Austin City Limits | 09.26 - 09.28 | Texas

Sunday, September 28

Abigail Washburn and Sparrow Quartet featuring Bela Fleck – AT&T Stage - 12:30-1:30

Fleck & Washburn - Sparrow Quartet :: ACL 2008 by Perlaky
I always love me some banjoes for breakfast, and the Sparrow Quartet has the feel of a black tie brunch. They project an air that they would be equally at ease in a concert hall as they would on a festival stage. They are truly building some solid bridges, and not just between American traditions. Washburn's knowledge of traditional Chinese music exposes links across the globe. The first time I caught this group, another repeat of mine from Bonnaroo, I was simply lost in the transcendent translation. This time around, I could appreciate Washburn's global vision. This was most evident in closing number "Great Big Wall in China," which Washburn described as being inspired by Woody Guthrie's songwriting and her own travel experiences as a foreigner there. It moved between swelling verses sung in Chinese to a more traditional sounding chorus in English with the fluidity of a symphony. This was a stunning end cap to a set that had already served us well with some stellar Fleck soloing and a haunting "Eleanor Rigby" cover. This project just continues to grow more compelling.

Octopus Project – Dell Stage – 1:30-2:30

Wandering over towards the Dell Stage, I was greeted by the site of several people running in place, with various brass instruments. Not knowing much about Octopus Project, I thought, "Holy shit, they are a noise rock electronic marching band." It turns out that the Austin High School band was guesting for a song, with staggeringly loud results, to shake us out of our Sunday hangovers. Even after they left, Octopus Project kept up the momentum, with drones, scattering beats and an obvious fascination with sonic patterns that reminded me of Holy Fuck in parts and Oneida's latest work on Preteen Weaponry in others. The deafening bass on that stage that was acceptable during Spiritualized drowned out some of the complexity here though. Still, the video game blips and bloops shot through, as well as a keyboard crash that sounded like a piano being thrown out the window. But after awhile, the bass was too much for my ears (not the band's fault) and I had to move on to calmer waters.

Gillian Welch – AMD Stage – 2:30-3:30

Octopus Project :: ACL 2008 by Perlaky
Even though they were all the way on the other side of Zilker, metal band Flyleaf were loud enough to be audible for all of Gillian Welch's set. Accompanied by long-time musical partner-in-crime David Rawlings, it was easy to get absorbed in the set enough to ignore the noise-bleed after awhile. The cavernous stage was a bit of an odd choice for the intimate feeling, but Welch spins her American primitive from strong fabric and it was testament to she and Rawlings' abilities that they drew the audience in close. "Look at Miss Ohio" and "Revelator" never fail to get me where it hurts, and "Knuckleball Catcher" was a fitting reminder that October is around the corner. Rawlings' guitar picking is a winding road, at times speeding along, at times leisurely, looking out the window and drawing out its landscapes with care. Alison Krauss even came out for a surprise "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby," with Rawlings taking over Emmylou Harris' part. At the end of the rollicking, maybe even slightly raunchy, number "Sweetooth," Welch and Rawlings hunched over their guitars and fingers flying away, they were as shocked as the crowd that the set was over afterwards, flying by in its rustic beauty.

Joe Bonamassa – Austin Ventures – 4:00-4:45

With chops like Stevie Ray and a voice like Warren Haynes, Bonamassa has been tapped as being one of the best guitarists of this generation. That's a hefty title but he carries it with ease. A mean performer, his adventurous fretwork travels between the blues, metal and straight-up rock 'n' roll abandon. He coaxes it all out like lava meandering down a blown mountainside. I would have liked to see more of his set, but unfortunately I couldn't keep myself away from the didgeridoo driven action I knew was going down on the WaMu Stage.

Xavier Rudd – WaMu Stage – 4:00-5:00

Stars :: ACL 2008 by Perlaky
Another highlight of ACL for me was Xavier Rudd. A worldly folk soul and a troubadour from Mother Nature's belly, Rudd explores darker organic psychedelics along with plenty of spiritually uplifting hope. Similar to M. Ward, I couldn't get in the packed tent, but the sound was more powerful during this set, so I could at least be absorbed in the music, even if I was craning to see. The didgeridoo conjures up the ancient, and combined with Rudd's deep sense of reverence, it feels like tapping into some deep pulse from the core. Providing complimentary drumbeats and thrashes, Dave Tolley held his own with Rudd, with the latter even getting up at one point to dance to the rhythm and wildly play the bongos alongside him. Rudd uses his own voice as an instrument as well, sometimes making it echo as if he's singing in a canyon. By the time the set wound down with a roaring cover of "Rockin' in the Free World," I was swept up in that timeless wave. Rudd is perhaps making the best music of his career to date.

Shooter Jennings – WaMu Stage – 5:30-6:30

Having seen Blues Traveler before, I thought I would take another gamble and check out Shooter Jennings. My only familiarity with him was a sweet cover of Dire Straits' "Walk of Life" I once caught on CMT (I swear I was just flipping through channels). But don't let those country associations put you off. If you dig the Truckers, North Mississippi Allstars or The Black Crowes, you would probably dig Shooter Jennings. The son of Waylon Jennings, he comes from true serious stock. His music draws from Skynyrd and Sabbath, drenched with swamp drippings swept up from the dirty side of the honky tonk bar. Shooter is quite the rock star, too. Towards the very end of the set, he sat down at the keyboard to play a song. After a few seconds of playing, he stopped and literally threw it to the side. "Change of plans!" he announced, laughing, before launching into a beer swigging, drink-along called "The Last Time I Let You Down."

