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...
Deer Tick :: 11:45-12:30 p.m. :: Dell Stage
The steely sky was spitting as we approached Zilker. We were still yawning from the night before, but the boys in Deer Tick seemed raring to go. They must have been as sleep deprived as us, but they certainly didn't show it. Their originals, like the open-palmed, weathered "Ashamed," have a timeless glow, while energetic covers of Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner" and the celebratory "La Bamba" had loose limbs waving in the drizzle. Well versed in the bibles of American music and rock & roll, they are certainly a band to keep an eye on as they mark their own entries in those pages.
|ACL 09 by Perlaky|
Alberta Cross :: 12:30-1:15 p.m. :: LIVESTRONG Stage
Brits and Swedes who have resettled in Brooklyn, this outfit reminded me a bit of a rootsier version of Austin's Black Angels, with their emphasis on fuzz and swirling textures, and a strong dose of Crazy Horse thrown in for good measure. Lead singer Petter Ericson Stakee has an otherworldly set of scaffolding shaking pipes, and looked like he could have stepped out of the yellowed pages of newsprint from a 1960's Rolling Stone. Ending on a song entitled, appropriately, "ATX," that started off in a hum and ended on a scream, they were intense enough to set a storm brewing onstage that matched the increasingly ominous weather.
The Felice Brothers :: 1:15-2:00 p.m. :: Dell Stage
"We were created by a corporation called Dell," Ian Felice said, in one of the only comments on the corporate sponsorship of the festival, "but we failed miserably." It's true that if there is a group that is the antithesis of everything shiny, sleek, and disposable, it would be this band of brothers, who travel the byways and overlooked back roads where salvation comes in the form of a bottle, a fist fight and back seat romp, and someone with itchy trigger fingers is always a few steps away. A consistently captivating bunch to watch, Ian and Christmas leap up to lean over the drum kit, truly embodying the music from their physical demeanor to their fresh out of the van appearance. The interplay of Greg Farley and James Felice's fiddle and keys gave us a sinister, slinky buildup to "Greatest Show On Earth." Later in the set, as Farley rose from his knees, where he'd been swaying in possession during "River Jordon," he picked up a washboard, and Ian Felice picked up his accordion. The unmistakable opening notes of "Frankie's Gun" were met with whoops from the crowd, many of who mouthed the words with passion equal to Farley's onstage. This was our moonshine to get us moving, and to paraphrase "White Limousine," The Felice Brothers gave us just a little red to paint the park.
|Felice Bros :: ACL 09 by Perlaky|
!!! :: 2:00-3:00 p.m. :: AMD Stage
Definitely one of my top sets of the whole weekend, !!! whipped the crowd into a frenzy, under a cloudy but momentarily dry sky that looked like it just might give us a break for awhile. Bringing a neon club vibe to the early afternoon set, frontman Nick Offer commented on how he had his coffee earlier than usual to get amped for their performance. And was he ever amped, shooting across the barrier and dancing with freaky arm flails and suggestive hip juts. He jumped into the crowd, where he was ravenously swallowed up by the jumping mess of bodies, only to be spit out so he could leap back onstage. Spandex-stretchy, leggy guitar lines, throbbing disco beats, funkotron sax solos and trumpet flourishes - if this set didn't get you grooving, I would have called the medics to check your pulse. Highlights included ode-to-one-night-stands "Must Be the Moon" and "Heart of Hearts," which saw Offer banging on the dual drummers' cymbals, and closer, the aptly named "Intensify." !!! showed a refreshing lack of pretension, with songs focused squarely on screwing, drugging and shaking your ass with abandon. This is everything dance music should be - dirty, sexy, sweaty, and a little bit messy.
