Remember that feeling when someone you completely trusted and depended on lets you down for the first time? Your stomach sinks like a plunge on a steep roller coaster and you think to yourself, “it’s just this once, right? They didn’t mean to do it…” It’s was incredibly hard not to have that as a first impression at the ninth annual Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, Texas but fortunately, a weekend full of incredible music performances made up for these initial misgivings. So what happened?
People arrived to the festival on Friday afternoon to find a huge Will Call line. A line so massive it crossed the bridge back over the river and into downtown away from Auditorium Shores. It was a line that people stood in from 2-4 hours until they decided to let everyone in at 8pm instead of making everyone miss the first day because of their problems. For full details, click here. Even a person such as myself who waited in the Media / Guest List line had to wait over half an hour to pick up credentials and get in. This was just enough time to completely miss the afternoon set from Run the Jewels. It could not have been more completely heartbreaking because it was one of my most anticipated performances of the festival. If you haven’t heard their new album ‘Run the Jewels 2′ (or the first album for that matter) and consider yourself even the mildest fan of rap/hip-hop then mash the play button immediately on Spotify, iTunes, or your avenue of choice. It’s arguably the rap album of the year.
It was almost time for Genuwine to hit the stage when the fest grounds were breached. Let’s be honest, do very many people remember a song from this man other than mid 90s freaky dancing hit “Pony?” As a white kid from a podunk town, I did not. So it seemed obvious this set would be a nostalgia trip but it wasn’t clear just how literal of one it would be until he name-checked Jodeci and did a medley of 90s and 00s R&B jams where he did little other than dance around the stage.
Of course a couple of his own songs were performed as he bragged about his 18-year career. He also asked people to follow him on Instagram, swearing he would follow us back. The most memorable moment of the set came when he and his backup singers/hype men soul sang about giving the ladies in the audience his sweaty towel with a zealousness worthy of a SNL skit. He also danced around to three Michael Jackson songs, claiming the three reasons he was here was the Lord above, us (the fans) and the King of Pop. After all of this spectacle he finally did his big song, but not before his hype men tore off his shirt for the ladies’ sake. Yes, he mentioned that he had been working out.
In sharp contrast, over on the Black stage Death From Above 1979 put on an all killer no filler set full of blistering, hard-rocking jams as jagged notes were punctuated with pulsing white lights. Songs from the first album as well as their recently released sophomore record went over well in the sizable crowd. They made mention of always getting into trouble in Austin, but hoped this time would be different when a girl in the front pleaded with the drummer to “get into trouble with her,” which tickled him immensely; he then shared it with the crowd to everyone’s amusement.
Alt rock legends Dinosaur Jr. rocked the Orange stage, but from the moment you heard the music it was obvious something was wrong. It sounded as if an amp was blown out, with intense levels of distortion that sounded less like a stylistic touch and more like technical disaster. It made it hard to enjoy, but they played a quality set that included hits like “Feel the Pain.” The bassist even sang a song from one of his and J.Mascis’ previous bands, saying it was about not going to college. Strangely, a conservative heckler from behind me shouted, “Fuck that, go to school and get a good job!” Have you ever heard such a strange thing to shout about a punk song?
Friday night drew to a close with heavy metal icons Judas Priest, who made believers that night with their still-potent mix of heavy riffs and head-banging theatrics. Lead singer Rob Halford was in top form, hitting all of the high notes and disappearing every few songs to change into another flashy yet badass jacket. The band tore through songs both old and new, with allsongs getting an equally rapturous reception from the audience. A festival highlight came in the band’s encore when the familiar riff to “Breakin’ the Law” heralded Halford driving a motorcycle onto the stage. The crowd went wild with cheers at this fun and cavalier act. Reportedly, even a nearby police officer got a kick out of it and was filming it on his phone giddily. That’s the sort of perfect picture you couldn’t fabricate.
Typically, the Saturday of a three-day festival is the centerpiece of the lineup and this was to be no exception with performances from Nas (performing Illmatic in its entirety), Modest Mouse, and others. However, due to circumstances beyond my control, it was not possible to go that day. My apologies, dear reader. Regardless, there were plenty of fantastic and memorable bands on Sunday that got my full attention and are worth hearing about.
No full sets were seen that final day of the festival, in hopes of catching as much music as possible. Kumail Nanjiani of Silicon Valley and various shows on Comedy Central put on a great standup routine on the Yellow Stage, discussing cleanliness of public restrooms as well as heckling a guy near the front that appeared “high out of his mind” and wearing a cat shirt. On the nearby Orange stage the Dum Dum Girls put on a set with an energy level that was surprising and invigorating. Their recorded material is too awash in hazy synths but live there’s an added immediacy to their music that makes it far more appealing. They are a band worth checking out in a live setting if you get the chance.
