When Dfest announced its hiatus in May of 2010, it initially caused a collective gasp from local music lovers. Within mere days, however, a pair of alternate festivals were announced to fill the gap. In the back of their minds, most of Tulsa knew that both wouldn't survive. The question was more a matter of if one of them could.
Following the weekend of July 30-31 last year, it was clear that Free Tulsa was the front runner for a return and when Urban Tulsa Weekly followed up in April, festival founder Marc Matheos confirmed that not only would Free Tulsa return with a few key surprises in 2011, but "Free Tulsa will also have the added benefit of being free this year."
Matheos knew that charging for tickets at a festival named "Free Tulsa" had caused a bit of confusion last year, and been a sticking point for detractors, so he was sure to be the first one to get the jab in this year with a little "but the joke's on you" response. By shifting locations and securing key local sponsorships and partners in 2011, Matheos was able to make sure that this year's festival will actually be free to attend.
A Little Perspective
For those who don't know the back story, Free Tulsa was originally planned as an after-party for those attending Dfest with 10-12 bands playing on a stage in front of Soundpony and Crystal Pistol for a final destination after the big festival wrapped up on Friday and Saturday nights. Once Dfest officially announced it hiatus, however, Matheos said that he was approached by nearly 100 bands wanting to jump on board the Free Tulsa lineup in less than 48 hours.
"We didn't want to say no," he said, "but at the same time, we knew it was a huge upscale. We only had two months to go from a small street festival to a large event. We had to rent a full-sized stage and concert capacity sound and lights... And in the matter of a week, we were contacted by nearly every band in the state, wanting to be a part of it.
"It came with a lot of challenges," Matheos continued, "and an insanely high production cost. Instead of just using a small stage and our own P.A. system, it took about $30K to pull it off. That's why we had to charge for tickets -- we had no choice. I mean, we're not a bunch of high rollers: I'm the guy who sits at the bar with you all year long. [We don't] have an unlimited budget, but the burden was on us to make the party happen. And to be honest, it sounded like a blast to do. It ended up being a lot of hard work, but it was also a lot of fun."
Matheos said last year's show -- which had 125 bands and attracted thousands -- was a real test. But, "by the time it was over, we knew we had started something," he said.
If the festival had been named Street Fest or Tulsa Fest or any other name, the economics of the event would have been a lot simpler, Matheos said. But calling the event "Free Tulsa" meant that organizers had to meet a difficult burden. "That just made us find a way to make it free," he said. "We had to find a way."
New and Improved
So what has changed in 2011 and how was Matheos and his crew able to both improve the festival and make it free?
First: a plan, Matheos said.
"Just by doing it the first year, Free Tulsa was born. People know what it is now, so it's easier to pitch to people like The McNellie's Group. We went to the local businesses and asked, 'Can you help us make this happen?' and they stepped up in a big way with sponsorships," he said.
Granted, enlisting sponsorships is walking a fine line with your credibility, especially in the indie-rock world where most of the Free Tulsa bands reside. At this level, however, Matheos has kept true to the festival's interests and primarily approached businesses that are truly interested in the local music scene.
"Our sponsors support local musicians all year long," Matheos explained. "And a lot of musicians work in the restaurant industry, at a number of restaurants and bars, so this is a natural fit."
When discussing the involvement of McNellie's Group as a primary sponsor with Brian Fontaine, he shared that McNellie's Group's main concern when getting involved was making sure it was a safe and secure, family friendly event. That means having the same standards as if it were a paid, ticketed event: blocking the roads properly, having gates for entry, checking backpacks and having wristbands and checking IDs."
All of that is in place for 2011 as the festival has not only grown this year, but moved across the railroad tracks to the Blue Dome district, where more infrastructure is in place to handle the crowds. This year's event stretches from First to Third Street, running north/south, and from Elgin to Frankfort Avenue, spanning east/west, with the perimeter fenced off by Owasso fencing.
Beyond just a move to a new and larger campus, however, the festival also grows this year to accommodate roughly 175 artists on 15 planned stages, 11 of which will be located inside with air-conditioning to escape the summer heat. Roughly half of the stages will be open to all-ages as well, making it an event that families can attend without worry.
When perusing the initial venue list, Dust Bowl Lounge & Lanes and Dilly Deli will be hosting a band on their shared patio, with another stage potentially placed inside Dilly Deli. Dwelling Spaces joins the mix with an acoustic stage, along with Back Alley Blues Joe Momma's Pizza and El Guapo's (with a rooftop stage) as all-ages venues. The two outdoor stages will also be all-ages and hosting the festival's headline acts. Fassler Hall, Arnie's, Woody's, Yokozuna, The Max and McNellie's (upstairs), complete the list, but will only be open to the 21-plus crowd.
