In some of my darker moments from this past weekend, I had to wonder why anyone reads these festival recaps. Or, to clarify — why anyone would read a recap from a music critic, and thus, someone who likely feels the need to use them as a narrative device. We love these things, as it’s a rare occasion where we can reconcile with our tendency to treat music like sports. The success or failure of festivals on an individual or large scale can be framed in a contraction/relegation parallel. Font size can be compared like athlete salaries, with, say, Of Monsters And Men reaching Evan Turner “They’re getting paid that much?” status. Crowd size and performance are proof of whether or not a band is ready to “make the leap” or “rise to the occasion.” Given that music is supposed to be subjectively enjoyed and evaluated, it’s occasionally nice to have quantifiable metrics to justify its shift to results-driven, 24-hour news.
And this is even more absurd in the context of FYF Fest, given that there are probably more acai bowl kiosks than writers amongst the thousands upon thousands of people who have the most important quantifiable metric to consider when it comes to evaluating their weekend: $329. That’s how much it costs to buy a ticket to FYF, and that’s not even factoring in food, parking, possibly a portable battery charger and/or a S U R V I V E T-shirt. Put it all together and that’s probably a $500 weekend. At the risk of putting my business out there, that’s the kind of money that typically goes into, say, necessary dental procedures or rent. Paying $500 of disposable income for one single thing means that I’m going to make damn sure that it’s either worth it or justify it until it is.
That’s experience money, and the continuing challenge for FYF Fest is to figure out what experience it wants to provide. FYF has taken many forms since its inception: hand-to-mouth punk showcase, pre-Goldenvoice clusterfuck, etc. But it seems to have most recently settled on something along the lines of “Coachella Jr.,” boasting a similar mix of big pop names, hip-hop and electronic firepower, the indie “winners” of the past eight months or so, and some legacy acts sprinkled in. Of course, it’s not in the desert and not really an established destination (being situated smack in the USC campus won’t get you a Frank Ocean or Lana Del Rey tribute).
But given its price tag and Los Angeles’ general reputation as a city of front-runners, FYF strove for an experience that made sense, providing quite possibly the most stacked, top-heavy lineup of 2017. Think about what FYF is bringing to the table: Missy Elliott’s first American performance in seemingly forever, one of our few “must see even if you don’t really fuck with them” rock bands in Nine Inch Nails, a rare Frank Ocean sighting, and probably the last time you’ll ever get to see A Tribe Called Quest in Los Angeles. In addition to Tribe, you get fellow Pitchfork Festival headliner Solange, Flying Lotus in 3-D, and Björk. Even if those are the only acts you see all weekend, that kinda seems like a bargain, right?
With that in mind, I’m inclined to take a softer view on unworkable scheduling conflicts that had a tone of aggression. Are you one of those people who look down on festival-goers who arrive only for the big names? Hey, that’s your problem. Consider my Friday night. Festival opener Beach Fossils rebounded this year with one of the most politically astute and modernist dream-pop records probably ever, and “Why aren’t these guys bigger?” critical favorite Royal Headache went on shortly thereafter. It’s comical happenstance that rush hour traffic kept a lot of people from seeing two of the more overlooked bands of the weekend.
Given the choice between what was sure to be a solid Angel Olsen performance deep within the album cycle of My Woman, and Hundred Waters debuting new music from their upcoming LP Communicating, I chose the latter before planning to hightail it over to the main stage and see Björk, after which I could traverse the 15 minute or so walk and catch Slowdive at the lush Trees Stage during peak Slowdive hour (10:20PM) before trying to secure a decent space for Missy Elliott back at the Main Stage. And, if I’m not completely wiped out, catch Flying Lotus’ unsurprisingly disturbing 3-D extravaganza on the Lawn. That’s a pretty good night, no? Packed, but very doable provided that bathroom breaks or an insatiable hankering for a $12 cone of Little Damage soft serve didn’t arise.
Now here is a list of acts who might as well have not even showed up if you follow that schedule: Angel Olsen, Kamaiyah, Hannibal Buress, Anderson .Paak, John Talabot, and S U R V I V E. You know what I regret the most, though? After all the hand-wringing about Majid Jordan’s album sales, I would’ve loved to see what crowd they drew at 12:25AM playing against Flying Lotus in his hometown and reliable California institution Thee Oh Sees.
