Fun Fun Fun in the Sun Sun Sun: 3 (More) Days in Austin
Making meaning and busting moves at the tenth edition of Austin's Fun Fun Fun Fest.
I bounced into the tenth edition of Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest in time for what would go down as one of the most talked-about sets of the entire weekend. Peaches and her dancers set the standard for band-less, beat-heavy performances for the rest of the fest, and I’m not sure that anyone—not even the evening’s headliners, CHVRCHES—were able to match the Canadian performer when it came to filling a large space with minimal beats and maximal personality.
Her sex-positive set drew heavily from this year’s Rub and was, appropriately, full of climaxes: after zipping into her umpteenth costume, Peaches asked the audience to raise their palms to the sky so that she could crowd surf Iggy Pop-style. The crowd obliged, and the triumphant dance queen reminded us all that, while Jesus walked on water, Peaches walks on you. Then came the thirty-foot inflatable phallus. Then came “Fuck the Pain Away,” the electro-queen’s Stairway to Freebird, which was preceded by a marriage proposal between two men. Then came a taco cannon. What a time to be alive.
Back at the Black Stage, Converge’s monster-metal-with-a-hardcore-coating was all charisma and thrash. Frontperson Jacob Bannon whips his microphone and strikes his metal-god poses like a pro, but he carries himself with a refreshing lack of self-conscious pomp. They kissed the audience goodbye with a thrilling performance of the epic title track from 2001’s Jane Doe.
There was a palpable buzz around the Black Stage as Converge left and the crew began setting things up for reunited ’90s rockers Drive Like Jehu. Jehu’s fans absolutely love them, and crowd chatter implied that not many of these people had ever had a chance to see the band perform the first time around.
After slicing right into “Super Unison,” Jehu guitarist and razorwire vocalist Rick Froberg stepped back before transitioning into song number two and took it all in for a split second. The entire audience was elated and energetic, and the band gave it back ten-fold with a set that focused primarily on their sophomore high point, 1994’s Yank Crime. Someone yelled out “Suit up!” the moment they heard John Reis’s subtle, single-string intro to “Aloha” and, it must be said, few fanbases look happier singing along to their favorite band than Drive Like Jehu’s.
From there, I walked to the other side of Fun Fun Fun to see the night’s big headliner—Glasgow’s synth-pop super trio, CHVRCHES—play the last show of their US tour behind their latest full-length, Every Open Eye. While lead vocalist Lauren Mayberry has certainly found her way around a big stage and was charming and confident in her high-energy bopping and zagging, it really sounded like the band’s current live setup just didn’t have the legs it needed to feel organic and spontaneous in the outdoor festival setting. For all their hopping and nodding, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty really didn’t add much to the on-stage energy. I dipped out to peek in on Schoolboy Q’s set in time to see the twenty-nine-year-old hip-hop hero launch into a crowd-pleasing performance “Man of the Year.” Hands were in the air, and they waved sans care. By the time I headed out of Auditorium Shores, CHVRCHES’s calling card “The Mother We Share” was on the air and the sky was a blanket of stars.
You have to wonder why a band as beloved as Fucked Up were scheduled to go on so early in the afternoon. The early set time didn’t seem to bother them at all, though, and it only took about five seconds of opener “Sun Glass” for singer/juggernaut Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham to launch his basketball short-ed self full-on into the audience with so much joy and abandon that the entire crowd erupted into a forty-five-minute punk party. We were all very free when Fucked Up was on stage, and after the show was over, Abraham stayed for an extra twenty minutes or so just to give out hugs and thank yous. It was all very brutal, and it was all very kind, and it’s definitely the performance I’m the most thankful for.
Archers of Loaf put in a solid set of classics and, while they lacked a little of the ferocity that defines Icky Mettle and Vee Vee, their downcast anthems matched the weather in a wonderful way. It was worth missing Fuzz’s performance to see one very happy thirty-something solo-pogo and sing her heart out to “Web in Front” near the soundboard while Eric Bachmann was our collective spine.
