Outdoor Texas Music Festivals: What Not to Do
Note: this article originally appeared on June 4, 2014.
Free Press Summer Fest dodged a pretty serious bullet this year. When festival officials announced that the grounds around Eleanor Tinsley Park needed to be evacuated around 2 p.m. on the Saturday of the festival, some of us who were there had visions of pandemonium at the exits and the kind of heavy rains that would have had leftover props from Russell Crowe's Noah floating down Buffalo Bayou. But we were spared a direct hit from the weather and while the evacuation spawned a ton of predictable social-media carping, all in all everything worked out OK once everyone (finally) got back into the park.
Indeed, FPSF went on to have a pretty successful weekend, eventually drawing hordes of people, especially Sunday, and officially selling out for the second year in a row. No doubt the FPSF folks in the golf carts and production trailers could have done without the close call, but all the same, this near-miss couldn't help but remind us of a few other outdoor Texas festivals some people would probably rather forget. (Note: why are we re-running it in November? Haven't you already started to feel that familiar FPSF itch yet?)
5. Robert Earl Keen's Lousy Picnic Now a beloved Texas tradition held each year in Fort Worth's Stockyards entertainment district, in 1974 Willie Nelson's Fourth of July picnic was actually a success -- drawing some 40,000 people to College Station's Texas World Speedway to hear the likes of Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Buffett, Michael Martin Murphey and more -- except for one future star: a Houston native named Robert Earl Keen. The future godfather of Texas country had just graduated from Sharpstown High School and would soon attend Texas A&M University, where he became friends with another aspiring musician named Lyle Lovett.
As Keen himself tells it, he had managed to score a date to the Picnic (a rarity in those days) but his car somehow caught fire during the concert and his date ran off with some other guys, leaving him to hitchhike back home. But he did get a great story out of it; oddly, one that has worked out much better as an extended intro to his traditional set-closer "The Road Goes On Forever," as heard on his brilliant 1996 live album No. 2 Live Dinner, than an actual song. At least so far.
Years later, a fan approached Keen at a show in Utah and showed him a picture of the singer-songwriter's car on fire in the speedway's parking area, which became the cover of his 1997 album Picnic. The two old A&M buddies played a delightful show at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion back in September.
4. Texas Pop Festival Is Ahead of Its Time Just a couple of weeks after Woodstock in 1969, the Texas International Pop Festival set up shop at another racetrack, the Dallas International Motor Speedway in Denton County, and set the burgeoning counterculture loose in staunchly conservative North Texas like someone had knocked over a mound of fire ants. The three-day event drew acts like Led Zeppelin, Santana, Janis Joplin, Grand Funk Railroad, B.B. King and Sly & the Family Stone, while their fans spurred The Dallas Morning News to write an editorial so scathing you can practically see the blue hairs curling.
"Young people assembling to hear music is one thing," it read. "Young people assembling in unspeakable costumes, half-naked, barefooted, defying propriety and scorning morality is another. Who and where are their parents? Where do these young people get the money to loaf around the country in their smelly regalia?"
Just imagine a paper writing something like that today. Despite drawing as many as 150,000 fans by some estimates, Texas Pop was not a success, reportedly losing around $100,000. There was no festival the next year, but it lives on through a number of bootleg recordings -- including one of Zeppelin's set said to be among the best of its kind -- and the never-released documentary film Got No Shoes, Got No Blues that is still in circulation, albeit difficult to find. And in 2011, the Texas Pop Festival even got its own state historical marker.
The Cure's prayers for rain were answered a little too well last year.
Photo by Jim Bricker
3. ACL Gets Washed Away After the "Dillo Dirt" adventure of 2009 (we'll get to that), the Austin City Limits Music Festival organizers no doubt figured they had thought every possible rain scenario through. They probably didn't figure on the showers that started more than an hour into the Cure's Saturday-night set becoming the kind of flash floods Central Texas hadn't seen in several years.
With most of Zilker Park literally underwater by Sunday morning -- leading to some stunning pictures, including these published on the Republic of Austin Web site -- ACL had no choice but to announce the first-ever full-day cancellation in festival history. But after all that rain, the only way anyone could have seen Lionel Richie, the scheduled Sunday-night closer, would have been on a raft.
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On the other hand, Rock the Bayou did have bumper cars.
Photo by Chris Gray
2. Rock the Bayou Sinks Before FPSF, Houston had never before hosted a large-scale music festival except for this one the previous year in 2008. After Rock the Bayou, it's amazing anyone wanted to try it again at all. Bringing in some of the biggest names in hard-rock and hair-metal history (Queensryche, Sammy Hagar, Alice Cooper, Dokken) for a four-day Labor Day Weekend blowout in the empty field where AstroWorld once stood wasn't a terrible idea, true.
Only thing is, it probably would have been prudent to invite at least a few acts whose best days weren't well behind them at that point. But Rock the Bayou spread itself way too thin over those four days, and wasn't very well-organized or promoted to begin with. Instead, it drew about half the crowds the promoters were hoping for, and became an easy lesson in what not to do when putting together a festival.
Photo by Mark C. Austin
ACL's Dillo Dirt Debacle Strangely enough, until you remember what a serious drought Texas has been saddled with for as far back as many people can remember, it took until its eighth year for ACL to have its first real day of heavy rains. That was back in 2009, when showers most of Saturday resulted in the Zilker Park grass turning to a wallow only Wilbur the pig could love the next day. But not just regular mud: the recently resodded turf had been augmented with a kind of compost known as "Dillo Dirt," a pungent combination of yard clippings and recycled human sewage.
This is what we wrote at the time: "This 'Million Dollar Mud,' as a friend called it late Sunday evening, caused entire puddle-strewn sections of the park to be closed off with yellow police tape, and completely destroyed what had been a beautiful expanse of golf-course-caliber grass just a couple of days earlier." Both Zilker Park and ACL Fest would eventually recover, at no small cost, but to us Austin has never quite smelled the same since.
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