Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Dániel Perlaky & Jacqueline Fernandez
Austin City Limits Music Festival :: 09.26.08 – 09.28.08 :: Zilker Park :: Austin, TX
This past weekend I found myself at Austin City Limits Music Festival, with a dizzying amount of music to choose from - "130 bands, eight stages, 3 days," the sign bragged.
Honestly, I prefer smaller festivals, where you can stick to a concept, as well as keeping the WaMu sweatbands and other assorted corporate shwag out (although I was tempted to get a sweatband and write "Chase'd!" on it). ACL does make an effort on certain fronts to keep things local. The food, which compared to the ouch-my-butt-hurts prices and portions of behemoths like Bonnaroo, was comparatively a bit cheaper and a better value, and all done by Austin vendors. The beer, however, was not so local. The bill reflected several Austin acts, although I heard some grumbles that it wasn't Austin-stacked enough this year. But compared to SXSW, this felt way more homegrown. From my experience, the staff was very relaxed and friendly, ready to give directions and suggestions for out-of-towners. They also did an impressive job of keeping Zilker Park clean, so major props for that. I should also admit I live about a ten minute walk away and trying to cover something of this scale knowing that a shower and bed, not to mention breakfast and Bloody Marys fixed in my own kitchen, could be reached in less time than it took me to walk halfway to my tent at Bonnaroo was a massive plus.
|ACL 2008 by Perlaky|
My biggest gripe would probably be with the sound and scheduling – more than a few times during this weekend, the sound bleed between stages made total absorption in the acts challenging - especially at the WaMu Stage. This was a shame because this stage had some of the more grassroots music of the weekend, but suffered from the noise, being a bit too close to a row of port-a-potties and suffocating dust. But overall, ACL was a friendly, laid-back atmosphere that, despite its size and corporate intrusions, didn't feel overwhelming or frantic. The crowds sometimes meant getting close to certain stages was tough, but the laid-back Austinites willing to share a blanket and a smoke in the precious patches of shade more than made up for it. And if you ever wondered why in god's name you were putting up with this heat and dust in late September, you just had to look up at the beautiful skyline of Austin for the answer.
Friday, September 26
Rodney Crowell – AT&T Stage – 12:30-1:30
Flanked by the fantastic Jenny Scheinman on violin and mandolin and Will Kimbrough on guitar, this trio highlighted Crowell's devilishly clever songwriting. But what struck me most was the clarity of the lyrical content. Crowell has skill at turning anger into pin sharp insights, funneling it all through his earthbound growl, never seeming overly earnest even when making some well-placed jabs. "If I'm not mistaken it was Darwin's position/ The hole in the levy was caused by intelligent design," he sang in "The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design," while "Sex and Gasoline" opened with, "So much beauty abs and tush/ Swoop down on you like a burnin' bush." Words you can chew on. Scheinman and Kimbrough brought a level of musicianship to the stage that made for a fuller sound than a poet with a guitar approach. Scheinman especially made that fiddle soar from lonesome peaks to barely a whisper drawn across the strings. But when Crowell turned the mic over to her to sing one of her compositions, the full range of her talents was truly exposed. A lengthy ballad about growing up in a cow town, and the risk of exposing those roots to a city lover lest he see you as an awkward child again, it had a couple older cowgirls in the crowd yelling, "Amen!" and had me biting my lip. "And supposedly the rednecks hate the hippies/ But after thirty years it's hard to tell who's who," she sang. Looking around at the crowd, one saw that line hit Austin right on the head. I made sure to write that one down.
|Yeasayer :: ACL 2008 by Fernandez|
Yeasayer – Dell Stage – 1:30-2:30
Yet another of the Brooklyn school (I could have told you that with one look at them), I went to see Yeasayer based on their steadily growing reputation. The set had its peaks for sure, when the band stewed some scattershot Liars-style percussive work with brooding disco befitting of Joy Division, or threw in an unexpectedly delightful Caribbean drumbeat or flamenco-style guitar. Chris Keating (vocals, keyboards) had some sweaty, Thom Yorke-esque shakin' moves and a falsetto wail not to be trifled with. Obviously they draw on an impressive arsenal of influences, but I wanted them to take it over that proverbial edge - put it all together in a bus fully wired to blow and push it over a cliff, letting the burning shrapnel fall where it may. Instead, they seemed to be holding back, not exactly playing it safe, but teetering on the dizzying precipice, hesitant to push off. I do feel this set was poorly scheduled – it would have been better served later in the day, with a crowd ready to move and not sit in lawn chairs. Keating even asked at one point, "Did anyone else have trouble getting up early?" I'm not sure if he was referring to his own energy or the crowd's.
