On Friday I knocked off work juuuuust a little early so that I could catch Napalm Death. The awesome thing about watching Napalm Death is that you are literally watching the oldest grindcore band in existence. It’s not possible to watch an older grindcore band, because Napalm Death are the oldest one! Even if not one of the guys onstage was in the band in 1981. Napalm Death are one of the most in-sync grind bands I’ve ever seen (and the only one from England). You know what? Their music still sounds like gibberish. That’s what I like about grind- if you go watch an extreme metal band who have been playing for 15 or 20 years, it will be the most precise, cleanest-sounding show you’ve ever been to. That’s how it was when I saw Marduk and Nachtmystium a couple of years ago. But grindcore isn’t like that. It’s loose; chaotic. Somehow it’s more “free” than metal. Obviously grind comes as much from punk rock as it does from metal, so maybe that’s part of it.
The shitty thing about watching Napalm Death is that a bunch of beefy slam-dancing dipshits are going to smack into you when you least expect it. Grown fucking men too!
Napalm Death played the longest grindcore set I’ve ever seen, by a mile. They were still at it when I left to catch Bob Mould playing Sugar’s Copper Blue. Jon Wurster from Superchunk was playing drums for Mould, which was neat. I hadn’t been able to see him well enough at the Mohawk the night before to notice that he holds his drumsticks using traditional grip, which puts him in a rarefied group that includes, most notably Stewart Copeland of the Police, along with John Wright of Nomeansno. . . probably some other guys that I can’t think of right now, and almost everyone from the ‘60s. And me! So that’s cool. The set was competent, but I just don’t think Sugar’s music has aged all that well, especially in comparison to Husker Du’s “New Day Rising,” with which Mould and his band closed the set, powerfully. I’m glad I got to see Bob Mould playing Sugar songs, but I’m REALLY glad I got to see that.
Tomahawk are a funny-looking band. From a distance it looks like Ray Wise (aka Laura Palmer’s dad) is playing the drums, with Jeff Tweedy on bass and David Bowie dressed like a high school chemistry teacher wearing a fedora on guitar. The frontman is the guy who played Vinnie on Veronica Mars. When I get closer, now I can see that the band is actually the dudes from Helmet, the Melvins, the Jesus Lizard and Mr. Bungle. And the world makes sense again.
At this point I have to admit to myself that I like the idea of Tomahawk more than I like the reality. I find a lot of their songs lacking in coherent musical ideas, which now that I think of it is an opinion I have about Mr. Bungle as well, and sometimes even (apostasy warning!) the Jesus Lizard. However, on the Tomahawk songs that I do like, hearing all of the elements of the band come together is a major adrenaline rush. The muscular performances of “Mayday” and especially the chilling “Birdsong” may have justified my attendance at the festival all on their own. Also, not that this will surprise anyone, but Duane Denison’s guitar sounds GREAT. I did, however, tire of him sarcastically asking if anyone knew who the Big Boys were. Yes! We know about the Big Boys, Duane! Play “We Got Your Money” or get off the pot! You know, Mission of Burma did “Dicks Hate the Police” when they were here. Just sayin’.
I had no expectations for Earth, with whom I was mostly familiar by way of their reputation as a cult stoner/doom band and as elder statesman of sorts for the post-metal world. When I arrived at the stage, leader Dylan Carlson was fulfilling the latter role in Cranky Old Man mode, admonishing the audience- quite politely!- to refrain from flash photography in consideration of “a medical issue.” Then they played their music: languid instrumental stoner rock comprised of ambling guitar lines, repeated hypnotically with variations, underlaid by quiet, restrained drums. The song went on for seven or eight minutes; when it ended, Carlson got back on the mic and, much less politely this time, demanded that the audience refrain from flash photography.
The set went on like this, with the band playing these long, elegant, unhurried songs- they sounded beautiful- and Carlson rapidly losing patience with people taking flash photos. At one point he even offered “$400 to anyone who stabs the next person who uses a flash.” I do not believe anyone capitalized on this offer, fortunately for him. As the end of Earth’s allotted time slot came and went, a stage manager in a top hat (seriously) gestured frantically and in abject futility from the wings for the band to stop. Lady, I thought, I know you have a job to do, they went over their time and I don’t envy your position. But there is probably nobody at this festival who gives less of a fuck what you think he should do than Dylan Carlson. And everyone can see you losing this battle.
Earth may have been one of the best things I saw at Fun Fun Fun this year, because it sounded so good, but also because it was so different from anything else. As an observer, the tension between the band, the audience and the stage manager, while not Fun for anyone involved, only enhanced the “specialness” of the experience. I’ll have to add Adrienne Davies to the list of my favorite drummers; I’ve rarely seen anyone play so aggressively but with such a light touch at the same time. She is what I wish Jim White of the Dirty Three was.
I wanted to see whether Against Me! had improved since I last saw them at ACL in 2008, where I found their performance problematic. Sadly, as I arrived (from the complete opposite side of the park), they were playing their last note. I did see that they have a new drummer, which is probably a good thing.
UGK’s socially irredeemable “country rap” has been a guilty pleasure of mine since 2007’s Underground Kingz, but I’ve never felt inclined to investigate the solo work of surviving member Bun B, who has released three albums on his own since the untimely death of Pimp C. Seeing Bun B onstage only confirmed this gut-level decision. Bun remains a technically gifted rapper with an enormous voice, but without Pimp, his music feels colorless and one-dimensional. Pimp produced most of UGK’s music; I couldn’t hear the beats very well underneath Bun’s thunder, but they didn’t sound like much. Pimp sang virtually all of UGK’s hooks; Bun simply yells the choruses of his songs. He doesn’t sing at all. I’m not sure he can. I respect Bun’s art, and in a way, because it’s so stripped-down, it seems more elemental, more pure. But it’s so limited that I can’t enjoy it. It just makes me sad.
So I left and went to check out Santigold, who had something no other act that I saw had: backup dancers! Including a couple that briefly wore a horse costume and pretended to be lassoed by another pair dressed as cowboys? Santigold’s music was vaguely exotic dance-pop, which I found inoffensive but otherwise was not sure how to evaluate. Mostly her set made me think that I’d really like to see Janelle Monae at this festival next year. She’s probably too famous though. Well, I can dream.
I’m not terribly familiar with Run-DMC, and I don’t like to party, dance or wave my hands in the air. To be frank, I do care and I have trouble acting as if I do not. Also my legs hurt like hell. But goddamn if it didn’t bring a smile to my face when the first chorus of “It’s Tricky” rolled around and every single person around me turned to their neighbor and shouted “TRICKY TRICKY TRICKY!” Run-DMC may not have been on stage together in more than a decade, but they haven’t forgotten how to, as they say, “rock a party.”
And are you ready for something better? The reason they haven’t performed, of course, is that DJ Jam Master Jay was murdered in 2002. A few songs in, DJ Run announced that the TWO DJs they had brought along to fill Jay’s shoes were none other than Jam Master Jay’s own children. Tears of amazement. Following, each DJ soloed for a few minutes, and various beats and noises thundered from the stage. When I heard the tired strains of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and saw a hundred pairs of hand-horns in the air, I decided to call it a night. As I stiffly lumbered away, I heard the voice of Grampa Simpson booming across the lawn: “Turn it up! TUUURRRN IIIIITTTTT UUUUUUPPPPP!”
Friday rating: Three Funs