What follows will be the summation of three days in attendance of live music. The events are pieced together as best as possible...
There we were, walking like a bat out of hell to this year's Austin City Limits Music Festival. Being from Austin it has been easy for me to take the Middle School approach to arrival for the past couple of years - getting one of my parents to drop me off. This year though, I live close to the grounds, so walking was the order of business. From my front door to the festival gates I'd imagined a quick and painless mile and a half walk, but the reality of waiting through traffic lights, railroad crossings, and heavy foot traffic while nursing a substantial hangover from the pre-festival antics was a bitch. Once we got to the front gates my feet had blisters, I'd downed the two waters and my shirt was soaked through. Bikes on day two, for sure.
After exchanging multiple texts with Chip, I realized I would be the sole source of coverage for the first part of the day so onward we went into the festival with journalistic intentions. We crossed the threshold of Zilker Park at around 2:15pm and with a quick assessment of our current situation with regards to time and location we realized that the Heartless Bastards were going to be our first casualty of the fest, catching their set only in passing. This is a shame as the Bastards are quite the rocking three-piece. This left us with a quick decision to make... Pete Yorn or BÃ©la Fleck. The latter won out as I'd seen Yorn before, and my friends didn't care for much of his catalogue, and off we went to the AMD stage.
I instantly remembered Fleck and his Flecktones from one glance at the Wooten Brothers onstage. Given my inclination towards indie rock, I'd nearly forgotten about the talent and musicianship of the "jam" band. I'll say this though (and I know it's probably been said before), Victor Wooten is probably one of the meanest bassists I have ever seen. Normally it'd be hard to take your eyes away from the guy as he plucks and slaps that five-stringed beast with fury, except that on the opposite side of the stage stands a man dressed as a pirate. If that weren't odd enough, he seems to be banging on some kind of homemade drum synthesizer shaped like a guitar. His name is Future Man, and his instrument is the Synthaxe Drumitar. Holy shit it is a sight to behold. All my friends and I could do was marvel as they ripped through a set of jazz/blues fusion, culminating in a mouthwatering cover of The Beatles' "Come Together."
Midway through the Flecktones' set, the heat seemed to subside for a bit as shade was cast over the crowd. A gasping, "holy shit" from the festival goer to my left warranted an inquisitive about face to the East side of the park, where I found our menacing source of shade. The light that news crews have shed since the incident describes it as a propane tank explosion near the food tents. The large plume of black smoke rising into the sky looked awful, and cast an eerie shadow over the beginning of the weekend. Luckily not many people were hurt, and the fire was put out in about fifteen minutes.
Our attention slowly drifted back towards the music as we decided to head towards Blonde Redhead about to take the stage at the neighboring Blue Room. I'd never really gotten into the three-piece, but was open since I didn't want to brave the sure to be crowded Peter Bjorn & John set across the park. Sure enough, Blonde Redhead didn't disappoint, but they didn't overwhelm either, and about five songs in, we decided to grab a bite to eat and casually listen to the popular Swedes from afar.
As far as meals go at ACL, this first day's lunch was terrible - some sort of dry pulled pork burrito with corn. Disappointing at best, but at least we got to grab some shade as temps started hitting the low 90's. Peter Bjorn & John ended as we tossed out our trash and I ran into an old friend who was more than excited to check out Crowded House over at AMD.
"Crowded House?" I couldn't quite recall the New Zealanders.
"Yeah, you know... 'Hey now, hey now... don't dream it's over.'"
My friend's voice was not what you'd call spot-on.
"Oh, that Crowded House," I thought, and after a couple of seconds thinking it over, my friends and I gave simultaneous "why not" shoulder shrugs and followed in his direction. Not too much to report on there, other than that an hour later I was able to say I'd heard "Don't Dream It's Over" live. So, we moved next door to catch LCD Soundsystem, a set who's awesomeness Chip has already touched on, so all I'll add is a significant 'Oh my God.'
Oh my God.
