Two short scenes from Free Press Summer Fest on Sunday that defined the weekend for me:
Scene One: It’s toward the end of Robert Ellis’ 1:30 p.m. set, and the crowd near the main stage isn’t even halfway full yet.
We had just arrived, settling in to the sweet summer twang of Ellis’s threadbare voice, when suddenly his band starting tweaking and tuning with their instruments while the bass and drums kept a steady and lively rhythm. As the band tinkered around, my ears perked up.
Ellis’s voice could be heard clear across Eleanor Tinsley Park. At that exact moment, the nicest breeze that anyone felt all weekend synched with the band to welcome everyone to Free Press Summer Fest 2012, Day Two.
Slowly but surely, the group found their sweet spot and stayed there for a while, creating a nice space for Ellis to do whatever he wanted. When it was time for him to enter the song, Ellis’s voice could be heard clear across Eleanor Tinsley Park. At that exact moment, the nicest breeze that anyone felt all weekend synched with the band to welcome everyone to Free Press Summer Fest 2012, Day Two.
What followed on the main stage was an afternoon full of carefree Sunday whimsy, the perfect come-down from the debauchery of day one.
Scene Two: I’m walking along Allen Parkway after just having heard a blistering set full of pop bliss from Jared Boulanger, Amarah Ulghani, and the rest of The Sour Notes, when I notice a tall makeshift lifeguard stand occupied by a kind soul who took it upon himself to keep everybody cool with a water hose. This was around 6:00 p.m., but it was still a sauna outside.
Sure, the 12-foot-by-35-foot Watergate installation along the main drag was entertaining and refreshing, but as I spent a few minutes observing complete strangers being doused by this jovial man atop his perch, I realized that these are the little moments that sets Summer Fest apart from other festivals.
This is Houston. If we want something done, we do it ourselves (often in a clever way).
Throughout the weekend, grassroots creativity like that watering tower were as prominent as the music echoing between stages. Passing the pine trees in the park during Young the Giant’s set, I saw people helping each other climb to the top limbs to get a better look at vocalist Sameer Gadhia as he howled with a voice that sounded like it came from deep within the brush alongside Buffalo Bayou thousands of years ago.
I also observed plenty of makeshift poles throughout the crowd that were defined to me as “crowd beacons.” These beacons could be seen from hundreds of feet away and were adorned with mini-art installations like bubble machines, shopping bags, or my personal favorite; a plastic rabbit straddling a neon light saber.
All too often, Houston gets passed up by musicians on their way from New Orleans to Austin. After four years of steady evolution, it finally feels like Houston has an avenue for the local talent to bloom.
It’s a logical idea, marking yourself in the crowd so that your friends can find you when your Wi-Fi service goes out, but the personal touches that came with these poles were a distinct piece of FPSF (and by proxy, Houston) ingenuity.
Apparently I wasn’t the only person that noticed everybody pitching in to help each other have fun. “The best part about Houston is fans interacting with each other,” Houston rapper Jon Black told me after a run-in I had with him in the Fancy Pants tent shortly after Ellis’s set. Later on in the afternoon, The Avett Brothers echoed Black’s commentary in the middle of their spirited set, thanking the crowd for letting them be a part of our good time.
I wasn’t surprised to hear this sentiment, having heard it time and time again from visitors over the years, but it never fails to make me proud to be a Houstonian.
I always enjoy Sundays at FPSF more than Saturdays. People seem to be in better moods, and the musical lineup does a great job of countering the collective hangover that seems to befall Sunday afternoon’s crowd. For the more self-aware and conscientious members of the crowd, day two is an opportunity to learn from any mistakes made on day one (H2O-norexics, I’m looking at you). When all of these elements combine on a day featuring a Willie Nelson set while the sun beats down on your bare feet, you can’t help but relax and just enjoy yourself.
Though day two was mostly filled with lighthearted moments, Derek Smith (a.k.a. Pretty Lights) brought the evening to a close in no uncertain terms. A DJ with a serious electronic bent, Smith somehow managed to take an entire weekend of assorted musical genres, distill it, and morph it into a triumphant musical experience that transformed the tired, sweaty masses that made up the crowd into a jubilant whir of glow sticks, waving hands, and hopping bodies before closing out the weekend festivities with breathtaking fireworks display over the Houston skyline.
All too often, Houston gets passed up by musicians on their way from New Orleans to Austin. After four years of steady evolution, it finally feels like Houston has an avenue for the local talent to bloom. After seeing national acts like Primus, The Flaming Lips, Pretty Lights, and The Avett Brothers discover this city’s soul together with the local fans, I can’t help but wonder what’s next.
“Free Press Summer Fest is an answered prayer for the Houston music scene,” Jirod Greene of Suite 709 told me earlier in the day.
As I exited the gates for the last time this year, I couldn’t help but agree with him.