Lights, Camera, Headaches
So Ashton Kutcher allegedly got in a fight at the Stagecoach Music Festival last month, staying true to his douche-roots and brawling with a security guard over a chick. I guess it can get more demoralizing than when he made an ass out of himself at the 2012 Country Music Awards. I'm borderline impressed with his abilities.
But this is not about good ol' Mr. Kutcher's constant fame-seeking. This is about all the celebrity fame-seeking that's been taking over music festivals and stomping them into the ground. Thanks to antics like Kutcher's at Stagecoach, the media has stopped focusing on the music and turned instead to celebrities' behavior at said festivals. So now, instead of a focus on the music, there's a billion paparazzi roaming around like ants, taking pictures of Mischa Barton's ass cheeks.
Before you call me out on it, yes, I know this is heading for first-world rant territory. So here's what the problem is, from my vantage point anyway. I can tell you what Lindsay Lohan was wearing at Coachella this year — a midriff top that made major headlines. I can also name, off the top of my head, at least ten other actors who were photographed wandering around the California desert, but I'd be hard-pressed to tell you much about any of the artists who actually performed.
Blog after blog has been devoted to the celebrities of Coachella and their festival-fashion mishaps, hook-ups and drunken antics, but rarely have any of them made a concerted effort to talk about the actual music. For example, I don't know whether the Stone Roses played a decent set or even if they were royally pissed about being bumped to make way for Blur, who headlined at the last minute.
But I had to dig through page after page of nods to the actors spotted at Coachella before I found anything about The xx's set (which was described as "smoldering," by the way). More information was available on Paris Hilton's ugly headband than on Skrillex and Boys Noize's new group Dog Blood, which should have been one of Coachella's most talked-about moments. That's mind-blowing to me.
And I'm not even suggesting that photographing celebrities at a music festival is in itself some major crime against music. I mean, these people are famous. They're photographed at the grocery store, and that doesn't mean they're ruining the integrity of the produce aisle. But they're also not going to Kroger and acting like utter asshats, either.
However, many actors (cough, Kutcher) are acting like asshats at music festivals. Kutcher's brawling takes the cake, but many a celebrity has a festival sin or two under his or her belt. With the Austin City Limits Music Festival — where a few celebrities have been known to hang out — coming up in the fall (see next item), I'm sure we'll have some tallies to add to that growing list.
Christian Bale was spotted at ACL 2011, and Val Kilmer showed up at Fun Fun Fun Fest last year, both reportedly working on Tree of Life director Terrence Malick's forthcoming film set in Austin. So at least they had good reason to be there, even if the much-delayed film is never released. And even if no one else shows up, we can probably count on good ol' Matthew McConaughey to be there with bells on. He lives in Austin, is fond of taking off his shirt, and even once managed reggae singer and ACL '06 performer Mishka. But unless they're working, it's not like these celebrities are hanging out under tents and shying away from the attention while watching the music. They're wearing hippie-dippie costumes and using the festival as publicity, turning what was supposed to be a massive celebration of great music into a sandy, ridiculously silly catwalk. Just stop.
For example, musicians usually don't crash the red carpet at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, all leathered-out and clutching a guitar and whiskey bottle in either hand. So maybe it would be slightly more appropriate for these hangers-on to show up at music festivals without all the fanfare, leaving some room for a little talk about the actual music being played for once.
I mean, that's what these things are supposed to be about, right?
Bayou City Freeze-Out
Is Houston artists' lack of an ACL Fest impact important?
Last week, the Austin City Limits Music Festival announced its 2013 lineup for its 12th edition in Zilker Park, the first to expand to two weekends with identical headliners: October 4-6 and 11-13.
Looking over this year's lineup, what leaps out first about the headliners is that, perhaps for the first time, the festival seems to consider thirty- and fortysomethings as the absolute upper range of its audience. This year's "heritage acts," what few there really are, all arrived on the scene in the late '70s or early '80s — Depeche Mode, The Cure, Lionel Richie — compared to the baby-boomer icons of ACLs past: Al Green, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan.
The other thing that stands out is that once again the lineup is utterly lacking in any representation by artists from a most active, if not outright thriving, music scene barely 160 miles to ACL's east: Houston.
Throughout the festival's 2013 lineup (both weekends), all the way down to the gospel choirs and children's-stage performers, there is not one artist currently living in the Houston area. This is hardly a new phenomenon, either. Since ACL's first year in 2002, not one prominent Houston-based artist or band has performed at ACL. The only ones who have even been based remotely in the area at the time of their performance were gospel groups the Jones Family Singers (of Bay City), who appear almost annually, and the Mighty Sincere Voices of Navasota.
Admittedly, most of the city's best-known, still-living musical "graduates" — Rodney Crowell, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jack Ingram, Blue October and Hayes Carll — have played the festival at least once, but with the exception of Blue October and Carll, all with several years' distance between those artists' Houston years and Zilker Park. By contrast, these North Texas acts have played ACL, most of them still living in either Denton or the Metroplex at the time: Toadies, Midlake, Old 97's, Ben Kweller, Centro-Matic, Brave Combo, Erykah Badu, Sara Hickman, Sarah Jaffe and Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights.
