Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Daniel Perlaky, Manny Moss & Matt Ellis
Austin City Limits Festival :: 10.02.09 - 10.04.09 :: Zilker Park :: Austin, TX
Out on my apartment's splintery balcony, my cowboy boots are caked in a heaping mess of dried earth. I'll clean them later, but right now I have some rain-spotted, mud-splattered, and sun-baked notebook pages to sort through. Spread out over 8 stages, 130 bands had their moments in the spotlight at the eighth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival. With a newly gussied up Zilker Park and an early October weekend, organizers C3, not to mention us patrons, were definitely hoping for cooler temperatures and less dust. Careful what you wish for.
|Austin City Limits 2009 by Moss|
In typical Texas weather-fashion, Ma Nature gave us a gorgeous Friday, then rained hard on Saturday, which turned Sunday into a humid muck pit. But, you got to roll with the punches, and I overheard folks matter-of-factly, and very truthfully, remark, "Well, we've needed this rain." It's been a dry, hot summer in Texas (where summer, for all intents and purposes, stretches into October), and that strange wet stuff falling from the sky washed us straight into autumn as we celebrated the end of festival season 2009 in a city known for live music.
For this writer, it began with the first pre-festival stroll down Barton Springs Road, as we walked past vendors setting up shop on every available piece of sidewalk space, hocking assorted wares from pizza to pipes to ponchos, all in the midst of the businesses and restaurants, which were setting up their own clever hooks to draw the festivarians in (like the DJ on top of Daily Juice or the beers-to-go at Uncle Billy's). ACL ended on the last notes of an absolutely killer Pearl Jam show. Throughout the weekend, I just went with the flow, and this is where it took me. Although my beleaguered boots might grumble otherwise, it was definitely worth it.
Sarah Siskind :: 12:40-1:20 p.m. :: BMI Stage
It's no mystery why Nashville-based singer-songwriter Siskind is well loved in the bluegrass and folk communities, where her songs have been covered by the likes of Alison Krauss and Bon Iver. The gravel in her words reminded me of Lucinda Williams, with a mind towards the naked eccentricities of the human heart. Her voice sounded a bit raspy due to illness, but she bravely powered through her arresting set. "One Step Closer" was so full of naked yearning it was hard not to feel it in the pit of your stomach when she sang the line, "I'll do whatever it takes/ To get one step closer to you." The song floated with glistening, fractured guitar lines, while closer "Conversation With Fear" was dense and rousing, as her backing band's low end growled under her sweeping strumming. She definitely does her own thing, and it's awe-inspiring.
|Sara Watkins & John Paul Jones :: ACL 09 by Moss|
Sara Watkins :: 1:20-2:00 p.m. :: Austin Ventures Stage
Former Nickel Creeker Watkins has a solo album produced by John Paul Jones, and that honeyed voice and sneakily aggressive, liquid fiddle pack a powerful punch. Stomping around in some fabulous knee high red boots, inspiring severe footwear envy on my part, she commanded the stage, in spite of New Orleans' The Knux blaring nearby. Joined by her brother Sean Watkins on guitar, as well as Sebastian Steinberg on bass and Don Heffington on percussion, she drew some notable guests, including Austin singer-songwriter David Garza who joined her for his tune "Too Much," which she covers on her latest album. And Jones himself busted out the mando on the über-pretty original "All This Time," Jimmy Martin's well-loved "Hold What You Got," and John Hartford's "Long Hot Summer Day," which takes advantage of Watkins' vocal range. As Watkins and Jones threw down together, beaming as they leaned into one mic, it was a wonderful chance to witness the long reach of a musical maestro whose love of Americana roots runs as deep as his love of mighty rock & roll.
