With an open heart and an open mind. I ain’t trying to milk it. - Teren Delvon Jones
I left the house later than I had planned. The magazine had thrown a party the night before and anyone that knows better, knows that parties are pitifully hard work. Especially successful ones.
So I finally jump in the car and make my way south. I proceed to get into an accident on 75 ten minutes later. It’s extremely minor. I screeched and then smacked into a woman from behind in an unforeseeable jam, and yet, still, all I can think about is diving headfirst into another demanding — physically, socially and otherwise — music festival. At that point I’m convinced that it will be a disaster. Any road trip and/or festival weekend that begins with a car accident must be doomed for failure. Right?
Some insight: You’re currently wasting time on a guy that once got into a quite nasty car crash at another festival — South By Southwest 2008 — and I still consider it my favorite year of that required yearly experience, when compared to any other year in a decade. It was chaotic, the accident fittingly more so, and even though I practically limped through the finish line, I’ll never forget it. So, unpredictability and chaos get plenty of leeway with this particular audience. At a music fest, I practically welcome it. I’m no music writer by day, stuffy family man by night, and proudly. This is my life. I’ve had too many significant others cruelly claim I even more cruelly chose show write-ups over romance for that to not be the case.
But I had some concerns about this particular year at this particular fest. Slayer? Danzig performing Misfits tracks? Odd Future? And I’m sitting here, not even to Haskell, slumped against an HOV post, shakily swapping insurance with some sweet lady who surely has a real life — a life that has nothing to do with making sure she’ll spend at least fifteen minutes this weekend watching a band called Cannibal Corpse. The wreck shook my usually nimble nerves. I was intimidated. But, onward: Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
The additional full day (expanded from a mere extra evening last year) only added to the potential threat. How could I be apprehensive about something with such an innocuous name? A name so silly that when I recently spent an afternoon working on this very website in a coffee shop, I overheard a high school girl explaining to her mom how she was spending the first weekend of November, and her mother mockingly laughed at her. “Fun Fun Fun Fest?” she snorted. “Okay.”
The Current Day Relevance of “Fight The Power,” Danzig shows his true colors, Glass Candy saves everything.
There is a uniformed swarm of social media messages clouding the air above 35E all the way to Austin; countless virtual gnats of information all saying the same thing: “An artist is walking the grounds of a park, where many other famous to semi-famous to completely obscure artists are gathered, and we can’t get enough of it.” No, it’s not what you’re there for. It’s not what you drove from Oklahoma or Arizona or flew from Brooklyn for. But some of you will drop an intimate hangout with ten of your favorite bands if it means one fake “arm around the shoulder” buddy shot with the most famous actor in the world. And that’s fine. I understand. It’s a different kind of love.
So, I did find it quite amusing that as soon as I walk in the park, I’m walking parallel with the always well-jacketed, heart eviscerating, blond tree of a man. You surely know the details at this point. He’s being trailed by a film crew with at least one crew member and one director also responsible for a movie I described earlier this year as “Koyaanisqatsi with hicks.” Now, stop yourself from stuffing the suggestion box, because I already agree. I should get into movie reviews as well.
Largely as a result of the aforementioned accident, I’m extremely late. Friday is pretty much a bust. The staff that tended to my credential needs was extremely helpful and sympathetic to my sudden untimely appearance. I am suddenly burdened with a profoundly unfair decision: Public Enemy or Danzig Legacy? It seems impossible to make a decision between two seminal acts such as these.
But it’s not. It’s easy. Public Enemy has had their ups and downs, but their reputation is still intact. Danzig already performed here two years ago. I was there as well. It was ridiculous. I am no Danzig fan, so that needs to be taken into consideration.
