• Music at the Texas Renaissance Festival

    While everyone in Austin is busy talking about Fun Fun Fun Fest, there is another festival going on in Texas. Sandwiched in the northwestern outskirts of Houston, the Texas Renaissance Festival is full of deliciously greasy food, all the beer money can buy and thousands of costumed patrons, from children to adults. Ren Fest may lack the big, fancy stages and thrashing metal bands of FFF Fest, but the musical acts are a particularly big draw for a lot of attendees. These are the best musical acts I saw in my weekend at the Texas Renaissance Festival. 

    The best act in the whole festival is without a doubt Circa Paleo. This troupe of musicians is very talented and extremely precise with their live shows. They play a mix of traditional gypsy music and ancient folk melodies, while also throwing in a few tunes that are recognizable to modern ears, like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and the Game of Thrones theme song. I saw them twice throughout the day, and their sets were pretty varied. At one point during the band’s second performance, all of the band members grabbed a percussive instrument and had a tribal drum breakdown. The group plays music that is great to listen to, and it's performed in a method that is at times more akin to rock musicians than forest-wandering bards.

    Tartanic was a bigger crowd-drawer than Circa Paleo, most likely due to the fact that they are kilt-bearing men playing bagpipes. They always put on an entertaining show, mostly because of the Ty Pennington-meets-Ryan Seacrest leading man of the group. But the band is reluctant to vary their set much. It’s been very similar the past few years at the festival. Newcomers will be entranced by the group’s eccentricities, but yearly festivalgoers can only hope for a little change next time.

    The trio Saxon Moon had their debut at the festival this year, and for being around acts that have been regulars for nearly a decade, they did a great job. Comprised of two men with stringed instruments and one eye-patched drummer, they play an array of Scandinavian and Mediterranean folk tunes. The group seemed a bit daunted by the expansiveness of the Texas Renaissance Festival — it’s the biggest of its kind in the country — but they kept up well and fit right into the atmosphere. 

  • Playlist of the week: Week 9

    In this weekly feature, I make a playlist of some of the best and most important new songs from the week before. Each track is supplemented with a short commentary, giving a reason to check them out.

    Mutual Benefit – “Advanced Falconry”

    The first true LP from Mutual Benefit is one of the most pleasurable listens of the year. It doesn’t cover much new ground, but the record’s warm atmosphere and sleek production creates easy listening to the nth degree. “Advanced Falconry” appears in the middle of the album’s cycle, and its lush strings, folky guitar and light vocals create a beautiful accompaniment to this fall season. 

    Arcade Fire – “Normal Person”

    Arcade Fire’s uber-hyped Reflektor finally arrived, with a somewhat mixed response from fans and critics. It’s agreed that the band is as great as ever, but the album’s drudging length and sometimes unsuccessful experimentation left it from reaching the status that it was destined to be. Either way, it’s still a great record, and “Normal Person” is one of the most rockin’ songs the group has ever put out. It’s the closest Arcade Fire will probably ever get to heavy metal.

    Swearin’ – “Watered Down”

    The second album from this Philly-based indie punk-rock group continues where their album first left off, making a great 90s sounding rock album. “Watered Down” is a fun track that evokes feelings from a previous generation. From the album cover to the vocalist’s lethargic voice, Swearin’ is a Gen-X group that just happens to have come around a decade or two later than expected. 

    Polica – “Trippin”

    Electronic R&B group Polica’s second LP recently serves as an extension to their debut. There isn’t much new experimentation going on, but the formula that worked well the first time around is applied once again, by combining rhythmic electronics with Channy Leaneagh’s improved voice. “Trippin” is a classic Polica track, full of unintelligible lyrics and a dance club-ready beat.

    Arcade Fire – “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)

    While the entirety of Reflektor might not have lived up to expectations, there’s no doubting that the record consists of some of the group’s best songwriting to date. A standout on the album is the second half’s “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” which fulfills their conceptual ideas while also creating an emotional powerhouse of a song. Its chorus is cosmic, heavenly and catchy as hell.

    M.I.A. – “Bring The Noize”

    Everyone’s favorite female rapper is not named Niki Minaj, she’s named M.I.A., and she had a new album drop recently. M.I.A. calls the album her most spiritual work yet. The tracks are focused on Hindu gods and beliefs, but that’s not the first thing to come to mind when her music starts playing. “Bring The Noize” is a fast party-thumping anthem, and is full of characteristic M.I.A.-isms. 

    Gesaffelstein – “Aleph”

    Completing this playlist is a song from French-producer Gesaffelstein’s first LP. After gaining some cred after working on the incredible Yeezus, the producer put together a record full of sound-ripping electronic music. The Yeezus relations are easy to catch, with much of the music on this album sounding highly industrial and hard. The record’s excessive length isn’t easy to get through, but it’s an interesting listen in this post-Yeezus era of music. 

  • Fun Fun Fun Fest, Day three: Festival fatigue, Cloud Nothings and tearing up to Daniel Johnston

    By the third day of Fun Fun Fun Fest, I was suffering that typical strain of festival fatigue. I had a slow start to my day and finally trudged through the gates around 3:30 p.m..

    First stop was the Yellow Stage, where the Air Sex Championships were in full swing. While there were still a fair amount of attendees, it was the emptiest I had seen the tent all weekend. Go figure. People making tender love to air on a stage can only be entertaining for so long, so I soon skedaddled over to the Blue Stage. 