Blitzen Trapper :: 1:30-2:30 p.m. :: Dell Stage
Soft grass in between our fingers and the sun baking our heads, Blitzen Trapper's mellow sound was certainly appropriate for the moment. But considering the hype around this band, I guess I was expecting more. Still, their sound was warm, hearkening back to the hums of my parents' folk records. I enjoyed the use of the Claviola on "Lady on the Water," but then the next band I saw completely blew the use of that particular instrument out of the proverbial water. However, this set soundtracked a moment of peace, as the festival grounds were still sparsely populated and the ground was still luscious underfoot.
|John Medeski :: ACL 09 by Perlaky|
Medeski Martin & Wood :: 2:30-3:30 p.m. :: LIVESTRONG Stage
Every time I see them, it's a wildcard, and that's why I keep coming back. I wish they had done an after-show, because I'm used to seeing this trio in sweaty clubs where they have three hours to let their madness roam through such sardine-packed spaces, but MMW pulled out a huge sound on the cavernous main stage. Starting out tight and hella freaky, they quickly pulled out the crazed basement scientist combustion and let the chemicals spill where they may. Medeski is always a little spooky to watch, as he is totally possessed by his tools at hand, playing a screaming organ line on one keyboard while his other hand laid down a rumbling piano strata. Wood drew out the highest notes possible on his bass, while Martin threw down dense rhythms for Medeski to writhe all over. And only MMW could make a cowbell and Claviola duet sound like the absolute most badass thing you've ever heard. A burly looking guy held some devil horns aloft in the audience, and that was the most appropriate sentiment for the deliciously dark feelings they inspired.
The Avett Brothers :: 2:30-3:30 p.m. :: AMD Stage
Oh, the heartbreaking scheduling at ACL. I tore myself away from the MMW fire to catch the end of this set. These brothers held me last year at Bonnaroo in their catharsis, in a moment that weekend where I needed it most, and I had to pay my respects. Running across Zilker, I found Scott Avett, the red bandana across his forehead soaked while Seth Avett looked about ready to melt away in his light blue western shirt. They certainly pour themselves into every word, letting the syllables bleed with a vulnerable conviction that completely draws one in. The encore of "The Perfect Space" from the latest album, I And Love And You, exemplified this, as Scott sang, "I want to have friends that I can trust/ That love me for the man I'll become/ Not the man that I was," while he plaintively played the keyboards. In the middle it broke out into a full-on stadium worthy rock pump that had the whole band screaming red-faced. Americana, punk, pop, whatever label you slap on them, at the end of the day, the Avetts are the sound of release, pure and simple.
|Todd Snider :: ACL 09 by Moss|
Todd Snider :: 3:30-4:15 p.m. :: Austin Ventures Stage
He may share his opinions with you, but he won't share them because he thinks they're smart or they're important. No, he will only share them with you because they rhyme. Easily in my top three sets of the day, Snider charmed the crowd with his affable, refreshingly humble and self-effacing vibe. But under that aw-shucks stoner exterior lays a razor sharp wit that slices directly to the absurdity bone, a keen outsider whose sleepy eyelids belie 20/20 vision. He played favorites like "Ballad of the Kingsmen" and "Easy Money" alongside cuts from his latest album, The Excitement Plan, like "Greencastle Blues" and "America's Favorite Pastime." Introducing "Pastime," which tells the tale of Doc Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who threw a no-hitter on LSD, he said that Ellis was "the patron saint of ill-prepared people everywhere." Afterwards, Snider related his own story about how he quit the football team in high school to hang out with "the burnouts from the smoke pit," eating mushrooms and watching the goalposts turn into Roman candles. The crowd cheered his story of descent into slackerdom. Snider abides, and I for one take some comfort in that, as he's taking 'er easy for all us sinners out there.
The Wood Brothers :: 4:40-5:20 p.m. :: BMI Stage
It was very cool to witness Chris Wood shedding his seriously out-there jazz clothes for a different sort of getup with his brother Oliver, who laid down some gritty vocals on pure Americana gold. With his steel-bodied guitar slipping and ringing, Oliver grafted pure heat over his brother's sticky-like-peanut-butter bass lines. Sitting under the outstretched branches of the tree that became me and my husband's default meeting point for most of the festival, it was the perfect environment to carry that easy feeling Snider gave us over through the rest of the day, as Oliver cheerfully remarked, "It sure smells good out there."
|Daniel Johnston :: ACL 09 by Perlaky|
Daniel Johnston :: 4:45-5:30 p.m. :: Austin Ventures Stage
Johnston is an icon in this town, with his artwork swathed across many t-shirts in our fair city (most famously the image of the "Hi, How Are You?" mural that bears his alien creature, Jeremiah the Innocent). Johnston's struggles with his demons lend an incalculable weight to his songs, which on the surface can seem charmingly simple but have an incredibly raw longing for the salvation of love in the midst of their whimsy. That clash between innocence and the weight of this world is especially heavy when you see him perform, where his hands shake, practically strangling the mic, reading the words from a music stand. His set treated us to songs like the wrenching "Grievances," the sweet "Living Life," and a rousing "Speeding Motorcycle," as well as material from the new album, not to mention a stirring cover of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," which had the crowd singing in unison. Beautiful.
