AUSTIN – Emerging from the three day, four-night blitz that was Fun Fun Fun Fest on Sunday, one of the realities exhumed from the swirling dust was that this is no longer a festival for acts looking to prove themselves.
Not during the day, at least.
With its move last year from the 10-acre Waterloo Park to the 80-acre Auditorium Shores, the festival, known for its curatorial smattering of legends and upstarts alike, added wider stages and began courting artists that, in years past, would be more likely to pop on a day bill at the enormous Austin City Limits –– not a 10,000-capacity, niche festival that hosted headliners like the Jesus Lizard and Weird Al Yankovic.
But times have changed. Just look at some of the festival’s heftiest acts since the move: Slayer, in 2011, Est. 1981; Public Enemy, in 2011, Est. 1982; Run–D.M.C., in 2012, Est. 1981; Public Image Ltd., in 2012, Est. 1978.
Fun Fun Fun Fest, now in its seventh year, has embraced the trend of booking reunited and, in some cases, reenergized bands and artists from decades past. And organizer Transmission Entertainment is doing it perhaps better than any other Texas music festival.
These targeted artists take up a much bigger chunk of the spotlight, and rightfully so. For the lion’s share of attendants, this is the first chance they’ve had to see these bands live after discovering their catalogues.
However, relying on so many of these acts risks overshadowing and pushing out the sort of bands that built the foundation and reputation of FFF when it was described with journalistic buzzwords as ‘nascent’ and ‘fledgling.’
Enter Fun Fun Fun Fest Nites. Established last year, the festival takes over venues downtown after Auditorium Shores pauses for the evening. Bands that often are booked in daytime spots are usually better suited for the interior of a small club. Nites is your chance to have that intimacy.
On Thursday, 90s cult-favorite Superchunk played to a crowd packed in shoulder-to-shoulder at the Mohawk, littered with fans mouthing their lyrics. When they played the festival on Friday, about a quarter of the crowd was sitting down on the grass in front of the Orange Stage.
Inside the Mohawk, Denton punkers Mind Spiders played a quick set of Ramones-influenced pop to a room so filled the masses of bodies seemed to ebb and flow in unison.
A few blocks down Red River, Edmonton, Alberta rapper Cadence Weapon nimbly rhymed over electro-influenced bass rumblers, taking shots on stage and jumping into the crowd to perform. He repeatedly praised the show as the best of the tour.
It was moments like these that reminded me of those years spent at Waterloo Park, where wandering into a human dance tunnel hosted by Dan Deacon wasn’t such a rarity. Those spontaneous moments now, it seems, have moved to the evenings.
That’s not to say the festival’s daylong, four-stage affair is worth missing. No, quite the contrary –– Fun Fun Fun’s spread of a stage for the indie friendly, another for loud metal and blistering punk, a third for rap and electronic, and a fourth for comedy and intimate acts not fit for the larger stages is still my favorite way to enjoy a music festival.
Now, minus the occasional outlier –– namely, Danzig’s aborted set last year –– it’s pretty easy to predict what you’ll see on stage. X was a highlight, playing through their perfect 1980 offering “Los Angeles” on the Black Stage.
Over at Blue, Houston rap overlord Bun B gave a pristine run-through of his greatest hits interspersed with his newer solo material, recorded since the untimely –– and still so, so sad –– passing of his partner Pimp C in 2007. He closed his set after rapping along with the crowd to Chad’s verse on “Intl. Player’s Anthem.”
Run-DMC played well for about a half-hour until turning it over to the late Jam Master Jay’s sons for an impromptu, bizarre dubstep DJ set. Bob Mould effortlessly ran through Sugar’s “Copper Blue” for the last time on Friday afternoon, telling the crowd, “I really like that album.” He closed with Husker Du’s “New Day Rising.”
Public Image Ltd. grooved into the evening on Saturday, sounding very much like the atypical elder pop band that remains vital.
Seeing these artists perform songs that still own nostalgic real estate in many is indeed an awesome moment. This is the second year of FFF’s brawny, intelligent pursuit of these landmark acts en masse. The small surprises are still there –– you just have to work a little harder to get to them.
And, besides, this is no longer the Little Festival That Could. It’s now big enough that local news outlets are shooting live shots on its grounds, hyping it as an economic boon to the tune of $6 million.
Levying criticism at Fun Fun Fun Fest, though, isn’t terribly fair. Sure, the booking of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes is suspect, but it was still hard to come away unsatisfied. After all, half an hour before that set, De La Soul took the stage, complete with emcee Dave chiding a professional photographer in the photo pit for not following his order to put his hands up and party.
See, the attitude the festival has always possessed still lives on; it’s just delivered in a different manner. And by more acts who made it onto VH1 in 1996.