Austin City Limits round-up from a New Orleans music fanatic
Austin City Limits, the three-day music festival held in that eponymous city last weekend, served as the ultimate break from the status quo, an ephemeral voyage to a utopia far removed from daily life, embedded in the heart of one America's most interesting cities. Also, the extended weekend was a long overdue first trip to Austin for me personally, and I immediately became enamored with the place (a city with great live music and great Mexican food - is this real life?).
The familiar ambitions of seeing as many bands as humanly possible and packing a month's worth of debauchery into a less-than-100-hour window were once again prevalent, and a good mix of festival favorites like Arcade Fire, Manu Chao, Santigold and My Morning Jacket paired well with a number of acts that have recently hit my radar, like Charles Bradley, Reptar and Phosphorescent.
Free form noodling, shuffling and the new-to-me, slow-mo/glitchified moves of dubstep all ensued, copious amounts of Torchy's tacos were consumed and one of the best all-around festival experiences of my life resulted.
Sure, this isn't tucked away in the middle of nowhere with perfect weather, in some sort of magical electric forest like Rothbury or with the scenery of something like The Gorge, but the sheer fact that this event takes place in the heart of the live music capital of the world in a clean, grassy and relatively small park (enabling an ease of movement from set-to-set unseen at C3 counterpart Lollapalooza) makes this the idyllic urban festival setting. It also helped that the absurd heat wave and accompanying drought both broke on the festival's opening day, leading to a nice break from the reportedly record summer heat the locals have had to deal with this year. Finally, Zilker's immediate proximity to the revitalizing waters of Barton Springs proved to be a godsend at the end of the weekend. That place has healing powers.
Here's a look at ACL2011 highlights, for those who were there, or those thinking about a musical pilgrimage to Austin.
Almost non-existent bathroom lines in most locations, the allowance of re-entry, two entrances, Camelbak fillin' stations (that should be required at all festivals), an amazing and shady press area (they seriously took care of us, muchos gracias C3), and roving volunteer cleaning crews during the festival kept Zilker tidy.
The lineup itself was amazing, but I'd reserve a 9 or 10 rating for events like Lollapalooza '08 or Bonnaroo '09 when the stars aligned and all the big-timers just happened to be touring, available and willing to play the fest. If I had to rate this one, it'd land about a 7/8 on the music scale -- great, but not legendary. If there were two issues here, I would say (1) for the most part, the sets are too short for a lot of these bands.
Cut out 15/20 acts and/or add some smaller Cafe stages and let some of the large/midscale acts play for an extra 15-30 minutes. I for one could've watched MMJ do another 30 minutes to an hour on Saturday, and I wish Bomba Estereo was still going on (no matter how many days/weeks/months/years after I wrote this that you read this).
Needless to say, being able to see Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Charles Bradley, Manu Chao, Reptar, FUTUREBIRDS, Delta Spirit, DFA1979, Phosphorescent, Big Boi, Wanda Jackson, Allison Krauss & Union Station, Santigold, Theophilus London, Kanye West, The Lee Boys, Fleet Foxes, Randy Newman, Preservation Hall Jazz Band (w/ MMJ and w/ Del McCoury Band), TV on The Radio, Gary Clark Jr., J. Roddy Walston & The Business, Fool's Gold, Empire of the Sun, Cee-Lo, The Head and the Heart, and yes, SKRILLEX, all within a 60-hour period,was pretty spectacular and I am grateful to be alive and young during this era of the American mondo fest free-for-alls.
My lasting impression of ACL is how great the crowd/general vibe was throughout the weekend. The folks were well-behaved (again a relative factor) but animated and very into the music. I encountered no rudeness, very few annoying, spunions or general dark festival weirdness that can happen at these scorching massive events (like fainting, people on stretchers, etc.) at all during the weekend. Just a beautiful, diverse and blissed-out gathering of humanity dedicated to musical revelry.
If you have seen Charles Bradley before, Charles Bradley loves you. He may even love you more than your own parents, and this is true even if your parents love you unconditionally ... the oldest rookie in the music scene really, really loves his fans.
While flapping his wings, singing with a golden voice and fronting the amazingly tight Menahan Street Band, Charles Bradley did what he did when I watched him a couple months ago at the Hollywood Bowl: He made every single person in attendance become endeared with him and recognize just how special and rare a generational talent like Bradley is.
Opening with a song as powerful and lyrically heartwrenching as "Heartaches and Pain" sent the clear message: If you're willing to pay attention and give him your love and support, this man will pour every ounce of his soul into the performance and leave you with chills. This guy feels it and if you didn't feel something too, you may want to go get checked out.
It is great to have Santigold back and, as she announced midway through her set on Friday, a record of new material will be out soon. In her first U.S. appearance in sometime, Ms. White was flanked by the same two robotic dancers she had back on her first major festival run in 2009, only this time they were gilded out and had a few more steps in their dance quiver, catching and dragging Santigold around the stage at one point and missing zero steps in the well-choreographed and downright fun performance that included a cameo by a pony and a few new tunes.
One of the best performers out there today, great to see her back in a big way, playing to a huge crowd in the sunset on Friday.
Yeezy came out guns blazin' in Act I, ascending over the crowd perched on a crane lift as dancers of a Greek tragedy-esque play flailed wildly on the main stage. A visceral power sustained itself throughout the very impressive Act I, making this one of the more entertaining segments of any show of the weekend. After watching the 808's and Heartbreaks-heavy Act II, expectedly drenched in Auto-Tune overkill, we decided to make an early exit to catch the convenient (and free) shuttle buses back to 4th & Congress. Any remaining bitterness at Kanye from the Bonnaroo '08 debacle has now officially lifted. The man brings it.
