Covering a festival as vast and expansive as Austin City Limits is as close to as daunting of a task as anyone could ever fathom. That did not stop nearly 75,000 people from all musical walks from trying to do so on the beautiful sun filled blue skied weekend of Oct. 8-10. Seemingly everything at this event is done with two things in mind: class and fans. ACL does so without what sometimes can be cheap art installations at similar festivals that are at their core, only a distraction from what the event is actually missing- music and solid organization. What ACL has effectively done is to legitimately steep itself in music from wall to wall and this is wherein its ultimate win is found and why it should top the list on any music enthusiast’s most likely place to spend a wet dream.
It is virtually impossible to catch even a slither of what one may aspire toward when initially perusing the lineup and set times. Going in, many (including self) possess the notion that he, unlike his peers, will pull off what Jim Phelps and his entire Impossible Missions Force couldn’t even do…only to admit epic failure by the eve of night one. Let’s face it, when Phish and M.I.A. appear on the same bill, the sooner that one concedes the battle will be that much sooner when he may ultimately gain victory by not attempting the unattainable and thereby, ultimately win the war.
While not intentionally meaning to come across as a fluffer, in its ninth year, the folks in Austin have created the ideal festival. While this statement is certainly hefty, it is not from a place of ignorance. When taking in a festival from all angles, it is important to use succinct diagnostic criteria which I shall do with a few simple questions. 1) Who is on the bill? 2) How much are drinks? 3) Is it organized? 4) Is there shade?
Some may scoff and snarl at this simplistic view, but that same naysayer would be remiss to argue that a lineup that boasted everyone from Monsters of Folk to the Strokes to the Flaming Lips coupled with two dollar sodas, two dollar pizza, streamlined entrances and exits with four attendees to one staff member, and a gigantic tent with industrial strength fans providing a constant blast of showering mist could be anything but a raging success. In Texas, they do it big. And so it was. There is no such thing as a "mist tent." This was a mist building.
Upon entering the festival grounds at Zilker Park and after being handed one of, if not the, most comprehensive and still very pocket-sized festival companions (schedule, map, artist bios, thirty free songs from itunes, etc.), one is immediately met by lush green fields. Shortly thereafter, bearings are gained with ease as the entire festival is one oblong circle of stages with trees providing the buffering median that serve as a basis from where one can garner the entire circumference and diameter of the festy earth for the duration of the weekend.
At its onset, the first and foremost thing on my mind was Phish. With that said, there was 8 hours between entry to the park and the boys from Vermont’s set, so my weekend would begin with a nice, if somewhat standard set by jam band forefathers, Blues Traveler. Making their way through sounds that many know, it was a nice way to start a weekend that would need to be measured in terms of marathon rather than sprinting capabilities. The highlight of the set came in the form of 15 year old fiddle phenom, Ruby Jane, who commanded the stage of these jam vets with her feverish style of play that made John Popper’s harp play seem standard to mundane. Though not old enough to legally drive a car, this prodigy intermingled her instrument with the harp play of Hopper before eventually driving her fiddle through the Van Helsing heart of the crowd like a steam rolling freight train in Blues Travelers’ 2002 tune "Mulling it Over."
From here, it was off to The Black Keys who offered a standard set that was short on fireworks and heavy on concise play, managing to fit 13 songs within their short hour time slot. This would be the first example of many throughout the weekend that was demonstrative of the uniqueness that ACL offers. From the Wetlands Preserve to the heart of American blues-rock that has been nothing less than fully embraced by the indie community and beyond; one can literally make this leaping journey within a few short steps.
The first and actual only disappointment of the weekend would be found in Beach House. Although critically well-received, the live setting did not do the justice to the sounds that have been created in the recorded setting. Donning the categorization of shoeglaze in genus, they came off more as a takeoff of My Morning Jacket with a tinge more psychedelic fusion in their step. The set had potential but most moments that spewed with destiny for propulsion instead crossed the threshold as forced at best and offered very little in regards to creating a landscape that this crew seemed to be attempting to force-feed its audience. One thing that the set did offer was a chance to take in some sun in mildly relaxing resonance.
The first true schedule conflict was on the horizon and it was one that I had been dreading so rather than get stuck in a quandary of which stage to head towards next, finding the first taste of Austin’s world famous barbeque was in order and it came in the form of a chopped beef sandwich and one of the sloppiest orders of nachos imaginable from the renowned restaurant, Salt Lick. Having not shaved for a few pre-fest days, the taste would linger well through Phish’s "First Tube" encore later that evening. To say it was delectable would be an understatement and it came, gigantic sweet tea and all, for the grand price of ten whole bucks. Having not seen Sonic Youth since a year or so into the millennium and having been a fan since the age of 11, what was in store was about to be a treat. So, after a brief foray into the mind of a young and beautiful Kim Gordon and after placing what was left of the meal, which was the plate, in its proper receptacle, it was off to the Honda Stage.
