It's that time of the year again when the jackrabbits grow still, the rattlesnakes slither back into their holes, and gas station employees off the Cordes Lake exit get ready to grab that sweet, sweet beer run money. Arcosanti hosted another FORM festival over the weekend, featuring acts that ranged from small and upcoming like Half Waif and Vagabond to mid-size arena monsters like Beach House and Charli XCX. All in all, it was a great excuse to spend three days in the desert soaking up good music and UV rays with 1,000-plus strangers.
Here are some of the highs and lows from this year's FORM.
Best: Waiting Wasn’t the Hardest Part
FORM 2017 was a wonderful weekend, full of stirring sights, enveloping sounds, and transcendent experiences. It was also a weekend that started off on the worst possible note with an epic clusterfuck of long lines, broken-down buses, piss-poor communication between volunteers, and delayed shuttle pickups. On the opening day of last year’s FORM, wait times were between three to four hours to get folks bused from the parking lot to Arcosanti.
How did this year’s FORM fare on the “just getting the hell in there already” front? The process of parking, checking in, loading gear onto buses, and getting to Arcosanti took less than half an hour. And once festivalgoers arrived on-site, there was regular shuttle service taking folks back and forth from the campgrounds to the parking lot every half-hour throughout most of the fest. All the folks involved in improving the transport situation at FORM this year deserve all the gold stars and banana stickers.
One odd thing to note: FORM's site and welcome packets mentioned that they would be heightening security this year with bag checks. From when I checked in to when I left Arcosanti, I did not see a single check being done. None of our gear was inspected before we got on the bus; perhaps the real reason FORM announced there would be bag checks was to discourage people from bringing their own beer to the fest.
Worst: All We Are Is Dust In The Wind
Note to future FORM attendees: Don’t forget to pack a bandanna or dust mask. On Friday and Sunday, Mother Nature was kicking up vast clouds of dust, buffeting the campgrounds and roads winding up and down Arcosanti.
On a related note: kinda amazed nobody used the dust situation as an excuse to scream “PLAY DUST IN THE WIND,” "Free Bird" style throughout the weekend.
Best: Jesus Walks
One of the most surprising sets of the weekend was Zola Jesus’s Friday afternoon performance. The music Nika Roza Danilova and her cohorts make is profoundly nocturnal, so much so that it was a bit of a shock that Danilova didn’t explode into ashes the minute she stepped out into broad daylight. But the real revelation was how well Zola Jesus worked in this environment. Not only was Danilova’s voice just as rich and dynamic live as it is on record, she seized the opportunity to wake up a sleepy afternoon crowd by jumping into the crowd. Halfway through “Dangerous Days,” Danilova hopped down into the amphitheater, scaling the steps and singing to a delighted audience. Her mic cut out as she made her way back up to the windy stage. “Fuck cables,” she said with a grin after plugging her mic back.
Best: Poppin’ My Collar
While a lot of attendees were dressed for comfort, quite a few FORM freaks used the weekend as a chance to show off their sartorial cleverness. A lot of great outfits and funky clothes were on display, from seahorse booty shorts and gangly dudes wearing Holy Mountain-style hats to gold-foil jackets and even a coonskin hat (I’m looking at you, Amen Dunes drummer). But major props and kudos go to the person wearing a spiked collar made of bronze-colored zip ties. Simple to make and cool as hell: the perfect way to turn $5 at Home Depot into a guest spot in a FKA twigs music video.
Worst: Get Out Da Way
It was hard resisting the urge to quote Luda throughout the weekend when descending the stairs connecting Arcosanti to the campgrounds below. There were way too many people clustering together to have convos about who they’re trying to hook up with on a narrow flight of stairs with cactus on one side and a sheer drop on the other.
Best: Shine On, You Crazy Diamond
For some folks, music festivals are a time to adopt new personas or let your inner freak flag fly. Occasionally you’d meet people with wonderfully strange nicknames and gimmicks. Best festival gimmick at FORM? The person calling themselves SparkleDaddy whose gimmick is take-a-wild-guess.
Best: Voices Carry
One thing that FORM really excels at is booking artists with powerful and unique voices. Literally. Some of the fest’s biggest highlights were musicians whose loudest and most commanding instruments were their lungs. Serpentwithfeet astonished folks over at the APSE stage with his fluid voice. Words poured out of him like water flowing out of a burst dam. It was hard to tell what was free-association and what was prepared material, but it was all amazing either way.
