It might not be too long before Fun Fun Fun overtakes Austin City Limits as the premiere three-day fest in the city. Austin is swollen with music, from a vibrant local scene to its long-established bluesy roots –SXSW has become something of a convention capstone for the industry. But somehow Fun Fun Fun stands out; it’s willing to be provocative with its bookings, instead of the interchangeable schedules of most top-tier weekends. They may not have the budget, but they have a definite understanding of the people they’re after. You know, like getting Danzig to play Misfits songs.
But I digress, let’s talk about some music.
We love Black Milk for his normalcy – with the abundance of over-tweeting, melodrama-happy upstarts, sometimes it’s nice to see a guy in a black hoodie, a locked-in flow, and a rock-solid band put in work. Black Milk has spent his entire career as an underdog, and considering he found himself slotted at 2:30 p.m. on the middle-tier stage, that isn’t going to change any time soon. But it doesn’t matter; he’s gotten very good at being great in a small dose, his beautifully produced bangers popped just like they do on record. When he mentioned how much he “loved this city” it actually felt true. As someone whose fandom doesn’t go much deeper than a copy of Tronic and an appreciation for a great mix, I stuck around a lot longer than I expected.
As a child of the early millennium SoCal hardcore scene, a band like Bane was talked about in hushed tones. They were straight-edge, they were vegetarian, they would release records like It All Comes Down To This that talks about unity, importance, and accountability in the hardcore scene like it actually meant something. They were an easy band to get behind, if only because we were young enough to think going to hardcore shows was a cry against some horrible injustice (we all ate three meals a day.)
So seeing a haggard, aged Bane take over the Black Stage was certainly surreal. Aaron Bedard still wears a baseball cap, but his gut hangs goofily over his waist – he finds himself out-of-breath quite a bit. The back of the stage was decked in similarly aged punks, still dressed in all black, and still nursing some regrettable tattoos. But it didn’t matter, for the kids that gathered to see a former favorite band, it was impossible to make fun of their fraying elder aesthetics. The band still jumps around, dangerously flailing instruments with little-to-no respect towards the proper way to mellow as an aging star. It was truly brave, which doesn’t always defeat goofiness, but when Bane went goofy it was charmingly so. Like Bedard calling for a circle pit. Remember circle pits?
Yacht has been around a lot longer than you might expect. If you’re hip enough, you might even recall seeing them at a now-closed dive somewhere in the outskirts of Austin circa 2003. It seems like they’ve only hit the indie airwaves within the past couple of years, which naturally made their live show that much more impressive. Claire L. Evans’s platinum hair and runway-chic physique dressed in all white, while the boys lurk in all black. They’ve got choreography, a solid character, and songs about the end of the world - which sometimes is all you need to distract the crowd from noticing the songs are only engaging about 50 percent of the time. Evans even descended into the crowd for some impromptu Q&A, she replied that she was vegetarian when asked about her favorite sandwich. Predictable.
I’ve always been amazed how Ty Segall gets the kids to crash into each other. His scrappy brand of surfer garage-rock has some definite bleat, but not nearly as much as someone like Bane, or anyone else on the skull-laden Black Stage. As the unassuming, sun-bleached Segall was setting up, a giant Danzig banner was being hung up behind him, probably one of the most disparate moments in Festival history. Naturally Segall introduced himself as Glenn.
He raged through his white-hot guitar jams, most of which weren’t from this year’s decidedly mellow Goodbye Bread. The kids who came to jump around kicked up enough dust to obscure vision. I saw a kid emerge from the pit, open his mouth, and start rubbing at all the dirt that coated his tongue and teeth. Awesome. It still seems strange that people treat Segall like a roughneck punk act, but hey, it’s a lot better than the usual gentle sway – even if they’re disappointed when he drops into a ballad like “You Make The Sun Fry.”
Big Freedia has played Fun Fun Fun Fest every year. She has an absolutely bewildering popularity amongst Austin denizens, which makes her yearly pilgrimage something of an event. Considering the world generally doesn’t owe too much attention to intersexual icons of a girly sub-movement of an already-insular ‘New Orleans Bounce’ scene – it’s great to see.
