Around 60,000 fans per day filled up Austin, TX's Zilker Park between September 19-21 to enjoy 130 acts performing on the banks of the Colorado River, and a buzz of excitement filled the town throughout the weekend. Particle bassist Eric Gould said that Austin City Limit's is the best festival he's taken part in along with Bonnaroo, while the event's producers made comparisons to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
The ACL festival finds its own identity by combing elements of other established festivals with something less tangible, yet something that is uniquely Austin. Austin's always been regarded as a music town, but what exactly it has to offer depends largely on who you ask. There are circles in Austin for blues, jazz, indie-rock, psychedelic music, country, punk, bluegrass, hip-hop, rockabilly and countless diversions.
In a city that prides itself on being a cultural anomaly, the festival's overall diversity ends up being the thing that sets it apart from other music gatherings. The crowd was old, young, liberal, conservative, freaky, redneck, straight-laced or completely over the top, like local legend and activist, Leslie Cochran. And no one was happier to celebrate this fusion of diversity more than Austin's own, who played sociable hosts to 40% of festival crowds from out of town and showed them what the city is all about.
If you go in expecting something in the hippie fest tradition, the lack of a Tent City scene might disappoint you. The festival's proximity to town eliminates the need for camping, which takes away from a little of the "free for all" element in audience vending. The prevalence of children (who even had their own stage), high school kids and adults gives the festival more of a family feel than a strictly 18-34 demographic. But the crowd looks and feels very familiar, and it's definitely a party if you're so inclined.
If you pace yourself you can spend the entire day checking out some of your favorite music as well as acts you've never heard before, and then hit the town after Zilker Park shuts down to find all sorts of talent filling up the clubs with more concentrated crowds and longer sets.
Friday's slowly accumulating crowd - presumably still finishing work or getting to town – may have missed Topaz, fronted by Austin native and saxophonist Topaz McGarrigle. The band's set was fairly mellow, a cohesive combination of slow acid-jazz grooves with more upbeat funk, punctuated by Mark Tewarson's harder, edgier guitar work.
Across the park, Cody ChestnuTT brought his audience a taste of soul. In the spirit of the blues with the power of funk, ChestnuTT's captivating stage presence and sly guitar playing leads a power trio setup. Pulling tracks from his recent double CD set, The Headphone Masterpiece, ChestnuTT often combined both of his hands to pluck on the guitar's fretboard, creating a distinctive texture in the sound.
Keeping up the energy, Particle gave the festival crowd a taste of the upcoming all-night show at The Vibe later in the weekend. Producing an increasingly layered sound, the band kept the dance beats churning, and kicked out a remarkable electro-instrumental take on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" during the set.
Another big draw on Friday was renowned artist and activist Steve Earle & the Dukes. Earle's performance at the festival coincided with the release of his new live album Just an American Boy – The Audio Documentary, which accompanies a film about the musician. Drawing from old staples like "Copperhead Road," Earle led an up-tempo set behind his gritty guitar and occasionally an electric mandolin.
Charlie Hunter is a consistently mesmerizing guitarist to watch, with his unique 8-string playing style that leaves unfamiliar audience members scratching their heads as they search for a bassist and organist onstage to no avail. The highlight of the set was the dark groove of "Freedom Tickler," which gave way to a more uplifting progression and eventually a drum solo by Derreck Phillips.
Alternately, you could have been listening to talented Texas singer, songwriter and guitarist David Garza, whose keen spirituality is hardly in question as he continues to build a fuller sound surrounding him to compliment his own. Liz Phair put a smile on our face with her humor and spunk, performing a number of songs from her newest self-titled album. Mexican-born, world-influenced Julieta Venegas delivered a stirring and exotic blend of rhythmic and melodic songs, using Latin, ska, Middle Eastern, and Celtic sounds for stylish spicing. And Gary Clark, a Hendrix-like talent with the look of soul and the feel of real blues, certainly encouraged by his granddaddy, W.C. Clark, the "Godfather of Austin Blues."
Galactic brought a very large crowd to the main stage for what seemed like a short but very intense set, with several new songs that seem to hint at a darker more visceral sound from the band's upcoming album Ruckus. Keyboardist Rich Vogel's overpowering effects during "The Moil" indicated a fresh level of spacey funk in the new material, and familiar tunes like "Moog Marmalade" got a notably heavier brush as well.
