Free Press Summer Fest is back, but is it better than ever?
Free Press Summer Fest takes over Eleanor Tinsley Park this weekend with a two day lineup of bands that surf in the rock, electronic and indie genres - including headliners Lorde, Flume and Cage the Elephant.
The festival has become an annual rite of passage for Houston music fans and an unofficial start to the summer concert season. But when you talk to some people, this year’s festival feels a little different. So we had a chat with the Chronicle’s music critic Joey Guerra and culture writer Andrew Dansby about FPSF. Here’s the conversation.
It doesn’t feel like there’s as much buzz around this iteration. Your thoughts on the lineup and the festival itself?
Andrew: I’ve said before and will say again, the festival clearly appears to be an event in decline. Looking at previous lineups is cringe-inducing, particularly 2015. This year has noticeable overlap with 2015, which really wasn’t all that long ago. Acts that played 2015 and are lined up for this year: Flume, G-Eazy, Tove Lo, Charlie XCX, Portugal the Man. There may be a few others. So it’s 2015 all over again, except without St. Vincent, the Decemberists, Belle and Sebastian, Chance the Rapper, Tears for Fears, Gary Clark Jr., Mastodon, Mountain Goats, Sturgill Simpson. I could go on.
I think I counted 77 acts at the 2015 FPSF and fewer than 40 this year. With no discernible price cut, that seems wrong.
And with the exception of the EDM acts, I don’t see one of those high-energy festival pleasers: Gogol Bordello or Refused or such.
Sad! Low energy!
Joey: I agree with Andrew on all counts. A lot of repetition, fewer acts and no great value.
Another telling sign? I’ve seen almost zero talk on social media about it. No one saying they’re excited about this act or the other. In past years, people have literally spent weeks talking it up. Sure, there were complaints. But it’s worse when people are offering no opinion one way or another.
Yes, I was happy to see Solange and Lorde on the lineup. But Solange’s Super Bowl week set really stole the FPSF thunder. That was a full-on, fleshed out set. And I can’t imagine the FPSF performance will be radically different.
Lorde epitomizes pop cool. But is she a headliner? I don’t think so. FPSF is missing those one or two top draws to put it truly over the top.
So, you both agree it’s a down year, with subdued interest. Any ideas why? The cultural interest in festivals only seems to be growing, which means more festivals. Are more options for touring acts watering down the lineups here and abroad?
Andrew: They still seem to be a license to print money, I suppose. From what I understand about the money, they’re good for bands, so if they’re good for bands, I’m cool with them, even though I find the environment toxic for appreciating music. I think there’s already too much cultural leeway for talking during shows. Festivals are an environment where the show is secondary to the scene. The sets are short. They’re outside (I hate being outside). And they’re more crowded than any show by one of the bands on their own would be.
I recognize that concerts are shared experiences and albums are better for the antisocial type (me). But the mass of people just creates logistical nightmares. And I find the noncompete clauses in festival contracts to be awful for fans. Ultimately they may be better for bands - here’s more money for this fest gig than a bunch of club gigs - but it puts a premium on a lesser concert experience, at least that’s my belief.
Take the National, a band plenty of people don’t know or care about but one I like a lot. Their last tour cycle skipped Houston, likely because of other better fest gigs that were close, but not too close. Then they played FPSF last year, which may have been the very absolute last show on the album’s tour cycle. And it was shortened because of rain and curfew. Take a band you care about and sub them in for the National. That’s a rotten way to see them.
That said, I think I sidestepped your question, which is why is this a down year, either by volume or range. There was a hand-made quality to this festival when Free Press Houston ran it. I know they approached the blackboard with every possible band on the table and then worked down to the budget from there. The result was something sweetly creative for a grassroots event that sprung from modest roots as a block party.
I don’t feel that sort of curation anymore. There are no little savvy choices like Junior Brown. It’s been boiled down to a youth culture rush on fewer stages with fewer acts. Not to besmirch the acts on the bill, because I like a few of the locals, I still dig the Shins and I think Solange is a major artist. But in a festival setting, they all lose some intrigue for me.
