Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Too Much Fun: Sunday

Sunday at Fun Fun Fun Fest had a very different vibe from Saturday. I had only one interview scheduled, and spent a lot less time in the backstage area. If Saturday was about soaking up a little of everything, Sunday I changed my focus to watching entire sets by artists I was particularly interested in. Anna C. bought a ticket just for Sunday and we stayed together for most of the day. I tried not to make her walk as many miles around in circles as I did by myself on Saturday.

Crew 54, a hip-hop duo out of Killeen with a live backup band, did an excellent job of playing early with high energy. I liked their distorted bass sound and contained, funky horn solos. Austin's own Eagle Claw launched the Black Stage Sunday, instrumental metal with a digital-cable attention span. I always loved Metallica's "Orion"; imagine if they could self-edit! Over at the Yellow Stage, one of the real sleeper performances of the whole Fest was delivered by the local comedian/nerdcore rapper Terp2It. With bodyguards, a loopy hype man, and sneakily well-written rhymes and tracks, Terp brought all his personality to bear on the boxing ring stage, rhyming about and distributing snacks. At the peak of his set, he had half of his long black beard shaved off, then returned to rap about kitties and lead off the air sex competition after dark, hours later. Forget Monotonix -- that was the best beard-related performance of the weekend.

Although we self-identify as "indie" people we kept drifting back to the Black Stage all day -- the bands were more engaging and the people there were friendlier. Peelander-Z married Japanese garage rock to full-body GWAR-style audience engagement, filtered through a Saturday-morning-cartoon sensibility that was far too sugary for me. I'm mostly grumpy about bands that rely entirely on visual appeal, and this was one of them. Off! were a real pleasant surprise, a new band featuring some very experienced West Coast hardcore players. They killed it, bringing some newer rhythms and arrangement ideas to straightforward old-style songs. It was a nice combination of San Diego and L.A. styles. Enjoyed watching Keith Morris stalk the stage, talk about getting wasted all weekend, and mention his bandmates stage-diving during Bad Religion the night before. I appreciated that sort of enthusiasm from the heavy bands all Fest long.

I put Anna in front of Kylesa before their set started because I knew, although she did not, that the Georgia metal quintet features a woman guitarist and singer, Laura Pleasants. As I expected, she was pretty impatient waiting for the band to start... until she saw they had a tough, tattooed lady shredding leads. Everybody has their own biases! There are many other original qualities to Kylesa. They have two drummers, who sometimes play in unison, and sometimes play parts that interlock. Phillip Cope has an odd, reedy voice for metal. They emphasize changes over technical prowess. The always layered drumming, which occasionally expanded to include four band members pounding toms, kept them distinctive while not particularly melodic.

Only journalistic obligation kept me checking in at the Orange Stage, which was pretty weak all Sunday. Magic Kids and their winsome folk didn't really project much distance from the stage. Deakin presented an interminable stretch of whaling on a processed guitar while he and a confederate pushed laptop buttons. There's some mystery to his Eastern-tinged singing, but not in a bright-sunny, dust-covered midday environment. Toro y Moi demonstrated again the perils of the laptop artist hiring a drummer without giving them instructions to do anything beyond replicate the record's loops. Kaki King was one of the more interesting performers of the weekend of the "indie" designation, but seemed at a loss for what to do in the festival setting. King played a lot of strummy rockers and did little of the percussive fingerstyle playing that is her stock in trade. A band made up of a leaden drummer and a fellow using an EWI (electronic wind instrument) to make syn-bass noises didn't exactly support her with sensitivity.

