Words by: Eamon Foley :: Images by: Tony Stack
Austin City Limits Festival :: 09.14.07 – 09.16.07 :: Zilker Park :: Austin, TX
Once again, Austin played host as the masses descended on the city for another music festival. Remarkably well run, offering a mix of local acts and major draws, and a head-scratchingly eclectic mix of genres, the Austin City Limits Music Festival has something for fans of blues, jazz, electronica, hip-hop and all styles in-between. Located in Zilker Park, just outside the city, the event seems small enough to feel like a village fete rather than a massive operation welcoming a 65,000-plus. The stages are, for the most part, well placed – making for short walks (that seem longer in the heat) and the location is convenient enough for the pizza boys to still deliver.
09.14.07 :: Day 1
The easy Beth Orton-meets-Counting Crows vibe of home town girl Sahara Smith kicked off the festivities on morning one. Sahara's short set was a gentle introduction and she closed with "Congress Avenue," a love song to Austin. It's hard not to fall in love with a town whose residents wear their passion for music on their sleeve, and I found myself looking forward to the next three days of music.
| ACL 2007|
The afternoon gifted me with much of the highlights of Day One. The Del McCoury Band played a fantastically tight bluegrass set that was beautiful in its simplicity. No pretentiousness here, just outstanding talents and an obvious love for playing music. Wearing suits and ties and seemingly oblivious to the midday heat, the quintet, arranged in tight formation around the mic, took turns stepping forward into the spotlight, each solo earning big applause from a full crowd. No one present was giving into the sun, even as they covered Hank Williams' "You Win Again" and all present enjoyed the spectacle of five great musicians dueling with manic hands and happy hearts.
McCoury and co. got to where they are through years of toil. Earlier, Homer Hiccolm & the Rocketboys played one of the bigger stages thanks to winning an online battle of the bands. Good luck to them making the best of a great opportunity, but they might want to develop a sound (currently caught somewhere between John Mayer and Sparta) and a live performance that's more inspiring than this lackluster showing. Was this a gimmick or innovative marketing in a new media era? I'll let you decide, but followed by McCoury and Bela Fleck the gulf in class was clearer than that blue sky overhead.
Directly after McCoury, I resisted the urge to follow the plume of heavy black smoke coming from a fire at the end of the park and instead swam against the sweaty tide of rubberneckers to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. And boy was I rewarded for my efforts. Fresh off yet another Grammy win, Fleck and his crew were in top form. Seeing him live for the first time, I stood there mesmerized as people around me turned to stare at the fire. They had their own little thrill but those packed in up front amongst the beach balls bouncing left and right enjoyed the delights on stage. Fleck is the indisputable star, perched on the edge of his stool, nonchalantly dancing his fingers all over his banjo. But, Jeff Coffin, on all manner of wind instruments, was also a treat - playing the flute like he was lead guitarist through an intricate medley of solos. During "Kaleidoscope," Futureman (on his unique Drumitar) and Victor Wooten's funk danced around Fleck's country banjo creating a carnival vibe. They finished with a spacey jam, Fleck plucking strings as fast as the rapid-fire lights flashing overhead.
| Fire at ACL 2007|
Reverend Horton Heat powered through an encyclopedia of rock & roll history, entertaining us with "Rock This Joint," Johnny Cash's "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle" and Roger Miller's "King of the Road" with barely a second to catch a breath.
The Gotan Project brought a touch of French sophistication to the proceedings. Their electronica-tango fusion was a treat. Dressed immaculately, they combined two DJs, a grand piano, a string section and an accordion. The operatic quality of Cristina Vilallonga's vocals and an orchestral band were laid over thumping house beats in a performance that was visually and aurally wonderful.
| Gotan Project :: ACL 2007|
A band I had intended on only checking out briefly, JJ Grey & MOFRO, was another festival highlight. They opened with the melodic "Brighter Days," which had me hooked and I lingered over Grey's gritty, yet melodic tunes sung with a voice reminiscent of John Cale.
As much as I was enjoying MOFRO, LCD Soundsystem was hard to resist. Grey even acknowledged it, as the greater speaker power emanating from the larger stage overpowered his efforts. LCD's James Murphy was in fine form, his carefree, self-depreciating manner evident, helping retain the fun and danceability of "Sound of Silver".
| Bjork :: ACL 2007|
Another pair of current chart favorites, Peter Bjorn and John and The Killers, offered contrasting reactions. PB&J overcame my cynicism and showed they were more than one hit wonders. Along with a note perfect rendition of that whistled refrain, they belted out a few cheery hits and a cover of The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" perfect for a summer stage. On the other hand, The Killers offered no incentive to stay beyond solid yet unspectacular renditions of "Bones" and "This River Is Wild." Despite Brandon Flowers' showmanship there wasn't much to prevent me from escaping with the goal of finding a stage where I didn't feel old amongst the kids.
