FYF Fest 2017
Exposition Park; Los Angeles, CA

Photo: Santiago Felipe for FYF Fest

FYF Fest popped another cherry this year, adding a third day upon which they splayed a virtual cavalcade of musical ingenues stacked so thick that navigating from set to set felt like a continuous game of Sophie’s Choice. Almost immediately earning forgiveness for the cruel joke of starting anything, let alone a major festival, at 5 pm on a Friday in Los Angeles, FYF brought Björk to the main stage a mere few hours later, soon to be followed by Slowdive and Missy Elliott. There were simply too many amazing acts to stay mad at the occasional shortcoming.

Any of the festival’s three days would have made a fantastic month of shows separately, but together, the lineup both contrasted and complimented itself in a variety of strange and wonderful ways. Whether or not the growing pains of the fest’s expansion in recent years are gone forever remains to be seen, but this year was, for me, the most fun and rewarding FYF.

Day 1: Ascension
Photo: FYF Fest Goldenvoice Media

Having braved the traffic to catch the fest’s often-solid lineup during early-bird hours, I started with Royal Headache, four Aussie garage-rockers whose consistently solid, yet not particularly remarkable, output has yet to land them much of a following on this side of the pond. Lead singer Shogun’s fiery, soulful vocals were too low in the mix, but once that was sorted out, the band made the most of the brief set. Their infectious blend of melodic, brutally efficient songwriting and a generous tendency to bleed one song into the next led to an increasingly large and receptive crowd. Like their albums, a little of Headache’s feverish energy goes a long way, making their 40-minute set a perfectly succinct boost of energy to get everyone’s juices flowing at the start of the weekend.

On my way to swing by the Outer Space stage to catch what I could of Kelly Lee Owens’ set, I faced my first major dilemma. I wanted to see K-Lee work her magic but also wanted to get as close as humanly possible to Björk at the typically packed main stage. And although I spent about half of the 25 minutes I caught of Owens checking the time and worrying about the next set, her infectious beats and soothingly ethereal vocals eventually ran through my blood like an aural xanax that allowed me to lose myself for a few minutes.

And then it was onto Björk, a moment I’d been dreaming of since I was a teenager. The meager 45 minutes I waited for her felt like an eternity, and the anticipation of what she would play, what she’d sound like, and if she’d even show at all was enough to give me a heart arrhythmia. To say this was a holy-grail show devalues how important Björk has been to my growth as a fan of music and art in general. Björk was my musical gateway drug to everything from Kate Bush to Aphex Twin, but more importantly, her music opened a portal to untapped and unexplored thoughts and emotions. And her music videos were consistently thrilling in their inventive, experimental cinematic techniques, helping to open my mind to new possibilities of visual art.

Photo: Santiago Felipe for FYF Fest

It’s difficult to express the feeling of watching someone so important to you walk out on stage for the first time, especially as in the third row, this was probably as close as I’d ever been to an idol of mine. But there was a constant chill running down my spine, a sense of wonderment ― both at what exactly her multi-colored shower exfoliator-style dress with neon green see-through Predator/Venetian mask was all about, and the fact that she was right. fucking. there ― filling my soul, and a consistent feeling of being outside myself. From the first note of “Stonemilker” to the final note of “Hyperballad,” I was in awe of how powerful and penetrating her voice is. Backed by a full orchestra and a screen with clips of her videos, Björk was everything I hoped she’d be and more. My only small gripe would be that none of the 15 songs she performed were from Vespertine, but there were samplings of most other albums, the highlights of which were “Joga” and “Unravel” from Homogenic, “Isobel” and “Hyperballad” from Post, and “Come to Me” from Debut. It was a masterful, transcendent performance by one of the most important artists of the last quarter-century.

To follow Björk is indeed a Herculean task, one only an immensely talented outfit like Slowdive should ever take on. Although they were performing on a different stage, they functioned as a perfect comedown from the emotional high that preceded. That’s not meant as a slight on Slowdive, who also are one of my favorite bands and who I’d only seen once before a few years back at FYF 2014. Their set was dependably impressive, with neither surprises nor missteps, and their dreamy, shimmering guitars filled the night sky in a way that invited contemplation, which allowed for a brief reprieve from the intensity of the festival. They played exactly what you’d want them to play ― “Catch the Breeze” off Just for a Day, “Allison,” “Souvlaki Space Station,” and “When the Sun Hits” off Souvlaki, and a healthy sampling of their fantastic new self-titled album. They do what they do really fucking well.

