Concert Review

The Best and Worst of FORM Arcosanti 2017

The biggest crowd yet.
The biggest crowd yet. Maria Govea
Another FORM Arcosanti festival is on the books. And it was one memorable weekend.

With headlining sets from Solange, Skrillex, Father John Misty, James Blake, and Future Islands, the cultural event brought to life the northern Arizona eco-city created by architect Paolo Soleri. In many ways, it was an idyllic weekend of interacting with the arts and artists amid a windy desert enclave. The festival embraced Phoenix's arts community in a meaningful way, and retained the low-key smallness that keeps attendees clamoring (and applying) for tickets. In other ways, it was a packed-to-the-gills festival with too many things to do and not enough shuttles.

Here's a look back at the highlights and lowlights of the 2017 edition of FORM Arcosanti.

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Solange and her back-up singers.
Michelle Sasonov
Best: Solange
Solange owned FORM. Set to postmodern dance, she and her band grooved in and out of girl group-inflected soul and high-energy funk on Friday night. You might've seen those moves during her slightly stiff Saturday Night Live showing in support of A Seat at the Table, her meditation on sadness and blackness and stepping into adulthood knowing precisely who you are, but not necessarily what you're doing. Here though, the choreography felt natural and not nervous — movement that bopped and threw poses but appreciated subtlety and stillness. It fits the longtime performer's latest music: soulful and sparing.

But Knowles pulled out older tracks, too, hitting the crowd with the undeniable "Losing You" and "Locked in Closets" from her 2012 EP True. She dug deeper, though, speaking on self-embrace, the importance of group texts (even if participating texters wrongheadedly support your wearing a couture "sleeping bag" to the Met Gala), standing in your early work, and what critics get wrong about her: The artist isn't getting weirder. Proof? She launched into "T.O.N.Y.," a 2008 stream-of-consciousness jam that explains the acronym as "The Other Night oh Y?" Putting her evolution as a musician on plain display, she made one thing explicitly clear. This is hers. The compositions. The lyrics. The choreography. The hair. The fluttering harmonies bathed in red light. All hers. Becky Bartkowski

Worst: That Wait on Friday
Four hours.

That's how long it took to get to Arcosanti. Arriving at the "Parkosanti" parking lot, we found a massive line of people waiting to board the buses. Many had already been waiting for three hours when we showed up. Aside from a confused man directing cars to parking spots, there was no other FORM personnel on site for the first few hours. Buses seemed to arrive every 40 minutes to an hour. No communication with people waiting in line about what is happening.

We tried escaping the wait by walking to Arcosanti, but got turned back for not having a wristband. "Wristbands are at check-in at the parking lot," they said. We walked back, only to find that there was no check-in and no wristbands to be had in Shuttle Purgatoy. Eventually the check-in people arrived and we got herded into two more lines: a line to get checked in, followed by a line to sign a waiver.

We waited in a dirt lot, with no bathroom, no shade structures, for four hours. What made the experience tolerable: the instant camaraderie that blooms between strangers suffering together. We drank beer, made "Fyre in the desert" jokes, and whooped with relief when our blessed buses finally arrived. Ashley Naftule

Best Soundcheck: Bing & Ruth
One of their two cellists sawed out the "Jurassic Park" theme during their check. Ashley Naftule

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Excited for day 2.
Michelle Sasonov
Best: Spotting Phoenicians
Eavesdropping on out-of-towners' takes on the desert never fails to entertain, but spotting so many locals at FORM this year was exciting. Though the annual festival takes place at a uniquely Arizona site, it's not quite a celebration of our area arts community and its offerings. After all, it's put on by a band based in Los Angeles, and none of the musical acts on the 2017 bill are based in or particularly connected to Arizona. That's a drag, but it seems that Hundred Waters are building a closer connection to the Phoenix creative set. Once again, the Fortoul Brothers' work had a strong visual presence — and you'd be pressed to find a set that didn't have some Valley creatives in the crowd. Becky Bartkowski

Best Dance Set: Omar Souleyman
Forget Skrillex - if you want to get a party started, book Omar Souleyman. The Syrian musician rocked the house on Sunday, getting an afternoon crowd on their feet and shaking their tail feathers to his high energy music. And even though most of us couldn't understand what he was saying, he won the crowd over by the confidence he exuded on stage. He played the crowd as expertly as his sideman played the keyboards, getting us to throw our arms in the air and jump around with the slightest gesture. Ashley Naftule

Best Set for Stargazing: Thundercat
By the time bass virtuoso took the stage Sunday night, we were ready to say uncle. FORM was an amazing, long experience. As much as we wanted to see Thundercat do his thing, the thought of going home to a hot shower and warm bed was too tempting to resist. As Thundercat kicked off his set (accompanied by a keys player and a drummer), we went outside to grab a shuttle. The shuttle driver told us there was a "gnarly" car accident at Black Canyon City, backing up traffic to a total stop on the I-17. Nobody would be going anywhere for awhile.

Standing in the dirt outside the complex, we could still hear Thundercat playing as clear as one of Arcosanti's bells ringing. We stood under the stars for the rest of his set, staring up at the black expanse. It was the perfect way to experience Thundercat's music. His liquid bass playing always had a cosmic feel to it, so staring into space while his music threaded itself through the air in a dizzying array of beats and melodic pattern just made sense.

