Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Dániel Perlaky, Tyson Wirtzfeld & John Laird
Fun Fun Fun Festival :: 11.08.08 & 11.09.08 :: Waterloo Park :: Austin, TX
Fun Fun Fun Fest has been referred to as SXSW and Austin City Limit's "upstart younger sibling." Picturing those three sitting down for Thanksgiving, the cynical side of me imagined SXSW as the oldest, maybe a lawyer, who dashes back to the kitchen to check his Blackberry every ten minutes while gravy congeals on his stuffing. ACL is the middle sibling who used to be a big hippie, and now shops at Whole Foods and attends an expensive yoga studio to try and rectify their past idealism with the realities of their upper middle class existence. FX3 would then be the youngest, maybe an anarchist or a staunch atheist, gushing torrents of Chomsky and stabbing at their overcooked Tofurky with a fork.
|Fun Fun Fun Fest 2008 by Perlaky|
Maybe it was the lineup, with a main stage revolving around all hardcore and punk acts – including some serious veterans you had to respect (Adolescents, D.O.A., a Cro-Mags incarnation, ALL, Killdozer not to mention headliners Dead Milkmen and Bad Brains) - and a center stage showcasing several indie up and comers and critical champions, along with a dance/hip-hop oriented stage and a wee stage in the back for comedy and acoustic acts (headlined by Neil Hamburger and the Tim and Eric Awesome Show). Maybe it was the relative intimacy of the fest itself, especially compared with the two other Austin behemoths, where you need a Christmas stocking full of trucker speed and a cloning device to see it all. Maybe it was the quirky local vendors, where you could get a coffee from Spider House Café or a brat from Best Wurst or even a slice of vegan pizza if so inclined. Whatever it was, this festival definitely felt a bit upstart. Only in its third year, it still had that air of youthful petulance and organizer hands-on attention. Sure, I could have done with longer sets for some acts, although the split set-up on the punk and indie stages meant one act could set up while another played, so the music moved nonstop (and for punk, short and powerful is often the way to go). For me, it was a chance to explore some unusual musical territory and reconnect with my inner punk rock girl. So, here's a recap of my weekend at the black sheep of Austin's festival family.
Wake up and rage. Taking a cue from the Dead Kennedys satirical approach, Austin's own punkers the Yuppie Pricks embodied the targets of their satire - sporting neon golf suits, with a Sarah Palin dancer in tow and spouting stage banter about how awesome those days in the frat house were (you know, slipping roofies into girls drinks and performing vaguely homoerotic initiation rituals – then turning around and voting Republican). With songs like, "Fuck You I'm Rich" and "Greed Is Good," they ain't going for subtlety. And I now have a burned in my brain image of Trevor Middleton pouring beer over his exposed ass, which apparently a fan drank, although logistically, I didn't catch how that went down from where I was standing (was said beer caught in a cup or simply poured into the mouth directly? Am I really contemplating the physics of this?). But I do know the fan was happily a member of the frat after that. Props for their belligerently funny class warfare.
|Grampall Jookabox :: FFF Fest 2008 by Laird|
We wandered over to Stage 2 to catch the last few songs of Grampall Jookabox, aka one-man mission David "Moose" Adamson. Although hardly the first artist ever to unpack a band out of instrumental loops, his grungy beats, punky basslines and falsetto soul wail had the tiny crowd rapt. Performing a song called "The Girl Ain't Preggers" to close out his set, he danced his way across the front of the stage, dredging up the oddities and paranoias of his subconscious and funneling it through a sampler darkly. This was incredibly intriguing, rootsy, beat-driven music for the terminally weird. I definitely dug it.
