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Larger Than Ever, Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest Scores Big

By Matt Goodman, CBSDFW.COM
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img 2395 Larger Than Ever, Austins Fun Fun Fun Fest Scores Big

Fans protect themselves from dust at Auditorium Shores at Fun Fun Fun Fest on Nov. 4, 2011. (Credit: Yohan Ko)

AUSTIN (CBSDFW.COM) – By the second day of Fun Fun Fun Fest last week, at least a quarter of the attendees were veiled in protective anonymity.

Fest-goers strapped surgical masks around their mouths and noses. Hundreds of others had bandanas tied tight around the bottom half of their faces. Others got more creative, throwing on creepy bunny rabbit and Ronald Reagan (think Point Break) masks.

Meanwhile, wayfarer and aviator sunglasses served the dual purpose of blocking the sun and keeping dust particles out of corneas. The dust – particularly on that windy Saturday afternoon – would end up dominating obligatory “Oh-how-was-it” conversations in the week following the festival.

The only thing the artists mentioned more than the hazy dust clouds was Danzig’s now-infamous diva episode, wherein the former Misfits chieftain took the stage 45 minutes late in what festival booker Graham Williams would later describe as “the HANDS DOWN biggest rock star moment we’ve ever dealt with.”

For the festival’s sixth year, organizers traded the backdrop of the Capitol for that of Town Lake, moving from one end of downtown at Waterloo Park to Auditorium Shores.

The move was a smart one: The Orange Stage – which hosted indie-friendly fare for 95 percent of the festival until Slayer closed it out Sunday – was massive, handled sound well and provided a beautiful view of downtown Austin.

It also hiked capacity to 15,000 from 10,000, and gave organizers more room to space the stages.

But lest we forget the drought.

And the wind.

And the dry earth.

Combine those elements with upwards of 15,000 moving parts and you’ve got that unexpected – and unwelcome – third party: Dust.

It coated throats, clothes, drinks and camera lenses. It teamed with the weather changes and whipped allergies into gear. It dominated festival tweets. But it also created an oddly fitting ambiance, adding a haze to the neon lights pouring off the stages, lingering above mosh pits long after the last shove.

As the festival grows – and let me tell you, it’s grown a lot in its six years – it inherently sits in the larger, more drab shadow of the behemoth Austin City Limits Music Festival, which lurches over Zilker Park every October.

But give credit to Transmission Entertainment and others behind the festival: They’ve worked hard to build its reputation by employing a smart curation-minded mentality that builds confidence and excitement among music fans that often don’t have a chance to see such disparate acts packed together in one weekend.

For the uninitiated, Fun Fun Fun Fest, which was held Nov. 4 – Nov. 6, featured four stages in separate parts of the festival grounds. Comedy acts – and a wedding this year, bizarrely enough – took the Yellow Stage. Punk and metal – sans Slayer – raged on at the Black Stage. Friendly indie and alt-country found a home on the large Orange Stage, and hip-hop and electronic acts had the Blue Stage.

It’s always been a smart way to schedule the annual music festival because of the setup’s inclusivity: Don’t want to bear witness to Public Enemy’s somehow-still relevant political polemics?  Passion Pit’s just a few hundred yards to your right. Nobody’s going to judge you for wandering over.

As such, FFF has felt like the booking strategy set commercial viability aside for quality. And its rapid growth is evidence that the fans respect that and want to be a part of it.

For attendees, shaking off hangovers and getting an early start was practically a requirement.

On Friday, Omar Souleyman’s Syrian electronica pulsed through a packed afternoon crowd at the Blue Stage. Starkly dressed in a black robe, aviators and a keffiyeh – a traditional Arab headdress – Souleyman fired through a dizzying set of Middle Eastern techno.

Souleyman’s live show is a two-person affair, with Omar taking over vocals as well as the role of a straight-faced dictatorial dance commander. With the microphone jammed in his armpit, Souleyman clapped along to the music with a stern, unflinching facial expression before retrieving the mic and jutting back into sing-speaking his Arabic vocals.

These early afternoon sets often booked challenging, forward-thinking artists; Houston-based B L A C K I E contorted his nearly-naked body on top of the monitors during his Sunday afternoon time slot, crawling over the security barrier to perform his visceral shout-rap in the middle of the audience.

An hour later, Alabama-based G-Side would offer up a sampling of its spacey, trunk rattling Southern rap. Emcees Young Clova and ST Two Lettaz were backed by the beautiful, soulful voices of Joi Tiffany and pH, further separating their unique brand of hip-hop from their peers.

Heartless Bastards’s remorse-tinged alt-country was an ideal soundtrack to take in while enjoying a beer Friday afternoon before the wind and dust became synonymous.

Nearly 24 hours later, M83 started its set on wobbly footing but finished with a powerful thrust forward. Early on, songwriter Anthony Gonzales’s microphone continually dropped out: His strained facial expressions showed he was putting much effort into something the audience couldn’t hear, just like the band’s lighting rig, which flickered throughout the set but was drowned out by the daylight.

By the end, though, it didn’t matter: “Steve McQueen” bled into “Midnight City” and M83’s hazy, feedback-driven shoegaze pop had conquered the festival’s biggest daytime turnout.

These sort of moments of immersion came to define the festival. During Public Enemy, the ever-energetic Flavor Flav proved more than capable with a guitar strapped around his neck and with drumsticks embedded in his palms. “The Magic Johnson of the stage,” his partner Chuck D proclaimed.

And halfway through the Hot Snakes’s blistering reunion set, a toddler appeared on stage. She danced while John Reis and Rick Froberg blazed through a sampling of their three albums. Coached by Black Lips guitarist Ian St. Pe, the toddler scooted in front of the band and somehow took the spotlight off the freshly reunited kings of speed-rock.

Paul Mahern of the Zero Boys hopped the barricade at the Black Stage Sunday and joined the youthful circle pit that broke out after the first guitar riff. Flying Lotus flipped Jodeci’s “Freakin’ You” into a space-aged sex jam before retuning Waka Flocka Flame’s excellent “Hard in Da Paint” into a cosmic crunk dance tune.

We saw The Damned play every-single-song off legendary Damned, Damned, Damned while Spoon lead singer Britt Daniel lamented that he had to play instead of see the U.K. punkers revel the night away at the other end of the park.

And maybe that’s what makes Fun Fun Fun Fest so … fun. That despite the dust, despite Danzig’s poor showing, despite the hours-long Where In The Festival Grounds Has Ryan Gosling Gone game, everybody from the media to the artists were genuinely excited to hear the music.

During ultra-headliner Slayer, a man sporting a faded tour shirt he claimed to have bought in 1987 was wide-eyed as he exclaimed he hadn’t seen them since; that this was a moment he wasn’t going to forget. Smiling, he geared up to make another exclamation when the opening of “Angel of Death” sliced through the short silence.

His words morphed into a screech and he was soon facing the stage, his hand shaped into devil horns, pointed toward the sky.

All dust aside: This was fun, all right.

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