There are tons of festivals in Austin, but none provide a better glimpse at the culture of this town than Fun Fun Fun Fest. The lineup, which has always featured everything from death metal to gangster rap and dance music to name a few, is a cross-section of the well-honed tastes of music lovers in this town. Though the festival’s profile has risen in its 9 years and people travel in from around the world to attend, Fun Fun Fun Fest still feels like a true Austin event.
Unfortunately, this year also reflected one of the worst things about the rapidly growing city: long lines. Festival promoters Transmission Entertainment messed up on royally Friday when those picking up wristbands at will call were forced to wait in line for hours due to a lack or preparedness on the festival’s part, stirring up a hornets nest of pissed off folks and casting a dark shadow on the weekend. And no, there wasn’t Franklin BBQ at the end of the line. The situation was made worse with the festival’s sorry-not sorry response and refusal to issue refunds, leading to a barrage of online comments of fest-goers spewing their views on the matter.
Luckily, after the first day most people had gotten over it and Fun Fun Fun carried on with very few issues, leaving the majority who attended quite satisfied. Between amateur wrestling, skateboarding and bmx and comedy, there was plenty to see at the fest, but I stuck to the music. Here are a handful of my favorites from the weekend…
Best Tease – Sun Kil Moon
I got into the fest just in time to catch a whole lot of tuning courtesy of Mark Kozelek and the final three songs in his set. The Orange Stage was plagued by sound problems throughout the day (nothing has ever sounded worse than Dinosaur Jr. later that night), but the vocal muffling and fuzz wasn’t enough to dampen Kozelek’s spirits as he made his way through the gloriously depressing lyrics of “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” off his incredible album Benji. Given his reputation for losing it on his audiences, it was surprising to see Kozelek cheerfully waxing nostalgic about his love for Austin. He gave everyone a laugh when he jokingly announced he was going to play “The War On Drugs: Suck My Cock”, elaborating that it would be “Part 2…the extended version.” Much to the dismay of his crowd, Kozelek didn’t actually play it and even managed to keep his cool despite noise bleed from Run the Jewels, who lead the crowd in their own joke on Kozelek.
Best Slow Jam About a Towel – Ginuwine
Even those expecting it to be pure novelty couldn’t help but hope for just a little more love from this one-time R&B superstar. Sure, Ginuwine is not technically a rapper, but it certainly felt like that based on his performance. The quick set was the embodiment of everything people like myself often use as an argument of why hip-hop mostly sucks live. Hit songs like “In Those Jeans” and “My Pony” were cut short and mostly sang by hype men, while Ginuwine and his crew danced to Michael Jackson and teased the audience with the promise of seeing him reveal his chiseled torso (he later did rip his shirt off and it was kind of awesome). To be honest, Ginuwine’s set was comically bad, a fact that was confirmed when he made up an on-the-spot ditty about his sweaty towel. Much like R. Kelly’s Trapped In The Closet, it was terrible and funny all at once, and lucky for us the novelty shined through.
Best Leather Gods – Judas Priest
The amount of space in the crowd for this show was shocking, especially considering that the alternatives were one of the shittiest rappers and shittiest indie bands ever. Those that were smart enough to know why it is important to honor thy metal gods were treated to an explosive performance from one of the godfathers of the genre. Songs off Priest’s most recent album, Redeemer of Souls, made up much of the set, but Rob Halford had no problem indulging his audience with hits like “Breaking the Law” and “Hell Bent For Leather,” the latter of which he kicked off by riding a motorcycle onto the stage while holding a whip. Also worth noting was the fact that each member of the band seemed to be wearing a different style of leather, with the tightness reflecting the age (Halford kept it loose). The singer’s voice sounded right on and his band was tight as hell, making for a performance that delivered and one of the top sets of the weekend.
Best Toilet Paper War – The Black Lips
Saturday’s set was the Georgia band’s third appearance in Austin this year after hitting South By Southwest in March and Psych Fest in May. Between swilling from bottles of booze the Black Lips produced a number of toilet paper rolls and initiated an all out war. The crowd enjoyed the revelry, and something about seeing that poopy paper careening back and forth over the crowd served as the ultimate compliment to the Lips’ brand of scuzzy garage-psych.
Best Full Album Throwdown – Nas
Personally I’ve never been a big fan of hearing an artist play one of their albums in its entirety. I can see the appeal, but there is something too predictable and gimmicky about it. However, quick sets and large audiences filled with casual fans makes the album concept ideal for a festival, which is why Nas fit right in with his performance of Illmatic in its entirety. The songs off the album sounded better than ever and the Queens MC had no problemholding down his status as one of hip-hop’s titans.
Best Hands Down Set of the Fest – King Diamond
If you missed this for anything else you suck at life. It would be easy to make my entire review of Fun Fun Fun Fest only about the triumphantly satanic glory that was King Diamond’s Saturday night set. And really, up to this point in the weekend, not a single act even held a candle to the choreographed mayhem that went down on the Black Stage. King Diamond’s tour, which ended at Fun Fun Fun, is like a Broadway production staged in Hell set to thrash metal. Clutching his crucifix microphone made from human bones, the King traversed stairs in a stage set to look like Lucifer’s mansion, his legendary falsetto piercing through the cool fall air like a bloody dagger. The show came complete with an old ghoul woman who was burned alive in a coffin, a zombie marionette, and women giving birth to a demon baby. In other words, it was one of the coolest shows I’ve ever seen, and those brave enough to stick around were left with their jaws on the ground when the band finally called it a night.
Best Moves Like Jagger – Foxygen
Considering their onstage meltdown and cancellation of all gigs thereafter at SXSW in 2013 and subsequent blunder at Austin City Limits Festival the same year, Foxygen had a local reputation to redeem this time around. Remarkably, the band actually pulled it off without any shenanigans besides finishing their set ten minutes early. Onstage Foxygen focused more on creating a spectacle of rock and roll performance art than playing coherent songs. A shirtless, heroin chic Sam France gyrated across the stage to a cacophony of distortion and musical chaos. In this case, the songs didn’t matter so much as the energy and willingness of France to inject every bit of Mick Jagger-like bravado into his performance. Ultimately, it was a relief to see that such a promising young band has finally discovered what it means to be professionals.
Best Sunday Chill Out – Yo La Tengo
This was one of my most anticipated sets of the fest and, even with the sound issues that plagued the Orange Stage throughout the weekend, I was not disappointed. Yo La Tengo’s set was short and sweet but the trio never rushed through songs. The seven-song setlist covered a range of their catalogue, with the band highlighting fan favorites like “Autumn Sweater” and the psychedelic beauty of “”Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.” On each song they locked into those seemingly endless, trance-inducing Yo La Tengo rhythms while guitarist Ira Kaplan let himself be possessed by his instrument and spiral into feedback-laced jams. It would have been great to just let Yo La Tengo play all night long, but in the end I still felt like I was tripping.
Photographs by Merrick Ales and Ralph Arvesen