FYF Fest 2016 Allure in Nostalgia and Surprises in the Unknown

Two years after moving from its longtime home — a hilly patch of dirt and grass in downtown that could only pass for a park in Los Angeles — to Exposition Park, which surrounds the enormous LA Memorial Coliseum, home of USC, and, temporarily, L.A. Rams football, FYF has fully emerged whole again, yet not unscathed, from its ongoing transformation. That rough kid named Fuck Yeah Fest — kicking up swirling cyclones of dust in mosh pits of dirt, leaving people stranded in lines for hours, overheated and out of water — got its shit together, started a new corporate job, and now goes by FYF Fest, hiding its neck tattoos beneath its freshly-pressed, collared button-down shirt.

It has been remarkable to see just how quickly the festival shapeshifted from a small, personal project by founder Sean Carlson that ran for 5 years in the 1,000-person max capacity Echo/Echoplex venue to what now feels like at least 30-40,000 people (no official attendance numbers were released), yet what keeps the fest relevant to people like me, who may yearn for those simpler, scrappier times, is the ever-improving lineups and the unwavering willingness of the staff to swiftly deal with and, better yet, actually fix all major problems and complaints made by the attendees. After a one-year break from FYF, I returned now prepared for the massive new venue, which was an intimidating geographical change two years ago, if not quite for swarming crowds that despite all that real estate still managed to occasionally put my self-diagnosed agoraphobia to the test. And after having survived two days of near-constant walking, standing, and ear-shattering noise, I’m pleased to announce it was actually one of the best music festivals I’ve been to.

Now, in writing this article, the post-fest hangover is painfully real. Not only is the fading afterglow of a 36-hour binge of live music similar to coming down from an adrenaline/Xanax/booze cocktail shot straight into the vein, but I’m at an age now where the scale is tipping more toward physical practicalities and comforts over spiritual and aural sustenance. Yet I toughed it out, managing to see nearly 12 full sets of that I will discuss in roughly the order of the joy they brought me. But honestly, aside from the last two, no other act even remotely disappointed.

1. Wolf Parade

Nostalgia is tough to shake. Like those little hitchhikers that get stuck to your socks and pants while you’re walking through the woods, it grabs ahold of you when you’re not looking and can be almost impossible to shake off. Over time, some of them fall right off, while others, even after dutifully picking at them, burrow their way down even further, refusing to let go, making themselves a part of you. There’s a great thread going on at the private TMT forums about albums that have “aged poorly,” which unsurprisingly led to some very salient points going far beyond “I used to like X, but now X sucks,” delving into how music is inextricably linked to the time when we first listened to it, the culture at the time, and who we were vs. are as a person. In Godard’s In Praise of Love, a character muses that “moving forward is a rejection of your former self,” implying that growth not only involves change but necessitates a constant renouncing of your own past. It’s a fascinating, albeit overly harsh, point, but when it comes to music, film, and other pop culture artifacts, there is ingrained in us both the need for outright rejection (e.g., “I was young, my taste was shit.”) or unshakeable embracing (e.g., “I love Ghostbusters because it reminds me of my childhood so I’m going to sexually harass and berate the women involved in remaking it.”) of the things we once loved or continue to love.

All of that is to say when it comes the music of our past, we are far more comfortable either flicking those hitchhikers off to the ground or tucking them away in our pockets to take with us to our graves. When it comes to Wolf Parade and LCD Soundsystem, these are two bands who are powerfully connected to who I was from, say, 2005 to 2008, and whose music helped form the fabric of my life at the time. I saw both bands only once live (the former in 2008, the latter in 2010), yet I haven’t listened to either all that much in the last 4-5 years. It’s not as if I made a conscious decision or came to the realization that either were now lame, but I was also not entirely confident that they still had lasting emotional value or an impact that could still be felt.

When I sat in front of the stage for Wolf Parade on day 1, fortunately at a smaller stage called The Trees, I was excited and trepidatious in equal measure, thrilled I was seeing a band I once considered a favorite (and their debut an unassailable classic) but worried that I would no longer connect with the music, that the band in their six-year absence would emerge unrecognizable as the one I once loved or, perhaps even worse, simply be the solid yet not terribly memorable band that released their latest EP. I suppose that’s always the case with reunions and their potential to not only disappoint in the present, but to also reshape the past, dislodging our long-held beliefs and loyalties and forcing them to dissipate gracelessly into fading memories.