Joey: I still think it’s the lack of any really huge headliners this year. And that it just seems like recycled lists from past years. There’s no sense of adventure or risk or creativity in much of the lineup. It’s a festival for the sake of having a festival.
Andrew also hit a great point. Festival crowds are the worst. By and large, they don’t pay attention and don’t care about the music. They get drunk, are on their phones, get more drunk and spend an entire set looking for their friends and shouting names. It’s a horrible experience for real music lovers who are there to see acts they really care about. I spend half my time feeling frustrated and trying to find a listenable spot.
That said, FPSF was once a promising festival. And I think it can get there again. But they need to get out of their heads and try to create something unique, not just follow what others are doing. FPSF felt personal and special and very Houston in its first few years. I’d love for it to feel that way again.
Well, now we know how y’all feel about FPSF, but what are you looking forward to/excited about this year’s festival? And, what should the average festivalgoer be excited about for FPSF?
Joey: I’m excited for Solange. I always will be. I don’t want to sound like a total Stan, but I’ve loved her for years, through every album and incarnation. I loved her when a rainstorm shut down her performance in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I loved her when the crowd didn’t know what to make of a young girl with face paint opening for Gladys Knight at RodeoHouston.
There’s always some sense of discovery at a festival, whether it’s a new local act or a bigger act I’m not familiar with. I enjoy moving from stage to stage, settling in for a stretch and seeing what someone can do under the heat in front of an inattentive crowd. It’s a true test of wills.
I urge people to sidestep the bigger stuff and explore the smaller stage, the homegrown acts, the ones you haven’t heard of but are worth your time: Us., Miears, Kay Weathers, Deep Cuts, Bang Bangz, Rose Ette. They’re hardworking, talented acts who are probably the most excited to be at FPSF.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s all about Solange for me, too. Lorde and Charli XCX have both made records I like. And I’m quite fond of Frightened Rabbit. As Joey points out, it’s a good year for me to catch up on some locals. I love what I’ve heard from Khruangbin. I was impressed with a Us. set earlier this year during the Super Bowl weekend festivities on Main Street in Midtown. It’s been a while since I caught Bang Bangz and the Wheel Workers, but both have caught my ear in the past. And I’m keen to hear Deep Cuts and Rose Ette.
I suppose one thing the average festivalgoer may appreciate about the smaller lineup is that it could eliminate some of the necessity for the seemingly endless migratory patterns from one stage to another to another.
So, barring Mother Nature dumping water on us for the next two days, FPSF is returning to Eleanor Tinsley Park after a detour in the NRG Stadium parking lot. How is this going to change the vibe of the show?
Andrew: It’s definitely a more pleasant setting, if a little snug. Parking lots are for parking. And metal festivals. Also, there was a pride in place seeing the fest grow with the skyline in the background. A minor consideration, maybe. But the park lent it a distinctive Houston feeling. The NRG lot was unforgiving and uninteresting.
Joey: People complained about NRG. I did, too. But once you’re there, it honestly doesn’t change much. The acts sound the same. People still mill about not paying attention to the music. But I do agree with Andrew. The skyline makes a much more pleasant visual.
Andrew: The pavement doesn’t yield mud. Which is nice. But it makes the heat feel more forgiving.
Let’s wrap this up. Two final questions:
1. Give us a FPSF prediction.
2. Name the concert you’re most excited for this summer, beyond FPSF.
1. I think it’ll continue for another year or two. But the future really seems sketchy, unless they reinvigorate in some big way.
2. Gloria Trevi and Alejandra Guzman at Smart Financial (on July 1). Two superstars who helped define and pave the way for women in Spanish rock.
1. This won’t be the last we see of it, but I expect thinner crowds. People don’t like to pay the same for less.
2. That question is mean. Maybe the Tripping Daisy reunion at Warehouse Live (June 8)?