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Festival Review: FYF Fest 2016’s 10 Best Sets

Grace Jones, Kendrick Lamar, and Blood Orange highlighted a must-see weekend in LA

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    Photography by Philip Cosores

    Happy birthday, FYF Fest, and welcome to the next stage of life.

    It’s hard to believe that the punk-centric festival Sean Carlson started at the Echo in 2004 just celebrated its 13th year, but time is an unrelenting beast. We’ve finally reached the point where FYF can legitimately claim its own species of hipster, and if you don’t believe us, head down to Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park and listen for the guy waxing nostalgic about how “I went to the first FYF in that building over there.”

    Of course, not all of these FYF vets appreciate what the festival has morphed into over the course of the last decade or so. The punk groups that would have received top billing in years past — your Sheer Mags and your Shellacs — have largely been relegated to the smaller stages, forced to make way for a litany of buzz bands and bona fide mainstream success stories. Just five years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a hip-hop superstar like Kendrick Lamar to headline FYF. This year, tons of people showed up late on Saturday because Lamar was the only act they really cared to see (or because they had to wait for three hours in what was, by all accounts, a true clusterfuck of a line).

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    It’s a bit disingenuous to say that FYF 2016 marks some kind of sea change in the festival’s history, because the sea change really came with 2014’s move to Exposition Park. The new venue has allowed FYF’s organizers to get creative and design a layout that people can actually enjoy without walking two miles between sets. It has also eliminated many of the logistical hurdles that plagued the fest in the past, though, as we can see from this year’s line mishap, there’s still a ways to go before FYF can compete with the amenities of its big, bad, desert-bound sibling, Coachella.

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    The one aspect in which it’s already competitive happens to be the most important: the lineup. As we noted in our Spring 2016 Festival Power Rankings, this year’s iteration of FYF can make a strong argument for best lineup in North America. The biggest surprise was legendary Jamaican songstress (and supermodel!) Grace Jones, though other left-of-the-dial gets included Alex G, Anohni, Jagwar Ma, and the weirdly low-profile Wolf Parade reunion. Grindcore supergroup Head Wound City even showed up to throw the punks a meaty bone.

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    What really struck us about FYF 2016, however, was how gosh darn pleasant it was. Without a dedicated EDM area like Coachella’s infamous Sahara Tent, the teenage riffraff largely stayed home, leaving us bitter twenty- and thirtysomethings to sing along to the entirety of Saves the Day’s Stay What You Are in relative peace. In all seriousness, something about this year’s fest just seemed more low-key than usual, at least before Blood Orange brought out an entire VMAs’ worth of guests onstage.

    If you didn’t make it out to Exposition Park this year, you fucked up. (Those are James Murphy’s words, not mine). But we’re all human, so we forgive you and present you with this handy rundown of the weekend’s top 10 performances, plus a nifty photo gallery to boot. We hope to see you in the pit next year, assuming we don’t spend the whole weekend stuffing our faces with crullers from Donut Friend. Hey, we’re not making any promises.

    –Collin Brennan
    Associate Editor

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    10. Sheer Mag

    Call me old-fashioned, but when a band can blast through their entire catalog within the span of 40 minutes and leave you feeling like you just survived a hurricane of blood, sweat, and half-chewed bubblegum, that’s a band I’ll go out of my way to see at any festival. Philadelphia’s Sheer Mag carry themselves like punk rock superstars; three of the five members unironically donned sunglasses for their 10 p.m. set, while all five of them filled the Club stage with a near-lethal amount of swagger. After the rest of the band introduced themselves with an extended jam, the focus gravitated toward lead singer Christina Halladay, whose soulful voice barreled into the audience like a bulldozer on songs like “Hard Lovin” and the crunchy, Thin Lizzy-esque “Nobody’s Baby”. But a bulldozer ain’t nothin’ without a few walls to knock down, and lead guitarist Kyle Seely stacks up plenty of riffs for Halladay to punch her way through.

    All the rules that most punk bands are too scared to break — No solos! No power ballads! No songs your dad might think are kinda cool! — don’t seem to apply to Sheer Mag, who can write scathingly anti-capitalist, anti-bullshit songs that are also a hell of a lot of fun to dance to. Embracing the raw tools of pop music isn’t the same thing as embracing the culture that produces it, and probably Sheer Mag’s biggest triumph is taking stuff that might be cheesy in other contexts (like a Bon Jovi record) and making it sound vital, even dangerous. A band like this should be playing basements instead of festivals, but then again, a band like this should be heard by as many ears as possible. Their set wasn’t packed, but the folks who did trickle in might’ve found the hidden jewel of FYF — a jewel covered in stale beer, hairspray, and Detroit grit, but a jewel nonetheless. –Collin Brennan

    09. Banks & Steelz

    On paper, Banks & Steelz seems like an equation that wouldn’t pass muster in a 9th-grade math class. The frontman of post-punk revivalists Interpol plus the de facto ringleader of the Wu Tang Clan equals … a very confused press release, for starters. But Paul Banks and RZA have actually been composing music together for the better part of five years, and their recently released debut album, Anything but Words, seamlessly unites the best of their two divergent worlds. The duo’s Sunday afternoon set at the Trees stage was a perfect demonstration of how they’ve suppressed their individual egos in pursuit of something far more interesting than a talent showcase. RZA has the louder onstage personality, but the group have no true frontman; facing each other from opposite sides of the stage, they came across as a well-oiled and well-balanced unit during songs like lead single “Love and War”, for which they invited out Chicago trumpeter and frequent Chance the Rapper collaborator Donnie Trumpet.

