In an era where at least 110 people per day are moving to Austin, Texas, making the once oh-so-intimate Live Music Capital of the World feel more and more like Los Angeles every day, it has become much harder to pinpoint music industry holdouts for the city’s unofficial slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.”
But this weekend, locating that cultural earmark is a cinch: Enter Fun Fun Fun Fest (FFF Fest), the baby-turned-preteen of local promoter Transmission Events, which kicked off its 10th edition Friday (Nov. 6) at beautiful — though slightly brisk and somewhat precipitous — downtown lakeside locale Auditorium Shores with headlining turns from the likes of Chvrches, Cheap Trick, Schoolboy Q and Coheed and Cambria.
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Note that none of those acts even come close to the mainstream fare of last month’s Austin City Limits Music Festival (Foo Fighters, Drake, Florence + the Machine, Deadmau5). FFF was founded in 2006 with DIY ethics and bands, and has stuck vehemently to that tradition (save for a few mainstream inserts, like Snoop Dogg in 2013) by packing its three-day roster with small-timers and relative unknowns ripe for discovery by the fest’s 50,000-plus attendees.
To boot, the event boasts one of the most eclectic arrays in the contemporary festival world. Color-coded stages — Orange, Blue, Black and Yellow — host indie/popular rock, hip-hop and electronica, punk/metal/hardcore and comedy, respectively (with a few exceptions on each), which helps fans self-curate lineups, ranging from genre-focused to wildly diverse, in a wonderfully efficient fashion.
With the rain gods on our side — dark clouds thankfully yielded only occasional sprinkles rather than detrimental storms — highlights from Day 1 came from every sector of the fest.
12:40 p.m.: Local rock outfit Future Death is living up to its name during the Black Stage’s kickoff set. Riffs are coming noisy and fast, and vocalist Angie Kang’s distorted, repetitive vocals carry an air of doom to match the ominously dark clouds. Still, would-be moshers are holding back for the moment.
1:15 p.m.: Cannabis smoke abounds near the wrestling ring, already surrounded by a crowd intent on lighthearted heckling. “If you’re high as shit at 1 o’clock on a Friday, please don’t throw things at the wrestlers,” says the referee. Much of that crowd is shifting over to watch Philly outfit Nothing turn in a set of ‘90s-inspired rock (think Bends-era Radiohead meets Nirvana, plus shades of Hum) on the Black Stage. All the agro wrestling and weed still isn’t enough at this point to inspire a solid pit. “Thanks for Nothing!” shouts one facetious FFFer.
1:45 p.m.: Austin mainstay Roger Sellers, recently rebranded as Bayonne, is doing his hometown proud by invoking something akin to Animal Collective innovation with intricate percussive loops, spacey samples and floaty yet forceful vocals. Adding a live drummer for the first time ever gives the sizable early-bird audience surrounding the Blue Stage the gusto to make this one of the day’s standout “dance” sets.
2:25 p.m.: Though he’s already done so on his home turf of Los Angeles and surrounding areas, singer-songwriter Mikal Cronin is handily proving that he’s not just another player in Ty Segall’s band by leading a happily bouncing audience through easy sing-alongs on some of the peppiest cuts off recently released third solo album MCIII. Whether it’s an abundance of West Coast visitors or Cronin’s genuine grin during every amped-up solo that’s leading the rally is debatable. Either way, the chorus of voices on older cuts “Weight” and “Shout It Out” serve as a splendidly warm sonic antidote to the grey skies and chilly air.
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3:05 p.m.: Long-running San Francisco-based garage outfit Dwarves are unleashing the first real hardcore set of the weekend on the Black Stage. Fans of all ages and genders are finally giving in to rowdy tendencies, forming a decently large mosh pit while the band spouts its intentionally shocking lyrics over mostly 30-seconds-or-less numbers. “Hardcore punk is good-time music,” shouts frontman Blag Dahlia with a laugh before unleashing more obscenities: “I’m just a slut,” “I’ll f— you up,” and “You’re a f—head” are among the audible snippets. Few look deterred, but Blag offers a disclaimer anyway: “No one told you punk was smart.”
