Amon Amarth & Run the Jewels by Randy Cremean

Amon Amarth (L) and Run the Jewels (R)

words by Dorian Colbert

 

It’s always fun to review festivals in a superlative manner. I thought I’d go back to high school for this batch.


Best Dressed - Tinariwen

Saharan band Tinariwen was hands down the best dressed band at the festival. Their traditional Tuareg garb, colorful and luxurious garments that often obscured the faces of its members, lended the group an air of mystery and wonder that made their music that much more captivating. That music, by the way, is incredible. You’d swear they grew up on delta blues, but the truth is they never heard the stuff until after the year 2001. They’ve been a band since the 1970s, just to put that into context. No, the delta blues grew up on them in actuality. The negro spirituals that would serve as the cradle of all American music originated in the places where these guys were raised. It’s no wonder their music, while exotic, strikes a familiar chord in the core of anyone who is lucky enough to catch Tinariwen live.

 


Mr/Miss Congeniality - Sun Kil Moon

I fully expected Mark Kozelek, the voice of Sun Kil Moon, to be the acerbic and unrelenting curmudgeon I’ve read about in the press over the last several months. From hurling expletives at a group of concert attendees in North Carolina, unaffectionately calling them "f*cking hillbillies", to starting a feud with The War on Drugs that rivals some of the best beefs in hip-hop, Kozelek has not done much to endear himself to the public as of recent. When I noticed that Sun Kil Moon would be going on at the same time and one stage over from bombastic supergroup Run the Jewels, I knew we were in for some fireworks as this was the same situation that created the tiff with WOD- their sound was bleeding into Kozelek’s set at a festival. The brash frontman came right out of the gate commenting on the thudding bass that really was hard to ignore, eliciting nervous laughter from his crowd. This gave way to a couple of lighthearted jokes, but nothing more- I think even Kozelek knows that his welcome is close to being worn out. What followed was one of the more powerful and engaging sets I saw at FFFfest this year. If nothing else, Kozelek is sincere and that showed in his performance. I generally find singer-songwriters self indulgent and boring, but though Kozelek is indeed egocentric, he’s certainly not boring. He’s fully aware of his shortcomings and he’s not afraid to make them known, divulging the most personal anecdotes and heart wrenching losses over his signature hypnotic fingerpicking. Kozelek isn’t tactful or careful, but I get the feeling he truly does care.

 


Class Clown - Run the Jewels

As a rule, I avoid hip-hop at festivals like the plague. The vocals are usually lost in the mix, mangled and smothered by whatever backing track they’re being rapped over, and while RTJ  was no exception in the point, you couldn’t help but be entertained by the rapport Killer Mike and El-P have with each other and their fans. The hilarious between song banter was almost more fun than their songs, which might have been totally lost on me if I hadn’t been familiar with RTJ beforehand. Their recorded tracks better illuminate the respective lyrical genius of the pair, and I advise you check that out before seeing them live. The drawbacks of live hip-hop aside, RTJ were hysterical and you could tell they were having the time of  their lives.

 

Most Improved - Freddie Gibbs

I admit, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to seeing Freddie Gibbs at FFF. I’d seen him before at a smaller venue about four years ago, and I didn’t see what the fuss was about back then. He had swagger, but he was as raw as they come. I figured he’d get lost in the shuffle, but I was wrong, and now I see why. I still have my reservations about Gibbs- his braggadocio and constant misogynistic language wears on me, but beneath that machismo you get the idea that Gibbs is thoughtful and reflective, if not unrepentant, about his wayward life. I also believe he’s lived the things he raps about, unlike many of Gibbs’ contemporaries. And to the fact that I usually can’t glean much from live rap due to the lack of vocal clarity, this was not the case with Gibbs. Much of this I give credit to dj Madlib for, as his sparse but potent tracks were the perfect compliment to Gibbs’ machinegun-like delivery, but I have to give a hand to Gibbs for this surprising feat as well. Nothing got lost in translation, and not a word was wasted.

 


Best Looking - Flying Lotus

No, I don’t think Steven Ellison, A.K.A Flying Lotus, is particularly handsome, but I was blown away by his stage show, which had to be the trippiest visual spectacle I’ve seen in some time. Flying Lotus understands that watching a guy turning knobs and pushing buttons can be beyond boring over time, and he remedied that ennui with breathtaking aplomb on Sunday night. From his glowing, bug eyed mask- he resembled a radioactive Spiderman, to the death-inspired rollercoaster of kaleidoscopic visuals morphing around him, there was always something intriguing to take in during FL’s set. It certainly didn’t hurt that his brain melting musical productions were just as mind boggling.

 


Most Athletic - Ginuwine

The fact that I’m familiar with most of 90’s R&B sensation Ginuwine’s music makes me feel old. The fact that Ginuwine still has moves that I never have nor ever will be able to pull off, makes me feel older. The guy has at least a decade on me, but he makes Chris Brown look like an arthritic on the dance floor. This is not to say the genius behind hits like “Pony” was what one might call good on Friday afternoon, but you have to be impressed by a guy can who simulate the act of lovemaking on a towel and do the moonwalk within just minutes of each other. I wish I could say I enjoyed Ginuwine’s show for anything more than the oddity that it was, but I can’t honestly say that. The guy “sang” maybe two songs- his backing singers took care of the rest. The remainder of the show was Ginuwine being a combination of his own hype man and some sort of karaoke MC, taking the audience through a medley of 80’s and 90’s hits that weren’t even his. I will say that he gave it his all, but I will forever remember Ginuwine’s FFF performance for all the wrong reasons.

 


Most School Spirit - Amon Amarth

These guys are freaking vikings, or at least they think they are, and that’s good enough. All clad in black and all with hair at least a foot long, Amon Amarth are the epitome of Black Metal. I’m not sure what they sing about- pretty sure it has to do with being, killing or dying like vikings, but they genuinely seemed to love what they were doing, and they loved being in front of the FFF crowd on Friday. Their spirited performance and appreciative demeanor had the whole audience ready to go to war with them, and that’s a good thing because I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re planning for...seriously.

 


Most Likely to Succeed - The Bots

I don’t know much about The Bots besides neither member looks old enough to drink, and they rocked my face off on Sunday afternoon. Brothers Mikaiah and Anaiah Lee are a garage rock duo from California, and while I think it’s cliche to liken black guitarists to Jimi Hendrix, I felt like I was watching a young Jimi being backed by a tiny Buddy Miles for much of their performance. And it wasn’t because they looked like those musical giants. All bombast and feedback, the Lees sounded like their rock’n’roll forefathers, and it’s only a matter of time before they blow up.


 

Most Artistic - Thundercat

Bass virtuoso Thundercat has been all over everyone who is anyone in R&B or hip-hop’s records over the past few years, so it’s only fitting his own self titled project get its due. Every player in Thundercat’s trio is a monster on their respective instrument, and they definitely showed their musical prowess at FFF, but they were deft enough to know when to pull back and let Thundercat’s songs, and strikingly beautiful voice, shine through. Those songs followed R&B’s rules in groove only, as they meandered from free jazz to psychedelic rock from one to the next, fleshing out Thundercat’s idiosyncratic sound. I didn’t think the audience would quite appreciate the nuanced performance that Thundercat and his band layed out on Sunday, but they really dug what was going on. Maybe I should give people more credit. Or, maybe I should give Thundercat props for making music that is so far out seem a little more accessible.