Saturday didn’t provide much relief for polyglot listeners but drew the boundaries more clearly: Mitski vs. Thundercat vs. Princess Nokia, immediately followed by MGMT vs. Noname vs. Cap’n Jazz and the Drums vs. Arca. Built To Spill vs. King Krule vs. Perfume Genius. There was also the Faint vs. Sleep — clearly someone has a sense of humor. It’s maddening for a person who wants to catch it all and figure out where each of these acts currently fall in the pop music landscape. You’ll either go out of your mind or be miserable with FOMO, which, come to think of it, is pretty much the default experience for fans who try to engage with the 2017 zeitgeist as wholeheartedly as possible. And so then, the $329 question for those thinking like a fan rather than a critic: What should I see vs. what do I want to see. And are those the same thing?
Look at it this way: At 9PM on Saturday night, festival goers could choose a legendary hip-hop act with dozens of songs people could recite on cue playing quite possibly one of their last shows ever. Or, you could rock with the Drums, a band whose cultural cachet peaked in 2010 and just released an album much like their others: handful of bangers, way too long for its own good. An hour later, you could choose between Erykah Badu, who is Erykah Badu, and the Faint, Saddle Creek’s electro-trash band who inspire crowd commentary like, “This must be from after 2003.” Who would possibly choose the latter in either of those instances?
Turns out, a lot of people! Including me. To be perfectly fucking honest, Tribe existed throughout my high school years, but I always took Westside Connection’s side in their one-sided beef, and if having “Your Retro Career Melted” be a more formative experience than Mama’s Gun disqualifies me from my job, then I’ll quit after this article. If anything, the Drums and the Faint are indicative of a couple of sounds that never go out of style, particularly in Los Angeles — that of jumpy, Smiths-meets-Spector mope and gothy emo. Judging from the way the audience lost their shit for songs from Doom Abuse and Abysmal Thoughts, you never had to doubt that people who were there to see the Faint and the Drums were really there to see them — and this kind of hardcore dedication for bands whose supposed relevance has waned can often go unacknowledged at a time when even the most hyped records feel like they fade from view even after a few weeks.
As long as you committed to your particular vision of a memorable weekend, you’d probably find your people. This was especially true of the “aging indie rock guy” contingent. Look, Perfume Genius released one of the most original and compelling albums of 2017, but it did not drop during my first year of college and Keep It Like A Secret did. Though generally considered Built To Spill’s third most-important work, it was the first one I owned and a major gateway into indie rock proper despite being on a major label. And when the coda of “Carry The Zero” kicked in, I swear I heard a bunch of people howling at the same time, a purging of long-held regrets about the girlfriend who broke up with them in college. I felt less alone, but not necessarily less old; current drummer Steve Gere still rocks the Judah Friedlander look, and I can’t remember the last time I had to come up with that phrase. Meanwhile, the band sounds unfortunately thin as a trio, which at least makes me appreciate how much the guitar layering is every bit responsible for my love of this record as is the sentimental attachment to the taste of Goldschlager and the overpowering smell of Purex coming from the dorm laundry room. And yeah, it totally was a bunch of bearded dudes singing along to themselves while standing perfectly still, and if the youngins wanted to laugh because they think indie rock isn’t like that now, I hope this paragraph sticks in their brain if and when they end up doing the same thing as, I dunno, Real Estate runs through Atlas at FYF 2032.
A running joke at the Built To Spill set is why they didn’t just have them play on the same stage as Cap’n Jazz did earlier. After all, the overlap between those two crowds had to be damn near total, and why not save us geezers the walk? Truth be told, I expended more energy during Cap’n Jazz’s set than at any other and I could’ve probably run the 110 miles or so back to San Diego immediately afterwards. Cap’n Jazz were that good, and I swear to you this isn’t confirmation bias; my only hope going into Cap’n Jazz was that we all got through it without feeling depressed or embarrassed for them or anyone else who showed up.