5:10 p.m.: Flanked by wild femme-punk (Babes in Toyland) and hipster grooves (Toro Y Moi) on the Black and Orange stages, Canadian sex-tronic artist Peaches refuses to be overshadowed on the Blue Stage. She begins a set heavy on material off new album Rub dressed in a uterus costume, brings out two backup dancers dressed as vaginas a couple songs later, crowd-surfs in a penis-shaped balloon (stealing a play from the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne), hosts a marriage proposal between two men (he said “yes”) and fires a few rounds from FFF’s famous taco cannon. Embedded in some undeniably catchy dance beats, sex has never sold so well.
5:55 p.m.: Antemasque — the latest brain child of At the Drive-In and the Mars Volta masterminds Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López — brings out ex-Blink-182 beatmaster Travis Barker for his first festival appearance since recently joining the band. From the get-go on “In the Lurch,” Zavala is a whirlwind: he jumps, whips the mic cord and even sings/flails from underneath a white rain tarp while Rodríguez-López unleashes aggressive yet pleasingly melodic tunes (his brother Marfred holds down the chugging bass). As the set unfolds, it’s clear that they’re focusing on almost all new songs (Barker is locked in to play drums on the follow-up to the band’s self-titled debut), but the crown jewel is first album cut “People Forget” for the closer. Barker’s capacity to jam in between airtight polyrhythms is astounding — his added mastery elevates the final maelstrom of jazzy prog-rock to the status of FFF’s most momentous performance on the Orange Stage so far.
7:25 p.m.: Drive Like Jehu is making its final (scheduled) U.S. reunion tour date one for the books. The math-y hardcore of “Bullet Train to Vegas” and “Do You Compute” early on incite brutal moshing to match the edge of frontman Rick Froberg’s fiery screams. While droves of cow-eyed millennials take in Cheap Trick across the park on the Orange Stage, likely there out of mild curiosity and the hope of hearing “I Want You to Want Me” and “Surrender,” everyone here at the Black Stage is getting the most bang for their buck. In this moment, ending with a crushing rendition of “Luau,” Jehu sounds more fresh than most new bands dabbling in the post-hardcore arena. And they look positively gleeful in the midst of the ferocity — here’s hoping this reunion sparks another album while the chemistry has momentum.
8:45 p.m.: Scottish trio Chvrches is catching a break in terms of the weather — frontwoman Lauren Mayberry pauses to reflect on it being “hotter than the f—ing sun” when the band last played Austin at ACL Fest 2014 — but the band is getting screwed by an awful mix. Mayberry’s vocals are all but lost in the too-high, muddy bass of “Never Ending Circles,” the first of many this night off September sophomore disc Every Eye Open. First album track “We Sink” draws cheers from the faithful fans, but doesn’t sound much better.
That said, Mayberry is performing more impressively than I’ve ever seen her — no longer just the stationary, doe-eyed darling, she’s strutting and sprinting across the strobed-out stage, looking genuinely mighty while she head-bangs and whips the mic cord between vocal snarls. “Lies” marks the sound finally evening out, and that along with the uplifting, video game-esque beat of new song “Gold” finally evokes a stage presence worthy of a headlining set.
An impassioned take on “Recover” that lives up to its name in this so-far sonically inconsistent context, plus destined-to-be super-hit “The Mother We Share,” round out a relatively massive dance party (today’s crowd stayed thin, probably due to the Friday work grind), but not before the band pays tribute to its beginnings in Austin. “The first day we got in for SXSW (2013) … we thought it was too much — can’t do it. And here we are two and a half years later, so thanks for supporting us and letting us come back and enjoy this festival.” The sentiment feels massively relevant on the opening eve of FFF’s 10th anniversary — it touches on the festival’s potential to spotlight deserving talents as they make strides toward widespread stardom.