by Morgan Davis
Photos by Ashley Bradley
The first question out of everyone’s mouth this year at Fun Fun Fun Fest is “when do you think that rain is going to hit?” That’s a welcome change from last year, when chaos at the ticketing tents dropped at least one dose of Fun from festivalgoers’ weekends. The rain didn’t come until the very end of the evening, during Nites, and as I write this it’s still going, so it could become an actual problem, but even the threat of bad weather didn’t put a dent in how smoothly FFF’s opening went yesterday. Lines moved quickly, the only artist drop was Tig Notaro (whose flight was canceled because of that weather threat and who has been rescheduled to today) and there were a number of strong, notable performances on day one.
My day began with a quick exploration of the grounds with Kayleigh Hughes, who returned to Austin (and Ovrld) for FFF after abandoning us for Columbus, Ohio. There were some major changes to this year’s set-up, most notably with the Black Stage, which is now one of the smallest stages and is tucked away in the far corner, closer to where the Yellow Tent was last year than to its previously perfect real estate towards the front. Although I caught a bit of Mikal Cronin at the Orange Stage, where the sound was pristine, the first full set I watched was for The Dwarves, who struggled to make much of a racket on the Black Stage’s whimpy speakers. The Dwarves admittedly had a rough start as they were clearly trying to get back into the groove of their own material (only bassist Rex Everything/Nick Oliveri seemed completely in control at all times on stage) but the lackluster sound didn’t help. Blag Dahlia worked hard to rile up the crowd anyway, and HeWhoCannotBeNamed competed with Peaches for best FFF attire with his studded thong, assless chaps and luchador mask.
Despite a warning from Kayleigh that Parquet Courts were horrible live, I stuck around anyway, partially to see just how bad it could possibly be but also to see if the sound issues were Dwarves-specific. The sound for Parquet Courts wasn’t much better, the bass and drums were still muffled in the mix, but I don’t know that better sound would have helped Parquet Courts anyway. There are bands who can make snotty, confrontational attitudes work, but something about Parquet Courts’ stage schtick felt more childish than exciting– they were the audio equivalent of a toddler’s pouty face.
I left to explore a different morbid curiosity, stopping by the Orange Stage to see Viet Cong, a band I desperately want to hate because of their stupid “shock” name and their even dumber defenses of it. Unfortunately, Viet Cong are a lot sharper musically than intellectually, and their set was incredibly tight, showing off their improvisational chops as well as the hypnotic menace of their performance. It was especially surprising that they were able to make their off-kilter post-punk sound work so well on a festival stage, since they’re coming from the sinister Manchester end of post-punk rather than the more marketable early ’00s, post-Interpol iteration.
I was less torn on the next act I witnessed. Babes in Toyland have been a favorite band of mine since high school, when I discovered them through Gina Arnold’s excellent alternative rock history Route 666: The Road to Nirvana. Babes in Toyland were stuck on the Black Stage, which didn’t bode well, but when their set started up, I was surprised to find that not only had the sound greatly improved but that Babes in Toyland sounded like they had never taken a break. The band has been reunited since the beginning of this year, but from their performance you’d be forgiven for thinking you were catching them at a ’90s Lollapalooza bill rather than FFF. Kat Bjelland was a ferocious performer, full of intensity, seemingly channeling righteous rage from her guitar. Perhaps even more telling was the smile that never once left drummer Lori Barbero’s face, making it clear that this was more than a cash-in for the band, they were thrilled to be there, performing for a crowd of veteran fans and excited newcomers. Even a late set drum mishap on “Sweet ’69” couldn’t keep the band’s spirits or energy down, with Barbero shrugging off the technical difficulties by quoting Mike Patton and marching on.
Continuing the good times was Peaches at the Blue Stage, who I caught about half of after Babes in Toyland wrapped up. Peaches’ shows are always spectacles, with Fun Fun Fun Fest providing her a huge platform to showcase dancers dressed as giant vulva, dance through a massive inflatable condom, and even let a gay couple get engaged to “Fuck the Pain Away.” Performance-wise, I think she did better at Cheer Up Charlie’s later in the night (at least from what I could hear, hanging out on the patio after the outdoor stage was too full for anyone else to go in) since the sound system at CUC’s was more suited to her bangers than the massive space of Auditorium Shores. But few performers can match Peaches’ tireless energy and insistence on keeping people moving.
I mostly took it easy after Peaches, until a little after 7 pm, when I ambitiously tried to catch Drive Like Jehu, Rae Sremmurd and Cheap Trick all together. I started with Cheap Trick at the Orange Stage, but their energy seemed a little off at the start so I ventured over to the Black Stage for Drive Like Jehu, who were unexpectedly a lot more intense and volatile. The band is only recently reformed after two decades on break but they were solid, which isn’t too surprising given how busy they’ve been with other projects, like Hot Snakes and Obits. The intensity of Rae Sremmurd was more surprising, since FFF’s hip hop performances can be pretty hit or miss; I was unfamiliar with the duo but they put on one of the best hip hop sets I’ve ever seen at a festival, drawing out ample excitement from what had been a consistently underwhelming crowd. They’re a future must see act, and I imagine that in a smaller club the experience would be even more explosive.
I was also impressed with the stage show CHVRCHES had for their closing set, since the last time I saw them they were still learning how to perform on stage. Lauren Mayberry is now a true master of the large stage, engaging in charming banter about everything from her expectations for the new Bond film to the cigarette butts filling the stage to the emotional impact of playing to such a large crowd in the city that she says really helped launch CHVRCHES’ career thanks to SXSW. Both myself and Dylan Garsee were at CHVRCHES’ first SXSW show and to see how the band has developed in that time is incredible– they’re one of the few electronic bands that are able to make their festival appearances feel both intimate and epic, but when they first hit America, so much of the charm of their show was the fragility of it. Though they utilize some well-designed light effects and platforms to fill up their stage space, it’s their energy and personality that makes them so effective on these large spaces. You get the sense that they truly believe in what they’re doing, and what it means to people and that made for the best possible close to the first night of Fun Fun Fun, setting the stage for a great weekend regardless of whatever happens with this dire weather.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.