AUSTIN –– Last Saturday afternoon, Killer Mike shouted the lyrics to the 2012 single “Big Beast” while his hulking frame lurched over the barrier atop a 25-foot high half-pipe.
“We some money-hungry wolves / and we down to eat the riiiich.”
On the recorded version, Mike’s voice is more of a growl, all grit and raw bravado. It’s elevated by the rollicking blasts belted out in the backing track. Except on Saturday at Fun Fun Fun Fest, the track wasn’t there. He wasn’t even holding a microphone. He was just leaning over that barrier shouting his lyrics alongside the cheers from those staring up at him and the click-clack from skateboard wheels skidding across the surface of the half-pipe.
Mike’s PA system sputtered the second the 6’4’’ artist climbed up to where he was set to perform: “I’m fat and very high in the air,” he joked. “Getting up here was a helluva show.” His stage was a mere sliver of the top of a half-pipe, barely enough for the skateboarders and BMX bikers to rest or launch themselves off. Now in its eighth consecutive year, Austin’s most accessible alternative music festival isn’t used to these sorts of hiccups. However, this brand of experimentation isn’t anything new.
Why not put Killer Mike up there?
Why not have barbecue great John Mueller curate the available food?
Why not shoot tacos out of a cannon into the crowd?
The festival’s historically-smart booking often transforms minor catastrophes into lucky happenstance. The reason Mike was up there in the first place was because Queens rapper Action Bronson canceled. But Mike made the most of it that afternoon and delivered one of the weekend’s best sets at 11 p.m. at Red 7, holding what he hoarsely declared as “rap church.” Crisis averted.
Fun Fun Fun Fest has made additions nearly every year it’s existed. It’s added a comedy stage to complement the ones housing brash rock; electronic artists and rappers; and independent and pop. It’s moved from the smaller Waterloo Park to Auditorium Shores on the banks of Town Lake. It’s booked another daunting four hours of nightly programming at venues dotting downtown and the eastside.
But for the first time, FFF seems like it’s settled in. This year, the stages shrunk, meaning bands had to wait for the artists ahead of them to finish before loading their gear onto the stage. This meant occasional 22-minute sound checks, as in the case of former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, and frequent mood-killing bouts of silence and pre-programmed mixes in between acts.
This year’s incarnation was no longer the most efficient festival around. But it did make strides elsewhere, most notably in its nighttime programming. On Friday night, Sarah Silverman packed a crowded State Theatre, the Misfits played a (reportedly awful) set at Elysium, Thurston Moore’s spinoff Chelsea Light Moving generated a line that crawled from Red 7 to Red River and all but a handful of the festival’s independent rap acts were housed at the two stages inside and outside Holy Mountain.
Fun Fun Fun’s something-for-everyone mantra bleeds into the evenings, putting its most dangerous and exciting acts mere feet away from attendees. At the festival, Antwon’s dark and deranged noise-rap got lost somewhere in the sky above Auditorium Shores. At Holy Mountain, it fizzled throughout the small room. He held his microphone at a distance that should’ve chipped a tooth or three. His Dallas pals Power Trip looked on from the stage, eventually flinging their bodies into the unsuspecting crowd.
These moments, you’ve got to work to find. Television, Slayer, Snoop Dogg –– they’re going to deliver. The guitar work of Television, the low-and-slow of American punk rock in the 1970s, sounds as pristine live as it did on the landmark “Marquee Moon.” It was so pristine, in fact, that some described it as boring.
Slayer’s repetitive assault is as potent and aggressive as it was when they headlined two years ago. Snoop Dogg had dancers and a mascot who clutched a Flintstone-sized plush joint, but he was as smooth and professional a performer you’d imagine him to be, effortlessly running through a career highlighted by single after single.
See these, sure, but the real enjoyment of the festival comes away from the brightest lights. At the Black Stage, keep an eye peeled during The Descendants for a man wearing a cowboy hat in a wheelchair who was invited onstage during “ALL-O-Gistics.” He’ll be handed the microphone to sing the “kwa kwa / kwa kwa” chant before being given over to the crowd, which will safely hoist him up for two songs. A day later, his friends will loudly proclaim that he is the “crowd surfing cowboy” and lift him over the press barrier during Slayer. Now in the front of the crowd, he will earn that nickname.
Theatrical rock duo Sparks snagged a headlining spot at the Yellow Tent –– oddly two hours later than where Jack Black’s amplified tongue-in-cheek Tenacious D was booked that day. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael bravely performed with no rhythm section, just Ron’s operatic keys and Russell’s manic glam vocals. Those who stayed through the end got a terrific version of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us” and learned about how panicked Ingmar Bergman would get if he were to spend time watching “escapist American cinema.”
Dallas rapper -topic may not be booked to play the festival, but he’ll sure be standing on a table outside Holy Mountain yelling the lyrics to his songs with earbuds in for anyone who will listen.
And so, it’s certainly not as easy to stumble upon the intense and unpredictable as it was in the festival’s beginnings. But it’s still there for those who pay attention. Pro tip for future festgoers: If an artist you’re remotely interested in ends up playing on something that doesn’t so much as resemble a stage, get there early and don’t budge.