Not only was his music the loudest of the fest thus far (would later be rivaled by Muse), Murphy's personality nearly stole the show. "Ever since I was in a Punk band, I've dreamed of playing on the... what stage are we on? Oh, the AT&T stage," he professed. "Free long distance for life!" Funny guy that James Murphy is, funny guy. As LCD began to wind down, we were left with a very tough decision - Spoon or Queens of the Stone Age? I've never seen QOTSA before and have always felt the itch, but as I value the majority rule (sons of bitches), I conceded to watch Spoon. Such was the theme of the weekend... concessions.
I've seen Spoon here in Austin a couple of times before (both onstage and off - i.e. Britt Daniel creeping out in a dark corner of Club DeVille with a cigarette in hand), and each time is just like the last. Very tight, very clean, very professional. They didn't stray from that norm on Friday and even managed to include a great brass section on "The Underdog" with ease. In the end, I'm a bit upset I didn't catch Homme rocking out, but Spoon definitely sufficed.
With Spoon ending and my crew having no intention of trekking across the park to catch the Kaiser Chiefs, we decided to stake out a comfy spot midway into Bjork's crowd. The thought of seeing the Icelandic Queen live was never something I thought I'd be interested in, her music constantly slipping through my grasp of enjoyment (Chip would kill me for this I'm sure), but I figured I'd give her a shot because when the hell else am I going to see her? Let me just say that by the end of the night I was won over, not by the stage theatrics, not by the infinite green lasers (though they were quite awesome), but by the overall emotion conveyed by that tiny Icelandic woman. It was amazing, and I am quite convinced that if I travel to Iceland and drill a hole in the earth, her music will spew out over the landscape. We left before the speaker caught fire, so I missed that mayhem, but I'm fine with that, as I was busy sweating my ass off walking back to my house to pass out from exhaustion. Must remember the bikes for day two.
Upon awakening Saturday morning I was amazed to find that my hangover had stuck around, until I realized it wasn't from the alcohol two days ago, but from the dehydration of day one. But I had to crawl out of bed quick because Saturday was to be my most anticipated day of the fest. A healthy reapplication of sunscreen and two more bottles of water later, I was off (on a bike this time) to get to the AMD stage before 12:30, for this would be the final show from hometown heroes, Sound Team.
We made it just in time, walking up as the opening to "Handful Of Billions" began, and right away the sadness started to set in. Sound Team has been a band that feels like no matter what, they'd always be there to play a show here in town, and it would be a solid show at that. The past few I had been to were filled with nothing but excited energy. Struggling to set aside the melancholic reality of the situation, I soaked in every last note as it pulsed out over the crowd.
"One more time before this is over!" screamed Oliver while the always energetic Baird and company pounded away. A slightly slimmer band now, Sound Team was two men short, but their sound didn't suffer. In fact, I thought it ended up sounding a lot better. Without two extra instruments there to clog up the PA system I was actually able to hear the music rather than layer upon layer of synth. It was a splendid show with Baird dressed in a Partridge-like orange jumpsuit and Oliver looking a bit like Heath Ledger channeling Dylan (that might not be a compliment, and if that's the case, I'm sorry Matt). After hitting highlights "Back In Town" "No More Birthdays" "Born To Please" and a few newer unreleased tracks, the curtain closed on Sound Team.
"Bye, bye. Goodbye. Really, goodbye," Oliver waved, and the band walked off. My only regret for the show was that I wish it were at a time and place (later and less expensive) where more of their fans could have seen it. Goodbye, Sound Team.
While coming to grips with the end of a great band, my comrades and I decided to go out of the park and grab a bite while waiting for our next show, and an hour later we returned to catch a casual set from Paolo Nutini. The Scottish youngster pleased the fans (read: young women) with glee, ending the set with a take on the Disney classic "I Wan'na Be Like You." We all laughed and moved on to catch Cold War Kids next door.
As Chip has already gone over their set, I won't go into many specifics other than I was mildly entertained. I'm not a huge fan, but I do like a few specific tracks, and I can honestly say that front man Nathan Willett has an amazing voice that seemed to carry a lot of the set.
Not interested in Blue October (in the least bit) or Damien Rice (didn't feel like falling asleep) I decided to finally scope out the media area, as I hadn't truly made use of my access yet. This would result in the only annoying part of weekend for me.
