Inside of the half-empty Clearfork Music Festival in Fort Worth this past Saturday, it was impossible to not wonder what exactly constitutes a true festival. Any view of the festival grounds at Panther Island Pavilion from one of the slightly elevated spots of the land provided a view of a vibrant festival skeleton complete with tents for local artisans and activists, food trucks, beer trailers and three performance stages. Indeed, Saturday at Clearfork looked very much like a proper festival, even if it failed to feel like one for the most part.
While few would (or should) ever complain about not approaching a line of any kind -- whether it was for restrooms, craft beer or food -- that stretched longer than six people, such unadulterated free-reign over the grounds seemed eerie.
We won't pretend to know what the organizer's attendance expectations were for what was the grandest of Clearfork Festivals thus far, and this event was as smoothly executed as anyone could surely hope for. One could easily argue that a large outdoor space with a select number of people makes for a fan-friendly experience -- and sure, on-paper that's true to a degree. But to suggest that the fest was anything but sparsely attended and a bit soul-sucking as a result is as blindly optimistic as it is simply incorrect.
All the same, at 3:00 p.m. and with the temperature nearing 100 degrees, relatively new Fort Worth rock act Jetta in the Ghost Tree played with authority and a great sense of ominous melody. Led by Brandin Lea, the group handled their task well in a mercifully spacious, shade-lending tent positioned 20 yards from the much larger secondary Keep Texas Live stage, where California's jubilantly eclecticAndy Frasco, who likely had eaten a handful of acid tabs for brunch, had the help of local act and fellow Clearfork artists Spoonfed Tribe in creating a danceable ruckus.
Even with the horn- and drum-intensive party on the nearby outdoor KTL Stage there wasn't any nagging, sonic bleed-over to be dealt with in the tent where the Solar Powered Stage was set. Such sound-proof symmetry, for the most part, remained intact throughout the day as the sets on the neighborly stages were scheduled rather closely together throughout the festival.
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The hazy blaze covering Panther Island was no match for Lincoln Durham. If Clearfork handed out awards to its performers, a highly convincing case could be made for Durham winning the MVP trophy in runaway fashion. The mustachioed Durham employed an arsenal of vintage equipment including two different cigar box guitars to go along with a fiddle and a couple of well-pounded kick drums. His playing was so fierce, he broke the string of one of those primitive guitars, and after a quick adjustment into a higher key, proceeded to bring a mad, snake-handling preacher's fervor to his forcefully-paced 45 minute set.
Back in the tent, high energy was apparent and the vibe remained set to party-mode as a couple dozen people danced near the stage for the free-spirited sets of alt-pop acts Animal Spirit and the locally buzzed-about Son of Stan featuring Jordan Richardson. Both were on-point and both made the most of tent's small stage set-up.
A couple of hours after Frasco completed his rowdy revelry, current kings of Fort Worth country music Holy Moly kicked things into an even higher gear with a tight, irreverent, balls-out set. At one point, bassist Jeremy Hull and guitarist Danny Weaver jumped off the stage and into the crowd to perform in the middle of the approximately 100 people while the band completed a gospel classic.
Following the triumphant Holy Moly set on the same stage, there were less than 10 people within 20 yards of Orlando's Thomas Wynn and the Believers when they began. To look around and see a complete void was a buzzkill of the highest order. The audience increased only slightly as arguably the two strongest voices of the entire day, belonging to brother and sister duo Thomas and Olivia Wynn, belted out their well-developed and dramatically soaring harmonies.
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As nighttime descended and a distinct mellowness enveloped the festival. Even then, attendees only had to approach the Main Stage two minutes before either scheduled set to nab a prime spot against the security railing in-front of the stage. Only a dozen or so people were competing for what would typically be unattainable spots at many other festivals so close to a given performance. Such availability wasn't an option at this past May's Homegrown Fest in Dallas, and likely will not be one for Dia de los Toadies, taking place on exactly the same ground as Clearfork in two weeks.
Headliners the Black Angels began at 10:25 p.m. and played an admirable set of their ear-grabbing, head-swaying tunes that are heavily informed by the Doors and Roky Erickson. With the Fort Worth skyline, complete with the beautifully lit rotunda of the historic Tarrant County Courthouse easily visible, singer Alex Maas, guitarist Christian Bland and the rest of the Angels dutifully powered through signature tunes such as "Entrance Song," "Indigo Meadow," and "Yellow Elevator #2."
In what should've been the crowning hour for the Clearfork Music Festival was rather underwhelming. Taking only a few steps backwards to break free of the loosely gathered crowd to walk up the incline of a small hill for an overall view of the setting, it was clear that a true crowd hadn't formed even for the headlining set.
So, sure, Clearfork was a festival -- and a well-run, fan-friendly one at that. But regardless of the high quality of performances that saved the day and a staff that was eager to please, there's nothing fun in feeling sorry for the artist beginning a set that few attendees seem to care enough about to arrive before the first two songs are complete. When it comes to music festivals here in North Texas, just because one is built, doesn't mean anyone will come.