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Fortress Fest 2019 Built Bridges Over Troubled Waters.

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In Year Three, The Annual Fort Worth Fest Continued Making A Strong Case For Itself As A Destination Event. Some Kid Named Leon Helped, Of Course.

Photos by Josh Mazur and Karlo X. Ramos.

Voltaire once said, “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.”

Apropos to this? CHVRCHES closing its Saturday night set at Fort Worth’s third annual Fortress Festival with “Clearest Blue” just as a storm brewed and prompted the band to end its set on an ironic note.

Even the most tenured festivals in existence are not immune to Murphy’s Law, but this storm was the only noticeable kink in the otherwise impressively smooth operation of the festival. (Cutting the Saturday night-ending offering from that synth-pop headliner by 15 minutes which, while obviously unfortunate, is no match for, say, Austin City Limits cancelling an entire Sunday in 2013 due to flash floods.)

Fortress Festival may still have to pay more dues in the coming years, but its staying power (which we have evaluated in previous reviews) was reaffirmed this past weekend. And, if the impressive attendance was not a sufficient testimony to that, then consider the fact that we spotted a sum total of zero festival staff members running around the grounds like chickens with their heads cut off (a foolproof canary in the coalmine for all festival disasters) all weekend long.

In its third year, Fortress was indeed able to overcome hurdles that would easily doom any other aspiring destination festival — namely the festival climate itself. At this point in time, music festivals are in such decline that we might not even see the vaunted Bonnaroo maintain a pulse in five years (a estimated point on the horizon some would even call too generous.) These days, it seem as if festivals can only survive if they are successfully marketed as a luxury status symbols over live music experiences.

As such, FOMO has become their life blood.

To that end: Even with the upstart EDM festival Ubbi Dubbi taking place just two miles from the Fortress grounds this weekend, the festival’s biggest competition over the course of its third go was the FOMO insopired by opening weekend for Avengers: Endgame and the premiere of Sunday night’s anticipated Game of Thrones episode.

So how’d Fortress manage to succeed in 2019?

The long answer: It marketed itself as an experience specifically tailored to the hepcats of Fort Worth, albeit with due consideration also given to the surrounding communities as well. In curating this year’s music lineup, organizers endeavored to put Fort Worth on the national radar in booking some marquee talent while simultaneously being rooted in a sense of community that celebrated local artists as much as touring ones.

The short answer: Leon Bridges, duh.

We were not present whenever the festival organizers received an email from Bridges’ booking agent confirming his participating in this year’s event, but we can confidently say that, once they received it, they were beyond elated — and confident that their festival was going to be a slam dunk. Any other response from a boutique festival in North Texas would have been incoherent.

It’s easy to understand how Bridges became such a fixture in Fort Worth culture — not just for his music, but for his rags-to-riches story. While other local artists were preening their egos, Bridges was humbly playing open mic gigs at venues such as the Wherehouse and the Grotto to half a dozen people while working as a dishwasher. With the help of White Denim’s Austin Jenkins and coverage from Gorilla Vs. Bear, he encountered an unexpected, meteoric rise to the top — and now the singer-songwriter is winning Grammys, playing The Tonight Show and touring with Harry Styles.

We all know this story. But people often view it from the perspective of Bridges being the winner in this narrative. While no means inaccurate, such a perspective misses the point. Fort Worth was the real winner just for having such a success story sprout from its city limits. Fortress Festival having him back at his old stomping grounds was the city’s victory lap.

Even then, Bridges was far from the only local artist that was celebrated over the course of this year’s event. Dllas’ Bobby Sessions also enjoyed a decent chunk of the public spotlight — and gave a special shout out to all the fans that listened to him before he inked a deal with Def Jam. Sessions is still a niche artist at this point, but even with his modicum of success, he remained humbled and grounded throughout his 45-minute set. Perhaps the most frisson-inducing moment of the entire festival came as Sessions — as he does at most sets — had members of the audience raise both fists in solidarity as he rapped an a capella about the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and James Byrd, Jr. As he rapped about the death of Garner, his breath got progressively more restrained to emulate the sound of choking.