I parted ways with my friends at the AT&T Oasis to enter the "backstage" area (really just a fenced off street), and was met with a security guard explaining that I shouldn't be entering here because my entrance was at the far south side. "But," he said, "I'll let you in, just don't come this way again, cool?" Yes, cool, no problem I thought as I casually walked along the street towards the media tent, beer in hand and enjoying my time. "Hey man. Hey, boss. Hey buddy," a voice from behind eventually shouted. I figured he was talking to me in the end and turned to find a very large and intimidating man staring me down.
"Yes Sir?" I played it casual.
"What are you doing here?"
"Heading to the media tent."
"Okay, but what are you doing here?"
Was I missing something? "I am heading to the media tent."
He went on to explain that I wasn't allowed in that particular area, to which I explained that I was let in to get to where I needed to go, to which he explained that I needed to get there without being in that particular area.
"So what do you want me to do?" a valid question in my eyes.
"Go to the media area," he said. Did I not already mention to him that I was headed there?
"Ok," I conceded.
As I walked with my beer I slowly realized that Mr. Security Guard was following me (escorting?), and once we got to the media tent he stopped me, saying I wasn't allowed to bring my fresh, ice-cold beer in. With no trash can in sight and a quick glance at nearly every other person inside holding their fresh, ice-cold beers I realized that I must be special, and poured out said fresh, ice-cold beer (that didn't do anything wrong) onto the hot asphalt. I couldn't stop the single tear from dripping down my cheek at the sight of it.
He escorted me to the back of the media area and into a trailer. He brought me into a small room where a woman was sitting on the floor looking at a schedule of events. She looked up at me, then at him.
"Who's this?" she asked.
"This is Kyle, he was walking where he shouldn't have been. I've asked him who he works for and what he's doing here."
"And what did he say?" I don't know if they realized I was standing there or not.
"I'm with the enemy and am here to spy on your operation." She looked at me, looked at my wristband and asked whom I was there with. After mentioning The Tripwire, she told the Guard there was no problem. I casually looked at him.
"Well at least we got that situated," I said with what might be considered a shit-eating grin, and walked out of the trailer. In the end, it was actually one of the more exciting things that happened to me that day. So thanks guys.
After my interrogation I met up with Chip and Erin to join in a free glass of what could possibly be the worst martini ever invented and headed out to catch a little bit of Andrew Bird and Arctic Monkeys. Andrew Bird sounded great from afar, and Chip already talked about the badassery of those boys from the UK. I'll only add that I found it slightly annoying that the onstage camera guys kept feeling the need to cut away to Drew Barrymore dancing and making out with The Mac Guy (Justin Long) on the side of the stage. I barely enjoy her movies as it is, don't make me think of her while watching a band I enjoy as well, please?
So after the Monkeys pounded out "A Certain Romance" we took off to grab a good spot for Muse, a show that was sure to please. I had made the quick decision to go ahead and catch all of their set instead of seeing any of Arcade Fire's, and I know a few friends will disown me for this, but all I can say is that Muse blew my fucking mind. They were easily one of my favorites from last year (a lightning storm during the show sort of helped out). Forget that they are only three men strong, forget that their light show can be seen from space, forget that they've managed to create a soundtrack to the inevitable Apocalypse. Actually those are all really awesome, you shouldn't forget any of them. The only picture I managed to snap tells it all. We were simply blinded by the set. With a couple songs left we started to head out of the park, satisfied with a full day's worth of music. The foot traffic was God-awful at first, but when an ambulance passed slowly by, all of us on our bikes were able to follow its lead down Barton Springs. The bikes were a great idea.
Waking up at nearly 1:00pm I checked the schedule to find that The Little Ones, Yo La Tengo, The National and STS9 were to all fall victim of my sleep, but I didn't mind. Sleep never felt so good, and the casual bike down to the park at around 3:15 wasn't too shabby either. We'd eventually make it in time to nab a great spot for Common, a late addition taking over for the canceled Rodrigo y Gabriella. We didn't realize this at first because the schedules being handed out to the festival goers weren't up to date with this year's uncharacteristically late solidified line-up. A little annoying at times, but it also ended up making things a bit more unpredictable, like showing up for the reggae gold of Stephen Marley to instead find the emotive cheese of Augustana. Or in this particular case, one really pissed off hippie.
