Following the last-minute cancellation of the previous weekend's Sunset Junction street fair due to poor planning and unpaid city fees, L.A.'s FYF Fest arrived on September 3, just in time for all the hipster Angelenos who'd been robbed of their annual opportunity to check out some fantastic indie rock smack-dab in the middle of urban Los Angeles. And considering FYF's very humble beginnings seven years ago, it was utterly amazing just how well-organized this year's FYF Fest was. Shockingly short lines for EVERYTHING (entrance, booze, food, port-a-potties, the VIP tattoo parlor backstage)! Set times set in stone! A local train with extended hours to accommodate commuting concertgoers! If Sunset Junction does get its street permit renewed in 2012, hopefully its planners were at FYF this year, taking detailed notes. Because this was a festival done right.
The first FYF took place as a free event in 2004, founded by a then-18-year-old music fan with a dream named Sean Carlson. Back then it was officially known as the F*** Yeah Festival, was attended by 2,000 people, and made only $5 in donations. As the festival expanded exponentially over the few years, eventually moving to the 20,000-capacity Historic State Park in L.A.'s Chinatown, it suffered severe growing pains, with Carlson developing a bad reputation for basically being very out of his depth. But by teaming with big-deal promoter Goldenvoice this year (FYF's eighth), and acknowledging such festival facts as more than TWO employees are needed to man the Will Call windows, concertgoers get irritable when deprived of clean drinking water, and it is not a good thing when the bar runs out of beer by 4pm (all issues at the extremely mismanaged FYF 2010), Carlson was able to successfully stage the best, biggest FYF Fest yet--all while still staying true to his original vision. This year the extra "F" in "FYF Festival" (seriously, doesn't "FYF Festival" literally mean "F*** Yeah Festival Festival"?) happily did NOT stand for "Fail."
However, even as FYF moved forward, it looked back. Just as the aforementioned aborted Sunset Junction festival was supposed to feature a lineup heavy on '90s favorites (Helmet, Melvins, Butthole Surfers, Hanson, kd lang), this year's FYF Fest was a total I-heart-the-'90s affair, boasting the likes of old-school snot-punks Dead Milkmen and the Descendents, lo-fi heroes Guided By Voices, and resurrected Elephant 6 psych-poppers Olivia Tremor Control. The comedy tent actually featured standup from Emo Philips and former "MTV's Singled Out" host Chris Hardwick. And even many of the newer bands on the bill wore their '90s influences on their flannel sleeves.
And speaking of sleeves...sometimes the people-watching at FYF was more entertaining than the actual band-watching, as a parade of indie kids who were born in the 1990s rocked an array of amusingly unfortunate '90s-flashback clothes. Along with the expected seemingly Deee-Lite-inspired neon clubwear, there was an assortment of man-repeller floral sack-dresses (worn with combat boots, of course), high-waisted denim shorts straight out of Adam Sandler's old '90s "SNL" Gap skit (you know, "just cinch it!") or Brenda Walsh's closet, gaucho hats, and bicycle shorts UNDER floral dresses. The girls who chose to rock the early-Courtney Love kindercore look pulled off the '90s-retro vibe best; if '90s fashion MUST come back, let's hope it's sassy riot grrl style that ultimately catches on, not the sexless Elaine-from-"Seinfeld" look.
Ironically, it was one of those young cinched-denim girls who cried out, "Oh my God! They're OLD!" when aging icons the Descendents hit the stage in all their paunchy, gray-haired greatness. (This poor girl probably suffered similar panic attacks when silver-tressed Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard executed his infamous rock-star high-kicks, or when the beardy, hippie-ish Olivia Tremor Control showed up looking like tenured Berkeley professors.) But the Descendents, led by the endlessly energetic Milo Aukerman, still inspired many of the attending kids to stage-dive and crowd-surf in earnest to old hits like "I'm The One" and "Suburban Home." And when the band members brought their ACTUAL kids up onstage to recite the Descendents' version of the Ten Commandments from "All-O-Gistics," it was an adorable moment, proving that after all these years, the Descendents are a band for all ages.
Similarly snarky punks the Dead Milkmen, who reformed in 2008 and have been reintroducing their music to a whole new generation ever since, also looked like a bunch of doddering dads, but they had just as much bite as ever. Although the Milkmen's set was an exercise in college-rock nostalgia (it sure was cute to see all those young ladies in their Urban Outfitters flowered frocks dancing to "Punk Rock Girl"), the band's rants against Michelle and Marcus Bachmann (including a new song introduced as "Marcus Bachmann Loves Those C***s") reminded everyone that this was indeed 2011. It also reminded everyone that the Dead Milkmen haven't lost their brash and bratty sense of humor, and are punk rock boys through and through, even in middle-age.