Setting off on a meeting-up-and-lunch mission in the press area, I heard some of Terp 2 It on Stage 4. When the husband and I first entered the festival we were accosted by a Bible-thrusting gentleman in a suit that urged us in preacher intonations to see "the wonder of this act" (something to that effect). Looking on stage, I recognized that man as part of the show. There was a plant in the audience convulsing with the power of Chris Trew, a local comedian and geek MC, the power of Terp compelling him. I spotted Trew wandering around all day. Then again, it's hard to miss a mustachioed Jesus with a shiny gold wrestling belt. Lord have mercy.
|El Paso Hot Button by Perlaky|
Stage 2 called us back for El Paso Hot Button. Another one-man creation, this didn't grab me as much as Grampall did. Although imbibed with plenty of passion, with a voice that recalled Jack White at moments, I found the music to be a bit dirge-like and uninvolving. Plus, I could hear some screaming punk in the distance and found myself drawn back to Stage 3 and Austin's Krum Bums. Not running on satire as much as guzzling pure, righteous anger, this was straight up brutal and just bloody exciting to watch. Lead singer Dave Tejas shot down beers like a shortage was imminent, scaling the stage scaffolding, up the side and then over the top, clutching the bars like he was in an army training exercise and screaming into the mic while hanging above the stage. The pogoing throng near the front threw themselves at the raw bile coming at them. The cathartic release of a hardcore punk show leaves you feeling both bruised and oddly cleansed, like a simultaneous baptism and punch in the stomach, and Krum Bums owned the stage in that respect.
Contrast this to Will Johnson's musings from Stage 1 during Centro-matic's set. "The last four days have felt positive," he mused, one of many artists to make reference to the Presidential election. Austin is an island of blue in a red sea after all, and most in the city had been walking on air since Election Tuesday. Centro-matic stews in the best from alt-country and lo-fi, but it runs on the pulse of the prolific Johnson's songwriting and the spring lock kinetic release of the surrounding band. I think a longer stage time would have benefited this set, which started off as a bit of a slow burner. "Flashes and Cables" got a robust crowd response, "Calling Thermatico" (from Fort Recovery) showed off drummer Matt Pence's skills and closer "Fidgeting Wildly" was one of those songs that gives you that roller coaster drop sensation in your stomach, like your heart's been broken and exposed but this is the bandage. Half an hour was not long enough for this set, which felt like it was just taking off when their stage time was over.
Bishop Allen's set was regarded highly by many, but although I found them pleasant enough musically and energetic onstage (in spite of the midday sun, which reminded us it may be November but this is still Texas, beotch), they just didn't have anything to distinguish them from the other Shriner cars in the indie pop parade. I guess given the choices I just preferred Swingin' Utters, who tore up Stage 3 with meaty doses of no frills street punk. Vets of the California revival of the late 1980s/early 1990s, they've kept that blue collar persistence pumping strong. I eventually found myself at Stage 4 and the delirious dreamscape/nightmare of Octopus Project, who had impressed me at ACL (read the review here). Slow tinkling chimes, teasing squirms and low growls would break with a sudden, vociferous left hook you weren't anticipating - damn cool. They employed some big dancing ghost creatures, which gave the stage the feeling of an acid-fueled trek through a fabric store.
|Centro-matic :: FFF Fest by Perlaky|
Trekking across the park for Killdozer, I realized I just really love saying their name in an exaggerated evil voice and shaking my fist in the air. The grind core pioneers (circa 1983) have just recently gotten back together. So heavy they will snap your arms and lumbering like a semi trying to bust its way up Pike's Peak, they loosely wrap creeping guitar drones over huge, loose basslines and the snarling vocals of frontman Michael Gerald. I dug it, especially Gerald's misanthropic stage banter, which he delivered in a voice one shade less melodious than his singing voice. "My mom's not really dead, but she almost is - she lives in Arizona," he growled at one point. Later he cried, "Thank you, Oklahoma!" If you know even the slightest thing about college football that's a big no no in Austin. Judging by the mischievous look on Gerald's face, he could give a fuck. And guitarist Bill Hobson puts most young bucks to shame with his antics.
