review by Charlie Zaillian
For three nights this past weekend, a remarkable, almost hard-to-believe array of talent — and 40,000 fans ready to take it all in — converged on the grounds surrounding the Los Angeles Coliseum. They call it FYF Fest, but more out of habit than defiance, locals of a certain age still reflexively refer to the event by its full, former moniker — Fuck Yeah Fest. Yet FYF has come so far from its scrappier origins as a showcase of mostly homegrown, mostly punk acts — and the musical landscape changed so much around it — it almost feels slightly misleading for the fest to have kept even part of the name.
After all, a decade ago, it was in Echo Park, cost $25 for the whole weekend and was headlined by the likes of No Age (remember them?). Today, SoCal concert behemoth Goldenvoice puts it on, it’s moved six miles south (with a couple-year stopover in between somewhere called the L.A. State Historic Park, to which the consensus among seasoned FYF-ers seems to be “good riddance”), passes go for over a hundred bucks a day — but with world-class bookings all up and down the bill, spanning every which genre, no one’s complaining.
Taken together, the 75 artists at FYF ’17 — veteran headliners Missy Elliott, Björk, Nine Inch Nails and A Tribe Called Quest, rising stars Frank Ocean, Angel Olsen, Anderson .Paak and Mac DeMarco, and too many promising undercards to name — reflect a blurring of the lines between indie and mainstream tastes, a veritable Murderer’s Row of artists, many of which you never thought you’d see at all, let alone in the same place within hours, even minutes of each other. It felt fitting that one of the weekend’s most ubiquitous shirts puts Taylor Swift’s likeness on Sonic Youth’s iconic black-and-white-sketched Goo album art — gist being, for most (though certainly not all) of us there, the underground is our first love, but we aren’t too cool to get down with more populist stuff too.
This year FYF expanded to a third day for the first time in its 14-year history and fourth year at the Coliseum. Friday was no soft opening, with many tough choices coming in just the first few hours. Early arrivals in the mood to rock out a little did well to catch Royal Headache opening up the Club Stage, where a majority of louder, harder bands played throughout the weekend. One in a slew of killer current groups from Australia (See also: Total Control and related), cantankerous frontman Tim “Shogun” Wall and his bandmates’ bread-and-butter is Undertones-style power-pop fun, offset by some glammier moments where keyboardist Gabrielle de Georgio and wah pedal-wielding guitarist Lawrence Hall get to assert themselves a little more. Songs like “High,” the title track and single off the group’s buzzworthy 2015 sophomore album, even if you haven’t heard them before you feel like you have — in a good way.
A short walk along the Coliseum concourse — the stages lie just outside the stadium where the recently-returned L.A. Rams and USC’s football team both play, not inside it — led us to the Trees Stage, the comfiest of the four, for Oakland rap up-and-comer Kamaiyah. With a sound that could be simply described as “like hip-hop and R&B radio in the ‘90s,” material off the 25-year-old’s acclaimed 2016 mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto played great to the young crowd, augmented by an impressively synchronized crew of hype men and dancers on several songs. Newer stuff from Kamaiyah’s forthcoming Interscope debut Don't Ever Get It Twisted, however, like the single “Build You Up,” played first, didn’t make as much of an initial impression — but that could’ve just been out of getting antsy waiting to hear A Good Night’s undeniable “How Does It Feel,” at which point the set reached its fever pitch.
At one of the countless smaller music festivals across the country, a set as ferocious as Angel Olsen’s Friday at the Lawn Stage, FYF’s second-biggest, might be the main event, but here, the Midwestern singer-songwriter — who induced shivers with her soaring, plaintive wail on songs like the show-stopping “Not Gonna Kill You” off last year’s indie/pop crossover hit My Woman — was basically an opener for the headlining one-two of Björk and Elliott just around the corner. When the former hit the main stage around dinnertime, it almost seemed weird seeing a star of her caliber this early in the evening — but that’s FYF for you, we were quickly learning. Flitting about the stage in a big, poofy dress that resembled an accordion, with screens behind her displaying video of everything from CGI renditions of her dancing on wintry landscapes, to parts of music videos for songs she performed, to Planet Earth-style imagery of birds of paradise performing mating rituals, the enigmatic Icelander (who had a strict no-photo policy) was as sweet and magnificent as ever.
As fireworks went off during Björk’s set-closer, “Hyperballad,” Anderson .Paak, a SoCal native visibly psyched to be back home from the touring grind, was setting off his own kind of fireworks. The singer, songwriter, rapper, bandleader, even sometime-drummer’s L.A.-centric albums Malibu and Venice are vibier affairs but he and his crackerjack band The Free Nationals’ inspired live show leaves no doubt .Paak has superstar written all over him, earning the lofty James Brown and Prince comparisons he’s received and wowing the crush of millennials making a beeline to the Lawn to catch a glimpse. It was, as they might say, turnt.
Maybe even a little too much so for anyone, especially us older heads, coming straight from work Friday — and to that end, the Trees offered a perfect alternative in Slowdive, the reunited U.K. dream-gazers who earlier this year delivered a self-titled comeback album that went above and beyond anyone’s, even fans’ expectations. For those of us hitting our first of many walls as comes with the territory at music fests, it was nice to bliss out on the grass for a little while to immaculate-sounding renditions of material culled mostly from the new Slowdive and 1993 must-have Souvlaki, just soaking in the headiness and the temperate summer evening.
Ask most attendees who they considered the headliners of the whole fest and you’d get one of two answers: Elliott, or Ocean. That’d have a lot to do with how scarce both artists make themselves — turn-of-the-millennium hip-hop heroine Elliott, amazingly, hadn’t played a U.S. show in 10 years, while mercurial contemporary crooner Ocean has maddened festivalgoers in the past with a habit of being no call, no show — at Sasquatch two months ago, even here two years ago. (More on him later.)
In the late ‘90s, Elliott not only offered a more fun, colorful counterpoint to the grave-faced gangsta rap that dominated that decade, she was instrumental in paving the way for future generations of female rappers, someone like Kamaiyah being a perfect example; Friday, she delivered a powerhouse performance, blingin’ hard with seemingly every surface on her person covered in shiny stones. Some fans seemed puzzled or even jilted that Elliott didn’t play a ton of songs all the way through, instead presenting them rapid-fire medley-style; it’s worth remembering, however, that part of the reason for her time away from the stage was health-related. Besides, even abridged versions of still fresh-sounding throwbacks like “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” “Get Ur Freak On” and “One Minute Man” — plus the two tunes she did perform in full, “Work It” and “Pass That Dutch” — felt plenty thrilling to hear, uniting showgoers across ages or tastes more tangibly than anything else on offer Day 1. “Real stars keep it moving,” she said at one point, citing Michael and Janet Jackson, who was in attendance, as examples — and in her hour-long set, practiced what she preached, leading us to wonder what we’d done all this time without her.
Taking us out, back on the Club Stage, was Thee Oh Sees. The group and its indefatigable leader, John Dwyer — whose recent move from San Francisco to L.A. was a real “will the last one left please turn out the lights” moment up North, where he was the main man in indie/punk circles for years and years — blasted eardrums and blew minds with an impossibly tight, raging performance that for all its razor-sharp precision never sacrificed fun, reiterating why of all the garage-rock-type bands out there they are the undisputed kings — and don’t look to be abdicating their throne anytime soon.
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