Austin City Limits :: 09.17 - 09.19 :: Zilker Park :: Austin, TX

Before the opening notes even took place, the people of Austin were prepared for a big one this year, and they got what they expected.

In its third year of existence, the Austin City Limits Festival played host to its first sellout crowd the weekend of September 17 - 19, and somehow managed to pull it off with shorter lines, better accommodations, near-flawless production, and arguably its best lineup ever. Proving once again what can happen when the best little town in Texas decides to throw a party; the city welcomed record crowds with open arms for this year's event.

It's tough to think of another event that encompasses ACL's size while managing to pull in such a diverse cross-section of artists and fans, which in some sense mirrors the city's own eclectic personality and the TV program's long-standing tradition of pushing innovative music. And with zero arrests on the festival's most heavily attended weekend so far, one could easily be persuaded to believe that the promoters are onto something.

Without getting too deeply into logistics, I will say that the festival was extremely well orchestrated. There were lots of excellent local food options with reasonable prices and short lines, ample Port-a-Johns that were relatively clean, plenty of recycling, friendly staff, a laid back to borderline invisible police presence, and the most bicycle racks I've ever seen, all being used. Getting to the show is really the only tricky part because there is no parking, but it's a short cab ride from downtown and anything's better than waiting in 10 hours of traffic for a festival. The only long line I saw all weekend was for the shuttle buses, but that's avoidable if you know what you're doing.

FRIDAY :: 09.17.04

Brad Barr of The Slip : 09.17 : Austin, TX
The crowd started to trickle in early on Friday, to find one of the more oppressive weather days of the weekend. The Texas weather was the biggest obstacle to overcome during the weekend, with over 100 fans treated for heat-related medical conditions on Friday. However, festival staff responded by distributing free misting fans to the audience, which was a nice gesture even if they were only marginally functional.

Boston-based trio The Slip followed a short set by Tea Leaf Green to help get the weekend kicked off right. Highlighted by impressive work from guitarist Brad Barr, The Slip's set demonstrated its textured style of jazz grooves and a few songs from the recently released album Surprise Me Mr. Davis.

Blind Boys of Alabama : 09.17 : Austin, TX
Just as The Slip closed its set with a nice rendition of "Children of December," the Blind Boys of Alabama took the stage not far away, dressed in full suits despite the blistering heat. Performing to one of the most diverse crowds of the weekend, the Blind Boys ran through standards like "Amazing Grace," as well as music off their upcoming album with Ben Harper. Vocalist Jimmy Carter was led into the crowd mid-song late into the set, an amazing vision of a man possessed by the power of his own convictions.

As the late day sun dropped, I found refuge under a covered tent at the Gospel and Blues stage for a solid performance by the John Butler Trio. Deeply immersed in a tour supporting their most recent album Sunrise over Sea, the trio's set was both powerful and earthy. Butler's presence is compelling, and the polyrhythmic backdrop meshes nicely with his rootsy acoustic tones.

Particle kicked off a late afternoon set with an instrumental take on Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2," but a swelling crowd made it difficult to absorb the dancehall beats under the sun from my vantage point, so I headed up to the big stage to wait for Toots and the Maytals.

Toots Hibbert : 09.17 : Austin, TX
The Maytals wasted no time as they kicked off a great performance with the one-two combo of "Pressure Drop" and "Sweet and Dandy." As he danced around the stage with the enthusiasm of a much younger man, Toots Hibbert embodied the spirit of the reggae tradition he helped create decades ago. As the evening sun finally began to drop, the Maytals delivered the most memorable set of the evening to a deeply receptive audience.

Friday night was a little weird. Just as it got dark it seemed like everyone in the venue started going different directions, which isn't surprising considering the variety of headlining acts and their fans. The mass influx of the night crowd heading into the site coupled with the mass exodus of people from the daytime created a recipe for chaos. And although the family vibe at the festival is great, you've got to watch out for those baby strollers at night.

Sheryl Crow : 09.17 : Austin, TX
I caught the early part of Sheryl Crow's set on the main stage, but nothing about her band really jumped out at me. Although the renditions of her songs were as standard as they could be, her set did feature one of the few guest performances I saw all weekend when Ryan Adams sat in for "If it Makes You Happy." Collaboration between artists was something I had hoped to see more of, but it proved to be few and far between throughout the weekend. This was due in part to the fact that some of the sets were being recorded for broadcast on the television series.

I tried to get over to see the second half of Los Lonely Boys' set, but it was so crowded I could only watch from a distance and Henry Garza's impressive blues-infused chops were muffled by the audience and other music in the background. At this point I decided that for the next two nights I was going to just park it somewhere for the evening sets.

This would end up being a good plan for Saturday--the most heavily attended day in the festival's history, easily apparent from the outset. Although three-day wristbands were sold out before the weekend started, Saturday was the first time day passes were unavailable as well.

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