The crowd kept building and building Saturday, filling the parking lot just off the main square.
Gazing around at those gathering — young and old, families and friends, some puffing cigarettes and others taking pulls from the cans of free Mountain Dew Kickstart being handed out along the sidewalk — there was the strong sense that the festival, alternately revered and reviled by the local press in the weeks leading up to its return, had found its level.
Not every gathering needs to be the global behemoth of a South by Southwest or Lollapalooza.
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Denton, in its slightly insular, deeply creative way, is not that sort of town.
The splashy bookings of big-name acts (Flaming Lips, Jesus and Mary Chain, Solange Knowles, etc.) earlier in 35 Denton’s existence served a purpose — turning heads — but doesn’t seem sustainable or, more importantly, healthy, in the long term.
Denton is a close-knit musical community — Midlake’s Eric Pulido and Robert Gomez, who has long performed with Sarah Jaffe, in addition to his own solo career, were spotted in the Zombies’ audience Saturday — and one which demands close attention, the sort fostered by the set-up 35 Denton favors.
Whether you hop from one venue to another, indulging in a roaming musical buffet, or post up at one spot and simply let whoever takes the stage wash over you, it’s difficult to feel bored, and even harder to leave without one or two new favorites.
My second day at 35 Denton began with Fort Worth’s Telegraph Canyon, six years removed from its superb sophomore release, The Tide and the Current.
The band, which is as spry and engaging as ever, showcased several new songs from its forthcoming third album, reportedly due out this year.
The as-yet-unreleased songs are a fascinating paradox, considerable in length yet tightly focused on a specific, primarily dark mood.
Singer-songwriter Chris Johnson’s pinched tenor threads through it all, and when bursting through to the other side — as during the transition from new single Wheel to the Garden into Current’s Shake Your Fist — that familiar dizzy thrill goes racing up your spine.
From there, I hiked to Rubber Gloves, where a crowd was quickly gathering for a one-off performance from Layer Cake, a self-described “dreamy girl power-pop” foursome spread between Seattle and North Texas. (The band played a handful of shows locally before one of its members took a job in the Pacific Northwest, necessitating an indefinite hiatus.) The room was abuzz, and with good reason: Layer Cake performs with the sort of off-handed intensity that can’t help but pull you in.
Even the gimmicks — the four women initially began wearing plastic cat masks, but had abandoned them by the second song — are endearing.
The afternoon took yet another turn, with the deliriously entertaining Ten Hands stomping up a storm on the main stage.
Led by the pop-eyed Paul Slavens, something of a Denton and North Texas music elder statesman, Ten Hands’ cerebral funk-rock had those gathered before them dancing gleefully, and Slavens’ impromptu speech about how glad he was to see the festival restored to its roots resonated.
From one extreme to the other: Jeremy Buller’s quietly hypnotic performance in the basement of J&J’s Pizza was as inward as Ten Hands’ had been outward. Buller’s gorgeous, fragile rock music, augmented with drums, was a transfixing tapestry of echo-laded guitar and scarcely discernible lyrics. Still, there was undeniable beauty in the blur.
The Zombies, a British export that’s been steadily making music for half a century, came off as raring to go, rather than relics, during their headlining turn on the main stage. (Sadly, such enthusiasm is a rarity in classic rock circles, where lifeless pandering is often the default.)
Vocalist Colin Blunstone was in shockingly great form, nailing the high notes in the set-opening I Love You (released 50 years ago) and staying on point throughout.
A welcome blast of C&W awaited me at Andy’s Bar, where Convoy and the Cattlemen ripped through an energetic set — amusingly, the bassist tried to order 17 beers just before the downbeat — and provided a nice counterpoint to all the punk, electronic music and hip-hop coursing through 35 Denton’s curatorial veins.
Arriving at Dan’s Silverleaf, I’d expected to see Whiskey Folk Ramblers barreling through their rough-hewn alt-country songs, but was greeted instead with frontman Tyler Rougeux, knocking out Steve Earle covers. Rougeux was terrific, as always, and it turns out the Ramblers’ drummer was trapped on Interstate 35, leaving Rougeux to carry the day.
My next stop was, hands down, the most deliriously odd experience of the weekend.
Upstairs at LSA Burger, Snow Wite & the Wormhole Revue, a California art-rock project, left the restaurant patrons alternately baffled and terrified. Members of the band ventured far from the stage, shout-singing and rolling around on the floor.
The number of 35 Denton patrons watching the performance couldn’t have totaled more than 10, but the electric sensation of music invading an otherwise placid environment was a total blast.
Another high point came courtesy the Demigs, filling the Labb with sturdy songcraft, Chris Demiglio’s bug-eyed brilliance and a tuneful roar that all but dared you to look away. The Denton foursome is coming off its stunning double album, Welcome to Hard Times, and rather than sit back and enjoy a victory lap, Demiglio and his bandmates thrashed through their set, taking nothing for granted.
To transition from the Demigs’ high-velocity rock to the gentle folk-pop of Athens, Ga.’s Ruby the RabbitFoot was a little like stepping out of a hurricane and into a still spring afternoon. The duo, unafraid of hilarious digressions about the merch table or enlisting audience members to perform alongside them, brought sweet charm and a knack for melody to their slightly countrified compositions.
Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, another Denton mainstay, likewise embraces a folk-rock aesthetic, albeit from a slightly more psychedelic angle. The collective built up an impressive squall at the Greater Denton Arts Council building, keeping the crowd locked in tight as each song rose to an immaculate crescendo.
Wire Nest also knows the value of careful construction, with its mesmeric thickets of sound, performed against projections amid half-darkness and the clatter of Service Industry’s bar business. It was almost as if the duo of Frank Cervantez and John Nuckels were content to hammer away at their ambient art, oblivious to anything other than the joy of creation.
The crowds were significantly larger Saturday, with a few venues even reaching capacity early in the evening — Harvest House, in particular, seemed to be the most popular spot of the night — but with those increases came the dreaded hiccup that always plagues festivals: delays. More than once Saturday, I found myself waiting 15 and 20 minutes beyond the published start time for bands to get going.
It was mildly annoying, but not enough to deter enjoyment — 35 Denton, from all appearances, was in fine shape.
Its growth need not be exponential in order to return next year (and hopefully for many more years to come). The organizers should be very satisfied with what they accomplished this year, and use this intensely local focus as a strength, rather than viewing it as something to be overcome. (Please don’t rush out and start trying to book buzzy upstarts next year.)
When it comes to appreciating music, depth and breadth can be just as rewarding as height.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713