"Wait, who's playing here instead?" he asked me.
"Common, he's a hip-hop act."
"Aw shit. Well fuck this!" he said as he threw his arms up in the air in disgust and walked off. I guess he doesn't like hip-hop, which is a shame because Common threw down in a most righteous fashion. I don't pretend to know anything about hip-hop or rap, I've only got a couple albums to my name in either genre, but Common is the real deal. Backed by a drummer, a DJ and two keyboardists, the man blew through a set filled with positive vibes and upbeat messages. It seemed apparent that he realized this wasn't his core following, and he took it upon himself to expose everyone to his way of life. Fists in the air and smiles on our faces, I would say he succeeded and ended up being my favorite act on Sunday.
Leaving with a couple songs left, I made my way over to meet with a friend at Midlake, catching half of "Roscoe" in the process. I've seen Midlake a couple times now, and much like Spoon they don't disappoint with ne'er a bad set, but we were going to make our way up to the front of Bloc Party. This ended up proving difficult, as, much like last year with Tom Petty, people were already camped out and waiting for Bob Dylan. We managed a spot left of the sound booth and planted our feet for the Party's dance rock.
Let me just say that I like Bloc Party, I really do. So I don't want to sound like I am putting them down at all, because I enjoy their music, which is all that matters. But I must say that lately when listening to them I can't get the image of Kele Okereke emoting with Vaudevillian glee as he sings, as if constantly trying to ace the audition to play himself in a Broadway production of Bloc Party's greatest hits. You know, jazz-hands, the Charleston, the Foxtrot, a couple Rockette-style high kicks. It's probably just me though.
With Bloc Party over and no real passion burning inside to see anybody else we decided to stick it out at the AT&T stage, staking out a position in the middle of the field, lying in wait for My Morning Jacket and Bob Dylan.
When the former took the stage there was much rejoicing. As the sun set, MMJ put on one of the happiest sets of the weekend, clad in swimming goggles, hula skirts, Hawaiian shirts and wigs. It was like one of those island theme parties from college, but with an awesome band instead of a Dispatch cover band. I'll spare the specifics since Chip went into them already, but MMJ definitely rocked the stage.
Fast-forward two hours ahead and find my group drunk off cheap vodka we snuck in and Sweet Leaf Tea (a tasty Austin beverage). We are waiting for Bob Dylan and his band with anxious anticipation. The feeling mounting in my stomach is hopeful as I recall the emotion with which I've watched previous icons/heroes Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones take the stage. I am hoping Dylan will be equal to some extent, but I know not to expect much, since the man's vocals have been incomprehensible for the past fifteen years. As the crowd begins to stir and an audible fuss is made the opening chords to "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" are busted out. Our excitement is barely containable, we didn't think we'd hear one tune we were instantly familiar with so soon, if at all. Of course, Dylan's voice hits in with a graveled growl, and it's almost impossible to understand what's going on, but still - it's Bob Dylan. We spent most of the set sitting back on the grass trying to make out his image on the big screen, which turned out tougher than we expected as they only zoomed in enough to barely make out his vague silhouette. Again though, it's Bob Dylan. His sound was easy and laid back, a folk/western-swinging groove. I'm happy to have seen him, but more enjoyment ended up coming from making fun of the people around me.
"Oh my God, he sounds terrible!" girls would express, but all we could do was laugh at them. What did they expect - it's Bob Dylan.
Halfway through the set we took off, leaving ACL 07 behind us, and as I crossed Town Lake (or Lady Bird Lake, as it is now referred to) I could still hear "Like A Rolling Stone" belted out. This year was different than years past, there wasn't quite the build up or anticipation to a lot of it as there used to be, but it has kept on rolling. Hopefully it will continue to do so for years to come. My thanks go out to the bands and the ACL staffers for a great time, and to one security guard in particular who was just doing his job.