The 10 Best Free Press Summer Fest Sets of All Time

The Postal Service's Jenny Lewis and Benjamin Gibbard at FPSF 2013
The Postal Service's Jenny Lewis and Benjamin Gibbard at FPSF 2013
Photo by Eric Sauseda

2016 isn't a true milestone year for Free Press Summer Fest, unless you count being moved to NRG Park for the second year in a row due to heavy rains rendering Eleanor Tinsley Park a sodden marsh. (Stay tuned both here and to Houston Press social media for any further weather-related developments.) Still, FPSF has faced some serious criticism in recent years — everything from too-high ticket prices, a knock that appeared fairly early on, to the infamous R. Kelly episode, which the festival may never live down — that just wasn't there when FPSF was younger. Perhaps we were all a little more innocent back then, but it got us thinking that, for all its faults, FPSF has also brought a metric ton of great music to Houston these past seven years. That was never in dispute, and these are the ten sets we remember the fondest. (We welcome readers' favorite FPSF moments in the comments, too.)

The 10 Best Free Press Summer Fest Sets of All Time
Photo by Marco Torres

DEAD PREZ (2010)
I'm not sure exactly what happened, whether their set was pushed back or most everyone else was at Girl Talk, but the rap duo was regulated to a side stage and was practically performing in the dark, but damn was it LOUD! The small but hardcore crowd was energetic and involved, rapping along to every track and basking in the heart-thumping beat of "real Hip-Hop." Hearing "Hell Yeah (Pimp the System)" live was absolutely magical and inspirational, easily one of my favorite rap tracks of all time. All I remember is entering the mosh pit and exiting a new man. MARCO TORRES

The 10 Best Free Press Summer Fest Sets of All Time
Photo by Eric Sauseda

The best FPSF performance I’ve ever seen was delivered by an act whose name I’d been mispronouncing all along. It’s “Dee Ant-voord,” but a thorn by any other name is still a thorn and the South African rap pranksters were that dangerously sharp that year. The trio hit the stage shrouded in Day-Glo orange jumpsuits, the color that screams caution. Anyone who didn’t heed the warning was jellified by DJ Hi-Tek’s bone-dissolving beats. Black and white background images of all things zef provided a stark contrast to the fluorescence. The crowd was mesmerized before emcees Ninja and Yolandi Visser ever dropped a rhyme. The audience was thick with fans of the act, none of the casual listeners who sauntered over to Wu-Tang Clan just to say they were there, or the ones who were on hand for Childish Gambino simply to see Troy from Community. Taking note, Die Antwoord offered nothing less than a performance fit for the massive global fests they’d already played by then. To them, we were as deserving as Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bonnaroo. From “Fatty Boom Boom” to “Cookie Thumper!” and the set-closer, “Enter the Ninja,” every song was rendered with energy designed to reward thousands of sweating, crowded and eager bodies. JESSE SENDEJAS JR.

The very first Free Press Summer Fest leaned heavily on artists from around Houston and Texas, providing a terrific showcase for local talent. One of the big, out-of-town headliners they brought in back in ’09 is still one of the organizers’ best decisions yet, though. As Explosions in the Sky took the stage on the eastern end of the bayou, the sun was just beginning to set, reflecting beautifully off of the glass skyscrapers downtown. As we all crowded in on the muddy banks, enjoying the gentle dissipation of the day’s monstrous heat, Explosions treated us to a lovely set of cresccendoing rock lullabies. It was an eye-opening experience that really revealed at last what a major music festival in the heart of Houston might feel like. There have been FPSF performances since that I enjoyed more, but not many—and none that quite captured the same magical sense of possibility of that first year. NATHAN SMITH

The 10 Best Free Press Summer Fest Sets of All Time
Photo by Marc Brubaker

The Lips' headlining visit in FPSF's second year proved beyond a doubt it had officially arrived as a destination festival. Watching Wayne Coyne walk out atop the crowd's outstretched hands in an inflated ball as confetti fell all around him set the record straight that Houston's landmark music festival had become a force to be reckoned with. It was my first time seeing the Flaming Lips perform, and though their music has never been my cup of tea, their performance was a perfect culmination of everything Summer Fest had been striving to be. MATTHEW KEEVER

The 10 Best Free Press Summer Fest Sets of All Time
Photo by Matthew Keever

FUCKED UP (2011)
Most of my favorite FPSF memories have come from seeing acts headlining the bigger stages, Broken Social Scene in 2009, Beirut in 2011, Lauryn Hill & Vampire Weekend in 2014, where bigger acts delivered memorable festival slots like true professionals. The best set I've ever seen there, however, came from the Toronto based punk band's side stage set in the middle of the afternoon during a particularly hot weekend in 2011. Fresh off the release of their landmark achievement David Comes to Life, the band played a truly electrifying act, cramming so many guitars on a small stage while vocalist Damian Abraham thundered through the crowd, creating a celebratory mosh pit out of the smaller devoted following. The crowd was shouting along to each song in an excited manner, showing the communal aspect that punk music can bring at festivals. At one point, another guy in the crowd persuaded me to pick up Abraham on our shoulders and we started to crowd surf the singer as he roared through another of the band's solid hits. Combining punk vocals over power-pop instrumentation, the band drew in fans of both and gave an incredible set that proved that sometimes the best sets at FPSF aren't the ones that draw the largest crowds, but the most dedicated ones. DAVID SACKLLAH

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