Alright! I am finally posting this, about a month after we played the festival. Chances are I’ll remember fuzzy details eventually and add to this fragmented concoction later.
As I left New York early last month, I lamented missing a chance to see my friends in Mucca Pazza, as well as their free show at Lincoln Center that night. On the plus side, the course I chose brought me toward a handful of pleasant chance meetings. When I arrived at the airport, one of the airport employees snapped me up immediately to help me use the self check in. He was an older guy from India and very enthusiastic about my saxophone case. He listed off a bunch of famous jazz musicians he had seen play back there and gushed over me for being a musician. What a sweetheart. I sort of glossed over the whole not playing jazz thing. Once I fumbled my way through security, boots held on with safety pins and all, there was a coffee stand selling single cup drip coffee the likes of which I had only seen in London. The guy making my coffee was from Poland and had worked at one of the finest coffee shops in London, so we geeked out for a bit about coffee and Europe. I had forgotten to check in online, but was clever enough to pack a tote bag in my suitcase so that I could throw all of my fragile belongings in it when they inevitably gate checked my carry-on. Alas, I fell asleep as we waited to depart and missed the probably stunning view on the way out of the city. Flights in and out of New York City have been some of the more remarkable views I’ve ever seen from a plane.
FUN FUN FUN FEST
For all of my whingeing about leaving NYC early, I was glad to be in Austin the next morning. As our viola player and I stood backstage in the VIP area watching an awesome band and sipping our copious free Sailor Jerry’s drinks, I wondered why everyone in the band wasn’t there lapping up this luxury. I’m fortunate to have a very flexible schedule and be able to take full advantage of things like festival passes.
My friend from the Phenomenauts had turned up in Austin as my perpetual plus one. He got my extra pass as well as lodging at my friend’s epic pink house. His guest pass was only good on Saturday and Sunday, so I had to cleverly get him into the festival on Friday. I rushed in ahead to see some of Omar Souleyman’s set, which was fantastic. A friend from Minor Mishap Marching Band and Burning Man was working backstage and she and I watched from just behind his keyboard player. It was fun to view a relatively mainstream looking crowd go wild for an aging Syrian guy rapping in Arabic. After his set, I continued my quest to get my friend into the festival. Once this was accomplished, we discovered the wonders of the artists’ area, with its endless supply of ice cold flavoured coconut water and an airstream trailer where friendly ladies gave out delicious Sailor Jerry’s cocktails to musicians.
The dust was awful at the festival. At first I laughed at everyone wearing bandanas around their necks like they were expecting Burning Man, but soon was regretting tying my one bandana around my ailing boot. At least the dust on the playa is clean. Fun Fun Fun Fest is held on what is normally a beautiful river-front dog part, so the dust is considerably comprised of… well, you get the picture. So, besides dodging the dust, I spent most of the day exploring and hanging out with friends. Another highlight was Big Freedia, who I’ve heard nothing but good things about from my New Orleans friends and was very curious to see. Again, I was pleased by the mainstream enthusiasm for an unusual act with an unconventional hero. There wasn’t much else I wanted to see until the headliners that night, so I helped my friend make a present for Danzig…
If you haven’t heard the story about Danzig and his bricks, read it and you’ll get why this was funny. You’ll also understand why Inferno’s tour manager, who was working the stage where Danzig was playing, wouldn’t let us send this to him backstage. As I stood with our viola player and my friend waiting for Danzig to go onstage, I felt increasingly guilty for every time I’ve been in a band that made the crowd wait. I finally gave up and went to catch the beginning of Public Enemy’s set across the field. They were fantastic! I’d seen them backstage earlier that day, propping up a bewildered Flava Flav (complete with large clock around his neck), and was generally psyched to see them live. I’m not even sure why I tore myself away, but it was probably morbid curiousity for the shit show that was surely coming back at the punk/metal stage.