Opening with "Sacred Trickster," the out of the gate tune from Sonic Youth’s 2009 release, The Eternal, Kim Gordon lived up to every pubescent escape that had happened only moments earlier with the barbeque extravaganza. It served as a brief but raw reintroduction to this originator of grunge and that classic Sonic sound. It was like a retrospective trip down memory lane when guitarists knew how to treat their guitar like the bitch that it is. Thurston Moore literally commenced to fucking his guitar later in the set during "Anti-Orgasm" as he thrust himself into it- taking full ownership of it in a mildly masochistic manner. It was splendid and it was also time for The Strokes.
To say that The Strokes are back would be hugely understated. With front man Julian Casablancas now not inebriated as he was during the fashionista days following the rise to international celebrity following 2001’s Is This It and two highly successful releases that landed Casablancas in a much needed rehab stint that preceded his solo release, the boys from NYC dominated ACL. Opening with the classic preamble number, the title track from the aforementioned studio release, the set on its whole was legendary. Holding nothing back, there was not anything about the set that even mildly proclaimed that there was even an idea of wanting to tease the throng of admirers in Zilker Park that night.
Once again, at crossroads, the decision was made (albeit a very difficult one) to head over to Phish. This was perhaps the mistake of the weekend as Phish, although deserving of a slight pass due to being at a festival, played a sub-standard set that left much to be desired. Granted, it was Phish and they did what they do, but there was absolutely nothing special or worth sending a letter home or even a text message to your boy at home about.
Making it just in time for Trey Anastasio’s homage to the evil Ninja Turtle nemesis Shredder, "the torture of chalk dust collected on my tongue." Yes, it was "Chalk Dust Torture." Regardless of whether it was due to the previous sets attended or to the fact that many who were gathered seemed less than impressed with Phish’s offerings, it really was not pleasing to the palate. "No worries, I just need some space and some room to air it out and find a zone," I thought to myself. In short order, Phish would lend an assist with a cover of Velvet Underground’s "Rock & Roll" that sputtered into "2001." Just as things were really starting to get interesting, like a carcass that one wakes up to in the fish bowl in the morning as a child, Phish did what has become a little bit too common place as of late and completely dropped the proverbial buzz-kill with a tune that is chockfull of lyrical reminiscence but has little consequence as a noteworthy jam vehicle and certainly is no suitable successor to "2001" in "Backwards Down the Number Line." As an attempt at resuscitation "Harry Hood" would take a midway segue into the most promising recently crafted jamscape "Light." While the combination did deliver, the set had somehow left the realm of being recoverable. As a set closer, "You Enjoy Myself" came complete with a vocal jam that manifested into more of a scream than anything harmonious, but the lights, courtesy of Chris Kuroda, were nice. "First Tube" was the final encore and was played to approximately three-fourths of those that were in the field when the Burlington boys took the stage. Apparently the set lost a few more people than yours truly. Only later would I be informed that The Strokes had played "New York City Cop," causing the incessant ass kicking to truly kick into overdrive.
Like a backpacker on musical steroids, I barreled into Saturday’s festivities trying to catch what little portion of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals’ set was left. There was no good excuse and I had already missed "Apologies" so I found a spot in the distance to sulk in my shame and listen in on "Paris (Ooh La La)" and the set closer, "Medicine." Making my way to the next stop of the day, I made passage through the rainforest in Texas. Though it was of course a temporary and completely manufactured one, the misting that I received and the brief nap that ensued was just the medicine that I needed to make it to the next stop for supergroup Monsters of Folk.
Made up of Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, and M. Ward, watching these lads mastery of multi-instrumentation provides enough bang for the buck in and of itself. The only member who is not completely interchangeable is drummer and Austin native, Will Johnson who is only a part of the touring ensemble.
MOF made their way through virtually their entire self-titled, and as of yet, only studio release with highlights coming in the forms of "Say Please" and "Dear God (Sincerely MOF)," and My Morning Jacket original, "Golden" that came across with a remarkably different sense than when played with MMJ. Within this set, the lack of harmonization from the previous night’s Phish debacle was made up for with ease as James’ and Oberst’s vocals were virtually indiscernible when one closed his eyes. The crowd lapped it up like a deserted dog that hadn’t had a sip of water all day in the beaming Texas sun as they sang in unison to nearly every chorus refrain.
Following a brief but very fascinating stop at the Beats Antique set, making the decision to walk through the festival grounds was clutch. Austin is a city that is crowded with multi-culturists and many of the local artisans had set up shop within the confines of the festival grounds. They spoke of their city and their festival with the same warmth, pride, and heart as they did of their respective wares. It gave even further insight into what was so enjoyable about this beautiful festival experience. This was not about selling "cheaply made in some foreign land" souvenir tokens to turn a quick dime. It was about embracing something that was far more deep and authentic.
