With the downtown skyline rising in the background of featured local acts and vendors, Free Press Summer Summer Fest presents itself as a Houston classic and a summer staple. The weekend festival, which took place June 3 and 4, is now on its eighth year and has historically featured local artists along with increasingly well-known national acts. However, the festival flounders when it comes to another Houston summer classic: thunderstorms. FPSF 2017 fell down on the very premise it is built upon with poor planning, miscommunication and general instability.
Despite forecasted rainfall, FPSF packed the grounds of Eleanor Tinsley Park with a younger audience of high schoolers and college students. Saturday kicked off to a good start, as crowds were treated to an eclectic mix of Houston acts, including Khruangbin’s mellow tones and Trill Sammy’s crowdsurfing. Festival goers poured into the park as more popular sets emerged. However, the festival released an evacuation warning via Twitter and its mobile app at 4:12 p.m., before the rain even began. By the end of Jon Bellion’s performance, however, raindrops started falling and turned into a veritable downpour in a matter of minutes.
Like true Houstonians, festival-goers embraced the storm and FPSF’s “Rain or Shine” policy by running through the downpour to rage at Cashmere Cat’s remixes or jump to Bishop Briggs’ “River.” Given that umbrellas were prohibited, most did not have a way of covering themselves except for taking shelter at underpasses. Festival-goers seemed content to continue dancing despite the rain and mud. At 5:50 p.m., however, security began enforcing the evacuation of the festival, resulting in sets being cut short and confusion as to whether other sets would happen at all.
Given the foreboding forecasts over a week in advance, FPSF’s preparation and response to the downpour was poorly executed and generated more questions than answers. Evacuation was barely-organized chaos, with crowds of festival-goers milling around the entrances of the festival and in downtown Houston. It seemed that the organizers were concerned only with the liability of people remaining in the park, but not with the safety of people immediately outside of the entrances. With rain still falling rapidly, festival-goers debated the merits of waiting out the storm and hopefully re-entering, or giving up and returning home. In addition, several FPSF security guards mistakenly told some festival-goers that FPSF was cancelled for the rest of the day, leading to many deciding to leave.
The communication failure was highlighted when the festival reopened at 8:30 p.m. with shortened sets for the remaining artists, including DVBBS, Post Malone, Grouplove and Carnage. Festival-goers were first notified of the park’s reopening via Twitter, when artists’ tweets regarding rescheduled sets came before any official announcement from the festival. Crowds trudged through mud to get to stages, many slipping down the inclines, with those who had waited out for hours at the barricades losing their spots due to the evacuation.
Sunday fared worse, with evacuation before 3 p.m. due to nearby lightning, but a tweet from FPSF’s account stressed that the festival was not cancelled. Festival-goers were advised to take shelter in nearby parking garages, where crowds waited for hours until another tweet at 6:21 p.m. informed everyone that the organizers, in agreement with the City of Houston, were cancelling the remainder of the festival. The only other official communication occurred at 3:40 p.m., when FPSF tweeted that they were monitoring the storms.
Not all was lost, fortunately, as Portugal. the Man, Amine and Deep Cuts put on a free show at White Oak Music Hall for those with FPSF wristbands. Jai Wolf, Jauz, and Party Favor put on a completely free show at Stereo Live for disappointed fans. Understandably, FPSF organizers also promised a 50 percent refund.
Given that storms are characteristic of Houston at this time of the year, it is surprising how poorly organizers handled the situation. FPSF cannot tout itself as a “rain or shine” festival when so much of it is hindered by the rain. While the weather cannot be altered with the organizers’ wills, preparation and communication certainly can. Given likely future hesitation from both festival-goers and artists to participate in such an ill-fated venture, it is difficult to guess what the future holds for FPSF.