With El Nino/La Nina in full effect over the past year, it’s been a tough couple festival seasons, especially for the South. The final day of New Orleans’ Voodoo fest got rained out last October, Alabama’s Hangout fest experienced rain-induced delays a couple weekends back, and a few Austin fests – most notably the Brian Wilson-anchored Levitation – got cancelled completely due to water-damaged grounds and flood risks. So when the downpours didn’t let up the week before Houston’s Free Press Summer Fest (June 4-5), there was serious concern about holding the two-day event at the usual spit, Eleanor Tinsley Park in the heart of downtown, which was evacuated in previous years due to lightning storms.

Sure enough, the grounds were deemed unfit for festing, but FPSF’s production team (now helmed by ACL / Lollapalooza vets, the Live Nation-owned C3 Presents) were savvy enough to have a contingency plan in the bank: They simply moved everything to the massive parking lot of the Texans’ football stadium, NRG Park. Despite intermittent showers all weekend and the loss of a pretty skyline backdrop to swaths of ugly concrete, the 7th annual FPSF turned out to be a blast, and every scheduled artist (aside from Father John Misty, who outright cancelled), got to play a full set. Compared to Eleanor Tinsley, this layout had far fewer bottlenecks and drastically shorter walks between the five stages, so fans could effectively catch almost twice as many artists among the diverse lineup, which was topped by ColleGrove (Lil Wayne + 2 Chainz) and Modest Mouse on Saturday, plus the Violent Femmes, Deadmau5 and The National on Sunday.

Big Gigantic, © David Brendan Hall

Still, total ticket sales for the weekend were reported at only 50,000, which is about 25,000-40,000 less than one day of ACL. There were plenty of possible reasons for that beyond the weather, including competition with other fests (NYC’s Governors Ball and Spain’s Primavera Sound ran concurrently), and what one editor pal of mine referred to as a “pretty rando” lineup. True, it might’ve appeared hodgepodge with rap stacked against hardcore punk stacked against soul music at any given time. But there were some unifying elements that have held up over the years, including a focus on Southern rap (Trae the Truth, Big Boi, Lil Wayne / 2 Chainz) and abundant favor given to booking Texan faves (The Black Angels, Leon Bridges, White Denim). So who is the target market? Well, Houston and other nearby urban centers like ATX and NOLA where diversity is routinely celebrated, especially in music. Not everyone would want to see Refused, Violent Femmes, and A$AP Ferg on the same day, but a huge handful here definitely did.

Of course, billing artists like 2 Chainz and Deadmau5 as headliners inevitably resulted in the Coachella Syndrome: The bulk of people bought tickets to see only a couple big acts and arrived near each day’s end for those, effectively robbing many local and lesser-known upstarts of due exposure. But dedication to diverse booking and smart scheduling – for example: billing commercially popular groups like X-Ambassadors or Big Gigantic midday to pack in more millennials early on – showed that the fest’s organizers are shooting to build a world-class event.

There’s still work to be done before that idealistic goal is fully realized, but at the end of the day, the variety created more possibility for organic fun and genuine discovery, which is reflected in our best and worst moments of this year’s fest. Click through to peep deets on those sets, plus our exclusive photo gallery.

–David Brendan Hall
Contributing Writer

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ColleGrove (Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)

ColleGrove (Lil Wayne + 2 Chainz), © David Brendan Hall

Saturday night’s ColleGrove set – a collaboration of sorts between New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne and Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz – provided solid proof that quantity doesn’t equal quality. That was true in several contexts: Yes, it was the largest crowd next to Sunday’s throng of teenagers for Deadmau5, but there was slim chance that the majority of this audience showed up before A$AP Ferg and Tory Lanez’s 5:30 p.m. set – tiny gaggles at virtually every stage all day aside from Mars (main) were evidence enough that the festival vibe overall (which doesn’t include ticket sales) didn’t benefit from ColleGrove’s draw. And though songs like Wayne’s hit “Milli”, plus the duo’s “Blue C-Note” and “Gotta Lotta” reconfirm that – no shit, Sherlock – both rappers “gotta lotta” dope, bitches, head, money, smoke, chainz (at LEAST 2), etc., it doesn’t mean they gotta lotta artistic substance, unless you count bundles upon bundles of repetitive rhymes.

