When Marc Matheos — owner of Tulsa’s Crystal Pistol Saloon — started planning a humble DFest after-party with neighbors Soundpony Bar last year, he didn’t ever anticipate it becoming the main event.
“The day we announced FreeTulsa! — this little production that was just going to happen in front of our place — was the same day DFest announced they were going on hiatus. It threw everyone for a loop,” Matheos said. “We had over 100
bands that had been planning to play DFest contact us in about 48 hours, asking to come play at our festival. We couldn’t bring ourselves to say no.”
FreeTulsa! went from eight or so bands playing in front of their establishments on a small stage with a simple PA to a multistage event with professional sound setups with personnel requirements.
“We had to get these pretty big stages, then get sound, lights and security detail involved. Our little free festival turned into something a lot bigger than that pretty quickly,” Matheos said. “Subsequently, it went from costing around $200 to produce to around $30,000. All of a sudden, FreeTulsa! wasn’t very free.”
The organizers scrambled to find sponsors to accommodate the then-massive production costs to little avail. They were producing an event with more than 100 bands all on their own.
“We conceptualized that festival and executed the whole thing within 60 days,” Matheos said, laughing. “Not much time to find sponsors.”
The festival resorted to charging $15 for two-day passes to help recover some of the costs, but the ironic price tag didn’t keep music fans away. Although a far cry from the average, 40,000-plus DFest drew each night, 3,000 people showed up, all armed with jokes about paying to attend FreeTulsa!, which showcased mostly Oklahoma acts like Johnny Polygon, Broncho, Native Lights and more.
“We got a lot of grief for that, we knew we would,” Matheos said, continuing. “But this year it is free. We knew if we knew we were going to use that name, we were going to have to find a way to make it free for everyone.”
The free festival has expanded, too, showcasing more than 175 bands on 15 stages.
For all the changes, the event is sticking with it’s local band motif; this year showcases Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey playing its latest project “The Race Riot Suite” a few blocks from where the Tulsa race riots took place, as well as indie rock acts Fiawna Forte (pictured above), The Electric Primadonnas and more.
FreeTulsa! may never fill the shoes that DFest left behind, but it’s definitely making its very own impression.
To signup for a free wristband, visit freetulsa2011.com.
Photo by Matt Carney