Monday, November 11, 2013

Fun Fun Fun Fest 2013, Day 2

Another fall music festival in Austin? I couldn't resist. However, I only attended the one day that seemed the most up my alley.

Event: Fun Fun Fun Fest, Day 2
Venue: Auditorium Shores
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 9 November 2013

Introduction: FFF is a strange festival. It features three stages of music arranged loosely by genre (roughly alternative/indie rock, punk, and electronic/hip-hop), one stage/tent of comedy (which also featured some music acts), and a skate park. And apparently a wrestling ring. I mostly kept to the Orange Stage, ostensibly the alt rock stage, yet headlined by M.I.A. Anyway, the weather was nice, and I still can't believe how warm it is around this time of year in Austin. I learned my lesson from ACL a month ago and I showed up much earlier in the day, for which I was well rewarded. I saw six acts in full and four in part before heading to one of FFF's late-night after-shows, which I will cover in a separate post.

Bleached are a somewhat traditional rock band hailing from LA, but unlike most of the acts at the festival, the band is fronted by two guitar-slinging women. One was the definitive lead singer and the other the definitive lead guitarist. They were augmented by a woman bassist and a male drummer. Both the lead guitarist and bassist also provided backing vocals, and even though they were mixed rather low, the combined vocals of the three women are certainly the band's strongest suit. The music is perhaps a bit basic, but their energy and attitude made it work. Similarly, the lyrics weren't always the cleverest, but the delivery and the strength of the shared vocals made it sound great. The band has a rather lighthearted and sunny feel about them, which almost makes it feel like they are consciously playing up their Southern California roots. However, they aren't quite so simply boxed in, evidenced by offering a Damned cover in the middle of their set.

Merchandise, from Tampa, tours as a five-piece although I think there are only two or three core members. The band apparently arose from a thriving local punk scene, yet reveal much deeper shades of post-punk and psychedelic rock. With three guitarists (two electric, one acoustic), they generate quite an abundance of sound, but they focus on letting it all blend together in a rather spacey mix. The most obvious touchstone I could think of was the Chameleons, which is perhaps why I enjoyed them so much. I almost get the impression that they haven't heard of most of the 80s ethereal post-punk bands that they sound like. Their approach is a bit more progressive and less pop-oriented, even if both ideas came out of trying to stretch outside of the limitations of punk rock. The vocals were indeterminate but the music was incredible. I'm looking to buy one of their records as soon as possible.

Chelsea Light Moving are known best as the new band of Thurston Moore, once the guitarist/vocalist of Sonic Youth. I was surprised to see the man himself come out early to help set up and then soundcheck; he apparently still stays true to some of his DIY/punk roots. Anyway, after soundchecking and almost leaving the stage, Thurston was told he had a minute before they were on, and true to his style, he just bluntly asked the sound person if they could start early. Good thing they did, because Thurston broke a string in the first song and again later in their set, necessitating a few minutes' break both times to remedy the situation.

Unsurprisingly, this band sounds very similar to Moore's old band: they both play a sort of noisy, alternative, seemingly careless but clearly cleverly crafted avant-punk music. Unlike Sonic Youth, where the guitarists used different guitars for almost every song, each one tuned differently, this band's two guitarists held on to the same instruments the whole time. To be fair, I don't think they were tuned traditionally, but it did make the music seem less dynamic. As far as the actual performance went, some jams were better than others. I can't say I saw anything truly unexpected and thus I wasn't particularly impressed. Thurston still plays a mean guitar, but his guitarist accomplice, Keith Wood, mostly copied Thurston or played simpler, rhythmic parts under Thurston's guitar. The bassist, Samara Lubelski, was something of an enigma, revealing little of her history as a guest violinist on many renowned indie records. I had high hopes for this band but I was admittedly somewhat let down. I know Thurston has more in him than this. It just didn't sound like anything new.

Geographer performed as a three piece: a singer/guitarist/keyboardist, an electric cellist/keyboardist, and a drummer/keyboardist. I couldn't hear a note of the cello and I could barely discern the singer's instrumentation. The mix was mostly just electronic samples, drums, and vocals. Since most of the music at the festival was mixed superbly, this must have been intentional, but it sure was an odd choice. I would have loved to have heard more of that cello, and even the singer's guitar/keyboard parts might have made the sonic palette a little more diverse. The singing was really good, but the music was a bit too simple and clichéd; there just weren't any surprises to be found. Nonetheless, the band clearly has a following.

Television were the reason I was there. Their setlist was as follows:

1. Venus
2. 1880 or So
3. Little Johnny Jewel
4. Prove It
5. Elevation
6. Marquee Moon

Television has an odd history; after reforming in 1992 and releasing a new album, they've continued to tour as they see fit but release no new music. In 2007, they suffered their first lineup change since 1975 when guitarist Richard Lloyd departed amicably, replaced quite suitably by Jimmy Rip. Recently, word has gotten out that this lineup has recorded a new album, but they haven't played it live nor announced plans to release it.

