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The Austin City Limits Festival endured more than its fair share of the elements in its 2009 incarnation. From the beatific sun of Friday through the dampening rain of Saturday all the way to the barnyard mud of Sunday, the music had a lot to compete with over three loud, inclement days.


But because it was a music, not weather, festival, there was plenty to be had over eight stages and 130 acts—though not all of it good. Playing the festival environs is a tricky task for even the best of bands and only some seemed to understand that bigger is not always better. With this in mind, PopMatters takes a look at how a disparate array of acts fared in Austin’s playpen of mud, the blood, and the beer.


Photo by Dave Mead

Photo by Dave Mead


Best Party-Starter: The Knux
If Run DMC were born 20 years later, and in New Orleans, they’d be something akin to the Knux. Sporting black leather in 80-degree heat, duo Krispy Kream and Rah Almillio willed the sleepy crowd into action during a quick 35-minute set. But it wasn’t until three songs in that the call-and-response browbeating from Krispy took effect and the guitar/organ smash of “Cappuccino” lifted the crowd from its stupor. A revolving band of breakdancers kept things animated stage left as the duo fitfully worked the audience. By the end of their set, the Knux had used so many tricks that there was only one move left to perform: invite the crowd on stage. A few dozen enthusiastic audience members gladly accepted the request and proceeded to dance through the electrifying closing numbers.


Photo by Dave Mead

Photo by Dave Mead


Photo by Matthew Taplinger

Photo by Matthew Taplinger


Most Underwhelming: Passion Pit
Boston’s electronic psych-rockers Passion Pit were a glaring casualty of the festival environment. Their beat-heavy sound, which works to great effect on record, crumbled under the weight of Austin’s wide open spaces. Lead singer Michael Angelakos bore the brunt of the blame by using the occasion to test the outer limits of his falsetto. In the end, his voice simply lacked the strength or endurance to soar above the keyboards and backbeat.


Most Face-Melting: Them Crooked Vultures
The hype built since this supergroup’s first performance in Chicago just two months ago would be enough to smother any nascent band in its crib. Not the case for Dave Grohl, John Paul Jones and Josh Homme, a.k.a., Them Crooked Vultures, a band that no one knows and everyone knows simultaneously. For those used to the goofy yet earnest Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters videos, the pounding beast behind the skins on Friday night must have permanently set mouths agape. This was stuttered, f*ck you metal played in asymmetric patterns that never let up in its intensity—like Cream, but if they could kick your ass and leave you asking for more. The only aspect of the band to not foam at the mouth over was the vocals. While Homme’s spooky and ethereal take on the songs provided a nice counterpoint, it was hard to see Them Crooked Vultures conquering the world-at-large without a more provocative frontman. But perhaps we should hear the album first before making any verdicts.


Photo by Dave Mead

Photo by Dave Mead


Photo by Ashley Gorman

Photo by Ashley Gorman


Best East Coast Representation: The Walkmen
In a fest heavily represented by east-coast flavors du jour (Grizzly Bear, Passion Pit, Deer Tick,) it fell to nine year veterans, the Walkmen, to show Austin the best in easterly rock ‘n’ roll. The relationship between dress-shirted band and cargo-shorted audience started on an uneasy note as some of the Walkmen’s moodier tracks didn’t translate so well to a sunny, outdoor setting. But then, they played “The Rat.”  The group’s signature tune of foreboding set the crowd ablaze as Hamilton Leithauser’s croon quickly turned to vein-popping indignation. There’s also something about his commitment to rage over the otherwise buoyant chorus of “In the New Year” that never fails to impress.


Best and Worst: The Avett Brothers
Perhaps no other group combined the good with the not-so-good as much as North Carolina’s Avett Brothers. At their best, this bluegrass rock act is peerless in their sense of joyful abandonment. Throughout the jumping, stomping and harmonizing, one gets the sense of kids playing songs in the basement, just out of earshot of disapproving parents. For years their trademark energy has been winning people over one fest at a time, a model of earnest accumulation. This is precisely why it was so baffling to see the second half of their set devolve into aimlessness. For some reason, the Avetts downshifted, which didn’t suit them as well in front of, perhaps, their biggest audience yet.


Photo by Dave Mead

Photo by Dave Mead


Photo by Dave Mead

Photo by Dave Mead


Most Pleasant Surprise: Michael Franti and Spearhead
Chuck Taylor’s had never seen so much mud as the end of Day 3 approached. But that was exactly when roots-rock- reggae virtuoso Michael Franti brought his particular brand of optimism to a fest in need of release. Franti demonstrated his eclecticism by mixing in covers of “Smells like Teen Spirit” and “Billie Jean” with the reggae vibe permeating most of his other material. But the highlight of the night was saved for last when Franti brought a crowd of children onstage to sing along with his recent hit, “Say Hey (I Love You).”  It was a simple sentiment to cap a messy weekend.


Photo by Ashley Gorman

Photo by Ashley Gorman


Most Valuable Performers: Pearl Jam
With performances spanning all three nights of the fest, Pearl Jam made their veteran 18-year presence felt. Friday night brought the now stalwart Kings of Leon / Eddie Vedder combo on the Kings track, “Slow Night, So Long.”  The two-for-one act developed out of Kings of Leon opening for Pearl Jam on recent tours and continued as a strong close to an otherwise underwhelming Kings set.


Photo by Dave Mead

Photo by Dave Mead


Saturday’s performance was of an entirely different timbre however. Pearl Jam performed at a taping of the Austin City Limits PBS television show itself, gracing the legendary 270-seat studio for the first time ever. But this wasn’t your average crowd. A section of the audience was devoted to wounded Iraq War veterans from the nearby Warrior and Family Support Center. Their presence imbued the night with an urgency not usually felt in most TV shows. At one point, Vedder handed a guitar pick to a girl in the audience, only to have a soldier yell out, “I’ll give you a leg for one of those.” He then proceeded to literally hold up his prosthetic leg for added emphasis. This led to Vedder going into the crowd for a round of hugs, autographs and yes, guitar picks. Lead guitarist Mike McCready eventually gave one of the soldiers his guitar as well, a guitar that truly soared when, in perhaps the night’s most inspired moment, he finished off the night with a Hendrix-esque solo of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  Those vets who were able to stand did so while placing hands over hearts for what was to be the most poignant moment of the weekend.


Pearl Jam closed things out with an especially hits-heavy set on Sunday night, bathing in the adulation and yes, the mud. During set-closer “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Vedder made his way down to the swampy masses and performed a diving belly flop, capping a night and weekend of unparalleled energy. There’s nothing quite like hearing 65,000 people sing in unison, “I just want to scream… HELLO!”


Photo by Dave Mead

Photo by Dave Mead


Photo by Ashley Gorman

Photo by Ashley Gorman


Photo by Jack Edinger

Photo by Jack Edinger


Photo by Matthew Taplinger

Photo by Matthew Taplinger


Photo by Jack Edinger

Photo by Jack Edinger


Tim Slowikowski has been writing for PopMatters since the halcyon days of 2003. His favorite record that year was Outkast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below. A graduate of the University of Iowa, Tim has also written for Chicago Innerview and Kevin Smith's now-defunct (and unfortunately titled) Movie Poop Shoot. Tim studied at Chicago's famous haven for improv and sketch comedy, Second City, where he formed a comedy group and traveled across the country performing for the unwashed masses. Currently shopping a screenplay with the rest of America, Tim lives in Chicago with his wife Megan.


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