I’m pretty sure Danzig hadn’t even started by the time I got back. He was nearly an hour late. Apparently, he needed soup, wind barriers, and the stage cleared of all humans except his band before he would go on. Finally, he began his show. I was nearly leaving to go back to catch the end of Public Enemy when they started in on the Misfits repertoire. This lasted a glorious little while until their backdrop fell on the drummer. True story. They’d insisted on their oversized Misfits banner being unfurled part way through the set, even though it was clearly too big for the stage – some sort of manhood measuring contest with Slayer, surely, who had been moved to a bigger stage for sake of their… well, their Slayerness. Danzig, for all of his glory, does not possess Slayerness. (I’ve been pulling the “It’s my birthday at midnight!” card on my flight, where I am writing this segment, so this Wild Turkey and I apologize for my candor – but only slightly.) Anyway, the band paused for the sake of the drummer being covered in a tarp, at which point the sounds was shut off. Sound curfew was a strict 10pm, and Danzig hadn’t bothered to start until well after 9pm.
The end of the night couldn’t have been any more entertaining. Danzig lived up to his reputation and then some, finally inciting a riot in the audience that outlasted even our attention span, not to mention the patience of our ride back to where we were staying. I texted our tour manager to tell him it was some of the better theatre I’d seen in a while. My friend picked us up and we drove away to the sight of beer cans being thrown onstage, either at Danzig or the tech crew or just because they could. I heard the stage couldn’t even be cleared because of the police, as well as Danzig trying to pick a fight with the crew. Epic. We closed out the night at her place with a couple of other marching band ladies, getting feminine and boozy enough to scare my friend into an early bed time ahead of the rest of us.
The band played the next day at about the same time as Captured by Robots, but I managed to catch a bit of their set… rather, his set. The band is actually one guy, who I met when we both performed at the same pre-Burning Man wedding years ago, who tired of playing in ska bands and made an animatronic band of robots. It’s creepy and fantastic, especially when they berate him onstage, which is pretty much whenever they aren’t playing a song. I caught his first few tunes, then rushed back to the Black Stage for our show. I will likely post more details about it in the future if and when I edit this page further, but it was a lot of fun. Well, except for the sun and the wind and the dust. I had to part my hair on the right because the wind wouldn’t let it do anything else. Alas, I couldn’t play sax and cover my mouth to keep the dust out. In face, I probably inhaled a fair amount of it; it was pretty gross. The music was fun, though, and one of my friends got in some impressive crowd-walking.
The Damned was easily the finest show at the festival. Some guy said he liked our show better, and even I don’t believe that. Nearly every member of my band was there to see them, even missing the last shuttle back to the hotel in order to see their whole set. I’ve never seen our keyboard player so excited. I had never seen them before and was very impressed, especially after how the previous night at that stage had unfolded. I was able to watch from the stage and managed to climb up on the rigging and watch from a very good vantage point. I spent most of their set uncomfortably dangling from a metal pole and didn’t mind one bit.
Sunday morning I rode with my friend to Minor Mishap practice in a park down the river, then had a nice walk to the festival. I finally happened past Occupy Austin, which I hadn’t realized was just across the river the whole time. I talked to the girl at the info table, who turned out to be the ex girlfriend of someone in Emperor Norton’s who used to play with Inferno. Small world, or at least scene. She told me she had been in the front row for our show the day before and I remembered her. At this point, in my urge to finally post this before my present NYC adventure begins (ah, procrastination), I can barely remember who I saw on Sunday. It was definitely a less hectic day than the one before.That day, I mostly made a point of seeing Budos Band, whose name I’ve been running across for ages. I was thrilled to see a band fronted by a bari sax, especially such a charismatic one. I went up to the leader after the show and said “I play saxophone, want to get a drink?!” He’s a horn player, so of course he did. We even caught a ride with our tour manager in a golf cart, who told us to check out Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ Danzig parody at the end of their set, which was indeed worth the detour. I wound up loosing him, but finding some of the rest of his band and hanging out with them. Somehow I had lost my remaining bandmates and Phenomenauts friend all afternoon.
