That’s how long Free Press Summer Fest has been in existence, and coincidentally, that’s almost exactly how long it’s been since I’ve made this city my adopted hometown. I remember vividly moving to H-town the weekend after the first Free Press Summer Fest and wishing that I’d been a part of it all.
A lot has changed since then.
Sure, the loyal five-year veterans might tell you that the festival was better when it was low-key and cheap, but from where I’m standing, Free Press Summer Fest is becoming quite the boon for much more than Houston’s music culture.
All day long, I walked from stage to stage — or planet to planet, if you want to go by the festival’s clever stage monikers — enjoying the little bits of local personality sprinkled throughout.
I ate plenty of MuSuBi sandwiches and drank plenty of Anvil cocktails, but as always, it was the music that ultimately mattered at Eleanor Tinsley Park on Sunday.
Though my notebook is beginning to overflow after all of these great bands, here are a few groups and artists that truly stood out:
This group is exactly who you want kicking off a festival. Looking at the daytime lineup for the Mars stage, which included The Suffers, Kashmere Stage Band, Mavis Staples and Cat Power, you can imagine the pressure put on this Houston area rocksteady group.
Kam Franklin, the bands animated vocalist, gave the later acts a serious run for their money when she and her band were on the stage. She and the group delivered rhythm and harmony throughout the set, which got the hardcore Free Pressers going before noon on a Sunday. If you need any more proof of Franklin and The Suffers’ power, it’s worth noting that liquor purchases at Free Press Summer Fest aren’t legally able to be made before the start of an 11:40 a.m. set on Sundays.
Keep an eye on this band, music fans.
Mikey and the Drags
I always make a point to sneak away to the small stages on Allen Parkway so that I can watch the little engines that make Houston’s music culture possible, and I’m glad that I ventured to the Venus stage for Mikey and the Drags. As soon as I walked up, I was greeted with a stream of chords from one of my favorite instruments, the Hammond Organ.
Alongside surf guitar and tight drumming, the sounds of the Hammond kept reminding me of '60s nuggets played on the radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage. The band looked the part too, which is no small feat if you know June humidity in Houston. Though nobody in this band is breaking any new ground, authentic garage rock is surprisingly hard to come by in this town. I loved every minute of this short set.
This kind of set is what Houston needs every Sunday of the year. With a career that spans over half a century, Mavis Staples is no stranger to the healing power of music. After being introduced by none other than Mayor Annise Parker, Staples wasted no time delivering one of the most soulful sets that Free Press Summer Fest has heard in its existence.
Gospel and blues were the main ingredients, and Staples brought the hungover throngs to their feet with a wonderful cover of “The Weight.” Levon Helm would have been proud. For those paying close attention, Parker could be spotted dancing near the stage all set long. I’m going to have to update my running tally of top Summer Fest moments over the years.
Those that have followed the career of Chan Marshall (AKA Cat Power) in the last decade know that her performances can sometimes be a mixed bag full of stage fright and erratic behavior, but I’ve been pulling for a good set from her ever since I first saw the Summer Fest lineup. She did not disappoint with pitch-perfect versions of songs like “Cherokee” and “3,6,9” from last year’s album, Sun, but Marshall really shone when singing some of her older material like “Metal Heart,” from 1998’s Moon Pix.
From my vantage point close to the front of the stage, I caught a few glimpses of what the media is fond of calling a fragile performance. I witnessed things like Marshall muttering to herself away from the mic, Marshall thanking the audience while blowing her nose, or Marshall re-buttoning her pants in the middle of a song. When she was into it, though, this set was magic. One of the highlights of the weekend was hearing her band perform a hefty, re-worked version of “I Don’t Blame You,” from 2003’s You Are Free.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
I’ll be completely honest here; I saw roughly five minutes of this set with my two eyes, yet Macklemore provided some of the most fun I had all day. Wedged between a previous act at the Mars stage and the upcoming schedule at the Neptune stage, my friends and I had no time to stake a seat on the Saturn stage hill for this set. Choosing to camp on the median of Allen Parkway instead, I heard every self-deprecating word of this artist’s humorous brand of party music.
What do you do when you can’t see an artist but can feel the beats? You dance, of course. You dance in the street, my friends. And that’s exactly what we did. Though I did make a point to fight the crowds and get a glimpse of the stage in the middle of the set, when Houston hip-hop golden boy Bun B made a timely cameo. If you miss a Bun B sighting at FPSF, shame on you.
I always love this part of a festival; the part where older fans reunite with beloved gems from their first CD collection and shamelessly scream along to every word. The last few years, it’s been bands like Ween and Primus, and this year it was Social Distortion. Thanks to a stroke of logistical genius by Free Press Houston, Mike Ness and his band brought a fiery set of punk classics to the small but loud Neptune stage rather than the much larger Mars or Saturn stages.
The crowd may have been a little small for a rock music institution, but the Social Distortion faithful appreciated the space while the mass crowds gathered for Bassnectar’s set. I doubt I can say the same for the security guards who had to pull crowd surfers across the fence during “Crown of Thorns.”
For a wrap-up of Saturday's Free Press Summer Festival activities, check out this CultureMap article from Whitney Radley.