Free Press Summer Fest: A Festival on the Rise

I have been attending Houston's Free Press Summer Fest for four years. Since 2011, I have been making the yearly trek from my suburban home in Spring, Texas to downtown's Eleanor Tinsley Park to take in the best two days of music that Houston has to offer. I originally went with only my younger brother and my childhood best friend, but in the interim years, our party has expanded to about thirteen people, many of whom are first time attendees. Through FPSF, I saw some of the best concerts of my teenage years: Weezer, Yeasayer, The Descendants, Snoop Dogg, Gogol Bordello, the Stooges, and countless others. The lineup has always been rich and diverse, and the festival itself, at least for me, has always signified the commencement of summer. This year was my first year attending as press and was easily the biggest iteration of the festival I had ever seen with over 100,000 concertgoers in attendance. The festival has finally begun to gain some national attention, but I've begun to wonder if it's lost some of the charm that made it so appealing to the fifteen year-old kid who has made the event his yearly pilgrimage to musical Mecca.

Free Press Summer Fest 2014 was a massive achievement for the city of Houston. While the festival did not get the extended hours or the third day that it requested from the city government, it still managed to sell out its blind sale in a matter of minutes, feature a record number of sponsorships, and attract national acts such as the Wu Tang Clan, Jack White, Vampire Weekend, and Zedd. The festival also fielded its usual number of local acts such as the dynamic indie pop group Wild Moccasins, neo-psych act the Tontons, and a last minute addition, a Houston rap tribute featuring Free Press veteran Bun B, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Z-Ro, Devin the Dude, and Mike Jones.

This festival, though not as big as a Lollapalooza, a Bonaroo, or an Austin City Limits is certainly on its way with escalating attendance and sponsorship, as well as its surprising amount of relevance in its main acts. Free Press this year was notable for being one of the first shows that the Wu Tang Clan (minus Method Man, which was a disappointment to many) performed after settling a feud between RZA and Raekwon the Chef that threatened to take the remaining members of the Clan from 7 to 6. Jack White also made waves premiering a new song off of his forthcoming Lazaretto album, "Temporary Ground," as well as apologizing for his own feud with the Black Keys, and his harsh words toward ex-wife and former bandmate Meg White.

Highlights of the festival, at least of what I saw of it, were the Wu Tang Clan's, (performing for an hour with hits from across their discography, but focusing on 36 Chambers, with respectful tributes to the late Ol' Dirty Bastard throughout) Childish Gambino, (touring on his latest album Because the Internet, and truly giving the crowd everything he had) as well as tUnE-yArDs, the Orwells, and South African Rap/Techno group Die Antwoord.

Summer Fest though, has definitely changed since I began attending, and most of the changes have been over the past two years. The most noticeable change is that EDM has taken over the festival. In past years, electronic music was hosted in a single tent, but as the genre has become more and more popular, EDM acts have become headliners, this year on both days, as Zedd and Above & Beyond closed the festival on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Other more subtle changes include the attending tents. I remember the stall of an anarchist bookstore and glitch art installations, but the tents have become more tourist-friendly hosting more food and games than anything else. While none of these changes are necessarily bad ones, they do represent a skew to center rather than the small, quirky festival it was from 2009-2012.

One of the greatest catalysts for the change may be the amount of sponsorship, which dramatically increased in 2013. While I understand the reasoning for this (the need to accommodate dramatically increasing numbers and afford larger and larger acts) I can't help but wonder what was lost in the process. Ticket prices have skyrocketed in recent years, blind sale began at a greater price than the gate cost only three years ago. To many, the festival just isn't five times better to justify five times the cost, sparking a sizable boycott of the festival. For $160 dollars for two days, Free Press was seemingly one of the only festivals this summer to not have Outkast (though we did get a very Christian DMX) and the attention given to local bands just isn't what it once was. Though, I would be remiss to mention that this year was not nearly as commercial as last year, which featured a closed circuit Jeep track.

Now don't get me wrong, I still immensely enjoy this new version of Free Press Summer Fest for the masses, (despite the multiple hour rain-out that I cannot imagine taking place in any previous year) and FPSF was still one of the best concerts I've seen all year, but I know it's not the same. Free Press was like my favorite indie band, not a lot of people knew about them and I felt really cool for knowing about them early, now they have a major label deal and everyone knows who they are. I'm happy for their success, god knows they deserved it, but I miss the time when it was just mine.