I caught the end of the irony of ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead playing with Brackenridge Hospital in the background. Ominous buildups, fast tempo changes and a rhythm section with dueling drummers to rip you a new one, what I witnessed was engaging. The show built to a peaking fervor and ended with a furious scream. The enthusiastic crowd had pounded out quite the brown dust cloud, which was hinting at what was in store for our lungs for the rest of the weekend. That's just an unavoidable reality of urban fests, especially in Texas. Still, next year I'm bringing a bandana and rocking the "off-to-rob-a-bank" look.
|Deerhoof :: FFF Fest 2008 by Perlaky|
Dusk and dust settled into darkness and it was time for Brownout. This is a slightly pared down version of Grupo Fantasma bushwhacked through its psychedelic side, getting lost after a few left turns and running out screaming and naked under trailing desert stars. This was where the jam was hiding all weekend - nasty space funk with lots of sexy, wah-wah guitars, courtesy of Adrian Quesada and Beto Martinez, the latter giving us a tune entitled "The Sexican." If Santana and Galactic ate insanity peppers together at a chili cook-off it might sound something like this. When an enthusiastic individual hollered wild in the front, Quesada said, "We got that feeling, too, bro, but we don't need to smash guitars." They let the sonic exploring do their shit kicking. Rounded out by a tight rhythm section and killer horns, I felt it for sure.
Critical darlings Deerhoof balanced a sense of performance with serious instrumentation, and unlike some other bands that get slapped with the vague "experimental" label, they do it all with a massive sense of fun. It was a blast to watch. Frontwoman Satomi Matsuzaki sported a massive tiger mask, which she would turn around so she could face out and sing, and then turn back to groove in as a tiger lady while the rest of the band leapt and threw their heads around. Combusting moments of indie arts and crafts with sonic garage aggression that reminded me of The Woods-era Sleater-Kinney at times, they set it alight with strange time signature shifts that almost veered into free jazz. I would have stayed for longer, but a trusted buddy recommend that I check out Dan Deacon so I migrated back to Stage 4.
Deacon is a consummate showman, and he managed to attract a good portion of the photographers at the fest to snap pics of his Technicolor happening. Deacon doesn't seem interested in being another shit hot superstar electronic artist. He plays from the audience, not from some lofty booth above the crowd, bringing the party to the people with giddy dance music that's a little bit goofy and makes everyone act refreshingly uncool. More power to him. He is excellent at creating an atmosphere that operates by its own rules, where you have to greet strangers as par for the course. Music wise, there's a lot of uncanny video game noises mashed up with funky structures and driving beats, but there's craft and composition surrounding it all. Deacon after all is a composer as well as a musician, so he draws scenes that burst out of easy techno boxes. I missed the very end, but apparently his mixer choked at the end of his set, finishing it in an unplanned organic fashion.
|Dan Deacon :: FFF Fest 2008 by Wirtzfeld|
On the way to ALL, I paused for a moment to watch Atmosphere. I didn't find their stage presence to be particularly dynamic, although I did enjoy basking in Slugs' "Sunshine," where he captures hangovers and the weather-induced mood boost nice and simply. It's a sweet sentiment that left me rolling on to Stage 3. They were tearing through a high-energy show, and it's only a shame there wasn't light on the half pipe for the skaters. With plenty of sing-a-long breaks for the audience and stage diving galore - kudos to security on that stage for letting it all go down - they provided pop-punk salvation a-plenty. Just hearing this music provoked strong memories of being thirteen, holding an ex's hand, frayed Independent Truck Co. hoodie shoved over our entangled fingers and walking towards the park at night. I told my mom I was sleeping over at Laura's but me and my boyfriend went to smoke Rhode Island shwagg at the park and look at the lights of Warwick across the bay.
