FPSF Needs More Than Better Weather to Get Its Mojo Back
FPSF 2017, mid-downpour: Note sparsely attended Saturn Stage in the background.
Photo by Jack Gorman
The high-waisted shorts, lacy, nude crop tops and vintage '90s basketball jerseys. Puke sessions at 4 p.m. And, of course, the last-minute cancellations and torrential downpours.
Free Press Summer Festival feels like your worst teenage memories frozen in time.
It's been a hard few years for FPSF. The event has been mired in setbacks and controversy, like the weather-related moves to NRG Park, the proposed boycott of former headliner R. Kelly, or the drug-related death of 18-year-old Megan Tilton. But 2017 promised to be a rejuvenating year for the festival. Stripped of its typical toxic masculine excesses, the fresh, pared-down lineup made way for a broader assortment of music. The stages emerged throughout Eleanor Tinsley Park after a week-long forecast of rain failed to materialize. Hope glimmered, however faintly, that FPSF might once again be a festival the whole city could be proud of.
But it wasn't. Oh Lord, how it wasn't.
Finding shelter did little to improve these fans' mood.
Photo by Jack Gorman
To be sure, the return to Eleanor Tinsley Park was a welcome change after two years of pavement pounding at NRG Park. Spread out across a wider, narrower and more Instagrammable terrain, the grounds offered plenty of places to take cover from the sun or dodge less-than-desirable attendees. The sprawling lawns and shady oaks brought back the sense of the festival as an easygoing summertime retreat, one that welcomed folks to enjoy the event with indulgent leisure. FPSF has always been a physical challenge, what with all the drinking, and the heat, and the drinking in the heat, but the comfortable environs of Eleanor Tinsley made the whole affair much more manageable.
Beyond the charming landscape, however, FPSF was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Disappointments erupted before the gates even opened, with news that fan-favorite Lil Uzi Vert would no longer be performing the festival "due to unforseen circumstances." From there, more cracks in the seams started to show. Early set times meant that shows by stellar local artists like -Us., Kay Weathers and MIEARS were sparsely attended. The Budweiser stage (departing from the standard of stages named after planets), was marooned on the east side of the park, making for a long, hot trek across Allen Parkway to reach other, smaller stages. As the festival's first day progressed, the once eclectic lineup came off as a confusing patchwork and did little to turn up the party.
The festival's return to Eleanor Tinsley did at least offer improved scenery.
Photo by Jack Gorman
Aside from the music, FPSF offered little else in terms of arts or entertainment. The space between stages lay fallow, save for some awkwardly chosen corporate-sponsor booths; while Academy "hydration huts" seemed fitting enough, booths for Top Golf or DSW Shoe Warehouse just didn't make a lot of sense. Beloved Houston food institutions like The Waffle Bus were passed over for subpar Austin interlopers like Torchy's Tacos. Even small touches from prior years, like graffiti artists working on site or "This above all to thine own self be trill" banners, were suspiciously missing.
And then, of course, there was the rain. Predictably, the sky ripped open on Saturday, rendering the park's once grassy hills into precarious mud slides. Those who endured the soaking were rewarded with a one-way ticket out of the park grounds because of the risk from lightning in the vicinity. Those who returned to the grounds after the two-hour delay were able to hear riveting sets from the likes of Post Malone and G-Eazy...if they were willing to wade in ankle-deep mud. (R.I.P. to all the white Converse sneakers that died at this festival.)
On Sunday, the situation grew more severe. Flash-flood emergency warnings buzzed through cell phones around 3 p.m., and the festival was evacuated a second time. Slowly but surely, artists' sets got axed: first Charli XCX, then Tove Lo and later Jai Wolf. After three hours of near-radio silence from festival organizers, word came down the pipe: FPSF was officially canceled. The rain continued to pour into the park throughout the evening, leaving the grounds a flooded, muddled mess. If there ever were a metaphor for the turgid state of FPSF, this would be it.
All of these elements weave together into a depressing realization: FPSF has devolved into a sad, corporate afterthought from a once-cherished Houston summer institution. Ticket prices rise as the lineup shrinks, and when acts get canceled on account of foreseeable weather patterns, staff just shrugs and points to the fine print. As much as it would be nice to think otherwise, the festival is a vehicle for increasingly B-list music acts to round out their summer tours, while festival neophytes get stuck footing the bill for artists they don't even get to see. This year's botched festival isn't just rough luck on account of a little rain; it's a symptom that this festival's priorities are no longer in the right place.
With a formal cancellation under its belt, perhaps there is hope that FPSF will rebrand and relocate. But don't hold your breath. As long as people are willing to shell out money for wristbands, and as long as the city keeps granting the organizers permits, we'll keeping getting this marginal festival that fewer and fewer of us reluctantly attend.
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