Sound on Sound Fest 2016

words by Alex Freeman | photos by Alex Freeman and JEALEXphoto/Jessica Alexander | Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

From the ashes of Fun Fun Fun Fest, the perennial festival for local homies held previously in Downtown Austin, rose Sound on Sound Fest or SOS, a similarly curated festival founded by Fun House Services in the magical Sherwood Forest Renaissance Faire festival grounds about 40 miles outside of the capital city. While not without its challenges, seeing cancellations by Mac Demarco and Charles Bradley, and a near washout on day three that had people bitching, the consensus was that Sound on Sound’s inaugural effort was a success with room for improvement and growth.

Requiring nearly an hour drive from Austin, the impact of the new setting (the greatest variable in this new festival) depends on who you ask — those who made the daily two- to three-hour round-trip drive or ride had a different experience than those willing to risk the forecasts of inclement weather to set up tents in encampments with cheeky names such as Illuminaughty and The Medieval Band of Moo.

This especially rang true on day three when the grounds were evacuated and shuttle buses stopped mid-course to return to the safe confines of Austin HQ, the Mohawk, while others hunkered down in their tents to booze it up until the storms blew past to finally hear Courtney Barnett — who was almost destined to miss another festival after the Levitation Fest debacle in the spring — play an anticipated Austin-area set.

While some claim the festival footprint was nearly the same in size as its previous iteration at Auditorium Shores, Sherwood Forest had the capacity to hold three times the number of people in attendance — it felt like it was brimming with revelers in some parts, and like an abandoned amusement park in others. However, the Renaissance theme allowed festival organizers to embrace the uniqueness of the site and exploit the Medieval, from a fire-breathing dragon perched like a gargoyle at the corner of the main Dragon Lair stage, to the VIP section named “treat thyself.”

The clash of cultures was palpable — cool kids in their black tees wayfarers contrasted with LARPERs with their goblets of mead, and it made for interesting people-watching. One concert-goer chuckled and stated, “Even Ren Faires can get gentrified.” Despite the narrative of “SOS resurrects Fun Fun Fun Fest in a Medieval fairground,” it was the music and the vibe that compelled people to make the journey and create the story of SOS 2016.

November 4, 2016

The first day of any festival tends to draw the largest crowds, and Sound on Sound was no exception. Starting slowly with a strong undercard of Diet Cig, Shannon and the Clams, and Good Riddance, things really heated up with the driving energy of California experimental hip-hop group Death Grips and their shirtless and ripped yell-leader MC Ride around the time when most of the festival revelers had arrived for that evening or weekend. Kicking their set off with “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)” from 2014’s Government Plates and “Get Got,” from 2012’s The Money Store, the energy reached a high plateau that never subsided at the Dragon Lair.

Next up underneath a larger-than-life inflatable fist with finger gun were the antics of rappers Killer Mike and El-P from Run the Jewels, who recovered from blowing the bass on their first song “Run the Jewels” to bring out Gangsta Boo to sing Akinyele Back’s lyrics on “Love Again.” They closed out with the new single “Talk To Me” to an enthusiastic crowd. Shutting down the Dragon Lair was the New York electro-pop duo Phantogram featuring the swoon-worthy vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Barthel and cigarette-toking vocalist/guitarist Josh Carter who launched into “Black Out Days” from 2014’s Voices and 2011’s “Turning into Stone” before ending in new track “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” from Three.

After midnight, the Forest Stage on the other side of the grounds, which featured the heavier sounds of the fest such as FIDLAR earlier in the night, packed in late for punk rock legends, the Descendents. In anticipation of the presidential election, Milo Aukerman started off their set by saying on Wednesday morning, we may all be saying “Everything Sux!” and launched into their 1996 song of the same name to a wave of crowd surfers plucked by the bouncers and pushed to the side of the photo pit. For those who chose not to camp, the evening came to a close, but for the outdoor adventurers, the party continued, as it did the subsequent nights at the Disco Dungeon and Two Knights Comedy Stage.