K'naan :: 5:45-6:45 p.m. :: The Wildflower Center Stage
Starting off with a song he wrote backstage about crossing oceans to be here with us, K'naan proceeded to barrel through a set that had the whole tent hanging on his every word. There's an undeniable joie-de-vivre about him, and considering that his biography would make most gangsta rappers quake in their Timberlands, you know that shit comes from a very genuine, hard-won place. His powder keg mic moves were lit up by his snappy backing band, and as I fought my way closer into the throng inside the tent, I wrapped myself around the drum beat and shimmied my way as close to the front as I could. He drew us in close with acoustic number "Take a Minute" and an a cappella Somali traditional. Then, he began building, through "Fatima," a broken-hearted tale of lost love with a twiggy guitar line, through "Bang Bang," which swiped staccato shots aimed squarely at our dancing shoes. Then, he asked our permission to set the tent on fire, and that spark was "Freedom," an undeniable flashbulb moment. As the band broke in, uplifting his story of childhood trauma on the streets of Mogadishu into a story of strength, the crowd waved their hands like the flag in the chorus. An absolutely inspiring set from a not-to-be-missed poet warrior.
Thievery Corporation :: 6:30-7:30 p.m. :: LIVESTRONG Stage
Fighting my way into K'naan meant fighting my way out, and I then had to think about things like food and port-a-pottie lines, so I didn't get to cover as much of Thievery's set as I'd intended. But they held court over a striking scene, a crowd lost in their hypnotic, deeply tribal pulsations. Somewhere in their music the ancient and the "now" meet, and as I watched the sun wash the buildings of the Austin skyline in shades of pink, it seemed like the rhythms of the wide, organic world and the turntable twitches were melding in a perfect harmony for this magic hour moment.
|Thievery Corporation :: ACL 09 by Daniel Perlaky|
John Legend :: 6:30–7:30 p.m. :: AMD Stage
I had a prime spot to peep some of Legend's set, and holy hell, can this cat perform! Somehow, he's slipped past my radar, but I'm going to have to check him out further, because between his back-up singers decked out in sparkling dresses and showing off Motown moves, his firmly buttoned backing band, and his own energy whirling at the center of it all, Legend seduced us with enticing piano ballads and center-stage grabbing vintage soul vigor. He had the crowd at the AMD Stage swooning. That's some smooth baby-making material.
Them Crooked Vultures :: 7:30-8:30 p.m. :: Xbox 360 Stage
This was a glorious mind fuck that had moments of mess for sure, but always came around to testify to the power of loud ass rock and or roll. The lineup involved here – Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) on drums, where he's a force of nature, Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) on guitar and vocals, where he's a weirdly seductive dirty man, and John Paul Jones on bass, who needs no introduction whatsoever, joined by QOTSA guitarist Alain Johannes - was enough to pique my interest. The songs seemed to lean heavily in a QOTSA direction (which is hardly a bad thing), and were executed with a loose, ball-swinging swagger that gave the core trio plenty of room to let things just hang out. Homme's stage banter was amusing. "This one's called 'Scumbag Blues,'" he said, but then after checking in with his bandmates, he turned back to the mic and said, "'What?!? Oh fuck that, this one's called 'Mind Eraser.'" Grohl's brain destroying skins were the glue, but Jones and Homme both gave the set the metallic propulsion that pushed the whole operation over the edge into the wild ether. This is rock 'n' roll with teeth – real big, fuck-off fangs. As the moon rose in the sky, there was certainly some dangerous beast sprouting fur, claws breaking through its skin as it howled to the heavens.