We returned to the complex as he wrapped up his set. The crowd was so turnt up that they demanded an encore. Much to our surprise, the tech crew didn't let an encore happen, piping music through the speakers to clue the crowd in that Thundercat wouldn't be coming back. Cats may have nine lives, but they only get encores if they're headlining. Ashley Naftule

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Father John Misty was a crowd favorite.
Michelle Sasonov
Best: Father John Misty's Banter
There are stand-up comedians whose tightest five minutes of material is no match for Josh Tillman's stage banter.

Whether it was talking about skinning a snake that afternoon to make his shoes or asking a stage hand for another hit of ayahuasca kombucha, indie rock's greatest laconic smartass was in fine form. After playing a few numbers from his latest album, Pure Comedy (an album that fires poison darts at people of privilege and the information class - 80 percent of the people attending FORM festival), Father John Misty opened his set list up to the audience, graciously taking requests and bantering back and forth with the crowd.

Prowling the stage in a neat suit and those snakeskin boots, he was just as much a Rat Pack crooner and standup comic as he was a rocker. Accompanied by a keyboardist (whom the audience serenaded when Tillman told us it was the keyboardist's birthday), FJM put on a spare and intimate set. Tillman's gifts of mixing brutally astute observations together with sincere tenderness and hilarious one-liners was on full display. Ashley Naftule

Best Surprise: Kelsey Liu
We didn't know what to expect when Kelsey Liu stepped onstage. Wearing wheels on the side of her hair like Princess Leia, she wore a flowing white robe with blue fur trim on the sleeves. With just a cello, some looping pedals, and a guitar, she captivated the audience with her songs. Her music has a jazzy looseness and sense of exploration; it also has the kind of soaring emotional resonance you'd find in gospel and the blues. And her voice - there were several moments when the crowd would break into spontaneous applause, just from being moved by her high notes and wails.

She also knew how to make an entrance. When she got onstage, she stepped in front of the mic and took off her red shoes. The shoes stood in front of her the whole set, looking like Dorothy's red slippers. When the set ended, she slipped them back and strolled off. Ashley Naftule

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Desert nomadic fashion.
Michelle Sasonov
Best & Worst: The Art
We are all for the stumble-upon nature of FORM, where you check being a type-A planner on the bumpy gravel path to Arcosanti. Typically, there's time to hop from one set to the next and sample a little of everything, whether it's early morning yoga and an impromptu Thundercat jam or rooftop stargazing sessions. But not knowing exactly when and where you could find this year's visual arts offerings (which were stellar) proved frustrating — especially for those who wanted to see everything from the roving dance performances, Andy Brown's campgrounds mural, and the immersive Animal Lands projections from Kendra Sollars and Lauren Strohacker. Ephemeral art is totally on-brand at this blink-and-you-miss-it three-day festival, but a field guide to the non-music elements (or way-finding signage) would've been so helpful. Becky Bartkowski

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Deafheaven playing in the fog.
Michelle Sasonov
Best: Deafheaven
"He came on, killed everyone, and dipped!" That's what the guy behind us said in awe after Deafheaven strolled offstage to thunderous applause without so much as a bow or wave goodbye. He wasn't wrong — they had just put on a set that will be hard for anyone to top this weekend.

The black metal quintet took to the amphitheater at sundown. Cloaked in green mist onstage, they launched straight into a throttling five-song set: two from New Bermuda, a cover from Mogwai's Come On Die Young LP, and two songs from their breakthrough Sunbather. The older songs sounded even more savage and grandiose live, and it wouldn't have surprised us if their amp stack burst into flames midway through their rendition of "Dream House".

The biggest surprise was the showmanship of frontman George Clarke. When they played Crescent Ballroom last year, Clarke was an assured and confident frontman. But at FORM, he was something else: tracing figures in the air with his fingers like a mad conductor, straddling monitors, and grinding against the mic stand (when he wasn't holding it over his head like it was Excalibur). Slender and clad in black, contorting himself into weird shapes, he was like the heavy metal twin of the sleepwalker from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

And like any good monster, once the pillaging was done, he and the rest of Deafheaven disappeared back into the mists. Ashley Naftule

Worst Personnel: The security guard who kept shouting at people "Don't sit there!" during Hundred Waters set.
Even when the band would do a hushed, intimate piano number, he wouldn't hesitate to murder the vibe by barking like a junkyard dog at any interlopers entering the first row. Ashley Naftule

Best Appeal for Drugs: How to Dress Well
"For this next song, if you're on acid you should stand in front of the speaker. And if you have acid or anything like that on you, come to the front of the stage. This is the last time I'll appeal for drugs onstage, I swear."

Right as How To Dress Well's Tom Krell finishes saying this, someone tosses something onstage. Krell picked it up and popped it into his mouth while his musical partner shreds the speakers with abstracted beats. "I think this is just regular chocolate," Krell says after taking a bite of the wrapped goody.

This exchange sums up the laidback, good natured vibe that How To Dress Well cultivated with their set. A four-year veteran of FORM, Krell was at ease onstage, playing a set of almost all new music. The songs veered from thumping dance music to gorgeous, helium voiced ambient pieces.

Gesturing to the dome they played in, Krell talked about how Arcosanti's message of man coexisting with nature couldn't be more timely. Stepping away from the mic to sing a cappella before a hushed crowd, Krell sang about needing another world to live in. He sang about missing the songs of birds while the birds in the trees of Arcosanti sang along with him. Ashley Naftule

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski
Ashley Naftule

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