There was an awful lot of rock 'n' roll jam-packed onto the fourth annual Freakin' Weekend lineup. So much so, in fact, that things started early on Friday night, and by the time we made it onto the Rock Block somewhere around 9 p.m., youngsters Crime Wave (formerly JARG) were already well into their set. From what we heard, NOLA swamp-tech innovator Quintron — along with hometown heroes Natural Child, PUJOL, Ranch Ghost and Slammers — had obliterated night one of the annual freak fest over at The End on Thursday, and we didn't want to miss any more than absolutely necessary.
Indeed, the freak was going strong right out of the gate. After serving our time in the line that stretched down the Elliston Place sidewalk, we made it inside for the back half of D. Watusi's rather bittersweet set. Bittersweet because, of course, Nashville's Dead/Freakin' Weekend founder Ben Todd served as the Watoos' bassist from their inception right up until his death last month at the age of 24. There was to be a rather solemn but decidedly determined-to-party vibe permeating the weekend's festivities, and perhaps at no point was that vibe more palpable than during frontman Dillon Watson & Co.'s set. With The Paperhead's Peter Stringer-Hye stepping in on low-end, the garage punks ferociously attacked their beat-music-styled riffs — progressions which always struck The Spin as landing halfway between Dave Clark Five sunny and Monks sinister. Members of Todd's immediate family were in the crowd, and we definitely saw more than one tear-rimmed eye by set's end. But truthfully, our spirits were high: The show was already a sell-out, and musically, it was off to a damn fine start.
Then came the two-guitar hardcore-punk attack of Memphis' Ex-Cult, who we last caught at the Nashville's Dead anniversary party at The Zombie Shop back in September. We spotted Watusi's Watson stage-diving with an absolute sense of purpose as the Cult members quintessentially represented that Goner Records sound, hoisting the black flag of punk that was flown by fellow Goner Jay Reatard before them.
Cheap Time's Jeffrey Novak filled in as the Freak King, intro'ing California's White Fence while decked out in the crown and cape that had been sported by opening-night king Richie Kirkpatrick on Thursday. Fence — who come from the same West Coast school of noodling psych rock as cohorts Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees and The Fresh and Onlys — made some of the most muscular and interesting stuff we'd see all weekend, shifting between shimmering, sunny psych pop and ramped-up droning grooves. We definitely detect some post-punk in White Fence's mix of styles, and our compatriot noted a touch of The Fall's influence. Anyway, they had some kind words and a song dedication for Ben Todd, and their set made for a nice bit of diversity amid a genre that can get really samey really quickly.
The crowd — which had seen such local-rock hotshots as Jack White and The Black Keys' Patrick Carney milling about throughout the night — was amped up by the time Atlanta's lords of irreverence, The Black Lips, took the stage. Half-full beer cans flew overhead the moment the Lips, two of whom were sporting characteristically silly hats, ripped into "Family Tree" from 2011's Arabia Mountain. Even though the antics these goofy garage gurus were known for in their early days have died down a bit (there's still plenty of spitting, just no urination), they're certainly as pleasantly sloppy as ever. Psychedelic-liquid imagery was projected on that same old shoddy backdrop they've toured with for ages, and clips of what sounded like wrestlers barking and rain storms played between songs. The Lips sincerely thanked Todd for all he'd done, going on to play a "prototype" or two of new songs. They admitted that they haven't played out in a while, as they've been holed up working on their new record, but it felt like a perfectly great Black Lips show to The Spin. The Lips put on a something of a comedy show as far as ridiculous banter and intentional looseness are concerned, but then you realize woven in the middle of all the madcap charm are some genuinely exceptional melodies.
We exited the club to find to an ambulance and a fire truck parked outside the non-Freak-affiliated Aggrolites show across the street at The End. Turns out a guy had suffered an epileptic seizure. Mega-bummer, but we were happy to see that he seemed to have his wits about him as they rolled him away.
Then, on Saturday, we saw a man fly.
That isn’t necessarily true, but it’s almost less crazy than what we actually witnessed. During the day show — while a pared-down Gnarwhal thrashed through mathy post-hardcore riffs in Local Honey's parking lot — a dude climbed a cinder-block dividing wall and stage-dove over the band and onto the crowd of skinny teenagers below. And survived. If that’s the kind of bonkers shit we caught at the day show, we couldn’t imagine the sort of madness that awaited us at a sold-out Exit/In featuring OGG, Orwells, Cy Barkley, Diarrhea Planet and JEFF the Brotherhood later that night.
Folks poured into Exit/In as Chicago's youngsters Orwells did their thing, and once Cy Barkley and the Way Outsiders took the stage, the night kicked into a familiar gear. Cy’s performance hasn’t changed much from the past half-dozen or so times we’ve seen him — aside from the addition of Mimi "Hot Legs" Galbierz (Heavy Cream, Slammers) on second guitar — but that’s to be expected from a band that so deftly channels mid-'70s Oi! and the gritty '80s hardcore punk that followed it. They’re almost unrelentingly street punk, which sticks out in a scene full of psyched-out fuzz rock. Cy knows what he's good at, and that's good enough for us.
After an intro from Freak Queen Jessica McFarland, Diarrhea Planet, on the other hand, continued their trend of getting more ambitiously goofy every time we see them. Even with the typical DP shenanigans, they upped their game huge for Freakin' Weekend. Going into the show, the thought that we had already seen most of these bands somewhere in the area of 17 billion times each lingered in the back of our brain, but we've never seen them on this scale. Whether it's raining thrift-store hats on the crowd or guitarist (one of them, at least) Emmett Miller fleeing the stage to shred in the balcony, DP at least knows how to keep it interesting. But for all their silliness, one of the most emotional moments of the night came when the Planeteers ended their set on a stellar cover of “Born To Run,” dedicated to Ben Todd and backed up with locals Whit Smith on vocals and Reece Lazarus on saxophone. We'd like to think The Boss would've approved.
As JEFF arrived on stage, Exit/In took a turn for the lawless. Dozens crowded around the band, filling the wings for a safe perch to get freaky. So many people — mainly longtime friends of Nashville's Dead with the tattoos to prove it — were onstage that at one point they supported their own crowd-surfers. Exit/In staff valiantly tried to keep the crowd back, but they were no match for a swarm of punks going nuts to “U Got the Look” and “Ripper.” Even as the band broke for the second half — when the Bogus Bros were joined by King Karl's Karl Bergman and D. Watusi's Christina Norwood — the crowd turned into a high-stakes game of Red Rover, avoiding attempts to clear the stage to make room for, y'know, the band.
But in fairness, this was the community's show unlike any we've ever seen before. People were losing their minds in the crowd and, as the house music faded up at the end of the night, kids onstage shed real tears over the final moments of Freakin' Weekend IV. Even as gear was actively being broken down, chants of “Beastmaster! Beastmaster! Beastmaster!” rang out from freaks hoping to extend the party just a little longer. They wouldn't get their wish, but there's always next year — hopes are high that Freakin' Weekend V will indeed go down in 2014.