Free Press Summer Fest 2012 – a test of strength

Photo c/o the Horn’s Grant Schaefer

“It’s a novelty festival,” my friend and fellow journalist Caitlin DeWeese said to me as we were standing in the middle of the pavement near Eleanor Tinsley Park. “The novelty being, it’s hot as hell.”

I’m not sure who decided to host Free Press Summer Fest in June, in the unforgiving heat of Houston, Texas. But every single band I saw perform mentioned the sweltering warmth, and every fan could certainly feel it. It makes Free Press Summer Fest a bit of a trial — are you fan enough to space out your water drinking and your sunscreen-applying to stick it out and rock out front row at your favorite show? You have to pace yourself, but if you can figure out how to do it, Free Press will reward you. At two days, it’s the perfect length for the adventure that it is. This year, I was sometimes triumphant, sometimes defeated by the heat, but I still managed to catch some unforgettable performances.


If you braved the day early on Saturday, you might have been lucky enough to catch Dallas-based Kirby Brown. A sometimes-member of Jonathan Taylor & the Northern Lights, Kirby can stand well on his own, cutting a look that was almost classic-era Kings of Leon, and with songs about being young. He had an alt-country-meets-psych-rock sound, and his band is full of great musicianship. Brown could stand some maturing, lyrically speaking, but he writes catchy songs that are easily imaginable on the radio. His crowd seemed to be made up of mostly friends and relatives, and when reacting to the incredible heat, he breathed, “Shit. … Sorry, mom.”

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are as good live as the fans who gather to watch them. I have seen the band phone it in, and I have seen them give it everything they physically have. Their show at Free Press Summer Fest leaned toward the latter: they were rejuvenated by their new music, although they graced us with many of the classics. But no matter how beautifully they play, how insistent lead singer Alec Ounsworth’s wails are, if the fans are dead, a Clap Your Hands show is forgettable. Luckily, despite excruciating early afternoon heat, the fans came out to Eleanor Tinsley Park. There was clapping, there was singing, there was even some timid jumping — enough to insist that keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Robbie Guertin maintained a huge grin on his face for the duration of their performance. They kicked everything off with a one-two punch of “Satan Said Dance” and “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth,” but the most beloved tune was “Is This Love?” The crowd seemed to assure the band, it was.

Photo c/o the Horn’s Grant Schaefer

Perfectly adapted to serenade the afternoon sun, Best Coast truly brought on the summertime with their set. All across the grass, you could see couples cuddling together as Bethany Cosentino sang about boyfriends, girlfriends and being lazy. The punky princess of surf rock marveled at the large crowd amassed in front of her, insisting, “Drink lots of water, please! And God bless you for sticking it out with us.” At the self-realization of what she’d said, she smirked, and repeated with snark, “God bless you. Have a blessed day.” Later, and more seriously, she said, “I’m so hot, I’m having, like, a psychedelic experience. But who gives a fuck? It’s Texas! I love Texas.” With that, they kicked into “Boyfriend” as the audience swayed and sang in unison.

Photo c/o the Horn’s Grant Schaefer

Phantogram truly suffered from their environment at Free Press. They are a band from New York meant for small, dark venues with air conditioning and people ready to almost-rave. Instead, they performed in brutal afternoon heat, which vaporized lead singer Sarah Barthel’s voice. Her vocals are usually quite amazing, with an almost ghostly quality to them, but she sounded a bit faded. Her male counterpart, Josh Carter, sang lead on a few songs, but Sarah’s tunes were much more appealing. Still, they had a booming, trembling bass that shook the trees and got one very tall, bleached-blonde guy jumping through their whole set.

Two Door Cinema Club have a new record coming out, but they are still getting their older songs out of their system. They opened their festival set with “Cigarettes in the Theatre,” and ran right into “Undercover Martyn” after that. They did play a few new songs, including one called “Wake Up,” but mostly relied on their 2010 release, Tourist History. Lead singer Alex Trimble appears to have lost quite a bit of weight, but still looks very young, with his angelic voice enhancing these features. Still, he knows how to lead a dance party, and kept the energy high through the set. “Something Good Can Work” garnered the biggest reaction, with its poolside guitar riffs that conjure gentle, sparkling waves.


