Ever since I was old enough to complain, my dad took great pleasure in the act of dragging my always-resistant ass to music festivals. A summer full of glorious music for him meant a summer full of unstifled groans from me. His taste in music back then — folk, folk, and nothing but folk — meant we hit folk festivals exclusively, and he wasn’t shy about tackling the big, multi-day camp-out fests that separate the men from the meek. I have fond, fuzzy memories of trying to enjoy the Philadelphia Folk Festival and basically roasting alive under an angry sun during an especially scorching Pennsylvanian summer. And one of the most vivid memories of my young life happened at the Newport Folk Festival during a three-day rainstorm that flooded our little tent, knocked out the power (forcing actual acoustic performances), and meant fest sponsors Ben & Jerry’s had no choice but to give away all their ice cream lest it melt. More importantly, somewhere around the end of the fest, after days of watery suffering and general discomfort, something magical happened: a gigantic mud pit formed, spontaneously populated by dozens of gorgeous, mud-spattered naked babes who would dance and frolic through my dreams for the next decade. No matter that I didn’t like the music at the time; these festivals left their mark. I didn’t know it then, but my dad was programming me for the type of life I now lead: that of the nerd who goes to these things willingly and enthusiastically and writes about them for fun. Mission accomplished, Dad.
This festival writeup gets an unusually long lead-in about my dad because, well, during the first few hours of FYF, the unthinkable happened. Standing around sipping my first beer of the day, making a game-plan for the afternoon while Moonface pounded out a Peter Gabriel stomp in the background, I got a phone call telling me that my dad, who had been sick with all sorts of awful crap for a while, had just taken a sudden turn. I was at a music festival when I learned my dad had just died 3000 miles away.
Everyone handles these things differently. I tend to internalize. Shock rolled in like a storm front, and I found a quiet corner (FYF had a lot of quiet corners, thankfully) and made all the phone calls I could think to make. Clarity was nowhere to be found, but I tried my best to figure out what you’re supposed to do when you’re thousands of miles from your family and you can’t get home for at least a few days, and you find yourself in the early hours of a music festival. Sitting there on the lawn, I had a sudden flashback to the festivals my dad used to drag me to, and what, in hindsight, they all meant to me. It was a shared experience for me and my Dad. He loved every second of these things more than almost anything to the point where, later in life, he’d often volunteer at festivals just to be a part of the action.
I decided to stay. For the distraction, for starters. But also for the idea that my dad would have laughed his ass off to see me roasting under the sun, coughing on the dust kicked up by an enthusiastic young crowd in a dry dust-filled field, drunkenly stumbling into some especially ripe Porta Potties — while music happens all around. I have no doubt it’s what he would have wanted.
. . .
Trying to review this thing in a traditional sense wouldn’t work, since my plans for coverage went out the window the second I took that call. My friends were trying to keep me occupied (let’s just say my beers were essentially bottomless), and I found the best way to enjoy the fest was to simply wander and see what I happened to see. As a festival, FYF was a tight ship. Security was serious, but not all that dickish (so much weed was snuck in successfully you’d think the vendors were selling it). The food was strangely good, too: I got two slices of the best pizza ever served on festival grounds — an unexpected and welcome surprise. As far as performances went, the bulk of the fest sounded great on the first day (Day 2 sound was significantly shittier-sounding, for some reason), and large video screens were put to great use on the two larger stages. The dance tent looked the way I’d expect a dance tent to look, not that I ever set foot inside. The crowd itself was a little thin. Not until the final stretch of headliners on Sunday night did it finally feel packed. Which means the fest was significantly less miserable to attend than it might have been otherwise. The promoters’ pain is the concertgoers’ gain, in this case.
