One of the best things about the Texas summer heat is the fact that the outdoor concert season extends well into the fall, when promoters in other areas are forced to cram audiences into overcrowded clubs, theaters and coliseums. This year the staff of the longest-running music program on television has taken advantage of the weather by putting together the first ever Austin City Limits Music Festival, bringing together over 65 diverse acts in the heart of the self-proclaimed “live music capitol of the world.”

The festival will take place in the Peace Grove section of Austin’s Zilker Park on September 28-29, long after the typical festival season has died down. The event will offer continuous music on six different stages – the Austin Stage, the Texas Stage, the Heritage Stage, the American Original Stage, the Feature Stage and, you guessed it, the Jam Stage. Headlining the event will be such acts as the String Cheese Incident, Jimmie Vaughan, Los Lobos, Emmylou Harris, Wilco, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Pat Green, Jack Ingram and Ryan Adams. The wide range of styles in these acts is a pretty good representation of the rest of the music that will be going on that weekend.

For a program that focuses largely on roots music, the festival’s organizers have done a great job of pulling in talent to represent the ever-expanding “anti-genre” that has come to be known as Jambands. In addition to SCI, the festival will include Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, Sound Tribe Sector 9, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Soulive, Particle, Topaz, The New Deal, Rebirth Brass Band, RANA and more bands are being added to the bill daily.

Lesser-known Texas acts like olospo, Monte Montgomery, The Weary Boys, SpaceTruck and Telluride Bluegrass Festival award-winners The South Austin Jug band might raise an eyebrow with the Jamband crowd as well. Among the myriad of other folks that will be gracing the festival’s various stages are the G. Love & Special Sauce, Asleep at the Wheel, The Jayhawks, Patty Griffin and The Gourds.

Austin City Limits started airing in 1974, and has since pulled in over 400 bands, whose only common thread is exceptional musicianship and an unwillingness to conform to industry standards of “pop” music. Among the show’s illustrious lineup of guests are Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Joan Baez, The Allman Brothers Band, Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Lyle Lovett and the list just keeps going.

In the last two years, the program has hosted three of the biggest new school Jambands around – Phish, Widespread Panic and SCI. Maury Sullivan, the program’s media coordinator, said that making Jambands a big part of the festival was an easy choice for the event’s organizers.

“Austin City Limits is about all types of American music, and Jambands are an important element of that,” she said. “Also, the show is about educating people on the different music out there. Showcasing these styles will expose older people to some of these great new bands, and bring in younger people in to see the influences that their favorite bands grew up listening to. Phish was one of the first big Jambands we’ve ever had on the show back in 2000. One of our favorite parts of that taping was when Trey Anastasio talked about coming to Austin for a show (3/6/93, Liberty Lunch) when Phish still drove their own tour bus, and stopping by our studio to watch the Bela Fleck taping while they were in town. That’s the kind of connection we’re always looking for.”

As any music fan living in Austin knows, attending a taping of Austin City Limits is a highly sought-after treat. Tickets are always free, but their release is shrouded in mystery and there are only 450 seats in the studio. The system is complicated, but designed to ensure that only die-hard fans end up at the performance and that no scalpers can access tickets.

The date of the show is announced at the same time that tickets are made available, which usually happens about a week before the taping. However, sometimes there is even less notice, so it is up to the fans to stay on their toes. They can call the studio and listen to the radio for information about when and where tickets will be released. Once an announcement is made, it’s a race against time to snatch up tickets. Two “space available” tickets are given out per person, which means that even a ticket-holder can only get into the taping if there seats left inside. So the tapings are first come, first served even after tickets are distributed, and a ticket does not guarantee admission.

Unlike other music television programs, Austin City Limits strives to make the episode as “close to being there” as possible. Shows run commercial-free on public television channels, including stage banter and behind the scenes interviews. But as close to being there as the show is, actually getting in the studio is much more difficult.

“Because a typical Austin City Limits taping is such a tough ticket, the show’s organizers have been looking for ways to make the program more accessible for a long time. We’ve worked really hard to make sure that as many of the country’s PBS affiliates as possible pick it up, and we’re happy to say that at this point 98% of them do. But beyond that, we wanted to make the show accessible to people who wanted to be there in person. The obvious conclusion was to take the show out of the studio. That’s how the idea for the festival came about.”

Planning for the festival started a year ago, and an official announcement was made May 1 after the promoters had attained access to the public land. From there, booking started at a feverish pace. An official schedule has still not been released, as more bands are expected to perform. The schedule will be available September 1.

Austin’s Mayor Gus Garcia said he is very excited about the event, and believes it will be a great opportunity to showcase the city’s best-loved characteristics – live music and green spaces. In addition to the music, the festival will also offer art exhibits, food tastings by Austin restaurants and a children’s area. The promoters hope to make this an annual event, which would create a nice balance with Austin’s annual South By Southwest music and film festival in the spring.

Due to the city’s sound ordinances, the festival will end at 11:00 PM each night – but that’s only the beginning of the action, because bands are scrambling to book space in Austin’s many clubs for late night mayhem. On Saturday night, Sound Tribe Sector 9 and The New Deal are playing at La Zona Rosa, and the Rebirth Brass Band is booked at Stubb's BBQ. Soulive is playing at Stubb’s on Sunday night, and Robert Randolph & the Family Band and the Blind Boys of Alabama will be doing a double-taping of Austin City Limits in the hallowed Studio 6A on Monday.

But there’s more. . .

Before the festival even begins, the Allman Brothers Band will be playing at The Backyard with the Derek Trucks Band, while Particle and olospo share a bill at La Zona Rosa across town on Friday, September 27.

Without a doubt, it’s going to be a wild weekend in Austin. Whether you’re local or just need an excuse to visit one of the most beautiful, vibrant and musical cities in the country, be sure to get your tickets early. Until August 15, one day tickets are $20 and weekend passes are $35. The prices then jump to $22.50 and $40 respectively through midnight on September 20. During the week leading up to the festival, prices will be $25 for a day pass and $45 for the weekend.

Travis Langdon
JamBase Austin Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 8/9/02]

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