The sun? Blazing. The music? Blaring. The crowd? A hot, gyrating mess. Such was the setting of Houston’s Free Press Summer Fest 2015, the seventh annual music festival that loves to bring the party.
Conflict and controversy mired this year’s festival. Feminist groups protested headliner R. Kelly, demanding he be removed from the lineup because of past child pornography indictments. Epic flooding over Memorial Day weekend called for a last-minute change of venue from the bucolic Eleanor Tinsley Park to the industrial yellow lot of NRG Park (which, aside from a few grassy, sandy stretches here and there, is a parking lot). FPSF 2015 was the festival that almost wasn’t.
But thousands of sweaty attendees weren’t going to let some pavement, some pedophilia, or some parched throats keep them from starting their summer. If not for some scattered Clutch City tank tops and Rockets caps, the crowd could have easily been transplanted from a PB July 4th weekend or a Cabo spring break. Beer flowed and young bodies rocked. Boys were shirtless, and girls were damn close.
Acts who indulged in summertime party platitudes proved to be big crowd pleasers. Electro-pop artist Tove-Lo danced barefoot and flashed her boobs. G-Eazy couldn’t remember all the words to his songs, but the refrain of “Molly and that whiskey” was good enough. Diplo wowed by rolling through the audience in an inflatable hamster ball. Beats and bass drew in crowds like mosquitoes to the bayou.
Perhaps no act better captured the FPSF’s blithe, spacey hedonism than R. Kelly. A nearly impenetrable crowd stacked up to see a gospel choir introduce Kelly, who emerged on the stage with a quintessential cigar and gold mic in hand. Fans went wild for favorites like “Ignition” and “Bump and Grind,” and high-pitched cries obliged Kelly’s request to know “where all the sexy ladies at?” Kelly burned through his medley of hit after sexually explicit hit, and at one point, a rather large brassiere made its way to the stage. Few seemed troubled by Kelly’s checkered past, so long as he offered plenty of opportunities to dance.
Artists whose repertoire doesn’t mesh nicely with the fraternity scene had to devise other ways to endear themselves to the crowd. St. Vincent, who delivered shuddering guitar and and grinding, discordant beats, stood out like an alabaster fever dream in a Cancun nightmare. When her mechanical ballet moves and face-ripping riffs failed to move the crowd, she dropped references to DJ Screw and Richard Linklater.
Similarly, Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch donned a polyester Houston Oilers shirt and played up the references to dancing and drugs in their recent single “The Party Line.” But the real party began when Murdoch came down from the stage and up to the security gates, inviting fans to climb over and dance on stage to “The Boy With the Arab Strap.” Enraptured fans never stopped dancing as the sun set over the festival’s final day.
There was plenty of love for H-town acts, particularly for local band The Suffers, a 10-piece Gulf Coast soul band that has recently enjoyed some breakout success after an appearance on David Letterman. Mayor Annise Parker introduced them for their first Saturday show, and they later served as a backing band for the “Welcome to Houston” set, featuring beloved Houston rappers like Bun B and Slim Thug. And while the crowd loved songs like the sultry, slow “Giver” or the loud and brassy “Gwan,” it was a cover of Selena’s “Baila Esta Cumbia” that brought down the tent.
Critiquing FPSF for its spring-breaker qualities would be too easy and misses the point. For better or for worse, this debaucherous weekend has put Houston on the map musically, brought in huge headliners, and gave struggling local musicians a chance to reach big audiences. And compared to other Texas festivals like ACL or SXSW, FPSF’s party aesthetic lacks musical sanctimony or snobbery. It lives up to the motto of the weekend: “To thine own self be trill.”