Have Fun Fun Fun, kids, as long as you’re back by 10. Austin’s inventive and progressive Fun Fun Fun Festival, now in its sixth year, offered something for everyone this past weekend: metal and electro sets, hip-hop and indie rock, comedy, classic punk, art, eclectic food, even Hollywood celebrities.
Sizable enough to warrant a new location this year at Auditorium Shores on the banks of the Lower Colorado River, the festival admirably weathered a few growing pains while still retaining its intimate atmosphere. Clouds of dust from the drought-ridden grounds presented challenges, forcing many festival-goers to don face kerchiefs and resemble G-20 protesters, or perhaps the Occupy Austin folks across the river at City Hall. And the relatively early 10 p.m. curtain times left some acts singing and strumming into powerless amplifiers, their fans yelling for more. But after three full days of performances, including late-night shows sprinkled throughout downtown Austin, Fun Fun Fun had proven why it’s one of the country’s very best smaller-scale festivals.
A good crowd swarmed the Heartless Bastards set during the somewhat chilly temperatures on Friday afternoon, and Erika Wennerstrom’s voice translated from the studio to festival speakers with perfect clarity.
Yacht electrified its fans with dance punk/synth pop made all the more exciting by Claire L. Evans’ enthusiasm, gestures and overall persona.
Denver act Pictureplane brought his Lady Gaga/Fever Ray-dressed dancers and DJ’ed an exuberant mix to a welcoming audience.
Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears (his horn section) ripped through garage blues with reckless abandon early Friday evening, then later played an after party at Beauty Bar as the four-piece Ice Pick opening up for Andre Williams.
Okkervil River had trouble getting started. Mics and guitars shorting out caused Will Sheff to shout his frustrations to the back of the stage before doing his best to keep the songs going. It all smoothed out eventually, but it was a rough start.
At the comedy stage, Reggie Watts overfilled the tent area but even outsiders got blasts of his unmistakable loops.
Apart from the ever-looming specter of a set by Slayer, the two most buzzed about events during the fest would surely have to be rocker Glenn Danzig’s continuing legacy of being the butt of jokes and the frequent sightings of movie star Ryan Gosling –- shooting footage on the grounds with director Terence Malik.
Danzig, who showed up on stage for his Friday night headlining gig 40 minutes late, inadvertently robbed his ardent fans of what they most wanted to see: original guitarist Doyle joining him onstage for a set of the classic horror punk band the Misfits.
Following a run through of his current band’s material as well as a good set of his first post-Misfits outfit Samhain, a packed crowd was amped to hear favorite tracks by the Misfits. But, just two songs in (“Death Comes Ripping” and “Vampira”) – both sung along in full roar by the huge crowd – the plug was pulled. The 10 p.m. curfew applied to everyone, including the mighty Danzig. He appeared indignant as he and the band tried to rile the crowd to yell for the power back, even though, it was clearly his fault for showing up late. Not only could fans be overheard cursing his name, but bands and comedians would take turn mocking him from the stage over the next two days.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Public Enemy opened its headlining set with a “thank you” to its fans for the years of support, as well as a suggestion to by Chuck D to “occupy a town near you.” Clad in baggy grey sweat pants, Flava Flav chose a more lighthearted approach, thanking everyone for supporting his “career in television,” then coaxing the crowd into a sing-along before tearing into “911 is a Joke.” Accompanying Terminator X, Professor Griff and the S1Ws, DJ Lord performed a breathtaking mash of Nirvana’s songs on the turntables, set up by AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
“Bring The Noise” should have done exactly what it calls for, but the band’s live drummer couldn’t quite match the song’s heavy beats, and, in fairness, he probably should not have been asked to, with two DJs present. “Public Enemy No. 1,” the group’s first radio player, got the crowd going again. Then, in the middle of perhaps the PE’s most identifiable song, “Fight the Power,” the power went out. Irony? Perhaps. Or maybe they had fought the power a little too hard for Fun Fun Fun’s transmitting capacities and curfews.
As part of the late night off-grounds festivities, a beer-soaked set by raunchy 1950s R&B legend and hip hop godfather Andre “Mr. Rhythm” Williams at the Beauty Bar was a true highlight. The 75-year-old Williams, dressed to the nines with two grinding go-go dancers by his side, performed cuts like “I’m A Bad Motherfucker,” “Let Me Put It In” and “Pussy Stank.”
Saturday brought a full day of fantastic music. Among early standouts was a hypnotic set from Tinariwen, the group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara desert region of Mali whose regional rhythms were matched perfectly by a flowing breeze and the swirling clouds of dust that swept into the air from the festival grounds.
Welsh trio (and crowd favorite) the Joy Formidable followed with a dynamic and energetic set that culminated in diminutive guitarist/vocalist Ritzy Bryan bashing a gong. Following such a visceral rock and roll moment, the tame ‘80s styled synth rock of M83 who took the stage next, failed to match the energy in the outdoor setting.
Without the rest of his Doomtree crew, Minneapolis rapper Cecil Otter appeared a bit more vulnerable, joking about a misstep during his song “A Rickety Bridge.” He recovered nicely with DJ Andy Swiss in their following act as Wugazi on the same stage, wowing the crowd with live mixes of the music of Wu Tang Clan and Fugazi.