Back at the Orange Stage, the sun set perfectly in time with American Football’s brand of bedroom-dwelling math rock. The air was crisp, the music was sympathetic, and the audience was respectful. Even crowd favorite “Honestly” was met with initial joy that quickly settled into rapt attention.
Ride opened their set with a beautiful ten-minute version of “Leave Them All Behind” that left us bathed in blue squalls of gorgeous guitar noise from axe man Andy Bell. Drummer Laurence Colbert was on fire, and a special shout-out needs to go out to whoever was doing the lighting for this set. The whole thing was hypnotic, and the effect was visual as much as it was auditory. Lead singer Mark Gardener’s vocals still contain all the melancholy they need to make songs like “Dreams Burn Down” and “Kaleidoscope” ring true, but it was Bell’s taking the lead vocals on “Vapor Trail” that sealed the set. That song never fails so send a shiver of that ever-autumnal teenage feeling throughout every inch of me, and tonight’s performance was no exception. As the outro’s pre-recorded strings filled the air, my fiancée texted me to let me know that she had finally decided on her wedding dress. I thought back to when I first heard “Vapor Trail” in the fall of my junior year of high school. I was sixteen and had no idea that anyone like the person I’m going to marry could even exist in my world. That song somehow made me feel better about the not knowing. Now here I am, thirty-two and engaged to her and this song is still there, still making all the right promises.
The Grimes set at the Blue Stage was one of FFF’s best attended, and it seemed to suffer a little for it. Claire Boucher has become a more engaging performer, and her new Art Angels material seems ultra-suited to larger crowds, but it did seem at times like she was having trouble finding her footing in front of the hype-hungry sea of punters staring at their smartphones and talking to their friends. She did her best to, well, scream her way through brand-new standouts like “Scream” while the more subdued dance tracks got the audience swaying, but by no means rapt. It was “Genesis,” from 2012’s Visions, that really brought the frenzy, and Grimes’s k-pop allusions and hyperkinetic dancers really had their moment to shine as the audience looked up for a moment and let themselves get lost.
Austin’s Sidewinder bar is a pretty new venue on the scene, and early hype was that FFF’s aftershows would put the place through its paces. Between Viet Cong playing inside and Future Islands playing outside, and both bands going on around midnight, the place was packed. We were all wedged back-to-back by the time local dream-gaze standouts Moving Panoramas took to the outdoor stage armed with highlights from their debut album One. They fed off the patio’s energy from the jump and by their second song, the album standout “Radar,” it was obvious that drummer Karen Skloss was pushing singer/guitarist Leslie Sisson and bassist Rozie Castoe to pump everything up a few BPMs to match the energy of the evening.
Following a technically challenged set by Alvvays, Samuel T. Herring and the rest of Future Islands took the tiny, corner-snuggled stage and didn’t let go of it until the second their last song left the amplifiers. Opener “Back in the Tall Grass” was sleek and steady, with Herring getting his juices flowing and selling every syllable, vacillating from his Bowie-via-Baltimore croon to his patented chest-thumping guttural bellow of faith and courage. Watching that man dance on Saturday evening made the world make a little more sense, and in those synths and in his moves I couldn’t stop thinking about these lines from an Alice Notely poem titled “30th Birthday”:
But if I’m alive I’m strong
Strong as the violets
in Marlon Brando’s fist
At the Sidewinder that evening, we were the violets, and Samuel Herring was Marlon’s mighty fist, and everything was alive. Amen, Alice. Amen, Sam. Amen, everybody with a body.
Sunday was officially my day of punting around with very little direction or dedication to any one set or location. I met some friends for Afrika Bambaataa’s DJ set, where retro b-boys and three Zulu Nation MCs were getting the audience on their feet and into the moment. Bambaataa himself gave us a master class on the art of the mix, cutting and pasting James Brown bits and pieces in an extemporaneous session that had the Blue Stage’s lawn going slightly crazy in the mid-day sun.
