The first day of the 2017 FYF Fest is in the books, and so far the festival is living up to expectations and then some.
Epic, breathtaking performances abounded. Björk was her usual mysterious but charming self, singing her ass off and flouncing around in front of an orchestra and DJ in a costume that looked as if she'd been covered in glue and sent running through the confetti and bunting section of a party supply store. Missy Elliott rallied from a cold and technical issues to deliver a hits-packed set that seemingly everyone — including Tyler, the Creator, Ty Segall, Björk and Beyoncé — turned out to watch. Flying Lotus' new 3-D show dazzled with visuals that, from the right angle, appeared to loom over the audience, as the beat producer mixed funk classics and the Twin Peaks theme into his set. Thee Oh Sees thrashed; Angel Olsen smoldered; Badbadnotgood kicked out the jazz jams for what was, gratifyingly, easily the biggest pre-sundown crowd of the festival.
I hear Slowdive were on point as well — but I had to miss the shoegaze pioneers, because I could not tear myself away from what was hands-down the best set of the day, by Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals.
I realize that anointing relative newcomer Paak as FYF's day-one highlight, instead of Björk or Missy, is tantamount to sacrilege. But it's also just objectively true, and I can prove it. Paak wasn't just better than all of the more legendary performers on the bill yesterday — he was better than fireworks.
With apologies for my shaky hands and crappy iPhone 6 camera, look at the above photo, in which you can see the fireworks that went off over the mainstage at the conclusion of Björk's set. The crowd in the foreground is watching Anderson .Paak. Do you see any heads turned toward the fireworks? You do not, because there weren't any. In fact, had I taken a video, you could see the moment when most of the crowd became aware that something was happening behind them, turned briefly, collectively thought, “Huh, fireworks,” then went right back to watching Paak. That is how much energy and charisma he radiates as a live performer. You can't take your eyes off him.
“I been gone a minute,” Paak told the crowd at the conclusion of “Come Down,” the song with which he and his band upstaged literal pyrotechnics. “I wanted to see if you still have love for me, Los Angeles.” The audience, myself included, responded with a roar. We still got love for you, Anderson.
As Paak mentioned at FYF, the last year and a half has taken him and his band, the Free Nationals, all over the world in support of his masterful sophomore album, Malibu. During that time, they've become a well-oiled machine, with live arrangements of Malibu tracks like “Put Me Thru” and “Lite Weight” that now give his bandmates — guitarist Jose Rios, keyboardist Ron Avant and bassist Kelsey Gonzalez — room to solo and shine. The last time I saw the group, 13 months ago at the Ace Hotel, they showed flashes of brilliance. Now they're an airtight unit, as much a part of the show as Paak himself.
As strong as the set's first portion was — especially a version of “Glowed Up,” his collaboration with Canadian producer Kaytranada, given a Prince-like funk-rock edge by Rios' scalding guitar licks — it found another gear once Paak took to the drum kit midway through Malibu's “The Season/Carry Me.” His talent on the skins has always been undeniable, but just as the Free Nationals have become a more confident live band, Paak has grown more assured in his ability to simultaneously keep the beat and work the crowd, which made watching him sing, rap and play drums all at once even more impressive.
“This song is about my momma, y'all,” he declared with his megawatt grin from behind the kit during “Carry Me.” “Make some noise if you still love your momma.”
His effect on his audience was undeniable. The crowd roars of “Yes, lawd!” during “Suede,” the swaggering hit from NxWorries, his collaboration with Stones Throw producer Knxwledge, probably could be heard from the USC dorms. The funky one-two punch of “Am I Wrong” and “Lite Weight” had people around me dancing as hard or harder as I would later see during “Get Ur Freak On.” Even after the crowd began thinning out in anticipation of Elliott's set, those who remained danced and sang along rapturously to the house grooves of “Luh You,” a deep cut from Paak's debut album, Venice, that most probably had never heard before.
Part of what makes Paak such an entertaining performer is that he's a throwback — a showman in the vein of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Prince, who relies less on flash and polish (though there's plenty of that, too) than on sheer, hard-working musicianship to win over his audiences. The way he brings that energy to the sounds of contemporary hip-hop, R&B and electronic music — often over beats supplied by the likes of 9th Wonder, Hi-Tek and Mablib that, in a live setting, anchor but never overwhelm the Free Nationals' instrumental flourishes — is something very few artists of his generation have the skills to attempt, much less pull off with so much infectious joy.
The FYF lineup abounds with living legends — Björk, Missy Elliott, A Tribe Called Quest, Iggy Pop — and it's always a thrill and a privilege to see such artists, especially on the grand scale that a festival can provide. But watching Anderson .Paak, you come away with the unshakable sense that you just saw a legend in the making — and there's nothing more thrilling than that.