Granted, each MC had his moments with clever turns of phrase. In that latter ode to materialistic livelihood, 2 Chainz fired off “Yo Tune, pass the steel, or bash the steel/ My passion real, I’m fashion ill/ The pussy niggas are Massengill, mass appeal/ My past is real before I had the deal,” which was admittedly both hilarious and refreshingly revealing on a personal level, not to mention masterfully delivered. Wayne made a similarly smart crack on “Blue C-Note”: “I got a hundred tats, I got a hundred million/ I keep on switchin’ wifeys, you gotta Uncle Phil Me.” But even at his most shrewd moments, Weezy’s high-pitched rap voice got grating in a hurry, and both him and Chainz almost always resorted to something nonsensical and/or misogynistic in the midst of any ingenuity. It’s a sad state of affairs that this constitutes the most widely marketed brand of hip-hop, and it’s even more woeful that fests are depending on these sorts of acts to sell tickets.

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Anderson East

Anderson East, © David Brendan Hall

First impression of 27-year-old Alabaman singer-songwriter Anderson East: He’s another great roots-rock revivalist (a la Nathanial Rateliff or Brittany Howard) with some serious grit behind his soulful voice and charisma to match his pretty-boy looks. “Some of you may have come here feeling lowdown or trampled under foot,” he said upon taking the stage. “You came to the right place, because this music not only moves, but it may re-move…”

He and his crackerjack band certainly delivered on that claim with uplifting, gospel-influenced tunes “Devil in Me”, “Only You”, and “I Can’t Quit You”, then brought some karaoke vibes to the rain-spattered crowd with a solid cover of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby”. But, while he did play a few more off 2015 album Delilah, he also resorted to back-to-back renditions of Faces’ “Stay with Me” and The Rolling Stones’ “Rebel, Rebel”. Covers are good fun, but with three albums of original material under his belt, he shouldn’t rely on them so heavily.

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Leon Bridges

Leon Bridges, © David Brendan Hall

Since the release of his chart-topping debut album, Coming Home, about a year ago, Leon Bridges has grown immensely as a performer. The voice and soul were there all along, apparent in gospel- and R&B-soaked songs like “Smooth Sailing” and “River”, but the 26-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, native was a little stiff on stage to start – some of his early shows were snoozers when he stood mostly stock-still, so obviously green. When he opened his Sunday afternoon set with the former song, followed by non-album cut “Outta Line”, he proved worthy of the relatively large crowd he’d drawn away from main stage competitor Mac Miller. His dance moves – sharp, energetic traipses toward his sax player, then swift spins back to his backup singer or his own middle mic – looked natural and easy. But part of that cool confidence may have injected too much cockiness into the music: His vocals on “River” felt a little rushed, and “Brown Skin Girl” likewise lost some of its loose bop in favor of overly pretty precision. Bridges’ rise to fame has been swift – here’s hoping he can remember to slow it down every once in awhile to retain that unspoiled soulfulness.

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Walker Lukens & the Sidearms

Walker Lukens and the Sidearms, © David Brendan Hall

The only reason Houston-bred, Austin-based musician Walker Lukens comes so low in these rankings is that he and his backing quartet, the Sidearms, got the short-straw, fest-opening slot. It’s sometimes difficult to get a solid group of friends together at 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday outside of a concert setting, so their minuscule audience shouldn’t be attributed to lack of appeal, especially because Lukens oozes talent and stage presence. Instantly memorable cuts like “Lover”, “Lifted”, and “Every Night” build from beats made of his vocal loops, and then he’ll hop on the keyboards or grab a guitar to hit some sharp licks, all the while dancing with the dexterity of the late, great Prince (an obvious influence).

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Plague Vendor

Plague Vendor, © David Brendan Hall

If nothing else, the dudes in Plague Vendor are opportunists. “All you beautiful people come over here,” goaded singer Brandon Blaine as soon as neighboring fest openers Walker Lukens and the Sidearms had finished. “That’s right, we’re band No. 2.” And, because it literally was the closest source of entertainment, a decent-sized group of peeps did mosey over to witness the Whittier, CA-bred quartet’s brand of grunge-fueled punk. During early cuts like “Black Sap Scriptures,” Blaine jolted from Morrissey-esque vocal finesse to screams worthy of Refused. Not coincidentally, the group is opening for the seminal Swedish hardcore band on their current tour, and Blaine appeared to have picked up a few tricks from vocalist Dennis Lyxzen, with perhaps a bit more of Iggy Pop’s flamboyance mixed in.

But all that seemed gimmicky until he decided to come down into the pathetically shallow crowd. As Blaine thrashed about in his own circle pit – at one point dropping to the ground to pelvic thrust in the mode of his apparent punk idols – more and more people closed in. The fray induced a magnetic trickle of new gawkers. By the time he wrapped up final screamer “Chopper” with the injured-animal cry of “I’m creating chaos on my own/ I’m creating chaos oh my,” the band had gained a hundred or so new fans.

