Houston Has a Real Music Festival: A Houstonian’s First Encounter with Free Press Summer Fest

Let me start by saying this: Houstonians are skeptical; I should know because I am one. I have no proof or anecdote to back up my claim, nothing except my own experiences; it just seems to be who we are. Like most Houstonians, Free Press Summer Fest (FPSF) was something that I didn’t pay much attention to growing up. Coming up, I remember it as niche; I might have known some of the acts but I never felt compelled to go, or even pay attention to when the event took place. I guess I didn’t believe Houston had the sexiness to put together an experience that was worth my money.

All that’s changed now. During my time away in college I feel like I really missed the blossoming of FPSF, but after checking the lineup, and hearing enough of my friends talk about it, I decided I would check it out this year (side note: all my friends that talked about going to FPSF were not from Houston, more on that later).The following is my own personal account and review of FPSF and not the view of the festival, the city, or anything else. I am not advocating any certain type of lifestyle, or drug use, the only thing I am advocating are the artists, their music, and having fun in your own way. Some names and places have been changed.worldisfuckedLet me re-start by saying this, in case you didn’t know: If I’m going to go to a music festival, and I haven’t finessed media or artist credentials, then I need at least one friend that’s completely got my back, and I’ve completely got theirs. A group might be even better. Fortunately my good friend Karl was in town from Austin, a dude I knew I could trust and also someone whom I thought would be a great litmus test for the success of the festival. Between Karl and I, we’ve experienced music festivals in almost every kind of way. From regular general admin, to VIP, to camping out, to hopping fences to break into places at SXSW (great memories). Karl and I caught the rail to NRG, but got in just in time to see the first artist on our list, RL Grime. Although both Karl and I were expecting his set to be a little grittier and more intense (and there were definitely some gritty moments), RL seemed to cater more to what he thought the crowd wanted and mixed in a healthy dose of club banging rap songs from Kanye, Drake, Fetty Wap, etc. However, expectations aside, after watching RL’s set one thing is for certain: He can hold his own with the best.

Keep in mind RL Grime started performing in the early evening (4:40) and was performing with virtually no light effects; just a man and his rig. I’ve seen this type of situation before, seen it go bad, the artist can lose the crowd for any number of reasons… Not RL Grime. The way he held down that stage and kept the crowd engaged in 95 degree Houston heat was nothing short of impressive. In fact, looking back on it, his decision to mix in a little rap pretty much created my perfect day party. And his stage presence and the passion that you could see on his face made the whole experience feel pretty intimate, even for a large festival crowd. The raw energy I felt during RL’s set reminded me of seeing Skrillex perform in a similar time slot, with a similar setup at ACL back in 2011. Needless to say, I walked away from RL Grime very satisfied and will definitely be catching him at festivals in the future. Dude is only 23, expect big things.RL GrimeWhile leaving RL Grime I took a chill pill and told Karl we should head over to catch Welcome to Houston. He had no idea what I was talking about so I gave him the quick 1 sentence rundown, “Think of a Houston rapper… You’re probably going to see him at this show.” Karl was sold. While we stood in line for new beers I was able to catch Scarface and Willie D perform their verses from “My Mind is Playing Tricks On Me”, which I was happy about, since there is a rumor that the Getto Boys might be getting ready to perform their last concert.

Beers in one hand and vapes in the other, we hazily started to make our way to the front of the stage. During the time we left the beer stand and the time we found a spot, I vaguely remember who came on stage but know for a fact Lil Flip performed because I sang every word “This is the Way We Ball” as we walked. Once we found a place to post-up, Karl hung back and chopped it up with some people and I moved a little closer to hear Mike Jones perform “Back Then”, which, by the way, is a song that has aged remarkably well. The next thing I know Slim Thug, Mike Jones, and Paul Wall are all on stage performing “Still Tippin” and I’m overcome with nostalgia, losing my sh*t, jumping around, and rapping every word with a security guard. Right around the time the song ends, Karl makes his way up to me, cigarette in hand; both of our beers are long gone by now, either consumed or sacrificed to the festival gods.

