The explosion in popularity of music festivals has been a blessing and a curse. Music fans now have an endless selection of weekend-long events where they can catch their favorite acts joined by a cavalcade of newcomers. Take FYF Fest for example: a fledgling event in the mid-2000s hosted at popular — albeit small — music venues in Los Angeles that has ballooned into an event comparable to Coachella’s largesse. After reaching a breaking point with last year’s crowd at Los Angeles State Historic Park, FYF moved to the more expansive Exposition Park this past weekend. This seemed like a savvy move — more space, more stages, and better crowd dispersal. However, the temptation to simply increase the amount of tickets on sale proved too seductive because … well, money, and the result was one of the more disastrous festival experiences I’ve witnessed.
It’s shocking a festival as experienced as FYF could be so clueless to the intricacies of crowd control. The line to enter the Saturday’s event was a mile long. They left one entrance, a gap in fencing about two people wide. Somehow, organizers thought funneling 50,000+ people through a hole in a fence was a good idea. Once you were able to get past that ludicrous proposition, you had to endure an over-the-top anal retentive security staff. Festivals absolutely need security to do a thorough job — no one is suggesting there aren’t people trying to bring in contraband — however, there should be a line of reasonability. Saturday I brought a pool noodle with LED lights laced inside of it so that our group could locate each other that evening, yet for some befuddling reason it was confiscated. Balloons were popped, necklaces removed, and totems of all shapes and sizes destroyed. Treating your customers like criminals isn’t good business.
Once inside, we made our way to the Lawn Stage beer garden and enjoyed a brew while taking in Real Estate. Their plaintive, jangly guitar pop is a soothing, mesmerizing thing. The tones of Matt Mondanile’s pearly guitar swapped leads with Martin Courtney’s languorous vocals. The set hammered home the consistency of the band’s catalog; they featured cuts from this year’s excellent Atlas, but each song they played from previous albums charmed, as well. It’s hard to deny the carefully crafted, pretty music they make.
Following their set, we headed over to the Arena Stage — set up inside USC’s Sports Arena — where the poor organization came to a head. No thought seemed to be given to the fact that, hey, getting thousands of people in and out of such a confined space needs a bit of planning. They put some of the best acts of the afternoon and early evening in the Arena only to at one point have to completely shut down access and kick everyone out. The upper concourse — which accounts for roughly half the building’s capacity — was blocked by curtains, which if you’re trying to accommodate a large crowd, would seem like a no-brainer necessity to keep open. Truly it was the naivety of the mistakes that ruffled the most feathers. It’s not an enviable task to plan for these things, but such obvious blunders come off as inconsiderate to ticket holders.
Eventually the Sports Arena Stage reopened, and we pushed through a sweaty, agitated crowd, finally making it in just as Todd Terje took the decks. The arena was impressively decorated; strobe lights were festooned to poles, disco balls hung throughout, and an astral-light backing to the stage made for the perfect visual accompaniment to Terje’s spacey disco. His set offered nonstop pleasure; his unique ability to build epic crescendos with a slow, steady hand is unmatched. EDM has the tendency to rush to the drop like a jackrabbit in heat, so it’s refreshing to hear a revivalist with a firm grip on pacing. Turns out catharsis is sweeter when earned and relished.
We made our way back to the Lawn Stage to be wined-and-dined by Tycho. Frequently named as a top act of the weekend, he brought his solo project to life with the help of a handful of session players. The purity of the sound was truly impressive; each note reverberated as if it were plucked in a crystalline cave, ringing so cleanly it almost felt synthesized. A majority of songs from Tycho’s first two albums are placid in nature, but the live performances rocked. The band had great chemistry and built massive crescendos that glided instead of dropped.
