Now two weeks and change removed from Free Press Summer Fest
2015, the lingering impressions of the festival are overwhelmingly positive. Tens of thousands of people poured into NRG Park's Yellow Lot to find relatively little shade and waves of as-advertised Texas heat simmering up from the asphalt, but were rewarded with less walking time between stages, as well as shorter bathroom and food lines. It was a trade the majority of fans who went seemed more than willing to make, regardless of whether they had any choice; it’s also hard to think of a bigger example of lemons into lemonade in recent local memory. A few highly impressed social-media souls even went so far as to suggest moving FPSF to NRG permanently.
That's not going to happen, but the mere fact that people would even bring it up in a non-joking way speaks to what a relatively smooth transition the festival’s staff made. When Eleanor Tinsley Park was submerged with about 30 feet of Buffalo Bayou in the Memorial Day flooding, it looked like the seventh installment of FPSF would be unlucky indeed. But for those people who are always interested in “how,” we called up FPSF co-founder Omar Afra last week — about a week after the festival folded up its tents, in fact — to find out how Summer Fest went from A to B so quickly, and what it took for such a remarkable pivot to happen.
According to Afra, the heavy rains that blanketed the Houston area the evening and overnight hours of May 25 and 26 were still falling when he and several other top FPSF officials went out to Tinsley to survey the flooding firsthand. Initially, they had to weigh what they were seeing against their experiences with Buffalo Bayou’s various flood stages in the past.
“I grew up a few hundred yards from the bayou,” Afra explains. “We don't necessarily get freaked out every time the bayou rises. To a large degree, that's kind of what it's supposed to do. It's better that the embankments flood than our homes flood.”
This was different, obviously. The next morning, Afra says he met with the FPSF production team as well as representatives from Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which manages Eleanor Tinsley Park, and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. There wasn’t much debate. The FPSF crew is a pretty tight-knit bunch, Afra says, some of whom “13 years ago were hanging out [and] sleeping on the same couches together.”
“It was unanimous,” he says of the decision. “We all looked at each other and just kind of said…"
The next step was deciding where to move the festival, which was relatively easy. For an event of FPSF’s size and nature, only a handful of facilities in the area are able to satisfy its need for adequate space and ample parking while still remaining relatively close to downtown Houston. The next step was getting word of the move to the sizable village of service providers with which the festival had contracted.
“There's a company for everything,” Afra says. “Literally hundreds. There's a company that brings you balloons and a company that brings you napkins and a company that brings you fuel for the golf carts and golf carts and the trailers and the fence company. It goes on and on.”
Although crews were spared having to tear down and rebuild the actual stages, just about every other aspect of putting together the festival had to be redone from scratch, Afra explains He points to the dilemma facing Tyler Barber, the Artistic Director of Free Press Houston and the festival’s lead graphic designer. Among his many other duties, Barber was tasked with designing the map of the Tinsley grounds; experienced festgoers know changes every year. The night of the flooding, Afra recalls, he had to call Barber and tell him, ‘Congratulations on polishing it; however, we need to start the fuck over.’
“Imagine, this dude is at the center of the brand and style and marketing guys,” Afra says. “He’s at the center of all the production people, all the sponsors, all the site guys, all the information about the water...basically 800 guys put a microscope up his butt and make sure everything he does is on point, right?”
The people who made the move happen include FPSF Production Manager Charlie Hernandez — “he's done Michael Jackson, Metallica, he does Farm Aid,” Afra says, “the guy's a fuckin' legend in production” — site manager Tony Terwilliger, Afra's FPSF co-founder Jagi Katial, and the hundreds of staff and volunteers from LD Systems and the Mayors Office, as well as the multitude of local companies represented at FPSF. All of them put in overtime and “stepped up their game,” Afra says. The price was total exhaustion.
“The amount of people that didn't sleep for just that week, it's just shocking,” Afra says. “Literally, there were 300 people that basically got enough food, water, sleep and hygiene to not be able to crumble. I'm kind of fascinated by it, because it's amazing to watch and see how strong people are when they're backed against a wall. It was phenomenal.”
When we spoke to him, Afra said he hadn’t slept much and discovering “it turns out I have kids.” He does plan to seek out “cooler temperatures and quieter places” later this summer, but also said he’s already started “grinding” on FPSF 2016. That was happening even before the rains started falling, he noted.
“When we say we’re going to throw a party, we’re going to throw a party,” Afra says. “I think there’s a social contract that goes beyond, ‘You give me money and I’ll throw you a party.’ We take a lot of pride in that.”