Words by Adam Kaye :: Images by Tony Stack

Austin City Limits :: 09.23 - 09.26 :: Austin, TX

This year's Austin City Limits Festival brought over 130 bands to town to play on eight stages for a crowd totaling more than 170,000 people. Some of the most popular bands in music spanning the course of the last 30 years took turns entertaining the crowd and, more importantly, distracting the festival guests from the oppressive 100-degree heat.

Oasis :: Austin City Limits 2005
Though it has historically been uncomfortably warm for this event, the intense temperatures came as a bit of a surprise this time around after a full week of anxious speculation about Hurricane Rita's course and the effect that she might have on the weekend's planned festivities. After an unanticipated turn to the North on Wednesday, festival organizers put out the official word on their website – the festival was on and it was supposed to be more comfortable than previously expected - maybe even some rain.

It seemed as though everything over which the festival organizers had some control ran unbelievably smoothly - so smoothly that people were dumbfounded over how so many tens of thousands of people could be accommodated so efficiently. Even the longest lines for food and drinks were 10 or 15 minutes long, and anybody who went to the trouble of arriving 15 minutes early for a set had their choice of great spots to sit or dance. The schedule was well-planned so that adjacent stages alternated sets, which had two advantages: you could pick a spot in front of the stage on which your favorite band was going to play next and enjoy the set from the stage next-door while you waited, and you rarely had to worry about music from the stage next-door bleeding into the sound of the band who you were watching.

Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon :: Austin City Limits 2005
Of course with so many great bands, it was impossible to see everything you wanted to see. Experience taught that choosing two or three sets at the beginning of the day and planning everything else around them made for a far more enjoyable event than attempting to catch a portion of every set out there. But the beautiful thing was that it was up to each individual attendee to decide which type of experience they preferred. (For an inkling of how your weekend might have gone, check out the official schedule.)

Unfortunately, the weather was so overwhelmingly uncomfortable, the weekend became a lesson in endurance, forcing everyone in attendance to ask himself or herself, "How much discomfort am I willing to put up with in order to see this music?" When the sun finally set around 7:30 each day, the dust kicked up and created a cloud so thick that by Sunday evening's festival-closing Coldplay set, fifty percent of the attendees were wearing handkerchiefs across their faces Jesse James-style or pulling their t-shirts up over their faces. After the first day, the wristbands for admittance became unnecessary because you could tell who had been out there the day before from the sunburns.

Allman Brothers :: Austin City Limits 2005
Each night, a handful of the most popular bands from the festival had "aftershows" booked at several of Austin's favorite music venues. Friday night's The Arcade Fire show with The Black Keys at Stubb's BBQ had the most buzz going into the weekend, and very few left disappointed. Saturday night was a difficult choice between Wilco at Stubb's and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band with MOFRO at Antone's. As it turned out, you could have caught all of Wilco's great set and still had time for a slice of pizza on 6th Street on your walk to Antone's before The Dozen hit the stage. A good-looking and fun crowd bounced around to extra-high energy versions of New Orleans staples like "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Fire on the Bayou." Guest appearances from John Popper, Robert Randolph and his cousin Marcus, Ivan Neville, MOFRO's JJ Grey, Corey Henry (Soul Rebels) and Papa Mali kept the band playing past 2:00 a.m., which is the highest compliment a bar in Austin can pay. Also deserving mention was Thievery Corporation's weekend-kickoff show at Stubb's Thursday night. Those who attended noticed some similarity in the band's festival spot Friday, but nobody was complaining.

The Black Crowes :: Austin City Limits 2005
The festival officially began Friday before noon, but with so many locals at work still, the grounds didn't begin to fill up until much later in the day. Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon used the first set on the main stage to promote their new album Sixty Six Steps and served as the perfect way to ease into the day. Next, Florida's MOFRO shared their soulful swamp-rock while Kasabian kept a large indie crowd moving with a strong, fast dance beat. Steve Earle and the Dukes preached revolution through blues guitar, but John Medeski filling in for Gov't Mule's keyboardist (Danny Louis) who had a family emergency seemed to impress fans a little more. Indie pop husband-and-wife duo Mates of State created a full, rockin' sound using just keyboards, drums, vocal harmonies, and cheesy ear-to-ear grins. Next, the rotating cast of Thievery Corporation delivered one of the best sets of the day, which is saying quite a bit in the company of Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, and still-relatively-new hometown heroes Spoon. Just before the last set of the night, The Allman Brothers Band delivered a straight-ahead, sing-along hour of greatest hits, and Blues Traveler kept the masses entertained on their way to see the main attraction – The Black Crowes. The Crowes' set took some daring and interesting turns before concluding with the can't-miss classics to which everybody used to drive too fast in high school - "Jealous Again," "Hard to Handle," and "Remedy."

