Ok, so I've been decompressing from Austin City Limits now for approximately 48 hours and finally have time to share the experience that brought me down to the only Blue county in all of Bush country (it just made my stomach turn to write his name ... gimme a moment to regain composure).
ACL -- put on by the same fine crew that developed the new-and-improved Lollapalooza -- was a wholly different experience. Zilker Park in Austin is a little slice of heaven for any music gathering, assuming the grass has been watered. Apparently, the organizers worked with the city for a few months to water the grass in the park to ensure green would lie underfoot. In 2005, by the third day of ACL, the grounds turned into a mini version of the Sahara with most people walking around with bandanas wrapped around their faces to avoid inhaling copious amounts of dust and sand.
This year, however, the green grass flowing over the ground's rolling hills was a welcome blessing amidst the somewhat oppressive heat that this Yankee wasn't loving. But again, it wasn't really about the weather, now was it. It was about the music. And what music, sweet sweet music, there was.
ACL -- FRIDAY SEPT. 15
My festival experience started with a friendly, funny and engaging interview with Tom Gray, one-fifth of Gomez -- and one-third of the band's voices. We chilled out at a table in the artist area, under a big tree while a welcome breeze cooled us. The interview's lightheartedness set the tone for my weekend. After out chat, Tom and I grabbed a beer and he introduced me to the rest of the band. That night, Gomez played a show at La Zona Rosa -- and gave it their all. They played a set mixed with old and new songs -- some that earned them the Mercury Music Prize in 1998.
But as soon as Gomez finished their set and headed backstage at La Zona Rosa, another buzz started erupting through the crowd: Jake Gyllenhaal, Lance Armstrong and Matthew McConaughey were in the house. Sure enough, as I turned around, the three-headed monster that can't seem to get enough of each other these days, was right behind me. It seemed like all weekend they kept popping up -- to the point that it wasn't exciting anymore. They were just regular guys getting down to some great music like everyone else at the festival. Although, one moment with McConaughey definitely brought a big smile to my fact -- but more on that later.
The rest of Day 1 at ACL included a blistering set by Wolf Parade -- sans guitarist Dante DeCaro who called in sick that day. After their set, I chatted with singer Dan Boeckner, who I interviewed last year for an article on the Montreal music scene. Boeckner was pretty cool, but was bummed they had to move on and couldn't stay for the rest of the weekend.
Other highlights of the day: watching Cat Power slink out onto the stage in her sexy little outfit after her backing band, The Memphis Rhythm Band, warmed up the crowd with an instrumental song that sounded a lot like the Dead's "Sugaree." Cat Power deserves all the hype she gets. Her voice is strong and embracing -- but her striking stage presence is what really captures you. Backed by strings, horns, some percussion and keyboards, she was bluesy and soulful, cute and sexy, playful and demure.
Next up was Thievery Corporation, who I watched from the photo pit. They were equally as engaging as they were at Lollapalooza, but I think a little of the thrill was gone since my Thievery cherry had been popped. Don't get me wrong, they still made me shake my booty, but nothing's as good as your first time. Fortunately my friend had her cherry popped that day so all was not lost.
Ray Lamontagne, ah, such a sweet, tortured soul. Walking up and seeing his face on the big screen, my friend exclaimed: "He's white?!" Hearing him only on his CDs, she thought he was a soulful, scruffy-voiced black man. She was mostly right, except he's a white recluse from Maine. But that's part of his appeal and his success. Listening to him enrapture the crowd with his melancholy crooning and heart fully exposed on his sleeve, I started thinking about what he must have been like as a kid and teenager. He was probably so quiet and kept to himself, had no one to talk to about all his troubles. And now he's got the platform so it all comes pouring out.
Not unlike John Mayer, who is at a stage in his life where he's really growing. His new album, Continuum, is a truly solid collection of music. Sure, he's been slammed for creating albums full of sappy, romantic radio-ready hits. But since he veered off into a blues realm with his last project, the John Mayer Trio, he's tapped into something that will keep him on the radar for a long time to come. It's artists like John who not only know how to reel in the fans, but also can hold onto them because he doesn't get stale. And the little bit of his set that I caught proved that he can transfer his studio prowess onto the stage.