Bambaataa’s was one of the more memorable hip-hop performances of the fest, but it was outdone by Big Freedia’s maximum-capacity twerk lesson that was held at the tent-covered Yellow Stage, which itself outdid Freedia’s real-deal performance on the Blue Stage later in the afternoon. For me, dear reader, the beauty of the bounce show is born in too-small spaces with poor lighting, worse ventilation, and a more crowded crowd.
Making my way to the Black Stage, I settled in on the grass for an afternoon of nostalgia-punk goodness that began with OFF!’s Keith Morris bringing us back to the skate-kid glory days of Cali punk. While his band’s two minutes songs aren’t wildly diverse in their execution, they still worked the mid-day audience into a steady circle pit of friendly shoves and fist pumps. So-Cal straight-edge legends Chain of Strength and early Dischord rockers Dag Nasty both turned in solid sets, but after the holiness that was Fucked Up’s set the previous day, it’s hard to say they lit the place on fire.
Across the park, Arizona’s Andrew Jackson Jihad plugged into the Yellow Stage’s sound system and, after more ear-wrecking technical difficulties than I’ve ever heard anyone have with an acoustic guitar (which prompted lead singer Sean Bonnette to quip, “Every time I hit a button, Death Grips comes out”) proceeded to secretly steal the show from Chromeo, whose beats bled through the tent between every single AJJ tune. Their fans were legion and they knew every word to every acousti-punk anthem of self-doubt. Two fans, one wearing skeleton gloves and the other wearing bell-bottoms printed with the Coca Cola logo, nearly turned into beings of pure light during “People II: The Reckoning,” and it felt like their joy was feeding every single person in the space, band included. After dedicating “Linda Ronstadt” to fallen Texas Chainsaw Massacre icon Gunnar Hansen, the band tumbled into a red-tinted Sunday revival version of “Big Bird,” with Bonnette acting as preacher and all of us as his congregation right there with him as he counted off his laundry list of fears and doubts. By the song’s end, we had all forgiven ourselves a little more, and as we walked out of the tent there was a smile on every face and a high-five on every palm.
The evening ended with a solid performance from L7 that was up against Future Islands, whose festival set attracted a staggering crowd. Watching Sam Herring dance from afar, it struck me that, like Michael Jackson, he doesn’t have an amazing variety of moves. What he does have is a small handful of steps and gestures that, when executed at the right moment, in the right order, never fail to make everything happening on stage crystalize into something perfect and free of doubt. I’ve named a few of these moves here:
1. “Removing the Mask”
2. “The Thinker”
3. “Raising the Goblet of Dance”
5. “Crouch Crotch Jack-in-the-Box”
After Future Islands closed what is apparently their final United States performance for a long time with deep cut “Vireo’s Eye,” the majority of the audience made their way to the Orange Stage for Ms. Lauryn Hill’s highly anticipated headlining performance. After D’Angelo’s sudden cancellation less than two weeks before the festival, people and promoters were worried that the notoriously erratic Ms. Hill would drop the ball and leave FFF goers with a less-than-stellar performance. Friend, I’m glad to report that this did not happen. Her thirty-song set ran the gamut from Fugees hits to Sade covers to, yes, a set-closing and soul-shaking rendition of Miseducation of Lauryn Hill standard “Doo Wop (That Thing).”
Earlier in the day, after going into a couple of angry-older-punk-guy spiels about being able to say whatever he wants to say, Keith Morris made reference to a fan questioning his “punk ethics.” Morris then asked the crowd, “what the fuck are punk ethics, anyway?” Well, Keith, that’s a bigger question than this already overly-long article about a music festival in Austin, Texas, can handle, but I will say this: Punk ethics are a thing, and Fun Fun Fun Fest does a great job of celebrating them without exploiting them. They are an ethics of kindness, inclusivity, and energy, and this November weekend was a testament to all of it. FL