That possibility was definitely on the table. Yes, a lot of FYF’s bigger draws skewed pretty Gen-X, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the reception for many of the bigger emo reunion tours that come through Los Angeles, given its cool reception to many of the newer bands. Cap’n Jazz wasn’t exactly the most professional and tight unit during their short run and Tim Kinsella tends to be… a bit antagonistic in a live setting. During their modest reunion run in 2010, he mostly read from a notebook. Cap’n Jazz haven’t really played any shows in years, and Davey Von Bohlen is in no way involved.
Judging from Joan Of Arc’s recent Vice documentary, Kinsella also loathes nostalgia, especially for his own music, and an extremely corporate setting like FYF Fest would probably only compound that. At best, I anticipated a situation similar to the time I saw Drive Like Jehu at Coachella, i.e., a noticeably small and polite crowd of 30-somethings who have absolutely no desire whatsoever to engage with, say, the Weeknd or whatever big act is playing on the other side of the field.
I’m told there was a mass exodus in the rear of the Cap’n Jazz crowd when MGMT started playing, but everyone who stayed witnessed a set so thrilling, I’m sorta not over it four days later. They were funny! They were engaged! They played “Take On Me!” And the crowd was losing their goddamn mind for every second — certainly the 30-somethings and their girlfriends, but also the kids in their early 20s. And much like American Football and Mineral, whatever they’ve lost in irreplaceable youthful vigor is compensated by the fact that they can all play their instruments now. While Cap’n Jazz set the standards for spazzed-out emo, all of this sounds tight; Victor Villarreal is in a much healthier place than he was in Cap’n Jazz’s heyday and Nate Kinsella has provided the same steadying chops here as he did with American Football.
Tim Kinsella is still provocative — he whipped a tambourine into the crowd numerous times, which is some dangerous shit, then demanded its return and threatened to chuck Sam Amick’s bass in there too. He removed his shirt and then unbuckled his belt. He gave out his phone number. Devendra Banhart seriously stanned for Tim in that Vice documentary, and in 99.99999% of all other situations, would I have wanted to pelt this dude with a water bottle for spending 10 minutes trying to take pictures of the band and posing? Absolutely! But it felt right within a ramshackle, anything-goes set that starkly contrasted with the tasteful indie rock artists that appeared in the same tent, many of whom felt too reliant on the pristine sound design of their records (Big Thief, Moses Sumney).
As our Chris DeVille pointed out regarding the Hotelier, Pinegrove, and Jeff Rosenstock at Pitchfork Festival, the festival circuit is always better off for recognizing the existence of these bands, and yet they still rarely seem to get booked. That’s understandable, even given FYF’s punk roots and the fact that Joyce Manor played it four straight years at one point; in the grand scheme of things, you figure the average festival goer would rather just chill and emo is always something you used to wild the fuck out to. But while there was certainly a mosh pit for Cap’n Jazz, it wasn’t one of angry aggression but people joyfully and absolutely losing their shit. Based on their size and energy, there really wasn’t much difference between the Joey Purp and Cap’n Jazz crowd if you looked from a distance, though the former lost what felt like 60% of its crowd due to a mass exodus to Mac DeMarco’s set. Every time I see a run of bland, well-represented indie bands taking up real estate on any given festival’s poster, I wonder, couldn’t we have PUP or Sorority Noise on there instead?
Regardless of whether you want these bands to cross over — and it stands to reason that this is their best chance for that kind of exposure amongst indie rock fans for whom they’re not on the radar — it also presents an easy opportunity to throw some goodies into the POPULAR FESTIVAL STARTER PACK. Even casual consumers of music news could probably write this paragraph at this point, the one with the “WHEN ELSE ARE YOU GONNA HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO SEE MAC DEMARCO AND LITTLE DRAGON AND RUN THE JEWELS AT A MUSIC FESTIVAL?” joke.
And with FYF, the Sunday slate took it next level by having DeMarco and Little Dragon playing against each other. This was the first FYF that provided livestreaming on Twitter, and most of its final day felt designed with the assumption that most people were going to stay home until the evening came. Your mileage for pleasant singer-songwriters (Andy Shauf, Julia Jacklin) may vary, but festival settings do them no favors, while FYF provided one of what are probably 57 opportunities to see either Cherry Glazerr and/or Ty Segall in the greater Los Angeles area this year. Otherwise, nearly every band was aggressive in their banality, whether in the form of psych-rock clothes hangers (Temples), chill-bro indie (Whitney), H&M browsing music (Mura Masa), or sync-core (Little Dragon). But hey, I guess supply meets demand and all. Despite the general view of them as wards of the industry and my inability to name a single song of theirs that would qualify as a hit, Little Dragon played the Main Stage, meaning they’re at least as big as MGMT.