Julianna Barwick also used her voice to captivate the APSE audience. Looking like a Velvet Underground member in her black getup and dark shades, Barwick stood at her bay of electronics and twisted and sculpted her voice until it took on the qualities of the wind streaming through us: invisible, forceful, and spine-tingling.
Best: I Can’t Think Of Any Songs About Pizza, But This Is Totally About Pizza
Here’s a dirty secret about Arizona music festivals from someone who’s been to a bunch of them: The grub sucks. Most of the food is overpriced and disappointing. FORM is the exception to that rule. While the food isn’t cheap, the overall quality of munchies on hand did not disappoint this weekend. Best of all was the stone bread pizzas on offer at the Saffron Jak food truck; their LBP pizza (baked potato, bacon, cheddar) was a thing of scrumptious beauty.
Best: This Is the Water and This Is the Well
Stepping in for Chance The Rapper, Flying Lotus closed out Friday with his hallucinatory and head-nodding 3-D show. FlyLo freaked the crowd by playing snatches of a new song he recorded with Anderson .Paak and hit us with snippets of "Wesley's Theory," "King Kunta," and the spooky "Never Catch Me." But the best moment of the set was FlyLo outing himself as a David Lynch stan: He played a brief cut where he sampled the Twin Peaks theme together with the "This is the water and this is the well" speech from The Woodsman in The Revival.
Worst: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
To the guy who thought that playing clips of Chewbacca howling on his phone throughout Jonsi’s Liminal Soundbath on Saturday: Yeah, dude, that was funny the first time you did it. By the 20th? Let’s just say I was hoping that the real Chewbacca would show up in the middle of the Soundbath and give you a Liminal Bloodbath.
Best: Everything Is Embarrassing
Perhaps the most anticipated set was Blood Orange's solo performance. The amphitheater was packed, with the crowd spilling out onto the stairs leading up and down and the amp. Maybe it's because Dev Hynes doesn't tour very often, so Blood Orange playing a show at a festival like FORM is more of a must-see event than a group like Beach House (who are amazing but are also a band that's bound to tour through town again). Sitting at his piano with home movies projected behind him onscreen, he had our attention from the first note he played. But it was his second song that brought the house down. After Blood Orange switched to his keyboard, a familiar tune resounded throughout the arcology: Sky Ferreira's "Everything Is Embarrassing." Hynes was reminding the assembled throng that in addition to all the other fantastic songs he's written he also helped penned this stone-cold pop masterpiece.
Worst: What Does The Fox Say?
I love Fleet Foxes, so it pains me to award them Most Boring Band at FORM. They put on a good set, in the sense that you could compare them to a boombox playing their records and go, “Yep, that sure does sound like Fleet Foxes.” But they just weren’t a compelling live act. Some other groups like Amen Dunes had a similar problem throughout the weekend: groups that make amazing music but somehow don’t leave much of an impression in person.
But then again, some people can make that lack of theatrical/performative effort work for them. Grouper’s Saturday performance was almost delightfully perverse in how out of step it felt for a music festival. Liz Harris barely acknowledged the audience. Sitting at a table with tape players and electronics strewn across it, she manipulated those objects while shifting from guitar to piano. She played like she was recording music in her living room: It was as if the throng of people watching her simply didn’t exist. And it was beautiful: Veering from her gorgeous disembodied vocals to occasional blasts of noise that sounded like the sky cracking open, it was perhaps the single most transcendent musical performance of the festival. Perhaps Harris’s focus, her refusal to make any concessions to “Hey, let’s put on a show!,” is what made her set seem so special. Even as a steady stream of people walked out during her performance, she was lost in her world of sound, inviting those of us who stayed to lose ourselves in it, too.
Best: Three's Company
A fringe benefit of being a concert reviewer is having an excuse to eavesdrop on strangers' conversations. Just like last year's fest, people talked plenty of batty and beautiful bullshit. My favorite overheard bit was from a trio of dudes chatting at a nearby tent:
DUDE 1: "Honestly, a threesome with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron would be perfect."
DUDE 2: "Yep."
DUDE 3: "That's the dream, right there."