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Against Me!

Against Me!, © David Brendan Hall

Watching Laura Jane Grace lead her gang through a dozen or so exhilarating, made-for-sing-along punk anthems is never a letdown … unless barely anyone is into it. That was mostly the case early Sunday evening as Against Me! tore into core cuts like “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”, “Thrash Unreal”, and “Sink, Florida, Sink”. There was slightly more response when they covered the Clash classic “Train in Vain”, though I doubt three-quarters of the under-20 audience could’ve named the artist whose lyrics they somehow knew.

That said, massive props go to the band for keeping up the energy and mile-wide smiles as if they were playing to the most loyal audience possible. “We hope you enjoy our music regardless of age, race, class, gender … whatever – no fucking judgment,” said Grace, underscoring her dedication to inclusion and compassion. Aside from consistently making music that’s invigorating and damn-catchy, Grace and her Against Me! mates remain important for that reason: They’ll never back down from singing about the important shit, no matter how many people are actually listening at the moment.

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Thee Oh Sees

Thee Oh Sees, © David Brendan Hall

So all your equipment accidentally gets left in Spain after playing Primavera Sound, and you’re scheduled to do a show at a festival two days later in Houston – what do you do? If you’re psych-punk maven John Dwyer and Thee Oh Sees, you get some replacement instruments and play the shit out of your set like the mishap never happened. Dwyer seemed nervous when he admitted Saturday afternoon that the gear wasn’t theirs (rented or borrowed, it was unclear), but the performance wasn’t worse for wear. Alongside his two drummers and bassist, the shaggy-haired rocker was his typical tongue-wagging, bulging-eyed beast of a band leader, shredding through newer cuts like “Plastic Plant” and the “Axis” as if he was wielding his trusty, clear EGC-DS. Just like the fest found a way to go on, so did Thee Oh Sees, and the weekend was better because of it.

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White Denim

White Denim, © David Brendan Hall

White Denim’s new album (their seventh, released March 25th) is called Stiff; their live show is anything but. As the sun set Saturday evening, the Austin-based quintet were loose enough in their jams to draw constant cheers of excitement from fans and simultaneously tighter than a rubber band about to snap (see: the psyched-out riff war between frontman James Petralli and second guitarist Jonathan Horne on “Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah) and the math-rock hammer-on flurries on the breakdown of “Holda You (I’m Psycho)”). Throughout the 50-minute set, Petralli’s R&B-seasoned vocals spread nothing but good vibes – it was the fest’s epicenter of happy couples dancing like no one was watching.

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Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, © David Brendan Hall

First confession: I’ve been avoiding Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros since the departure of Jade Castrinos – after years of hearing her glorious voice and feeling her infectiously positive live presence on irreplaceable hits like “Home”, I doubted my ability to fully enjoy the show. Second confession: I was a fucking fool.

After watching the entirety of the band’s slightly delayed Saturday night set, it became clear that intentionally messianic frontman Alex Ebert is so obviously the thrust behind the group’s songwriting and indelibly upbeat spirit. His interactions with the audience said it all: As the first number, “Man on Fire”, reached its most boisterous point, he ran into the crowd, grabbing hands of anyone and everyone to start a joyful dance circle. After that, on the gospel-toned “I Don’t Wanna Pray”, he passed his mic off to two audience members who sang remarkably beautiful, improvised verses (“Home” got similar treatment, only stories were told by fans instead of verses sung). And, though a few members have changed over the years, his current ensemble is brilliant. They sounded like an orchestra-backed, psych-era-Beatles spin-off toward the cacophonous conclusion of new cut “Wake Up the Sun.” So, apologies to the band for my prior reservations – I ate my words and enjoyed every last bite.

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Refused

Refused, © David Brendan Hall

If not for the obvious mass appeal of ColleGrove (meh) and a 20-minute overlap with one of the fest’s most commercially popular groups (X-Ambassadors on the Mars [main] stage), Refused might’ve stolen the show on Saturday. Though their audience was disappointingly thin as a result, hardcore fans nevertheless strove their hardest to match the onstage insanity of frontman Dennis Lyxzen, who never stopped moving: wild jumps, high-kicks, mic swings, and exhilarating screams proceeded without any signs of tiring from the anthemic cry of opening cut “Elektra” – “nothing has changed … the time has come/ There’s no escape!” – on through the pre-breakup ‘90s faves like “Liberation Frequency” and “Refused Are Fucking Dead”.

