While Fortress Festival is only in its second year, it’s clear that cofounders Alec Jhangiani and Ramtin Nikzad do things a little bit differently than, say, the folks behind Austin City Limits or Free Press Summer Fest. This year’s lineup was one of the most diverse in both gender and ethnic representation that I’ve ever encountered. Jhangiani has publicly declared that he would prefer to book more women, minorities, or artists who aren’t usually booked on the festival circuit for his two-day concert in the Cultural District.
Organizers made a clear statement about the kind of fest they want to have going forward. From hip-hop to indie rockers to literally funky acts like Stone Mecca, Chromeo, Tune-Yards, and Chicano Batman, Fortress provided something for everyone without spreading itself too thin. Even the earlier acts were standouts, and no doubt every festival-goer found a new artist to embrace. This year’s iteration also corrected a few of the inaugural year’s missteps, most notably, the vast distance between stages. This year, the two performance spaces were near each other and sets didn’t overlap, allowing for maximum consumption.
The Day 1 crowd seemed to come alive when female rapper Rapsody took the main stage and delivered a powerful, uplifting performance that set the tone for the shows to come. Following her were two more female-centric acts, the Latin-tinged indie blues-folksters Hurray for the Riff Raff and the folksy Waxahatchee (named for a city in Alabama, not the similarly named town to our southeast), who mesmerized the crowd with their dreamy vocal harmonies but for too short a time — they had a 30-minute timeslot and were asked to stop playing early, one of the weekend’s few hiccups.
The evening ratcheted up with the one-two punch of legendary hip-hoppers RZA and De La Soul. Backing up RZA was the old-school-style funk band Stone Mecca & The Beatitudes, whose intense wall of sound lent the former Wu-Tang member serious sonic heft. De La Soul showed us why they’ve been in the game since 1989 – the trio’s flow is distinctive and fluid, with the kind of musical telepathy that comes only after touring and writing together for 30 years. While the two rappers joked that they are contractually obligated to perform “Me, Myself, and I,” we were all grateful for it.
One of the biggest names on the bill, Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, seemed bemused to be relegated to the much smaller secondary stage as he led his band the Voidz through a raucous set that spanned experimental, metal, punk, and all things in between. Dressed as a NASCAR driver, Casablancas (and his band) had issues with both the sound and the lighting but got over it quickly as the frontman declared, “Cool fest, cool place,” to booming applause. Day 1 came to a close with the self-proclaimed “Funk Lords of Montreal,” Chromeo, setting off what felt like a citywide dance party.
Day 2 was decidedly more Cowtown than Funky Town –– there were more rock-driven and local acts on the bill. Following outstanding performances by Ronnie Heart, Andy Pickett, Midnight Opera, and Pearl Earl for the early birds, The Vandoliers and Henry the Archer both energized the crowd – the former fusing punk and country, the latter delivering a set of ska-lite indie rock that just seemed to complement the golden sunlight filtering through the massive oak trees. Later, the Texas Gentlemen, most known for backing bigger acts like Leon Bridges and George Strait, showed that they’re bona fide entertainers in their own right.
Two more woman-fronted artists, Tune-Yards and Courtney Barnett, took the main stage on Sunday. No doubt one of the most versatile frontwomen in modern music, Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus played a Swiss army knife’s-worth of instruments and loops her own vocals onstage, resulting in layers of sound with only a drum and bass accompanying. Barnett’s trademark witty, clever lyrics were upstaged only by her extraordinary stage presence.
Finally, under a nearly full moon, headliner Father John Misty shimmied and swayed, serenading the huge crowd with a straightforward set of indie anthems. Misty’s lyrics are essentially epic poetry, with themes of hope and fear, the fall of man, the pitfalls of technology, and love as our saving grace. “What a beautiful night to mess with Texas,” he wisecracked before launching into the ballad “Pure Comedy,” the lyrics of which take jabs at politics, religion, and hypocrisy. It was a fitting end to a decidedly unconventional two days.
Fortress Festival continues to be a model for what urban festivals can achieve, all while shining a light on the Funky Town identity.