ACL -- SATURDAY SEPT 16
Something has to be said for being lazy and wanting to chill by a pool to avoid the heat in the middle of a three-day music fest. Why? Because going for a noon-time brunch at Las Manitas Avenue Cafe on S.Congress brought me face-to-face with Jack White and the Raconteurs. While we awaited our food, the band strolled into the popular yet grungy packed Mexican breakfast joint and sat at the table across from us. Jack, with his near-translucent skin and dishevled hair, faced me, giving me an open shot for a picture. Unfortunately every shot I tried to capture with my SLVR was either blurry or blocked. But, I did stop by the table on my way out to briefly chat with the guys. Surprisingly, Jack was really friendly -- he even smiled. It must've been the great food.
I got down to Zilker Park in time to catch a little NoLa noodling of Galactic and some prog rock offered up by Secret Machines. But I was all set to get me a little TVOTR. After their mind-blowing set at Prospect Park in Brooklyn in June, I couldn't wait to get a little more. Heading up to the small Austin Ventures stage smack in the middle of the festival grounds, I hopped up onto the side of the stage and secured a clear view of the band (again, Lance was there -- I'm telling you, the guy got around). Tunde was in typical hyper-warp mode while Kyp Malone couldn't have been cooler. As the crowd seemed to get bigger and bigger, TVOTR pushed out a 45-minute smoldering set that included "The Wrong Way," "Dreams," "Let the Devil In" and "Wolf Like Me," where they were joined by Martin Perna, the founder of Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and another horn player from Austin simply named Topaz. Martin told me after the set that he's playing the Hollywood Bowl with the band, too.
After TVOTR, I was supposed to meet my friends in the crowd for Raconteurs -- their seven-year-old son is a huge fan and I was psyched to watch him rock out. I knew they were about 100 yards from the front of the stage and I thought I could go in from the backstage area, but the band had closed it off. There was no way I was going to be able to push my way through the packed crowd, so I headed over to String Cheese Incident. I've never gotten into SCI but have a number of friends who worship them. I thought I'd check it out -- and after about two songs was ready to go.
The timing was perfect because I had about 20 minutes before Brazilian Girls and had to walk right by the food area, where I feasted on a fat BBQ pulled pork sandwich from the legendary Salt Lick BBQ. I first visited the Salt Lick, up in the hills about 30 minutes outside of Austin, about eight years ago. Bringing the BBQ out to the festival, you lost nothing by not enjoying it in the open air of the Salt Lick ranch. It was a superb snack -- one of the best pulled pork sandwiches I think I've ever had.
Sated, I headed into the only tented-stage at the fest for a captivating set by Brazilian Girls. Singer Sabina came out a few moments after the guys started revving the crowd. As she sauntered on stage, her hair hanging shaggily in her face, you quickly noticed that something was a little off -- she was wearing a white, cotton, sock-like mask over her entire face that gave off the impression that she was faceless. This bit of performance art only added to her mystique as she sang in English, Spanish, French and more. I'll go so far as to say she made the most dramatic statement all weekend without having to say a word.
Catching a few somewhat disappointing moments of Kings of Leon, we made our way over to Massive Attack, where the legendary Bristol outfit was backed by a huge screen that looked like an oversized equalizer. One of the members' wives had a baby the night before so he wasn't with them, but they still pulled off a pretty damn impressive set to close out one stage on the second night (while Willie Nelson got high and closed down the other main stage). I definitely enjoyed their set but hope to see them next week in Chicago in a more intimate setting to really get the full effect.
Later that night, after showering the grime of the day off, we hit Emo's to catch a late-night Sparklehorse set. We just missed Nada Surf, but enjoyed hanging out in a mostly open-air bar in the middle of September. When the band came on, they had some technical difficulties and I later learned that the sound board basically fizzled out about 20 minutes before the set. But the band pulled off their lo-fi, romantic indie balladry with style and finesse. There's nothing like a little pedal steel on a warm Texas night. And it was great to see a hipster crowd, to steal a phrase from Project Runway's Vincent, really get off. I'm used to seeing indie kids kick back and just nod their heads. That night, they actually got into it and whooped it up a bit. Literally.