Death Cab for Cutie :: Austin City Limits 2005
For those brave enough to drag their hangovers and sunburns to the Fest before 2:00 p.m., Saturday's early highlight came from the lightning-fast banjo, unique one-string gas-tank bass, and pleasantly gruff voices of Split Lip Rayfield and from Aqualung, who sold more CDs on site than anybody else at the festival and chose to end his mellow, pretty set with an entertaining sing-along version of Queen's "Someone to Love." Blues legend Buddy Guy delighted his crowd while Built to Spill did their thing at the other end of the festival grounds. Ireland's The Frames shared their violin-inflected rock music, including a tune that transitioned neatly into "Pure Imagination" from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Dave Schools (WSP) :: Austin City Limits 2005
Local gang, Asylum Street Spankers sang a song about watching TV that included the theme songs from a handful of shows like The Jetsons, Green Acres, and Jeopardy. Death Cab for Cutie had their loyal fans mouthing the words, and Robert Randolph and the Family Band had plenty of people talking about them after a "Billie Jean" opener and a guest appearance from John Popper on a raging cover of "Good Times, Bad Times." Around dinnertime, the horns and bass of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band rocked the dining area and gave those within earshot a few moments to think about New Orleans. The last sets of the day belonged to the wailing, bass-heavy Bloc Party for the indie dancers and to Widespread Panic for the hippie rockers. Panic took full advantage of their distinction as the only band to play two sets to rock the Earth with percussion and guitar.

The Arcade Fire :: Austin City Limits 2005
Sunday belonged to The Arcade Fire, with honorable mention going to Wilco and Coldplay. The Arcade Fire from Montreal took a song or two to really get going, but overall their set was pretty much perfect. Like a cross between The Polyphonic Spree and The Cure, they had the crowd singing along with a ton of heart. They also showed genuine concern for their fans, reminding them to spend some time in the shade and tossing their own water bottles out into the crowd. The band includes guitar, cello, violins, bass, keys, drums, and xylophone, and costumed in black, almost medieval outfits, the players deliver a performance in every sense of the word. This particular version of "Tunnels" included a dramatic battle between player and cymbal that was ultimately won by the cymbal – and then the player.

Franz Ferdinand :: Austin City Limits 2005
There was a very natural progression from The Arcade Fire to The Decemberists, who mentioned they were upset to be missing Bob Mould Band, against whom they were scheduled. Next, most had to choose between Wilco and Franz Ferdinand. Wilco delighted fans old and new with their moving, intricately written songs and powerful wall of sound. Lead-man Jeff Tweedy exhibited his ability to be both rock star and everyman by "groveling" (his word) for enthusiasm and participation from a crowd that was obviously feeling the effects of three days in the Texas summer sun and returning the favor by rocking their faces.

Chris Martin (Coldplay) :: ACL 2005
After The Black Keys and Tortoise split the crowd, Coldplay's Chris Martin voiced his appreciation that so many people had stuck around despite a record high of 107 degrees. He also raved about The Arcade Fire's set from earlier in the day, which he credited as an inspiration for him to be venturing outside of his normal comfort zone in hopes of delivering an equally-inspiring performance. If it weren't for the suffocating cloud of dust, Coldplay's set would have been a really fun way to close the festival, though it was sort of fun to hear the line "Look up at the stars" and to be unable to see any of them through the dusty blue haze. Even so, everybody heard all the songs they were hoping to hear, most had something positive to say about the set, and everybody headed home in high spirits to begin the recuperation process.

Because the festival took place in a park in the middle of town, most attendees who hadn't taken the free shuttle walked at least 20 minutes from their parking spaces to reach the festival grounds. Luckily, you could hear the music on the walk back to the car in the evening, so those who weren't interested in hanging around in a crowd of thousands in a thick cloud of dust could still sing along to the Coldplay singles that they usually only get to enjoy in the car.

Austin City Limits 2005
A lucky few hundred attendees extended their weekends a day by attending the taping of an episode of the television show after which the festival is named. Blues Traveler taped at 2:00 in the afternoon, and Widespread Panic used their 9:00 slot, the second in the band's career, to re-etch their names in one of modern music's greatest trophies. It was a strong set in a classic, intimate setting with guitarist George McConnell delivering the weekend's most blistering solo during "North." Austin City Limits' 31st season begins October 8 with Jack Johnson followed by Rilo Kiley and will include Etta James, Alison Krauss + Union Station, Franz Ferdinand, Ben Folds, The Killers, Gretchen Wilson, Spoon, and more. Widespread's taping is scheduled to air in February. Check the website for local listings.

The organizers of the Austin City Limits Festival have made vast improvements each of the last four years in direct response to the feedback they've received from those in attendance. They've successfully tackled long lines and overwhelming crowds, but the event is still two to three weeks too early to be comfortable. If you're considering attending in the future, email them today to request a later date; the festival experience you save might be your own.

And as one wise visitor pointed out, the main reason anybody should visit Austin is the vibe of the people. As far as that was concerned, it was another perfect weekend.

JamBase | Austin
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[Published on: 10/6/05]

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