Near the end of his Saturday set at Fortress Festival, Dallas rapper Bobby Sessions asked the audience crowding the stage to raise their hands if they hailed from Texas. Nearly every hand went up. Sessions, whose performance was one of the highlights of a weekend filled with memorable sets, was visibly touched by the Texas love. Standing on a stage shrouded by fog, Sessions pounded his chest, nodded his head, and basked in roars of approval from North Texas fans.
Set on the grounds of Will Rogers in the Cultural District, Fortress Fest was filled with scenes like this: heady moments where audience and performer connected over more than just music. The resounding theme was love for Texas –– specifically Fort Worth. Amid homecoming buzz for a certain soulful singer and talk of the event’s growth, Fortress Fest, now in its third year, relied heavily on the talent that is already here to continue to prove that it’s a serious national festival.
The fest began on a sun-splashed Saturday with early performers like rapper Adrian Restrow and Dallas’ Cardiac the Ghost. As the temperature threatened to skip over spring and skyrocket toward summer, Cardiac took the stage for his festival debut. Touting a style he calls “freemo” (“like screamo but free emotion”), the experimental hip-hop artist delivered an energetic performance of songs from his 2018 debut and his soon-to-be-released follow-up, Pink Clouds. Cardiac’s frenetic, freewheeling set was the perfect kickoff to Fortress Fest –– the kind of fun set that heralded the arrival of other high-octane acts. The hip-hop continued with Fort producer-turned-rapper Solar Slim, whose “Going Solar” merch decorated the growing crowd. The Fort Worth native flexed his muscles as an MC with a set featuring original work and a chopped-up cover of the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But Day 1 belonged to Sessions and a surprise performer he invited to join him onstage.
For 45 blistering minutes, the Dallas-raised Def Jam signee took the fest’s biggest audience (at that point) on a trip through the “Black Neighborhood,” performing the track he created with Killer Mike and a few select songs from his early years. The rapper thanked his “Day 1s” and his mom, and to celebrate the latter’s birthday, Sessions led the crowd in a serenade of “Happy Birthday.” Despite these lighter moments, much of the rapper’s blistering bravura performance was replete with the kind of heavy-hitting theatrics we’ve come to expect from the dynamic star. He writhed breathlessly on the stage during his performance, echoing the dying breaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and James Harper (Sessions’ cousin), all black men gunned down by white police officers. The rapper implored the audience to raise their fists in solidarity, then invited Fort Worth native and Medicine Man Revival frontman Keite Young onstage for a performance of “The Hate U Give.” Young’s vocal power was the perfect complement to Sessions’ effortless flow. For Young, the show was just getting started.
Medicine Man Revival was tasked with following Sessions, and Young, Jason Burt, and a cast of soulful vocalists, along with backing band the Texas Gentlemen, were up to the task. The funky multitalented crew supplied a fiery show and a proper platform for Young to display his scorching vocal range. While the frontman wailed, Burt and the backing artists played a vast array of instruments. Rae Sremmurd and Chvrches also delivered predictably solid shows just before the rainfall stalled the proceedings on the festival’s opening day.
Sunday was for the bands. With the rain replaced by rays of sunlight and slightly more tolerable temps, groups from near and far gathered at the Modern to ply their trades for the slightly larger Sunday crowd. Acts like Sailor Poon, who played with two drummers, and Superorganism, who had just one drummer but enough band members for three groups, delivered energetic, precise sets. Fort Worth proto-punks War Party, dolled up in red jumpsuits, played what was said to be their last show to an impressive showing of rabid fans. Yet even alongside these local heavyweights, a band from New Orleans seemed destined to deliver the best show of the day.
Coasting on a smooth fusion of funk, soul, rock, and hip-hop, Tank & The Bangas thrilled fans old and new with some of their classic tracks and select songs from Green Balloon, their album that will drop on Friday. Although they were not his direct predecessor, the band permeated an infectious joy that prepped the audience for the main act, the hometown dishwasher-turned-star whose name drew droves to the Cultural District. For an hour on Sunday night, Fort Worth belonged to Leon Bridges.
Throughout the day, there was a palpable sense of excitement among fans who were eagerly awaiting Bridges’ appearance. When he took the stage, you could feel the audience relax and the anticipation dissolve.
Decked in a black-and-white button-down shirt and boasting all the swagger of a man who knows he deserves headliner status, Bridges took the packed crowd on a journey of his catalogue, from Coming Home to Good Thing. With his performance of “River,” Bridges brought the festival to a crescendo. He was the soulful spirit hanging over Fortress Fest, the Cowtown crooner imbuing the weekend with excitement and a sense of importance. Bridges’ set wasn’t just a homecoming pep rally but a polished performance from a full-fledged star who gave back as much energy as he created, as everyone in attendance soaked up every ounce of the moment they shared.