If you've been following Austin music news over the past year, you probably heard about the messy breakup between the people behind local booking company Transmission Events and the real estate company that backed them, Stratus Properties. The short version is that almost all the main people of Transmission left and started a new company, Margin Walker, that is carrying on the best parts of Transmission's legacy. (The long version can be read here, here, and here.) Part of the fallout is that the delightful Fun Fun Fun Fest was also left with Stratus. As should be obvious by now, it didn't happen, and it doesn't look like it will in the future. However, Margin Walker acted fast and put together a new festival with a similar look and feel under the name Sound on Sound. They managed to hold it the same weekend that FFFFest usually took place, but due to a non-compete clause they had to find a new venue. They stepped up the challenge, thought creatively, and chose Sherwood Forest, the home of the (semi-)local Renaissance faire. What might seem like an unconventional pairing actually worked out rather well.
Event: Sound on Sound Festival, Day 2
Venue: Sherwood Forest
Location: McDade, Texas
Date: 5 November 2016
In past years of going to Austin Psych Fest/Levitation, I've had some trouble with the shuttle system, but still never gave up on it. (I vastly prefer biking and mass transit to driving!) With this being the first year of SoS, I was a bit concerned that it might be another rough experience. However, it seemed like they were trying to make the shuttles a compelling option by guaranteeing departure times and selling cheap passes in advance. Although I got drenched in a downpour while riding my bike to the shuttle pick-up at Mohawk, the bus was timely and comfortable, which made it well worth it.
Since I was only going for one day, I decided to go all out and get there early. I was on the second shuttle and arrived just in time to see Moving Panoramas at the Dragon's Lair stage. I've seen them twice before (last year at a Fun Fun Fun Fest late night show and again earlier this year) and they only keep getting better. In the meantime, it appears that Rozie Castoe has been replaced on bass by Jolie Cota Flink, and a keyboardist/percussionist/vocalist has just been added to the lineup. Drummer Karen Skloss may have made a few slip-ups, but Flink delivered an improved low end, and the new keyboardist was a very welcome addition. Their inviting, guitar-based, dream pop sound was stronger than ever. This was their best performance that I've seen yet.
I'd seen some of the members of Hard Proof play live with Gary Clark, Jr., but I somehow hadn't yet managed to see them in their own right. I finally got to change that, and I was immediately taken by their funky vibes and high energy. The ten-piece group played an instrumental take on Afrobeat with three percussionists, baritone sax, tenor sax, trumpet, bass, and three guitarists, one of whom also played keyboards. The music was instantly danceable and yet intricate enough to keep your attention. I'll admit it was just a bit surreal to see my former landlord grab a mic and hype the crowd when he wasn't playing the saxophone, but it worked. That's Austin for you, I suppose!
At that point I took a break to wander the grounds. Having gone to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival for years as a child, it brought back a wave of nostalgia to walk through the oddly familiar environment. Some parts were closed up or roped off, but many were open and in some cases even inhabited by what seemed like typical Ren faire vendors. There were plenty of food trucks from Austin, but there were also a handful of rides and events that intermingled the Fun Fun Fun Fest traditions with Ren faire themes.
I couldn't resist a Freeto Burrito from the Vegan Yacht, and I took the opportunity to sit and watch some of Orthy's set at the Forest Stage while I ate. Instead of the bland EDM that I had feared they might perform, they opted for a compromise between organic and electronic approaches. However, even the energy of a decent live band couldn't make the middling electronica seem particularly inspired.
I returned back to the Dragon's Lair stage to see Wild Nothing, and indie rock band with (again!) touches of dream pop and shoegaze. Their bassist was solid and played a thick and grounding groove. The two guitarists occasionally engaged in some great interplay, but too often remained content with keeping it simple. The keyboardist did a good job adding layers on top of the rest, and the combination of all the above was usually rewarding. The vocals and songwriting were decent without being outstanding, but they had a good balance between rock energy and pop catchiness. At times I was even reminded of The Chameleons. [Edit 2016.11.12: Their setlist can be found here.]
While again wandering around the grounds with a friend, we ended up watching most of the set from Alex G. He and his band worked up a decent alt-rock vibe reminiscent of the 90s bedroom circuit. The sound was was appealing familiar in a weird way but upon closer inspection was fairly standard guitar stuff. A somewhat adolescent angle and occasional bursts of aimless, jarring aggression didn't help.