    Florence Welch unfortunately couldn’t stop by to recreate her part on “Wild Season”, but the set did benefit from one of the most surprising and delightful guest spots of the weekend. Bronx hip-hop legend Kool Keith bounced out in colorful garb to help Banks & Steelz through “Sword in the Stone”, and it was jarring to see one of rap’s most original personalities just show up out of the blue. At the same time, it seemed fitting in the context of a set that defied expectations at every turn, setting the stage for what we hope will be a lot more than a one-and-done collaboration. –Collin Brennan

    08. Head Wound City

    What do you get when you combine members of the Blood Brothers, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Locust and take any concern about tinnitus out of the equation? You’d probably get a literal head wound, but if you’re lucky you might just get Head Wound City, the fiercest band on any stage at FYF by a long shot. The grindcore supergroup blitzed through their Saturday afternoon set like they had something to prove, which is a bit silly given their collective pedigree.

    Like all great frontmen in punk and its related offshoots, Jordan Blilie treats his mic like he would a mortal enemy, screaming every ounce of his rage into it when he’s not straight-up glaring at random members of the crowd. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his former Blood Brothers compatriot Cody Votolato comes the closest to matching his mad energy; during their set, both dudes took every opportunity to step out toward the audience and make sure the circle pit never lost its momentum. All in all, it seemed like a throwback to the days of FYF yore, when fucking shit up was a matter of course instead of a rare blip in the lineup. The festival’s punk roots were shallower than ever this year, but groups like Head Wound City proved that they’ll always be an intrinsic part of its DNA. –Collin Brennan

    07. Jagwar Ma

    Early on day one, Sydney trio Jagwar Ma took the Lawn stage armed and ready with plenty of ’90s throwback rave weaponry, only further solidifying their title as one of the more underappreciated acts to emerge in recent years. Performing to a modest crowd pulled in by pulsing bass and hypnotic rhythms, the trio, comprised of guitar/vocalist Gabriel Winterfield, programming wizard Jono Ma, and bassist Jack Freeman, charged through a set thick with acid-laced jungle rhythms and hidden hooks via should-be-hits like set opener “Man I Need” and new banger “OB1”.

    Backed by an array of imagery owing heavily to the psychedelic, groundbreaking visuals of The Chemical Brothers, the laid-back rave vibes couldn’t help but bring the crowd to its knees as they collectively and obediently dropped to transfixing breakdowns. Even without the aid of chemicals, the band’s transportive qualities made it hard to feel anything but high, if simply on sun-burnt synths and an infectious non-stop energy exchanged from the stage to the crowd and back again.

    On the cusp of their sophomore release, Every Now and Then, due out in October, the band also dug into latest single “Give Me a Reason”, which drips of radio-ready potential. Though only time will tell if the band are ready for a breakthrough, the insane peaks of the group’s debut cut, “Come Save Me”, left a lucky crowd knowing it’s the world who would be missing out and not the other way around. —Bryce Segall

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    06. Saves the Day

    In their early-aughts prime, Saves the Day were one of the wimpier acts in a suburban offshoot of punk renowned for its wimpiness. They were also severely underappreciated by most humans over the age of 17, who may have been put off by frontman Chris Conley’s feather-light falsetto or his diary-style lyrics, which tended to fluctuate between teenage romantic fantasy (“I’ll stare off through the darkness to find us a kingdom”) and surrealistic body horror (“If you’ve got a quarter, you can stick it in my neck”). The fact of the matter is, though, that Saves the Day were miles ahead of their peers in terms of crafting pop songs that reflect what it really feels like to be a certain age. Stay What You Are, recorded 15 years ago in Los Angeles, may not be their most influential album, but it remains their most accomplished. It’s a self-aware stab at growing up in a genre that never took kindly to maturity, and maybe that’s why it hit so hard with the twenty- and thirtysomethings who gathered at FYF’s Trees stage on Sunday night for a performance of the album in its entirety.