The highlight for everyone that night was Slayer, who had been moved from the punk/metal stage to the indie stage, which was a lot bigger. Yes, our band was on the metal stage and Slayer was on the indie stage, what a world! Their show was good, but I couldn’t get backstage for it and wound up seeing it from way off in the audience. It was cool to see such an icon live, though. It rounded out the weekend nicely. There were a variety of other bands and acts that I’ve crossed paths with or heard the names of multiple times, some of which I saw bits of, but it was a pretty overwhelming festival considering it wasn’t huge.
Final rant of the festival – that freaking youtube sax guy! Yes, he was there and proud himself. I saw him sit in to solo with Omar Souleyman and was astonished he would have a sax player who sounded so 1980s trad jazz, when that clearly is not the style of that music, grumbling about how he sounded like that youtube guy. Well, he sounded like him because he was. I kept seeing him all weekend, even joking with the Budos Band sax player that we should go get in a fight with him. Think of the press! “Sax players come to blows over tone!” However, when I finally walked up to him, he was actually pretty friendly. So was I, even as I told him that he set saxophone playing back 25 years. I think he took it as a compliment. How ironic. So, I did not get my own internet fifteen minutes of fame for inciting a sax riot and the festival ended.
AND THEN I GOT TO ENJOY AUSTIN…The entire weekend, I pretty much only saw the festival site and my friend’s house, both of which were perfectly acceptable, but neither of which was quintessential Austin. Then again, it’s such a sprawling, multifaceted city that nothing really typifies it. The place I was staying is a notorious artist party house where Janie Joplin once lived. I had my choice of my friends huge and yet cozy bedroom (possibly bigger than her apartment in NYC had been) or the massive and drafty living room among the pillows and arcade game type decor. There were a ton of Star Wars puns throughout the house left over from a party they had, which delighted mister Phenomenaut.
A necessary part of visiting Austin, in my opinion, is thrifting. There is a lot of wonderful, useless gorgeous crap in that city. During my visit, I managed to hit up the shops on Congress, the ones near Bouldin Creek coffee shop, as well as Treasure City, a shop notable for both its politics and low prices. The businesses in Austin often reflect the abundance of antiques and such, and I felt at home again at Spider House coffee shop. I was also thrilled to be back in the land of Tex-Mex and migas all day long. I even borrowed my friend’s bike on my last day in town to seek out the finest in the neighborhood, following up at a vintage shop beside Epoch Coffee Shop, only to meet two other folks who had just made the exact same circuit. I could feel very comfortable in Austin quite easily… except in the summer, I hear it gets absurdly hot.
I had not brought a clarinet, yet I only played clarinet in Austin once the festival was over. My clarinetist friend from Minor Mishap was a sweetheart and lent me his many times during my extended stay in town. He invited me to a jam session he frequently hosts in a gazebo overlooking where the festival had been. He played a variety of wind instruments and we were joined by a cellist and guitarist, who I’d met the night before when I went to see Mazel Tov Cocktail Hour at the fantastic East Side Show Room. At the end of the jam, I started playing Odessa Bulgar and the other clarinetist joined in. The guitarist readied himself just as we were finishing, so one of us started in on Ederleizi. Much to my delight, we all knew the words to the chorus and the guitarist even knew the verses. It was really beautiful to acoustically send down the sun with a springtime song. Later that night, when my host and other friends had gone to bed, I hopped on her bicycle and headed for a show featuring one of the musicians from the gazebo jam earlier. I had heard of the Flying Balalaika Brothers before, but never seen them. It’s always more exhilarating than it is at first scary to go to a show by myself. I sat in the courtyard amid a boozy Russian party, an older cyclist and I being the only outsiders, and enjoyed the show. Afterwards, once I’d help break into their van where the keys were locked inside, they invited me backstage and we bullshitted and ate and drank. It was a lot of fun and the guys gave me and the bike a ride home on the unusually cold night.