I was snapped out of my reminiscing by my partner-in-crime urging us to go see Tim Fite. Part surreal power point presentation and part kids sing-a-long - if you are a particularly disturbed child - Fite walks that fine line between brilliance and insanity. Looking like a used car salesman with his sideman Sexy Leroy backing him up, his blend of anti-folk and hip-hop recalls early Beck, whereas his gritty side taps a bit of Tom Waits. But Fite is his own animal, strutting with bulging eyes and waving arms. I really enjoyed this set, which featured moments of intense silliness – from leading everyone in "Head Shoulders Knees and Toes" to a, er, heart warming tale about a cat and a bird called "Jo Jo and Bobby Stab a Motherfucker" – to more biting, satirical work. I particularly dug "More Clothes," which is a damn catchy stab at empty materialistic posing, and the surprisingly pretty "Away from the Snakes." On "Heavens to Betsy" he warbled, "The Man's out to get me." As HST said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
|The Dead Milkmen :: FFF Fest by Wirtzfeld|
My husband stayed for some of the comedy stylings of Neil Hamburger, and I would have too if he hadn't been clashing with the riot on Stage 3, although I did hear "Three Piece Chicken Dinner" from Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners fading with each step I took closer to Dead Milkmen. The undisputed kings of the weekend provoked hilarious madness, and you couldn't escape the infectious joy in the audience, with a guy even jumping onstage at one point to hug Rodney Anonymous and bouncing back down to the crowd just as quick. It was one of those sets where every song elicited cheers and you could scream the fantastically goofy lyrics with your neighbors. That's what so bitingly brilliant about the Milkmen – if only most of us could just learn to swallow reality, or just plain absurdity, with such fearless humor. We got the songs we wanted to hear – "If You Love Someone Set Them on Fire," opener "Punk Rock Girl," "Beach Party Vietnam," "If I Had a Gun," their cover of Daniel Johnston's "Rocketship" and plenty of hyper enthused commentary from Anonymous, who kept the hour set moving at a breakneck speed. The crowd in front was surfing and jumping nonstop, even in between songs, prompting Anonymous to say, "Don't tell the deaf kids there's no music." The election results had him obviously elated, although he took a shot at Sarah Palin, saying she "blew all the roadies from Van Halen" during "Right Wing Pigeons." Over the walking bass intro to "Bitchin' Camaro," where he celebrated Obama's victory and reminded us we have work to do, he proclaimed, "Obama owes me."
"What does he owe you?" guitarist Joe Jack Talcum asked.
"What kind of car?"
"A bitchin' Camaro!"
Okay, we saw it coming for miles but everyone still went wild. Anonymous tried to crowd surf with his keyboard during one of the encores. End result: someone in Austin probably has a new keyboard, although what shape it's in after an audience beating is anyone's guess. If you didn't have fun at this set, I would have taken your pulse. Leaving Waterloo Park, I was high on my own giddiness.
Continue reading for Sunday's coverage...
Sunday saw the park decimated to a dustbowl, and everyone wearing face protection had the right idea. I didn't feel the lineup was as strong this day, but it was a chance to take some gambles, with nothing to do but power through and refuel with mammoth-sized Fosters. My day began with Spot and Albert on Stage 2. They drew a sparse crowd that was still downing coffee. Spot is the producer of albums by Black Flag, The Minutemen, The Dicks and Husker Du among others, but this project, with drum maker/percussionist Alberto Alfonso is based in acoustic roots. It's got a punk attitude firmly intact though, and a prankster sense of mischievousness, too. There's not a more unholy way to start a Sunday than a song about fucking an angel (for example). Following their path from blues to Celtic music was a fine way to ease back into another day of festivities.
|Black Joe Lewis :: FFF Fest 2008 by Laird|
Austin punk rockers Camp X-Ray meanwhile sounded thunderously loud from Stage 1, with their distorted din and open wound vocals, but we hung backstage, re-beered and sort of absorbed the sound from a slight distance. But after this weekend, I am definitely intrigued to check out more of Austin's punk scene. Feeling "up and at them" again, we went to boogie with Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears. He seems to be evolving into a fixture in Austin and I could see why. An enthusiastic bandleader with a driving, jangly guitar that makes you shake that ass and a voice that recalls a gruffer James Brown, this set should have been later in the day over at the dance stage. But Lewis still played a breezy, funky show tighter than a pair of spandex bike shorts, with some songs building to fast breaking points and others wading through crystal clear soul. He and the Honey Bears kicked us to our feet to face the rest of Sunday in the park.
We stayed to take in Scotland's Frightened Rabbit. Okay, so they ain't going to score any badass points with that name, but they have a slow building, shining melodic quality that makes you find them sort of endearing in spite of yourself. However, this approach got kind of predictable by the end of their set. Last song, "Keep Yourself Warm," where singer Scott Hutchison sings, "It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm," was genuinely amusing with a touch of heartfelt melancholy. I enjoyed them more than what I saw of The Spinto Band, who employed cricket chirpy keyboard effects and played some kazoos, which got on my nerves a bit, over melodies that just seemed lacking in oomph. I feel like if you're going to pull out earnest, artsy and random disparate influences you need to tap the dark side, or else it just comes off as too self consciously quirky. Perhaps they do take it over the edge, but I admittedly didn't hang around long enough to find out.