The band certainly stuck with the tried and true. They played their debut single, four songs from their debut album, and one from their 1992 album. Songs from their second album, Adventure, were absent, as were their traditional set of covers and any new material. Nevertheless, it was a supreme pleasure to see them play some of their best material and make it feel like it was still 1977. Lloyd was hardly missed, as Rip played incredible parts and fit right in sync with Tom Verlaine. Tom's voice was a little thinner and weaker than in his youth, and he let Rip play more than his fair share of lead guitar parts, but when he did play a solo, he tore it up. He doesn't even have to try; he just spits out beautifully melodic and clever parts like they came to him in a dream. I could have watched them for hours, but sadly I barely got 45 minutes.

Deerhunter: I have to admit I only saw part of their set and I wasn't paying the best attention. (I was distracted by an amazing vegan Frito chili pie burrito.) I remembered them as being more electronic, but maybe I was thinking of Deerhoof. At any rate, they played a somewhat spacey or psychedelic noisy rock blend. It was good but fairly nondescript. Unfortunately, it didn't stand out enough that I think I can truly provide a full review and a fair score.

Sparks: I knew little about them in advance other than their amazing song "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" and that one of my old friends is a fan. I knew that they were somewhat absurd and theatrical, and that the band has a knack for changing styles and only maintaining a core lineup of two brothers, one on keyboards and one on vocals. But that was about it. Sure enough, performing on the smaller Yellow Stage reserved mostly for comedy acts, the band came out as just the Mael brothers. However, they came out fifteen agonizing minutes late, while I had to sit through horribly un-funny recorded sketches by Sarah Silverman and Norm McDonald.

They are a terrifically strange band. Older brother Ron sat at his keyboard with a perma-scowl, looking straight forward and hardly moving. Younger brother Russell was far more lively and flamboyant and naturally did the vast majority of the talking. However, Ron did take the mic for a spoken part in a segment of their opera The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. Although I only recognized their performance of their biggest hit, I appreciated their wit and non-standard approach to musical performance. Unsurprisingly, the tent was mostly empty by the end of the set, but that could also be due their lateness causing overlap with the start of the headlining shows.

Their set could have been dangerously monotonous due to their limited instrumentation, but the novelty and the quality of the singing and songwriting prevented it from growing dull. While not great, they were rather fascinating and at least reasonably entertaining. I enjoyed it. The best part was their announcement that their Bergman opera is being adapted for a film to be directed by Guy Madden, an old favorite of mine that I trust can do it justice.

They ended with an extended monologue of appreciation from Russell and a short dance and even a few words from Ron.

After Sparks, I wasn't sure where to turn. None of the headliners interested me all that greatly, so I figured I'd wander between each of them. First I saw a few minutes of M.I.A., but the music seemed rather confused and cacophonous at the time, so I figured I'd come back later.

I wandered over to the Blue Stage to see Ice-T, where I caught a guest performer doing a great a capella rap against economic oppression. However, this was followed by Ice T asking some girls in the front row how old they were, and then proceeding to explain his desire to engage in sexual intercourse with these 16 year olds, or in fact "anything that moves". I left the area immediately.

I then went to the Black Stage to see the Descendants. They played a clever anti-conformity song about refusing to be a statistic, but then followed that up with several minutes of uninspired pseudo-punk thrashing. The audience members took the opportunity to repeatedly climb onstage and immediately jump back into the crowd to attempt to crowdsurf. My enthusiasm waned and so I headed back to the start.

On my second go, M.I.A. appeared in better form. I'm still not sure what anyone else on stage was doing; there were about five people who came and went at random and performed ambiguous tasks. One appeared to play keyboards, but maybe not, and another was drumming, but I think most of the music was more samples than not. At any rate, M.I.A. herself was in good form and she was singing well. I happened to catch "Paper Planes", most notable for someone like me due to the sampling of the Clash's "Straight to Hell", but a great song in general for the depth of the lyrics. I do wonder, though, how many of the audience members miming gunshots along with the sound effects bother to read into the lyrics. It made for quite a surreal crowd phenomenon.

I left just a bit early to try to make it to one of the late night events, which I will cover in my next post.

Scores:
Bleached: B
Merchandise: A
Chelsea Light Moving: C
Geographer: C
Television: A-
Sparks: B
Overall: B+

Final Thoughts: I didn't pay enough attention to Deerhunter to feel comfortable scoring them. Similarly, I didn't see enough of any of the headliners to have a substantial enough impression. I can say that Ice-T did not impress me, the Descendents seemed rather predictable, and I should probably pay a little more attention to M.I.A. even if not everything she does interests me. At any rate, I'm glad I went early and saw some of the lower-profile bands, and my longtime favorites Television did not disappoint me, so I had a pretty good experience all around.

[Edit 2013.11.13] P.S. The setlists for Chelsea Light Moving and Sparks have been posted online. Here is Chelsea Light Moving's (source):

1. Burroughs
2. Sleeping Where I Fall
3. Groovy & Linda
4. [Unknown]
5. Empires of Time
6. Alighted

And here is the setlist from Sparks (source):

01. Your Call's Very Important to Us. Please Hold.
02. How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?
03. B.C.
04. Here in Heaven
05. Academy Award Performance
06. Those Mysteries
07. Good Morning
08. Falling in Love With Myself Again
09. I Am Ingmar Bergman
10. The Studio Commissary
11. Limo Driver (Welcome to Hollywood)
12. Oh My God
13. Nicotina
14. Popularity
15. This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us
16. Suburban Homeboy
17. Tryouts for the Human Race
18. The Number One Song in Heaven 

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