|Del Tha Funky Homosapien :: ACL 2008 by Fernandez|
Jamie Lidell – Dell Stage – 3:30-4:30
Energy was not a problem during Lidell's set. I was sort of approaching this one with caution, and in retrospect I'm not sure why. I'm not above admitting that perhaps I was bringing too many assumptions to the table, and on paper I just couldn't see it working (i.e. a white Brit couldn't pull off genuinely moving and funky soul music that wouldn't turn into something embarrassingly cornball). But, I got a lot of folks whose opinions I trust backing this one up, so I went for it. I was also trying to make the difficult choice of whether to see him or Del Tha Funky Homosapien (who apparently had some of the Hieroglyphics crew with him, a fact that they failed to mention in the ACL programs and website). My original plan was to split the difference, but I got completely sucked into Lidell's set. He's simply a bundle of hot sunshine with a golden voice who can perform bright and bouncy soul numbers ("Another Day"), slide into something a little more sexy and comfortable ("Green Light") and then create an entire sweaty disco out of layering his own improv beatboxing. He also has a hell of a backing band with him, particularly sax juggler Andre Vida, who was wearing some kind of white choir robe/dashiki dress. I used to play tenor sax in high school and I was always secretly envious of those bari sax players who got to make those bad ass bass-y moans. It's not a sexy looking instrument but it makes your heart throb. Although I may have been a bit behind the folks who have climbed on Lidell's soul train already, I was impressed at how quickly and thoroughly he won me over. I'm all aboard on this one.
|M. Ward :: ACL 2008 by Fernandez|
M. Ward – WaMu Stage – 4:30-5:15
Because I stayed for all of Lidell's set, I was unable to push my way into the tent at the WaMu Stage for M. Ward. I got close, but not quite inside, and this set was frustrating to review, because of the sound bleed from Gogol Bordello on the AT&T Stage. It was sort of like an M. Ward remix at times. Ward is a compelling songwriter, and it was interesting for me, having seen Crowell earlier in the day, to draw a lineage in the hard truths department. Ward comes from a considerably more impressionistic school, but he can paint some striking imagery. Which is a shame because many of those images were lost to those of us who had to fight our way in, practically pushed back to the port-a-potties. I finally got close enough to appreciate the final third of his set, including a bluesy "Rollercoaster" – "You're like a roller coaster/ You've got heavy metal wings/ You could make a dead man scream." Damn, that's fucking eerie but I like it. There was a hazy, brooding, alt-country feel to the music, with tinny low E string heavy strums and Ward's bottleneck sort of slinking in the back door. Ending on always-rousing "To Go Home," I tried to let go of my annoyance and let the song lift my spirits, but I sort of felt like I had been invited to a house party and then spent most of it smoking cigarettes on the back porch, staring through the windows to the dirty glasses piled up in the kitchen.
Hot Chip – AT&T Blue Room Stage – 5:30-6:30
If the nerdy dudes who work in your IT department made techno, it would probably sound like Hot Chip. From where I was standing, all I could see were flailing limbs and jumping bodies, in a rave-up under the still warm evening sun. It got especially heavy, like a big old flesh anemone, when the band went into "Over and Over," which was a big hit when I was living in the U.K. Alexis Taylor has vocals that can sound oh-so-uninterested at times, at other times he takes on a falsetto dance floor appeal earnestness. Turns minimalist and studied make way for turns that are downright pervy in their catalogue. Hot Chip will sometimes hit a level of pure electronic strangeness, which makes me think this will appeal to Bisco kids. I had memories of treading dance floors with robotic clatter and whistling keyboards filling my headspace. I still can't get myself back into electronic music thanks to burning out on it for awhile, but I appreciate the aesthetic Hot Chip brings, and who knows, under the right circumstances, their crooked fingers might coax me back onto to that particular dance floor.