Similarly, it’s been almost exactly a year since the last time I seriously listened to Freedia, her music doesn’t really demand a headphones experience. And as far as I could tell, her set list hasn’t changed at all. She/he brings out a team of dancers who solely shake their ass for the entirety of the set, she/he calls for volunteers before the orgy-anthem “Azz Everywhere,” and she/he has a song that makes “Rock Around The Clock” sound a lot dirtier than it ever meant to be. Such is the craft of Big Freedia, it is not subtle, but it is wise – its great knowing that something as pure in its intentions has made the tranny a solid career. In that sense the act is kind of like Girl Talk, you know, without the gender confusion.
Let’s start by saying man, is Everything is Boring and Everyone is a Fucking Liar a much better album when it’s coming at you live. The album can be discomfortingly claustrophobic in its dank, clubby intensity, but dank clubby intensity generally works pretty well on stage. In a Technicolor dream-coat and a Sideshow Bob haircut, MC Spank Rock absolutely took over the Blue Stage. Flinging earth-rumbling electro pulses, snapping brain-boggling callbacks, and at one point, rapping over fucking "Brothersport." By the time Big Freedia came out to demolish her verse on “You Nasty,” all sensibility and pragmatism was lost on the crowd. I did not enter Friday expecting Spank Rock to be the most memorable slot, but he had other things in mind.
In which a singular, pasty-white, messy-haired Englishman turns a dusty field into a quiet, spacious trance with an industrial moan and a faded “love cry… love cry… love cry…” It does not need to be overstated that Four Tet’s shtick is best utilized in a club than a festival, but given his sparse touring schedule, his disciples were absolutely enthralled to see him play. Some subdued lights and a few laptops was all he needed – head-nod music isn’t necessarily built for festivals, but then again, most head-nod musicians aren’t Kieran Hebden.
Of course about halfway through, in a profoundly belligerent absence of Festival etiquette, he was rudely interrupted by the Public Enemy roadies. Fun Fun Fun Fest has a set up where each stage actually has two spaces, so while one act is performing another can start setting up. This is usually a very good idea, when the set up is happening in silence, but on Friday someone from the P.E. camp was wandering around the space shouting into a pair of microphones. It’s not like he didn’t know what he was doing, he was literally a few feet away from Four Tet’s side, he was either the most oblivious roadman in the world, or he just didn’t really care. I mean, it went on for a half-hour, all Hebden could do was look over in helplessness. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t play many festivals, because he doesn’t want to deal with that bullshit.
Because of the relative size of Fun Fun Fun Fest, Passion Pit found themselves as the clearest headliner for Friday night. Against the idyllic Austin backdrop, with thousands of fans, and the best sound of the weekend, this could’ve been the stuff of rockstars. When they emerged to one of the most impressive white-light illuminations I’ve ever seen at a festival, it looked like they might actually pull it off.
But it wasn’t to be, frontman’s Michael Angelakos’ voice was frail and faraway, Ian Hultquist’s guitar bulldozed the mix, and their best element-- their sugar-coated synths--were shockingly clumsy. The all-together tightness of Manners simply wasn’t there. Everything sounded half-formed, and considering the conversations the band seemed to be having between songs, they seemed to know it too.
Of course none of that mattered for the diehard fans, as long as the idea of “The Reeling” was there, they were perfectly capable filling in the blanks. So I guess they are rock stars, in the sense that they don’t really have to worry about impressing their fans.
Chuck D made us chant “occupy,” he made us hold up our fists in solidarity before “Fight The Power,” he mentioned how we should “occupy evil immigration laws that keep people out who were here in the first fucking place, you hear me Texas?” Before a suite of Fear of a Black Planet songs, he said something about how “this was the record that told the world that there was one universal race, a human race!” When they cut his microphone after he went past curfew, he stood on stage for another five minutes waxing rhetoric. Oh, and Flava Flav was there, he said things like “fuck George Bush!”
It is pretty impressive how effective Public Enemy songs can sound in 2011, decades away from some of the archaic hip-hop traditions that birthed them – especially considering how poorly acts like N.W.A. have aged. It certainly makes us look past all the silly extraneousness they put on (Flava Flav playing the drums while his godson bombs a freestyle! Letting the DJ cut through Nirvana for like five minutes!) They’re quite lucky “Bring the Noise” and “Rebel Like a Pause” work as well as they do, they might be relegated to Henry Rollins status if they didn’t.