As for Guided By Voices, their shtick was never about being young and cool. The Dayton, Ohio, band's frontman, Robert Pollard, was already 30 years old when GBV released their first album in 1987, and his everyman appeal--the fact that he was just a Midwestern schoolteacher with dreams of being the next Roger Daltrey and the songwriting sensibilities of Pete Townshend--is what made GBV the biggest working-class heroes in indie rock. So returning to the stage looking weathered and grizzled was no big deal for Bob and his recently reunited "classic '93-'96 lineup" (Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennel, and Greg Demos); in fact, if they'd made a comeback sporting Botox, eyeliner, and pleather pants, it would have been blasphemous to the GBV legacy. Workmanlike as always, Bob and his gang hit the stage cranking out one muscularly riff-heavy powerpop classic after another, burning as brightly as their perpetually lit cigarettes on the positively sublime Alien Lanes' anthems "Game Of Pricks" and "Motor Away" and the Bee Thousand signature songs "Smothered In Hugs" and "I Am A Scientist." It was no frills, but there were plenty of thrills, just like GBV back in the day.
Of all the "heritage" acts playing FYF this year, the one major disappointment was Olivia Tremor Control. The art-pop ensemble (one the three original Elephant 6 collective bands, along with the Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel) got back together last year after going on hiatus in 2000, and their rare set at FYF should have been one of the afternoon's highlights. But their performance just dragged; despite the lysergic whimsy of their Saturday-morning-kiddie-show-on-acid sound (equal parts banshee-screaming, "Sesame Street" clap-along oompa-beats, and Beach Boys harmonies, all seemingly ideal ingredients for an indie-rock sunshine day), OTC never quite gained momentum, and they never quite sounded as grand as their early albums. Perhaps they just went away too long for them to recapture their old psychedelic magic.
Another reunion act, albeit a younger one, Death From Above 1979, definitely brought more energy to FYF, with a face-melting, eardrum-liquefying, riot-inciting noise spree that actually was a bit '90s-tastic itself, bringing to mind acts from the vintage Touch & Go Records roster. The two-man-band's aural onslaught nearly drowned out all the acts on three other stages--except when they took unnecessary breaks to complain about technical difficulties that no one noticed or minded but them. (Come on, would being able to hear themselves in the monitors really make a difference in their set, at that off-the-charts decibel level...especially since they'd just rendered everyone in the audience deaf anyway?) DFA1979's stops and starts definitely knocked down the intensity a few notches, but perhaps it's just as well that spectators got a little between-song relief. The human ear can only take so much.
Among the newer bands playing FYF 2011, New York's Cults were a highlight, trafficking in a festival-ready sound I will henceforth call "sundress rock" (patent pending) also popularized by the breezy, female-fronted likes of She & Him, Jenny & Johnny, and Best Coast. The film-school-bred twee-pop outfit, led by painfully cute it-couple Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin (the Sonny & Cher of indie), put on a lovely, upbeat show for all the "ravers out there in your colored glasses and zippered pants," despite having just flown in from London a few hours before. And when they played their glistening hit "Go Outside," it was the perfect festival moment. Sundress rock forever!
The other monosyllabic buzz band of the day was San Francisco's druggy duo Girls, who unexpectedly expanded their live sound into something sprawling and absolutely Arcade Fiery, with a fleet of doo-woppy backup singers, a new setup of crack backup musicians, and an all-around epic feel and scope that was ideal for the outdoor festival setting. Remember when Girls used to be described as shambolic and DIY? It seems like they've gone pro, or at least semi-pro, now...and based on their FYF show, it surprisingly suits them.
Other highlights came from a recent Sub Pop signing, Americana-pop sextet the Head And The Heart, who could be the States' answer to Mumford & Sons if they play their cards right; Nuggets-meets-Nirvana, '60s/'90s garage rocker Ty Segall, who really let the flannel fly; Black Flag/Circle Jerks legend Keith Morris's new group Off!, who dedicated a song to late Gun Club frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce; pleasant new-school new-wavers Smith Westerns; evangelical, Jack White-endorsed stadium soul-rockers Cold War Kids; Portland electropoppers Yacht, who covered the B-52s' "Mesopotamia" and whose icy-cool frontwoman, Claire Evans, scaled the speakers yet never broke a sweat; and psychedelic Texan jammers Explosions In The Sky, whose grandiose instrumentals sounded like wordless outtakes from the Cure's Disintegration and were the perfect mood-setters against the Chinatown skyline.
The 2011 FYF Festival was advertised as "the best day of the summer," and at long last, it just might have delivered on that promise. The only concern now is if the festival gets any bigger (which is what doomed the Sunset Junction) and starts trying to be, say, Coachella or Lollapalooza. FYF has finally gotten it right, so it just needs to keep it up in 2012.