Oddly enough, the most intentionally and blatantly contrived act would be next with Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam, better known M.I.A. This avante-garde British native who climbed to worldwide notoriety with "Paper Planes" via the film Slumdog Millionaire did not pull a punch for her entire hour. Fueled with politically repressive undertones, M.I.A. worked her mob into a fury, making them all denizens of her mad realm. She spent nearly as much time in the crowd as she did on the stage with the freak show ensemble that she has assembled, complete with back-up singers who were dressed in exotically colored burqaas and tudongs in a direct slap in the face to the inhibitions placed on Orthodox Muslim women. The chaos in the set was truly immeasurable, yet it was also bursting with autonomy and freedom and it was a grand send off into the streets of Austin.
As all good things do, so do great festivals come to an end. But before anyone could consider anything a wrap, there was still a few delectable musical treats that were ripe for devouring.
Portugal. The Man would be the first incursion of the day who managed to effectively prove that despite recent contradictory evidence, there are beautiful things (including people) other than landscapes that come from Alaska. It is conceivable that their experimental approach to music may in fact be a byproduct of the desolation of the scenery that bored them through their formative years. It was like taking a garage filled with crude musical devices and placing it all in the center of a stage that was fit for Coldplay. Incongruously, it worked and the quartet managed to pull off their sound, which centers in layering upon vastly ranging lyrics and unique instrumentation, in spite of the grand scale upon which it was being witnessed.
Small stops would be made for Martin Sexton’s and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Ave.’s sets. Sexton’s brand of chunky soul stew songwriting and musicianship, although close to my heart, lost some of its soul-clench in the field and Shorty’s "let’s make every stop into a trip down Bourbon" just wasn’t working in the manner in which it does on smaller scales with a more devoted flock. So people watching became the game of the day.
Witnessing the cosmic differences in music fans was a sight to behold. The mélange of hipsters, beautiful ladies, guys with mascara, and your average Texas college student all comingling with soccer moms with husband and double stroller in tow was quite mesmerizing. It spoke to how diversity can yield commonality and community. As forty and fifty-somethings braced themselves for Henley, Frey and their Eagles expedition that would close out the festival, tweens and twenty-somethings were prepping for Band of Horses and they were all doing so over barbeque tacos, microbrews, and other sources of physiological energy. It was in this moment that I saw sustenance as something much less superficial. Then I belched and headed to The Flaming Lips.
The Flaming Lips beg the question "how many times can a band deliver the same visual fest-errific extravaganza that is depicted in every fifth issue of Rolling Stone and still have people show up? There is no precise answer but for some reason the confetti , costumes, psychedelic projections of a journey into a woman’s vagina, and space ball walks still manage to impress even the most cynical critics. Even with Wayne Coyne referring to the crowd as motherfuckers in excess of a dozen times, there is still something so affable about the guy. Somehow being referred to in this manner is endearing when coming from Coyne. One thing is certain and that is this company’s enduring love for their fans and their constant, and usually successful, attempts to break down the barriers between stage performers and concert attendee. The engaging of the crowd in songs that turn anyone into a child in front of Sesame Street in songs like "I Can Be a Frog" wherein the crowd acts out various animals ranging from bears to yes, a frog, puts everyone in the square center of the schtick. Hence, it cannot be discounted. Closing the set with "Do You Realize?" was the most perfect night and weekend cap. Watching young people in love embrace each other in genuine affection and adoration served as a culminating event that was far greater than a Flaming Lips song and it was exactly what Coyne and crew had been building towards for their stint on stage. Perhaps I just answered my own question. It is a bait and switch. Hold their attention long enough and they will eventually pick up on and pucker up to the meaningful community building vibe that is being cast upon them.
Although chided on the way home by my elders, The Eagles had nothing to offer that would even come close to what had gone down at the Lips gig. So the drive shaft was set in "D" and the 900 mile journey back to where it began commenced.
On its whole, Austin City Limits Music Festival delivered on every possible musical level that can be conceived. It was everything that it was cracked up to be. In fact it was more. "If you build it, they will come" echoed through my mind as I-35 sent me into a trance because this is exactly what ACL has done. They have built something of epic and sound proportions while taking no shortcuts with music almost solely as the focal point. They built it, the fans sustained it, and it was a beautiful weekend that will live in the corner of my mind for the foreseeable future.
Dave Mead (Crowd, Blues Traveler, Sonic Youth, The Strokes)
David Shehi (Monsters of Folk, M.I.A.,Phish, Kiss)
Nick Simonite (The Flaming Lips, Beats Antique)