November 5, 2016

The light rain that fell on Saturday morning held off for the rest of day two, bringing a gloomy day with cooler temperatures that was a perfect backdrop for Saturday’s acts. Opening at 1 p.m. on Saturday, the early afternoon had the thin crowd mostly chilling on blankets and the grass by the stages or lingering around the campgrounds outside the gates. Others, including this reviewer, were busy trying figure out where in the hell they left their cell phones the night before.

Hosting the indie rock, Jack Tatum-centered outfit from Virginia, Wild Nothing and ’80s punk rockers The Dead Milkmen, the Dragon Lair stage began slowly filling in as the sun began dipping behind the castles and cottages. Legends The Dead Milkmen really got the energy up as fans sang along to hits from 1985’s Big Lizard in My Backyard, such as “Tiny Town,” and a version of “Bitchin’ Camaro” that hilariously detoured into a tribute to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” before circling back to the original.

As darkness descended, the crowd at the Dragon Lair sat impatiently for a cheesy and uninspired performance from one half of Outkast, Big Boi. Across the grounds at the wooded Forest Stage, Australian synth psych band Jagwar Ma captivated the audience with a hazy set with the deep bass tune “Loose Ends” from the October 2016 release Every Now and Then. Their brand of dreamy electronic jams set the tone for the evening’s highly anticipated headliners Beach House and Purity Ring.

Exemplifying the low stage lighting that had many photographers cursing the Dragon Lair stage was the set by dream pop group Beach House. In nearly complete darkness and shrouded in a cloak was vocalist Victoria Legrand, who slumped moodily over her keys as the band opened with “Wild” from 2012’s Bloom and “PPP” from 2015’s Depression Cherry. Dropping the hood to expose her auburn curls, she finished with fan favorite “10 Mile Stereo” before falling back into the shadows.

Shutting down the Dragon Lair on day two, with a stage production that this year’s festival will be remembered by, was Purity Ring, the Canadian synthpop duo of Megan James in Stevie Nicks-worthy gossamer gown and Corin Roddick sitting behind what looked like massive Q-tips that lighted up as he triggered tones. Backed by a gridded curtain of LED light beads that glowed in geometric patterns to the music, the duo kicked off with James atop a cubic riser striking poses as she sang “Fineshrine” from their debut album Shrines and “Repetition” off of 2015’s Another Eternity. To the chagrin of fans, she stopped towards the end of their set to announce that the band was taking a long hiatus after the show. While the mellower darker tones of Beach House and Purity Ring slowly rocked the crowd at the Dragon Lair, across the park, electronic producer Alexander Ridha of Boys Noize closed out the evening with a dance set that left what was left of the Saturday crowd on a high that continued to the campgrounds.

November 6, 2016

As alluded to, the weather forecast for the weekend was grim, but only a few light showers fell on Saturday morning hours before the gates opened. Sunday was another story. Just before Bully was to take the stage at 3 p.m.,a strong band of thunderstorms descended on the festival grounds. Organizers decided to evacuate the attendees and encourage everyone to seek shelter. For those on shuttles it meant turning around and returning to Austin in some cases. One report from social media spoke of a shuttle stopping in Walmart parking lot until the weather blew over and festival goers going in to buy beer and bring back to share with the other stranded revelers — this is the homie spirit that makes this type of festival so special to Austinites. Those in the campgrounds hunkered down and boozed it up in their tents until the fest resumed a few hours later. With some schedule modifications, Young Thug closing out SOS, the show went on. Thursday was a highly anticipated act, performing after the rain delay, one of only five reunions shows.

Courtney Barnett was also high on many’s list for Sunday. After her break out performances at SXSW 2015 and ACL taping in November 2015, fans were eager to see her play in Austin again during Levitation Fest in May only to have that slip from their hands due to bad Texas weather. Barnett was not going to let it happen again at SOS! She took the stage as the storms passed to excited fans, booting out tunes from her debut album Sometimes I sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. Bob Mould and White Lung were also able to perform on Day Three. Organizers did the bands that didn’t get to perform a solid by booking a Monday night make-up show at the Mohawk. Margin Walker did a great job on this inaugural fest with bad weather and a challenging new location — the spirit of Fun Fun Fun Fest is still alive, and we can’t wait to see what they bring in 2017.