Go See Them Immediately. This Ziggy Stardust-meets-Animal Collective-meets-Modest Mouse psych-pop outfit emerged on the festival scene this year from the music factory town of Athens, GA and despite only having a 40-minute set, delivered the goods in a very animated, theatric and ultra-psychedelic way that had the soggy crowd completely engaged throughout.
The entertainment/weird factors were also helped by the fact that the keyboard player wore a unitard and the lead singer oscillated seamlessly from his standard hi-strung vocals to a straight creepy and intense Dracula growl. I'm expecting big things from this band musically and, if given some financial backing as a result of a label backing or success on the road, it's pretty clear that an Of Montreal level of weirdness in their stage production will likely be a part of their future.
My Morning Jacket
The shortest MMJ set I've seen (perhaps ever) proved to be as expected - polished, hits-heavy, scantily attended for a headliner (in light of going against Stevie Wonder) and, one of the best sets of the weekend -- there are quite simply few, if any acts who can do it like MMJ these days and there's reason why almost every festival promoter in North America invited them to play this summer.
Although there was no staple epic blowout like "Dondante" or "Steam Engine" on the set list, the opening "Victory Dance," the Floydish psych riffs of "Off The Record" and a guest appearance by New Orleans' own Preservation Hall Jazz Band for "Holdin' On To Black Metal" and the always monstrous "One Big Holiday" highlighted the set, capping a big year on the festival circuit for the band that saw them headline the Hangout, Bonnaroo, Wakarusa, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits.
Alison Krauss and Union Station
Seeing Alison Krauss & Union Station playin' in the rain midday was a spiritual moment at ACL and all involved basked in the Grammy-decorated artist's unmistakable voice. It seems like no matter where people were during this exact fulcrum moment smack dab in the middle of the festival's second day, people were having out-of-body experiences -- reports from Iron & Wine across the park mimicked a similar sentiment as a nice drizzle persisted for about an hour, cooling off the crowd and lifting spirits.
Other Notes: Phosphorescent delivered an excellent welcome set on the Austin Ventures set, capped off by the serious ivory ticklin' (see below) on the slow-burning "Los Angeles" closer. Wanda Jackson added a touch of class on Saturday afternoon, doing "I Saw The Light" and sharing remembrances from her early career when rock-and-roll was still a primitive art form. The Queen of Rockabilly, even at 73, is still very much deserving of her crown. Skrillex's midday crowd literally lapped up every second of the artist's set. Fad or no fad, this dubstep thing is HUGE right now...and guess who's gonna be on the cover of the next SPIN magazine?[
Sunday was an amazing day, and one of the most genuine bands also happened to be the biggest of the weekend, a rarity when it comes to big-time bands. Arcade Fire closed down the Bud Light stage, filling up the festival's coveted, sole unopposed slot and proving once again why they are the festival band of 2011.
Seemingly every song in their set was a larger-than-life anthem, delivered with an amazing amount of enthusiasm, and there were zero signs of wear-and-tear or a been-here-done-that attitude that one might expect at this point in the band's relentless world tour in 2010-2011. Frontman Win Butler, after mentioning that he considers Austin to be the band’s American hometown, announced that the band is about to go on hiatus, marking ACL’s set as the final U.S. date for some time after a huge year that saw the Canadian band headline Jazz Fest, Coachella, Bonnaroo and take home a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Here's hoping they aren't gone long; after all, this collective may just be the rock band of our generation.
Not much to say here except for what I overheard one dude saying on his way out: "That was the best set I've ever seen."
While maybe that's an ever-so-slight stretch, this was the dance party of the weekend in the tent and I would pay good money to see that going on again. This set was bumpin' and a late night with Bomba should be in order for next year's after shows.
The Lee Boys
Unfortunately, bands with any sort of connection to the jam scene were in very short supply this weekend, which was why it was great to cut loose on Sunday afternoon at The Lee Boys' gospel steel jam in the Vista Equity tent, an uplifting set in the same tradition of Robert Randolph and the Family Band that lifted spirits and got weary feet moving yet again.
The Lee Boys got funky and spiritual at the same time, indicating that when four to five strings on a bass ain't enough to bring the funk, you can always go with seven.
Notes: Watching The Head and the Heart deliver lustrous harmonies and swoony folk-pop from stage left in the drizzle was the perfect way to ease into what would prove to be an aggressive final day at the fest. Manu Chao La Ventura proved why he is one of the best performers on the planet, sending the crowd into a jubilant celebration mode more reminiscent of a Glastonbury or Roskilde, with flags flying and the whole crowd levitating. This was a very different and more punkish style than I had seen previously when Manu toured with Radio Bemba Sound System a few years ago, but a nice change of pace and a much rawer sound that worked just fine. Also, my first impression of Death From Above 1979 was very, very good. I honestly went into the show knowing little about this duo, save the fact that a lot of people seem to be enthralled by their return and thoroughly enjoyed it. Finally, the spot on the hill between the AMD and Honda Stage might just be the primo spot in Zilker to take a load off, relax and take in a set in the late afternoon.
See you back in Austin this March for South-by-Southwest. Booking. Flight....NOW.
Wesley Hodges writes about music for NolaVie, and is editor of Live Music Blog: NOLA. Check it out -- often -- at www.nola.livemusicblog.com.