From the first second that Krug, Boeckner & Co. took the stage, I knew we were in good hands. First of all, Boeckner looked not like a seasoned veteran rocker, but like a fan who won a contest to perform on-stage with his favorite band. Dude was smiling ear to ear, amped as fuck and excited as a little kid on Christmas, like he’d been kept from doing what he loves since the band dissolved — and this coming from someone who was firmly planted on Team Krug back in the day. Out of 11 songs, six were from Apologies to the Queen Mary, so despite playing two from the new EP, it was clear the band was embracing its own past and out there celebrating it with the crowd. It was an efficient, impactful set for the first 40 minutes, when Krug called an audible announcing they were going to do three, not two, more songs, before tearing through “Dear Sons & Daughters…,” “This Heart’s On Fire,” and “I’ll Believe in Anything” with a fury that shook the audience. There was shoving, hugging, and jumping, as nearly everyone screamed the lyrics with reckless abandon, and all those worries about the band’s relevance or worth were, for me, screamed into the dark sky above, disappearing into the void.

2. LCD Soundsystem

My trepidation before LCD Soundsystem’s festival closing set was much more in check. Not only would I consider two of their albums stone-cold classics, but they are also known for putting on ridiculously entertaining live shows. Starting with “Us v Them” and “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House,” they pretty much got the entire main stage audience, which, aside from Kendrick Lamar’s crowd, was the biggest I saw at the festival. Fortunately, I got there 40 minutes early (a rarity in this five-stage festival of non-stop stage-hopping) and staked my claim in the third row. If the festival was going to end, I was going to be in the shit to see it all go down. The only disappointment was that they were merely as amazing, fun, and awe-inspiring as I expected. And because I had work the next morning, I bailed at 12:15 AM, ironically with “Home” playing me out as I walked to the car. That I wasn’t there for the final duo of “Dance Yrself Clean” and “All My Friends” is a regret I’ll have to live with, but fuck, I was there for “Yeah,” “Someone Great,” and “Losing My Edge” just before I did leave, so I rightfully did sleep just fine that night with the knowledge that LCD is another little hitchhiker that I just can’t shake.

3. Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires

As much as I enjoy Charles Bradley’s albums, I usually end up listening to them three or four times and rarely if ever returning to them. If I’m digging male-driven soul music, it’s usually Otis, Stevie, Marvin, or Al, and occasionally the man Bradley most obviously resembles, James Brown. To say Bradley’s music isn’t at all innovative isn’t a slight as much as an admission that his deeply personal emotional baggage is packaged in familiar grooves, beats, and screams borrowed from those before him. It is perhaps why his albums don’t hold up terribly well to repeated spins, yet his live shows are another thing altogether. After seeing him once before at FYF three years ago, I vowed to see him every time he showed up, because this man has an undeniable presence and voice that sends chills down my spine. Aside from “Changes,” I couldn’t name a single song he performed off the top of my head, but I can say that his set was without a doubt the most heartfelt and heartwarming, his singing shaking the audience to the core and his lovely interjections between songs creating a camaraderie and joy that was palpable.

4. Kendrick Lamar

I feel bad putting Kendrick this low, because he was absolutely on fire. Unfortunately, by the end of day one and following a cathartic, but energy-draining set with Wolf Parade, I was flat-out exhausted from a full day of walking, jumping, and standing around in the heat. I showed up 20 minutes into his 90-minute set, couldn’t get within 100 yards, and spent most of the time sitting down or laying on my back on the asphalt. I paced myself a little better on Sunday, but during Kendrick’s set, I felt my fucking age. Still, no amount of soreness could mask the brilliance of his two-shot spitting rhymes with Schoolboy Q, covering “Collared Greens” and “That Part,” the still thoughtful and brilliant “These Walls” and “For Sale?,” and the killer version of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” that didn’t even need the crazy pyrotechnics to light the audience up. Kendrick was on a mission, and even though I was struggling to keep up physically and couldn’t stick around for the encore, “King Kunta” and “i” gave me the adrenaline shot I needed just to make the long trek back to my car. It was experienced from a distance, physically and emotionally, but even from afar, I couldn’t help looking on with admiration.