Hot Water Music blasted out quick and jaunty punk tunes as the sun set. The band had incredible energy and appreciation for their crowd, but to be honest their music just wasn’t very engaging. Full disclosure though, melody is very important to my musical taste in most cases and this band just didn’t bring it with their vocalist shouting out raspy calls to arms. Despite not caring for it, the whole set was endured, and even the next punk band, Gorilla Biscuits, got at least 10 minutes of my attention. They were better, but definitely a no-frills hardcore punk band that probably required an understanding of the lyrics to fully appreciate.
Having my fill of punk for the moment, it was time to catch the tail end of Yo La Tengo back on the Orange stage. Upon arrival it appeared they were locked into some sort of jam band-esque guitar droning wankery, repeating the same three-note passage for an excruciating five minutes. This was enough to make me quit them quickly and head over to see the last of Chelsea Wolfe’s set at the Yellow stage. Having seen her open for Queens of the Stone Age earlier this year, it was a guaranteed good time with her heavy atmospherics and ethereal vocals. While her set opening for the hard rock band was much more drone and guitar-oriented, this day’s set was dark and moody. It was completely mesmerizing and those last few of songs were a festival highlight.
One of the most underrated bands of the early 90s, Failure, graced Austin with a rare appearance this evening after reforming earlier this year. The band played most of their highly acclaimed album ‘Fantastic Planet,’ and even played their song “The Nurse Who Loved Me,” which is probably familiar to many as a song performed by Maynard James Keenan’s band A Perfect Circle. Their sound was crisp and jarring in its sonic beauty. After being dormant for well over a decade it’s rare to get an opportunity to see a band of this caliber. If the opportunity ever arises, you absolutely must see Failure.
Rocket from the Crypt has always been on the periphery for me. The catalogs of both Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes are known by heart as both involved John Reis, but this other band was never fully explored. After the evening’s fun and energetic show their catalog begs further exploration. The band tore through a spirited set of punk-tinged rock numbers that included fun skronking of horns and tongue in cheek lyrics. This music had all the speed and attitude of punk, but Rocket From the Crypt’s essence contained that extra “x” factor that made it far more enjoyable than the more meat and potatoes style punk typically on display that day.
The finale was at hand. The night was upon us and a chill was in the air as Neutral Milk Hotel took the stage. Unlike all the other bands at the festival, they requested that there be no phones or photography during the performance, with even the festival going as far as not projecting the band on the big screen next to the stage for people in the back. It may not be as good for people in the back, but this added a special atmosphere to the performance, one of an audience more engaged and absorbed in the show—plus I didn’t have to navigate a view of the stage between a sea of phones held aloft for once. Jeff Mangum and company tore through songs from both their LPs, ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ and ‘On Avery Island,’ as well as miscellaneous songs found only on the vinyl box set released a few years ago.
Mangum was quiet as usual, but did have a few choice comments for the crowd, telling us that he almost lived in Austin many years ago, which elicited a big cheer from the audience. Also, near the end of the concert he thanked everyone for coming out, because they didn’t’ know when they’d be in Austin again. This was already his second time in town this year and third time overall performing in Austin since his emergence from hermitage.
It’s hard to describe the experience of witnessing these songs that feel so immediate yet so distant and archaic being performed. Bewitched certainly springs to mind. A particular highlight was the sparse “Little Birds,” where Mangum was only accompanied by Jeremy Barnes on accordion and Heather Trost on violin (both also of A Hawk and a Hacksaw). It was beautiful, haunting and dug into the soul like rusty spade. At the end of “Two-Headed Boy, Part Two” many in the audience held lighters aloft, gently swaying. It was obvious everyone there felt moved by this band and its performance.
Walking away from the close of the festival, fingers numb from cold and head buzzing with the strange wonderfulness that is Neutral Milk Hotel, it was hard to hold Friday’s transgressions against Fun Fun Fun Fest. True, there were line problems on Friday, the layout wasn’t as good as in past years and there was some serious sound bleed between stages, but Fun Fun Fun Fest still managed to create a wonderful weekend experience filled with great music. Let’s hold out hope that the setbacks this year were a speed bump or growing pains; with any luck, the best music festival in Texas returns to its full glory next year.
Written By Jarad Matula
OurVinyl | Associate Editor