Jumping through the Day 1 bands: The Men delivered some noisy bashing with enough balls to reach out and grab your attention (their set at the Blue Star for the afterparty was even better). The Vaselines sounded raw and perfect, even while their onstage banter drifted into squirm-inducing sexual innuendo. The guitars were in all the right places for Warpaint, setting the dial to gloom and keeping it there; sadly the harmony vocals were consistently flat, undermining an otherwise hypnotic set. Hot Snakes have the songs, the sound, and the attitude, but their live set needed a little more hot sauce, which was a bummer and a half. The crowd finally thickened up for Sleigh Bells — the first song felt thin, like the iPod equalizer was set to “Bass Reducer,” but the sound dudes fixed it right quick for song two. From there on the dynamics hit the right balance between pummeling and obnoxious, which is the sweet spot for Sleigh Bells. M83 were impossibly pretty, almost too much so, but fans were eating it up. Instead I hopped over to Quicksand for a refresher course in a whole lot of songs I had no idea I’d remember so well. Some of these bands are a little strange to see in a large-festival setting, but the songs themselves translate perfectly to the scene. Refused doubled down on the (already incredibly tight) tightness of Quicksand and took it another step further. Those songs and those riffs in front of this crowd — they morphed into a legit arena-rock band to an arena full of screaming punk kids, and we ate it up.
The sun felt meaner and the dust felt dirtier on Day 2, but it might have been exhaustion or the fact that I was more sober and a little more aware of the dramatic backdrop underpinning my attendance. Either way, it was like a magnification of all that came before. Ceremony are a strange band, mixing pretty-boy punk swagger and unhinged hardcore vocals. The pit was predictably rad, sending a tornado of dust through the gathered masses. Everything sounded mystically perfect for Father John Misty; the band was playing the pants off these songs, and the people were feeling it. Cursive felt as disjointedly awesome as ever; I forgot exactly how weird these guys can get until the horns came out. Aesop Rock drew the first massive crowd of the day, and relatively early. I only caught a few minutes, but he sounded tight. Any morbid curiosity to see Against Me! and transgender singer Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) was quickly dispelled by the sheer power of the set. Lightning Bolt were a classic hellstorm of battering, clattering drumsticks and octave bass fuzz; one of the few bands to feel completely odd in a festival setting and still make it work, shaking asses and melting eardrums at the same time. Dinosaur Jr. fulfilled the promise of their continually excellent reunion material by getting up there and doing what they do the same way they always do: brilliantly.
The smallest of the four stages somehow wound up the designated home of the hardcore bands as the evening wore on, which was a shame only because the sound was getting progressively worse. Converge opened with the monster title track off their 2001 classic, Jane Doe, but were more or less gutted by a low volume mix. Heaviness was rendered less-than-heavy. I gave the sound guy a withering glare for all it was worth. American Nightmare suffered the same fate, though both bands tore through their tunes with heart and fury. The two larger stages offered a difficult choice between Twin Shadow and Yeasayer, and I found myself surprisingly sucked into Yeasayer’s ridiculous take on world-fusion pop. A backdrop of glowing pyramids lit the stage while the band played what looked like a heavily sequenced but damn effective set: Asses were shaking out in the crowd. Beirut brought out the horns to wrap things up, but I somehow got dragged over to the Faint, which might have been my biggest mistake of the night. A handful of songs in and my friend leans over to me, completely ignorant of the band’s history, and describes their songs as “incredibly annoying music.” Not all reunions are created equal, it seems. We jumped ship to try and catch a few songs from Turbonegro, and arrived just in time to see the lights go down and the crowd depart. Word on the street was that the new Turbonegro vocalist killed it, and that Turbonegro might have been the best band all weekend. Which of course I’d happen to miss.
. . .
FYF, or Fuck Yeah Fest as it was originally called, flew by in a daze, as much because of my situation as the fest itself. But I’m left with an impressionistic blur of scattered memories: snippets of performances from a largely punk lineup playing big stages, a surprisingly chill crowd with less shirtless bros than you’d expect considering where we are, the strange bubble-blasting guns that the Chilli Beans booth kept firing into the sky, and the feeling of it all combined into one inseparable whole. I’ll never dissociate anything that happened this weekend from the larger backstory, but it’s better that way. Sitting here now, looking back, I wish I could do it all over again and stay in that drunken dreamworld stitched together from dozens of performances and tens of thousands of spectators. Looking back at the folk festivals I’d attend as a kid and the indie festivals I now attend as an adult, I can see new value in the festival experience. It’s an alternate reality, with its own set of difficulties and no grounding in traditional life. It’s a self-contained world unto itself, where the only things that matter are music and maintaining the magical balance of inebriation. It’s a perfect escape from life and death.
[Photos by Andrew Youssef]