Grizzly Bear :: 3:00-4:00 p.m. :: Dell Stage
After the high energy of !!!, Grizzly Bear, although quite lovely, felt like a bit of a comedown. It mostly had to do with the huge, noisy crowd at the Dell Stage and the quiet sound, but it was hard for me to feel totally absorbed in this show. This band requires an ear tuned to the pin-needle fine details and a hyper-attentive audience, as the silver slivers and constantly changing sonic tapestry that make up their stunning 2009 album Veckatimest (JamBase review) attest to, and it was hard to capture all of those pieces in this setting. Ed Droste's high, sweet voice still rang through the din though, and "Fine for Now" cascaded in crystalline surges. I look forward to seeing them again, when my mood and theirs matches better. They got shout-outs from both The Felice Brothers and !!!, so they certainly draw a diverse fan base who respects their uncanny approach to songcraft.
|Bill Kreutzmann w/ Papa Mali :: ACL 09 by Perlaky|
Papa Mali :: 3:30-4:15 p.m. :: Austin Ventures Stage
Despite some early tech problems, understandable in the weather, as the skies opened pretty much as soon as Papa's set was slated to start, the propulsive version of "I Know You Rider" and a nasty take on "Little Sadie" gave us reason to charge forward. Bill Kreutzmann, who has been joining Papa Mali during the last year on various projects, of course, gave us a hearty dose of his drumming so we could spin pure tribal-style in the rain, and the sousaphone player was also a standout, keeping a bass beat with ass-smacking thump. As the rain pelted down on us, an intrepid member of the tech crew scaled the scaffolding in the back of the stage to cover the lights with plastic bags. It was too wet to take notes, but sometimes, all you need is to dance to "Bertha" in the rain. It's better than therapy, as you catch other people's glances singing along, raising your big ole Texas sized beers to the crying skies.
Flogging Molly :: 4:00-5:00 p.m. :: AMD Stage
The water was whipping down in diagonal sheets during Flogging Molly, causing frontman Dave King to remark that he needed windshield wipers for his glasses because, "All I can see are spots." If he could have seen the crowd, he would have taken in a passionate throng at the front, carousing in spite of the rain, raising their arms and singing the words with their soaking faces turned towards the sky in complete ecstasy. With amphetamine, punked-up Irish drinking songs, with tin whistles and fierce fiddles, these silver-tongued storytellers brought out the Irish in all of us. A big standout for me was "If I Ever Get Out of This World Alive," whose title could very well be a nod to Hank Williams, delivered with the spitfire of Joe Strummer. At this point I realized my five-dollar poncho that I bought from some hippie on Barton Springs Road was completely soaked through, but no matter; I just stood under the trees and pogo-ed my shivers away through the end of their set. Note to self: Invest in proper rain gear.
|Flogging Molly by Perlaky|
Levon Helm Band :: 6:00-7:00 p.m. :: LIVESTRONG Stage
Helm couldn't sing under doctor's orders, having just had throat polyps removed a week earlier, but that didn't stop his spirit, and he was all joy behind that kit. Guitarist Larry Campbell took over the vocal reins for Levon on a couple songs, including a classic "Tennessee Jed," which is on his latest album, Electric Dirt, and got into a fiery duel with Helm on mando during a jiving "Deep Ellum Blues," which had some tuba thrown in for a twist. When Amy Helm and Teresa Williams switched off verses on "It Makes No Difference," one of The Band's best numbers, I dug my boots in the mud to keep myself steady while I swayed, drinking deep from their well. Closer "Chest Fever" had the horn section blaring and the organ wailing, drawing night in around us with a baptism of sound to match Mother Nature's swell. The warm grin on Helm's face as he left the stage said more than words could. This is one humble legend and we're lucky he's out there.
Sound Tribe Sector 9 :: 7:00-8:00 p.m. :: Xbox 360 Stage
The tent for DeVotchKa was rammed with folks hiding from the weather, so I thought I would reacquaint myself with STS9, who I hadn't seen in a few years. I stood towards the back of the crowd to take in their light show, which was easily one of the best of the festival, as the screens behind them whirled with imagery and the white lights swirled above the crowd, revealing hands and pockets of dancers in the sea below. They kept the show hurtling at a breakneck pace, ominous groans shifting into bass grooves and moments of twinkling space, mostly hitting upon angular trance movements. The set ended in a more old school STS9 fashion, with Hunter Brown breathlessly flying across the fretboard and the band coming to collectively rest on one soaring note.