Missy Elliott was sadly underwhelming, but the quality of the prior bands left me unreceptive to Missy’s incessant self-flagellation, which went so far to include several minutes of interviews on the big screens with artists talking about how visionary she is, and repeated mentions of Janet Jackson, Beyonce, and Tyler the Creator being in the crowd. To be fair, I got there just after the set started and was a couple hundred yards from the stage, so it was ultimately like viewing a spectacle that someone filmed on a cell phone. Still, in the brief stretch I saw, “Get Ur Freak On” and “Work It” were quite a bit of fun so maybe I would’ve been down for more had she not taken five minutes between songs to chat about herself.

Day 2: In the Shit
Photo: FYF Fest Goldenvoice Media

Of course my dog would choose the first night of FYF to have a case of explosive diarrhea that led to me getting very little sleep, four hours at the emergency vet the next morning, and a nice fat $500 bill hovering over my head. I was exhausted and by the mid-afternoon, I’d accepted that day 2 would likely be a wash. I don’t deal well with sleep deprivation and the fest’s setting, Exposition Park, surrounds USC’s Coliseum on all sides so there’s a good four-to-five miles of walking to be done each day. But I had a plan for the day and, unlike Frank Ocean, I don’t bail on festivals.

The day began with Built To Spill playing Keep It Like a Secret so things turned around for me pretty quickly. This is the first time I’ve seen them play live as a trio, with Doug Martsch providing the only non-bass guitar. While their sound was slightly thinner sans the layered guitars that helped define their sound, the stripped-down approach worked wonderfully in the context of covering one of their best albums. I made sure to get there early enough snag a front-row spot, and it paid off. Their set was surprisingly intimate; it helps when most of the songs are flat-out brilliant, but with Martsch having to do a lot of heavy lifting, it gave me an even greater appreciation for his skills as a guitarist and song-writer.

In the kind of major tonal shift you only get in the festival environment, I headed over to the main stage to catch A Tribe Called Quest since, as Q-Tip would confirm, this is possibly the last time Tribe will be out making the rounds. But damn, did they make sure it was a hell of a show even without Phife on-stage. It was respectful to his legacy and importance as a founder, but also was as much a celebration of Tribe as a mourning of his loss. Q was especially on fire, spitting verses like he was 27 not 47, and the breaks he took to talk about Phife were humble, thoughtful, and moving, adding a layer of emotional resonance to Tribe’s performance. The crowd was incredibly receptive to the remaining trio’s still-brilliant chemistry and uncanny ability to flow from one song to next, as a building energy flowed through their killer encore of “Can I Kick It?”, “Award Tour,” and “We the People…”. As amazing as the set was, it makes Phife’s passing sting even more.

Like Björk, Erykah Badu’s voice live is even better than you can imagine, and she took remarkable command of the stage. It was a true work of Baduizm as she set a positive, contemplative vibe upon which she laid out her psychedelic soul with a measured intensity. As painful as it was to check out early, Frank Ocean was up next and unlike 2015’s FYF and seemingly most other live dates, he showed up to this one.

To get a feel for the oddness of Frank’s performance, you have to imagine how gargantuan the main stage is. Its huge monitors and enormous backdrop, with several football fields of pavement in front of which one performs to a sea of people, is a spectacle, and Frank transformed it into something completely different. Walking out on a platform between the VIP and GA sections, Frank began singing with just a keyboard and a microphone on stage with him. Even the monitors were off at first before eventually being filled with footage currently being shot by the two cameramen around him. It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop when he wasn’t singing ― an eerie feeling when you’re surrounded by thousands of fans waiting with baited breath. It was a performance boiled down to the essentials ― a voice, a keyboard, and the occasional guitar or bass from his small backing band. In other words, the transition from the vibrant Channel Orange to the introspective Blonde is complete.

