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
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