Dave Matthews Band :: 8:00-10:00 p.m. :: LIVESTRONG Stage
With the mud sliding full force by this time, we had to watch our step as me made our way precariously down through the crowd assembled at the LIVESTRONG Stage, with the lasers from Ghostland Observatory - who I heard mostly great reports on the next day - forming a clear line in the sky over our head. I'd never actually seen Dave Matthews live, although back in my younger days, I will admit that one of the first CDs I bought with my own hard-earned babysitting money was Under the Table and Dreaming. In a weird coincidence, the other CD I bought was Pearl Jam's Vs., so this ACL had me reflecting on the past more than a few times. I remember when I first heard Under The Table, it was a refreshing respite, at least to my ears that were filled with grunge and punk rock, utterly different from most of the music in my collection, not to mention most of the music on the radio. It's easy to forget that when you look at the massive machine they've become since their humble beginnings, and Matthews' vocally appreciative stage presence at ACL made me think he isn't one to easily forget that.
|Dave Matthews Band :: ACL 09 by Ellis|
With the force of their instrumentation, DMB create a potent train of sound, especially on punchier songs like "Shake Me Like a Monkey" from their newest album, Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King. The highlight for me was definitely the jam during "Jimi Thing," with its swampy and lofty turns and a nasty trumpet and sax battle between Rashawn Ross and Jeff Coffin, where Ross worked that mute to its muckiest effect. Matthews then scatted with raucous grunts. They were well-oiled, keeping the whole thing tight and moving into a sly sing-song by Matthews: "You're a sexy motherfucker/ shaking that ass." A killer cover of "Burning Down to House," and especially the line, "Hold tight, we're in for nasty weather," had the crowd shrieking, as Ross and Matthews wove their vocal lines together.
I made my way to the back to get a sense of the scale of the audience, and it was sweet to see people with arms around each other, mouthing the words to older songs like "So Much to Say" and "Ants Marching." Although they may not be my scriptures, I appreciate the passion and community of real fans when I see it, and they've certainly found a band that gives them what they want with undeniable acumen. There's a lot of hope in this music, and lord knows that can be in short supply these days. I have to say, DMB certainly gave me some reasons to grasp those elusive feathers as I headed out of Zilker into the night.
Late Night: The Felice Brothers at Emo's Indoors
The sidewalks glistened on our pedicab ride downtown (big props to our hard working driver), the festivarians still chasing down music in the muggy night. Although part of me had wondered if I shouldn't have bought tickets to see a band I missed during the day, I absolutely had no regrets on this decision. The night shows can offer you something different, or even just more of what you love. And although there was a bounty to choose from, I'm glad I went with what I loved.
This show was incredibly intimate, with maybe a hundred heads or so, and counted amongst those were all of Deer Tick. Likeminded musical co-conspirators, they were brought onstage for a rousing rendition of Townes Van Zandt's "Two Hands," where McCauly jokingly tried to steal Farley's Yankees hat. Drawing heavily from their 2008 self-titled album, we were close enough to see the beads of sweat on the Felices' foreheads, while those of us down on the floor slung arms around strangers for "Whiskey In My Whiskey" and "Ballad of Lou the Welterweight." If Bob Dylan and The Band drew on what Greil Marcus dubbed "old weird America," what we witnessed this night was the rumblings of "new weird America," and there ain't no place I'd rather be.
Continue reading for Sunday's coverage of ACL...
Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band :: 1:00-2:00 p.m. :: The Wildflower Center Stage
Having spent my night getting rowdy with the Felices, my first show was Reverend Peyton, and he certainly got me revved for our last day at Zilker. This band would be perfect on the Squidbillies soundtrack, with song titles like "My Brother Stole a Chicken from the Fort Lang Zoo" and the infectiously catchy "Your Cousin's on 'Cops'." Both of these songs, as Peyton claimed is the case for all his tunes, are apparently based on true stories. With his wife Breezy Peyton twirling her washboard over her head, his brother drummer Jayme Peyton pounding with punk rock fury, and the Rev's TV-preacher-ready vocals and throaty steel-bodied guitar, they had the tent testifying revival style. These proud Indiana rednecks were the best damn way to start a Sunday!
|The B-52's :: ACL 09 by Perlaky|
The B-52's :: 2:00-3:00 p.m. :: AMD Stage
I admittedly was only familiar with their three biggest songs going in - "Love Shack," "Rock Lobster," and "Roam" - and so I assumed this show was simply going to be some good, nostalgic fun. But, this easily came in as one of my favorite sets of weekend. Seriously skilled musicians and jubilant performers, The B-52's create their own quirky world where you just have to throw your hands up and surrender. With the huge Austin dragonflies swooping over the crowd, a diverse demographic of old school fans and folks like me who probably knew them best from "Love Shack" being played at high school dances, they commanded the stage. The three lead singers - the soprano doo-wops and squeals of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, standing on either side of Fred Schneider, who distinctively delivers every line with the straight-faced seriousness of an emphatic supermarket sales announcer - saved those big hits for the end, with a loose take on "Shack" doused with some funk, but everything leading up to it was fried gold. A Cramps-like jitter snakes through their low end, slithering under the surf guitar waves that are scattered with sounds that could be pulled from B-movies where giant foam aliens rum amuck eating teenagers pulled from shiny convertibles. And I loved their wry use of language, whether it was the deliciously ironic ode to the mall "Funplex," (where Schneider proclaims, with proud irony, "I'm at the mall on a diet pill!") or "Love in the Year 3000," which had the Rocky Horror-worthy image "in the spandex spiral vortex," this Athens, Georgia outfit fearlessly shook their freak thang and the crowd responded in kind.
Jyspi :: 2:40-3:20 p.m. :: BMI Stage
On my way to the Dell Stage, I was called to this outfit by their dueling fiddle skills. I'm a sucker for anything bluegrass or bluegrass-related, and this Nashville group, three sisters and a brother, plus their backing duo on bass and drums, really delivered on the few songs I caught. Although they have a bit of a CMT-friendly hot girl image going on, they really pulled it out with vigor and heavy drive like Cornmeal, and more than a touch of the Dixie Chicks to keep it sugary. I enjoyed their distinctly feminine humor, with songs about flirting with officers to avoid speeding tickets and reconsidering writing a fuck-off message on a soon to be ex-lover's mirror ("I don't want to waste good lipstick on you"). Think I'm going to have to investigate further.
|E. Wennerstrom - Heartless Bastards|
ACL 09 by Perlaky
Heartless Bastards :: 3:00-4:00 p.m. :: Dell Stage
Drawing heavily from their latest release, The Mountain, Wennerstrom and co. played a solid set, with their simmering power washing over the crowd gathered at the Dell Stage. A fiddle player wove some mysterious energy through "So Quiet" and "Had to Go," and the stirring call to personal arms "Hold Your Head High" was in my own head the rest of the day as I felt my toes starting to ache in my boots from slipping and sliding through the muddy fields. With the sun breaking through to unveil a deep blue sky, the Bastards gave us plenty of true grit.
Ben Sollee :: 4:00-5:00 p.m. :: The Wildflower Center Stage
One of my happier discoveries of the festival was Sollee, who I was mainly familiar with as the cello player from Abigail Washburn's fab outfit The Sparrow Quartet. Under the tent, the crowd was hushed, held in rapt attention, and between the delicious shade and the quiet, it felt like a much-needed sanctuary where one could recharge their batteries. His cello picking had turns both feathery and thunderous, as his soulful voice traveled between hushed breaking points and clear vehemence in equal measure. Joined by a fiddle player and a drummer, his musical style draws on bits of jazz, pop, and roots, but is so seamlessly blended and filtered through his lyrical imagination that it becomes something captivating, fresh and completely his own. His words were great, too, from the wry gender stereotype commentary of "Boys Don't Cry" to "Panning for Gold," which featured some striking imagery, such as, "I saw God in the forest/ Teaching tai chi to the trees." Ending on a great cover of Cat Stevens' "Wild World," this was flat-out stellar.
