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September 13, 2015

Kanye, FKA twigs rock FYF Fest even without Frank Ocean

About halfway through dream pop band Alvvays’ late-afternoon set at L.A.’s FYF Fest, I thought maybe I was in paradise. I came to my senses by the end of the weekend—in paradise, people don’t get this bruised in mosh pits— but FYF was easily one of the best festival experiences I’ve ever had.

Here’s my rundown of the fest:

Best Lights

Spiritualized

As I walked to their set, I didn’t understand why Spiritualized were in The Arena—the stage mostly acted as a raver stronghold, with DJ sets from acts like Flying Lotus and Bonobo. But when Spiritualized started up their orchestral space-rock, I understood—since the show was indoors, complete darkness could be achieved. Their light show was about disembodiment; it was about floating in space, just as their 1997 masterpiece Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space declared.

Most Conservative Set

The Jesus and Mary Chain

Anyone would have a hard time measuring up in the wake of Kanye West’s set, but it was especially difficult for Scottish noise-rockers the Jesus and Mary Chain. In 1985, the Mary Chain was to guitar music what Kanye is to rap; they were pioneers, the first band to combine feedback and melody. Mary Chain shows used to cause actual riots - during their 17 Minutes of Feedback Tour, crowds would erupt upon realizing what their show was.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the Mary Chain is still loud and they’re still using a combination of feedback, noise, and distortion. Vocalist Jim Reid even still swears at his brother, guitarist Will, hinting that their famously volatile relationship is still intact.

This past year, the Mary Chain has been playing their debut album Psychocandy on tour in honor of its 30th anniversary. However, by doing so, they’ve paradoxically lessened the importance of the album. The right way to honor Psychocandy is to go to a festival like FYF and realize half the guitar bands there wouldn’t exist without it; the wrong way is to go to a festival like FYF and play Psychocandy, making the new bands seem more exciting than the band that inspired them. There wasn’t even a mosh pit—the Mary Chain have become a band you can come down to, and that seems like a sadder fate than breaking up.

Best Replacement Headliner

Kanye West

I love Frank Ocean, but if missing FYF makes his upcoming album better, I won’t hold it against him. And Kanye was more than Frank Ocean’s replacement; he was Grammy award-winning, multi-platinum superstar Kanye-fucking-West.

His live performance neatly captured the dichotomies that filled his last three solo records—one second brash and arrogant, the next tender and vulnerable. For almost the entire 90 minutes, it was just Kanye (and a DJ stuffed in the corner). He only brought out two guests (although one of them was Rihanna, who casually sang the chorus to “FourFive Seconds” from the pit); it’s a testament to Kanye’s magnetism as a live performer that he filled the entire stage with just his presence. After finishing a show-stopping “Runaway,” he calmly said, “I got ten years of hits to run through in ten minutes,” and proceeded to do a ferocious medley of “Jesus Walks,” “All Falls Down,” “Gold Digger,” “Touch the Sky,” and “Good Life.” But then he closed his set with “Only One,” a lullaby—it wasn’t about showing strength anymore, it was about showing love. The last image we had of Kanye was him lying on his back, singing softly into the mic.

Weirdest Set To Walk In On

!!!

I pushed my way through the pit at the Lawn to get a good spot for Bloc Party. I didn’t take much notice of what was happening until a sweaty, long-haired blonde dude with a mic appeared directly behind me. This wild-eyed man, as it turned out, was Nic Offer, lead singer of !!!, pronounced “Chk Chk Chk.” He happily bounced away, reappearing a minute later on stage. !!!’s Wikipedia page call them “dance-punk,” although they had enough groove for me to write “funk-rock” in my notes. The “dance” bit is obvious—Offer spent most of his time gyrating his hips flamboyantly. Enough of the audience was dancing (some confusedly) for it to feel like a funky party.

!!!’s keyboard player was on crutches, and whenever !!! hit a particularly delectable rhythm, he would stick one of his crutches in the air and pump it to the beat. !!! was Deerhunter’s last-minute replacement, and whatever excuse Deerhunter offered up for ditching paled next to the crutch-waving keyboard player.