Aside from the venues themselves, a merchant village will be assembled in the parking lot on the north side of 2nd Street, between Blue Dome Diner and Woody's, just across from Arnie's. Local vendors will be set up around the perimeter with Dwelling Spaces in the center. Bands will also be allowed to sell shirts and CD's in the merchant village and keep all proceeds from their merchandise sales.
Music and More
At this point, you're probably thinking "Enough with the logistics: Give us something to get excited about!" Over the course of the weekend, Free Tulsa plans to showcase roughly 175 bands to represent not only Tulsa, but all of Oklahoma, so a perusal of the final list of performers should accommodate all music tastes and provide something for everyone to anticipate.
The Blackwatch Stage, sponsored by Blackwatch Studios in Norman, will take up the torch for the Norman/Edmond/Oklahoma City contingent by hosting acts like Chrome Pony, Deer People, Jacob Abello, Brine Webb, Pretty Black Chains and Sherree Chamberlain, amongst others.
Meanwhile, The McNellie's Main Stage will host Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey performing The Race Riot Suite on Saturday night, July 30, as the night's featured headline performance. Friday night's headline set on the same stage will be LoHawk, featuring Brian Haas on keyboards, Aaron Hamby on guitar, Andrew Bones on drums and Matt Edwards on bass. This will only be the band's second performance, truly making it a special event worth seeing. Erin Turner (of Ptiaradactyl) created set pieces for the group's debut performance at Soundpony, making it a visual experience as well, leaving anyone who witnessed the first show anxious to see what she may create for the Free Tulsa gig.
One of last year's featured acts, Ishi, will be returning for a headline set on the McNellie's Stage on Friday, July 29. Although the band hails from the Dallas area, its infectious blend of dance rock and electronica -- not to mention a great stage presence from lead singer John Mudd -- drew a great response last year, calling for a return to the stage at First and Elgin Avenue in 2011. Also on tap for a main stage appearance is RL Jones, bringing a hard rock pedigree to the night and proving that Free Tulsa isn't just about the indie-rock set. This year's lineup is all about great music in general and diversity is the key.
Of course, the New Tulsa Sound contingent is adequately represented with scheduled slots for Jesse Aycock, Paul Benjaman Band, The Panda Resistance, Desi & Cody, Sage Flower, GoGo Plumbay and Travis Fite -- most of which will be performing at Fassler Hall. The logical progression from New Tulsa Sound to the jam band contingent is then covered by another group of bands that includes Grazzhopper (featuring Cody Brewer of Moai Broadcast with Dylan Angleton), Klondike 5 String Band, Montu and Whirligig as center pieces. Tulsa's renewed pop scene is represented as well with artists like FM Pilots, Apollo, Afterlights and Ty Mayfield taking their place in the spotlight over the course of the weekend.
That's not enough for you? If you need some hip hop, try on Kawnar, Snorlaxx or Oilhouse for size. Great songwriting's your thing? Then check out Jared Tyler (who performs in Tulsa all too infrequently) or our latest up and coming acoustic act, Kenzie and Kendal. And if you just want to rock out? Well, just look around.
Undoubtedly, those who don't get out much will want to take advantage of the chance to see what all the fuss is about for artists like Fiawna Forte, The Del Toros (who swept this year's ABoT Music Awards), The Savage Young and Rude Amps. Those who are already well versed in the local scene, however, will be better served by checking out a host of bands that are either new or rarely play in Tulsa.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of a festival that features so many local acts is watching to see who will emerge from an event like this as the new buzz bands next year. Looking back, last year's Free Tulsa was the first performance for Rude Amps, the high energy, indie/punk act that blew up on the local scene last fall and went on to dominate the ABoT Music Award nominations with nods in eight categories. It will definitely be interesting to see if Free Tulsa can bottle lightening and launch another few electrifying newcomers in 2011.
If the hot shot bands do show up, the chances are good that they'll be caught on video during the festival. John Schroeder, of Church Studios, will have a full crew out over the weekend recording both audio and high-def video of all the bands performing on the Blackwatch and McNellie's main stages, as well as Fassler Hall and Back Alley Blues. The crew assembled will include Kelly Kerr; Casey Phariss, Schroeder's instructor at Full Sail University and an Emmy Award winner for his production work on The Grammys; and well as Tulsa native, Austin Tolin, who has been working for TLC network and is returning to assist on this project, amongst others.
