After FPSF: Things Have Definitely Changed
Saturn Stage at FPSF. Photo: Jason Smith
The one thing I look forward to every year is covering the annual Free Press Summer Fest. In fact, the festival itself was one of the deciding factors when applying to write for Free Press Houston three years ago. No matter what was happening at music festivals around the country, Houston had its own music festival in FPSF and the beauty of it was that it felt like it was ours. By that I don’t mean that it belonged to those of us who work for Free Press Houston, but it felt like it was made for us by two guys from Houston who love the city. A passion for music curated a small festival into a large scale festival, and even up until last year, the festival still felt like something that was “a Houston thing.” That has changed. Gone is the feeling that this festival was made for Houston by Houstonians; now it feels a music festival hosted by people who don’t listen to music. It’s a little heartbreaking that the experiences we had in 2023, 2023, and so on will be just a memory of a festival that’s now just a shadow of its former self.
Before delving into the few highlights from each day of the festival, let’s look at the particulars. For starters, my media pass experience as far as being accepted to cover the festival, receiving my passes, and the way the media was typically handled was all top notch. It should be noted that I received free passes as a part of the media from the festival organizers, and everything including updates to schedules went great.
Crowds at FPSF. Photo: Mark Armes
The weather, the fact that the festival had to move locations and the fact that Father John Misty cancelled can’t be blamed on anyone involved with the festival. I know plenty of people who work on this festival and it’s a pretty thankless job that requires tons of work hours. If they could control the weather or that an artist does or does not show, they certainly would. The same employees can’t control budget cuts to favorite attractions, and that shouldn’t be put on them either. These weather things happen here on the Gulf Coast and as someone who has covered plenty of festivals, there’s nearly always one artist who cancels for whatever reason.
Those two points being made, however, are the only lenience I feel okay with giving. Music — whether it’s at an outdoor festival, an indoor basketball stadium or a small club — is meant to be a wonderful experience. You might think that I’ve seen too much music, or that I’ve become numb to what I experience; but I can say that I went to three more shows around town after the festival and all of them were more enjoyable than what I experienced at the festival. Gone is the ability to move freely if you’re media, where this year we were relegated to the media lounge or designated areas, and in all honesty, that’s potentially understandable as well. However, being treated like a child by staff who insist on rules that don’t help anyone, and staff that talk down to you because they have to enforce these unimportant rules, all of this is uncalled for. Pretty much everyone I spoke to in the media had a story to tell about how they were treated like children by some form of festival staff, and I had my experiences, too. I don’t want a festival without rules, nor do I want to have free reign, but it would be cool if the festival felt like the spirit of a music festival and not an internment camp where my presence at the festival is simply to make ‘merchandise’ for someone later through coverage. Speaking of festival merchandise, the best designs I saw were from years past when a local artists created the designs. Now it looks like some buyers from Urban Outfitters decided what the shirts would look like. While that’s not really important, it should be noted that your ability to buy them was plastered across every screen following nearly every set instead of notifying audiences of who would perform next. It was the little things that were missing. The little personal touches and moments of tongue in cheek humor that were removed. It almost felt like the festival higher ups were ready to plaster Big Brother-type messages like “YOU WILL HAVE FUN,” or “WE DEMAND THAT YOU ENJOY YOURSELF” across the screens as an order rather than an organic reflex. A bonus for drinkers was the ability to grab a drink without incidence due to short lines, but that mostly had to do with the fact that the average age of festival goers was closer to under 18 than 21 and up. For the first time in the history of this festival, it appeared that there were more underage attendees than those that are of-age. At most festivals I’ve attended, I have to go around huge lines where alcohol is being served, but I didn’t see a single line at the bars that extended more than about seven people.
There were other changes, including the fact that there was a dearth of art placed around the festival grounds, and when art was present, it often had a corporate logo in the corner. This might sound insane, but it’s totally true. Over by the Budweiser burger truck, there were what appeared to be some form of art that said “FPSF,” as well as a Budweiser logo in the top right corner. Houston artist Patrick Renner created the swirling colorful displays at the front gates of the festival, but unless a local artist painted the art piece that some wine company had displayed, it was the only truly local art at the festival. One of the elements to this festival has always been that there has been a focus on local art, but again, things have changed. They might have had it in the Fancy Pants tents, but unlike previous years, media wasn’t allowed inside so I can’t tell you if that was the case or not. The corporate vibe to the look and feel of the festival almost made me wonder why I didn’t see art installations that said something like “Art Presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods.”