The Leftover Salmon performance across the park indicated that the band is redefining its style by reverting more and more back to the roots. With new members in the lineup and the premature death of founding banjoist Mark Vaan still fairly recent, the band has embraced a subtler more traditional style that still embraces a healthy blend of bluegrass, folk, rock and zydeco. Drew Emmitt's impressive musicianship remains the focal point, but keyboardist Bill McKay gives Leftover a fuller sound. A large crowd gathered for the performance, which concluded with long time favorite, "Euphoria."
Steve Winwood got the sunset slot on the main stage, performing music from his illustrious career with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith and from his recent solo release, About Time. Winwood blazed on the Hammond B3 for most of the set including "I'm a Man," but he also picked up a Fender Stratocaster to show off some impressive chops on the 6-string during "Dear Mr. Fantasy," as the setting sun emblazoned pinkish rays through the scattered evening clouds. The set ended with a disco funky organ-driven version of "Gimmie Some Lovin'."
The Rev. Al Green headlined Friday evening, donning a classic white suit for the occasion and charming the ladies up front with red roses. Starting with "Let's Get Married," the big band-driven set featured many crowd favorites including the obligatory "Let's Stay Together." Green's voice still possesses the smooth and seductive quality that made him famous, but a slightly gimmicky production and frequent banter during songs was a little distracting. Nevertheless, Green demonstrated enthusiastic showmanship and a love of performing throughout his set to close out the first night.
Saturday morning was cloudy and gray, which ended up being the ideal environment to see The Dandy Warhols, a prog-pop quartet ever so slightly reminiscent of The Velvet Underground that amassed a large crowd early in the day. A good portion of the set was slow and dreamy, with the band sampling tunes of its most recent release, Welcome to the Monkeyhouse as well as older material. During the slightest drizzle of rain, guitarist Peter Holmstrom kicked off a slowed down version of AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" at the request of a fan up front.
The rain picked up to its heaviest fall of the weekend while we were watching the Drive-By Truckers, but the crowd was not to be distracted from the gritty southern power rock led by the band's three guitars. Although their sound occasionally becomes a little muddled, the Truckers bring about an assault when they are on. The band's performance of its newest album's title cut, "Decoration Day," evoked some dark imagery, but the crowd was all smiles when Patterson Hood narrated a heartfelt tale of redneck romance in "Eighteen Wheels of Love" as the band passed around a sluggin' bottle of Jack Daniels on the stage.
The rain cleared up and gave way to one of the best performances of the weekend as Robert Randolph sat down at the pedal steel on the big stage. He kicked off the set with "Going in the Right Direction," before inviting Luther and Cody Dickinson from The North Mississippi Allstars to join him for "The March." Randolph played with the Allstars at local bar La Zona Rosa the night before, which featured a slew of special guests including a surprise appearance of Jeff "Skunk" Baxter of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. Before his set on Saturday, Randolph told us at the press tent that Baxter called him out of the blue when he heard they would both be in Austin at the same time, so he invited him to the show on Friday night to sit in. Randolph said he loved playing with him the night before and didn't want him to leave the stage – which helps explain Baxter's appearance at the festival to tear through Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and "Voodoo Chile."
Randolph's style crosses over to many of the different crowds at the festival, and his stage presence is compelling. He ended his set with "I Need More Love" passing his microphone to the folks in the front for backup vocals, and he also made appearances later in the weekend to jam with Ben Harper and String Cheese Incident.
Just as Randolph left the stage, North Mississippi Allstars kicked off their set with a cover of "Sittin' on Top of the World" one stage over. The Allstars have a whole new depth to their sound, driven by the powerful rhythmic core of Chris Chew on the bass and Cody Dickinson on drums. Cody is no slouch one the guitar or the washboard either, which he demonstrated during a tune from Polaris while guitarist Duwayne Burnside (yes, son of gritty southern blues legend R L Burnside) sat down at the skins. The Allstars also performed with several other acts in the Johnny Cash tribute earlier that afternoon, which was one of several recognitions in his honor throughout the weekend.