Best/Worst: Bigmouth Strikes Again
Just like last year, Cosanti Foundation president Jeff Stein introduced a band by delivering a long speech about the unsustainability of human civilization and the benefits of arcology, and repeating some of his favorite Italo Calvino quotes. Considering the Cosanti Foundation's involvement with FORM, it's only right they get some stage time: If you're having dinner at somebody's house, sometimes that means sitting politely while they say grace. But man does it kill the vibe before watching a show. Stein came out to do his speech before Hundred Waters' set on the closing night of last year's fest, which made that already long night feel like an eternity. This year he flipped the script and did it on opening night, prefacing Fleet Foxes' set. And just like last year, it was interesting, thoughtful, and exactly the last thing I want to hear before seeing a concert. Give this man a panel, for the love of R. Buckminster Fuller, and let him go off for an hour straight. I would be more than down to listen to that then. But right before watching a show? Let's put it this way: Do you want to watch a Power Point presentation before having sex? If your answer is yes, don't @ me.
Worst: Don't Speak
Speaking of the Cosanti Foundation: Volunteers on-site and onstage were quick to steer the conversation toward Paolo Soleri's philosophy and work. They avoided the elephant in the room — the damning accusations of abuse that have been leveled against him by his own daughter. Maybe it was a relief to not have that awful topic dominate the weekend. But for an event as inclusive and activist-friendly as FORM, it felt weird that the fact we're all partying and communing together in an alleged predator's "home" went unaddressed by so many people.
Best/Worst: Down In The Valley
For returning FORM-goers, the biggest change this year was the campgrounds. Last year, the camps were set up in the Minds Garden, which was right outside the Arcosanti grounds. This year, the camps were moved down into the canyon where Skrillex played last year. It was an interesting trade-off: Instead of hot and sweaty tents last year, we had to contend with the cold chill of the canyon. And whereas last year you could step outside your tent and be in The Vaults in a couple of minutes, this year you either had to wait for a shuttle or walk back up to Arcosanti.
Camping in the canyon, though, was a beautiful experience. Surrounded by looming dark walls at night, music playing from above at Arcosanti would drift down and serenade us. I opted not to watch Dan Deacon's late-night set but I still got to hear his voice squeaking and screaming in the distance. He sounded like an alien being, howling out of some faraway vortex. It was the perfect soundtrack for staring up at the stars while slipping into a dream at the bottom of a dark valley.
Best: Please Give Blood
Aside from Grouper, one other performer seized my attention and imagination like no other: Saul Williams. On Friday the poet AJ Monet "opened" for Flying Lotus, reading several of her pieces before his 3-D set. Saul Williams was set to do the same on Saturday for Blood Orange. But whereas Monet had an introduction (essentially a poetic hypewoman getting the crowd ready for Monet), Williams came in like a sneak attack. People around me actually thought he was Blood Orange at first. With no books or notes in his hands, Williams stepped to the mic and immediately began spitting out poetry at us. A good chunk of it was from his Said the Shotgun to the Head book. He recited dense and complex poems off the top of his head with a ferocious delivery: It was as though the lines were caught in his throat and he had to bark them out so he could breathe again.
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One thing I missed from last year's fest was groups like Deafheaven and Father John Misty. Deafheaven's "blackgaze" metal was a welcome sonic change to the festival's ambient/R&B/indie rock programming: a bracing bit of sour to contrast with all the sweet. Just as how the acerbic and caustically hilarious stage banter of Father John Misty's Josh Tillman was a welcome antidote to all the "We're going to change the world, you guys" rhetoric that pervades the event. Having someone up there like Tillman cracking salty jokes about doing ayahausca backstage and SEO managers getting some "prime content" out of all this (knowing damn well that a decent chunk of the audience is SEO managers or people who are going to graduate from college and end up as one) was a nice way to deflate the sanctimony of FORM a little bit.
What made Williams so effective was that he embodied both of those things that I felt were missing from this year's fest: He brought the sour and the saltiness.
Williams spoke at a forceful, manic clip, barely leaving enough air in the room for people to fill with applause or pat themselves or Saul on the back (though one intrepid soul was hellbent on poetry slam finger-snapping every other line). The audience cheered as Williams spat "The greatest Americans have not been born yet / they are waiting patiently for the past to die," just as they cheered Josh Tillman for mocking their internet careers. That line of Williams' is pitiless, condemning everyone in the room: me, Saul, all of us. We're the past that needs to die so the future can really begin.
It takes a master performer to say shit like that and still have the room hanging on his every word, but that's the kind of performer that Saul Williams is. He stepped on with no intro, did his thing, and left without so much as a "thank you" or bow. It was the kind of move that from a lesser artist would be sheer ego, but from him it makes sense. He doesn't need us to tell him that shit was great: anyone with eyes and ears in that amphitheater, onstage or off, could see that.