“I think a big music festival can be a part of a community’s identity,” said Alec Jhangiani, founder of the inaugural Fortress Festival in Fort Worth. It’s Sunday afternoon and most of the music festival, which counted over 9,000 in attendance, was already behind him.
Jhangiani’s co-founder, Ramtin Nikzad, had just come into the office with his family, and they congratulated each other with a hug and a hearty handshake. The two-day festival had been the culmination of an ambitious two years of planning, production and securing investors – a lengthy process the pair prepared for during their tenure directing the Lone Star Film Festival.
“We’ve known Alec for a long time,” said Dustin Van Orne, who has worked in the communications department at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for the past 12 years. Van Orne said Jhangiani and Nikzad had a plan to use the cultural venues in the arts district to the festival’s maximum advantage, and the Modern was excited about the possibilities they illustrated.
Indeed, the architecture plays almost as big a role in the character of the event as the show standout Purity Ring, who held their farewell show at the festival before going on hiatus to work on new music.
For example, Flying Lotus began his set Saturday night declaring, “This is going to be fun as f–k.” He started with a remix of Angelo Badalamenti’s “Falling” from the classic television series “Twin Peaks” against the lush, art deco backdrop of the Will Rodgers Coliseum. But his idiosyncratic beats also echoed across the Renzo Piano-design, western facade of the Kimbell Art Museum, with synths bouncing off gray concrete, vivid green grass and a grove of yaupon trees.
Walking from the museum during Run the Jewels’ fiery performance, the street was filled with singing even wilder and stranger than the feral Golden Dawn Arkestra would attempt the following day. It seemed to be emanating from the 68-foot fall Richard Serra sculpture “Vortex,” a rust orange steel obelisk that towers over the Modern. A security guard goes to check it out as knowing locals laugh and go about their night.
“I’ve got four kids, and haven’t been here much in the past nine years,” said Ryan Shearer, who, along with five to seven strangers, had been the source of the singing. “Tonight, I took [my wife] out on date night, so we had some sushi and dessert and walked this way, and returned to our little old time past.”
You encounter this stunning terrain frequently during the increasingly tedious third of a mile trek to get to the second stage at the Modern. The inconvenient route, coupled with overlapping or nearly scheduled sets, drew the ire of some in attendance. Jhangiani cites security concerns for the long route, with security only set at two checkpoints at opposite ends of the space who were allowed to scan the RFID chip in the festival wristbands. “There’s a lot of little things like that we’ll try to correct as we move forward,” Jhangiani said.
Once at the second stage, musicians perform on a raft sitting atop a reflecting pool, overlooked by two stainless steel sculptures of trees, whose muscular branches entangle 40 feet above.
The setup, while inspiring, brought anguish to Canadian dream-pop band Alvvays, who experienced perhaps the greatest difficulties of any band during the weekend.
“Just so you know, this isn’t a normal show for us,” bassist Molly Rankin conceded. “But sometimes, you have to play a show on a raft.”
Others incorporated that energy into their performance, with fellow Canadians Wolf Parade daring their audience, tongue-in-cheek, to “walk on water.” Many in the thrall obeyed.
“I love it here,” said Virginia Cook, a UNT art history student who works for the museum. Cook has seen almost 3,000 people walk through the door in the three hours since she started her shift, unprecedented in her time working security at the museum. Alcohol added another dimension to her day job, but she said there hadn’t been any problems.
“We’re the Modern museum, and we want to bring a different crowd into the museum to see art that’s being made now,” Cook said. “It’s awesome seeing a lot of different faces we don’t see usually.”
Jhangiani and Nikzad started a corporation, Fortress Presents, to secure funding and quickly signed a deal with the Modern. Both Van Orne and Jhangiani declined to go into specifics on the financial agreement, but said simply they both stand to profit as the festival succeeds.
While the Modern hosted annual concerts as part of their Modern til’ Midnight program, it had never attempted a production of the Fortress Festival’s scale. Jhangiani and Nikzad hadn’t either, and hired venerable Texas promoter Margin Walker to handle the artist booking.
One of the bands Walker secured was the Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever, whose garage psychedelia is influenced by the Cambodian pop music of its singer Chnom Penh’s childhood. They also experienced firsthand how last weekend’s weather threatened to derail the fledgling venture.
“We drove from Lafayette to here today and we saw the damage that tornado did, and there was a big traffic jam. We were assuming a car accident, but when we got up, there was whole parking lots of cars just strewn like they were twigs, giant trees uprooted and thrown,” said Senon Williams, the band’s bassist, referencing the seven tornadoes that killed five people in East Texas last Saturday.
The tornado would cause the festival’s founders to push back the lineup opening day by two hours, canceling several local Dallas acts.
By Sunday, the sun was out again and the only difficulty the weather brought for Penh, in her words, was keeping her green dress down in a heavy wind during Dengue Fever’s set. To her it was a welcome respite from the sometimes-harsher struggles of touring internationally. Chnom Penh spent her first 10 years as a musician in the United States without a U.S. passport. This made entering countries for work a burden.
“It’s like they don’t want you to experience the world as a Cambodian,” Williams says of his bandmate’s experiences. “Because it’s a Third World country, people somehow think that Chnom Penh is not good for the country.” While it took 10 years as a performing musician, Penh got her passport in 2015.
“It was a very happy day,” she remembered fondly.
26-year-old rapper So-So-Topic, the local favorite and second-ever Office of Cultural Affairs grant recipient that Dallas recently lost to Oakland, is enjoying his time at the festival. He checks in with fellow hometown artists, sitting at a long dinner table with the electronic songwriter and producer Sudie.
“I guess sometimes it gets so hectic that certain fests don’t understand that it isn’t corporations who are in their fests, it’s actual human beings,” Topic said.
“Some years, South By [Southwest] will do you right, some years, South By won’t pay you any attention.”
Featured Image: Canadian electronic duo Purity Ring play to the largest crowd on Sunday, a long and fast paced set heavy on spectacular light and dance choreography. Megan James (pictured) said this will be the band’s “farewell” show, as they were going on hiatus afterward to work on new music. Taylor Crisler.