Keith Morris of Flag at FYF Fest. Photo: Tod Seelie
Seeing “Flag” in 2013 was kind of like a dream scenario for me ... a dream that’s been raped and mis-shapen by time, circumstance and a bevy of personality conflicts and pending lawsuits. In this post-buzzfeed age of Internet know-it-alls and “Will they, won’t they?” reunion cash-ins, you’d be hard pressed to spit into a college classroom without loogie-lobbing at least one idiot fervently swearing that their lives were irreversibly changed by [insert breakthrough album of whichever band is reuniting that year] and I’m no different ... but this? This was plain weird.
Before I dispense with the (un)pleasantries, let me back up. This was FYF Fest, a clever moniker for “Fuck Yeah Fest” dead-center in the Chinatown neighborhoods of L.A. and it was a scenic site. A city park flanked by the skyline, an elevated metro which ran every 20 minutes, the effervescent tang of body-odor and marijuana––and the lineup was damn impressive. Sets by the Melvins, The Breeders, Yo La Tengo, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and My Bloody Valentine copped the ideal bait for oldster journo types, while curveball appearances by obscure punk/noise vets (!!!, The Locust), up and coming taste-makers (Metz, Solange, Death Grips) and mainstream-level smashers (MGMT) made more attractive waves for those in the know.
And yes. I did spend my day shucking gee-whizzes at the other bands (The Breeders were completely on point playing everything from Last Splash), but had finally sauntered over to Flag’s stage to see if any measure of the “hype” surrounding the lineup held water ... and I’ll say it. They played well. Amassing a veritable supergroup of former Black Flag players (Keith Morris, Bill Stevenson, Dez Cadena, Chuck Dukowski and Stephen Egerton of The Descendents) to jam out on the hits of America’s most important hardcore band is bound to be somewhat sucessfull. But amidst the incessant flurry of instantly recognizable hits (“Police Story,” “Jealous Again” and even a rousing rendition of “My War”) the subtle confirmation that this wasn’t my “Flag” was inescapable. Conviction and earnestness ran a-plenty, but notably absent was the rawness, the kicked-in-the-teeth fury and the corybantic VFW-hall frenzy that ultimately slapped Black Flag on the map. In fact, the set’s most notable moment came in the form of Cadena jokingly suggesting a Blue Oyster Cult cover, a charming reminder that, for all their punk credibility, Black Flag was never really an L.A. punk band as much as a gaggle of misunderstood surf-rats left to make sense of their own suburban paranoia and KISS records. Those moshing up front surely have other stories, but for all the pluses (great song selection, Dukowski’s weird bass solo-ing), a number of minuses (like Greg Ginn, the band’s only consistent member who’s currently touring with a rival version of the band ... but that’s another long and barely comprehensible story) crippled the intensity, and watered it down to little more than a nostalgia project, done with conviction and some chutzpah. Sure, it never purported to be THE Black Flag, but it still took the wind out of my sails a bit.
Despite my disappointment, the night was saved by a rousing Yeah Yeah Yeah’s performance, led by Karen O’s soaring song-birdery of new and old cuts (“Your Zero” being this writer’s favorite), an endless array of sequined outfit changes, a giant inflatable eyeball released to the crowd and a gargantuan throng of dancing fans and light-show effects.
I shudder to think how the 15-year-old me would react to the 26-year-old me’s affirmation that Karen O wiped the floor with Morris and Dukowski, but it’s 2013 and that shit happened. It was all I could think about on my metro ride back to Koreatown.
Sunday’s set was a different game. Despite a cluster of cliche L.A. experiences the day before (including a small accident on a freeway and a beach picnic that went horribly wrong), the premise of mixing sludge rock with shoegaze bolstered my spirits to will me through the dust, heat and other trappings of an outdoor festival, and I felt new life in guts.
Yo La Tengo proved why they’re one of the most unsung bands this side of Sonic Youth, regaling a marginally enthusiastic set with a fatty slice of caterwauling indie-psyche, loud and uncompromising, and littered with a cut or two from my personal favorite record, Painful.
The Melvins exceeded expectations with a Black Sabbath “Sweet Leaf” intro, Buzz Osborne clad in a black dress banging his silver afro in time with the most ungodly bass-tone imaginable and two drummers (one dressed in a NASA space suit) drumming in perfect unison with each other. While the ’90s tracks that have endeared them to most fans weren’t a-plenty here, it’s the unrelenting “can-do” that brings people to this band, and throaty renditions of newer songs tided everyone over just fine.
But for all intents and purposes, this day wasn’t for those guys. Not even Solange inviting an entire crowd of eager hipsters to “grind” with her could match my excitement for what was to come ... but it did. It came in the form of a quintet of Scottish pop-sters who started making waves in the late ’80s by crafting the most dazzling layers of distortion-saturated pop imaginable, and at deafening levels. A band whose mythos has been inflated to such lofty realms of grandiosity that those lucky enough to see them have been (reportedly) moved to blowing chunks as a visceral reaction to the aural barrage. A band who first announced a new record in 1996, and then proceeded to make us wait 17 years for it: My Bloody Valentine.
They say that without a good amount of hyperbole, rock music would’ve never made it past 1955, and they’re probably right ... but I can say with every mote of credibility in my soul that I’d never seen this much anticipation for a band in my life. As the beaming L.A. sun retreated to the smog-riddled nest of the L.A. skyline, hundreds upon hundreds of antsy showgoers slouched towards the main-stage for the sonic ritual to begin.
“Protect your hearing, pick up a pair of earplugs at the entrance,” urged two giant TV screens aside each stage, which was quickly becoming a repository for more Marshall Amplifiers than I could thoroughly process.
And then it happened without a warning. Like a jet engine was exploding right above us, a trillion church bells being fed through a wood-chipper, an ocean liner plunging into a sea of melodic tar. Roaring and shimmering, the band plowed through “Sometimes,” “Loomer” and “Only Tomorrow.”
Amidst the tumult, I absorbed it all. Bilinda Butcher, dressed in all black, listlessly cooing over the plaintive strums of her sparkling red Fender Jaguar. Kevin Shields, shocks of silver hair a-flyin’, deftly coaxing strangled wails from the electric bowels of the 16 amplifiers behind him. Colm Ciosoig’s madcap drumming, seemingly wizzing around in circles to reign in the swirling noise about him, bigger than his four bandmates and bigger than the few thousand spectators around him.
It was heavenly. The set’s only snafu came in the guise of an equipment malfunction during “Only Shallow” and again during “Soon,” but for any momentum that that mishap may have squished, it only served to bolster the band’s legend of thoroughly blowing open any and all decibel counts to smithereens.
Then they finished with the “full holocaust” version of “You Made me Realise,” which included an eight-minute extend-o passage of aural feedback and loose jamming, and quietly left the stage.
Absolutely thrilling. So there it is. Some misses, but enough hits to remind me why I do this thing. Los Angeles may be the most terrible place in the country, where people go to lose their minds and worship at the altar of meaningless stars, but as made evident by a band who managed to transform an outdoor music festival in a park to the kind of transcendent experience that usually only occurs in churches and/or basement shows (and at outlandish volumes), for an hour and a half, it was the most lovely place on Earth.