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Pop music review: FYF Festival

The daylong event works out the kinks from last year and shows a thriving punk spirit.

September 05, 2011|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Guided By Voices performs at FYF Fest at Los Angeles State Historic Park in Los Angeles.
Guided By Voices performs at FYF Fest at Los Angeles State Historic Park… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

They were peppered throughout the 20,000-strong crowd at the exuberant FYF Festival in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday: first-generation punk band T-shirts worn by indie kids, twentysomethings and Gen X-ers alike. A chubby man wearing Minutemen; a pixie in a sleeveless Conflict jacket; the Big Boys on a sound guy; M.D.C/Stains shirt and knee-high black Doc Martens on a glum (and surprisingly young) skinhead. And of course many versions of the Black Flag bars. There was even a Slovenly shirt.

Most impressive were the couple who looked as if they'd just helicoptered in from Malibu: she in an elegant floor-length pattern skirt, perfect hair and nails, and a form-fitting Circle Jerks "Golden Shower of Hits" tee highlighting her Pilates physique; her man dressed casually sophisticated in a weathered Minor Threat shirt.

Punk rock long ago transcended class, age, gender and ethnicity to become a signifier not necessarily of outward rebellion but of the symbolic, crazy-on-the-inside variety. That sense of internal defiance continues to permeate the entire underground and has become a secret handshake that united not only the artists who made traditional-ish punk rock over the course of 10 hours of the FYF — the Descendents, No Age, Off! among them — but from a wildly divergent cast of in-yer-face artists including beat makers Nosaj Thing and Dan Deacon, the deeply sensual, self-referential house music of New York's Chromatics and Glass Candy, and the catchy, arena-aspirant bands like Broken Social Scene.

"It's a punk rock festival. That means we're going to play … in the wrong key," declared Guided by Voices singer Robert Pollard during his band's sturdy, hook-infused rock set featuring acrobatic kicks, monster choruses and a sexy girl delivering between-song lighted cigarettes to guitarist Mitch Mitchell.

But Pollard missed the point. As anyone who roamed downtown's Los Angeles State Historic Park on Saturday could see, punk no longer means inept, either on a musical or festival level. It means being inspired and maybe a little irrational, like festival founders Sean Carlson, Phil Hoelting and Keith Morris. It means realizing strengths and weaknesses. It means pushing at the edges like L.A.-based instrumental Nosaj Thing, who fused the deep, penetrating bass of dubstep with touches of skewed Aphex Twin breakbeat rhythms to create architecturally sophisticated sound structures as solid as they were abrasive. Or it means setting up gear in the crowd like electronic/serialist/rhythmatist Deacon to make sounds so driving and strobing that the level of crowd surfing reached Nirvana-like proportions.

What unites the styles, though, is a DIY aesthetic; only four of the slate's 36 bands are affiliated with a major label, but even that doesn't matter much anymore; San Diego band Cults are on Columbia, but they offered nary a hint of commercial gloss and built their following like any young band. And though the FYF bill featured reasonably big-name acts such as Simian Mobile Disco, Death From Above 1979, and Cold War Kids, it's a festival in which long faded but much loved quirk-punk band Dead Milkmen can headline, and where young maximum R&B band the Strange Boys can transform tales of skinny wimps making love into anthems of underdog triumph and in the process suggest greatness. It was in the way that Descendents singer Milo Aukerman could bounce through "Clean Sheets" with so much joy while spitting out the words, "those sheets are dirty, and so are you."

Now in its eighth year, the FYF Festival has become a Los Angeles music institution, a formerly renegade party with a bleep-worthy name held at the Echo and Echoplex that this year teamed with powerhouse Southern California promoter Goldenvoice to draw 20,000 people and some of the continent's most engaging artists, both emerging and veterans. Last year FYF didn't have Goldenvoice, best known for its Coachella festival, and it showed in the long lines, water and food shortages and frustrated tweets from artists without backline support. Those problems vanished Saturday — even late into the night vendors continued to push lemonade carts through the park, the toilets-per-capita ratio rivaled Coachella, and the many food trucks seemed prepared.

FYF on Saturday showed all signs of continuing along its bumpy road of success in much the same way that Goldenvoice's pre-Coachella festival, the annual This Ain't No Picnic in Irvine, helped introduce Southern Californians in the 1990s to bands such as Modest Mouse, Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth, At the Drive-In and Guided by Voices while building the foundation for something bigger. Coupled with the seamless operation that promoter Hard Events created for its Hard Summer electronic festival at the same park in July, promoters are successfully figuring out a way to leverage the city's need for revenue to create fan-friendly, well-curated and cleanly executed concerts a stone's throw from Chinatown.

That's pretty punk rock.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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