Choosing Fun Fun Fun over the Austin City Limits festival this year was a no-brainer decision, and I have not regretted the decision to pass on Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam and Ben Harper for a nanosecond.
Sitting on the soft grass and turning away from the Orange Stage before Death's set to watch a beautiful sunset over the trees of Waterloo Park really emphasized the superiority of the venue to the mud- or dust-clogged hell that Zilker Park can be. Add to that Transmission Entertainment's no-filler lineup streamlined to two days and fall weather and there is no competition.
Here are a few quick thoughts on some of my favorite performances of the day.
I only caught the last song and a half from Royal Bangs, though the singer's explanation of some technical difficulty was the funniest stage banter I heard all day: "There was a ghost thing on stage and we had to re-computer some, ummmmmmmmmm [drawing out the umm for about 30 seconds] ... OK, this is our last song. We're Royal Bangs!" And with that, they launched into a gloriously sloppy blast of over-driven beats, synth buzz and red-hot guitar. But Crystal Antlers were the next best thing in the psychedelic mishmash of rock, pop and pure energy. For some reason, the heavy reverb and effects on Andrew King's Fender Jaguar reminded me of Abe Vigoda's guitar sound. Damian Edwards' bongos, often sounding like something right out of a car chase scene in some forgotten '70s crime movie, added a fun propulsion to the set, as did his enthusiastic dancing.
Shonen Knife, Russian Circles
The downside of a schedule so packed with intriguing acts is the heartbreaking time conflicts. Fortunately, Waterloo Park is small enough that trying to sample two or three bands scheduled for the same time is manageable. Early in the afternoon I watched the beginning of Shonen Knife's set, and the band's simple Ramones-influenced simple three-chord pop punk songs were every bit as cute, upbeat, silly and fun as I'd expected. Knowing that they've been around since the early '80s, I was shocked at how young the trio looked in matching uniforms; turns out that only singer/guitarist Naoko Yamano is the only original member. The instrumental metal trio Russian Circles could have hardly been more different, though their songs were also sometimes just a couple of chords as well. With a masterful guitarist and lock-tight rhythm section, the intricate nuanced changes in rhythm created a heavy, ever-evolving groove. Mike Sullivan made a good case for the use of finger-tapping on guitar, a technique I'd always associated with Van Halen and hair-metal crap, by using it to form complex melodies rather than flashy solos. I only caught VEGA's last song, but it looked like Alan Palomo had an enthusiastic dance party going.
Read this New York Times article for a great history of this Detroit proto-punk band. The thumbnail history of the group is: brothers David, Dannis and Bobby Hackney start playing R&B in the early '70s, until they're transformed by an Iggy Pop performance in 1973. Deciding to go hard rock, they hit upon a sound that melds MC5 fury with soulful blues licks in a sound that presaged punk-rock by a couple of years. Labels wanted nothing to do with a black hard-rock band that refused to change its less-than-marketable name, and the band was forgotten by all but the most fervent punk collectors until Bobby Hackney's sons recognized their father's voice on a record at a party and found out the story of the band. Drag City compiled recordings as For The Whole World To See earlier this year, though founding guitarist and leader David had died of cancer in 2000.
The trio, with a replacement guitarist and a large black-and-white poster standing in for David visually and sonically, finally took the stage at about 6:15. Backlit in purple, the three wore hooded black robes, but quickly removed the ominous attire with grins all around and launched into a sloppy, soulful take on "Keep On Knocking." Though the sound was rough around the edges, the three were clearly overjoyed and proud to be reclaiming their place in rock history.
"These songs were written in Detroit in 1975," Bobby announced proudly to enthusiastic applause. Clearly, this was a knowledgeable audience. After a few more songs, including the epic "Politicians In My Eyes"--which splits the difference between Sabbath, MC5 and the brothers' funk and R&B roots--he thanked everyone he could think of and gave one last tribute to his late brother.
"David always believed the world would hear this music," he said. "We dedicate this to him and you."
Having never caught Ghosthustler live and only hearing the last song of Alan Palomo's VEGA set earlier in the day, I will admit that I came into this set something of a skeptic--and late, unable to pull myself from Death's grip. But Palomo and his band sold it. The energy from the dancing, glowstick-flinging crowd was undeniably contagious. By the time he teased Beach Boys backing "Oo-wee-oo" vocals on "Deadbeat Summer," I was a believer.
The Jesus Lizard
Remember what I said earlier about being able to catch two or three bands at a time if you want to? That doesn't work when there's a frontman as magnetically sleazy as David Yow. Thrashing about, leaning into the mic stand, thusting lewdly and crowd-surfing all the way to the soundboard to plant a kiss on his sister, it was impossible to take your eyes off the man even 10 years after the band broke up. I never saw them in the '90s, but it's impossible to believe they could have sounded any tighter, noisier or intense. "Then Comes Dudley" and "Mouth Breather" were wild-ass highlights, with Duane Denison's noisy guitar sounding as if it were about to start an electrical storm and Mac McNeilly's drums providing the thunder.
"Hey, Mr. Fun Fun Fun, can we get that other band to stop playing? It's kind of annoying," Yow said at one point when Ratatat's sound spilled over during a pause between songs well into the set. And it was the first time I even remembered that I'd planned to catch that band and the Pharcyde. By the time McNeilly ended the set with a machine-like solo, it was clear that any plans of skipping the Jesus Lizard encore to catch the other acts were null and void.