Growing Pains at Free Press Summer Fest

Whether you like it or not, summer has arrived. I personally have a love/hate relationship with the season and I assume every saneTexan generally feels the same way. The sunshine and fun activities typically associated with summer are obvious pluses (swimming pools, lake houses, BBQs, other generic forms of debauched merriment), but the Texas Heat is intense, insufferable and ultimately unavoidable – the simplest of every day habits become unwelcome, uncomfortable and generally sweaty ordeals (getting in your car, taking a walk or merely standing anywhere outside an air-conditioned space).

In addition to warm weather and bare legs, the summer season also ceremoniously ushers in festival season. I love music festivals and they too double as love/hate scenarios in the sense that they are expensive, crowded and exhausting events. But in my humble experience, the bliss of watching outstanding bands play live music for the course of an entire weekend generously outweighs the physical discomforts (sunburns, sore feet) and strains on the wallet (outlandish ticketing fees, $8 beers).

This past weekend, I added yet another item to my growing list of music festivals I’ve attended. Free Press Summer Fest takes place every June in the sweltering city of Houston, TX. The event is still in its infancy stages and this year’s festival was only the fourth year of its existence, but over the years, the lineups have gotten progressively better and attendance has significantly grown.

Major Lazer at Free Press Summer Fest- Houston, TX

Major Lazer at Free Press Summer Fest- Houston, TX

Willie Nelson at Free Press Summer Fest- Houston, TX

This year’s lineup was outstanding – major artists on the 2012 bill included Snoop Dogg, Diplo, Major Lazer, The Avett Brothers, Willie Nelson and The Flaming Lips. Other lesser-known, but no less talented acts like Two Door Cinema Club, Phantogram, Best Coast and Fitz and the Tantrums also performed over the weekend. The ticket prices were remarkably affordable so understandably, attendance spiked.

After a few days of reflection – as the dust settles and my vicious sunburn starts to subside, I still can’t determine how I feel about the event or if I would ever return in future years. In terms of music, the bands I saw were terrific – as expected, Major Lazer incited pandemonium and challenged the crowd to strip off their shirts and whip them around in a frenzy of dancing and sweat. The Flaming Lips didn’t skimp on production or performance with their haunting rendition of Dark Side of the Moon. Houston’s own Bun B (the Trill OG) made several appearances alongside Z-Ro, Major Lazer and Danny Brown over the weekend.

However, there were several logistical downsides to the festival that I attribute to the enormous growth in attendance. Simple FAQ items such as street closures and where to park were not readily available information for concert-goers. A power outage on Saturday morning caused an understandable catastrophe and unfortunately, several bands that were scheduled during those timeslots didn’t get to play. The line for entrance into the festival stretched over a mile and it took on average 2 hours just to get into the grounds – I was among the thousands of disenchanted people who missed 2-3 bands they planned on seeing because of the poor planning. Waiting lines for Porta Potties and beer stands were also brutally long. In summation, an overabundance of people and a shortage of trash cans, bathrooms and informational literature (schedules, maps) coupled with unforgiving 100 degree Houston heat kind of made Summer Fest a miserable place to be.

The Flaming Lips at Free Press Summer Fest – Houston, TX

I still had a great time though – my friends and I spent most of our time sitting on the hills and viewing the stages from afar and it was definitely worth the low cost of a General Admission ticket. Large crowds of people are intimidating, but they’re also obvious signs of success. I think seeing thousands of people enjoying a concert together is one of life’s most beautiful moments. It’s a shame that the organizers were so overwhelmed by the numbers to contain or handle the masses, but I think there’s a lot of potential for the festival. I feel like Houston gets a bad rap for having a shitty music scene (outside of the rap game) and decided to be ambitious with this year’s Summer Fest by inviting heavy-hitting headliners while keeping ticket prices relatively low. I just think Free Press overextended itself, which caused the inconvenient hiccups that I mentioned.

My hope for Summer Fest is that Free Press learns from this year’s blunders and continues growing and improving. All of its problem areas are fixable growth opportunities that will smooth out over time. I don’t think it could be the next ACL, Coachella or Lollapalooza; Eleanor Tinsley Park was already seemingly at capacity and this was only Year 4. But hosting an annual 2nd or 3rd tier festival in Houston, a mere 3 hour drive from Austin, is something I would look forward to in the future. I’d love kicking off summer season and festival season with a manageable 2-day festival jam-packed with great bands. Fingers crossed that it’s better next year!

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