In those fateful moments during the high school life of anyone curiously experimenting their way through various popular canons — whether it be classic rock, punk, rap, or dance music — you make many formative decisions. Danzig always seemed like an all too unwittingly humorous figure. I could never buy into the Misfits mystique, or lack thereof. It was completely ruined and their aesthetic fate personally sealed when I saw an “ex” skinhead almost weeping as he sang along to “Last Caress” while a female biker disrobed on top of the bar at a particularly ugly night at Austin’s infamous Casino El Camino years ago. Many punk purists in the company I have kept consider his music popular fodder for misguided heavy metal enthusiasts that never completely understood hardcore. It was a joke that was built up for far too long. But it appears that we finally have the conclusion. All aesthetic disagreements aside, I feel genuine sympathy for these abused fans, and even more for festival organizer and Transmission Entertainment founder, Graham Williams. I personally dealt with Williams years before Transmission or Fun Fun Fun Fest ever existed, and he has long had a reputation for being one of the most reputable booking people in the country. But Glenn Danzig is not reputable anywhere on Earth and never has been. Danzig believes in werewolves. Is anyone really all that surprised by this?
I end up walking to Danzig’s stage for a bit anyways. He is at this point complaining that “…Wile E Coyote put this f****** stage together…,” and I hate to bring up age, but that legitimately makes Danzig sound every bit of his 56 years. Either that, or he actually he has more in common with Woody Allen than anyone associated with the origins of underground hardcore, goth, metal or the ever-popular hybrid of all three for which is he so responsible.
And that’s one of the few places where Fun Fun Fun Fest almost seems to lean too heavily in one direction. That undying admiration for Danzig’s entire career and all that is implied by such fandom is evident by the fact that they have had him play twice in three years. There are many brilliant touches, even some outright and welcome risks with the lineup of this event. There is also an unwavering dedication to the macho, tattooed, old school punk and metalhead that is completely essential to the makeup of Austin’s cultural demographic. You can complain about the tech-hippies and the hip, ahistorical youngsters that don’t understand the city, but Austin will always have an element of that brooding, leather-clad gang mentality for the foreseeable future. This should be good news for many, bad news for some, and completely inconsequential for those that will never know an Emo’s on Sixth and Red River.
The members of Public Enemy on the other hand seemed every bit as invigorated as you hoped they would be, and the stage antics of the the respective lead and foil of Chuck D and Flava Flav would have anyone questioning the fact that these two artists are in their fifties. Due to the accident-factor, I heard just the hits. However, there was still a charming diversion from the program for Flava Flav to introduce his godson onstage for a cameo, but more importantly — for Flav to play drums. I have always wanted to see the rapper play drums in a live setting and this festival made that happen. For a guy that gets so much grief for supposedly being a walking caricature (his Comedy Central live roast was even more brutal and racially insensitive than most), Flav is an indisputable talent, a showman literally from a different time; it goes back further than The 80s. The countless ways (okay, well, you can count them — proficiency with 15 different instruments) in which he is able to hold an audience’s attention is of vaudevillian proportions. It’s a shame that this often gets overlooked by tasteless joke-slingers that would much rather put their own projected minstrel spin on the artist’s career.
“Shut ‘Em Down” and “Fight the Power” never lost their relevancy, but they seemed even more potent than they would in another year. Lyrics about “runnin’ from the bank” and what “corporations owe” were not lost on the audience or the performers, and Public Enemy made sure to throw in a series of “Occupy!” call-and-responses for the occasion.
But alas, the group ran out of time and Chuck D’s microphone was cut right before he got to one of his best lyrics, where no mystery is left regarding his feelings toward Elvis Presley (and Flav’s feelings about John Wayne). He politely led the crowd through that verse at least. If there is one power on Earth that nobody ever successfully fights it’s a city noise ordinance.
Later in the evening I realize my best chance to redeem day one is through the after-party — neither the first nor the last for that epiphany — referred to as “FFF Nites.” Cold Cave gingerly plods through a set of their increasingly accessible though overcast synth-pop,. I’m entertained enough as I try to work a clunky macro lens around other much more grizzled veterans who have what appear to be erect elephant trunks for lenses. At another point in the weekend, I’ll see Cold Cave terrorize the audience with an uncomfortably long blast of static and noise, lest anyone forget that this is synthesizer-player and Prurient member Dominick Fernow’s other band.
And then Glass Candy’s Johnny Jewel sheepishly sets up a little corner of the stage, containing a small fraction of the equipment used by the previous act. I’m awaiting an extended sound-check, but he casually taps his keyboard and plugs in an effects-pedal and a couple of wires. He is wearing a black satin jacket with his own band’s logo on the back. He has dots painted on his face that present him as something between street-mime and an ex-con in East Los Angeles. The crowd comes down from the rooftop and pushes forward at the hint of a single analog signal blip. It seems this particular crowd has waited all day for this and probably longer.