With some major exceptions, Sunday was just Saturday with diminishing returns. Blonde Redhead playing Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons holds a similar “you had to be there” appeal as Keep It Like A Secret, albeit to a smaller, better-dressed contingent, while also having a much tougher opposing draw (Solange). The first TR/ST album had a couple of bangers, but they have a long way to go before achieving Faint-like status and… look, Run The Jewels did their thing and a lot of people went nuts when they did their thing. You gotta hand it to a group that has felt constantly overexposed even during a three-year gap between albums, but Run The Jewels 3 had about the same impact as a comic book movie in 2017 — it’s loud, it kicks ass, but at this point, I’m pretty much numb to it and I sorta wish it would take a few years off. If anything, Run The Jewels holds more appeal as a testament to the possibility of 40-something male friendship than anything.
Yeah, Run The Jewels are pretty much fan service these days, and if you’ve seen one of their sets, you’ve probably seen ‘em all. But to a degree, just about every big name delivered what was expected of them, provided you had expectations. That’s even true in some way of Björk, whose flawless set was more for gaping in awe than singular freakouts over specific moments, save for the closing “Hyperballad,” still the one for casual viewers. Hearing “March Of The Pigs” on a gigantic festival stage is just as thrilling and unnerving as it was when I first saw them do it on an empty soundstage, and god bless the folks who bought ADD VIOLENCE T-shirts or made their own; I would love to crunch the numbers and try to find out how many people bought a ticket just to see Nine Inch Nails.
I can’t add much to what Tom Breihan said about Tribe’s Pitchfork Festival set, but I can say that one of the perks of being in Los Angeles is that you’re more likely to get Busta Rhymes to show up, Raphael Saadiq playing a Midnight Marauders stand-up bass. Same “Yep, that was amazing, just like last weekend” with Solange — everything you’ve read about her stage show these days is 100% true and it’s absolutely stunning to behold. Hard as it is to believe less than eight months removed from her topping dozens of year-end lists, she might actually be underrated at this point.
And… maybe that’s even true of Frank Ocean? Shout to Chris DeVille again: He’s right about Blonde in that its stature has only grown in the time since its release. But is it festival music? Whereas A Seat At The Table felt warm, communal, and timely, Blonde exists on its own plane — dispensing with drums all but completely, taking pop music’s minimalist bent to a place so extreme, it has to swing back at some point. Fittingly, Frank began his set with “Solo,” standing in what looked like a mobile studio on a riser connected to the mainstage.
It was difficult to assess how well Blonde or any of the subsequent Blonded Radio cuts would translate in this setting; Frank is a consummate artiste but an unknown quantity as a showman, given his hesitance to play live or even keep his appointments to do so (Kanye West was a last-second replacement after Ocean bailed on FYF in 2015). But this crackling uncertainty made for this weekend’s most memorable set. With Frank, there was no telling what he’d do next, all of which was compounded by the erratic, disorienting live camcorder footage that accompanied his performance. He played a legless Wurlitzer on one knee, doing “Good Guy” in its entirety, segueing into the next song before informing his band, “I’m not really feeling the sequence” and starting “Good Guy” over again. At one point, he sang a fake phone call to buddy Brad Pitt, which apparently also involved Spike Jonze. And his band included (Sandy) Alex G, just sitting up there in front of a five-figure crowd like this shit is totally normal. In fact, Ocean’s set felt as loose as your average (Sandy) Alex G show from 2013 despite being on an unfathomably large scale. Take it as a metaphor for what makes Frank Ocean special: his ability to speak to thousands, yet zoom in to the moments where it feels like he’s talking directly to you.
The night before, Missy Elliott’s headlining set had a similar air of excitement and instability for a more mundane reason: She hadn’t performed in the United States for a decade, Super Bowl appearances aside. She also hasn’t made a proper album in 12 years, and when she mentioned during her set that she was feeling ill that day, it was unclear whether she was talking about the flu or referring to her struggles with Graves Disease, an autoimmune disorder she was diagnosed with in 2008.