|John Paul Jones by Perlaky|
Yeah Yeah Yeahs :: 8:30-9:45 p.m. :: AMD Stage
Honestly, after the Vultures capping off a day of stellar sets, I was sort of feeling let down on the headliners. It was a bummer that the Beastie Boys understandably had to cancel, and the replacement choice wasn't inspiring a lot of excitement for me. I liked the YYY's first album, but never really got seriously into them (and I really don't dig that "Zero" song from new album It's Blitz!, mostly because I can't seem to escape it every time I turn on the radio). But I gave them a shot, and I honestly had a riot at their set. Say what you want about this band, but Karen O is one hell of a performer. She really understands how to bring theatrics into the rock & roll arena, and anyone who can't appreciate that should probably go burn all their David Bowie and Jane's Addiction records, for starters. With a backdrop swirling around a giant eyeball, O pulled her limp rag doll body throws, pogo jumps, and suggestive mic swallowings in an outfit that resembled some kind of disco kachina doll (it's a party in the pueblo and everyone's invited!). From a fashion designer's perspective, it must be fun to sew for this lady, because you could clear out your scrap closet and somehow O will make it work. And that admittedly superficial surface observation speaks volumes about why the YYYs work as a band – they strut between high fashion and total anarchy, noticeably revolving around O's slightly chaotic and arresting stage presence. But guitarist Nick Zinner's squalls, alongside drummer Brian Chase's pure hammer pounding aggression, frame her wackiness with turns that reflect both their older pure garage aggression - the highlight for me was probably a vicious "Pin" from that era - and their newer electro-tinged work. Live, the latter took on a stripped-down, menacing edge. The lead-up into aforementioned "Zero" was murky, with some gruesome keyboard groans, that built the tension up to the point where the bright, breakout chorus felt well-earned. I may keep the radio on for this one after all. And eyeball balloons bouncing through the crowd? Win!
Kings of Leon :: 8:30-10:00 p.m. :: LIVESTRONG Stage
I left YYYs to catch some of KOL. Their first two albums were stellar testaments to the raw, testosterone-laden power of young dudes making rock & roll, and their third seemed to show promising growth, but If Only By Night is an astonishing exercise in mediocrity. Yet, this album was the one that made them huge. Go figure. What I caught of this set didn't change my feelings on that front whatsoever. To be fair, their set was plagued by muffled sound, but older songs, like "The Bucket" seemed slowed down, and the new material elicited cheers, while I was left severely underwhelmed and wishing the Followills would just grow back their beards and get some mess on them. I heard the next day that Eddie Vedder came out and joined them for an encore, tambourine in hand, of "Slow Night So Long." But I was already long gone. By comparison, the YYYs performed with conviction and bruises, which happily dictated the stage I ultimately found myself at to close out my day at Zilker.
|Karen O - Yeah Yeah Yeahs :: ACL 09 by Perlaky|
Late Night: Deer Tick at Emo's Indoors
After the action in the park closes for the night, the city lights up with after-shows, from official ACL events like STS9 at Stubb's, to the rsvp-only Broken Social Scene show at the Power Plant, to Lotus and Evol Intent at Aces Lounge, which ran until 4 a.m. each day.
In the hustle leading up to the fest, my husband and I purchased tickets for Deer Tick at Emo's Indoors, and although I wondered later if I made the right choice, with so many other options out there, it was just the tonic we needed after a day tromping around. After refueling at our apartment, we made it down in time to catch the tail end of the second opener, Henry Clay People, who were energetic, if a little unmemorable.
I honestly didn't know much about Deer Tick going in, other than they were an Americana band from Providence, RI, my old stomping grounds, and they were getting some seriously good word of mouth. But count me sold after this weekend. Opening with some riffing on Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" they quickly took us on a trip that packed as much from The Basement Tapes swagger as it did from grungy blues, rolling down the highways of Hank Williams. John J. McCauley III's two-pack-of-Marlboro Reds a day voice (as my husband put it, "I pictured him looking like a pirate") puts serious grizzle into his words, as his bandmates mouthed along to the songs, which is always a good sign. This group believes in what they are doing, but have a damn good time doing it. From slow dancing twangy numbers to some riotous rocking with a slide guitar meltdown, they brought us to last call, leaving us hooked and baited to set our alarms to see them the next day.
Continue reading for Saturday's coverage of ACL...