Live: FYF Fest 2011

All photos by David Greenwald / taken with my old Canon A720, unfortunately

This year was my first FYF Fest. So if it felt more like a mini-Coachella than the embattled D.I.Y. gatherings of years past, that wasn’t so bad. There were water fountains, toilets, beer gardens, food trucks and booths aplenty, as well as brief security lines and reasonable crowds for the stages. The sound was good, or at least as good as the performers providing it. All for $40, fees included — I probably spent more on food and drink during my 10 hours at downtown’s Los Angeles State Historic Park. So the partnership with Goldenvoice worked out, logistically, a worry that may have kept the event from selling out (I hear it fell just short) after last year’s dust-bowl, multi-hour line debacle.

So that’s the big news out of yesterday’s events, as it was from Coachella this year: functional! Not a total disaster! Presumably next year we can turn our attention back to the music. Let’s get a head start.

One could’ve very well spent most of FYF Fest pretending it was 1976, or at worst, 1982. It wasn’t a bad thing. My day started at the Raphael stage for Avi Buffalo, who welcomed a Darth Vader-helmeted rapper for a handful of amusing bars but otherwise tore through the expected yelpy, Neil Young-inspired guitar workouts. The songs of the band’s debut album are still fantastic works of youthful energy and beyond-its-years talent; at some point, though, Avi will have to deliver another one. Hopefully he skips the hip-hop.

On the same stage, Cass McCombs offered a yacht-rock trip so smooth, you’d swear the boat hadn’t left the harbor. His songs and sound are likable enough, but after a few identical verses, they reveal themselves as fundamentally unfinished, like late-night demos better songwriters never got around to bringing to their bands to flesh out. (Listening to the excellent new Wilco album on Saturday morning was the worst possible way to prepare for this set.) Why McCombs has been chosen as a Pitchfork/blogosphere darling as his songwriting continues to decline from the semi-glory days of Catacombs while, say, Sky Blue Sky remains a point of contention in the Wilco catalog reflects an unfortunate shift in taste. On a day stage with the marquee acts still to come, though, it was a pleasant enough half-hour.

Bands like Ty Segall’s have never done much for me: to enjoy the group’s thrashy garage-rock, one either has to be very young or stand very close. From a hundred feet away, with earplugs, there was little about the group’s musicianship that stood out, a failure (as it usually is) mostly of melodic sharpness and vocal charisma.

The Head and the Heart, a recent Sub Pop signee, play the sort of beardy post-Once Van Morrison knockoffs that have launched Band of Horses and Mumford and Sons alike to college dorm ubiquity. In a genre that prizes authenticity and emotion, though, the band’s too polished, their heartbreak no worse than their colleagues. I’ll stick with Ryan Adams.

On the Leonardo stage, Smith Westerns offered capable neo-New Wave, bolstered by high-flying synths and higher rock energy. Their songs could use a few more years of woodshedding (or just more as good as “Weekend,” which they didn’t play by the time I left for Olivia Tremor Control), but like Avi Buffalo, there’s little doubting the kids are alright.

Most acts were deftly mixed throughout the day, so it was disappointing to hear the nine-piece Olivia Tremor Control – Elephant 6′s great, once-again reunited psych-pop geniuses — reduced to mush. I made two mistakes: standing closing enough to peer into their nostrils, always a sonic sacrifice; and assuming their dusty catalog would trigger more instant familiarity. But they played a killer “I Have Been Floated” and brought an admirable chaos and unpredictability to the afternoon nevertheless. The band’s music remains one of the best marriages between art and pop, experimentation and pleasure in recent memory — I can only hope they’re booked at a venue that will do them justice, like the Music Box or the Wiltern (or even the Troubadour, or Largo) before it’s too late.

The Weakerthans, however, sounded pretty much perfect. The Canadian band’s Left and Leaving may be the most quietly beloved album of my generation. Certainly among my friends, there is no record — excepting perhaps Radiohead — with as diverse and devoted a fan base. The band was phased out of the critical conversation as indie-rock turned away from its punk and emo strains in the early 2000s, but their fans haven’t forgotten: even the newer, less stand-out songs drew emphatic audience sing-a-longs. And like all songs with electric guitars played at a certain velocity, tracks such as “Civil Twilight” sounded great live. Frontman John K. Samson, his reedy voice evoking a less panicked John Darnielle or a more wounded Colin Meloy, belongs among the modern canon of clever, thoughtful indie lyricists: Darnielle, Finn, Roderick, Clark, Kurosky. A Weakerthans/Mountain Goats/Hold Steady tour sponsored by McSweeney’s would probably be the best show of the year.

Broken Social Scene used their twilight slot to remind the audience that they’re both one of the world’s best live bands and their own worst enemies. After opening with a pair of ageless You Forgot It In People jams — does any material by a 2000s act sound better live than this record, even now? Has any band been half as cathartically ambitious since? — the band played “Texico Bitches” (sigh) and a chorus-less Modest Mouse cover that wasn’t “Float On.” Frontman Kevin Drew remains sort of insufferable when he’s not singing, failing to realize that his songs are meaningful enough without Facebook quotes-ready banter. (To his credit, he didn’t talk that much.)

Guided by Voices‘ set, almost by default, was the best hour of the day. The band’s current reunion tour, like its songs themselves, exists only to impart the fundamentals of rock: guitar riffs that could be brought on safari and fired at elephants, hooks that make Moby-Dick look like a guppy and a rhythm section worthy of lifting the hammer of Thor. At 90 seconds or four minutes, a GBV song offers a fresh idea, satisfies and gives way to the next. It would’ve been nice to hear the group draw more deeply on the underrated post-Bee Thousand/Alien Lanes era, but it is, after all, a reunion tour, and the band played the hits: “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” “Game of Pricks,” etc., with frontman Robert Pollard announcing each in a boozy shout during the post-song window usually reserved for telling the audience, “Thank you.” After a 50-minute clinic on to play a flawless festival set, we should’ve been thanking him.

At this point, I was ready to skip Dan Deacon and DFA1979 and other bands that suck to go home and watch Battlestar Galactica, though I did catch the opening half of the Descendents‘ reunion set. Part of me will always love Green Day, Blink-182 and the late ’90s pop-punk scene I grew up on before discovering more, ahem, collegiate music; the effortless set was like watching Billie Joe’s dad steal the ball and dunk on him. As we fall continual victims to the tyranny of new, young bands half-assing it to blogosphere fame (“I loooove Cults” — a bro before Olivia Tremor Control) should pay attention to acts like the Descendents and Guided by Voices: not only were they better than you then, they still are. Nostalgia or not, the best songs never die. I can only wish the same for Bob Pollard.

Random notes: the Green Truck’s grass-fed burger was magnificent, though I could’ve done without the face-painting booth (what’s next, ironic preschool classes?) and the pretentious “FYF changed my life” video slogans between acts. Just let it change people’s lives, guys!