For The Most Part, Fortress Festival Did What It Needed To Do In Year One. But Is That Enough To Guarantee Future Editions?
Photos 1-31 by Jeremy Biggers. Photos 32-67 by Cal Quinn. Photos 68-116 by Jonathan Stafford.
At one point during her band’s Fortress Festival-closing set on Sunday night, Purity Ring vocalist Megan James announced that, after a couple straight years of touring, her band was going to be taking an “indefinite” hiatus from the road so that it could catch its breath and hopefully get back to being creative again.
Although there’s every reason to believe that Purity Ring will indeed do as James promised and produce new music during its time away from touring, the sentiment she shared is one that North Texas music festival fans are likely a little tired of hearing: Over the past few years, these crowds have repeatedly been served awkward prognoses when it comes to the health of the region’s most-hyped festivals.
35 Denton keeps taking random years off and Oaktopia’s future is uncertain, with both of these Denton fests using that same “indefinite” break line in the meantime. Suburbia lasted all of a year. The Go Figure Music Festival that promised sets from J. Cole, 2Chainz and Big Sean just never happened. And after weather forced Bulladora to cancel its own would-be first-year offering, we’ve yet to hear a peep out of its camp about whether it’ll ever return as it once promised it would.
But what fate will befall Fortress Festival now that its first year is done? Will it just be the region’s latest one-and-done festivals or will it emerge as a returning force for years to come?
Well, over the course of its initial two-day offering spread out across the Fort Worth Cultural District, Fortress Festival certainly flashed a number of qualities that indeed stood as testaments to a potentially bright future for the upstart music festival.
For one thing, there was that setting itself — The Modern’s stage was located within the idyllic grounds of museum itself, aboard a dock within its reflecting pool, and the main Will Rogers stage was placed within a lush, grassy stretch nestled among trees. Those stages very much impressed, too, with the Modern one earning repeated artist props for its uniqueness and the Will Rogers one just being massive, looking more like a stage that’d be found at Austin City Limits than one rented by Fortress’ festival competitors in North Texas.
It’s pretty clear that organizers spared no expense with this year’s festival. Beyond splurging on its talent buys — an impressive, but surely not cheap coup that netted the festival such names as Run The Jewels, Flying Lotus and Purity Ring, among others — and its stage purchases, the festival also boasted top-of-the-line soundboard rigs, fencing, tents and VIP amenities. It certainly looked as professional as any other offering we’ve seen in town — the kind of affair Fort Worth very much should be proud to boast. And it was produced well, too, with acts starting their sets mostly right on time or within a few minutes of their scheduled starts.
But it was not a flawless offering. For one thing, weather loomed over the festival’s start, with threats of severe thunderstorms not just forcing the festival to cancel its earliest acts on Saturday’s opening-day festivities but also more than likely putting a significant dent into the overall turnout. Then, once on site, attendees were faced with one major logistical issue — that the two stages were located a full half-mile walk from one another, which, more than just a drag, found attendees simply camping out at one of the two stages rather than traversing between the two. This no doubt negatively affected what The Modern hoped to secure from its involvement in the proceedings with crowds spending less time lazily browsing the areas between the two stages and taking in The Modern’s grounds and art exhibitions (as had been the hope), and more time worrying about how to efficiently get from A to B.
Of course, it turns out that this was partially Cultural District’s fault — or, at least, that of the construction company that it has working for it just across from its main entrance, improving the grounds on the other side the street. Organizers say that this field, which was fenced off and covered with bulldozers and other yellow construction vehicles just sitting there was where the Will Rogers stage was initially intended to go — a placement that would’ve not only cut down on between-stage travel times but also cured some other headaches. Being forced to place their stage on the farther field also forced organizers to improvise some with the layout of their merchant and catering vendors, whose placement was less than ideal — and, worse, not on the way from one stage to the other, where branding and other engagement efforts went sorely missed.
The 3,000 or so attendees who made it out to each of the festival’s two days also had to deal with some minor sound issues — microphones cutting off, bands being forced to dial things in a tad at the start of their set and sometimes just having to wing it — but, honestly, that sort of thing is somewhat just to be expected at a festival of this size and scope, and, for the most part, the sound offered by Fortress Festival’s stages was clear, and the more intensive visual offerings from acts such as Flying Lotus and Purity Ring went off without any hitches.
Fortress Festival’s performers certainly soldiered on. Playing to bigger crowds on Saturday, Wolf Parade turned the clock back a decade or so and compelled their fans to ignore the chilly weather and dance along to their indie rock classics in the Modern’s wading pool; S U R V I V E, still riding their Stranger Things high, similarly thrilled with their soundtrack-ready electronics and fog-abetted light show; Flying Lotus charmed as much with his amiable between-song banter as he did with his electronic beats; and Run The Jewels turned things up more than a few notches with a set that had crowds repeatedly thrusting their fists in the air and chanting along with vaunted rap duo’s lyrics. On Sunday, facing windier weather but clearer skies, Nathaniel Rateliff and his Night Sweats offered a rousing soul-folk set that was aided by Fort Worth’s own Jeff Dazey on saxophone; Alvvays and Whitney each charmed with their quirky and hip indie offerings on the Modern stage; and Slowdive and Purity Ring combined for a vibe-y double-fisted finale on the Will Rogers stage, with both swirling their crowds into their sonic stews, albeit with the former doing so from a moodier place and the latter a more euphoric and visually stunning one.
Those were all memorable offerings — the kind Fort Worth just never sees any longer, what with Deep Ellum thriving and drawing a bigger-than-lion’s-share portion of the tours that come through the region to its easternmost edge. And, without the perhaps-just-bad-luck hand dealt the festival with the weather and the logistical issue caused by construction delays, they would’ve likely added up to an impressive debut from Fortress Fest.
But, through no fault of Fortress Festival — no cheap production, as organizers spared very few expenses on this year’s debut, even going so far as to purchase billboards around Fort Worth to promote it — those things still, for better or worse, affect the festival’s otherwise stellar entrance into the market, and they have to be considered. They no doubt disappointed organizers, who were certainly already disappointed that ticket purchases weren’t quite where they’d said they hoped they’d earlier in the week if they were to “feel great” about their first year. A few better roll of the die and this fest would’ve reached those.
Those who did buy tickets would certainly enjoy seeing more from Fortress Festival. This was just a first-year offering, and it gave its crowds a number of reasons themselves to feel ecstatic about what all had gone on this weekend. There’s justification for why the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ended its Day One recap by drooling “Yes. Yes it did happen. Right here in Fort Worth.”
In its debut, Fortress Festival very much practically demanded another, future go — one under better circumstances. Then Fortress Fest might prove itself the king of Dallas-Fort Worth’s festival castle.
Because its skeleton is already impressive. Just needs a little fortification is all.