The String Cheese Incident headlined on Saturday with two sets to delve into their increasingly electronic palette of sounds, as Billy Nershi picks up the acoustic guitar with far less regularity these days. If there were a low point of the set it may have been the new tune, "Tinder Box," which sounds almost like a forced departure from the band's style.
Between sets, Michael Franti & Spearhead, with his spirit-speaking-for-humanity and musical prowess left fans speechless, and Café Tacvba delivered a surprising and energetic performance in Spanish that sounds like a combination of the Violent Femmes and Mexican ballads.
The second of SCI's sets was full of surprises, starting with a video montage combining Pink Floyd's "Pig's on the Wing" with the episode of The Simpson's during which the same infamous floating swine makes an appearance during Peter Frampton's set at Hullabalooza. With a tongue-in-cheek nod to both, a giant inflatable pig which the band recently acquired from Pink Floyd (who flew it last in 1977) was led by festival staff through the crowd as the band thumped through "Another Brick in the Wall pt. 2." The music accompanying this spectacle segued to a brilliant version of "Howard," which was followed by a heartfelt rendition of "Ring of Fire" – again paying homage to the late, great Johnny Cash. Nickel Creek's Chris Thile and his blazing mandolin joined SCI during "Remington Ride," and Robert Randolph added an unusually subtle touch of jazz to "Rhythm of the Road."
Sunday's overcast weather mattered little as music-lovers were nudged into consciousness with Soulive's infectious jazz/soul/hip-hop groove. G. Love & Special Sauce, whose combination of easy-going talent and confidence make it your heartstrings he so deftly bends on his guitar, chose to duet with Soulive's Eric Krasno. Jack Johnson, who brought out G.Love for a duet, and Ben Harper, playing with Robert Randolph against the coral sky, both delivered soul-stirring ballads that translated into an emotive crowd.
The Polyphonic Spree provided a spiritual lift for Sunday's crowd, with a whole new spin on gospel music. Clad entirely in white robes, the 24-piece ensemble combines multi-layered instrumentation with a vocal choir to produce a psychedelic spiritual sound that is both uplifting and utterly fascinating. Dallas' Tim DeLaughter, formerly of Tripping Daisy, led the group through a high-energy set of material predominantly from The Beginning Stages of. . .The Polyphonic Spree. The act is almost overwhelming, but its members' collective enthusiasm validates the experience and leaves even skeptics marveling at Delaughter's vision and execution of this truly unprecedented orchestration.
The Polyphonic Spree
Perhaps possessing one of the most understated, perfect balance of body, mind and soul in a musician, Karl Denson got right down to his signature funky jazz, but fans know that an hour-long set was just a warm-up for this saxophone/flute guru of endurance. And as the third day progressed, it was this energy, followed by that of bluegrass blazers Yonder Mountain String Band and idiosyncratic rebels Ween that drove the masses as the evening clouds gave way to a gorgeous final festival sunset. Perhaps drawing inspiration, Ween's Mickey Melchiondo proclaimed the evening's rendition of "Zoloft" to be the best version they've ever played with only the slightest hint of sarcasm.
ACL's final headliner was introduced by one of the city's quintessential citizens, Lance Armstrong, but the band's own front man Michael Stipe followed up by saying, "We are R.E.M., and this is what we do." We should all have the fortune of introducing ourselves in such style. R.E.M. closed out the weekend in grand fashion with a set full of dedications and a few requests, touching on a little of everything from the band's distinguished canon of material. Capping a four-song encore that included a duet of "Nightswimming" with Stipe and Mike Mills, the full band shut things down with a frenzied run through "It's the End of the World as We Know it."
Michael Stipe | R.E.M.
After only its second year, The Austin City Limits Festival is well on its way to establishing itself as one of the premiere annual musical events in the country. With more bands, an extra day, better food (we would be remiss if we did not mention the best eateries of Austin serving up delicious fried green tomatoes, Stubbs BBQ sandwiches, fried Snickers and dozens of specialties), shorter lines, cooler weather and many more in attendance, the 2003 version proved to be an all around better time than its inaugural predecessor – which was far from shabby to begin with.
Words: Travis Langdon & Vanessa Hodgkinson
Images by: Tony Stack
JamBase | Texas
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