Music Festivals

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?)

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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.

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.

List continues on the next page.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray