Amongst the commercialized Lollapalooza and the inflated Coachella, we need smaller, secluded festivals to keep us all grounded. Fun Fun Fun Fest gives Austin a more intimate, personalized, and risk-taking lineup in counterpart of Austin City Limits, featuring some of pop culture’s most surreal un-conventionalists like Yankovic, Gwar, and Suicidal Tendencies. Even the prime headliners MGMT, Bad Religion, Mastodon and Descendents (filling in for Devo) are not exactly main stage fodder, and beckon to a crowd that might not appreciate seeing a band on a “Budweiser” or “Toyota” stage. Fun Fun Fun is fighting the good fight — more promotors should pay attention to what they’re doing.
Who would’ve thought that in 2010, 27 years after he put out his first record, someone as willingly silly as “Weird Al” Yankovic could both curate and kick off a festival filled with some of the biggest names in indie rock? Al has spent his entire career teetering on the balance of the good graces of the pop culture public, but while Carrot Top and Sinbad fell to laughable (and completely justified) ends, something about Yankovic’s pure, undiluted likability has allowed him to prevail. He’s still touring, he’s a regular guest on “Comedy Death Ray,” and, most importantly, he’s still funny.
His performance was more or less the same basic incarnation I saw back in 2003 (coincidentally, my first ever rock show), but the mechanics have been updated. He opened with a bleeding-edge polka, stuffed full of 2010 chart-crashers: Bieber, Ke$ha and Gaga. But that sat right alongside near-ubiquitous *ahem* “hits” like “Dare to be Stupid” and “Smells Like Nirvana.” Naturally, this was all paired with a constant costume shuffle, de-contextualized apropos-of-nothing video clips, and your brief onstage sketches.
Surprisingly, some of this stuff hasn’t changed since 2003. The Eminem faux-interview he aired was the same exact one I remember my 12-year-old self laughing at, same with the draconian, period-accurate germ PSA. But it was all funny the second time around, and his setlist has been frontloaded with Billboard-identifiable rips. But that’s all semantics really — the crowd would’ve been smitten with whatever Yankovic dished up; his personality occupies such a specific spot in pop-ubiquity that he’s become a sort-of godhead. We live in a world where Weird Al can never risk self-parody, irrelevance, or disdain. That’s a good world to live in.
Devin the Dude: he likes his weed, that’s not a secret to anyone, and it occasionally got a little silly hearing the dressed-down street-rap hero offhandedly mention getting high every chance he could, but if Devin was ever going to escape that typecast and dominate a bill he wasn’t headlining, Fun Fun Fun Fest is certainly that show. The glassy-eyed demeanor and languished beats simply isn’t designed to fill an audience, but when the crowd has utterly immortalized the man’s underground mythos it doesn’t really matter. For at least this one afternoon in Austin, Devin the Dude was an utter star — lyrics were tossed back and forth, call-outs were graciously reciprocated, hands were thrown in the air like they just didn’t care, etc. Fun Fun Fun Fest is a celebration of left field goofballs who never took the world at large, and that’s the perfect spot for someone as prolific and hidden as Devin the Dude.
If there was anything that could’ve stymied, and sucked out all the good-hearted energy an underdog like Devin cued up on blue stage it was Slick Rick: former star, current legend, and a hell of a disappointment on stage. The svelte, well-dressed figure you remember is long gone; today, Slick Rick is a hulking, over-blinged, and overweight shell of his former greatness. Mic to his mouth, feet planted, he exhaustingly plodded through the entirety of The Great Adventures without even a modicum of intensity. It was literally the most disengaged performance of the weekend — blame it on age, or hubris, nothing remedies blatant sluggishness. If you can’t control a stage anymore, that’s fine, that’s what a hypeman is for, but Slick didn’t even the courtesy for that — just an absent-minded DJ and a checked-out disposition, amounting into what was probably the lowest point of the weekend.
Os Mutantes, on the other hand — a band whose very career almost exceeds Slick Rick’s 45 years — have aged very well since their 2006 reunion. Their legacy is well-engraved now: they exploded in their native Brazil, got cursory and cultish time-defying respect in the United States, eventually imploded in the mid-1970s due to acid-frazzled nerves and creative differences…but Sérgio Dias and company are looking happy, healthy, and incredibly excited to be playing for studious hipsters 30 years their junior. The music hasn’t changed, rainbow streaks of tropical glitz, but the Os Mutantes sound still stands solitarily unique in the canon of pop. Bad Religion, The Vandals, and Descendents — they couldn’t help but sound retro, while the oldest group of the weekend came off immediately current. Not many bands could pull that off.
I wasn’t sure who Big Freedia was before Friday — the wiki-proof MC more or less evaded me in the days before the fest, but I did know I liked how her press-bio described her as “New Orleans bounce-rap.” What I saw was a gargantuan, near-Amazonian transgendered titan of a woman who plays hyper-sexualized, semi-sarcastic crunk-attacks that completely bypass the brain and shudder right down to the hips. This was not a work-safe environment; in fact, it was the sweatiest, grossest, but still kinda enthralling moment all weekend. By the time she got to “Azz Everywhere,” the pretenses that were already lowered were cast aside entirely — because losing your shit is a lot more fun than judging others in the process of losing their shit.
