Playback: Black Metal, Gray Skies, Red-Hot Love
Sex, love, and nostalgia – recapping Fun Fun Fun Fest 2015
"Welcome to Hell. Welcome to Texas," growled Conrad "Cronos" Lant, staring over a fearsome mosh pit where certified Angus metalheads tossed each other about. For Venom, the British trio that's been summoning Satan for 35 years, Sunday's hellraising at Fun Fun Fun Fest counted as their first appearance in the Lone Star State. Historic.
Amongst the tens of thousands that gathered for FFF Fest's 10th iteration, few were so unacquainted with Auditorium Shores as Lant. The lion's share of passes were strapped on local wrists and, thus, the genre-music bonanza enjoyed the atmosphere of a community gathering. That vibe resonated beyond the temporary fencing around the city's central park into unlikely locales.
On Thursday night, reunited grunge-punk vixens Babes in Toyland stormed country dance hall the White Horse for a secret show where they detonated an hour of well-preserved riot grrrl wreckage. Mid-set, drummer Lori Barbero stood up from her kit and took cell phone video documenting hundreds of screaming fans – a surreal sight considering that she'd spent several years unceremoniously bartending at the Eastside haunt.
Later that night, Austin's cosmic Afrobeat tribe Golden Dawn Arkestra – Sun Ra meets Cirque du Soleil – orchestrated a pupil-dilating dance party at Cheer Up Charlies to kick off the fest's official aftershow series. Welcome to FFF's fifth stage, Nites, a Downtown club crawl of free shows exclusive to festivalgoers. If you're going home when the park closes, you're missing out on some of FFF's best action.
Look no further than goth juggernaut Skinny Puppy, whose elaborate stage setup goes beyond the confines of festival rigging and thus necessitated a Nites-only appearance at the Moody Theater on Friday. Similarly, a tour of European black metal heroes Mayhem, Watain, and Rotting Christ presented grave-digging pig blood ceremonies routed through Mohawk on Saturday as an official afterparty.
The night before, the same venue hosted local rock & roll hotshots OBN IIIs, garage rocker Mikal Cronin, and metallic groovers Fuzz outside, while Yonatan Gat stole the show in the club's small interior. The Israeli axe man, formerly of noise punks Monotonix, positioned his Middle Eastern spazz trio on the floor while rapturous onlookers surrounded or watched from the stage. Such lo-fi madness reflected DIY basement ethics more than festival grandeur – and it was one of the best moments of FFF 2015.
This deployment of free, late-night entertainment serves as key component of an identity-driven event like FFF, differentiating it from similarly curated fiestas like Riot Fest and FYF. On the Austin fest's proper premises, experiential curiosities slotted on the Yellow stage to benefit the same cause.
"Music is a divine art, so like the musician I compose in the zone of my heart. Every word, every thought has a form. I say 'hurricane' and your mind forms a storm," rapped Wu-Tang founder GZA in his "Science of Hip-Hop" speech on Saturday, which was preceded by a presentation from Dr. Scott J. Bolton, a NASA scientist heading up the Juno mission to Jupiter. If science isn't your bag, the tented space offered lessons in twerking from preeminent ass-shaker Big Freedia on Sunday, though the most profound offering of FFF's sideshow was a motivational speech that day by Andrew W.K., who increased gravity with existential affirmations: "Life is not supposed to be easy. It's supposed to be amazing! Life is not supposed to be about maximizing the time we spend resting. Life is best discovered through a celebration of life. The most amazing thing about being alive ... is being alive!"
If that didn't epitomize the spirit of FFF, then it came in close second to Peaches' uninhibited bonanza of raunch and revelry. The electro-rap diva, an alumna of FFF's 2006 inauguration, pulled out all the stops on the first day, dancing with anthropomorphic vaginas, soliciting the huge crowd for joints, firing the Taco Cannon, and tumbling through a 30-foot inflatable phallus while positing her own philosophical query: "Whose jizz is this?"