Gnarls Barkley – AT&T Stage – 6:30-7:30

Ben Bridwell - Band of Horses by Perlaky
My energy was winding down, and as I trekked towards the AT&T Stage, the crowd was becoming more impassable. Unfortunately, the sound that was booming earlier in the day seemed considerably muted, so most folks in the back seemed to be hunkered down in chairs or tossing Frisbees around. Fighting our way further forward, Cee-Lo's otherworldly vocals shone through loud and clear, but not much else was discernable. Stubbornly riggling out of any easy classification, I think Gnarls Barkley need an indoor setting with a captive audience to help one truly absorb their sense of mixing it up. Wardrobe wise, since everyone needs to know, tuxes and bowties were the order of the day, although the jackets didn't last long in the heat. As Danger Mouse played cool musical chemist behind him, Cee-Lo gyrated and got his tambourine on. I lost patience with the sound situation though, and headed back towards the Dell Stage to try and get a decent spot for Band of Horses, lest the same sound problems happen there.

Band of Horses – Dell Stage – 7:30-8:30

Band of Horses drew one of the most attentive and enthusiastic crowds of the weekend. Maybe it was because the festival was winding down and only the folks that truly wanted to be there were still standing. Wide-eyed when he took off his shades, Benjamin Bridwell yelled from the stage, "I love you! Look at you all, my god! You're beautiful!" before soaking us in another dose of dense, atmospheric rock build-ups that seemed to rain down from the sky.

BoH have a finely tuned sense of melody that's movie soundtrack ready, with its crescendos and delicately chiseled points of shimmer. They just flat out write some beautiful numbers. This gig proved to me that they have really found their feet live - extending their songs, letting them breathe and drawing out the roller coaster ride – to create a sweeping vastness. I never realized how thrilling this band could be, from the quickening pace of "Ghost in My House" to the chomp of "Ode to LRC."

Bridwell has grown into a confident frontman, at least compared to when I saw them last year, that commands the stage, switching between guitars and jumping into the pit with the mic to rile up the front row. There's a decided rawness in his vocal delivery, which manages to sound simultaneously booming yet vulnerable. I used to write this band off as a My Morning Jacket rip off, and yes there's a passing resemblance to Jim James in Bridwell's voice, although I honestly hear more Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. It always sounds like Bridwell is close to a breaking point of either deeply felt joy or pain. There's a definite sense of renewal here, and a brain cleanse would have been a perfect way to leave ACL. But I had one more band to review, admittedly rather begrudgingly.

Foo Fighters – AT&T Stage – 8:30-10:00

Dave Grohl - Foo Fighters by Perlaky
The first Foo Fighters album rocked, at least I thought so back in the day. Subsequent efforts seem to rock less, relying more on big, radio friendly numbers that follow predictable patterns. I just haven't been able to ever get that excited about this band, but I have to say they impressed me live. And I do have to give them props for seeming more psyched to be at ACL than Beck. They were incredibly engaging with the audience, whipping them into a screaming froth, with Grohl yelling, "Can't we just play for four hours?!?" to rabid cheers. I think my thought at that point was, "Please god, no," mostly because for every number I did like, say power punk pop "Monkey Wrench" or the heartfelt cover of The Who's "Young Man Blues," there were some that I just can't stand like "My Hero" or "Learn To Fly." But they kept things moving at a quick pace, even gracious to a guy who managed to wiggle past security onto the stage, and I have to say even those songs I don't care for were played with conviction.

Nirvana and Pearl Jam were the first bands that meant something to me. Enough to plaster my wall with posters and spend my allowance on a bunch of crappy magazines telling me useless facts about Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain. Grohl's outfit sometimes captures Nirvana's absolute scream, but instead of coming from some deep seated well of agony it seems to be done purely for arena rock showmanship. There's nothing wrong with that, on principle, and Grohl wouldn't be very genuine if he simply tried to cast himself as a successor to Cobain, but it was interesting for me to reflect on the different routes two of the last big Seattle scene survivors – Grohl and Vedder – have taken with their outfits. Pearl Jam has managed to grow into something resembling thunderous rock art at times, while Grohl's band has grown into sinfully catchy arena rock, not above busting out clichéd poses and obligatory drum solos by Taylor Hawkins. They seem to have a genuinely good time doing it, all smiles, so you can't fault them. Foo Fighters are apparently about to go on hiatus, so this may be the last we see of them for a while. Grohl's still a powerful drummer, as his work with Queens of the Stone Age proved, so I may keep my eye on this development lest he get back to some dirty roots. But the overwhelming feeling I had leaving Foo Fighters was that of being at a sanitized rock show.

On my way out of the festival grounds, I saw a group of kids banging on all manner of tubs and drums, their friend accompanying them on trombone, as onlookers cheered them on. It may have been outside the gates, but it was comforting to know that "weirdness," the kind Austin prides itself on, is not quite an endangered species.

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