As he’s known to do, the frenzied frontman punctuated the band’s music with a political point: “It does matter who you vote for this year, because if Trump becomes president, it’s the end of civilization as we know it.” That comment visibly put off a few conservatives – it’s still Texas, ya’ll. But he also made sure to thank the audience profusely and recognized that it’d taken them “36,000 years (to get to Houston),” so when he climbed into the crowd during “The Refused Party Program”, the mosh pit received him with raucous warmth.

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Big Grams (Big Boi + Phantogram)

Big Grams, © David Brendan Hall

Thank goodness for super-pro fest organizers and a lot of luck – without ‘em, Big Grams wouldn’t have been able to pull off the standout set that almost wasn’t. Minutes before their scheduled Sunday evening appearance, a message from the National Weather Service began blaring, ordering festgoers to evacuate the grounds due to impending lightning storms. Thankfully, the rain blew over relatively quickly without incident, and the trio comprising Outkast’s Big Boi and Phantogram members Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter were allowed to go on about an hour later, after the fest’s extremely patient and vigilant staff had ushered everyone back through the gates.

“Well, we’re the rain-killers, because we stop the rain at every festival we’re at,” jabbed Barthel before adding, “We’re happy you stayed because this is some special shit. You love the music – I can feel it.”

Production was minimal – just a giant screen flashing the same few band logos over and over behind them – but their presence was consistently formidable. That was partially because of the bass thundering from Carter’s center-stage MPC – his beats nearly dwarfed ColleGrove’s from the night before – but mostly due to the invigorating rapid-fire rhymes of Big, who tore through Sir Lucious Left Foot song “Lines” before leading the charge on the group’s originals “Lights On” and “Goldmine Junkie”.

Throughout, Barthel, dressed like a disciple of Barbarella, added slightly processed but nevertheless impressive hook vocals – her ending falsetto on “Born to Shine” was a jaw-dropper. Carter meanwhile thrilled when he grabbed a mic for some scorching spitting on “Put It on Her,” his voice filtered to sound like Madlib alter ego Quasimoto. The trio managed to squeeze in a dozen songs in under an hour, even some snippets of Outkast hits “Ms. Jackson” and “Way You Move” as respective mash-ups with Phantogram’s “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “Don’t Move”. It was like getting a 2-for-1 gourmet meal at the speed of fast food, and the night’s other delayed sets ran just as smoothly. Kudos to all those that made ‘em happen on the fly.

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The National

The National, © David Brendan Hall

A thank you to the fine people of Canada may be in order for effectively warming up The National to the brink of boiling for their Sunday night FPSF finale. Hot on the heels of two gigs in Ontario and Toronto, respectively, The National’s third consecutive night on stage – the alternative to the throbbing bass of Deadmau5 or classic cuts of the Violent Femmes – endowed this edition of the fest with an exquisitely explosive ending.

The quintet typically favors a slow-burn-to-epic-crescendo live format, but by the end of song two (“Sea of Love”), frontman Matt Berninger was already flailing across the stage, abandoning his velvety murmur on the lyrics “I see you rushing now/ tell me how to reach you” for a Cobain-esque scream. He unleashed even more grunge aggression to match his long locks when he forcefully threw down the mic – which released a resounding thwap! on impact – as brother guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dressner shredded through the final moments of “Afraid of Everyone”. And he veritably spat out the final fuck-word of following cut “Squalor Victoria”: “This isn’t working, you, my middlebrow ffffuck-up.”

That fury dissipated momentarily while he cracked a joke about the on-and-off thunderstorms – “Did anyone get struck today … by Cupid’s arrow?” – before the band launched into the second-ever run of new tune “Sometimes I Don’t Think”, which portrayed the pinnacle of the Dessners’ synchronicity. They flawlessly merged opposing tones of easy ambience and cutting noise with guitars raised at the front of the stage. Yet even that initially sultry lament rose to ragefulness as Berninger’s croon turned to crowing: “I think it’s time I get back outside to the windows of my cage,” howled Berninger before asking, “Am I ever gonna see you again?”

In a final twist of storm-like synergy, one last downpour erupted as the lanky singer launched himself literally headfirst into the arms of the audience during the climax of final cut “Terrible Love”. As soon as the song stopped, so did the rain. Whether coincidence or fate, the conclusion couldn’t possibly have been more cathartic.

Click ahead to see an exclusive gallery from Free Press Summer Festival 2016.

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