Tune-Yards proved to be Saturday’s highlight, with leader Merrill Garbus simultaneously singing, playing drums and live looping. As the layers built with each song, so did the crowd’s response. The New England band’s music is both simple and complex in its piecemeal approach, accessible and experimental, and it had the crowd hopping up and down by set’s end.
Kool Keith filled in for the injured Rakim and treated the crowd to some material from his days with the legendary Ultramagnetic MCs, including what is likely the music world’s only reference to journeyman New York Mets catcher Jerry Grote, long retired before the Ultras ever formed and penned the song “Two Brothers with Checks.”
Stirring things up on the “black stage” was a reunited Hot Snakes which tore through a raucous collection of screamo garage rock-based tunes powered by the dual guitar work of Rick Froberg and John Reis.
Black stage headliners and British punk rock pioneers the Damned celebrated their 35th anniversary by performing their classic first album in its entirety, along with a host of crowd favorites from “The Black Album” and “Machine Gun Etiquette.”
The tight, pure rock and roll set was peppered with the goofy wit (including Danzig mockery) and unmistakable talent of guitarist Captain Sensible, as well as the proto-gothic vocals of the elegantly coiffed Dave Vanian. They ended the evening appropriately dedicating their classic “Smash It Up” to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The muggy overcast pall hanging over Sunday’s festivities was quickly knifed through by the power pop of Le Butcherettes. Denver-born Terry Gender Bender, possessing an electric stage presence and vocals reminiscent of Siouxsie Sioux, led the band through a buzzworthy set before climbing up the retaining fence into the crowd and cartwheeling off the stage.
Mates of State and Asobi Seksu offered up their well-received brands of tame keyboard driven teenage girl pop from the Orange Stage.
More invigorating was a relentlessly tight set by early ‘80s hardcore vets the Zero Boys, who also got in some good Danzig-bashing while tearing through tunes like “Vicious Circle,” “Living In The 80s” and the anthemic “Try Harder” to win over the young crowd.
The Budos Band got the crowd dancing with their Afro-soul sound even though they claimed the night before in a late show at Deville that they were playing without their percussionist, who was in jail back in New York.
One of the defining moments of the fest came during the set from the ever-likeable and consistently brilliant Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. Leo, battling a cough, worked through some rough early vocals to give fans a powerhouse of a performance featuring tracks from throughout his career, offering up “The High Party” as his tribute to the Occupy movement.
Taking a moment to catch his breath, Leo disappeared behind his amp then popped back out dressed as Glenn Danzig to wild cheers. He addressed the crowd in character, and apologized for the Friday night screw up. Magnificently, he and the band then launched into a spot-on set of Misfits tunes (including “Bullet,” “Where Eagles Dare,” “Skulls” and “Angelfuck”) that more than made up for the let down of the real thing two days prior.
Del the Funky Homosapien, backed by the Serendipity Project band, entertained what was easily the weekend’s biggest hip-hop crowd with a positive-themed mix of West Coast funk and rap.
Back on the black stage, metal ruled the evening with a blistering set from death metal maniacs Cannibal Corpse, which stirred up a giant pit of thrash fans and headbangers. And Japan’s Boris followed by mixing sludgy riffs with psychedelic atmospherics and even danceable beats while bathed in lots and lots of smoke.
Odd Future’s headlining set was largely chaotic, but this time, it was not the L.A. hip-hop collective’s doing. Tyler, the Creator was hit in the head with a beverage mid-set and dove into the crowd to take on the offender. The stage emptied when his whole crew quickly followed behind in support. The show was suspended for several minutes. When it resumed, Odd Future still had to contend with the considerable blare of the all-mighty Slayer behind them.
Comedian Brian Posehn had the tough job of “opening” for Slayer, but managed to have the crowd laughing along to his unique take on everything from the trials of marriage and masturbation to the glory of heavy metal.
Easily drawing the largest crowd of the entire fest, thrash metal titans Slayer floored the entire site with massive volume levels. Guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s speed metal riffs, god-like drummer Dave Lombardo’s precision pummeling and vocalist Tom Araya’s growl echoed throughout the entire venue during their set.
The band initially concentrated on newer material, like “God Hates Us All,” and “Bloodline” before beginning to sprinkle in classics that their rabid fans had come to hear: “War Ensemble,” “Mandatory Suicide.”
Heads banged and horned hands were raised. At one point, a fan in the pit held a goat’s head mask aloft. Swathed in glowing orange stage lights and swirling smoke it made for an appropriately hellish visage with Slayer providing the soundtrack during the jaw dropping finale of “South of Heaven,” “Reigning Blood” and the brutal “Angel of Death.”
For this year’s festival, at least, the Fun ended with a bang, not a whimper.
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and is currently finishing his second novel.
Michael Behrenhausen is a Denver-based writer, musician and regular Reverb contributor. The worst crime he ever did was play some rock ‘n’ roll.
Marc Hobelman makes websites at The Denver Post, tweets pictures of his cat and is a regular contributor to Reverb.