Fast forward a bit, we get to see Chance the Rapper next. Karl and I met up with one of our friends, Dave, and started to establish position for the Chance show. All three of us are Chance fans, had heard the reviews of his shows, and none of us had seen him perform… the anticipation was high. The first thing I remember (right as the molly started to kick in), is realizing that Chance had a live band. The next thing I remember is the explosion of excitement that came from the crowd as Chance leapt on stage in his denim overalls. If we’re being honest, everything after that point is kind of a blur; but in my experience, most great performances are a blur. Long after you forget all the songs that were performed, the one thing you remember is the way an artist made you feel.
Walking into FPSF & walking up to RL GrimeI could sit here and try to remember the order and name of every song Chance played from Acid Rap and 10 Day, or try to remember the exact compliments he gave the crowd, but that wouldn’t help you understand the moment. Instead, what I remember is jumping around with my friends and becoming out of breath because we knew all the words to every song. I remember silently thanking Chance for creating music that could bring together such a multicultural crowd. I remember thinking, “Holy sh*t, this is one of the best rap concerts I’ve ever seen.” But above all else, I will always remember how effortlessly perfect the performance seemed. Chance, the band, the lights (when needed): all perfectly in sync, but still loose and natural; no real trace of exhaustion or staleness, even though I’m sure they’ve performed and rehearsed the same songs repeatedly over the last year. When Chance was done, I remember feeling like it was over too quickly and wanting to immediately do it again; kind of like your first time having sex. But seeing Chance again wasn’t an option, so while Karl grabbed another beer, Dave and I made our way over to the stage where Odseza was playing. Exhausted, we picked a spot in the very back where we could sit down but still see the lights and hear the music. We talked and rested while we half-way watched, and with about 15 minutes left in Odesza’s set, we stood up and waded as far into the crowd as possible.

By this time I was bouncing around loving every bass kick and shimmer of light. At some point I guess I started to dance with a girl that was nearby, and before I know it, she’s asking me if I’m Puerto Rican and I’m lying and telling her “yes”. When Odesza ends, she wants me to go with her to see R. Kelly, which is actually perfect because that’s who I wanted to see but none of my friends would go with me. We head over to the stage where R. Kelly is set to perform and dance to his first few songs before we get separated; festival romance: it always ends as quickly as it begins.

Under normal circumstances it might have felt a little strange to be at an R. Kelly concert solo, but by this point I’m just enjoying the show. The atmosphere of the whole concert is smooth and passionate, there are attractive women everywhere, and people around me (myself included) are holding out hope Kelly will perform “Trapped in the Closet”. He doesn’t, but it doesn’t seem to matter, it’s still a great performance. You can see the emotion on R. Kelly’s face when he’s on stage; at different times people in the audience around me stop dancing just to watch him sing and soak in the entertainment. Kelly is a flat out performer. The crowd loses their shit when someone actually wipes his face while he performs “Can I Get a Towel”. Kelly closes on “I Believe I Can Fly” and shares a moment with the audience when he stops singing the hook because the entire audience is singing/screaming it louder than him (and we were on beat, good job Houston).This girl was going to hard at Welcome to Houston pic 2When the concert ends I realize that I have no idea where my friends are and that I’m phoneless. Generally, I try to avoid this type of situation, but at the time I could care less; I’ve just had a great day and I’m in MY city. All I have to do is make my way to the rail station, catch the train, and I’ll get dropped off a block from the apartment; it’s chill. I walk for what seems like forever until I meet three trustworthy people (Vance, Katy, and Ruthy) who are headed near the rail station and will let me tag along. Vance and I chop it up about the RL Grime performance and I learn that he’s a DJ at Stereo Live. I tell him I’ve been DJing part-time for the last few years and he gives me some good advice. The whole walk solidifies a great first day at FPSF; small things like helping someone find the rail, and meeting people with similar interests are what the good vibes at festivals are all about.

They get to their destination and I can see the rail station in the distance. I thank them for their help as we exchange twitter handles and part ways. At the rail station I’m still feeling great; I’m pretty sure I was dancing to music in my head and hit the whip randomly at different times while waiting (probably why the couple waiting next to me was laughing). I make it home, find my phone, and prepare to crash and go even harder the next day.

– G. Mindiola