When singer Ida No comes literally leaping out of the shadows, the tightly-packed Mohawk crowd leaps with her. For those of us up-front, it’s ill-advised, uncomfortable, and impossibly fun. I almost dance for the first time since an irresponsible trip to Berlin a couple of years ago. This is more Italo Disco than Krautrock or Berlin Techno, however, and I haven’t seen a band engage with their audience so joyfully or directly since the days of preachy late-90′s underground punks — surely the last-entertaining remnant of that era. Thankfully there is no “message” here, unless you can glean some sort of hidden meaning out of an audience chanting along to “Uh huh. I like it/Uh huh. I like it.” Ida hugs people in the front row and invites people onstage. Johnny Jewel pounds and paws his synth behind his back and also with one hand. At some point he grips my friend’s hand in his own while continuing to play. The friend describes the experience as “awkward,” but “cool.” Both members of the group pass out free gifts, including CDs and 12-inch vinyl records, as if they didn’t cost anything to press or create. They might as well be handing out twenties and fives. This is one of the few times I’ll describe a band as “selfless.”
After the set, Johnny Jewel spends more time than he has to with fans. One of them tells me of an update he had just received on the forthcoming record by local artist Farah, whom Johnny is producing. There are supposedly over twenty songs they have worked on in Canada, and apparently the material is very bleak. I’m hoping this releases sees the light-of-day in 2012, because local albums could really use something, well, different.
Returning to the Mohawk roof, a friend spills beer all over the ground by doing an overly-enthusiastic and rather intoxicated impression of Jewel. I bump into a black gentleman and apologize. The reason I mention it, is because he returns the favor by repeating a rather unsavory racial epithet in my face for about fifteen full seconds, while somehow nonverbally communicating that this is meant affectionately. People from out-of-town start sending text-messages to ask where alcohol is available after 2 am. This music festival has officially started.
Marlboro or the CIA, Punks Don’t Pay to be Damned, Press Photographers are Very Cruel To Each Other.
If you need to gauge how old you really are, go to a three-day music festival. The aches start around the four-hour mark. But as much as I cowered in my hotel room until the last possible second, I’m not as bad as others. The constant complaining about the dust was much worse than the dust itself. It’s a little dust, you’ll get over it. My camera and favorite pair of shoes are still caked in it, but it was a necessary sacrifice. Haven’t been outside in a while? Good. Neither have I. We aren’t covering this event because we’re both excellent cyclists or kayakers. People who write about music generally tend to be the worst kind of nocturnal shut-in. As soon as night falls, they’ll flap their atrophied wings to the first place they’re “on the list…plus one.” Mostly deriving exercise from walking between the bar and the dance-floor, their shrill tweets are worse than their bite, and it’s often best to ignore us.
I run into a local band at the hotel, but since I’m not in the business of reviewing accidental brunch partners, I’ll spare their identity. All bets are off, however, when it comes to that constant food topic in Austin music: breakfast tacos. One of these poor souls was almost led astray to Juan in a Million. Some free advice: Just because it’s on Man vs Food, doesn’t mean it’s “good.” It doesn’t even mean it’s food. Juan in a Million is an oversized portion of an unremarkable taco. That is its best quality. This is so often the selling-point in the United States, that we should all know better by now. We go to Mi Madre’s off of Manor Road instead. Though everyone seems to like it, I’m harshly criticized because the restaurant doesn’t have a single lime.
After being ridiculed for not being at the festival yet by other North Texas music scene frequenters, I take a long walk from a secret parking space to the grounds. Getting a firsthand look at the daytime levels of dust, I almost see what the whining is about, but not enough to warrant a bandana face-mask, which just happens to be what some of the rougher elements in the crowd would sport anyway.
