MAGNET’s Matthew Irwin reports from the 2012 Fun Fun Fun Fest in Texas.
Saul Williams destroyed Fun Fun Fun Fest … for me. After his midday performance on Saturday—the second day of the three-day music festival—I had a hard time having a good time again.
Let me temper this post with the acknowledgement that Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest is the best metropolitan music festival I’ve attended. It’s small(ish) and caters to fans more than frat boys, it emphasizes local bands (the Black Angels and the Sword, for instance), and it provides unmatched access and benefits for fans with a little more cash to spend (in the FFF vernacular, Pretty Important People, or PIP). The portable handwashing stations, however, did run dry by midday Friday, and I never found a wet faucet again, which seems like a small oversight, but it’s one that speaks to a greater failure of FFF. It skimps on the details.
After Sharon Van Etten’s set Friday afternoon, I went backstage to find a port-o-potty and a bottle of water, discovering that, not only did PIP enjoy exclusive spaces full of complimentary booze and private bathrooms, but they also had access to the inner sanctum, the cordoned off region that gives staff, media, artists and other workers reprieve from the festival craziness. Then, in addition to an unprecedented absence of drinking water, sunscreen or other traditional considerations for media, they actually wanted me to pay for food and drinks, even coffee and water. The nerve.
I trotted my unquenched, dirty-handed self back to the Orange Stage, where I sat down next to Sharon for a minute. By “sat down next to,” I mean that she was sitting and I was sitting, 10 feet away, and staring at her. I seriously start to question my professionalism as a music journalist when it comes to SVE. She’s so awkwardly endearing onstage, talking between songs, then she confidently strides into the specifically personal and sad world of her lyrics. Her compositions undulate like breath around her words. She’s both the dark Brooklyn troubadour and the Tennessee girl. I swear my crush exists on a professional level.
The rest of the day found me over at the Yellow Stage, which, reserved for comedic performances during the day, hosted some of the smaller and lesser-known musical acts come late afternoon. Earth performed the anti-festival set with uber-low tempo, doom meditations. Festival goers worried about missing an act on another stage found plenty of reason to jet, and in truth, Earth isn’t much of a middle-of-the-day band, but I at least found Dylan Carson’s battle with the “asshole photographers” who refused to turn off their flashes entertaining.
The highlight performance of the weekend took place next, when San Antonio’s Girl In A Coma stepped onstage. I’ve been following them since 2010’s Adventures In Coverland, which revived and retooled a smattering of popular rock music of the last 50 years, and they own that shit the way Patsy Cline owns “Crazy.” Onstage, the girls remember that rock is as much about persona and presentation as it is about music, but it’s the intensity of their relationship to the music that gives the illusion that a whole lot more is happening. Exits & All The Rest was a next-level album of originals for the group that made a number of end-of-the-year lists in 2011, but I think Girl In A Coma has greater material in store as they continue to define their sound outside the boundaries of badass chic rock.
Saturday, I returned to the Yellow Stage and caught an “angry,” mediocre comedian and a comedic vaudevillian magician whose greatest trick was downing bottles of Budweiser, before Saul Williams took the stage. Williams lifted a wide, dark notebook with words scrawled in big letters, and proceeded to dis … everyone. He said that the song lyrics of your average festival band are full of abstract complaints, but ultimately meaningless. He belittled hipsters and their cute, little mustaches. He said that problem of technology is that it reflects us back and we don’t like that. And he said that if we wanted to hear women scream, we should try prisons. The audience of mostly white hipsters stood silent, jaws open, for a palpable pause, before a few hoots and whoos shot out. Williams went into his piece “Telegram,” which notes, in a telegram to hip hop, that cash and murder have not been added to the table of elements. Somewhere in there, my eyes welled up with tear, though none fell.
I returned to the wild expanse of festival glee, un-gleeful. I shuffled through with my head down, until I came to the American Spirit trailer, and decided to poke my head inside. Whereas Austin City Limits posted its no smoking policy throughout the Zilker, FFF actually invited Marlboro and American Spirit to set up camp on the festival grounds. I smoked cigarettes for 15 years, and quit because, well, it’s a stupid, miserable fucking thing to do, and I wanted to know what the hell was going on in those tents, with lines 20 people deep. A nervous, fast-talking young dude quickly took my license and scanned it while asking about my smoking preferences. I noted the wood-paneled walls and the pairs of people, one American Spirit rep per smoker, kicking back as if it were some 1960s-themed lounge, rather than a data collection point for cigarette marketing. I admitted that when I did smoke, I smoked the yellow pack, the smooth, light version of their cigarettes, and he suggested I try something more robust. He reminded me that American Spirit uses natural tobacco, and it has an organic line. Though he never said it, the suggestion was clear: Smoking is hip, and these are good for you. Finally, the dude gave me a coupon for two packs of cigs for $2. I bought them with the intention of giving them to a friend, and picked up a pack of matches that read “freedom to smoke without harassment.” Forget 40 years of awareness campaigns, illness and death, this isn’t about your health, this is about your freedom, hipster.
I walked over to the Blue Stage, where I found Schoolboy Q chanting something along the lines of “Fucked her once; I’ll do it again,” so I kept moving, found a place to lie down in the grass, and yes opened a pack of cigarettes. I smoke two, mindlessly, with a cup of coffee, before the taste of carbon monoxide brought me back to myself, and threw both packs out. Forget passing them on to a friend; I’m done participating in that scheme. And my mood the way it was, I was nearly done with the festival, too, but I had to see the Sword. Though the doom-metal band paid off by actually making me feel better—smoke, lights, crowd surfers and heavy guitars, where have you been?—the deeper damage had already been done. Festivals may be a thing of the past for this music lover.