It was nearly impossible not to get goosebumps.

Still, as Solomon once said, “[There’s] a time to mourn and a time to dance,” and the entire weekend had an emphasis on the latter.

R&B artist Tinashe had two accompanying dancers joining her Saturday set for what was easily the most impressively choreographed offering of the festival.

The festival’s party vibe culminated whenever Rae Sremmurd performed Saturday night. After the DJ played Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the duo came on stage about 10 minutes late and kicked off their set with club banger “No Type.” Other songs, such as “Come Get Her” and “Black Beatles”, made the crowd go wild. So, too, did Sremm’s ritual of popping champagne bottles and spraying them onto the crowd.

CHVRCHES’s following set was also conducive to dancing — but not without its sobering moments. In mere hours leading to their Fortress set, Pitchfork reported that rapper Chris Brown fired shots at the Scottish indie pop band in stating on Instagram, “BUNCH OF LOSERS. these are the type of people I wish walked in front of a speeding bus full of mental patients.” CHVRCHES vocalist Lauren Mayberry went on a long rant towards the end of their set and stated that she has received death threats, as TMZ even reported. Explained Mayberry on stage: “We weren’t picking on Chris Brown for the sake of picking on Chris Brown. It was a morally dubious decision that happened, but also, CHVRCHES isn’t a band – CHVRCHES is a business. CHVRCHES is a brand.” She continued: “We would be really hypocritical if we worked with somebody [in reference to collaborator Marshmello working with Brown] and didn’t say anything about what they did immediately after that fact. When we give money from our headline shows to girls’ rock camps.”

Shortly after this approximately 10-minute rant, her band’s set would get cut short due to the aforementioned storm, with festivities ending at around 11:15.

Thankfully, Sunday was a far smoother affair — even if the rain did make the festival grounds smell like a livestock trade show. (I grew up on a farm, so I know this smell.)

Khruangbin, Superorganism and Tank & The Bangas continued the dance vibes of the previous day, and Austin band Sailor Poon played its first Texas show since having Pearl Earl’s Bailey Chapman join the band on drums. War Party also played what vocalist and guitarist Cameron Smith told Central Track was one of the band’s last shows for the foreseeable future.

And, of course, things ended brilliantly with Bridges’ Sunday night set serving as the grand finale. As soon as the hometown hero came out on stage, every square inch of land that didn’t lend attendees even a peek at the “Coming Home” artist was in a barren state of dismal emptiness.

To start the set, Bridges’ backing band appeared on stage first and played the funky backing instrumental of Bridges’ “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” single. Then the Fort Worth soul singer ran on stage in a way that effectively communicated “Here I am!” without all the panache of a grand entrance. This was fitting, especially considering how humble he seemed throughout the whole set. Leading up to “Mississippi Kisses,” Bridges mentioned how he wrote that song while he was still living with his mother. Later, towards the end of the set and just because (far as we can tell), he gave a special shout out to his fellow Fort Worth musician, Quaker City Nighthawks frontman Sam Anderson.

Still, he did not put up a veneer of false modesty. His relaxed demeanor and Michael Jackson-esque dance moves elicited an infectious sense of confidence throughout the festival grounds. Upon closing his hour-long set with “You Don’t Know,” the crowd of thousands dispersed all at once.

Overall, it was a strong offering that was pragmatically executed.

So, you’re probably thinking: “Now that Fortress Festival has succeeded within its third year, is Central Track finally convinced that the fest is here for the long haul?”

More so than we’ve been in the past, sure! But the goal posts move in this game. Now, it seems clear that Fortress Fest’s true test of longevity will come next year as the event faces the challenge of fulfilling the lofty expectations they developed success of this year — and without Bridges along for the ride.

Get past that hurdle? Then, from there on out, we imagine it’ll be smooth sailing.

Cover photo of Leon Bridges by Karlo X. Ramos.

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