I had a perfect last day in Austin. I spent it riding bikes, eating Tex-Mex and noodles, playing music with folks, thrifting, and finished the day drinking beers outside a welding shop with a bunch of Burners. It was pretty much old hat, any day, anywhere for me. It was wonderful. Although I’ve only been to Austin a handful of times, I saw people at that party who I knew via Burning Man, Rat Patrol, Honk Fest, Austin Idiotarod, and any combination of those four. I even got to meet the head of DPW, who I’d emailed with years ago when I wanted a spot on the crew. It was his lady’s birthday and everyone circled around while someone read us all a morbid children’s book. I reconnected with several bike club kids, many of whom turned out to be longtime fans of Inferno. Someone knew about the band because of an all clown group that she saw play at Burning Man; this amused me to no end. I haven’t had such a uniformly splendid day in ages.
The next morning I had coffee with my friend and headed for the Amtrak station. Although I was staying with her, between the festival consuming my weekend and her work schedule during the week, we didn’t see nearly enough of each other. Surely, I’d be back in Austin, I figured. Besides the friends and the music, Honk Fest is a definite draw now that they’ve started their own there. I left knowing that I could have happily hung out another week in the warmth.
Just as I’m waiting to board the train, I got a call from the guy who’s never gone away. Right on time, as I stood by the train tracks with my little blue suitcase, cloche hat, and saxophone – heart torn apart as it always is when I leave a town – waiting to see what sorts of ambitious disappointments waited ahead of me. He asked when I was going to finish writing that song with him. His timing is always impeccable, in music and otherwise. Just when I thought I’d wiped my slate clean, he put himself back at the front of the line. Crap, now there’s a line again…
I settled into my train seat, realizing it has been far too long since I’ve ridden one of these double-decker Amtraks. I immediately regretted my lack of comic books and port wine, although I knew I’d likely get more writing done in the next thirty hours than I’d done in the last thirty days. Next to touring, long train trips are my optimal “me” time as I’m forced to basically sit still for entire days at a time. The train can be a bit more distracting than the tour van, though, since there are so many shiny new strangers to meet. So far, though, I’ve been pretty solitary. (I wrote this part weeks ago while in transit.) This will probably last until someone shows up with a funny haircut and a bottle of whiskey. This is usually the formula for distraction… Just as I expected, I found a travel buddy shortly after I began writing. We met in the snack car and then spent a bit of time drinking in the observation car. She told me fascinating stories about growing up in small town Texas (so small that she was the first girl in her high school to ever come out of the closet) in the world of stepfamilies, cops, marines, meth labs, and horse farms. It is a world so foreign to my own, so I was glad to learn more. Strangely enough, she was also the result of two generations of belly dancers. Texas is weird. After her stop came and the train headed deeper into the South, I knew my chances of finding kindred conversationalists was getting slimmer.
Riding the train through Texas (it’s been ten hours and we still haven’t reached the state line) is reminding me of my deep appreciation for the architecture of travel – train depots, roadside attractions, etc. Some of these towns have exceptional train stations and seemingly little else. I didn’t prepare nearly well enough, failing to bring much real food or booze. What I did have was a tote bag full of samples from FFF Fest and the granola bars were almost as good as currency on the train. Every time I snacked on artery-clogging cafe car food, the warmth and badness of it filled me with a heavy bliss which made me feel like a blissful housecat. I could think of worse ways to spend my trip back North, back to the cold. The train was ridiculously chilly and I finally gave up and fell asleep at 8pm, waking up for funny texts and the sunrise but otherwise sleeping a straight twelve hours. I took myself out to breakfast in the dining car, made myself a cup of tea for after, then got to work writing. I enjoyed watching the slow transition out of the cornfields into the Midwestern turn-of-the-century stone architecture that I always miss so much when I return home.