Their day began at 3am. The day before, BADBADNOTGOOD, the quartet of keyboardist Matty Tavares, bassist Chester Hansen, drummer Alex Sowinski, and tenor saxophonist Leland Whitty, had been rehearsing in their overgrown studio in Ontario in preparation for their 7:40pm Sunday set closing down the Yellow Stage of Austin, Texas’ tenth annual Fun Fun Fun Fest at the close of what was a previously damp early November weekend before the sun broke through reminiscent of Ontario’s current “heat wave”. It’d be a quick trip for them, barely even getting the chance to see the festival, out by midday Monday, though considering they had never seen Austin outside the chaotic, city-enveloping context of a South by SouthWest festival, this was quite the welcome gig. Their playing this gig seemed a long time coming, particularly appropriate, in fact.
It must be noted that this is a festival is for nerds. Nerdery, when defined as passionate intensity for the culturally specific, engenders indulgence, and the indulgence here is real. For ten years, this festival has curated itself on the very specific– for the local, for the niche, for the nostalgic, for the mixing of disparate interests that intermingle in love. This most certainly must be the definition of nerdery. Everything else is an added flavor. What began as a happy accident of booking numerous acts on the same day in Waterloo Park has grown into a celebration of the just outside of pocket, a consciously smaller festival with stages separated by genre– black for metal and punk, blue for hip hop and electronic, orange for rock and most general broadness of scope, one could say, and yellow for comedy and the ability to squeeze two more bands a night on the schedule. In the midst of this little pocket of Auditorium Shores at Lady Bird Lake — a pittance of the size the Austin City Limits Festival takes each year at Zilker Park a month prior and a walk over — is a massive, interlocking skate ramp designed by Austin’s Project Loop and sponsored by Volcom, a port-a-potty photo booth (that someone peed in on Saturday which is so not cool), and periodic firing of the taco cannon (it’s like a t-shirt cannon, that’s more of a gatling gun, that’s filled with El Chilito tacos), among other assorted curiosities as if this were some sort of carnival side show. It’s an event where it’s clear each detail is brought about by a melding of surmounting bad performance experiences in bands at shows, the desire to express one’s individual weirdness, and the drive to make something new each year, even if this is less the intended consequence and more of survival-induced resourcefulness. When one attends enough shows in Austin and can’t quite figure out why the lines are so long, or how to rationalize paying $8 for a Miller Lite, or is constantly weirded out by the vibe backstage, or wishes the stage crew were more responsive and accommodating, this festival is run by folks who have seemingly dreamt of filling in all the cracks.
It’s a festival distinctly Austin– a city with resources and spirit and gumption, with diversity of tastes and interests (despite its general lack of diversity of people), with an inherent desire to make something cool, especially if it’s weird. There’s talk from year to year, as Transmission Entertainment, the folks who put this thing together every year and have grown into the brilliant taste making music bookers who have spread throughout Texas as if throwing a few King Khan and BBQ Shows is akin to spreading the Gospel, contends with the city about where this event will be and how much space it will need, that the fight may be just too much and it may move to another city. Considering how well functioning this team of folks are, if they had to pull off such a feat, they probably could, but for something so very much Austin, it seems almost unfathomable.
It would seem like only in Austin could a festival work this way where what seemingly feels programmed as a distraction in the Yellow Stage, a tent to the right of the main entrance as if tarp and canvas can hold bellowing rock music at bay. Yet these crowds are thick and overflowing, rapt with attention. They’re not 20-minute South By sets of freneticism and shuffling along to crowds half paying attention. They’re not the be seen in the scene crowd of the massive Austin City Limits Festival. One can tell this from the fawning praise a tangent-prone Doug Benson gave the crowd during his 4pm Saturday afternoon Yellow Stage set, thanking Austin for being such an attentive, responsive, polite crowd who honestly loves and appreciates comedy, even when it’s not fully formed. One can tell even further from Tig Notaro’s following set where one of her best bits was explaining how another bit didn’t play in San Diego but Austin followed and responded all the way, creating a vibe so amenable, Notaro ran fresh out of time to work through her dry, somber, and hilariously unhilarious material; what this crowd made with her was something beautiful all its own. It seems every comedian’s set of every year at FFF gives mention of the oddness of these logistics, of the difficulty hearing oneself or the attendees, of the decision-making skills of the audience. Last year, Kyle Kinane said he’d run out of his own set to hear Johnny Marr. So it must be acknowledged that the Yellow Stage people, like the Black, Blue, and Orange among them, are just as dedicated as the rest here. This realm of passionate intensity, the spirit of nerdery, has a home here as well. It would stand to reason that a jazz band could fit here just as much.