So that's a dozen years now, well north of 1,000 ACL performers in all — at a rate of roughly 100 acts each year — and only a handful of artists even with ties to the fourth-largest city in the nation, one that gets bigger every day. At face value, that seems to add up to a slight so big it couldn't help but be intentional, but that may not necessarily be the case.
One important thing to consider is who exactly puts on ACL. Today C3 Presents is the events behemoth behind ACL and Lollapalooza in both North and South America, but its roots are as a (relatively) humble promoter booking shows at midsize venues such as Trees and the Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas and Stubb's in Austin. More than a few of those aforementioned North Texans cut their teeth in those rooms, becoming known ticket-selling quantities to the agents and talent buyers in a position to put them in front of ACL audiences. The music business will always be about networking.
By contrast, C3 has never had much of a presence in Houston apart from presenting one-off shows by artists such as David Byrne or Neil Young, and even then once in a very blue moon. Even that has been a relatively recent development as C3 has grown large enough to occasionally challenge the longtime concert gorilla in these parts, Pace/Live Nation. Perhaps a better question is why those promoters didn't explore putting on their own festival somewhere around here, but there are probably a million answers to that one.
Another thing worth considering is that the types of music ACL Fest tends to book in large quantities — "adult alternative," indie-rock, jam bands, Americana — have always been, if not specific to Austin, certainly appreciated by audiences in the so-called Live Music Capital of the World more than almost anywhere else in this part of the country, and certainly more than in Houston. Although the demographics are changing with the now-constant influx of new residents, Houston has historically preferred its music to be more belligerent and confrontational, and often the work of some fairly drug-addled imaginations.
So as flabbergasting as the thought of ZZ Top's now being bypassed a dozen years in a row is — or that ACL hasn't somehow lucked into a surprise Beyoncé miracle — it's equally hard to imagine some of our better recent punk or metal bands (Venomous Maximus, Born Liars or Poor Dumb Bastards, say) killing an ACL crowd, except perhaps literally.
For the same reason, the thought of unleashing unsettling performers like Indian Jewelry, Z-Ro, Linus Pauling Quartet or Fatal Flying Guilloteens on hippie-dippie Zilker Park is downright laughable. (The Roky Erickson of recent ACLs has been serene, almost grandfatherly, not the troubled psych-rock wild man of his youth.) Wild Moccasins, Buxton, Grandfather Child or the Tontons all could have probably made it these past two or three years, but maybe the stars just didn't line up right. We may never know.
Accordingly, some Houston artists have found a warmer reception at ACL's "edgier," tattooed younger cousin Fun Fun Fun Fest, which has welcomed Black Congress, Bun B, Devin the Dude, B L A C K I E and Fat Tony in years past. And as little love as has sometimes been lost over the years between the Houston Press and the people behind Free Press Summer Fest, specifically Free Press Houston, we really have no other choice than to salute FPSF for realizing in 2009 that if you want to see a bunch of Houston acts play a big music festival, you might as well start one in Houston.
Under the Rainbow
The masked mind behind lo-fi psych-pop outfit Black Moth Super Rainbow also goes by "Tobacco."
Imagine my surprise when at a late-night gig after Austin's Fun Fun Fun Fest last fall, I discovered that the falsetto-voiced singer of a new favorite band, Black Moth Super Rainbow, was male, not female.
To be fair, Thomas Fec (who also goes by the moniker "Tobacco"), the band's brainchild, sings through a Vocoder, which means half the time he doesn't even sound human. This gives BMSR a weirdly lo-fi psychedelic space vibe, which you'll be able to experience for yourself at Fitzgerald's May 29.
BMSR is touring in support of the band's fifth EP, Cobra Juicy, an album that almost wasn't made. A few years ago, Fec was approached to do a remix of a female singer's album. He won't name the singer except to say he'd never heard of her before.
"I didn't want to make music at the time," he says. "I wanted to take a few years off."
But he took the job and ended up being pretty happy with the result, "once I got into it." Unfortunately, the female singer's people were not, and so the album was scrapped. Fec reworked it, and reworked it again, and the result eventually became Cobra Juicy, which was released in October.
Fec says it snapped him out of his writing slump.
"Writing around something like that, her voice, I had to look at things differently," he says. "To think about writing songs with guitars, it's really uncomfortable to me. Traditional pop music is weird to me."
"But I need constraints," he says. "I can't read music. I didn't go to school for this."
In other interviews, Fec has often disparaged his normal singing voice, hence the Vocoder. He also uses an older keyboard and an old sampler whose age give the band some of its unique fuzzy sound.
"I like pushing that one thing to see what I can get with it," he says.
A lot of the band's noise is influenced by the pop culture of his childhood, Fec adds.
"When I was a kid, my parents let me watch trauma movies," he notes. "People's faces were always, like, melting off in those. And the guy who drew the Garbage Pail Kids cards. They had big ideas and big colors and a lot of personality. I think that stuff kind of stuck with me."
In 2007, the band released what is probably their best-known album, Dandelion Gum, and went on tour with the Flaming Lips, playing several festivals. Despite that, BMSR's reputation is one of "cult status."
"If cult is defined as having, like, a small amount of fans, I guess," Fec says. "The ten people that like us really like what we do."
Black Moth Super Rainbow performs with The Hood Internet and Oscillator Bug Wednesday, May 29, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak, fitzlivemusic.com. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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