review by Charlie Zaillian
Saturday sold out far quicker than the other two days of FYF '17, with much of the credit going to Frank Ocean. The L.A. festival was abuzz all afternoon with excitement about the reclusive R&B heartthrob’s headlining appearance — crossing fingers, of course, that he’d show up.
Not that Ocean was the only thing going on Day 2 — far from it. The festival did indeed feel more crowded than the previous night, with a bottleneck at the entrance leading to a zig-zagging TSA-like line-up that felt interminable while in it but once inside was quickly forgotten. Early offerings included earnest alt-rock from a pair of Brooklyn buzz bands, Big Thief and Mitski; high-energy hip-hop from a fellow New Yorker, feminist rapper Princess Nokia; and soul-baring, Seattle-based genre contortionist Perfume Genius. If live acts weren't satisfying a need to dance, Motor City Drum Ensemble (not actually from Detroit, and just one guy, German DJ Danilo Plessow) brought blazing house beats to the all-electronic Woods stage, surrounded by flowers and foliage.
Built to Spill — a late fill-in for Grandaddy, who had to drop off when their bassist Kevin Garcia passed away suddenly in May — filled the indie rock quota but not much beyond that, giving a workmanlike full-album performance of their majestic ’99 catalog standout Keep It Like a Secret at the Trees stage. Singer-guitarist Doug Martsch has always been an awesomely loose player, but operating as a three-piece rather than the customary five or six, the pared-down lineup — and a way too-loud mix — exposed the imperfections a little too closely. As the many of us in the Northwest who’ve seen them countless times know, Built to Spill doesn’t play bad shows, but felt slightly out-of-step here.
Cap’n Jazz’s Club Stage set was more pleasingly erratic. We went in with some skepticism, and who could blame us? We’re talking about a lightning-in-a-bottle band that existed for about a year or two, more than two decades ago, back when the members were all of 18 or 19 years old. Not just, how are they gonna pull it off — why are they doing it at all? But watching the reunited ‘90s emo cult heroes at FYF it was just like “oh, of course — because it’s fun.” Because the band’s output is so scant — it’s all collected on one release, 1998’s Analphabetapolothology — frontman Tim Kinsella found creative ways to fill the time between its two-and-three-minute songs, giving out his phone number and FaceTime-ing with audience members, removing his shirt then, thinking better of it, putting it back on. As for when the band was playing, its jagged, nonlinear structures, stop-on-a-dime changes, only sometime on-key vocals and magnetic poetry-style lyrics felt very much of its time but runaway-train energy carried the day, the mood both onstage and in the pit unabashed joy.
A Tribe Called Quest may be a New York group, but it’s always had a West Coast way about it. Not just because lead MC Q-Tip famously name-checked a certain L.A. suburb on a certain early single — the breezy, optimistic gait of tunes like that one just never exactly screamed East Coast toughness. As we all know by now, Tribe lost co-founder Phife Dawg last spring at a way-too-young 45. You get the sense they would’ve gone on forever if that hadn’t happened, and obviously there’s still an audience for its feel-good hip-hop — 2016’s We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, the last to feature Phife, went certified-gold. (Interestingly, a lot of the younger crowd at FYF appeared to know the words to the new songs, but not the ones — “Buggin’ Out,” “Butter,” “Verses from the Abstract” — that put the group on the map way back in the early ‘90s.) But life is unfair, and as such, Tribe’s main-stage set Saturday was many things, mostly sad — its last-ever gig in L.A., a bittersweet victory lap for the latest album, a leisurely stroll through the catalog, and, most of all, a tribute to their fallen comrade, the decision to go silent where Phife’s bars would’ve went making his absence hang heavy in the air. “Being here with y’all is cathartic,” Q-Tip told the crowd. “Thank you.” No, thank you.
Coming out 20 minutes late — and fashionably so, in a Pharrell-like ten-gallon hat and oversized coat emblazoned with flags of the world — to the crowd chanting her surname (“Badu, Badu”), Erykah Badu, no stranger to festivals, had the Lawn Stage faithful into the palm of her hand, enthralling with a commanding set of her trademark zany, expressive neo-soul. The late start, however, did face R&B heads with a bummer of a conundrum — either stick around and miss some of Ocean’s set, or bail mid-Badu to join the Frank fray. Most chose the latter.
It also meant sparse turnouts for a pair of wildly different but equally respected rock acts playing opposite each other in the Coliseum’s margins: Nebraska dark-disco greats The Faint at the Trees, and Sleep — they of the 2003 hour-long paean to the devil’s lettuce, Dopesmoker — at the Club. Standardbearers of the somewhat reductive but let’s be real, not inaccurate “stoner rock” tag, the Bay Area crew, as the last band to play on the night, were able to stretch out for a lengthy set that can only be described as a full-on tone massage. One’s mileage may vary — certainly more than Sleep’s repetitious-by-design riffs do — but for the hard-rock contingent, it definitely satisfied.
All roads from there led to Frank Ocean, who, once he did arrive, only ten minutes behind schedule, elicited a collective sigh from the tens of thousands on hand to watch, then put on a show that was as intimate, heartfelt and odd as advertised — all the reasons he’s not like the other pop stars, and people love him for it. Where Elliott’s performance the night before, for all its revelry, felt a little scattered at times, Ocean’s was thoroughly thought out to be a singular event, and one of the most understated headlining sets we’ve ever seen anywhere. By now you’ve probably heard about the concert movie Spike Jonze appeared to be there shooting, and Ocean superfan Brad Pitt appearing on the video screen, being directly serenaded by the singer. Even those moments were delivered without fanfare. Between songs, the 29-year-old would address an audience the size of a small city as if it were a small club.
Speaking to his well-documented perfectionist sensibilities, early on, he stopped mid-song and decided to re-do a section of “Good Guy,” off last year’s challenging, nonetheless chart-topping Blonde. “This is my fourth show in as many years, and I want to thank y’all for coming out and trusting me, but it’s been awhile and shit might get fucked up,” he explained sheepishly. It wasn’t all brooding — towards the end of the set, Ocean cracked a big smile as he happily let the crowd handle the singing on “Thinkin Bout You,” an oldie-but-goodie from his Grammy-winning 2012 breakthrough Channel Orange. To their credit — this being late Saturday night — viewers stayed extremely quiet throughout, even all the way back by the beer garden. It was clear they were hanging on his every word.
Energy. That's what a good live performance boils down to, and that's what both Diet Cig and Diplo (who have little more than the letter "D" in common) delivered at the Capitol Hill Block Party on Sunday night. Performing in completely different genres to completely different audiences, they both...