Dirty Projectors :: 5:00-6:00 p.m. :: Dell Stage
I'm still not sure what to make of this. It was definitely one of the more intriguing sets I caught this weekend, but I'm not sure I quite found the heart in their mission. Still, the Projectors are really trying something unique, and they obviously believe in it, which makes it understandable why someone like David Byrne would champion them. There's simply no easy description for this band. Stitched together from so many pieces in unexpected patterns, every time I thought the music was about to fall apart, they would twist a knob, add a shake of this and a pinch of that, and, somehow, the whole mixture would gel. Then another twist and we'd be somewhere totally different. The unpredictability alone was captivating. One song started off with a serious blues kick, then the combined voices of Dave Longstreth, Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian sailed over the top. Drummer Brian McComber was a real standout for me, tying everything together with the beat and then snapping the thread. At one point he just threw driving beat after beat under Longstreth's guitar noodling, each one heavier than the last. Someone in the front of the crowd waved a plastic battle axe aloft in approval.
|Mosshart - The Dead Weather|
ACL 09 by Perlaky
The Dead Weather :: 6:00-7:00 p.m. :: LIVESTRONG Stage
Jack White's latest group, which sees him taking over on the drums, is heavy on the psych fuzz and manic blues, with plenty of sonic heft to pump your fists to. With a stage backdrop reminiscent of a Rorschach test, The Dead Weather definitely tap into some of the nightmarish recesses of the psyche. I was impressed with commanding frontwoman Alison Mosshart's moves, but the beginning of the set featured a lot of meandering and some plodding moments. About halfway through, it picked up, and as the sun drew us into a golden glow, the Weather drew us into a mental breakdown filled with heavy guitar squalls, pounding bass and some wild vocals from White and Mosshart. I do seriously dig the grind of "Treat Me Like Your Mother," where Mosshart sneers, "C'mon look me the eye/ You wanna try to tell a lie/ I'll bet you can't and you know why/ I'm just like your mother." She delivers the words with such acidic venom that one would surely think twice before trying to pull a fast one on her. I left the set wowed by but not yet in love with White's new outfit.
Michael Franti & Spearhead :: 7:00-8:00 p.m. :: Dell Stage
From the moment he stepped on the stage to the deafening cheers that hung in the air after he left, Franti owned every second of his stage time. The crowd was in the palm of his hand, and it was easily the most enthusiastic throng I saw at the Dell Stage all weekend, probably one of the more enthused of the festival. Say what you want about Franti (yes, he did ask us how we were feeling a few times), the guy knows how to work a crowd. As Spearhead seamlessly blended their hip hop, reggae, and rock elements into a riotous show, Franti would leap into the crowd, speak passionately about the power of music to bring folks together, and even moonwalked across the stage at one point to a "Billy Jean" tease. His absolute sincerity about what he's doing can't help but command your respect. I tend to like my music with more blood and bruises, but he thoroughly breaks down my resistance every time I see him. Playing well-known crowd-pleasers like "East to the West," "Everyone Deserves Music," and "Yell Fire," the set was turbo charged from start to finish, where several little kids sweetly came onstage for closer "Say Hey (I Love You)." "Clouds, we thank you for not raining down on us right now," Franti said at one point, noting, "It's a beautiful night, y'all." With the sunset streaking pink across a blue-gray sky, he was certainly right about that.
|Michael Franti & Spearhead :: ACL 09 by Perlaky|
Dan Auerbach :: 7:15-8:00 p.m. :: Austin Ventures Stage
I ventured over to take in some of Auerbach's set. Sinewy, meaty guitars to sink your teeth into, two ripping drummers (one of whom is Patrick Hallahan from MMJ), and slices-of-woe lyrics like, "I'm falling apart with all this money and trouble," kept things draped in the blues. Rollicking "My Last Mistake" had a radio friendly rock strut, or at least it would have back in the day when Tom Petty ruled the airwaves with brighter horizons and a bar band shimmy. Auerbach and co. were obviously enjoying themselves immensely, and with the Girl Talk crowd pumping to our right and the Spearhead crowd wildly waving to our left, at that moment, Auerbach's center of gravity felt like the most intimate corner of the bustling festival.