They aren’t here as Ghostface Killah’s backing band. One would have made this surmission. Sour Soul, the highly lauded album Ghost made with the guys released earlier this year, is still getting plaudits and is fresh on folks’ minds even after Ghost dropped another album with Adrian Younge some months later. They played more than their fair share of shows last March during SXSW mostly backing Tony Starks. It would have stood to reason that he was the reason these guys are here. And it could have entirely been so. The video from their House of Vans/Fun Fun Fun Fest showcase performance is still making the rounds. (Bill Murray was in attendance that day.) It’s entirely possible that this was the show that put the Ontarians on the FFF radar. Four out of five out of nine members of the Wu Tang Clan performed at the festival the day before. One could have hoped a surprise appearance was on the horizon, but this was not the case. The guys never even knew Wu Tang were on the scene a day prior. They didn’t know they’d be running into their friend Sam Herring of Future Islands who they had been hanging with in the studio just a few days prior, working out new music and having a ball with as they usually do lately. They didn’t think they’d cross paths with Doomtree, a group who the guys had encountered before while all were on the rise only to see them again here in Austin, as these things in the music scene seem to happen. These guys fit here on their own right. It seems, at times, like ages ago since the Humber College dropouts, too idiosyncratic for a jazz program, if there ever were such a thing, were drawing the ire of the jazz cognoscenti, but they have steadily worked and striven to make good music, to spread positivity, to be the very polite Canadians that are a delight to be around, and more specifically, to work with.
So after an early flight and a layover in Dallas, they finally arrived in Austin for their one-off gig. After briefly getting settled at one of the nicer La Quinta Inns the guys have encountered on their many jaunts throughout the globe, they eventually met your goodly narrator at Bacon, the bacon focused restaurant on W. 10th St. for what are quite possibly the finest chicken and waffles in existence. 1 Chicken and waffles isn’t something they do particularly well in Canada. Perhaps they’re too far from the source. Maybe it’s too American a concept. It’s certainly preposterous yet functional enough a concept to sound distinctly American. Everywhere Matt has had them, seemingly no one gets it quite right. No one has the essence down, they forget the basics. Chester and Leland, however, had never had them before. There was concern on if they’d be hungry enough, airport food was the early sustenance they needed that morning, but after the long wait, finally plates arrived– a sizeable breast, a substantive waffle with thick bacon baked inside, with a side of the bounteous house bacon and the bacon of the day, that day’s was cajun (it was a bit too overseasoned). For me, I had returned to what I knew was the best in this quest, and found peace and reassurance once more. The last time I was there, I had taken my old friends from college, the Chivers Roundtable of Morehouse College, feeling the same peace and joy that I could show this to friends. A little over a year later, I got that feeling again. The place closed at 3pm. We were the last ones there.
A quick Uber to the hotel to recollect themselves, gather gear, and head out, and there they arrived at Auditorium Shores for this one-off gig. The Uber was indeed quick, because Austin was faster to get around than they had ever seen. Shows in Texas, shows in the midwest, in the flyover states, are one-off gigs. Any US tours they’ve done have been east coast or west coast, with those hubs, those strings of cities that are easy to connect. The finances have to make sense. The commerce is part of the art and doing what they’ve done makes sense. They’re managed well, and part of an infrastructure at that. It was woven around this festival, curated of cool nerdery, dots connected throughout the backbone of these stages. In that sense, it is yet another way it is sensible these guys are here. This festival is a responsive and accommodative, anticipating needs, responding quickly to the artists. That backbone, that well-engineered design of those working behind the festival stages are indeed carrying the responses of the spinal cord. Everyone here a synapse. Their load-in, their set-up, involved so many “is there anything you need?”s, one could feel transported to The Varsity in Atlanta, bustling with “what’ll ya’ have?” like cackling grackles. That was this crew, attentive because this isn’t the 20-minute South By sets, the be seen in the scenes. There’s time and ability and casual professionalism, and barely any soundcheck. Yet, these folks are pros. They move on a dime. They’ve adjusted drum stands mid-song, festival-wide all weekend. Adjusted levels, provided backline, fulfilled riders, gave bounteous meal and drink tickets, made a chill Homies lounge, where artist, media, those working, and those just connected enough intermingle, check out gear, grab various swag, and get free haircuts (I got my kitchen cleaned up). When Doug Benson the day before noted the oddness of elaborate lighting for a comedy show, with green lights whirring about the tent, illuminating the crowd, he riffed for a while on the subject before the crew dropped the lights. It was appreciated, but it also dampened the bit, so Benson riffed on the dampening of the bit, which provoked the raising the lights again, to which Benson riffed on his desire to finish a bit first. The body amending itself as it needs, functioning in a rhythm it perpetually seeks out. Casual professionalism, passionate intensity. Nerdery.