After another excursion for food and drinks, I settled back at the Dragon's Lair stage to wait for Deerhunter, who I'd actually seen before (albeit while distracted) at my first Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2013. Frontperson Bradford Cox seemed to be having trouble getting the monitor mix just right, but eventually gave up about fifteen minutes after their scheduled set time and finally started the show. The music was rock-oriented, mildly psychedelic, and hard to pin down. The band consistently put down a solid beat, and the musicianship was good, but I couldn't follow the arc of the songs. At one point, Cox claimed to live on the same street as Big Boi (who played next on the same stage), which for all I know could be true, as both live in Atlanta. He said he was recently hit by a car while walking to his house, which interrupted him while writing a song in his head. Shortly after starting the next song, something went wrong (or Cox intentionally sabotaged it) and he joked that it was just like getting hit by the car. I got a decidedly weird vibe from Cox, like he was being antagonistic. He mostly sang, but also played some guitar with enough skill to make me wonder why he didn't play more. Oddly, for their last song, the other guitarist sang the lead. Their setlist can be found here, although it is incomplete.
Night had fallen, and once more, my friend and I walked around the festival and enjoyed the atmosphere of stumbling through the woods in the dark. I think I'd originally intended on seeing Car Seat Headrest, but for some reason I forgot about that and didn't really watch anything for a spell. I ultimately returned once more to the Dragon's Lair stage to get a good spot for Beach House. They were half an hour late for unclear reasons. Their stage setup was very similar to when I saw them in April, but this time I couldn't get a good picture. I did get the setlist, though:
03. Silver Soul
04. Space Song
05. Elegy to the Void
06. Beyond Love
07. New Year
08. Master of None
10. Take Care
13. 10 Mile Stereo
Compared to their last Austin show, this performance felt rushed and truncated. They barely addressed the audience and hardly took a breath between most of the songs. I suppose they were trying to make the most of what time they had, but for the topmost-billed band of the festival, 70 minutes wasn't enough. They played a strong set, but I was a bit disappointed that nine of the thirteen songs were also played at the April show. I would have loved more variation. Nonetheless, "Master of None" was a delightful throwback, and the other unique songs of this set ("Wild", New Year", and "Take Care") were all a pleasure to hear. Since they hardly have a weak song in their whole discography, I can't actually complain about anything they might choose to play, but for the last night of their Depression Cherry/Thank Your Lucky Stars tour, I was hoping for a special treat.
Beach House's sweeping, spatial, dreamy music suited the cool evening in a rural field with a bright crescent moon and clouded sky. It was as easy as ever to get lost in, which made the length of the set all the more conspicuous. They again built up the guitar-oriented "Elegy to the Void" into a thick crescendo, and for their finale, they worked up "10 Mile Stereo" into a noisy, blissful jam. It was a great show, but I was left wishing for more.
It was getting late, but I'd made up my mind to stay for at least part of Purity Ring's set. Of course, they were a full hour late, so I only stayed for half an hour before I had to get on a shuttle back to Austin. As soon as they got going, I was drawn in by their visual performance. They opted to appear as just their core duo, with Corin Roddick behind an interactive lightpost/synth tower and Megan James walking the stage under a huge LED fixture. It was easy to be transfixed by the lightshow. However, I found the actual music to be only slightly above average. Unless Roddick had more hands than I could see, most of the instrumentation was prerecorded, and even James' voice was vocoded/autotuned in parts without an apparent performer. The artifice was alienating even as the display was captivating. Their setlist can be found here.
Final Thoughts: After all the drama of the Transmission Events/Margin Walker divorce, I'm glad that the new festival started strong. It clearly carried on the tradition of Fun Fun Fun Fest without being a mere change in name. They made the most of their semi-exiled environment and had fun with it. The food and drink selections were good, and the lineup was a good mix. And thankfully, once I did finally pack it in, the shuttle line was short and there were multiple buses ready, so it wasn't even all that long of a trip back to town. Although weather may have caused a mess the following day, this was a promising start to a new festival tradition.
Moving Panoramas: B+
Hard Proof: B+
Wild Nothing: B
Alex G: C-
Beach House: A-
Purity Ring: B-
P.S. Thanks to Mustafa!