Pearl Jam :: 8:00-10:00 p.m. :: LIVESTRONG Stage
For many folks, this was the set of the weekend, and ACL couldn't have closed out on a better note. Playing a set that pulled ace after ace, Pearl Jam came in viciously swinging with the open wound yowl of "Why Go" followed by "Corduroy," which was drawn out something fierce at the end, as Vedder threw himself around with his guitar. The next two hours were big and heavy, giant foot stomps in the mud. The ending of "Daughter" was particularly thick, as Vedder hypnotically sang, "The shades go down," with muffled intensity over Jeff Ament's quaking bass line and twisted guitar work by Mike McCready and Stone Gossard. Vedder's vocals then broke down into wails and the lines spiraled down into blackness. "Thank you, Austin, you are some good singers," he remarked at the end. Although I tend to get a little spun out by big crowds, there was something seriously awe inspiring about thousands upon thousands of voices raised to the heavens singing along at once. Vedder remarked on how the band hadn't been back to Austin since 1995: "I just want to apologize. I don't know what the fuck we were thinking."
|Eddie Vedder :: ACL 09 by Perlaky|
Besides the raw muscle Pearl Jam is known for - and lord did we get beaten to a pulp throughout this set, especially in "Hail, Hail," "Insignificance," and "Don't Go" - what was so cool about this set was some of the details and quieter moments, the spaces between the thunder. I was particularly psyched to hear "Modern Girl," a song by the now sadly defunct Sleater-Kinney, teased at the end of "Not For You," as Vedder rumbled, "My whole life/ Is like the picture of a sunny day," or to watch the moon disappear and reappear behind a veil of clouds as he sang, "See the path cut by the moon," in "Unknown Thought," or the moment where Vedder looked wide-eyed over the crowd and said rather wistfully, "It looks like a fucking ocean... It's beautiful."
Ben Harper, who Vedder informed us he had stayed up drinking with until 8:30 that morning, "figuring everything out," came out for their first encore, and they did a song called "Jazzy Odyssey" before slinking into "Red Mosquito," (from their vastly underrated 1996 album No Code) before busting out "Do the Evolution," where Vedder appeared to collapse for a moment, then suddenly shot himself back up to throttle the mic before charging straight into "Alive." The second encore featured Perry Farrell (no kidding!) on "Mountain Song," perhaps hinting at an ACL headliner to come next year. Or perhaps Farrell just didn't want to be left out of the party. Finally, they sent us into the night with "Keep On Rockin' In The Free World," a tune they own as much as Neil Young's original version.
As we left the festival grounds and headed back to my apartment, our walk took us through the vendors. On the roof of Daily Juice, a DJ was spinning and various sorts were dancing together - hippies shaking in tie dye dresses, a couple of guys in UT hats, older women in their cowboy finery, sleepy kids slung on parent's shoulders - representing the diverse cross-section of Austin. I stopped for a moment to watch, my heart still pounding from Pearl Jam. I reflected on how they were the first band I fell in love with when I was young, and, having rediscovered them in the past couple years, I feel I've grown with them. Their lyrics are often as much about personal evolution as they are about anger, as much about acceptance and beauty as they are about the self-destructive nature of humanity. One of my favorite songs recently has been "Present Tense," and in many ways that summed up my experience at ACL this year. No matter the weather or other challenges, the most important thing is to grasp each moment for what it is. I remember standing in the muddy field, surrounded by thousands of other voices, singing that song's cathartic cry:
|Eddie Vedder - Pearl Jam :: ACL 09 by Perlaky|
You can spend your time alone
Redigesting past regrets
Or you can come to terms and realize
You're the only one who cannot forgive yourself
Ah, makes much more sense to live in the present tense
My mind was silent, as I simply took those words in. Although that moment has passed into memory, I can only hope some of its wisdom remains.
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Images by: Daniel Perlaky
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