Let's get right to the point: This year's edition of Austin's Fun Fun Fun Fest was a dust-covered, freaked-out combo plate of the buzzed-about, the stupid, the surprising and the legendary.
When the lineup for this year's edition was revealed, more than a few folks used the word "eclectic" to describe the blending of metal, hip-hop, indie, comedy and electronic music.
On the surface, the featured styles seem to head into different directions, but when one was engulfed in the flying dirt of Auditorium Shores — this year's host for the festival — it was easy to see that "eclectic" didn't describe the musical vibe. The niches from which this festival draws its identity are pretty wild, indeed.
Rather than eclectic, the bookings for the festival were a practice in extremes. Sure, New Orleans bounce queen Big Freedia and death metal giants Cannibal Corpse aren't likely to be found on the same shelf in your local record store. But if records were arranged in terms of edgy, in-your-face intensity, there's a serious chance their albums wouldn't be placed too far apart.
Incidentally, and sadly for many inked and pierced patrons of this past weekend's festival, the FFF Fest shares a great many qualities with the festival it has long been compared against, the Zilker Park-based behemoth Austin City Limits Festival. Not only do the festivals occur a few weeks apart from one another, but the Transmission Entertainment-run FFF Fest is every bit the magnet for corporate sponsorship and blog-hyped buzz-bands that many criticize ACL for being. FFF Fest isn't the deranged, indignant younger brother to the more well-known ACL that many attendees seem to wish it were. It's more like ACL's slightly twisted fraternal twin. Let's be honest: an "air sex" competition just wouldn't be the same in Zilker Park, even though it's an asinine display regardless of which festival it infests.
Not only were the sizable, dust-covered grounds of Auditorium Shores a reminder of ACLs past, but some of the performers were as well. Austin-linked favorites Spoon, Black Joe Lewis and Okkervill River were present and played to understandably large crowds.
What has historically set FFF Fest apart from the ACL Fest is its sheer will to avoid trying to please everyone. Such a philosophy flies in the face of eclecticism. For the most part, too many of the nationwide, festival-season lineups look too similar from April to September, year after year. Transmission Entertainment clearly doesn't have festival homogeneity on its set of goals when it comes to its big weekend. The lineup for each year, whether it's booking acts such as the Descendents and the Circle Jerks in years past, or the Damned and Public Enemy for this year's edition, has a much more curated feel to it, not merely a routing and booking businesslike banality.
This past weekend's affair wasn't a festival for everyone, nor was it supposed to be. Even with the divergent hip-hop stylings of Public Enemy, Childish Gambino and Odd Future on the bill later on in the weekend, it was Big Freedia's reliably brazen, rump-shaking Caligula's-den of a set that provided the authoritative, take-it-or-you-can-suck-it sentiment that the festival thrives on.
The wows far outweighed the blahs when it came to the performances, with the exception of Glenn Danzig's time on stage Friday night. He reportedly started his 8:15 p.m. set at 9 p.m. and then had to end at 10 o'clock sharp after playing only a small number of promised Misfits tunes because of the park's curfew.
As far as sets that had people squawking louder than the chatter surrounding the Ryan Gosling sighting, one bombastic group took the prize on Friday night. While many waited for the highly revered Murder City Devils' set to begin on the Black Stage on Friday evening, Chicago's post-metal powerhouse Russian Circles pummeled their side of the stage with their Mogwai-meets-Sabbath propulsion to the point where, as it was time for Seattle-based FFF vets Murder City Devils to take the stage, their typically blistering offerings were absolutely anticlimactic compared with the groove-explosion that had just concluded 20 yards to their left. The evidence of the Russian Circles triumph was especially on display the following night as hundreds of eager and unlucky folks lined up outside of the 500-person-capacity Red 7 club for the band's Saturday night FFF after-show.
With a Friday night triple bill of Passion Pit, Public Enemy and Danzig closing the evening out, it was perhaps the indie-underdog Passion Pit that was most impressive of the three. Employing a mix of equal parts electro and good ol' rock, the band from Massachusetts proved its credentials as headliner was deserved, even with Public Enemy blasting a football field away. The two competing sets were an interesting study in the way the FFF Fest lines up acts. At this stage in their career, Public Enemy are more or less an oldies act, albeit a wildly innovative and influential one. The crowd on hand for Chuck D and Flavor Flav pumped their fists in nostalgia as they bumped to beats that made parents cringe 20 years ago, while the crowd for Passion Pit was completely living in the now, soaking up the youth they enjoy.
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Reliving one's past joy and reveling in the glory of a present moment are perhaps the two biggest factors that compel festival attendees to choose a particular stage at a large party like this. Coming in a close third, however, is sheer curiosity. It doesn't take long to see that the FFF Fest is set up to entertain all three types of fans.
The indie-friendly, blogger-approved Orange stage that hosted Passion Pit on Friday night boasted the most acts that have found themselves on the bills of other, more mainstream-feeling festivals. Saturday witnessed Ra Ra Riot making fresh-faced Abercrombie types sway while the Joy Formidable's Ritzy Bryan (who looked alarmingly similar to Lady Gaga, thanks to Bryan's angry delivery, platinum blond hair and massive, black sunglasses) and her physical, stage-owning histrionics made her an early contender for the mythical FFF Fest MVP. The tribal, bass-heavy repetition of southern Sahara-based Tinariwan proved to be as affecting as any of the laptop warriors from the daytime electronic sets on the Blue Stage.
Unfortunately, an act that had serious momentum going into this weekend, M83, was one of the few whose overall production suffered because of their set time. The soundscapes of Anthony Gonzalez benefit greatly from an effective light-show washing over the stage as a black sky looms overhead, not a mid-day haze where any attempt at producing lighting-induced ambiance was useless.
While producing a shindig as grand as this one is a giant undertaking, the folks at Transmission obviously have a formula for success. Clear and clever marketing, near-ingenious booking and a willingness to grow even in the face of anti-corporate criticism have made Fun Fun Fun Fest the state's, if not the country's, authority on running a festival that lives on the fringes and thrives in the extremes.