One of the most distinct aspects of this event is that it is so obviously stylistically segregated according to genre. You could spend all day watching the mostly hardcore, punk, and metal acts in their designated area, and feel at one with the predominantly-male (assuming you’re either male or used to being around nothing but) group of adrenalized experience seekers, never feeling exposed to other, more sensitive indie rock or dance-oriented music found elsewhere at the festival. Or you could just dance all day at the Blue Stage — “swimming in a sea of babes” as one fence-hopping festival-goer put it — to Major Lazer or Baths, and never know about the male metal fest a few hundred yards away. Though I’m more of an advocate for diversity, it’s a successfully divided formula the founders have concocted, and I wouldn’t argue with it.
And then there are other experiences that aren’t so neatly parsed out by category. Walk through the winding cartilage of commerce between stages and you’ll see an admirable effort to include as many small, non-corporate businesses from Austin’s decidedly varied entrepreneurial landscape. This includes everything from gourmet cupcakes to several different, ultra-competitive, screen-printing operations.
But no festival, save for perhaps the aggressively exceptional All Tomorrow’s Parties, is able to host this many name acts without some corporate sponsorship involved. I hardly notice anymore, but on Saturday of Fun Fun Fun Fest, I inadvertently took a closer look. A friend from North Texas, we’ll call him “Lot,” was at the festival, and he happened to want a cigarette. Lot explains that he is getting “cranky,” and it’s assumed to be in both of our best interests that we find a place to purchase cigarettes as soon as possible. So we quickly realize that if we decide to partake in “The Marlboro Experience,” a bizarre little trailer made entirely of advertisements, Lot won’t be threatening the world with his potentially devastating attitude anymore.
I don’t smoke, so this seems even more strange and unnecessary than it does for Lot. We have our IDs checked three times. When I forget my phone inside this little haunted house of cigarettes, they check it again. The Marlboro guards mean business; one of them has the same cadence and look as Jim Jones, if he had lived. Lot is required to divulge an uncomfortable wealth of personal information, just for the opportunity to purchase a pack of squares. My hand is marked with a “G” for guest. I’ve showered since then, but I can still feel the Sharpie-d phantom.
When we walk into the tiny room, it’s under-lit, but the darkness is broken up by various bright screens with blindingly radiating Marlboro advertising. There’s live screen-printing. Someone asks if we want to design our own t-shirts. “Who likes FREE T-SHIRTS?!” screams a female employee. Not. Me. And if I did, not these t-shirts. Not this way, and not right now. To all of my financially struggling friends in the screen-printing business: I have a new business idea for you, other than getting ripped off by bands.
Besides the petite cigarette cheerleader, there are also several intimidating men standing around. This place is begging to be photographed. I see no such rules against photography posted. Lot is finally at the little bar selling actual Marlboros, closing out at a promised reduced rate. I snap bracketed photos around the room and we walk out. One of the larger gentleman asks me in a rather gruff manner, “Excuse me, SIR. You didn’t take any photos in here did you?” His tone was so menacing and threatening that I wonder how he would ever assume the answer would be “yes.” “No, no I did not.” I’m supposedly a credentialed photographer (not talented, credentialed) just hanging out a music festival. Why all of a sudden do I feel like I walked down the wrong hall at The CIA Headquarters in Langley?
As for other non-main stage experiences FFF Fest offers, they range from the practical (a comedy tent) to the distracting (a BMX sports presence serious enough to be covered by ESPN). There’s an obvious skater/extreme sports element but those activities share fans with many of these acts, so it’s no surprise.
Later in the afternoon, I walk up to the comedy tent just in time to see writer, actor, comedian and novelty rapper Donald Glover introduce Turquoise Jeep. Their set is funny enough, and the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction indicates that this satirical meme hasn’t worn out its welcome just yet. I eventually see Glover himself perform an “is he or isn’t he?” set of somewhat sarcastic hip hop, and it’s worth mentioning that in-joke rap and R&B doesn’t have the safest shelf life. Glover is an undeniable talent on and off the screen but veers dangerously close to overexposure. Sometimes I childishly wish Odd Future’s Tyler the Creator would gobble him up and spit him out. Elsewhere, Kool Keith puts on a set that’s the exact opposite of what I’ve just described. As hilarious as Keith often is, he sounds serious even when he’s not.