    FYF usually does a good job booking lineups that look forward, but this one was an inspired and offbeat choice for a legacy act. Most emo from the early 2000s has aged atrociously, but Saves the Day rank among the few bands of that era that benefit from the warmth of nostalgia. The crowd was positively exuberant for the 45 minutes they graced the stage, singing along to every word and crowdsurfing like they used to do in the good old days, before that kind of thing was frowned upon. Even on a hot late-summer day, the sing-along in the chorus to “Freakish” was enough to send a chill up my spine. “So many fat old ex emo kids here,” I jokingly texted a friend who also grew up listening to Saves the Day. I meant it endearingly, and I think he knew that. “We are a tribe,” was the response, and so I grabbed a passing stranger and we sang along to “Firefly”. –Collin Brennan

    05. Shellac

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    Anyone familiar with Shellac could have told you that booking the minimalist rock legends at a major festival was probably not a good idea. And then they would have paused for a moment, contemplated the possibility of Steve Albini slowly offending hundreds of people over the course of an hour, and said, “Fuck it! That’s a great idea!” Suffice it to say that Shellac are not your average festival band. Bassist Bob Weston made that clear enough in the opening minutes of their afternoon set on Saturday, scoffing at some of the conventions most of us take for granted. “Turn the smoke machines off,” he first instructed the stage crew. “They make us uncomfortable.”

    That’s some grade-A irony right there, because the whole point of Shellac is to make people uncomfortable, or at least to subvert their expectations of what a “rock band” really entails. There were indeed many bewildered faces in the audience as the band herked and jerked their way through early B-side “Windwalker”, which ended with Albini delivering a drawn-out and very crass joke about the line “I’m a plane!” They only built up steam from there, and it took Albini and Weston literally dismantling drummer Todd Trainer’s kit for the set to come to a close. When Albini finally picked up Trainer and whisked him off the stage, we were left with the impression that the ever-growing, ever-more-corporate FYF might never see something this delightfully weird again. Perhaps we can take solace in the words Albini shouted at one point: “I side with the defenders! The defenders of fun!” –Collin Brennan

    04. Anohni

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    In what was perhaps the festival’s biggest get, Anohni (fka Antony Hegarty) brought not only the West Coast debut of her new identity, but also her harsh, politically charged new sound. Flanked only by a pair of musicians, including Oneohtrix Point Never mastermind Daniel Lopatin (who produced the songwriter’s solo debut, Hopelessness, alongside a conspicuously absent Hudson Mohawke), Anohni’s set clocked in at just under an hour, packed full of striking imagery and cloaked in a clanging industrial darkness.

    Foregoing traditional center stage attention for a quite literal blacked-out ensemble, the singer’s onstage persona rang out as a presence. Masked in mesh and hidden under a bevy of fabric and black gloves, Anohni never broke character to address the crowd or distract from the material at hand, which touches on everything from deforestation to the American death penalty. It was left to a bevy of female identities displayed upon the massive screen to mouth the song’s words, silhouetting the singer as the head and shoulder busts stayed in perfect time with the songs. Only at the set’s end, amidst the brief “Marrow”, did Anohni herself grace the screen, prompting an eruption of cheers and applause from the modest crowd, many of whom spent the set conflicted on whether to watch on respectfully or sway to the swirling soundscapes that backed the politically charged lyrics.

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    As phrases like the crippling “You left me in a broken world” and “The only one who’s forgotten the torture our country’s committed is our country” rang out into the night, Anohni’s theatrical show peaked with the singer putting her mic stand on her back and dragging it as a pseudo crucifix across stage. Soaked in sadness and despair, the set stood as a powerful display of the human condition as transposed through sound, art, and performance. “What’s your legacy?” she beckoned to the crowd during the bluntly titled “Jesus Will Kill You”, all the while solidifying her own. —Bryce Segall

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    03. Blood Orange

    Festivals get a lot of well-earned flak for not booking enough women on the main stage, but Dev Hynes wasn’t about to sit back and let that be the story of FYF 2016. The man behind Blood Orange invited seemingly every lady in his contact list onstage during his standout performance on Sunday afternoon, and the result may go down as the most guest-heavy set in FYF history. We knew we were in for something special when Carly Rae Jepsen came out early to perform “Better Than Me”, but the hits just kept coming even after the Canadian pop star exited stage left. Next up was Zuri Marley on “Love Ya”, then Sky Ferreira on “You’re Not Good Enough”. That’s right, Sky freaking Ferreira decided to just drop in, and her appearance was so thrilling that we’ll forgive her for reading most of her lyrics off a crumpled sheet of paper.

    Oh, wait, you thought we were done here? Just minutes after Ferreira left the stage, Hynes got lonely again and called out Empress Of to help him out with their Freetown Sound collaboration, “Best to You”, then invited Nelly Furtado to perform their cassette-released single, “Hadron Collider”. In case it hasn’t been made abundantly clear already, Blood Orange brought out the big guns for this one. But the literal parade of guests still didn’t overshadow his own considerable talents, whether he was shredding a guitar, shredding a cello, or merely gyrating across the stage in his fashionable Bad Boy Records windbreaker. It all added up to one hell of a set, once we actually sat down and counted all the people we had just seen onstage. –Collin Brennan

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