Friday's undercard yielded further highlights in the playful metal of Mutoid Man, the pounding dream loops of local Bayonne (Roger Sellers), and the gutsy garage blues of NOLA upstart Benjamin Booker. Consider Viet Cong a lowlight given their epic and inane plodding. Chvrches, Coheed and Cambria, and a bored-of-his-songs Schoolboy Q slotted in as closers, but power-pop veterans Cheap Trick, armed with a dozen custom guitars and even more memorable hooks, proved the true headliner.
Saturday's weather was so dicey that Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro actually wore a shirt – although only one button was fastened. The threat of thunderstorms compelled the Austin Parks Department to delay proceedings for a walk-through, which left thousands of festers stuck outside and quashed performances from locals American Sharks and A Giant Dog. The latter performed one song to "Playback" in an empty field, then learned their set was canceled and briefly considered smashing their instruments.
Once the gates opened, Saturday unfolded with endearing hardcore Canucks Fucked Up, whose giant lead singer Damian Abraham accurately touted FFF as the "best festival in the world." Austin's East Cameron Folkcore boiled social revolution, former local Neon Indian stage-dove into his dream disco dancers, and Gogol Bordello did a favor to fans by devoting their full set to the dubbed-out world beat of 2005's Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike.
A nostalgic triptych of headliners all underwhelmed. NOFX mistook shit-talk for energy; Jane's Addiction offered glittery, gutless renditions of the ever-overrated Ritual de lo Habitual; and Wu-Tang only entered 20 chambers as key members Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, and Method Man no-showed.
"Hip-hop brings us all together," U-God declared in a moment of dense irony.
FFF Fest organizers acknowledged that weather affected ticket sales on Friday and Saturday, but Sunday's attendance exceeded expectations. The Sabbath's blue skies welcomed breakbeat originator Afrika Bambaataa, who used his turntables to give a history lesson on hip-hop and electro funk. Similarly pioneering their own genre, Dag Nasty offered melodic hardcore 101. While a reunited L7 hammered on the Black stage, synth stirrers Future Islands returned to a fan base that's multiplied tenfold since their 2011 FFF debut. Emotive singer Samuel Herring demonstrated a better version of Drake's "Hotline Bling" dance moves.
As Venom slew black-clad masses, a larger segment of FFF's Sunday congregation was killed softly by Lauryn Hill, last-minute sub for cancellation-prone R&B maverick D'Angelo. The booking was a Hail Mary – and it connected. She'd displayed a prickly attitude at the previous night's Austin City Limits taping, yet the high soul priestess gave FFF an appropriately "fun" set, complete with Fugees material, obligatory Bob Marley covers, and a powerful tribute to Civil Rights soundtrack Nina Simone.
If there was a naturally occurring theme to FFF's daffodil anniversary, deeper than the obvious display of nostalgia, it was love. During the tail end of Peaches' definitive performance, while she played her heartwarming single "Fuck the Pain Away," two Austinites – Nathan Garcia and Benny VandenAvond – took the stage as guest dancers. Then Peaches deferred her microphone to Garcia, who took a knee and proposed to VandenAvond. He said yes!
The local couple instantly became symbols of love, marriage equality, and daring proposals, but less publicized was another romantic connection that happened on the fest's third and final night. "Playback" discovered a quaking porta-potty and, with minimal detective work, ascertained that there was a young couple having relations in it.
"Who has sex in a porta-potty on day three of a music festival?" I asked myself in disgust, moments before realizing how funny it'd be to give them an impromptu cold shower. I opened my water bottle and sprayed chilly H20 into the bathroom's upper vents and ran off, laughing like a delinquent.
Call me a cock blocker. I'm guilty. Yet I might also be a hero who prevented an unplanned pregnancy resulting in a kid who'd one day learn he was conceived in an outhouse at Fun Fun Fun Fest 2015.