Night falls and I plan on taking it pretty easy while Neon Indian plays, since I figure that I probably don’t have to shoot the group or say much about it. They may be two albums into their career, but when it comes to the everyone-is-an-expert locals of Dallas music, their minds were made up before a note was ever played. A friend with a VIP pass (called “Homies” at this particular festival) asks if I’ll join her by watching from the extreme front-stage vantage of the photographer pit. I follow her down, but I’m immediately stopped by an aggressively (and just aggressive really) fashionable photographer with an asymmetrical haircut. “Hey!” he commands. “If you didn’t notice, there is actually a line here.” I look around and indeed, he’s correct. There is a fascinatingly long line snaked around the dark edges of the stage. There was no way for him to know that I wasn’t there to take photos, but I get angry anyway. “Look,” I said. “I wasn’t planning on shooting. Just hanging out. I’m from North Texas, and if I turn in one more Neon Indian photo, I could be fired.” I stomp off.
Alan Palomo is about to go onstage, and he paces around with a subdued nervousness. Still he never seems entirely spooked. I tell him about what had just happened with the photographer. I explain that ultimately I don’t blame him. “Yeah, but f*** him anyway,” he laughs. A woman walks up to me, and she’s a clipboard and earpiece type, though I don’t know if she actually had either of those items. You can just tell when someone at these events is actually doing real work. “Excuse me, sir” she respectfully begins. “Who are you with?” “D Magazine’s FrontRow. Dallas Magazine.” “Right this way, sir,” she says. “We want you up front for the first three songs.” I brush past the same self-important photographer, and I don’t even stick out my tongue. I’m later told that this is the way press photographers behave to each other all the time.
The Damned play a closing set and they sound far better than I had anticipated. As I’m walking out of the grounds during the closing minutes of the performance, I notice that Riverside Drive is dotted with punk rockers of various ages, crane-necked over a tear in the tarp separating them and the paying attendees. They are taking in whatever obscured view they can of The Damned, but they can certainly hear it. They are covered in logos, and though I both support and sympathize with their plight, I’m suddenly struck by the fact that the punks had mastered branding better than just about any other sect in popular music. It’s fitting that they wouldn’t pay to get in.
Conclusion: Slayer is family-friendly and Rap as the new Classic Rock.
The last day of Fun Fun Fun Fest started off more promising than the previous two, and I’m as excited as anyone to see how grand the closing acts will seem. Grimes puts on a sincere, yet delightfully pretentious performance, featuring interpretive dance by a very emotional-looking guy in a flannel. She seems to have already come so far since her Gorilla vs Bear Fest appearance in Dallas this past summer and plays with increased confidence. Some seem annoyed by the dancing man, but I think it’s great. Do we need another lone mad scientist set with someone juggling synthesizers and no other help? “Is that her boyfriend?” someone asks to nobody in particular. It seems that some audience members will never grasp that a man and a woman, or two men, or two women can stand on a stage and not be romantically involved. Even if they are, remember, performers only ever really love themselves.
Sunday seems to be about waiting for Slayer to take the stage, and there’s an elevated air of anticipation that only a group that widely recognized can bring. I spend more time than I should hiding in the press area, and since this is one of the first times I’ve ever really taken advantage of said area, I have to say, it’s not bad. Anonymous bloggers generally don’t get trailer restrooms, they get porta-johns, a punishment not even befitting a work camp victim. I run into Bad Sports’ Orville Neeley, who also fronts OBN IIIs, and he seems no more intimidated with the leap to such a grand stage than he did playing at Denton’s House of Tinnitus in his Chief Death Rage days. As one of many Denton musicians that have gone on to a fair amount of success, there is a quiet focus that is different from the average local musician’s desire to always be well-liked by every fan, booking person, and restaurant owner in town. It makes a world of difference.
As evening falls, I wander through the maze of luxuries in the press and artist areas until I reach the stage where Slayer will perform. Comedian Brian Posehn gives a fitfully tacky performance with one-too-many stripper jokes until his act dissipates into lunk-headed heavy metal cliches.