     

    Electronic guru XXYYXX drew a diverse crowd, from the college bros in Hawaiian shirts to ladies clad in Slayer leggings and even Ukulele Guy, whom I saw at several different shows, strumming along and dancing. The set started strong – the crowd was dancing, the speakers were bumping and the good vibes were flowing. Unfortunately this roll soon sputtered out of steam. The music lost its groove and I heard the Black Stage calling my name. 

    I admit to not knowing much about Cloud Nothings prior to seeing them at FFF. I’ve read the name on lots of buzz sites and concert bills, but had yet to actually listen to their music. Needless to say, the move from Blue to Black was a good one. Cloud Nothings’ noisy punk shook me loose from my festival fatigue. I happily rocked my head along all the way to the end of their set. With my batteries recharged, I wandered over to the Orange Stage.

    Washed Out started their set late, which was consistent with many other acts at the stage. The mood was, well, washed out. Washed Out himself (a.k.a. Ernest Greene) noticed the stagnant ambiance and told the crowd to get moving. Luckily the tunes got groovier and the audience did too. 

    My night’s hands-down highlight was seeing Daniel Johnston on the Yellow Stage. Even after spending nearly the entirety of my life in Austin, I had yet to take one of the several chances I’ve had to see this legend play. There are few festival experiences I’ve had that I cherish, and this was one of them. From hearing “True Love Will Find You In the End” to a cover of The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and finishing the night with an a cappella sing-along to “Devil Town,” it was a show that I’ll always remember. As the tent emptied, fest goers cried and hugged each other. I myself may have teared up just a little baby bit, or maybe it was just the stars in my eyes. 

  • Fun Fun Fun Fest, Day two: Chromatics, Deerhunter and M.I.A.

    The highlight of day one was being head butted during the No Age show. So day two could only get better. I arrived at the festival later in the day, mostly looking forward to the headliners. 

    I walked to the Blue Stage first to hear Portland electronic-band Chromatics. They sounded spot on, a good portion of the crowd swaying along to the dreamy electronic beats. The music seems best suited for driving in a car with Ryan Gosling and lots of neon lights, though. I’m not sure if Chromatics is really a memorable festival act. 

     

    After taking a much needed snack and bathroom break, we sat down to listen to a small portion of Television’s set. The band maintained some of the punk rock sound that made them famous in the `70s, and many of the bands there must’ve been excited to play on the same bill as seminal New York rockers. Bradford Cox of Deerhunter chatted excitedly before his set about using the same amp as Television, and finally one of the sets we’d been waiting for all weekend had arrived. 

    Cox took the stage in normal clothes (he is known to wear a dress on occasion). The whole set was the band just having fun and jamming. I was happy to hear “Revival” and “Desire Lines,” and the closing with “Back to the Middle” was all a super Deerhunter fan could ask for. We figured there would be a small exodus away from the stage since Deerhunter and M.I.A. fans don’t exactly overlap completely. We managed to push ourselves closer to the stage in anticipation of Fun Fun Fun Fest’s pop princess.

    After a short wait and some set changes, M.I.A. took the stage. The bass shook our entire bodies from the ground up. The lights flashed and she danced and rapped about in glittering gold. There seemed to be some sound issues, and it was hard to hear her singing during the show. A dozen or so audience members were brought on stage twice, once during “Bad Girls.” At some point near the end, M.I.A. and her dancers started throwing small objects at the crowd. We had no idea what it was until they exploded all over us in bright colors. The crowd surged forward for Paper Planes, covered in colored paper and ecstatically happy. 

  • Fun Fun Fun Fest, Day One: Mechanical bulls, Mac Demarco and Johnny Marr

    Only during Fun Fun Fun Fest can you find people riding a mechanical bull, skateboarding on a giant ramp, spraying graffiti art across installations or getting a haircut in the middle of Auditorium Shores. 

    The first day of this year’s fest was an exciting and memorable one, carrying an equal mix of current, hipper bands with older, more nostalgic acts, true to the festival’s mission to bring an odd array of bands to Austin for one weekend.

    The early highlight of the day was Canada’s Mac Demarco, whose band tore through solid renditions of all the garage rocker’s best songs before winding down with a highly irreverent and goofy medley of classics by Metallica, The Beatles, The Police and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. The set ended with Demarco crowd-surfing before addressing the crowd with an invitation to come hang out later. 

    The nostalgia set in as Johnny Marr of The Smiths played a set that mixed in his recent solo material alongside classics like “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” from his legendary `80s band. Folk troubadour Bill Callahan played a mesmerizing set in the small Yellow Tent, opening with a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” as tribute to the late Lou Reed. 

    But it wasn’t all Fun Fun Fun and games on day one of the festival. Previous years, the festival employed a dual stage set up so that while one band was playing a set on a stage, the next band up would be setting up on the adjacent space. Johnny Marr and Kurt Vile ran late, causing The Walkmen to take the stage amidst sound issues and then be forced off after only 25 minutes to get back on schedule, which visibly frustrated the band. The sound mix was pretty awful, and it was disappointing for the fans. 

    Another act that disappointed his fans was Lupe Fiasco, who had some sort of a meltdown on stage. Light rain caused a slight delay, and he responded by getting very angry and even cussing out a staffer who ran across the back of the stage. He yelled at the crowd a couple of times, and left the stage after only playing about four or five songs. 

    The night’s headliners proved that even though Fun Fun Fun Fest brings in contemporary acts, the big draw is to relive the greatest bands of the 80s and 90s that so many people are nostalgic for. Every year, they find great ways to pull it off. 

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