Fun Fun Fun Fest? Carnival, more like.
At six-years-old, FFFF is on the smaller end of the scale for these multi-day music bonanzas. Set up along the lake/river in downtown Austin in a little park usually full of dog walkers and runners, the venue was intimate. There were all types of music on the bill; the crowd was not crushingly huge; none of the stages had the big screens for people standing far away; booths were set up for food from local vendors, nonprofits and retail businesses; and there were picnic tables, a half pipe for skateboarders, even a mechanical bull. See? It’s a carnival where the stages are the ferris wheels. But then you would lose the alliteration. Alas.
The three music stages–there was a fourth for comedians–each showcased different genres (loosely speaking) of music. This combined with their setup created very different vibes. The Orange Stage included mostly “indie” music, was a large rock-concert sized stage with a wide area for the audience, and had the city skyline as a backdrop. The Blue Stage was the smallest with a lineup of mostly hip-hop and DJ’s and had a fence keeping the audience closer in on one side. The Black Stage featured hardcore and metal, and faced away from downtown with a road on the other side of the fence, giving it a more industrial feel, fittingly.
And there was dust. Everywhere. Texas has been in a very long drought, which means the grass was nonexistent before the festival even began. With such dry dirt (and some hard rocking out), you may have thought bands had a fog machine. Not necessarily–a lot of dust gets kicked up by the mosh pit. And in contrast to most sweltering summer festivals, November in Austin is a sunny 70 degree day but a brisk nightfall that requires carrying around a layer or two during the day.
So how was the music? An awesome variety. Check out our reviews below of what Friday had to offer.
Being an all-day affair, FFFF began earlier than normal for most musicians. This was unfortunate for Car Stereo Wars, a DJ much more at home at a club at night. He acknowledged as much in a dry monotone before starting his set, asking the crowd to pretend it was not 1:15 in the afternoon. He then proceeded to play pop-dance mashups with brief clips of recognizable songs thrown into a continuous beat of electronic dance fun. Think: “Every day I’m hustlin as a California girl while I tell you how I became a prince of bel air, Barbara Streisand,” but spread them over forty minutes. The extremely thin crowd was reluctant to dance and this DJ was not a performer. Knowing this, he brought along a hypeman wearing a green-and-pink-striped polo and blue khaki shorts who comically tried to get the crowd into it, enthusiastically beckoning people to come dance on stage. By the end, it stopped feeling quite as lame as people got a bit more comfortable with a dozen or so jumping on board. He was solid DJ for that type of music, but it was the completely wrong atmosphere.
Auto Body immediately followed. Originally from Austin, the duo of DJ-singer Tibault Bowman and keyboardist-bassist Felix Moreno also make electronic music, but with less gimmicks. Each time a song would build with some repeated riff capped with an electronica snare drum accelerando, they would sell it by slicing the air as the beat cut out, then rocking out when it dropped back in. Moreno showed off some nasty slap bass, which fit in surprisingly well with their synth-heavy sound. When they sang, it was stylish and simple, with some reverb added in and occasionally involving some light falsetto melodies as on “Can’t Forget You.” Auto Body also remarked on the odd time of day, saying it was the earliest show they had ever played, but unlike their predecessor, seemed to make the best of it.
Switching stages, Ocote Soul Sounds displayed a completely different approach on the Orange Stage with a more worldly approach. The funk elements stemmed from their twangy picked guitars combined with some rhythmic electric piano plus bass and a good drummer. A conga player plus a trio of a saxophonist, a flute player, and a backup singer added some extra texture to the sound. Though founder Martin Perna explained between songs that there were some political topics within or implied by their lyrics, from the Arab Spring to the fence on the Mexican border, their music was not words-heavy. Somehow their set lacked the excitement you would expect from such a big band with danceable music. Perhaps it was that they did not engage the crowd, mostly speaking at them about their political ideas. Or maybe having a stage full of earnest old souls simply will not have the same energy as a younger rock band…
…a rock band, like The Thermals. Performing two bands later on the same stage, this group from Portland was a three-person isolated in a growing crowd. But they filled the space with their performance. With their backing drummer pumping his fists during rests, The Thermals were a quick-kick in the middle of the day as Hutch Harris belted out well-articulated lyrics. Bassist Kathy Foster equaled the energy jamming repeated eighth notes in a tight dress and joining in on “whoa-oh-oh” hooks. With the sun glinting off the Austin skyline behind the trio, it was nothing but good times.
Next on the Orange Stage was hard-driving guitar-centric blues rock from Austin-based Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. Aside from winning the award of greatest name for a backing band, this group featured some of the most technically proficient guitar playing of the day outside some of the metal bands. Frontman Joe Lewis wailed on his guitar, moving his instrument deftly behind his head and using his strings as dental floss as he played with his teeth. Lewis’ singing had all the blues swag on tracks like “I’m Gonna Leave You”, as he channelled the occasional clip of James Brown. The drums, bass, and a second guitar built some hard-drivin tempos and shufflin’ feels, while a horn section of a trumpet and two saxophones added some funky licks as well as some dance moves. These Honeybears make great music, but it is by no means a remarkably new sound: one version of loud blues rock has a statue memorializing it right outside the festival along the water.
Later, headlining on the Blue Stage, was Public Enemy. Being a group that dates back to before most Treeswingers were born, there is probably little new to say about them. But it can be interesting to see what kind of show an old group might put on. Public Enemy played their hits, as expected, and filled the rest of their set with fun concert tricks. This was incredibly easy with the clock-wearing, reality-show-starring, hyping, rapping, air-punching, drumming, silly-speech-giving icon Flavor Flav. After the most musical soundcheck ever with their backing band simply jamming, Flavor Flav set up his hit, “911 Is A Joke”, by yelling one note for as long as he could. It got slightly awkward, but that’s Flavor Flav. Later, he brought his godson, who didn’t seem to have a name other than “godson”, up to rap a little while he played drums. Not to overshadow Chuck D–he performed his parts well and spoke intelligently to the crowd about the importance of an open mind and mutual understanding with others. Covers worked their way into the show: the DJ did an overhyped turntable solo on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the backing band used the bass line from “Jungle Boogie” and also mixed in elements of ACDC’s “Back In Black.” Public Enemy has changed little from the band that was a hit in the late 80s and early 90s, closing out with an energetic “Fight the Power.”
Treeswingers’ Top Three
Auto Body- Can’t Forget You (download)
The Thermals- Now We Can See (download)
Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears- I’m Gonna Leave You (download)