Dick Sullivan On Fun Fun Fun Fest: “Heavy-Gitters, Cult-Favorites, Some Surprises, And at Least Three People Who Can’t Legally Drive”

Named for a song by Austin punk trailblazers Big Boys, Fun Fun Fun Fest is like the youngest of three siblings in the music festiva lMecca. It doesn’t sell out like SXSW or draw as many tens of thousands as ACL, but it is growing in prominence as are festivals around the country.

This year, the festival consisted of four stages, color-coded by genre: black for hardcore, punk, and metal; blue for electronic and rap; yellow for comedy and contest; orange for “currently selling more records than anybody on a non-orange stage.” The festival also featured a medium-sized skate park, wrestling ring, graffiti wall, dozens of food trucks, smoking supply vendors, and two kinds of beer.

Unseasonably hot afternoons and dry conditions made shady spots prime real estate. The shoe-stomping, distortion-loving moshers generated a persistent cloud of dust in front of the black stage. Heavy traffic created so much dust in general that several festival-goers made good use of their fashionable attire, pulling bandanas up over their mouths like Dust-Bowl Okies to keep from inhaling sand.

The musical lineup featured several heavy-hitters, a few cult-favorites, some surprises and at least three people who can’t legally drive. As with any multi-stage festival, I encountered several scheduling dilemmas. But I took in as much as the space-time continuum and personal stamina would allow. Here are some highlights from artists that impressed and a few that got me thinking too much.

The Questions

Against Me has generated a fair amount of conversation due to lead singer Thomas Gabel’s decision to live life as a woman, Laura Jane Grace. Fans have been unanimously accepting of Laura’s new identity, which is not surprising. Since the genesis of punk and transgender artist Jayne County, the genre has embraced self-expression. Also, the kind of people who attend indie music festivals pretty much have to celebrate her epiphany or risk ostracization from their social group, which, in the postmodern faith, is about as close as you can get to damnation.

Two casual fans I speak to are not even aware of the change. I ask one man whether Laura’s new identity has any affect on his opinion of the band. “No,” he says. “If anything, he’s more who he was than before.” The fan’s pronoun slip is indicative of Against Me fans that, while accepting, may lag behind progressive etiquette.

Stepping on stage in leather pants and a black tank top, there is little change with Laura Jane Grace beyond the longer hair. As Against Me launches into their raucous set and Grace bellows into the microphone, it is clear that music remains priority number one.  The “she” and “her” will come with time, but there is nothing lost in translation with Against Me’s uncompromising brand of rock and roll.

Likely the biggest draw of the festival is a single man in an all-white combo of athletic attire. The man is pop mixologist Girl Talk, who takes the main stage on a Saturday night armed with a lap top and, well, nothing else. Behind him, a tantalizing visual display strobes images of fire, surrealist Dada-esque imagery, and occasionally lyrical prompts for the crowd to shout.

The question of whether Girl Talk really performs is as legitimate as whether NASCAR is a sport. But, looking into the sea of humanity and seeing nothing but gleeful, bouncing hipsters, I decide the question is moot. As cannons fire confetti over the crowd and Girl Talk moshes with the crowd who has joined him on stage, it is clear that Girl Talk is the life of the Fun Fun Fun party.

The Unexpected

When I added Residual Kid to my last-minute itinerary, I didn’t know they consisted of two 12-year-olds and a 14-year-old. Yet, the Austin group is far from an adorable gimmick. The scrawny drummer plays like a grown man, attacking the set with Dave Grohl-ish fervor. I ask his father whether his son is on any rock and roll blood boosters. The dad says no, but when I bring up the two missed stick tosses (he landed the third), his dad jokes, “He’s grounded for missing that.”

On an early Sunday afternoon, I am staring at yet another musician too small to be making so much noise. Ume’s (pronounced ooh-may) Lauren Larson cannot be much taller than five feet, but she plays like she’s 50-feet tall. Stomping around the stage like a berserker, Larson is showing us her riffs. Then, through a combination of on-stage acrobatics and a very short dress, ends up showing us much, much too much.

In any universe, choosing Los Angeles punk legends X over any other act is a no-brainer. Their oddly attractive dissonant vocals and rockabilly-infused riffs combine to make a punk rock brand with the charm of a barroom brawl. Only, I am standing at the black stage and I can hear only bass. That is because sound guy for the black stage loves bass. He loves it like a child. When he orders his breakfast at diners, he asks if the eggs can be made with extra bass. He loves it so much that it rattles my amalgam fillings. Who cares that he’s ruining a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch X perform Los Angeles in its entirety when I can feel the bass in my crotch? I am guessing he will sleep with the kind of self-satisfaction the rest of us only imagine.