“Thinking About You” is the only song from the prior album he played, and even that was performed with a more minimal arrangement. It was heavy on Blonde tracks, touching on all its heavy hitters like “Solo,” “Nikes,” and “Pink + White.” He even cavalierly brought Brad Pitt on stage during “Close to You” because Spike Jonze was filming the performance, presumably for a music video. But there was no mention of it, no hype, no excess. It wasn’t an overwhelming performance, but it certainly was an admirable one, and when Frank wasn’t happy with the way his debut of two new songs, “Runnin Around” and “Good Guy,” sounded, he apologized and asked if he could do them again. It was like watching Frank Ocean perform in his bedroom, if his bedroom were the size of an aircraft carrier.

Day 3: Innerbody Experience
Photo: FYF Fest Goldenvoice Media

By day 3, I was rested and fully hydrated. I had never seen Iggy Pop live, but his energy and antics as a live performer precede him beyond merely “inventing” the stage dive or laying the groundwork for punk with his three albums with The Stooges. Like Björk, Pop is an icon, a figure whose presence is magnetic whether right in front of you or on a 5-inch screen. And when that presence burst on stage to “I Want To Be Your Dog,” he might as well have been shot out of a cannon. I was a few rows back but still close enough to count the wrinkles in his leathery skin, and the second he was visible, a wave of people rushed forward like moths to a flame.

It was already packed, but that first two minutes was a thrilling combination of adrenaline from the explosion of energy on stage and a bit of fear at the unknowable insanity that threatened to swallow me whole from behind. And where Björk’s performance was something of an out-of-body experience, Pop’s was raw and physical. Even during lighter tunes like “The Passenger,” there was an overarching sensation of aggression, as if the crowd was waiting to release its collective tension in an awkward combination of swirling, gyrating, and jumping bodies. Pop also stuck a microphone down his pants and skipped around, and there was a crowd-surfing panda and an obscene amount of fist-pumping. For an hour, the crowd was putty in Iggy’s hands and, for an hour, we were rewarded with a furious onslaught of powerful, jaw-clenching music. Nothing quite matched the fire-breathing intensity of the “I Wanna Be Your Dog” opener, but “TV Eye” was fantastic (and nearly half the set consisted of Stooges songs) as was, of course, “Lust for Life,” but there wasn’t a moment where the magic dimmed.

Realizing that Pop is still up there jumping around like a maniac at 70 is inspiring. It also makes me feel incredibly lame for complaining that my feet hurt after walking 3-4 miles, but we can’t all be Iggy Pop. Drenched in sweat, I climbed out of the sea of bodies, dazed and ecstatic from the catharsis. I had already got what I came for, but I powered through to the little stage where Blonde Redhead happened to be performing my favorite album of theirs, Melody of a Certain Damaged Lemons. I haven’t listened to much of the band in the last decade, and I’m fairly certain I didn’t get to even a second spin of Penny Sparkle or Barragan, but to my pleasant surprise I took right to them. It happened to be the perfect chill, nostalgic comedown after the draining fever dream which came before it, and the band sounded as good live as I had remembered. And as nice as it was to hear songs I once loved and hadn’t heard in years; as soon as they finished the Melody album, I meandered over to the nearby chicken-and-waffle place while their new music played them off in the distance.

Photo: FYF Fest Goldenvoice Media

As great as FYF was as a whole, going out on an insanely high note was not meant to be. I have friends who are die-hard Nine Inch Nails fans, and while I really enjoy about 1/3 of their music, I’m fairly indifferent about the rest. But their fans are fiercely loyal, so there was a bit of second-hand fandom flowing through my lungs once Trent & Co. took the stage. It doesn’t hurt that Reznor has, in recent years, been involved with some pretty great film scores with Atticus Ross and, more importantly, appeared with Nine Inch Nails in one of the greatest television episodes of all time, the 8th episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. And while I went in part because there wasn’t another option, they ended up being pretty damn entertaining. Every time they veer toward whatever their nu-metal sound is, I checked out, but “March of the Pigs,” “Something I Can Never Have,” and “Closer” were all wonderfully rendered. And in a moment of quietude, Reznor paid tribute to David Bowie with an achingly tender, minimal rendition of “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” The set was only 2/3 over, but there wouldn’t be a better note to end on, so there I left through the mass of people to the outskirts of the fest, where I’d wait for my Lyft home with the final notes of yet another fest dwindling ever-so-slightly in the distant background. See you again another year, FYF. I only hope the best is not now behind me.

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