Initial plans call for producing three videos for each band, which will in turn link back to a site where fans can purchase a download of the group's entire set, with half of the proceeds going the band. That makes it worth taking note of any bands that are particularly impressive over the weekend, as you'll be able to both financially support the bands and get a memento from the weekend once the concert recordings start showing up in late September. (Schroeder estimates it will take approximately two months of production time to finish out work on what could equate to over 48 bands worth of material).
Beyond just music, which is undeniable integral to the event, Matheos' main focus is providing great entertainment. As such, Crispy Family Carnival will add to the festival atmosphere with street performances of the troupe's Vaudeville Sideshow throughout the weekend, featuring fire breathing, sword swallowing, and various "death defying stunts." In addition The Tulsa Board Shop, located at 11th Street and Harvard Avenue, will also have its skateboard team out and performing across the festival site throughout the course of the weekend.
Of course, McNellie's is getting into the act as well and providing some grown up fun with a series of blow-up pubs (much like an adult Jupiter-jump) with full bars in each. According to Brian Fontaine, the pubs vary in size, with the smallest holding 10-15 people and the largest accommodating 80-100. A group of them will be arranged outside of McNellie's and form a Beer Garden in the center to keep the mood lighthearted and fun for everyone who comes out.
Much like last year, the festival will have pedi-cabs on site and is encouraging patrons to ride their bikes, with Lee's Bicycles offering a free bicycle valet service at its location at Second Street and Frankfort Avenue. American Waste Control has also stepped up as a sponsor and will be handling recycling and trash service over the weekend.
More than anything, Matheos, Fontaine and the rest of the people on staff all agree when Matheos says "We just want people to have a fun and safe weekend." As such, Missy's Keys 4 Cabs will be offering free cab service for anyone who may have drank too much in the heat, to assure everyone gets home safely. The non-profit organization will also have a booth in the merchant village with more information available for anyone interested in learning more about the program and how to get your favorite local clubs involved in the program.
Here and Now
Once a festival like this gets up and running, it's hard not to look forward to what the future holds. Matheos already has big plans for the future, with visions of making it one of the biggest free parties in the Midwest, complete with nationally known headline acts. The focus this year, however, is on growing the event and doing it smoothly. The potential for growth will rely on two things: attendance and proving just how many people actually show up.
Admission is free this year, but you need to register for your wristbands in order to make entry at the main gates (located on Elgin Avenue, between Second and Third Streets) go as quickly and smoothly as possible. All you have to do is go to freetulsa2011.com and enter a valid email address. The system will then send back response to your email address with details and a confirmation code for picking up your wristbands at check-in.
In case you're wondering: Yes, registering is essential to the success of Free Tulsa. They aren't asking much: just and valid email address in order to prove attendance numbers. That may not seem essential, but as the festival continues to grow, the ability to prove attendance and demographics will be essential to securing the proper sponsors in years to come.
Gates open at 6pm on Friday and Saturday, July 29-30, with music beginning at 7p. As of press time, details were still being worked out for handling those who don't pre-register, with the most likely on-site solution being online registration from smart phones and possible text based registrations with automatic confirmation code responses. If you want registration and entry to go smoothly, your best bet is to register early and bring your confirmation with you in order to beat the long lines.
Matheos also has more surprises in mind over the weekend and encourages anyone attending to "like" the festival's Facebook page (facebook.com/freetulsa2011) and follow the festival on Twitter (@freetulsa) in order to get all the latest breaking information on any schedule or venue changes and surprise/guest artist appearances over the weekend.
Admittedly, the future of Free Tulsa is still unclear beyond 2011. Late announcements as to the festival's status had many wondering whether it would actually return this year, but Matheos and his crew appear to have been focused on working through potential issues before making announcements. In the process, they have effectively made Free Tulsa truly free for the general public to attend. Special work was put into the details, even working out a "token redemption" to ensure that bands didn't have to pay a standardized fee for applying through Sonicbids to play the event.
Now that the weekend is upon us, all you have left to do is register and attend. The weekend is all about supporting Oklahoma musicians, so make sure and not only come out to the shows, but buy their CDs and merchandise and keep an eye out for the digital downloads that are due to appear online in late September.
Finally, Matheos indicated there will also be a large acrylic cube located in the intersection of 2nd and Elgin. Any donations added to the cube will be divided evenly amongst the performing bands. If attendance numbers truly do reach 20,000 or more, as Matheos estimates, a donation of just a couple dollars per person would see each band earn a couple hundred dollars from the weekend and make Free Tulsa a true success for all involved.
Most importantly, though, get out and attend. It's events like Free Tulsa that keep local music alive and well.
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