|Hot Chip :: ACL 2008 by Perlaky|
David Byrne – AT&T Stage – 6:30-7:30
He and his band, all dressed in white - a trend I noticed with many bands over the weekend, probably owing as much to the heat as any sort of fashion statement – Byrne emanated pure coolness from the stage. His band was tight, with passionate backing vocals and quick hand percussion, but I can't quite say the same for his backing dancers, who seemed out of place on the huge stage. I'm not sure if they were supposed to look slightly under-rehearsed and bored, but they were more of a distraction for me. When the whole band and Byrne were moving and grooving together though, it worked, especially at the end of "Life is Long," where the male dancer slid across the stage on his office chair – that was a truly inspired moment. Musically, Byrne's career is made up of drawing out inspiring, human moments that cut through the glaze of sterile modern existence. He picked wisely from a staggering catalogue for this set, drawn heavily from his Talking Heads days, with certified classics like "Crosseyed and Painless" and "Houses in Motion," as well as the Eno collaborative material. "Life During Wartime" got folks up from their blankets to shout along, "This ain't no party!/ This ain't no disco!" as the sun sank, drawing us into the magic hour in a sunset luster.
|David Byrne :: ACL 2008 by Fernandez|
Alejandro Escovedo – Austin Ventures Stage – 7:45-8:45
I find with festivals, I can plan as much as I want, but if I just relax and stop worrying about packing too much in, I can usually end up at the right place for me. I love those happy accidents. I almost overlooked Escovedo on the packed schedule, but found myself at the Ventures Stage to catch a few songs before having to rush off to the Volta. At ACL, he was a fine ambassador for the city. "Welcome to Austin!" he cried from the stage. Punk sandpaper and true grit rubbed together with stirring melodies, it's music that speaks deep from the heart of survival. Escovedo's band, particularly violinist Susan Voelz, another badass bow wielding woman ala Scheinman, brought a screaming joie-de-vivre to the stage that matched Escovedo's own.
The Mars Volta – The AMD Stage – 8:15-9:30
I had another difficult decision between The Mars Volta or Manu Chao. I heard from several folks that Chao ruled the stage with his consistently wonderful and life affirming revolution, but I was drawn into the Mexican trumpet intro blasting from the AMD Stage, signaling that the Volta were about to tear my cerebrum a new one.
|Bixler-Zavala - The Mars Volta :: ACL 2008 by Perlaky|
Bixler-Zavala did some exhausting looking gymnastics onstage, and made some rather suggestive poses with the mic stand, while Rodriguez-Lopez thrashed his guitar around at points like it was strangling him during opener "Goliath." Cut to an hour and fifteen, they were forced to keep the show wound tightly together for maximum impact. Although this is the two leaders' show, their current band's incarnation is incredibly impressive. Drummer Thomas Pridgen is absolutely vicious, and Adrián Terrazas-González, who switched between multiple wind instruments, will make you think twice that you ever doubted the flute's ability to rock scarily hard.
I'm sure someone has made this comparison before, but Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala are the closest thing we have going to Page and Plant. The level of musical communication between the Zep pair has been fairly unrivaled in rock, but Omar and Cedric come pretty damn close. Similar to Plant, Cedric likes to riff on sexually aggressive phrasing with his falsetto wail. "I want to give you my fever!" he shrieked at one point, and Omar similarly responded with an ungodly wail from his guitar, something fervid and wonderfully sick clawing its way out from the underground. They have a symbiosis that's hypnotic and a bit frightening to watch. But unlike Zeppelin, which would court you with sometimes downright gorgeous melodies, the Volta is pure assault, mental violation of the highest order. In other words, Zeppelin would take you out to dinner, first, maybe buy you some flowers. The Volta call you up at two in the morning, knowing you've had enough drinks in you to make resistance to their evil ways futile. By the time those stabbing opening notes of "Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus" hit my brain, after a long day of music, I was feeling that fever.
Continue reading for Saturday coverage...