Since Zack was in NYC and Andy was in L.A. we sent David Sackllah to Houston to cover Free Press Summer Fest thanks to the free passes Verizon was generous enough to bestow upon us. He braved a lightning storm and powered through for an incredible Jack White set and saw everyone from Lauryn Hill to Vampire Weekend and a one of a kind Houston hip hop show.
@Dsackllah “FPSF will go on rain or shine.” With every wristband that was mailed out, the envelope contained a small piece of paper with rules regarding said wristband that concluded with that phrase. About 3pm on Saturday, if you were to search Twitter for “FPSF,” the majority of mentions were made up of disgruntled concertgoers quoting that phrase back to the organization. In a controversial decision, Free Press made the call to evacuate the entire festival at 2pm due to lightning and a flood advisory for the area set by the National Weather Service. Outside of a steady yet moderate rain that lasted for about an hour before clearing up, the weather was calm, and sunny for a long while before the festival decided to reopen at 4, pushing back many acts and canceling others. Surely, the festival made the decision that the organizers thought was best for the safety of the crowd, but it left many disgruntled.
The delay began pretty much as soon as we arrived, but by the time the gates reopened, we made it back right in time to see CHVRCHES play an energizing set. The three-piece electronic group from Scotland performed admirably, playing their entire set of around 10 songs in a shortened 40-minute timeslot. Due to the heat and mixed feelings about the evacuation, the set started a bit slowly, but by the time they finished with “The Mother We Share,” both the band and the crowd were ecstatic.
After navigating our way through a packed crowd, we caught about 15 minutes of an extremely hype set by The Ying Yang Twins. In just that long, we were treated to renditions of hits like “Badd” and “Ms. New Booty,” and I recognized more songs (and had a lot more fun) than in the full hour of Childish Gambino’s set. I took that a sign that I’m starting to get a little old for these festivals.
One of the most exciting sets of the festival came next, with the “Welcome To Houston” show that featured Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Z-Ro, Devin The Dude, and Bun B all performing on stage together. The head of the festival even came onstage beforehand to explain how historic was going to be. Each rapper had about 10 minutes where they took lead and played 4-5 of their biggest hits. The crowd went nuts for hits like “Still Tippin”, “Grillz”, “Back Then”, “Big Pimpin” and “International Player’s Anthem”. While Mike Jones retreated quickly after he opened the set, the rest of the rappers mainly stood on stage together and helped each other out throughout the whole hour, up until Bun B came out for the big finish. The rappers concluded by imploring that Houston is united, and the whole thing felt like a true showcase of the talent in Houston rap and a celebration of Houston pride. Sets like that help set apart the festival from the many around the country.
Childish Gambino played a set that fans ate up, but while he was a lively and exciting performer on stage, the music fell flat. His band’s volume was much too soft until about halfway through the performance, but by then, the rapper’s angst-filled songs grew old. Comparably, Saturday night headliners Vampire Weekend put on an outstanding set filled with favorite cuts from each of their three albums. Vampire Weekend are nothing if not one of the most consistent bands of the last five years, and their headlining set admirably showed that they deserve that top billing.
For Sunday, the sun came out and the crowd turned out. Many must have been scared off from the weather Saturday, because The Naked And Famous had a larger crowd for their midday set than Vampire Weekend did the night before. For those who came in the afternoon, Tune-Yards played songs from their new album that had many in the crowd dancing, even if they were unaware of the fusion of genres the band is notable for.
After that, we caught one of the highlights of the festival, Ms. Lauryn Hill. The former Fugees singer came onstage 15 minutes late, but all was forgiven as her and her band immediately jumped into altered live renditions of hits like “Everything Is Everything” and “Killing Me Softly.” She wowed the audience with her vocal prowess, and by the time she finished her 45-minute set with the classic “Doo Wop (That Thing)”, she showed that she is truly one of the greatest singers of a generation.
After a crowded and surprisingly decent set by Cage The Elephant, we waited for the Wu-Tang Clan to come out. Technical difficulties with the speakers and mixing caused the set to be delayed 30 minutes, and the crowd was getting restless by the time they took the stage. When they finally came out, minus Method Man, they delivered with one of the most memorable sets of the weekend, playing hits from “36 Chambers” that had everyone screaming. Most surprising was the fact that Raekwon, who had been publicly feuding with the RZA in recent months, showed up and performed with the group. You couldn’t tell there was any bad blood from watching.
Finally, we headed into the Verizon Insider Cabana for the big finish of Jack White’s headlining set. The Cabana offered a great view, some air conditioning, and increased wireless connectivity. After struggling to get Internet service the whole weekend, it was a great opportunity to get updated with Twitter. From there, we got to view Jack White’s 90 minute set that pulled material from The White Stripes, The Racontuers, The Dead Weather, and his solo material.
White was slightly aloof for the first part of his set, thanking the crowd for coming to see him, while making a point to apologize to the people there who came to see other artists and just stuck around for him. He had some issues with his amps, but what could have been a disaster ended up being a blessing as he took the time to debut a new acoustic duet, “Temporary Ground,” as well as play some slower classics like “We’re Going To Be Friends.”
While he spent a sizeable percentage of his set playing tracks from 2012’s Blunderbuss and this summer’s upcoming Lazaretto, White did a good job of mixing in fan favorites from his older bands, as songs like “Fell In Love With A Girl” and “Steady As She Goes” drew rapturous applause. His new material all sounded great, and many songs showcased his guitar abilities, nothing quite matched getting to see the classic White Stripes songs played live, especially for it being my first time seeing him live. If anyone had any doubts that he was a good choice to headline the festival, his big finish of “Seven Nation Army” while fireworks went off and the crowed chanted along seemed to squash those.
In all, Free Press Summer Fest had an excellent year, filled with exciting new acts and classic ‘90s artists that made for a great weekend. I’m impressed with the festival’s growth each year, and excited to see what the future holds as Houston builds up its music scene to potentially match Austin’s one day.