Refused. Photo: Daniel Jackson
Aside from the fact that there were still a few locals booked for the festival again, the lineup this year left a lot to be desired. It made me think that someone booked the festival off of numbers rather than by experience or performance level. In years past, FPSF had surprise performances from acts that were getting a buzz, but this year they had acts that were good for ticket sales when they played on their regular tours. While that’s not abnormal, the ticket sales the bands could garner was about the only appealing factor to them. There were a handful of acts worth catching, which is who I planned to focus on. Due to getting to the festival grounds later than I originally planned, I missed the day’s locals and Chicano Batman. I started off with Built To Spill, who honestly looked like they could care less as to whether they were performing or not. However, they always kind of look that way and the three songs I watched were on par with how they typically sound. I then trekked across the festival grounds to catch one of the few acts I was actually excited to see, Thee Oh Sees. These guys didn’t disappoint by any means as they tore through their set with ferocity and energy like they were playing for their lives. I followed that with a set from Zola Jesus, who was captivating, but not as strong as when I saw her at Fitzgerald’s last year. Another act I had looked forward to catching, Refused, blew me away with their high energy set. Mic stand in the air, their singer throwing the mic at all heights and dancing to every track, their set was one of the three best I saw all day. After hiding in the media tent to avoid the rain, I stopped off to watch a few rather boring songs from Zeds Dead before venturing over to watch a pretty amazing set by Tiger Army. While Tiger Army isn’t as popular as Zeds Dead, at least they didn’t drop a bunch of other people’s songs during their performance. The psychobilly band has definitely grown up, but they also weren’t tame by any means, which was refreshing. After waiting for White Denim to come onstage until I was too bored to wait any longer, I went back across the festival grounds in hopes to catch an electrifying set from Matt & Kim. These two were a huge highlight when they played FPSF in 2023, however this time was pretty mediocre and thus I only made through a couple songs. Even with another stand-out appearance from Kim, the whole performance felt put on, or at least like they were attempting to relive a moment that’s locked in time and while they were still energetic. In the media tent, I decided that I didn’t want to punish myself with a set from Modest Mouse, as their last album was just too bad to listen to in person, and I honestly didn’t care about Collegrove enough to catch them perform. I made the decision that to see Jamie XX as my last set of the first day. Jamie XX felt like the best act to end a day that was filled with disappointment and I was right in thinking so. He started strong, got things turnt up, and ended just as strong too. He ripped through jams from his tracks while making me wonder why he wasn’t the closer for the day. His set was another of my favorites of day one and he’s an act I’d encourage you catch if he returns to Houston anytime soon.
Leon Bridges. Photo: Cambria Harkey
On day two, I had planned to get there early to catch BØRNS and Trampled By Turtles, but the traffic to get to the parking lots was more congested than it was on Saturday, so the first act I ended up seeing was Houston’s Trae Tha Truth. Trae has always been a strong performer, and since there was no “Welcome To Houston” on the lineup this year, his set would have to feed my crave for H-Town hip hop. As always, he was on point from start to finish while he dropped a mix of old and new songs like miniature flames. Due to rain repeatedly coming and going, I found myself catching a glimpse of Mac DeMarco, who I still can’t seem to find the energy to care about. I did however catch a set from one of the few acts that I was really excited to see on day two, Dallas’ Leon Bridges. Bridges might be as close to artists like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, and while he soulfully and gracefully performed tracks from last year’s Coming Home. His set was one of the better sets I’ve seen at any music festival and it really felt like an FPSF of yore due to his inclusion in the lineup. I skipped a couple of acts so I could watch punk rockers Against Me! and they played the set as if it was their last one ever. Highly energetic and full of fan favorites, their set was one of the few the highlights of the day for me. Though I had planned to catch sets from 3Lau, Violent Femmes, Young The Giant, and deadmau5, the festival grounds were evacuated due to weather concerns. The same thing happened in 2023 and we were allowed to stay in the media tents, but this year was different. We were very briskly told to leave and sit to wait for word on when we could come back. After going through the day’s rain, but not getting really wet, I then had to venture to my car in the pouring rain alongside many others, where I then decided to end my FPSF 2023 experience on the grounds of NRG Park. Yes, I had an extra shirt, a small towel, and an extra pair of socks and shoes in my trunk, but in reality, I felt I had seen enough and didn’t even feel up to making the effort to watch the last four acts I had planned to see.
To be fair, the evacuation isn’t the fault of anyone tied to the festival and it’s a safety measure that’s good to have in place. Even though I’d later hear about attendees returning to the grounds after being sequestered to the NRG Convention Center, once I got home and showered, the only memories I had of FPSF 2023 were bad ones. The attention to detail that every year prior had been regarded for, from lineup to overall experience, were now replaced by a feeling of emotions crafted by people who don’t care about music. The elements that made this festival fun, alongside what made it individualistic and something that Houstonians could be proud of, have since been obliterated and replaced with things that someone in their fifties thinks music lovers want. The beauty of being a music journalist is that it’s never felt like a job to me. The downfall of covering Free Press Summer Festival this year is that for the first time, it did feel like a job. The lineup and overall experience were so plain and unimpressive that you could have had this festival in any other city and no one would have noticed. Hopefully in 2023, FPSF will feel a little closer to a festival made for Houston by people who care about the city instead of what it felt like this year: a festival made by someone else who’s calculated that this is what Houston would want.