ACL -- Sunday, Sept. 17
The day kicked off with a massive rain storm that blew through quickly but left a legacy of humidity and all-day mugginess, which didn't prove well if you were a band that gets pretty live, like Sam Roberts did. This set, which I sadly only caught the last two songs, was the biggest surprise of the weekend. With its mysterious Pink Floyd-like guitar fingering and retro '70s arena rock vibe, this Montreal band, lead by the ridiculously talented Sam Roberts, was soaking wet when they came off the stage. Talking to one of the guys, I told him it how amazing the set was -- and he said he just wished it wasn't so damn hot. He wasn't the only one.
Watching KT Tunstall perform, Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne was ready for the storm to come back through. Donning calf-high pink rain boots, Coyne stayed for a few songs then departed. Maybe he had to get his huge rubber ball ready for his over-the-top set a little later in the afternoon? But KT, dressed in appropriate Texas garb -- denim short-shorts and knee-high black boots -- engaged the crowd with her unique style of recording her vocals and then using them to back herself up. It's actually one of the coolest things I've seen a performer do with technology while being a purist with an acoustic guitar.
Halfway through her set, we headed over to Damian Marley, where we walked up to him performing "Exodus," my favorite Bob Marley tune. We got up on stage just in time to see TVOTR's Kyp grooving out while Matisyahu was heading out to get ready for his set an hour later. At one point, Damian invited his brothers, Stephen and Julian, out to join him for "Could You Be Loved?" Later, we'd get another Marley surprise. But again, that's later.
Another big surprise came with Scandinavian singer/songwriter Jose Gonzalez, who actually was able to create intimacy on a huge stage with a large, hushed crowd. He came out to just a chair, alone with only his acoustic guitar and played an abbreviated set. His last song, which I don't know the name of and made me realize he could easily score a Wes Anderson film, was chilling and haunting -- and when he was done, he was done. Got up, walked off. But he was smiling, which doesn't really mesh with his music. He, like Ray Lamontagne, sounds like he should have a permanent scowl, but later when I saw him during dinner, he again smiled when I told him how much I enjoyed his set and thanked him for the music.
Since I've seen Matisyahu twice this year, I opted to check out the quirkiness of Matt Costa before hitting what would become one of my favorite sets of the weekend -- Los Amigos Invisibles.
Los Amigos played inside the tented stage -- and when I arrived, it was a hot box. Everyone was sweating their asses off but no one cared. The vibe inside the tent was the most exhuberant all weekend. People waved Venezeulan flags, clapped, jumped and bounced to the dance-infused Latin music. I know their music but had never experienced Los Amigos live -- a mistake I won't make next time they're in Chicago. The intense positivity that flowed throughout the crowd that was accompanied by some of the loudest cheers I heard all weekend, made it impossible not to dance -- and keep dancing, with a huge smile.
Next up was the best set of music all weekend. Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals drew one of the biggest crowds to close out one of main stages -- and they didn't disappoint. First song: Ben dedicated "Voodoo Child" to Stevie Ray Vaughan. After that, it was surprise after pleasent surprise: "Burn One Down" had a slammin' conga solo by percussionist Leon Mobley; Ben dedicated "Better Way" to former Texas Governor Ann Richards who died last week from cancer; G.Love, wearing a cool Paul Smith-looking fedora and a plaid cowboy shirt, came out to play harp and rap on "Steal My Kisses;" then came the familiar harmonica sound of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold;" after which McConaughey, who was wearing a wedding band, showed up and hung out in front of the stage in the cleared pathway and got into the music and grooved like there was no tomorrow -- watching this brought a huge smile to my face. Don't know why, but it was definitely entertaining.
And then, if all that wasn't enough, to close the set -- and my last show of the weekend -- Ben called up some special guests: Stephen, Damian and Julian Marley (with their entire band and posse) for a seering rendition of "Get Up, Stand Up."
A little bit later, as Tom Petty played off in the distance and I toasted to my friend Shelby's "25th" birthday, a huge black cloud rolled in and opened up right over Zilker Park, finally cooling off the crowd after three long, music-filled days in Austin, Texas.
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