AUSTIN CITY LIMITS BEGINS A NEW ERA

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The inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival created a considerable surge of excitement in an already bustling music scene September 28 and 29, with over 40,000 in attendance and local clubs catching any spillover by booking some of the non-headlining talent throughout the weekend. Minor logistical flaws aside, the festival went off without a hitch, and the promoters and sponsors seemed confident and enthusiastic that the event will take place annually.

Ryan AdamsProducer Terry Likona said in a press conference that he would love to see the festival establish a reputation as one of the country's premiere musical events, eventually rivaling the television program upon which it was based in duration, popularity and importance.

As it turned out, the festival attracted a cross-section of fans rarely seen at musical events these days. Six stages were devoted to different musical and regional styles, so audiences could see everything from the gritty Austin sound of The Arc Angels (with members formerly of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble) on the Feature Stage, to blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa on the American Original Stage, to rockabilly's newest hero Pat Green on the Texas Stage, to the diverse stylings of Bob Schneider formerly of Ugly Americans and The Scabs on the Heritage Stage, to acoustic virtuoso Monte Montgomery on the Austin Stage. Certainly a family affair, there was even a mini-stage with different bands playing children's music - appropriately dubbed "Austin Kiddie Limits."

String Cheese IncidentBut the most surprising attraction at the festival was the Jam Stage, which represented an area of American music that Austin City Limits has recently delved into more heavily - with episodes featuring Phish, Widespread Panic, The String Cheese Incident and Bob Weir's Ratdog airing since 2000.

Coincidentally, the Allman Brothers Band, which also once performed on Austin City Limits, was playing at The Backyard the night before the festival kicked off. The band used its marathon single set as a sampler of some of the guitar prowess that was in town for the festival, including The Jayhawk's Gary Louris and Austin guitarist Eric Johnson, who joined the band for a meaty version of "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." As Warren Haynes commented about the unusual number of great guitarists in Austin, the audience cheered in anticipation of the action ahead.

The weather was clear and hot throughout the weekend, but it was easy to track down a shady place to rest in Zilker Park's lush surroundings. The music started early both days, with over 70 acts staggered throughout the 15-acre parameter.

The Blind Boys of Alabama got things going Saturday on the Feature Stage, but more people had trickled into the grounds by the time Los Lobos started playing. The first band to amass a standing crowd at the Jam Stage was The New Deal. Keyboardist Jamie Shields' hypnotic chops layered over a pulsing rhythm got the crowd moving, but the band only scratched the surface of what it can do musically.

WilcoThis was a recurring problem at the Jam Stage throughout the weekend, as several of the daytime performers fall into the techno/electronica spectrum of the genre, which translated only so well to the open space and berating Texas sun.

Wilco pulled in a sizeable crowd at the Feature Stage, but they were mixed a lot more softly than other bands on the big stage, which made it difficult to hear from the back. Moreover, the band went over its time limit, so there was a lot of clashing sound when the Jayhawks started playing at the nearby Heritage Stage.

Sound Tribe Sector 9Meanwhile, Sound Tribe Sector 9 had undivided airspace at the Jam Stage, and kept the trancejam dance beats churning, driven largely by Zach Velmer's impressive drumming. The band thrives in its ability to slide in and out of frenzied excitement and intoxicating interludes, and they got bigger timeslot to freestyle during their late night gig at La Zona Rosa with The New Deal.

At this point the crowd at the Jam Stage split, as some rushed to hear the String Cheese Incident's first set across the park at the Feature Stage, and others moved to the nearby Texas Stage to check out bluegrass revivalists Nickel Creek.

Michael KangThe String Cheese Incident was Saturday's headliner, and the only act on the bill that got two sets to stretch out. Fusing many musical styles, the band took advantage of the extra time to tackle ambitious, multi-faceted improvisational sections - perhaps most notably in the second set's closer, "Rollover." Kyle Hollingsworth's keyboard work was notable throughout the show, and the always-impressive Michael Kang led the band through its more exploratory moments.

SCI attracted Saturday's biggest turnout during both sets, which illustrated the popularity with fans across the board of combining traditional lyricism and instrumental experimentation. After the press conference, Cheese bassist Keith Mosely mentioned that the new wave of jambands is a somewhat natural progression in ACL's distinguished history of covering American music.

"The improv that we do is based on roots music," Mosely said. "That's what I grew up listening to - Americana, country music, classic rock - that's really the basis for my musical education, and it's still really what I enjoy listening to. So it feels pretty normal to be part of the Austin City Limits scene, and we loved to be able to play on the show last summer. We've played with some of these bands before and I listen to a lot of the others, so it doesn't feel like much of a stretch. We've got broad tastes, and we're happy to be here."

Karl DensonWhile the Cheese took its break, a big crowd gathered across the park for Soulive's short but sweet set on the Jam Stage. The band came out strong, and managed to maintain a high level of synergy between themselves and the crowd, despite technical difficulties early in the set. The band was warming up for a later show that night at the Mercury.

People started filling in earlier on Sunday, and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe brought a respectable crowd to the Feature Stage early in the day. Sticking primarily with tunes from his new release, The Bridge, Denson maintained an impressive stage presence with his masterful playing and amusing stage banter.

G LoveThe crowd at the Feature Stage only continued to grow between Denson and the next act, G. Love & Special Sauce, who put on one of the most entertaining and overall crowd-pleasing sets of the night. About as cool a cat as you see onstage today, Love has developed a unique style that meshes a folk sensibility with a hip hop flavor, accented with deft but subtle musicianship. To a backdrop of the trio's infectious and surprisingly tight grooves, Love touched on old classics and newer tunes, occasionally trading rhymes with drummer Jeffrey Clemens, also known as "The Houseman."

Eric Gould of ParticleParticle drew a large crowd to the Jam Stage and played a set loud enough to reach the crowd assembled at the Texas Stage waiting for Emmylou Harris. Keyboardist Steve Molitz, shows equal enthusiasm whether the band is drifting pleasantly through harmonic noodling, or raging through raunchy thrash beats.

At the same time, Ryan Adams was demonstrating his guitar-driven alternative pop style on the Feature Stage. Although Adams used much of his set to break out tunes from his recently-released third solo album, Demolition, he also covered tunes by The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones.

Robert RandolphLater, at the Heritage Stage, Robert Randolph & the Family Band tore through a blistering set of steel guitar-driven power. Always the showman, Randolph brought a crowd of fans onstage to teach the dance to "The March," and teased Black Sabbath during his searing cover of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile." He invited his childhood guitar instructor Calvin Cooke to sit in for a few tunes, as he would again the next night at his Austin City Limits studio taping with The Blind Boys of Alabama, which will air December 21. Check with your local PBS affiliate to find out exactly what time the episode will run.

Overall, the festival was an outstanding first effort, and one that will certainly continue to elevate the program's reputation providing future events can boast the same kind of talent in so many different musical spectrums. If the lineup of musicians in this year's festival was an indication of things to come, then expect the producers of television's longest running music program to keep incorporating bands with a knack for improvisation into the show's illustrious tradition of great artists.

Words: Travis Langdon
Photos: Tony Stack
JamBase | Austin, TX
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[Published on: 10/7/02]

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