Austin is simply riddled with places to hear live music. In October, once the 100-degree days of summer have started to subside, the Austin City Limits Festival convenes in Zilker Park just south of town and collects up 130 artists in one place over three days. This distinctly Austinite vibe pervades the grounds – something akin to the love child of Joan Jett and Townes Van Zandt, with Jeff Bridges acting as godparent – leading to music that’s invariably both well crafted and energetic in various forms all day, with a healthy slathering of weird. 8 stages feature a rolling menu of delights from noon to 10pm, and this year, the weather was fantastic along with the music.
Friday got going with Colorado transplants Asleep At The Wheel call Austin their home now, and have played ACL Fest all 9 years of it’s existence. I felt like it was the most natural thing in the world to listen to these guys play gems like “Miles and Miles of Texas” under a clear, sunny Austin sky. Taking a page from Jack Johnson’s book, Donavon Frankenreiter casually rolls out song after song of relaxed acoustic groovy tunes with a mustache to write home about.
Blues Traveler churns through their high-energy blues/pop set featuring almost 20 years of songs. Jams fly from John Popper’s harmonica, Ben Wilson’s keyboards, and Chan Kincherla’s guitar. Brother and sister duo from Australia with a hugely popular international album out right now, Angus & Julia Stone play primarily acoustic guitar-driven songs with higher-range melodic vocal leads from one or both sibs.
For two guys, The Black Keys have the richest, grittiest punch I’ve heard. Both of them put everything into a live set every time they come out. Rolling, snaky midwestern industrial funk-tinged fuzzy blues rock goodness. Band Of Heathens were a real discovery for me. An Austin band, they are squarely Americana – and I mean that in the best possible way. Teasing out ingredients from the Band’s vocals and early Little Feat syncopation at times, while not being afraid to embrace a clearly country vibe at times, they seem immediately familiar and often made me shake my hips. I will see them again live. I was particularly impressed that they do a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Look At Miss Ohio” – and it completely fits their set. In the tent stage out of the sun, Nortec Collective Presents Bostich + Fussible was still one of the hottest acts of the day. A seeming combination of mariachi and hip hop, these guys had everyone – *everyone* – clapping and cheering and dancing with their cowboy hats, guitars, tuba and laptops. What a totally fun collective experience between audience and band! Another great find for me this weekend.
Sonic Youth were punchy, sometimes discordant, always energetic, with a wry sense of humor and a really down to earth approach. I ran into Steve Shelley and Mark Ibold at Mellow Johnny’s bike shop on Friday morning, and they were just very nice guys. Love their music, and their whole approach. As a live act, their energy and self-expression are really satisfying.
Ryan Bingham is utterly at home in a setting like this. Raised in Texas and a bullrider as a young(er)ster, Ryan Bingham actually wrote the theme song to the movie Crazy Heart as well as singing it on the soundtrack. Jeff Bridges as godfather indeed. Everyone speaks to the whiskey-and-cigarettes sound of his voice…and really, it’s apt. He’s got that curving crunch to his guitar and casual way of sounding both world weary and comfortable with it that invites you to sit back and listen to what he’s singing about. Robert Randolph is Simply a freight train. He flies out of the station from the top of the set, and just builds and builds without stopping no matter how many turns the music takes. He generally camps out at his pedal steel tearing off high-energy bouncing gospel-tinged blues riffs, but even when the band switches instruments the energy continues to climb. What a great performer.
Finally, Phish -– A great set. Arranged in a line across the stage, they came out and jammed for a couple hours solid. The lights were the best of the festival, the songs ranged from new to rare gems, and the crowd were eating it up. They sounded tight, and were clearly enjoying playing together. For a band that’s split and rejoined, it’s great to see their cohesion and musicianship intact.
Saturday started off easy with Lissie playing easy melodies in the sun, then shifted gears during Grace Potter & the Nocturnals set to a higher level of engagement and energy, and really stayed there all day. Pete Yorn was happy as a clam to be playing ACL and his set was a solid rocking testament to that. Lucero‘s deep shattered-but-charming vocals framed a loose & playful set. Mayer Hawthorne‘s polished Motown style got folks attention on a lazy summer afternoon. Beats Antique really roared in the tent with dancing, drums (kit and marching bass drum), fiddle and laptops; Local Natives led one singalong after the next to a rabid and swelling crowd; Monsters of Folk sauntered on stage to William DeVaughan’s “Be Thankful For What You Got”, and traded harmonies and licks to show they were just that; Gogol Bordello knocked a number of socks off with dancing, wine and multicultural mayhem.
Everyone was looking for Deadmau5‘s now-famous ears and beats, but the giant cube stood on end that server as both DJ booth and LCD projector took the visual accompaniment to another level altogether. To cap the day, Muse does a really big stage show in grand style – lights, costumes, music, moves, all of it. The crowd drank it in with relish.
Seems the theme Sunday was “expect the unexpected”. Seeing Ted Leo and the Pharmacists open the main stage was great, but surpising, and set the tone. Portugal. The Man played in a hoody in the bright sun, and kept the unconventional and pleasant vibe rolling. Gayngs cancelled because the bus driver made off with all their equipment, so Lance Herbstrong stepped in and played a rollicking DJ set that included a 9′ tall inflatable cat, a miked motorcycle, and 100 friends & staff dancing on stage. Trombone Shorty shook the tent with his virtuousity and audience involvement. The Henry Clay People were tossing off a couple bars of “Rosie” by Jackson Browne during their warmup, then came out and casually cut straight through the crowd on the BMI stage with a short sharp shock of a set. Edward Sharpe‘s traveling collective led something bordering on mystical for the audience, walking the rail along the security pit while touching hands with hundreds of folks.
The Flaming Lips spewed weird and wonderful – from the costumes, balloons, confetti, videos, and act-along bits to the ACL poster with Wayne’s blood involved. Norah Jones provided a brief period of calm, although given the rest of the day, it stood out for how quiet and reserved it was more than anything. Cage the Elephant flew around the stage (and off it) through their set.
Finally, the odd part about the Eagles set: There was nothing unpredictable about it, and it was *fantastic*. Turns out, a great many people are Eagles fans (secretly or not-so-secretly). They were the only band playing during this last slot of the weekend, and it felt like they wrapped up the festival weekend with a cowboy lariat for a bow.