|Leftover Crack :: FFF Fest 2008 by Wirtzfeld|
If you wanted that "fuck you, I won't do what you tell me" thrust, you certainly had it with Leftover Crack. I have to say, these cats put on a helluva show, and Stage 3 was buzzing with a rabid crowd. I saw more Leftover Crack t-shirts during the course of the weekend than any other band, at least at the Stage 3 set. "It's hard getting drunk at three in the afternoon," hoarse-throated frontman Stza (Scott Sturgeon) proclaimed, over the pit churning beneath him. He didn't seem to be having that much trouble, though. LC plays dense, aggressive ska-punk, and like a lot of punk bands, they wear their politics on their sleeve – anarchist, atheist, anti-cop. Even if you can't jibe with their views (which are too far out even for me, although I sympathize with some of it), you have to dig their rousing hard ska sound. They even respectfully called H.R. from Bad Brains out on his alleged homophobia, when no other bands who gave props to Bad Brains mentioned it all weekend. It's a controversial piece of punk history involving Bad Brains and Austin hardcore punk pioneers Big Boys and MDC. [Writer's note: Daryl Jenifer did come out and give his side of it in a Pitchfork interview from 2007, and here's another article that explains the controversy and history of Bad Brains.]
The indie open door approach I felt worked better with Annuals than with Spinto Band, as Annuals employed a rootsier sound and more aggressive thrust to tie it all together. Their stage show ended with a flurry of movement and noise. Note to self: delve further. Meanwhile on Stage 3, a barely reunited Scared of Chaka sounded peppy to a slightly subdued crowd. Then again, the crowd probably just seemed subdued after the insanity of the Leftover Crack fans. But I found myself drawn into the gathering at Stage 2 for some of what was billed as the "Punk Revival Tour." This was a three hour show with sets by Chuck Ragan (Hot Water Music) Tom Gabel (Against Me!), Ben Nichols (Lucero) and Tim Barry (Avail) playing acoustic sets. I took in some of Ragan's set as he attacked gut-jerking ballads that would have made Shane McGowan proud. Accompanied by an upright bassist and fiddle player, there was a hard living attitude unpinning the music. Songs about broken hearts and methadone, this was a cigarette burn in a folk festival bill.
|The Black Angels by Perlaky|
One of the absolute highlights of the weekend for me was finally getting to see another local band, Black Angels, live. As dusk settled in around us, opener "The Mission District" stuck us to the ground with long, cascading shimmers of noise. As the sky gradually darkened, and the impressive light show could now fully be appreciated, we spiraled further into mental shadows. "You on the Run" was particularly haunting, as lead vocalist Alex Maas sang a line that could be ripped from Jim Morrison's diaries: "Get on your knees you freak/ And please please me." Black Angels embrace the retro sound with conviction on record, but live it's jaw-droppingly immense. They pull tension to a fine point, then slice down right to the spine. Lulling you into temporary suspension with a murky, spiraling bassline featuring a chucka-chucka laid over the top, the bottom will suddenly drop out and Maas will scream through a wall of deafening distortion, the rapt hypnosis broken by a singeing jolt. Dust whipping in my face, I stood rapt. They ended it all as unassumingly as they'd arrived, on a simple, "Goodnight."
A former member of Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' touring band, St. Vincent aka Annie Clark was a new discovery for me. She mixed it up onstage, playing both bandleader and solo artist, even busting out a stellar cover of The Beatle's "Dig a Pony." She's a captivating guitar player to observe, joyously strangling her instrument and playing off beat notes, with her band teasing out weird psychedelic-tinged carnival music and dishing shadowy blows. "Thanks for being part of the jam," she said at one point (probably one of the few acts that would use that word here), and jam she did. Daniel Hart on violin was a standout, and closing song "Lips Are So Red" built to a massive crash before dialing down to tinny bow draws over slow falling piano tinkle while Clark softly sang, "Your skin is so fair, it's not fair." The market is crowded with singer-songwriters, but she's made of some unique matter. Plus, she called her album Marry Me, which is an "Arrested Development" reference (as she explains in this interview), so she automatically scores some major points with me.
