
He also shouted out Lil’ Keke, an original member of Houston’s Screwed Up Click who popularized a dance (and song with the same name) called the “Southside.” “Y’all remember the Southside?” Fat Tony asked the audience. Moments later, he was asking everyone that was unfamiliar with the dance to move to the front so he could teach them how to do it.
I found myself saying “This could only happen in Houston” twice during the event’s two days: The first time when Fat Tony got everyone to do the “Southside”; the second when watching a Lil’ Flip set.
For anybody my age (23) who grew up in Texas, chances are you heard Lil’ Flip on your city’s rap radio station. His hits: “Game Over,” “Sunshine” and “The Way We Ball,” played at every elementary and middle school dance party, banging as we awkwardly hug-danced or ate nachos and pizza.
Yes, he took the stage two hours after his scheduled time, but Lil’ Flip sold nostalgia so well that the crowd happily let his tardiness slide. Yelling “Flip, Flip, Flip, Flip” during the chorus of “Game Over” with hundreds of people was an experience I never knew I needed until that moment.
Underneath a starry Houston sky, a cool breeze slowly settling in for the night, I bobbed my head and smiled. “This is how every person should be introduced to Houston,” I said to myself.
But the fest wasn’t all not fun and games: A slew of carnival amusements were nestled in a corner, including a High Striker where attendees could gauge their strength for a few dollars. And just across from the carnival games area was another section, this one dedicated to an entirely different display of human strength: Micro Wrestling.
Micro Wrestling was, arguably, one of the standout activities at Houston Whatever Fest. A wrestling federation that showcases the talents of midget wrestlers from across the world, Micro Wrestling is a combination of humor, stereotyping, suspense and theatrics, in addition to one of the most celebrated combat sports to ever exist.
The entire spectacle is hyperbolic in the best and worst ways possible, e.g. a match that pitted an American soldier named Lieutenant Dan against an Afghan soldier named The Mini Sheik. Once you mentally sidestep the utter lack of political correctness, Micro Wrestling is incredibly entertaining.
There’s nothing like yelling “U.S.A.” as Lieutenant Dan body slams an opponent, spurring a collective, Ric Flair-esque “Woo” from the crowd. There was clapping, yelling and laughing, but Micro Wrestling was just an appetizer for what HWF’s real bread and butter—comedy.
“That’s right, folks,” said comedian Doug Benson as he began his set. “We’re at Whatever Fest where, whatever happens, who gives a fuck? Let’s have fun.”
Plenty of people went to the fest purely for the its comedy lineup, which in addition to Benson, included T.J. Miller of “Silicon Valley” fame, and former “Saturday Night Live” actor Brooks Wheelan, as well as Ari Shaffir and a handful of Houston comedians like Adrian Youngblood and Dusti Rhodes.
Once again, it was inclusions like these, as well as the fest’s emphasis on promoting Houstonian art, that made HWF such an enjoyable grassroots endeavor. Yes, there were big names like Ghostland Observatory, Gwar, GZA and Metric attached to the lineup, but the bulk of both the artists and comedians were based out of Houston.
The connection between the city and the event is far from incidental: not only would HWF be unrecognizable in another city, it probably wouldn’t even be possible.
How many other cities, major metropolises included, have as much homegrown talent as Houston does? And how many of those cities could produce not just musicians, but comedians, artists and entertainers all of the highest caliber, all sharing the same unique regional vibe?
“I want [Houston Whatever Fest] to represent the diversity of Houston,” said Jason Price, the founder of the festival, in a story for the Houston Press. “I want it to be not this mass-produced event, but I want it to remain grassroots just like the people who are coming and supporting the thing. That’s really what it means to me.”
So far, Price seems to be on the right track. The setup of the festival lends itself to moments that probably wouldn’t happen at a bigger music festival.
For example, during his headlining set, GZA jumped into the audience and went through “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Liquid Swords,” belting out the lyrics with hundreds of enthusiastic fans surrounding him.
The moment was uncontrived and unexpected, something that spoke to the beauty of intimate events like HWF. Since Free Press Summer Fest essentially acts as Houston’s Fun Fun Fun Fest-meets-Lollapalooza, Houston Whatever Fest seems content to have a niche all to itself: It promotes great local talent, which is an ambitious and brave thing to do in an age of festivals where locations change but lineups don’t.
Maybe last year, people were whatever about Houston Whatever Fest. But not anymore — if the large crowd of faux blood-drenched attendees at Gwar’s performance proved, this festival is slowly making its mark in Houston and is looking to stay for as long as possible.