The 10 Best Free Press Summer Fest Sets of All Time

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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.)

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 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 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

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

The Stooges are one of those bands that almost everyone has had on their bucket list at one point or another. Their influence has been so wide ranging that even Cee Lo Green has said he was inspired by Raw Power. This was unfortunately the last time the Stooges would hit the stage in Houston before the deaths of Scott Asheton and Steve Mackay forced them into retirement, but they proved that even at the very end of their career they were just as potent a live band as ever. Iggy Pop blazed across the stage as if it were 1970 again, shirtless and wild as usual, while the band laid down such a solid foundation behind them. The death of guitarist Ron Asheton might have spelled the end for many bands, but bringing back Raw Power guitarist James Williamson was inspired, and his blistering solos bolstered a classic Free Press Summer Fest set that none of us who were in that crowd will ever forget. This is punk rock at its finest, and it showed why this band was one of the most important to ever exist. COREY DIETERMAN

As a huge fan of The Postal Service, I was thrilled that the project was reuniting for a brief tour in the summer of 2013, and elated that FPSF was one of their stops. Like many others in the weird micro-generation between Gen X and millennial, The Postal Service was a huge part of my life when I was bridging adulthood. College was better for me and many others because of the album Give Up. Their music spoke to me at a critical time, and therefore became a part of my life. Those musical connections don’t fade over time. Music like this plays like a mental photograph. What I learned that day in 2013 was that unlike the music of many other indie bands of the era, The Postal Service didn’t age in a some overly emo, cheesy way that made me roll my eyes at my former self. Instead, it still had the capability to speak to me on the same level as before. That summer, I had only been living in Houston a year, was navigating the deterioration of a very long-term and serious relationship, had just turned down a move to NYC, and was torturing myself over a boy. In other words, I was going through some shit.

And just as before, The Postal Service's music spoke to me and understood my garbage. I had only been writing for Houston Press for about two months and was honored to be selected to cover their set. It was really difficult to write the piece without being overly self-indulgent based on everything that was going on, considering how their lyrics and performance still had the same connection to me. Somehow I managed to complete it without bringing up any of this ridiculousness that I am spewing now. The set was remarkable and helped me to feel lucky and hopeful and ready to take on whatever I was about to encounter. The set was the best I have seen at FPSF because, while it was beautiful and danceable and executed wonderfully and everything I wanted to hear, it was important to me. SELENA DIERINGER

For reasons that have mostly evaporated, 2013 was an especially difficult FPSF for me. I think it was one of the sold-out years so the crowds were thick, and the heat was unusually oppressive even for Houston in early June, but unlike past FPSFs I stayed until the very end because of Social Distortion. Mike Ness and company played on the stage closest to Studemont, meaning furthest where I had come in (and would soon depart), and there wasn't as much of a crowd as for Iggy & the Stooges the day before. Most of the set list escapes me — they weren't pushing a new record or anything like that — but they were definitely in vintage Social D form, punk-rock guitars blazing and honky-tonk heart laid bare; after their exultant "Ring of Fire" cover, I felt as good as I had all weekend. I was still walking everywhere then, but after Social D I practically floated home. CHRIS GRAY

ST. VINCENT (2015)
St. Vincent's performance at 2015's FPSF performance was an alabaster fever dream in a Cancun nightmare that I will never forget. After a long, hot day of pounding the NRG Park pavement, seeing Annie Clark physically embody the tone of her critically-acclaimed self-titled album was both a welcome relief and an overwhelming encounter (which is saying a lot, after all that historic flooding). I don't know how she managed to get through her blistering set in that leather catsuit; I myself was barely able to keep on my feet as she whipped through he whining, crunching layers of "Birth in Reverse" or the deafening beats of "Cheerleader." St. Vincent took it all in stride, executing the show's mechanical ballet with effortless aplomb. "We love this motherfucking Lone Star State!" she shouted out to her home in earnest. And St. Vincent? This motherfucking Lone Star State loves you back. KATIE SULLIVAN

In 2014, Free Press announced that Bun B, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Z-RO, Devin the Dude and Mike Jones would serve as Houston hip hop ambassadors. Officially dubbed Welcome to Houston, the sextet amassed a lot of buzz leading up to the festival, and the end result didn't disappoint. Six of Houston's most renowned MCs shared a stage and performed together for the first time in years, most notably Jones whose 15 minutes of fame had ended years prior. The supergroup served as both a highlight reel of our city's roots in hip hop and proof of H-Town's ability to collaborate, an integral aspect of any music scene. And though Jones' celebrity had mostly faded, it was nice to have him around for "Back Then" and "Still Tippin'" because neither song would be the same without him. MATTHEW KEEVER

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