Watching Slayer’s stage being setup from behind was just as impressive as their set. People are scrambling around to make sure the Reich-ian decor is where it should be. A makeshift barrier is produced out-of-nowhere by fest workers. The press, other bands, and the “homies” are all told to stand back. I suddenly notice a police presence.
When Slayer finally walks up the sloped entrance, it’s actually a great moment. Guitarist Kerry King is stomping his way to the stage and grown men are screaming, “KERRY!” It was like seeing a group of prize-fighters terrifyingly making their way through a group of lesser humans and weaker beings. They knew they were about to live up to their reputation and they did. Forever setting the standard of professionalism in metal, Slayer has also made the least amount of career missteps when compared to the other groups that make up the “Big Four”: Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth.
The view from the audience however, was much different. I have never seen so many infants and children at a show in my life. Especially not a metal show. There was a different pit with overzealous fanatics upfront, but other than that, the crowd was very calm. I expected mayhem. But it certainly made it easy to see the band up close, something I wasn’t expecting.
The Slayer babies along with the mild audience made for quite the contrast when I sauntered over to see Odd Future bring the festival to a close. This was a young crowd, but no so young that they needed parental supervision. Or maybe they did. It was the first time that the Fun Fun Fun Fest felt dangerous all weekend.
There has been so much controversy over this rap group that I have spent far more time arguing about them than I ever will listening to them. I personally don’t understand how offensive lyrics can be much cause for concern in 2011, but I thought maybe I’d have a different perspective after seeing them live. I didn’t. Especially not in this environment. But even an uncontrolled crowd that was spraying water and beer on everything in sight and throwing any random object they could find couldn’t stop the endless argument.
“Did he just say what I think he said?’” said a friend who shoots for the Austin Chronicle. “Keep it classy, Tyler,” said another pal. And I started to shoot back. “Why don’t you go ask Slayer to keep it classy?” I asked. Their stage is covered in Nazi imagery, pentagrams, and other symbolic attempts to offend Middle America, so why does Odd Future get so much flack? But for some reason Slayer is safe enough to take your child to go see. There were many, many children there, even though their lyrics and images are as nasty and dangerous as anything produced by Odd Future. In fact, the two groups often cross paths in regard to lyrical content.
I sensed trouble the minute that Fun Fun Fun Fest employees took advantage of a surplus of bottled water and altruistically passed it out to the audience. Don’t get me wrong, it was a very kind gesture and the crowd could really use it. But the first thing I thought was: ammunition. One teenage girl, who couldn’t have been over 4′ 11,” clutches her face and crouches in horror after being struck. Then, almost as if it were scripted, Tyler the Creator takes a direct hit in the face with a bottle. I’ve been struck by a full water bottle at a show from a great distance and it hurts much worse than you would expect. He goes into a rage and flies into the audience for a fruitless search to find his attacker. His band-mates back him up and at one point group-member and producer Left Brain is standing onstage, conspicuous in a red Josh Hamilton jersey, with his arms out in a “What’s up?” gesture. As if he could somehow take on the entire audience. The music is cut, and everything gets extremely tense.
But then, just like that, the performance resumes and everything is fine. Tyler laments losing his favorite hat. The group puts on a set that sometimes even borders on reverent. “You guys like Wu Tang?” they ask. Then they break into their own take on GZA’s “4th Chamber” and it all comes full circle. After all, the hype for Odd Future reminds me of people in middle school asking if I had heard of this new group that’s really over-the-top and insane-sounding called Wu Tang Clan. Odd Future are inserting their own lyrics over a track that came out when their lead rapper was four years old. As I leave Auditorium Shores, I can still hear them yelling “F*** the police” from the stage.
In the same way that iconic chant is being referenced, it’s a similar dedication to a more threatening history of pop that has thus far separated Fun Fun Fun Fest from similar events such as Austin City Limits or Bonnaroo. There is nary an acoustic instrument in sight. This festival still has the feel of an event planned by actual human beings, not just marketing robots.
I have to abandon the parents consoling frightened children near one stage and the teenagers who are independently knighting their own heroes, rappers shouting the lyrics to a song made before they were born, at another. I have to drive my wrecked vehicle back to Dallas, but before that, I wanted to stay and see it through to the end.
Image at top: Grimes (All photos by Christopher Mosley)