Austin's ubiquitous, hard-working Latin orchestra collective Grupo Fantasma, unofficial party ambassadors of the weekend between this set and the fabulous Brownout set the night before, played one of their always-boisterous shows. Defying the twilight exhaustion of Sunday night, Jose Galeano prompted the crowd to "shake their ass," and a gaggle of ladies responded in kind behind the band by the end of the set. This was a swoony salsa rager that could have gone long into the night with ease. Grupo are always at least going to show your fine self a fun time, but when it's on, lordie, it's on. Even Rodney from the Milkmen was impressed.
|St. Vincent :: FFF Fest 2008 by Laird|
Another band who I keep hearing oodles about is Minus the Bear, and since I missed them at Bonnaroo (read the review here), I left part of Grupo's set to check them out. But, I ended up running back for more Grupo after just a handful of songs. Although they sounded fierce coming up to the stage, the minute I got close, Dave Knudson and Jake Snider pulled out acoustic guitars, which would never put me off on principle, except they proceeded to play a couple really dull, cookie-cutter sounding songs. When the fuller sound came back, it was considerably more textured, so I will ultimately chalk it up to bad timing on my part because they had blown whatever intrigue they may have held for me with the de-clawed acoustic songs. So, I ended up back at Stage 4 to dance myself into the final acts of Fun Fun Fun with some punchy horns, Sweet Lou's congas and "Jungle Strut."
People were crammed between every bit of scaffolding they could find on the side of the stage, craning over each other's heads, practically piled in a heap stage side, to see Bad Brains. There were some mixed feelings about this set, but overall I think if you were expecting H.R. to jump around like he did back in the day or for them to play an all-out hardcore set you haven't paid attention to much of the band's history. Bad Brains played a lot of their straight out reggae, which is straight dub, not some breakneck, bounce up and down hybrid style. You can't help but be moved by a great weight during numbers like "I And I Survive," but I also thought it was off putting how H.R. seemed to pull the setlist out between every song and take his time reading it, which sort of conveyed an air of, "I don't really give a shit," whether he meant to or not. However, then he would grin and say, "Now this is one of your favorite songs," before kicking into a brawny "Banned in D.C." and all was forgiven.
At some point a decision to purchase beer was reached during a dub breather and we took a two-minute walk over to Stage 1 to spend our last seven bucks and linger for a bit of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah bringing on the barrage of verbiage. They divide opinion into love 'em/hate 'em camps, but they seemed sharp here and judging from the crowd reaction, I wasn't the only one who thought so. I got sucked in for a little bit, digging those big ole hooks you could wrap your arms around. Alec Ounsworth's signature bleat sounded oddly unhinged and menacing in the dusty night air. With an adrenalin fueled "Satan Said Dance" and "In This Home on Ice," they were closing out Stage 1 on a high note. But for fuck's sake, we thought, "Why are we watching this when Bad Brains is raging a few steps away?"
|Bad Brains :: FFF Fest 2008 by Wirtzfeld|
Back to the Stage 3 throng. H.R.'s voice has that mantle rattling quality, breathing ancient salvation and anguish, and the high priest he's mellowed into has his own unique gravitas and presence. The rest of the band propped him up with pure muscle - Jenifer's chunky basslines, Dr. Know's razor precise guitar and Earl Hudson's scattershot drums. Closing one-two punch of "Pay to Cum" and encore "I Against I" were my final notes of the weekend. No matter what controversy may have surrounded their Austin appearance, the incendiary nature of their groundbreaking music isn't up for debate.
I moved to Austin in January, and it's slowly coming to feel like home. One thing that I love about this town is the diversity and a sense of "live and let live" that Texas as a state isn't generally known for. That was certainly on display all weekend. In true Austin fashion, skinny jeans, neon, leather jackets, Mohawks, DIY, obligatory cowboy boots and sundresses mixed and mingled. I even saw the odd hippie, kicking around to represent that barefoot Barton Springs contingent. It made me reflect on our way back to the car on Sunday night that scenes and definitions don't matter so much. In the end, we all drive on unleaded in this Camaro, and if you open yourself up you just might be surprised at how bitchin' that can be.
JamBase | Across Borders
Go See Live Music!