The Los Angeles State Historic Park is an awfully long name for the venue of last weekend’s FYF Fest, so I will call it the Dustbowl from now on. The two overriding memories of the opening day of the festival are the searing afternoon heat and the fairly constant swirl of dust that accompanied any occasion when people decided to dance or jump around. And there was a LOT of dancing and jumping around. Why wouldn’t there be? This was the most impressive line-up in the short history of the FYF Fest, and it did not disappoint. Well-organized and in a great space, all the fans had to worry about was getting their timing right. Everything else was pretty well taken care of by the organizers, who deserve total credit for the weekend’s success.
Fueled by the minimum amount of food required and something like 8 liters of water between us, my trusted photographer wife and I trekked for the best part of 12 hours to cover as many of the best FYF Fest sets we could manage. Our afternoon opened with the languid, lovely songs of Sandro Perri on the Hill St. Stage. The crowd at this point in the day was particularly sparse but grew slowly as Perri played his gently slippery melodies in the blazing sunshine.
I do feel that Perri’s songs are of the variety that require total immersion to fully appreciate, rather than the type that have an instant impact. As such, it was difficult for him to be much more than an early afternoon diversion for the uninitiated, but his set was nevertheless a relaxed way to settle into the FYF Fest. It made sense that most people watching were relaxing in the spotted shade provided by the trees near the stage, and as it turned out, this was simply the calm before the storm.
Next up we made our way to the Broadway St. Tent to catch John Maus, whose album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves was one of my highlights of 2011. Its meticulously constructed songs, with Maus’s distinctive baritone at the center, doesn’t necessarily seem like the stuff great gigs are made of, but then listening to the music does not exactly prepare you for a John Maus gig. In fact, to call it a gig is somewhat misleading, as this was more like a 35-minute performance art piece.
Alone on the stage in his nice shirt and jeans combo, Maus proceeded to play a backing track complete with vocals while he “performed” over the top. This performance involved him constantly screaming, bouncing, punching himself repeatedly in the head, and pumping his fist to the crowd in a display of completely uninhibited energy that bordered on the feral. It was incongruous, unsettling, almost self-destructive, and absolutely incredible. I’ve never really seen anything like it. The FYF Fest crowd went from bafflement to unbridled enthusiasm as they responded completely to his performance, one that was an instant early contender for the best set of the weekend.
Needing something a little less full blooded after that breathless set, we headed to the FYF Fest Main St. Stage to catch Two Gallants. Being new to their unusual blend of emotional Americana, blues, and rock, I was impressed by the sound the two men on stage kicked out, and especially impressed by Adam Stephens’ excellent guitar work.
The crowd remained a little subdued during the set (festival crowds always do take a while to fully wake up…), but it was a set that became slowly more impressive as it went on. Stephens’ passionate vocals carried well across the big field, and they certainly showed enough for me to count them as my first festival “discovery.”
The FYF Fest Spring St. Stage at one far end of the site looked relatively sparse with meagre surroundings, but that did allow the opportunity for large crowds to gather for the sets with relatively few distractions. We headed that way for a double bill of bands that have garnered a lot of attention over the last year or so. First up was Cloud Nothings, whose album Attack on Memory is amongst the best reviewed of the year so far. While I haven’t quite developed the same love for it, it was difficult not to get swept up as soon as “Fall In” kicked in, which allied its already great melody to a more driven live sound.
Cloud Nothings does have some great tunes in their repertoire, and the bass player has a seriously mean death stare. However, while the first half of the set displayed this, the second half was almost entirely taken up by a nearly 15-minute version of the song “Wasted Days.” While the song opens with real power, its middle section already feels pretty long on record and it really didn’t need to be dragged out further on stage into an interminable white squall. It killed the momentum that had already built up, and following it with closer “No Future/ No Past,” during which Dylan Baldi’s half-broken voice really began to grate, didn’t help. A shame, as Cloud Nothings clearly has a lot going for them. They remain young enough to iron out bad habits.