5. Shellac

Although I’m a pretty fan big of Steve Albini’s, from his recording work to his now defunct cooking blog, I never gave Shellac much of a chance after not really digging their highly-regarded At Action Park. Perhaps as a latecomer to that album, the precision of its math rock rhythms and rough, angular sounds already sounded much more familiar than they would have been in 1994, but it wasn’t long before then when I fell in love with Albini’s earlier project, Big Black, particularly Atomizer and the Bulldozer EP, and I’ve long been a fan of In Utero and Surfer Rosa, obviously, as well as his work with The Jesus Lizard, PJ Harvey, The Ex, etc. There is a familiarity of sound and methodology in everything he touches that can seem a bit fascistic in its harshness, yet never compromising the song and always seeming to work toward his genre mantra of music shaking us from our catatonic state. I saw Shellac at FYF more out of curiosity and convenience and was pleasantly surprised that they were far more engaging and engaged than I expected. The two highlights of the set were songs I’d never heard before, the equally verbose, musically tongue-in-cheek “Wingwalker” and “The End of Radio,” each more deconstructions of songs rather than songs themselves, yet I can only imagine that their humor, blasts of sonic noise, and sardonic wit play far better to a live crowd than on headphones at home. I expected the loud, crunchy guitars and Albini’s darkly comic persona, but I didn’t expect they’d be one of my favorite sets of the weekend.

6. Julia Holter

Julia Holter’s set was the only one I saw in The Club, the most enclosed stage at FYF, with a tent on three sides and solid wood floors. Fortunately, it was located at the far end of the grounds, a far enough walk that it felt like its own little corner tucked away from the more massive stages around the bend. All worries that Holter’s gorgeous voice and quiet, precise compositions might wander off, blending in with the festival atmosphere surrounding it, vanished by the end of opener “Horns Surrounding Me.” It’s not that I expected her voice to sound different, it’s just that I never expected it to sound amazing, drenching the room as the horns and strings truly did surround me. Five of the other tracks were from Have You in My Wilderness, with “Lucette Stranded” and “Betsy on the Roof” being the most impressive, but it was the pleasantly surprising and eerily strange cover of Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” that really drove home what a unique performer she is, even in a live setting. It certainly helps that her band was on point making her 50-minute set feel like a calming vacation from the fest’s otherwise bustling cacophony.

7. Andy Stott

I missed Andy Stott with Demdike Stare last year at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I was out of the country, so the excuse is legit, but there is probably no better venue in L.A. to bask in the dark, strange ambient glows of those two acts. Stott’s music isn’t exactly fest-friendly, so as I entered The Woods stage — which was basically an outdoor area with a couple trees overhead — not knowing what to expect. I showed up early catching the end of the prior set of some dude named Bicep, which basically sounded like what you’d find if you googled “generic club music.” It was harmless and mindlessly catchy and the crowd was dancing in rhythm with the predictable beats, eating it up like comfort food that comes with the expectations of that particular stage’s up-tempo techno palette. There was no set break before Stott took hold of the reigns, as the atonal, alien beats and sounds immediately created a sense of unease and dread, breaking the once-unified crowd into a fractured group of individuals, some awkwardly trying to keep dancing, some politically scuffling from the front and making their way out, and still others recalibrating their ears to Stott’s distinctive sound. As the smoke completely filled at least the first 8-10 rows of people and the disco balls seemed to actually suck in rather than refract light, the once innocuous makeshift wooden platform became its own 1000 square-foot universe, existing completely outside of the festival surrounding it. For 45 minutes, Stott not only owned the room, but also transported everyone in it to another place — quite a remarkable feat for an outdoor stage in fest this size.