The Expected

Mike Patton formed his first group, Mr. Bungle, three years after Run DMC. Since then, Run DMC has recorded about six hours of music with a significant break in the ‘90s. Meanwhile Mike Patton has recorded close to 20 hours, and Patton, a self-professed caffeine addict, has yet to even take a breath.  Run DMC is more important, historically, and that is why they get the headline spot on the main stage, but Patton is more innovative, in almost every musical dimension that adjective can stretch.

Tomahawk is Mike Patton’s collaboration with Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison and ex-Helmet drummer John Stanier. The group elevates metal to an art-form much the same way Fugazi did with hardcore. Here at Fun Fun Fun Fest, Patton looks as if he is on autopilot. But a mailed-in Patton still trumps any other vocalist’s best day.

It would not be a stretch to put hip hop trio De La Soul on the same pedestal as Run DMC. For a solid 15 years, they put out instantly classic hip hop albums and constantly battled with a rap community hell-bent on perpetuating violent themes. De La Soul performs now with all the wisdom of those years and, far from being vaunted, they are stripped of pretense. At one point, DJ Maseo’s frustrations boil over, because the sound, he argues, is not what the crowd deserves. “The reason hip hop shows don’t sound right,” he shouts to the audience, “is the engineers don’t give a fuck.” His bandmates manage to calm him down, but the end result is the crowd feels camaraderie with De La Soul. They have always been and will continue to be about making good, timeless hip hop for their listeners.

The All Stars

The Dallas hip hop duo A.Dd+ has been receiving accolades both locally and from around the country. They open their performance like a Gatlin Gun to a very small crowd, which grows in number as the set goes on. Their flow is locked in and doesn’t slip once. Curious passers by continue to join the audience. Slim Gravy is wearing a sleeveless denim jacket donned with heavy-metal patches, an American Flag bandana around his head in his best South Southern Delta impersonation. As far as Fun Fun Fun Fest is concerned, A.Dd+ are alone in representing Dallas and prove capable ambassadors.

Deerhoof is probably more jazz than I am comfortable admitting. Nominally, I hate jazz for being priggish with its esoteric “blue notes” and high-minded flash. But as the sun sets on the main stage, Deerhoof are doing things only wizards should be able to do. Drummer Greg Saunier is more prolific with a two-piece kit than percussionists with more than twice the hardware. They are true composers, rhythmic savants with a taste for the happily absurd.

A veteran of alternative rock pioneers Hüsker Dü, Mould has been playing since the late 1970s. You have to appreciate what Fun Fun Fun Fest organizers have accomplished with the lineup. Any punk band playing the festival can look up at the stage and see X or Public Image Ltd. Any hip hop act can look at Run DMC and De La Soul. Anyone who has ever even held a vocal mic can look at Mike Patton. And anyone who owes anything to the alternative rock movement can look at Bob Mould.

Here at Fun Fun Fun Fest, Bob Mould, a bassist and a drummer are performing Sugar’s Copper Blue in its entirety. Mould plays with more life than half the kids performing at this festival. He is putting on a rock and roll clinic. Wearing glasses and Hemmingway’s silver beard, Bob Mould jams on his sea-blue Stratocaster without a break until “Man on the Moon,” the album’s final track, is done. “So,” he says, too casually for someone who just owned the mainstage, “That was Copper Blue.”

Fun Fun Fun Fest adapted to their purported 10 p.m. curfew by staging night shows at several clubs. Damien Jurado played one of these, a one a.m. slot at the ND. Jurado is clean-shaven these days, wearing well-worn jeans lightly flicked with paint and a sweater with a solitary hole. He strums an acoustic guitar with his thumb. I am close enough to hear the tap of his sneaker on the wooden stage. The crowd of perhaps 50, some of whom were chatty before, is completely quiet now. Afterward, Jurado tells me that European tours are “massively different.” He plays across the pond to full opera houses of ghostly quiet, attentive listeners. But I like him here, up against 1 a.m. revelry where he stills the air into sleep. Whatever I may have missed during the day, I am sure that I am in the right place now.

Photo by Andi Harman. For more of Harman’s photos of Fun Fun Fun Fest, go here.