Photo c/o the Horn’s Grant Schaefer

I started my day off with a slice of home. Quiet Company have been roaming the venues of Austin seemingly forever, and their star just continues to rise. Despite their set being held in the early afternoon, quite literally on a stage in the middle of the road with no shade to be found 20 feet within radius, a crowd amassed. This is Quiet Company’s charm — they draw you in with their upbeat punky pop-rock. I’ve seen enough shows to say with confidence that lead singer Taylor Muse was not at his peak performance vocally. I’m not sure if he couldn’t hear himself well in his monitor, or if he was dying from heat exhaustion (or a little of column A, little column B) but his voice wasn’t hitting the mark 100% of the time. Still, the boys rocked it out in their typical dress of nice slacks, dress shirts and ties (though, thankfully, they left their jackets at home — someone would have collapsed for sure).

Photo c/o the Horn’s Grant Schaefer

Young the Giant still soundcheck for themselves. It’s a pretty stellar move — the honest self-assessment that they aren’t the biggest rockstars in the world just yet, even if the hundreds of women shrieking for lead singer Sameer Gadhia as he checks his mic seem to think they are (or, at least, that he is). Nobody could really blame the ladies, though — Sameer has undeniable stage presence, and can work the crowd into soft putty in his hands. Before the band switched from soundcheck-mode into full-on performance-mode, they huddled up in a big, sweaty embrace, and then turned to the crowd and rambled off “My Apartment.” Where the heat seemed to affect Quiet Company, it only fueled Gadhia’s fire, and his voice went from mind-blowingly beautiful falsetto to spiky, roaring fury in and out of all the band’s hits. The band is about to head back into the studio, and performed a new song, “What You Get,” which is in the theme of their existing music with exciting hints of growth. “Guns Out” and “I Got” were stunningly lovely, and “Strings” was a perfect summer song, with guitars playing like waves in and out of Gadhia’s voice. The band closed with the soft, subtle “Islands” that morphed into the arena anthem “My Body,” and the whole crowd jumped in the scorching heat as they sang along, “My body tells me no, but I won’t quite ‘cause I want more!” During “My Body,” Gadhia leapt into the crowd, surfing and singing, and by the time he made it back to the stage, his tank top had been ripped. This is a rock band that has the potential to grow into a storied powerhouse. I can’t wait.

Photo c/o the Horn’s Grant Schaefer

Speaking of storied musicians, I sat back high on a hill to finally see Austin’s own Willie Nelson perform. Willie was a staple in my childhood home, and he is one of those legends who seems as impressive (if not moreso) than ever now that he’s older. There was hardly any banter in between songs for Willie; he just kept cranking tune after tune, probably playing about 20 songs before all was said and done. He started with “Whiskey River,” and hit on favorites like “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and some covers. During “Crazy,” as Willie crooned, “I’m crazy for crying … crazy for loving you,” a guy behind me shouted, “Yeah, tell it, bro!” It was the kind of meta moment that really gets to the heart of Free Press Summer Fest — there is variety that draws all kinds, which is a beautiful thing. Willie’s voice is also one of the most soothing, perhaps because of it’s familiarity and permanence. That’s not all Willie has to offer, though. He’s a really talented guitar player, and also very, very funny. He announced at one point, “OK, so this is a new Gospel song. It’s called, ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” as the crowd madly applauded.

Photo c/o the Horn’s Grant Schaefer

I decided to end my night with the earnest, lovely folk rock tunes of the Avett Brothers. Thinking I’d sit back and relax, I stayed up on the hill, but the brothers had me on my feet as they opened with the rollicking, rocking “Talk On Indolence.” There was a smaller crowd for the Avett Brothers than for Willie Nelson, but the crowd was more participatory and locked in. The brothers’ lyrics are simple, but that is what makes them so great — they cut to the quick and get right at the heart of things. “Love Like the Movies” was a personal highlight, and had me grinning at its honest look at relationships. “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” lost me a bit, as I am not particularly religious, although there is something very soothing about hearing hymnals you were raised on (if you were raised on them). They picked it up again with “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” though, and kept the energy high.

Though it was scorching all weekend long and the festival did away with the huge water guns that helped keep us all alive last year, I made it through with many happy memories of deliciously amazing musical performances. So is it worth it? Well, picture for yourself: Sameer Gadhia surfing over the top of you as you shout, “I want more!” Willie Nelson with a gleam in his eye, covering Hank Williams as you take a cold sip of beer. Sweating the brains out of your head as you dance around, barefoot in the grass, to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. So yes. It’s more than worth it.

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