Among the myriad reasons why Houston’s Day For Night festival should be hailed as 2017’s most momentous multi-day music event – including its boutique focus on stunningly experiential art installations interspersed with its four stages, one of them an innovative in-the-round electro hub – perhaps the most significant one gleaned from Sunday (Dec. 17) was a lineup heavy on female artists. The estrogen-filled day wasn’t indicative of some progressive, imminent trend (sex/gender is incidental), but rather yet another sign of a fest with its finger on the pulse as so many of the women spotlighted have created and are continuing to create some of today’s most impactful, world-class music.
Out of all the weekend’s acts, St. Vincent and Solange were arguably the most universally adored headliners. The former, Dallas-raised singer-songwriter born Annie Clark, achieved full-on fan hypnosis on the Green Stage with a combination of genuine Southern charm to lock down local love – “I’ve been all over the world … but when I’m back in Texas, I’m f–king home… I’ll tell you what, boy.” – and an arresting arrangement of career-spanning cuts: a few fave hits like “Cheerleader” and “Digital Witness,” which led into the entirety of new album Masseduction. All of it panned out even more masterfully because of her bold choice to present them 100 percent solo, a feat that must’ve involved painstaking programming to coordinate the correct guitar and vocal effects as she crooned and shredded sans pedals through her 80-minute set — most often center-stage on a raised platform, decked out in a futuristic hot-pink, high-thigh leotard.
Equally captivating was the younger Knowles sibling’s preceding performance art piece – an exploration mostly of material off 2016 album A Seat at the Table via careful choreography and outstanding vocal execution often imbued with flawless falsetto – on the larger Red (main) Stage, which conveniently matched her cardinal-hued production aesthetic. This show served as a victory lap to a stunning months-long tour that’s handily proved star power completely independent of her big sis Beyoncé, and similar to St. V, the career-affirming moment got sweeter with every reference to her Houstonian heritage (“This is H-Town so I know we gotta take you to the cookout,” she said as she and her dancers slid in to the smooth routine of “Don’t You Wait.”)
Also incontrovertibly commanding among the day’s earlier female-led fare: Sarah Barthel of Phantogram, who – along with co-songwriter Josh Carter on the main stage – seemed to have come fully into her own as an arena-ready frontwoman with her most robust vocal hooks to date via material off recently released record Three; 90s R&B/hip-hop trio En Vogue, whose hits-packed performance (sung live with zero signs of vocal wear almost three decades in) inspired mass sing-alongs that were testaments to an enduring catalogue; Kiwi chanteuse Kimbra, who offered previews of artfully candied-pop tunes (“Human,” “Real Life”) from upcoming third album Primal Heart (due Jan. 19); and Washington, D.C.’s punk apostles Priests, whose vocalist Katie Alice Greer demanded attention despite a scant audience with her Danzig-esque chant-singing.
Still, plenty would argue that Thom Yorke – in only one of three solo performances, including stops in L.A. and San Francisco last week – delivered the weekend’s defining moment. With frequent collaborator/Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich by his side and visual artist Tarik Barri producing projections of fractals, color swells and other mind-melting graphics live on stage, the inimitable English imp-man forked over a few tunes off 2013 Atoms For Peace album Amok and 2006 solo debut The Eraser (exultant renditions of “Black Swan” and “Default” helped round out the set), but stuck mostly to material off more esoteric 2014 disc Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes – a sermon of often ultra-glitchy and only sometimes danceable beats and grooves, which here culminated into a half-past midnight mass lasting until 2 a.m. that – by way of diehard-worthy weirdness – felt tailor-made for this fest.