Fun Fun Fun Fest is ACL's upstart little brother — and it should always stay that way, no matter how big the acts playing their stages get. And this year, they brought some pretty big acts. The National, Deerhoof, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Bad Brains, Dead Milkmen, Atmosphere, Octopus Project, Bishop Allen ... this year's lineup has eclipsed previous years by a mile.
As a venue, Waterloo Park is a smaller, more rustic version of Zilker, and the organizers have come up with an ingenious way to minimize the wait between sets: Split one big stage into two stages, and have the next band set up during the current band's performance. Less wait, less walking, and more music? You had me at "Fun Fun Fun."
I had never heard of Bishop Allen before seeing them live — I even thought that Bishop Allen was the name of the singer (it's not, it's Justin Rice — but it's still confusing, like people who call think Darius Rucker's name is "Hootie"). I haven't seen Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist yet, despite my affection for Kat Dennings (and Michael Cera ... sigh), but apparently Bishop Allen features on the film's soundtrack and even makes an appearance in the film. Listening to their set, I can see why: with xylophones, ukuleles, and twee, afro-pop influenced rhythms, they'd be the perfect accompaniment to a whimsical journey through New York.
THE OCTOPUS PROJECT
The Octopus Project is an Austin-based instrumental crew, and the hometown band definitely got some love from the hometown audience. They specialize in vocal-less, spacey grooves that aren't straight up electronica, too weird to be pop, and to square to be hip-hop. If anything, they sound like indie-quirkiness incarnate, down to the matching ties, onstage dancing "ghosts," and Yvonne Lambert's haircut. I'm not a big fan of repetitive, occasionally hook-less pop music, but there's plenty to distract from the occasional lack of melody, and the group obviously knows how to play their instruments and twiddle knobs furiously. They're blowing up on a national stage, and hopefully the attention gives them a chance to focus their abilities into a sharp, quirky point.
... AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD
I've never been a huge Trail of Dead fan, and I wasn't really sold on them after seeing them live, so I don't really have a whole lot to say about these guys other than I find them wholly uninteresting. But they drew a big crowd, and everybody else seemed to be feeling it, so I must conclude that the problem is me. But somehow, I'm totally OK with that.
Deerhoof really should have been the headliners, because they completely, utterly destroyed the competition. It wasn't even close. After a brief soundcheck, phenomenal drummer Greg Saunier (playing an unusual kit made up of a snare drum, large crash with rivets, short bass drum, and enormous, obviously self-created 20-inch hi-hats) kicked off the poppy "Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back" from their newest, Offend Maggie. On the record, that song is kind of annoying. But seeing singer Satomi Matsuzaki dancing around with a huge tiger-head mask kind of makes the whole thing work somehow.
As a group, Deerhoof is unparalleled in their ability to react to one another — all four members are side-by-side at the front of the stage, including Saunier on drums, reinforcing the idea that they are musical equals. Interestingly, both John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez play the exact same guitar, and the way their lines twist and loop, it's sometimes tough to tell who is playing what. The music sounded like it came from a huge, electric entity (with a tiny, tiny voice).
I was completely stunned at how good they were, and I need to see them again. I chatted with Rodriguez backstage, and he said they were playing in El Paso the next night. I told him they should come to San Antonio, and he replied that he had some family here. So get on it, music promoters. Deerhoof in 2009!
Nothing was going right for The National at Fun Fun Fun Fest. Atmosphere ran a little long, and their soundcheck ended up going even longer (you know things are dire when you hear stage managers shouting "Do your job!" to sound guys). But the time-crunch didn't seem to phaze Matt Berninger and his group — they've been doing extensive touring in support of their sublime 2007 album, Boxer, and last night was their final show for a while. So they went a little bit nuts.
Ripping through their set (which included "All the Wine," one of my favorite songs off Alligator!), the band which I'd been describing as being more a "slow burn" live surprised me — they were more like a fuse slowly burning down until the dynamite exploded. By the end of the set, Berninger had thrown 2 drum sticks, 2 timpani mallets, and a mic stand rod at the audience (he faked us out by pretending to launch a guitar as well). As the last show in a long, grueling string of shows, The National earned a little catharsis.