by Steve Birmingham
“Stage left and stage right are now opposite.”
– Stagehand instruction to soundman before Black Lips’ set
“Are you cold out there? Cuz I’m fucking freezing!”
– Flomaximumrocknroll performance artist Glenn Danzig
“I’m having vocal issues but I’ve got nobody to bring me French onion soup.”
– Ted Leo
For its sixth year, Fun Fun Fun Fest, the little festival that could (and namesake of a Big Boys song) moved from Waterloo Park to downtown Austin’s spacious Auditorium Shores with four stages for three full days of music, comedy, and hijinks (in addition to a host of free aftershows). FFFF’s distinct curatorial intent serves as a righteously grimy underbelly to the cafeteria-style and corporate bloat of the other outdoor (so-called) “destination festivals.”
FFFF has a slapdash, laid-back, and proletariat vibe. And it’s a gathering of bona fide music fans that don’t use words like “vibe.” The security is about as mellow as you’re apt to find. There’s no goddamned lawn chairs, juggling sticks, or caste system. At first blush, the crowd can look alarmingly like a horde of keffiyeh-garbed hipsters but the omnipresent bandit-chic is purely utilitarian. As with SXSW, when tackling such an embarrassment of sonic riches, it’s often best to have a handful of must-sees and then just take the Bobby Knight Zen credo or que sera, sera “relax and enjoy it.”
I’ll leave it to the Boomers to wax poetic about significant festival-based cultural tectonic shifts and just submit that the air was indeed charged with something besides the dust. For Texas residents, a degree of this is the ongoing release of surviving the hottest and driest “summer” on record. Perhaps it’s the week commencing with the birth of the 7th billion cretin, having Occupy Austin at City Hall just across Town Lake, or just the distinct civic pride in having headliner Slayer, metal’s numero uno, reverberating throughout your hometown (and no, it’s not a competition but I presume there’s been a “Big Four” reconfiguration at least since the Lulu LP).
Undoubtedly, gentle Chunklet reader, you have heard about the Danzig diva fiasco and you’ve likely read festival booker Graham Williams’ devastating missive, so I would just add how surreal it was being in the crowd not yet having that backstory. Foremost, it’s gauche to be 45 minutes late with a 10pm city noise ordinance. Watching roadies dither with blue plastic tarp for makeshift wind shields was pure Keystone Kops. Surely that heater being lugged around had to be a special smoke machine that just looked like a space heater? Wow, no dice and no one packs Glenn a sweater or some emergency extra leather layers? Apparently it’s more about iconography than actual legacy, but am I the cheese here in thinking that Danzig could totally rock a Cosby sweater? Perhaps Spencer Moody of preceding act the Murder City Devils would have lent Glenn his red Elmer Fudd hat and knit sweater hadn’t the MCDs been banished from looking on from their side of the stage?
Maybe the real historic footnote was the sublime joy of Danzig’s demand for “French onion soup” becoming a universal pejorative/goof (and at no fault of the cheesy broth). The phrase became a communal bonding agent and a running punch line for the likes of The Damned, Black Lips, Hot Snakes, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Slayer, and Brian Posehn (whose Danzig impression is on YouTube). I believe the phrase “French onion soup” will endure in the Western lexicon as much as “Let them eat cake” and “Heckuva job!”
SOME THOUGHTS – NOW WITH BOLDFACE NAME DROPPING:
Best Crowd Surfing: The gong belonging to Boris.
Proper way to pronounce San Francisco-based “Girls”: Repeat three times à la Vince Neil.
Sightings of Note: Director and Austin resident Terrence Malick (a previously Halley’s Comet-like likelihood) and a delightfully grizzled Wayne Coyne.
Lost Opportunity: I think I could tolerate Clap Your Hands Say Yeah if only twins Lee and Tyler Sargent would both dress like Eddie Munster. Seeing these stone-faced fellas in purple velvet britches might just be the zazz this band needs.
He Just Likes The 512: Austin-based comedian and Fun Fun Fun Fest staple Matt Bearden is one of the finest purveyors of sharp-witted long-form routines but he won’t be traveling to a city near you.
Unexpected Feeling of Yore: Between Joe Lally’s dulcet bass, drums & cello outfit to Wugazi wafting in the air, a bona fide Fugazi jones snuck up on me.
This was Spoon’s only show for 2011 (save their previous night’s gig at Austin’s East side ND venue). This will hopefully be the next big trend for a whole host of bands.
I’ll admit to having a soft spot for Leslie Hardy’s haunted house electric organ in the Murder City Devil’s, which also nicely complimented MCD’s cluster of cobwebs in their rehearsal-esque set.
Rhetorical to Cannibal Corpse’s George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher: Can I be less impressed with your sizable pit since you spend so much time instructing your fans to make a bigger pit?
Really Needs a Copy of The Rock Bible: The dude from Budos Band (no, you Google his name) who garnered nothing (except my sympathy) by uttering from the stage, “How many people know this song? Let’s get excited, people!”
A “Yes, I’m an old fart with impaired hearing” moment: Walking past Odd Future’s about-to-start set and thinking pre-performance audience chants of “Woflgang” were cries of “Bullshit.”
How To Temporarily Deflate Odd Future’s Machismo Veneer: Toss a dildo on stage. Presto! Just that easy.
I’m iffy about reunions and this was their 35th Anniversary Tour, but The Damned crushed my expectations with a commanding set that began with playing their Damned Damned Damned LP. Cheeky monkeys Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian are also oddly well preserved.
Hotter Than Lion Piss: As a “Born in ‘69er,” I invariably feel I’m too old for festivals and maybe I am since a lot of the stuff the kids are into is lost on me (eyes on you Neon Indian). But then Hot Snakes reunite, deliver the best set of the Fest, and the pure power of rock-n-roll’s liberating glory courses through me. Rick Froberg’s voice was “holy fucking shit” unwavering and guitarist John Reis, bassist Gar Wood and both drummers Jason Kourkounis and Mario Rubalcaba are still tighter than bark on trees.
Chunklet’s Rock-n-Roll Superchamp Spirit of 2011 Award goes to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Although clearly fighting something this side of SARS, Ted Leo both shamed and saluted Danzig by rising to the occasion and delivering no less than the full on, vim and vigor Ted Leo and the Pharmacists experience through sheer force of will, grit, passion, rock-n-roll heart, and probably a fair amount of dying inside. Whether affably quoting Paul Stanley or being so goddamn genuine and self-deprecatingly charming that he can say, “If I falter, please help me out [by singing along]” and have us feeling that we’re all in this together. I mean, re-read that “if I falter” quote. At face value, it would otherwise make you feel pretty punchy, right? It’d be something like Chris Martin would say on cue. And then donning a sleeveless “T” and a devilock wig (which I had heretofore erroneously been calling “The Squiggy”) and slipping into his TV Casualty cover band mode, we were not denied our blistering Misfits moment. And at my risk of conjuring Bono, it felt even better than the real thing.
This is not to place Ted Leo too high upon a pedestal. Flaws must abound. Perhaps he’s too grounded? He’s such a prolific artist yet he couldn’t conjure a productive cough. Hmm. Such a fine ear yet can he listen to his body? Ted, as Dame Julie Andrews said, “Those motherfuckin’ leeches will suck the minerals from your bones if you don’t give it a rest.” And a rhetorical to James Canty and Chris Wilson: “Are you supportive or enabling?” Hey, I kvetch because I care. Cheers.
[Apology to Chris: I swear that was not an intentional exploding pen prank. And ink staining one of your drumming hands, no less.] *
Photos: Brian Birzer Photo Gallery