The guys had to follow Andrew Jackson Jihad. If anything said passionate intensity in the form of beautiful nerdery, it was Andrew Jackson Jihad’s set. So many people here knew every word of every song, and these aren’t easy songs. This sounds like Mountain Goats with more punch, with lyrics joyously morose at times. It felt like atheists were taken to church– it was in a tent, this could have been their revival. While the guys set up in the back, arranging gear and hoping Matt’s computer is working right (thankfully, it does), there’s an utter outpouring of emotion on the other side of this stage. It was glorious, and yet it seemed the crowd that gathered for our protagonists seemed to match.
They haven’t put out new music in a while. They’ve been collaborating with all kinds of musicians, producing things, playing gigs, being productive, but work, their work, is coming soon. They’ve been working on things, plotting a release, figuring what still goes where, what should be made into other forms, a timetable for press, but that itch is present. It’s been a while. The aptness of beginning their set with a psychedelic groove, giant and bombastic like a more restrained Kamasi Washington song, denotes this. Everyone here is thrown for a loop, following all the dips and turns. This song doesn’t have a title yet, it’s some amazing thing tested on the nerds who love it, who can listen to every note and go where these guys can take them. It’s a muscular song, designed with Leland’s angularity. It’s why I keep saying quartet. When thinking about who he’d like to work with, Steve Coleman immediately comes to his mind, and his approach to playing in the groove, the ever-present groove, is evidence of this. He attacks it, quickly, like a boxer. His sound jumps about as if all four of them were interwoven into rope with which we all double dutch. From there, they were playing the hits. “Velvet”, the last song of their own that they put out last year, banded about from a sultry jam to an outright boogie with breakneck speed, this crowd hugging every turn, and Matt knocking out his solo hard. “Confessions” let Leland go deep. Flying Lotus’ “Putty Boy Strut” was the ever anticipated jam of the set. “Kaleidoscope” let Chester be Chester, which is always a delight to hear on the bass. They closed with “CS60” and Alex went in. Other than the opener, this is a familiar set. They played with aplomb. They had a fun time. It’s what these guys do and they keep getting better and better at it, but much like a kid at a Passover Seder, one must wonder how is this night different from all the other nights? Other than my being there to hang out for the day, this isn’t the 20-mintues SouthBy sets and the be seen in the scene crowd. These are the nerds. These are the fans who chant their names during setup to the point of slight irritance, though still oddly heartwarming. These are the ones who moshed. These are the ones who listen and listen closely. These are the ones who appreciate what these guys are doing and have been doing so for years. There was still a lot of emotion to bring down this tent. BADBADNOTGOOD were indeed the headliners of Yellow Stage on the last day of Transmission Entertainment’s tenth annual Fun Fun Fun Fest. They had a rapt crowd who was there for them, like they were there earnestly for so much of the rest of this festival. Everything was chill because this comes from a group of people, of misfits in a city of misfits, of nerds of humility in a city of nerds of pretentiousness, who kept good vibes going (and weed smoke circulating, it must be said, for this is also a festival of stoner nerds, this also with much appreciation). They broke down their gear. They hung out with fans. They took pictures with folks. They signed autographs, a seeming anachronism in this era of the selfie, but the elation people felt is still irreplaceable.
With the set over, the gear back in its proper places, there was downtime once more. This gig is done, there is whiskey around, still drink tickets present, and the ability to scramble and get food (though that bell would ultimately ring without them on festival grounds, the peril of the hang). Though briefly a part of this culture, they fit in it so well. They’ve been the only jazz band at festivals more than enough times and their appeal has always been felt. In that regard, this festival is no different, but this really is a great city and a well-curated group of folks for this to have felt like such an appropriate gig. It’s the kind of gig one plays as a one-off. It’s the kind of gig worth dropping new music to see how it plays. It’s the kind of gig worth waking up at 3 in the morning to spend a little more than a day in Texas before heading back to Ontario once more, in the midst of a heat wave that made the briskness of South Central Texas in November feel oddly comparable. It’s the kind of gig where it’s totally worth it to hang out with a bunch of nerds. It was fun, one could possibly say in triplicate. In fact, it’d be appropriate.
1. Part of this festival involves me figuring out how I’d get into it somehow and making work out of it, making art out of it. Thus, this is the part where I have inserted myself into the narrative, though hopefully not obtrusively, because this profile of the guys is the product I made this year to rationalize the always fun time I have at this festival each time by somehow finding my way in it. After my mention of my chicken and waffle quest in my New York piece last month, Matt and I talked about having them at Bacon when they got to town. For a week, I was looking forward to the brunch almost as much as I was the festival. Almost. ↩
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.