I found it at Bjork's closing of the main stage. She offered a lively visual treat, the highlight of which was her horn section, a ten-strong group of women decked out in more colors than the entire crowd combined. A drummer was the only other musician present, her sound coming from three DJs, whose technical wizardry was beamed live on giant screens.
09.15.07 :: Day 2
Late Saturday morning brought the promise of dark clouds and cooling rain. However, that didn't stop the bikini clad and shirtless folks from parading around like they were in an Abercrombie & Fitch store.
Stop number one was the U.K.'s Back Door Slam, who belted out their bluesy rock with a self-assurance that belied their youth. Frontman Davy Knowles had lightning hands and the voice of Hendrix. They played a powerful mix of their own stuff and covers, closing with Hendrix's "Red House", Knowles shredding it up and making the song his own.
| Davy Knowles - Back Door Slam|
Another discovery for me was St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), a graduate from The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' touring bands. Like another Sufjan alumnus, My Brightest Diamond, she twinned her soft vocals with a guitar that belonged to something more frenetic. The girl can play and despite being alone she lacked nothing thanks to some solid foot stomping and digital backing beats.
Stephen Marley provided some exotic seasoning to Saturday afternoon. Marley's breezy reggae was a perfect antidote to the heat while I rested in the shade's cool embrace. Watching his backing singers jive while Marley strutted up front, one could fool themselves they weren't at the brink of summer's end and facing the long winter.
Ziggy Marley was also on the bill, and along with his main set, played the Austin Kiddie Limits stage, which featured a variety of fun bands to entertain the little ones. Parents must have delighted in the distractions and the kids seemed to love activities such as the hip-hop workshops and the instrument 'Petting Zoo.'
Shortly before Beau Soleil took the stage, the biggest cheer of the day came as the University of Texas scored a late touchdown. There's few things that can rival Austin's love of music but one of them is their crazed following of college football. Another well-established band, with a double dose of fiddle, Beau Soleil yee-hawed their way through a manic Cajun set that had people dancing jigs and leaving the chairs in the tent neglected.
| Arctic Monkeys :: ACL 2007|
In contrast to Beau Soleil's energy, the Arctic Monkeys played with a minimum of fuss. For all their confidence, their lack of movement was disappointing, especially given the energy of their recordings. I'll skip their workmanlike performances in the future and stick to listening to their albums in the cocoon of my white earphones.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was another disappointment. Having seen them live before, I went in with low expectations and they didn't fail to meet them. I love their albums but they do nothing for me live. Their sound was good, especially during a souped-up "Satan Said Dance," but Alec Ounsworth's muddled warble seemed lazy and he spent far too much time with his back to the crowd. Only Robbie Guertin on keys and guitar showed any energy, the other's offering a totally unfulfilling "too cool for school" act.
Deciding between Arcade Fire and Muse was a tough call but Montreal's nine/ten/eleven strong (who knows, it was harder than counting a school of fish) instrumental orgy won out over Muse's space rock. Arcade Fire came with all their bells and whistles – including the giant organ pipes, which must cost a fortune to ship – and left not an ounce of energy unspent during their set. It was rollicking from the start ("Black Mirror," "Keep the Car Running") and the band never let up. Win Butler dedicated "Intervention" to George W. Bush, and a furious "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" was another standout. Regine Chassagne was at the center of everything – on accordion, drums, keys and more. No one was ever inactive, the violinists dancing nonstop, while Richard Reed Parry was a hurricane of energy, bashing and poking all manner of instruments.
| Win Butler - Arcade Fire ACL 2007|
Arcade Fire was their usual audacious selves, but one of the best examples of participation and dancing must go to the American Sign Language interpreters. Present at the bigger stages for most of the main acts, they signed along to the words being sung. The interpreter for their set even translated as half of the crowd chanted "Arcade" and the other responded with "Fire." Another great touch in an amazingly accessible festival.
I left reluctantly but was keen to catch some of Muse's main stage theatrics. Replacing late withdrawal The White Stripes, their light show made me want to put my sunglasses back on, while Matt Bellamy made me want to play Guitar Hero. "Time Is Running Out" and "Knights of Cydonia" were standouts in a space themed set that was far from high and mighty. However, the musicianship was top drawer with Bellamy switching between keys and guitar - a virtuoso on both - while drummer Dom Howard was a solid foundation to the band's meaty jams. Muse was a spectacular finale to a long day of good music.
09.16.07 :: Day 3
After another short, easy bus ride from downtown to the festival grounds, the final day began with the lively r&b of Atlanta's Ryan Shaw. Looking comfortable playing the main stage, Shaw delivered a set with the energy of a crazed church preacher. A gospel cover of The Beatles' "Let it Be" went down well with the midday congregation, who clapped and danced to Shaw's soulful vocals. Less enjoyable were Shaw's habitual chuckles, which crept into his performance, and during one song appeared after every refrain of "I love you," of which there were many.
| STS9 :: ACL 2007|
If Shaw hadn't awakened his audience's Sunday morning slumber, then we could have stopped by Sound Tribe Sector 9 for the electronica equivalent of a sugar and caffeine rush from a pancakes and espresso breakfast. Although it was a bit early in the morning for hard drugs, their funk sound-scapes conjured visions of Herbie Hancock on ecstasy.
