International racing fans are pulling into Austin for the third annual Formula One weekend, and with it comes a three-day, four-stage musical block party known as Austin Fan Fest. The free Downtown event, counterpoint to pricey Circuit of the Americas branded gigs by Kid Rock and Duran Duran, has been hit or miss in its first two iterations, putting on well-selected performers of local and national provenance amongst a swath of casino circuit has-beens like last year's headliners of Berlin, Foreigner's Lou Gramm, and Everlast.
This weekend's Fan Fest retreads its track record with a schedule promising excellent national acts including De La Soul, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Fishbone, and the Whigs; Halloween appropriate tributes to Tom Petty, David Bowie, the Smiths, and Selena; and a deep selection of credible locals including Black Joe Lewis, Conjunto Los Pinkys, Minor Mishap Marching Band, the Texas Tornados, and Whiskey Shivers. That latter act, liquored-up barefoot folk musicians who ply a style called thrashgrass, are a bona fide Austin live staple and one soundtracking Fan Fest has gotten right all three years.
"The people who organize Fan Fest have been really good to us and they pay really well," acknowledged upright bassist Andrew Van Voorhees. "Finding well-paying gigs in Austin is really hard. If you have to have a sponsor behind you so the band can pay its rent for the month, I think that's all right."
Indeed, three current and past Fan Fest artists tell "Playback" it pays exceptionally well, one citing a four-digit wage. The general increase of relevance and taste can be attributed to a new booking team. Circuit of the Americas switched from an outside promoter to a partnership that involves Transmission Events and ACL Live at the Moody Theater.
"They both have proven track records in bringing top notable talent to town and also understanding this city's musical taste," says former ACL Live Marking Director Sharilyn Mayhugh, who left the venue to work with COTA in May and initiated the current partnership. "Having worked with both companies in the past provided an existing trust factor."
Asked how he approached putting together a musical roster, Transmission's head booker Graham Williams said it was about finding what F1 wants for its fans.
"Some elements of the last two Fan Fests had an odd mix that didn't really reflect Austin as well as it could have," emailed Williams. "It's about being aware that COTA is now a big part of the Austin community, but also bringing a lot of new people into town for the weekend. We all want to find that balance between having an event that appeals to locals and people that are just in town for the weekend.
"We think you can be diverse in your line-up without having a bill of bands with zero crossover."
ACL Live and Belmont booker Jack McFadden, who was instrumental in assembling Fan Fest's 2014 lineup, agrees.
"We were putting together something, regardless of F1, that would really represent the spirit of a free Downtown music festival," he says. "We kept landing on bands that were celebratory, nothing too dark or quiet. It was fun to be able to do that for the city of Austin and have it still appeal to the influx of F1 fans coming from all around the word."
In the aftermath of last weekend's Housecore Horror Film Festival, co-founder Corey Mitchell, 47, died in the parking lot of Emo's on Monday, presumably from a heart attack.
"He seemed to be feeling fine just before it happened," said U.S. Army member Michael Paul Rodriguez, who flew in from Hawaii to volunteer for the festivities. The afternoon after the second annual convergence had ended, at 1:30pm, Rodriguez helped Mitchell load production gear into his van when he heard a thud. "I turned around and he had gone down. Myself and several others ran to the van and could see he was unconscious. He was convulsing, exhaling heavily, and turning blue. The paramedics showed up very quickly and used a defibrillator. At first they couldn't find a pulse, then they could. It was going in and out.
"Then they drove him away and one of his friends went with, but when I looked at his face, I could tell he wasn't going to come back from that."
"We're really just still in shock," Mitchell's friend and business partner Phil Anselmo told the Chronicle that evening. "It's all just horrifically surreal. This one hurts, man. They all do, but this has a special kind of hurt to it. The event was such a blast, such a success, and everybody had such a great time. Nobody worked as hard as Corey. He believed in it so fucking much. He fought for it every inch of the way. It's like lightning striking, man, you just never know."
Mitchell, who lived in Schertz with his wife and two young daughters, was a nationally respected writer who authored bestselling true crime books and the "Bleeders' Digest" column for MetalSucks.net. He was also a longtime fan and supporter of heavy, underground bands from Austin.
The festival's second year delivered to fans exactly what they came for: classic horror films, in-depth panels, and world class live metal. It wasn't without growing pains, however. It was a surprise to fans that they added a large parking lot stage at Midway Field House on the same block as Emo's and perhaps a greater surprise to the surrounding community, which made dozens of noise complaints to the venue. There were also technical issues like fans not being able to pay on-site with credit cards. Stress no doubt played a role in Mitchell's death.
"Putting on Housecore is an unbelievable undertaking," said former HHFF creative director Tammy Moore. "Every part that seems to be in place has a thousand little parts going along with it. Corey had never put on a concert this size and we had to create the model as we went along, which made it very stressful. I was surprised both of us lived through it the first year."
Mitchell and Moore parted ways as business partners on HHFF 2.
"There were some serious financial issues – big numbers needed to be accounted for – and Corey and I seriously disagreed on how to deal with those things," continues Moore. "His passion was so strong that he was willing to get loans to pay for it to make sure everyone involved was financially taken care of. Even though I didn't agree with his methods, I admired the way he put himself out there. It showed me how much this thing meant for him."
With this loss, Housecore Horror hangs in the balance. Whether we've seen the last of this Texas metal/film combo will be sorted out in the by-and-by. Now isn't the time for restructuring, of course. It's time to mourn.
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