This didn’t feel like a part of a comeback the way “WTF” and other singles have. Neither Missy nor her comically insistent hypemen would allow us to forget that she has been icon for more than two decades, asking for their “day ones” to make some noise, never mind that those exhortations oftentimes accompanied singles that came out in the 21st century. This wasn’t really for people who wanted to nerd out over relative Missy ephemera either, though that really would’ve been nice. Q-Tip’s verse on the “Hot Boyz” remix is probably the most mocked of his entire career, but how awesome would it be to have him do it when he’s already in town? Why couldn’t Busta Rhymes repeat his role as intro hypeman? I mean, could Magoo possibly have better things to do? What about Lil Kim and Da Brat for “Hit ‘Em With Da Hee” or “Sock It 2 Me?” I would have given anything just to see Timbaland mutter into a microphone every 30 seconds.
Instead, we got the hits. And since these are Missy Elliott’s hits, it’s fucking amazing on general principle — enough so that you could forgive how the set itself felt a little disjointed. Some of this was likely due to rust; she was tripped up by malfunctioning shoelaces, flubbed lines, mic patches, and errant hair plugs, which required her overmatched DJ and hypeman to keep the crowd engaged with “I wanna hear you screaaaaaam!!!!” boilerplate that seemed beneath an artist at her level. The A/V was also startlingly tame, her astonishingly inventive video clips clashing with graphics that you typically see at Max Karaoke. Like, when she did the hook for “Lick Shots,” three shot glasses flashed across the screen.
It was also disorganized in a way that’s a necessary evil when an artist has that many radio hits. She did maybe one verse of “The Rain” and maybe a minute and a half of “Get Ur Freak On.” Ironically enough, we got maybe a minute of “One Minute Man.” Just imagine if Nine Inch Nails only gave you the second verse of “Closer” before playing some forgotten single off Hesitation Marks. But really, incredible as it is to hear Missy run through a dozen of her iconic hits in less than a half hour, here’s a run from the second half of her set: “Ching-A-Ling,” “Shake Your Pom Pom,” “The Things You Do,” “Let It Go.” One can be charitable and say that they simply pale in comparison to the groundbreaking work of her earlier career and they lack the power granted by ubiquity. I mean, it happens; you didn’t complain when Prince felt the need to play some of his 21st century material, right? Or, one can be objective and say they didn’t hit for a reason and that Missy has released some pretty dull material in the past decade. Even she’d rather forget “9th Inning.”
Towards the end, the set became a de facto Aaliyah tribute, sprinkling in “One In A Million” and ending with “Rock The Boat,” a curious sendoff following the live debut of “I’m Better,” “WTF” and “Lose Control,” each of which could’ve been a fitting closer. But really, despite this being a celebration of all things Missy and a rare opportunity to thank our lucky stars for being in her presence, there was something selfless about it. She thanked her dancers, gushed over Björk, gave a shout out to Tyler, the Creator in the audience for apparently being stupid rich, and repeatedly thanked the audience as if we were doing her a favor. That felt like a theme throughout the weekend, even amongst the biggest acts. There was collective rooting for Missy, collective mourning with A Tribe Called Quest, collective awe at Björk, collective bowing before Nine Inch Nails, regardless of what percentage of the crowd really fucks with anything they’ve done in the past decade.
Though FYF is something of a template for the modern festival experience, it nonetheless felt geared towards people with an old-school ideal of musical engagement — not just in the way it rewarded depth rather than breadth, telling you to find your lane and stick with it until all lanes met at the end. I mean, who doesn’t like Missy and A Tribe Called Quest? Most of the headliners were reminders of the excesses of the ’90s, six-figure video budgets, and the monoculture of MTV, but also of a time when it seemed easier to build a cult audience at one’s own pace. Whether it was watching Built To Spill stumble through “Broken Chairs” or Tim Kinsella nailing the French horn solo on “Basil’s Kite” or Missy Elliott running “Get Ur Freak On” back three times to get tens of thousands to jump on her word or Nine Inch Nails commanding even more to bow down before the one they serve, you’re left to wonder if there will ever be their likes again. That’s the other $329 question.