Sandwiched between two electric shows by Grace Potter and The Nocturnals and My Morning Jacket, Patterson Hood brought respite from the heat and an opportunity to ease off the gas for a while. I stretched out and dosed in the shade of the small BMI Stage as he strummed his acoustic guitar, letting the words float around me, focusing on his simple brand of acoustic music. While this setting is fairly removed from Drive-By Truckers, his powerful lyrics and strong sense of humor remained, combining for a highly enjoyable live experience.
One of the two highlights from the final day - and no, Bob Dylan was not one of them – included Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, who've seen their popularity soar this year, and after this performance I can understand why. Animal, The Muppet Show's drummer, took pride of place on Matt Burr's drum kit. It was to be pretty much the only inanimate object on stage as Potter and her boys jammed out in true Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem style, arms flailing in one of the most active sets of the weekend. Faced with so many bands to choose from I spent the majority of the weekend watching portions of shows but not with Potter. She sucked me in and I hung on for dear life while she and her crew rocked out in their hour-long set. Her punchy vocals and sassy style revealed a comfort on stage that comes from long miles spent on the road. Back arched dominating her keyboard or head bowed over her guitar, the stage belonged to Potter. Her band more than held their own though, as each rock & roll song morphed into extended jams full of spunk and energy. Lead guitar impresario Scott Tournet deserves special mention for his sharp work, too. I left energized and with a new album inserted at the top of my "To Buy" list.
| Grace Potter :: ACL 2007|
After Potter's energy, the other Sunday highlight, My Morning Jacket, had a lot to live up to but as expected they were terrific - great music played by great musicians and a whole lot of fun to boot. The thick, meaty drums of Patrick Hallahan formed the core of MMJ's performance, while their familiar hooks and Jim James' melodic vocals were the juicy apple. "Wordless Chorus" was a standout of their set – scrap that, the entire festival - while "Gideon" and "What a Wonderful Man" held similar thrills. They played in front of a Hawaiian themed backdrop, while hula dancers moved randomly around the stage. In contrast to the dancers' deliberate, stop-motion movements, James and co. were sped up and spontaneous. James wore a blonde, flowing wig while the rest sported random beach attire. The Flaming Lips had better watch out.
By nightfall three long days had taken their toll and I was glad to rest my weary legs on a valuable piece of real estate towards the front for Bob Dylan's festival-closing performance. With such a variety of acts it was no surprise the punters were so diverse. Young and old, tourists and locals, hipsters and cowboy hat-wearing country fans, a strong Latin contingent and half-naked students took divergent paths through the festival. But, on Sunday night they all came together for the much-anticipated Dylan set.
| Jim James - MMJ :: ACL 2007|
After an enthusiastic welcome, Dylan opened with "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," his harsh, throaty growl leaving the crowd a little nonplussed. Voice shot from decades of touring and slightly stooped over his instruments, Dylan seemed a frail imitation of the cocksure creature in his back catalogue. With little acknowledgement of the audience, barely offering a glance in our direction, he seemed distant and aloof. A total ban on press photographers and close up shots for the giant festival video screens further diminished his accessibility. I had always been in the wrong place to catch Dylan live. Tonight it felt like I was in the right place at the wrong time, perhaps five or ten years too late.
At least that's what I thought until he closed with "Spirit On The Water," seemingly defiantly asking, "You think I'm over the hill? You think I'm past my prime? Let me see what you got." It was then it dawned on me that mortality might have diminished his physical stature but the meaning in his music was unaffected. Having flipped the bird to his critics, he loosened up with some tight jams and his delivery, while still gritty, seemed more relaxed. Once the simply curious departed to beat the rush and the mostly hardcore remained, there was increased warmth, personified by loud cheers the first time he switched to harmonica for a mellow "Tangled Up in Blue."
From there, he and his band dove into a rocking performance, featuring multiple solos and a performance as tight as any I've seen. With minimal theatrics and stage decoration we were left to simply enjoy the music powered by the accomplished playing of Dylan's maestros. While his voice is showing wear and tear, the words it carries hold no less weight and the man singing those words still has considerable swagger. At one point, he sang, "Life without you don't mean a thing." Absolutely, Bob, absolutely.
Looking back, the Texan hospitality made for an abundance of good vibes. I returned one day to find my lost camera in the care of friendly locals, and I never saw a hint of trouble, even in the crush up front during the main acts. The food was great - a first for me at a festival - with local restaurants serving up a variety of cuisines. General operations were smooth, the only glitch being the fire, which led to some staff members being taken to hospital. Most public transport companies could learn a lot from the timely set transitions. Bands started and stopped bang on time, so much so, as one stage finished you could hear adjacent ones start up. No doubt about it, Austin's reputation for fostering live music is well earned. Here's to good vibes, great music and high SPF sun block.
JamBase | Austin
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