Set With Highest Number of Near-Death Experiences

Death Grips

I remember very little about Death Grips’ set. For the entire 45 minutes they played, my mind was firmly in survival mode.

I wasn’t unprepared for the carnage, but I was surprised by the viciousness lurking underneath the moshing. The crazy pits I’ve participated in before were about having a good time; people would bounce by you with a smile on their face, cheerily singing along. Nobody was smiling at Death Grips: the goal was to pummel and be pummeled while listening to some hard-ass beats.

The pit was made worse by California’s drought - a thousand-odd people pounding the ground with their feet kicked up enough dust to make the Joads squirm. When I walked away from the pit, the white t-shirt I was using as a bandana had turned brown.

Set With Least Amount of Stage Banter

Death Grips

MC Ride took the stage and then left the stage, saying nothing in between. Runner ups: Spiritualized (“Thank you”) and Dinosaur Jr (“Thank you, we’ve got one more song”).

Best Cover

Alvvays, “He’s On the Beach”

Apparently Solange and Dev Hynes’ cover of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” was a knockout, but while they were doing that I was waiting to be destroyed by Death Grips. The best cover of the weekend that I heard was Alvvays’ sparkling revamp of Kristy MacColl’s “He’s On the Beach.” It was a choice that underlined the differences between Alvvays live and Alvvays on record: lead singer Molly Rankin’s voice was strong rather than thin, and the songs were less dreamy and more biting.

Set That I Would’ve Cried During Had I Not Been So Dehydrated

Bloc Party

Bloc Party have had kind of a rough time of it for the last ten years. Their 2005 debut, Silent Alarm, was one of the best of its era, and they’ve never quite been able to live up to it. And it hasn’t been for a lack of trying—I suspect that their famously intellectual frontman, Kele Okereke, is overthinking it. As such, they’ve been indie’s Resident Disappointment for the last decade—critics never fail to review a new Bloc Party album, hoping against hope that it’s as crystal clear as Silent Alarm. It never is.

Okereke’s writing struggles are nothing compared to the shitstorm that’s been happening within the band. In 2015, bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Pete Tong left. For the foreseeable future, Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack have replaced Moakes and Tong with Justin Harris and Louise Bartle.

All of this seems like a recipe for a live music disaster. But at FYF, Okereke was positively buoyant (he introduced himself as cancelled headliner Frank Ocean) and this energy carried the New Bloc Party through their entire set. The first five songs weren’t especially palatable—they were mostly deep cuts from A Weekend in the City and 2012 LP Four. The turning point was the first song from Silent Alarm—Okereke started off with the jagged guitar line from “Banquet,” and the mosh pit I’d been trying to start suddenly took off. The next seven songs contained hell-raising versions of “Ratchet,” and “Helicopter,” and they finished off with “This Modern Love.”

It’s the last song that finally got me. No band deserves the critical dive bomb Bloc Party has suffered, and especially not Bloc Party, who are a) smart enough to be affected by what critics think and b) wouldn’t be having such a hard time if their first album hadn’t been so great. The fact that Okereke’s still up there is a testament to his resilience and desire to create, and I’ll cry to that.

Best Set

FKA Twigs

I didn’t come to FYF to see FKA Twigs. I’d listened to LP1 a few times before coming to the festival, and I’d dug “Glass & Patron” off newly released EP M3LLI55X, but that was it. However, I left FYF convinced that hers was the best set of the whole damn thing.

Twigs didn’t exactly put on a show; it was closer to performance art. The music and the dancing informed each other cannily. Her aesthetic is a mixture of taut and fluid: one of her dancers was more of a contortionist, and the grand finale featured a rigid Twigs being passed over her dancers’ heads as if she were a falling domino.

Twigs’ voice is the same way. She sings high, breathy R&B—not unlike Mariah Carey—but she’s backed by massive beats. Her live band had three percussionists, a guitar player, and a dude on synths. Everything was intricate and precise. During “Glass & Patron,” there’s a part where she sings a sped-up version of an earlier verse. It’s so rhythmically tight I thought it was done digitally, but she sang it live with ease.

Both Twigs’ music and dancing were good enough to have stood on their own; that she did both at the same time was a display of talent no one else at FYF matched.

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