In years past, FYF Fest took place at the Los Angeles National Historic Park, a giant, dusty field, just miles from the downtown skyline. It gave the music festival the feel of a miniature Coachella with Metro access. In Los Angeles culture, or what we can scrounge together to call a unified theory of LA culture, that was important.
So when the grounds underwent a several year construction project, rendering them unusable to the several festivals that call it home, there was some concern from fans. Would their new venue support a crowd that size? Would it have that same metropolitan feel and downtown convenience? Would we have to deal with new venue growing pains?
HARD Summer, one of the venues that used the old Historic Park, retreated 20 miles east to El Monte. FYF Fest stayed put in the grounds surrounding the LA Memorial Coliseum, across the street from USC and site of the 1984 Summer Olympics. Now that the fest is done, wrapped up in a warm memory, I can say they made the right choice. The new grounds allowed for a lot more decorations, like paper lanterns hanging from trees, and a wide variety of stage experiences. The main stage was under an enormous clear sky in a parking lot, leaving it dust-free for dancers and moshers, while the arena stage allowed for some powerful indoor acts and seats for the weary.
That wasn’t without problems – Day 1 arena shows, such as Chet Faker, were an ordeal to get into due to capacity problems. FYF showed their adaptability by removing curtains to open up the upper bowl seats in the arena, freeing up more indoor space, but it’s hard to feel like they should’ve done that from the beginning.
Still, it always comes down to the lineup and performances, and in this regard FYF has never personally let me down. They maintain a precarious balancing act as a medium sized festival. Coachella has for some time, possibly since Madonna’s headlining in 2006, morphed into a mainstream pop music nexus as opposed to a hardcore music nerd celebration. That’s okay – music culture needs a titanic showcase like that, and FYF has stepped in dutifully as the faithful alternative. They can attract mainstream profitability with The Strokes and Phoenix, while still giving top billing to comparitively niche icons like (in past years) My Bloody Valentine and The Descendants. This year the big specialty reunion was The Blood Brothers, but other names like The Presidents of the United States and Boris also seemed to signal the same thing: “This isn’t just a festival for the hippest indie bands, it’s for you and your weird tastes, too.”
A recurring theme of both days was homecoming. Not that it was the first LA show for any of the LA bands, but to play a big set at a big LA-specific festival was clearly meaningful to a lot of people. Haim made sure to shout out Studio City and the house parties they used to throw, reflecting on the craziness and change of status a few years could bring. Apparently The Valley is the source of a lot of starving artists – R&B wonder Kelela told us a story about working at a call center in the valley before her mixtape exploded in popularity and acclaim. Flying Lotus didn’t say much of anything during his set, but when he played tracks from his 2008 album Los Angeles, the music spoke for him.
“This isn’t just a festival for the hippest indie bands, it’s for you and your weird tastes, too.”
It was also the big end cap for a lot of bands. Phoenix, in a strong, raucous, stadium-sized event, remarked that this was their last show before heading home for a break and the beginnings of a new album. The aforementioned Haim declared a similar end. FYF was the culmination of a long journey for them, and as a music fan who enjoys the blitz of summer music events, I felt it too.
In terms of standouts, Future Islands was as involved and into playing as you hoped they would be. A waiting-in-line-for-beer friend remarked that it was great to watch them at each FYF these past years, growing from stage to stage, finally being rewarded and recognized with a sunset spot at the main stage. Earl Sweatshirt probably could have headlined with the huge crowd enthralled with every song. Real Estate truly sounds best outdoors in the sunlight. Jamie XX closed the festival by turning the arena into a massive night club like no other.
But if you wanted spectacle, the best ones I saw belonged to Phoenix and Kelela. The former is more obvious – they play big room pop songs that sound great among thousands of fans singing along. Their show is refined to a sharp point after such a long tour and their stage presence is felt even a mile away. Their graphics are bright neon colors or detailed high definition photography of cathedrals and mountain summits. It’s a show you really want to watch, not just listen to from the back.
Kelela was a case of the venue matching the songs with a snug fit. Her expansive, echoing R&B benefited from the arenas intense lighting rig, which far exceeds the size of the stage with tree lights and spotlights slowly flashing, dream-like, in every direction. It was almost a feverish 360 degree experience. For her part, Kelela’s music sounds best when allowed to ring and linger in the air. It’s atmospheric and intoxicating. The room was huge, but also not filled to capacity, so every clap and buzz and boom seemed to cut through the music’s ethereal veil with special sharpness. As a performer, Kelela’s sings with more anguish in person, and involves the crowd with participation and passion.
Logistical miscalculations and inconveniences aside, FYF has long been my favorite music festival because it lined up so parallel with my tastes, and I suspect that’s the same for the Fuck Yeah faithful. But this year was a reminder that it was specifically LA – a region that normally defies any easy, blanket classification due its diversity and sprawling size. But FYF’s increasing eclecticism and its commitment to smaller but critically important artists shows that it’s not hopeless; at least for now, it seems you can have it all.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.