Grimes’s set was one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. Taking the stage in a long T-shirt — as if she’d shacked at her boyfriend’s and couldn’t be bothered to change before showing up — the young powerhouse flitted between singing, playing instruments, and tantric dancing with a manic yet graceful tenacity. Grimes balances ethereal pop and glitchy, crunchy production with profound ease, creating a swirling, heady sound that pushes the limits of pop but always pulls you in more than it pushes you away. As if an alien planet beamed down an alternative version of Beyoncé, she commanded the stage with a powerful confidence, exuberant playfulness, and oozing sexuality without compromising her integrity. She also debuted new tracks that featured the velvety range of her vocals, abandoning the childlike cooing from her Oblivion cuts for full-bodied war cries. Grimes entertained with a command and confidence I didn’t see from her two years ago at Coachella. She’s always had impressive range, but her vocals are often layered in the mix, not always front and center. If it was once a question of ability, it is no longer — her pipes can carry the show. In terms of stage presence and showmanship, she’s entered an elite class. In short, she’s redefining what a diva can be.
As with any festival, one great performance can come at the cost of another. Phoenix received glowing reviews from everyone I spoke with. Judging by their Coachella set and the closing songs I caught this weekend, they’ve mastered that set this summer. Their impressive display of pop pyrotechnics shows that they understand the responsibility of closing out a festival, and they bring a show that’s both grandiose and satisfyingly epic.
Sunday-morning FYF shot out a mass email saying they’d taken measures to fix the issues from Saturday and, respectably, they truly had. The experience getting in was quick and reasonable, security no longer giving deep-tissue massages to every attendee. After the trials of day one, our crew was wiped and didn’t arrive until 5 p.m. to catch Mac DeMarco. The sunny and watery grooves of his guitar made for a perfect companion to the sun-drenched afternoon. He played new songs from his sterling new album, Salad Days, to a calmly appreciative crowd. For a proudly goofy guy who writes odes to his cigarettes, he sure knows how to enrapture a crowd with meditations on love and responsibility. Equal parts funny and beautiful, he delivered what everyone was looking for.
Tanlines immediately followed and were tasked with following a breakout performance from 2012 at this very same festival. That set was at night, accompanied by an impressive light show and exuberance that was sorely missed this time around. They featured new tracks from an unannounced, upcoming sophomore release that missed the mark. Those tracks lacked the urgency of their Mixed Emotions hits and just sort of hung there, suspended in air rather than shooting upward.
It was back to the rave basement for Darkside, my favorite act from this year’s Coachella. Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington’s psychedelic, electronic, guitar amalgam has become a must-see performance this summer, being praised as one of the most intoxicating live shows currently making the rounds. Adding to the vitality of their set, they recently announced the project would be ending for the time being, and this was one of their last shows. Their live approach is worlds different than their recorded one, stretching five-minute tracks to 10 minutes plus. Heady as they are visceral, their grooves wash over you with thick waves of reverb while demanding you dance. It’s a shame that we won’t be treated to any new music from these guys for the foreseeable future, and their raucous live shows will be sorely missed. The project has reached the height of its power, though, and they can walk away knowing that they accomplished what they set out to.
As the festival drew to a close, we gathered those of our crew who were still soldiering on for one last, highly anticipated set. Jamie xx has been a mercurial figure in recent years, creating the atmosphere for the now ubiquitous xx, and more recently striking out on his own. He’s been kicking around as a solo artist for the better part of three years with a track here and there, but this summer, he’s dropped two legitimate hits and announced a solo album. His set eschewed those more melodic pieces for the clattering rhythms of U.K. garage and U.K. hardcore’s heavy bass, which ultimately proved kind of disappointing. Jamie’s most enduring work has always allowed room for his synths to groove and breathe, but here the drums and bass simply overwhelmed. The constant thump papered over song transitions and created a stasis in sound, making it difficult to tell when songs even changed. He teased out the beginning of “Far Nearer” — one of his best tracks — and then abandoned it after the intro in favor of continued skeletal drumming. Jamie clearly has style and worked the crowd well, and plenty of drum and bass enthusiasts walked away stoked. I’d see him again without hesitation, but with hope that he lean on his pop and house tendencies.
Ultimately, FYF’s creators impressed with their ability to adjust and correct issues rather than just shrug their shoulders and maintain their inefficient systems. It’s still hard to believe the boneheaded set-up that was Saturday, but the festival was still loaded with memorable performances. In fact, I’d probably endure the frustrations in exchange for Tycho and Grimes any day. It turns out festival popularity grows organically because the product continually delivers exceptional moments of musical genius.