8. Tame Impala

I’m well aware of the TMT music writers’ general distaste for Kevin Parker’s Tame Impala, but while I wasn’t myself sold even after Lonerism, from the very first time I heard Currents last year, I was obsessed with its blend of psych pop and Phil Collins-eque cheese. As a fairly young performer, Parker took command of the stage and put on a hell of a show, highlighted by “Let It Happen,” “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” and the crowd-pleasing “Eventually” — even their older songs sounded fresh live. They were far from revelatory, and I could have gone for a more Currents-centric set, but the crowd’s and Parker’s enthusiasm energized even the lesser tracks. The entire set was as fun a set as I expected.

9. Preoccupations (f.k.a. Viet Cong)

The dissolution of Women, particularly following their singularly brilliant Public Strain, was a bitter pill to swallow in 2010 for fans of this new wave of post-punk. Fortunately, their spinoff with bassist and singer Matthew Flegel, Viet Cong, picked up the baton without a hitch with their Cassette EP in 2013 and last year’s fantastic self-titled album. At this point, what could go wrong? Then that pesky name fiasco went down, probably coming more from a thoughtlessly ironic approach in the meaningless task of coming up with a band name than any true attempt at political agitation or shock value, and the band has re-emerged as, cheekily, Preoccupations. Their latest, new self-titled album may have smoothed out some of the rough edges, but this is still a band with a true sense of anxiety and monotony (bad pun unfortunately intended), its harsh, jagged metallic guitars bleeding noise and feedback. Their performances of “Anxiety” and, especially, “Memory” were surprisingly intense, the latter aided by Dan Boeckner joining in on vocals. And while it was the Viet Cong music — “Continental Shelf” near the beginning of the set” and “Death” near the end — that rocked the hardest, it was clear that despite all the manufactured controversy, this is still the same band. After all, what’s in a name?

10. Vince Staples

The problem with all this preferential nonsense is that a perfectly great set like Vince Staples’s gets stuck near the bottom. Like Preoccupations, Staples’s set suffered a bit by being early in the day with a smaller crowd, but Vince came out pumped and left it all out there, even getting the crowd rowdy with a couple new tracks off his new EP (“War Ready,” “Prima Donna”) and a pre-Summertime ‘06 track, “Hands Up.” Most of the remaining songs were from Summertime ‘06 and were thus automatically pretty awesome, proving that Vince has what it takes be a commanding presence both in the studio and on the stage.

11-12. The Doldrums of FYF: DIIV & Father John Misty

DIIV is down here because their set was so dull I can’t even think of anything to write about it. It was the first set of the first day of the fest, and they still damn well nearly put me to sleep. Zachary Cole Smith was the guitarist with Beach Fossils at a memorably fun little show at the Echoplex back in 2010, so I figured DIIV might be more of the same. I don’t know if it was because the main stage was too big for them or the audience was merely waiting around for later acts, but it was absolutely a dud of a set.

When I first heard Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, I thought it was a catchy bit of darkly comic irony wrapped in a cheery (doomed) love song. The rest of the album never grabbed me, yet there was something distasteful about it that somehow led me to return to it throughout the year. Now, I hadn’t and still haven’t listened his debut album, so my exposure to the increasingly obnoxious, borderline-toxic persona of Misty hit me fresh in 2015; and his critiques of America as a sedated, self-absorbed capitalist nightmare, while not exactly wrong, were delivered in a really shitty, misguided and defeatist manner that embraced and celebrated the very things they were supposedly critiquing.

Throughout his performance of “Bored in the U.S.A.,” Misty was dramatically pouty, purposely emanating an aura of indifference (he earlier quipped in Jim Gaffingan-esque self-reference “I can never tell if this guy’s ever serious or not”) that sucked the life out of the main stage audience thousands of people large. Toward the end of the song, he made his way out to the crowd, grabbed a fan’s cell phone, and began bringing it closer to his face. The music stopped and he joked “OK, put it to MyStory?” and “This is a very anticlimactic point in the set. Me here talking into your phone. OK friends, let’s try to carry on with dignity here.” At which point the audience laughed and cheered and I politely made my way out of the crowd with 20 minutes left in his set, trying to retain what little dignity I had left after that bullshit. There was a churro stand calling from not too far away.

And there I will leave you, friends, not amidst the petty miserablism of Father John, but enjoying the culinary perfection of fried dough and cinnamon. At least I knew after that first bite that I made the right decision.

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