FYF Fest: What makes a live band work in a digital era?

The marquee artists at Sunday’s closing night of FYF Fest posed a deceptively simple question — what makes a band work?

Is it the energy from a group of people playing more-or-less-equal roles in a live ensemble? What if one guy with a laptop can make a bigger, more interesting racket all on his lonesome? How does an artist live up to albums in a time when productions are so dense as to be unplayable? And most importantly — how does one own a stage in a time of insane sensory overdrive?

On Sunday, acts offered radically different answers to these questions. Some, like the proto-grunge Dinosaur Jr. and the snarled political-emo reunion set from Desparecidos, let the old rules abide. Dinosaur Jr’s inimitable shredding — think Crazy Horse via the Replacements and enough guitar fuzz to start wildfires — almost closed the case in favor of stoned, pedal-pushing tradition. Conor Oberst’s punky Desparacidos combo debuted a decade ago, and though its indictments of a blinkered, Bush-era America tossed between naïve and righteously indignant at the same time, they’ve since become retroactively sage. To a barely-twentysomething then, “Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning)” seemed like an indictment of middle-class mediocrity, but now it’s a pretty searing portrait of a young family’s desperation to stay above water.


PHOTOS: FYF Festival 2012

But the real ambition happened at the marquee after-sundown sets, with a few bands testing the edges of what technology can allow live musicians to accomplish (while avoiding the shortcuts that computers can offer).

Yeasayer, the experimental New York combo, just released its third album “Fragrant World,” which pretty much encapsulates the band’s bent for earnest, sensuous tribalism. Singer Chris Keating has a stellar reach and uplifting stage presence, but the band’s real star is guitarist Anand Wilder — his arabesque lead lines added mystery to songs that, in lesser hands, might become Burning Man jock jams. “Fragrant World” is their most synthetic record yet, and while it’s impossible to tell how much was played live, pre-recorded or somewhere in between, the fact that Yeasayer obscured its mechanics while remaining an absolute party band is a major accomplishment .

Across the field, the L.A. quartet Health made good on the promise of its recent Max Payne 3 soundtrack work. Their set honed their neck-snapping noise spasms into a cinematic narrative, one with room for clenched-jaw brooding (“Death+,” “Tears”), hip-swinging makeout jams (“USA Boys”) and a few new tracks that might be their most comparatively radical yet (that is, they have major chords and discernibly lovelorn lyrics). Much of their set nodded to all the au courant dance and beat music happening today, while sacrificing it on an altar of blood, sweat and fear that rock bands are losing their edge against the machines. Most bands should worry about that future, but Health doesn’t need to.

REVIEW: FYF Festival is maturing

Along the way on Sunday, plenty of one-man acts tried to find compelling ways to present idiosyncratic visions. From Daughn Gibson’s country-sampling electronic noir to Black Dice’s art-school dance deconstructions, Nicolas Jaar’s immaculate avant-garde house sizzlers (OK, he had a bit of a live band to help) to Gold Panda’s fizzy, fractured rave-ups, lone artists had myriad ways of presenting isolation to big crowds on Sunday. But to juxtapose someone like them against, say, the reunion of Cold Cave’s Wesley Eisold’s old hard-core band American Nightmare – who played with lockstep, SST-indebted venom – would show the conundrums of both approaches. One’s more fun to watch, but the other is way more interesting to hear.

The only rule in playing live today is that, well, there are no rules. Anything short of pure karaoke (take note, John Maus) can count as a live set. So the challenge lies in assembling all available tools into something immediately arresting, both sonically and visually. For a band to work, they need to do both. Those that pulled it off at FYF walked away with the potential to change what we expect from live music today.


FYF Fest: A late nightcap of distinct electronica acts

FYF Fest: Redd Kross, FIDLAR show the power of comedy and rock

FYF Fest: The Chromatics greet sundown with head-nodding house set