The second half of our Spring St. double bill was Fucked Up. Despite terrible sound problems at the very beginning of the set, when the band was competing unsuccessfully with the warm-up music, they shook the issues off to deliver a blinding set. Vocalist Damien Abraham, or Pink Eyes as he is known, launched himself towards the front row at the beginning of the set and never left. In fact he let the fans sing half the lyrics in a display of generosity that seemed totally in fitting with a festival that had a genuinely relaxed and inclusive mood.
Fucked Up’s brand of euphoric epic punk, delivered with the blunt force of a triple guitar attack, was just the tonic to kick off a long first evening of FYF Fest, particularly with stunning closer “Son The Father.” I’ve never quite been sure about this band, but one of the best things about a festival is catching a performance and feeling your relationship to a band genuinely click. Count me as a fully fledged fan of the Canadian rockers from now on.
We headed back across the park to the Hill St. Stage for something old and something new. The recently reformed Hot Snakes played the sunset slot, and there was clearly a lot of warmth for the SoCal heroes. Guitarist John Reis is already a major hero of mine from his stellar work with Rocket From The Crypt, and the man’s resume suggests that slowing down never really occurs to him. He plays second fiddle to Rick Froberg in Hot Snakes, and Froberg’s primal vocals were perfectly suited to the band’s raw rock and roll.
Although punk in sound and attitude, the guitars had that lovely ’50s feel about them that suggests these guys really know their rock history. They certainly showed a few younger guys how it’s properly done as they went through their old favorites, and no band I saw all weekend seemed to be having as much relaxed fun as they did. Clearly age brings with it a certain amount of wisdom when it comes to having a good time.
The something new on the same stage was Purity Ring, whose album Shrines I have recently reviewed here, so it is no secret that I am already impressed by the duo. To see them live, I did have to miss both James Blake AND Sleigh Bells in FYF Fest’s most painful clash, but I was curious to see if the music could translate properly to the stage (and was admittedly skeptical that it would). Between stimulating visuals that reflected the music’s seductive glow, and some inventive musicianship, the show proved to be a success.
Let’s just say it’s surprising how well drums that light up when you hit them work as an effect when you’re in the early evening hours of a festival. Although Megan James’s vocals were occasionally a little flat, she did break character half way through the set to bounce around in glee, and she was clearly loving playing to the festival crowd. It added a nice human dimension to a set with little in the way of banter, and I suspect Purity Ring picked up a few new fans with their exemplary pop sensibility.
With sore feet and backs, we moved over to the FYF Fest Main St. Stage for two of the festival’s biggest draws to end the evening. M83 appear to have become one of those ten year overnight successes that goes from indie darlings to mainstream success when you’re not paying attention. It was therefore fitting that their set felt fine-tuned to include their largest sounding music, which was both atmospheric and extremely danceable.
They still leave me a little cold to be honest, but this was a slick and professional performance that showed a band completely comfortable with its increased profile. “Midnight CIty” was inevitably one of the most popular performances of the weekend, although the audience did begin to diminish as soon as that song was finished.
So after nearly 12 hours of music, there was only one band remaining on the Main St. Stage. That band was Refused, the reformed Swedish hardcore punk legends who never got their dues during their initial existence and now found themselves as headliners in front of a huge and expectant crowd. They did not disappoint. For an hour they displayed the power, the huge riffs, and the energy that made me wonder for the duration of the set how Refused was not the biggest band on the planet, in the way that you do in the middle of a truly great performance.
Frontman Dennis Lyxzen gave a high-kicking, seriously agile physical performance with a real sense of theater and seemed more than happy to draw the attention away from his bandmates, but for such a heavy set, the crispness of the playing was truly impressive. I had never realized just how good the rhythm section of the band was, but they drove the immense sound for every beat of the set. Then there was “New Noise,” the band’s unquestionable career highlight.
The track kicked off the most almighty mosh pit I have ever been a part of, one exacerbated by the fact that enough dust was kicked up that most of us could hardly breathe or see anything. A few minutes of dry coughing remedied the situation, and we were all left with the memories of seeing a band earn the adoration of a crowd that was blown away by their passion and fury. It was an utterly triumphant show, one that matched my impossibly high hopes, and it was the perfect way to end a long, hot, dry and wonderful day in the park.
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