How great must it feel to be Delorean? Trading in noisy punk for druggy club-rave is an odd and uneasy transition, but to come out the other end with a nighttime slot and a huge showing of American kids singing along? That must feel amazingly rewarding. They deserve all the love, too — Delorean adopted a nothing-but-bangers policy, churning through the biggest crests in electro-pop from both their 2009 teaser Ayrton Senna EP and this year’s hype-delivered Subzia. Basked in throbbing neon lights, songs like “Seasun,” “Real Love,” and “Stay Close” sound just as good as you can picture them. Delorean owe America a full tour, and judged by how they essentially managed to incite a riot with every song they played, they won’t have too much trouble winning us over more than they already have.
For whatever reason, I’ve managed to miss Dirty Projectors at the gaggle of festivals they’ve toured over the past year. Other acts — Fuck Buttons at Lollapalooza, The xx at Coachella — always stole my attention away. So this was the first time I saw Dave Longstreth perform with a band. Dirty Projectors have certainly evolved since their most avant-garde era (and now resemble a “band” more than ever before) — now all the boys and girls can sing along to Bitte Orca. During the jaw-dropping chorus of “Stillness is the Move,” Angel Deradoorian grabbed her microphone and pointed it at the audience, who shouted the incalculable notes right back at her — not something you’d expect out of the Projectors during The Getty Address days. Their performance was so taut, so chiseled, it’s almost as if the band has something to prove — if you ever doubted they could hit these notes, shape-shift their vocals, and ping-pong their verses on stage, well you ought to see them live. These are the most dedicated musicians playing today, and it’s utterly inspiring to see them together.
Of course, RJD2 is the guy who brings a bag full of vinyl to his show. Unlike pretty much every musical collagist these days, RJ Krohn is all analog — his setup included four turntables and a tuned-up drum machine. That’s it; not a laptop in sight. So that means when he cues up a classic like “Ghostwriter” it’s created from the same samples, and feasibly, the same records, which is a pretty cool thought. It wasn’t the most active or danceable set of the weekend, or even the day (that honor lies with Delorean) but RJ’s smoky, chilled-out psych-hop was a good way to end an active day of music listening.
It was clear that anyone who made it out to the Blue Stage at 4:50 despite stiff competition from Best Coast and The Bronx were going to be pretty big rapheads, especially to see such a scene-hero like Pharoahe Monch. The wayward rapper has put out a scarce two records in his career, a stark difference from the mixtape-monster mentality that every up-and-coming rapper subscribes to these days, but that didn’t really matter – Internal Affairs and Desire are both so dense with bangers, a 45-minute festival set turns into a slash-and-burn, profanity-laced rampage. Even the new songs he tried out from his perpetually-upcoming third album W.A.R. were greeted like old-school favorites. Few rappers have garnered so much love with so few songs.
If it wasn’t already clear on Crazy For You, most Best Coast songs sound pretty much the same. Bethany Cosentino finds her greatness by being easy to root for, and naturally, her sunset-backed performance was primarily highlighted by her bittersweet banter. “Just so you know, Bobb is super excited to see Mastodon tonight…but now he has to play in a fuckin’ girly pop band,” she said with a smile. The songs, well…they don’t exactly show well — Best Coast is something that works best with the sum of its parts all added up. They’d rather win your heart over the course of an album rather than during a set, but based on the amount of people singing along with deep-cuts like “Bratty B” and “Our Deal,” Bethany won’t have to worry about her status for quite some time.
And so, in 2010, Deerhunter are no longer forced to close their set with “Nothing Ever Happened.” That duty now lies with Halcyon Digest’s “Helicopter,” a song that exceeds everything else the band has done in terms of potency, humanism, and direct synapse-tugging impact. Like your average Deerhunter festival set, this was a vaguely passive-aggressive, somewhat indifferent attack of the band’s highlights, but those moments of uncomfortable irritation (Bradford giving some faceless crowd-member a quipping “shut up,” the band abandoning a sound-check with a “Fuck it, let’s just do it”) are all quickly forgettable when you consider just how great these songs are. Even at their most slack-jawed torpidity you can’t help but feel wrapped up in a specific guitar sound, or a lyrical snap. Even when they aren’t playing nice and mechanical, Deerhunter is better than nearly any other band going.
From the first piano clinks of “Constructive Summer,” it was all over. Craig Finn skipped across the stage like an enthused schizo, shouting quick-lipped cracks to the audience sans microphone, all with a huge grin on his face. This was the exact and logical opposite to Deerhunter, who played just one space down the bill. The Hold Steady couldn’t be any happier to be in a rock n’roll band. Say what you like about Heaven is Whenever, it doesn’t really make a qualitative difference when those songs are played with this much vigor. The songs were introduced with hammy couplets. which made it that much more fun. (“This song, well, this song is about a boy, a girl, and a horse,” before “Chips Ahoy.”) Truth is, we could barely hear Craig the entire night, thanks to an overpowered mix on the band’s labyrinth of guitar-amps. It didn’t really matter; we knew all the words anyway. The Hold Steady is exactly the band you want to be closing your festival, because regardless of what happened or who sucked earlier in the week, they’re genetically coded to restore faith in music.