Buoyed By Perfect Weather And Strong Showings From Its Headliners, Fort Worth’s Fortress Festival Scaled Things Back And Found Its Footing In Its Second Year.
Day One photos by Karlo X. Ramos. Day Two photos by Aly Fae.
Even amidst a jam-packed spring filled with competing festivals, last weekend’s Fortress Festival in Fort Worth’s Cultural District was always bound to stand out as more than just a blip on the radar. This is in part because of its impressive second-year lineup, but also because, after a first-year offering that left attendees openly curious about the festival’s future, this year’s two-day deal seemed primed to answer a few questions about both Fortress Fest’s future and, perhaps, the North Texas festival landscape at large.
As we look back on the 2018 Fortress Fest, let’s take a look back at three questions we had heading into Fortress Festival — some narrow in scope and others wide — and the answers it provided us.
1. What is Fortress Festival’s identity?
In its second year, Fortress Fest smartly built upon what it had established itself as being in its first year — and then improved upon things from there.
The biggest changes for this year’s event came not in the branding (impressive as it was in Year One, in large part because it remained mostly unchanged) or bookings (which followed Year One’s same model of blending buzzing indie heroes, roots rock up-and-comers, legacy favorites and hip-hop head-turners, with the scale toned down just slightly) but in production and layout. And those two elements were indeed largely improved: The uniform Year One complaint of there being too long a distance between stages was eliminated by organizers placing both stages on the same grassy park space and and keeping the performances that were housed a bit of a way’s away The Modern to a minimum; things were further streamlined logistically from there with the fest’s set times alternating from stage to stage, rather than competing in the same time slots, thus allowing everyone who attended the festival to see everything it offered — well, should they chose to do so.
For the most part, people appeared to do that, which was an impressive feat given that Fortress Festival’s 2018 lineup, while not necessarily challenging, per se, was not exactly mainstream, either. Given its setting outside of The Modern and its open-armed embrace of thoughtful creators such as Shabazz Palaces, The Voidz, tUnE-yArDs, Rapsody and Chicano Batman (not to mention a North Texas-sprung performer like Francine Thirteen) on a bill that also featured the more easily digestible Chromeo, De La Soul and Lee Fields, Fortress Fest certainly boasts a certain high-minded cache along to go with its wide-ranging appeal. Unlike, say, Plano’s defunct Suburbia Festival from a few year’s back, Fortress doesn’t try to be everything to everyone, but it does try to give everyone a little something — while at the same time recalling that short stretch of the ’00s when critical acclaim actually mattered more than the latest additions o streaming service or radio playlists.
Two years in, Fortress Fest’s reputation as a discerningly and carefully curated offering — and not one that just panders to the masses — appears set. Even better, its second-year attendance figures, while not necessarily overwhelming, seem to indicate that there’s a solid-enough market around these parts for an event with such a direction.
2. Does Fortress Festival have a future?
Beyond the layout concerns, the most common — and also most unfair — criticism lobbed at Fortress Fest’s first year had to do with its testy weather conditions, which gravely threatened rainstorms with barks far greater than their bites. So it’s fitting, then, that thing most people on the grounds raved about during Year Two was the amiable weather.
It’s a bit of a cruel twist of fate that the most consequential element at play in a festival is something that can also be its most inconsequential — and something over which, lest we’re talking about an indoor fest or an outdoor one with an indoor backup plan, its organizers have next to no control over in the end.
Still, with the weather gods smiling down upon Fortress Fest 2018 and no complaints to be heard about people missing entire sets because they were wasting time on 10- to 15-minute walks between stages, we mostly heard raves about this year’s affair while walking the festival grounds.
There were complaints to be had, absolutely. But they were mostly petty ones. De La Soul, for instance, walked away from its Saturday night offering with a bit of egg on its face after it spent the first half of its set shouting out all of its Dallas, rather than Fort Worth — a big no-no in Cowtown, of course. And a few of the more buttoned-up attendees who’d brought along their kiddos to watch RZA — backed in this setting by his soul music-oriented Stone Mecca backing band, along with some members of Dallas’ own Beatitudes, and notably not with the children-adoring Wu-Tang outfit with whom he cut his teeth — left the grounds offended by some of the rapper’s word choices, and not, like seemingly everyone else, impressed by the genuinely interesting updates he provided his familiar songs in this setting. The weekend’s best-received complaint, however, belonged to Sunday night headliner Father John Misty, who used an aside during his stage time to complain about American culture at large rather than anything Fortress Fest-related, asking who in the crowd had “already performed their civic duty and handed their money over to Marvel this weekend.” Pure Comedy, indeed.
But, that last complaint aside, the raves were far more fun. No one individual earned more of them than the endearingly verbose lyricist and Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett, whose fan base has grown substantially since her first-ever area show, which came back at Dada in 2015. But, more than anything, the praise we heard throughout the weekend seemed directed at the festival at large.
Whereas everyone left last year’s festival wondering if Fortress Fest would come back, everyone leaving this year’s deal left pretty certain that this is a festival that indeed has a future. Presuming the math worked out for the organizers — again, the crowds were solid, but not overwhelming, so who knows? — one thing is clear: Fortress Fest’s second year sent people packing with word-of-mouth goodwill to spare for future renditions.
For a still-growing festival, that is about the best thing organizers can ask for — well, not counting the selling out of tickets, I suppose.
3. Where does Fortress Festival fit within the North Texas music festival landscape at large?
There was a common refrain shared by the Dallasites with whom I chatted at this Fort Worth festival event: “This event would do so much better if it were hosted in Dallas!”
But consider the plight of this year’s Homegrown Fest, which was in danger of getting canceled for a while there due to low ticket sales. In Fort Worth, Fortress Fest is able to dominate an entire corner of the market rather than compete against the entirety of it. And that puts it in a bit of an enviable position moving forward.
Fortress Fest has a lot going for itself these days. Its identity is set. Its crowd is in place, but there’s still room for growth. It has a built-in appeal to Fort Worth and, more intriguing, it has enough of a draw to bring in audiences from Dallas, while at the same time not being dependent on that audience — not entirely, anyway.
After last year’s event, Fortress Festival had a clear next path in front of it — using Year One feedback to tweak its offering and giving things a more honest go in, hopefully, better weather. Moving forward, the path laid out before Fortress Fest is less clear. And that’s exciting as hell.
Year One established the brand. Year Two proved the model. In Year Three, all Fortress Fest really has to do is… just kind of nebulously improve, I guess?
Considering that, in Year Two, the festival felt like one of the best to be experiences to be had in the North Texas market, that’s perhaps a tall order. But should it pull it off? Well, then the sky’s the limit for this fest’s potential. If nothing else, placing itself up in the rarefied air alongside the likes of JMBLYA and Lights All Night seems within the realm of possibility.
Yeah, the sun shined on Fortress Festival in 2018, for sure. But, by making other changes to its offering, the festival fortified itself for future runs, rain or shine.
Here’s looking forward to where its organizers take things in Year Three.