Cults made absolutely no impression of any kind on me, although I stood in front of them for quite some time. My interview with Eagle Claw kept me occupied during the performance by Best Coast, quite by design. I caught their last one and a half songs and rather liked them, but Anna and Scott both said that they were only interesting for about one and a half songs. Polvo were a band I supported quite enthusiastically during the 90's; their album Exploded Drawing in particular. Sadly they did not live up to my memories as well as Cap'n Jazz did the day before. The sound mix was extremely poor, making them sound harsh and mushy. I also think their post-reunion drummer lacks the feel to play off the rolling, poking, tagging guitars the way their original percussionist did. Deerhunter were another real bore. I don't know their records very well but I listened to them for a while in preparation for the festival and found myself being drawn in. Live they didn't have anything approaching the same shifting, slow-developing quality. They were as drab as Interpol, thudding repeated drum parts and guitars and bass chopped at in sullen waves. The Hold Steady were more tedious still, unnecessary guitar players mildly slotting in the same old chords while a sub-Barenaked Ladies smartass vocalist bored us with his unoriginal opinions to the same two-note melody.

Pharaohe Monch, on the Blue Stage, was the out-of-town highlight of the whole festival for me. With a DJ and two talented backing singers, Monch commandingly combined hardcore rap with old-school soul. Each performer had their own personality and energy to bring to the show, and the MC at center stage had unforgettable charisma -- he doesn't beg for your attention, but he expects it. Multiple times during the show the  DJ stopped the record to extol the crowd to get more involved, to work as hard as the musicians on stage were working. They weren't going to let anybody waste their time. I was afraid to leave when Pharaohe Monch was on stage. He might have called me out. I was going to stay right there and wave a hand or two in the air, interview schedule be damned. Nortec Collective, earlier on the same stage, had the crowd entranced with a very different kind of stage presence. Two guys with iPads, a tuba/trumpet player, and an accordionist played an irresistible blend of house and mariachi. Wearing incompletely matching outfits that mixed traditional with club cool, the four musicians presented an unlikely united front line, producers with their modern tools dancing and smiling along with old-line acoustic players. Their setup allowed them to sample one tuba figure so a live trumpet solo could be played over it later. Ableton software is pretty amazing....

Every festival comes with its missed opportunities. Sunday I regretted not seeing Jean Grae and The Bronx in particular. I also kind of regret the way the night ended. Mastodon and The Descendents were playing head-to-head, and I really love both of those bands, for very different reasons. We decided to start out with the Descendents, since it was their first show in several years and maybe their last in Austin ever. Maybe it was being worn out from the whole weekend of rocking, maybe it was that I only really know Milo Goes to College of their albums well, maybe it was that they weren't in top form -- but I wasn't really moved. It didn't seem like the culmination of the greatest music festival ever. We went to go check out Mastodon.

I had heard rumors that Mastodon used backing tapes somewhat to help support their vocals, which are not their strong suit as musicians. On album, they use guest singers and production tricks quite effectively -- it's one of the reasons that they've attracted a lot of nontraditional metal listeners even though they are quite pointedly a metal band. At least at this show, they used outside help sparingly, just some keyboard patches to introduce some of the newer songs. The vocals were live and rough. That satisfied me. They're significantly more aggressive and purist "metal" on stage, faster and brawnier and way less arty. That's probably the safest way to go to keep most audiences happy. I would love to see them mount a full-on prog rock tour with a bunch of backing singers, guest musicians, keyboard players, and engineers, but my favorite band of all-time is Genesis. I'm crazy.

In summation, I had a pretty good time at Fun Fun Fun Fest. Getting all of the interviews, seeing all of the bands I wanted to, and writing about it within a relatively short span of time were all welcome challenges. I am not sure whether I want to do the whole thing again next year. I am more sure than ever that writing about local bands is the best use of my blog. You don't have to go to any festivals to see local bands. Indeed, while I was stressing out about making good stories out of the limited interview windows I had with all of these festival bands, I could have been going to more Austin shows and having more musicians over for the longer-form chats that have been the source of most of the best articles I've written. Festivals are all about a lot at once and as someone who tends to focus in on the smallest details, not the best fit for my personal reporting style.

But I applied to do it, was accepted, and I did the most I could. I'm glad to have emerged on the other end with my sanity and my hearing still intact. Got one more interview with Nick Nack coming up soon, and then I can finally close the book on Fun Fun Fun and get back to covering shows that nobody else covers. Or even attends.

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