Since 2002, the Austin City Limits Music Festival has established itself as one of the most iconic music extravaganzas in the country, playing host to hundreds of different acts ranging from local Austin-based garage rockers to multi-platinum rappers and pop stars. The popularity of the festival is so immense (last year’s sold out crowd amounted to around 225,00 people over the course of three days) that the Austin City Council recently approved festival organizer C3’s request to expand it to a second weekend starting in 2013. That makes this year’s installment particularly unique, as it marks the last time the festival will be a three-day event.
While many of the headliners playing this year don’t need an introduction, there are plenty of smaller acts playing the festival that will make getting to Zilker Park early, worth it. From a pair of Swedish Sisters who put almost every American folk group to shame to one of Texas’s own Alt-Country institutions, here is a guide to three must catch acts every day of the festival.
Los Campesinos!: 12:30 PM; Bud Light Stage
One of the UK’s best and most underrated bands of the last five years, Los Campesinos! have gone from wide-eyed twee darlings to writing some of the most earnest and vital sounding deconstructions of relationships you are likely to hear. Releasing four albums in as many years is no small feat for any band, but Los Campesinos! are one of the few groups who continually evolve while remaining prolific. Lead singer Gareth is one of the most talented and observant lyricist of his generation, and the band itself has a way of supporting his laments on love and life with grandiose arrangements one would expect from a eight member band while never forgetting that they are a rock band at their core. The band has amassed an astounding reputation as a live act, giving yet another reason why you should attend their set.
First Aid Kit: 1:15 PM; Honda Stage
It’s no secret that Austinites have a particular affinity for folk music and singer-songwriters. It is a part of the city’s history and essence, though as of late, too many people in this city have been singing the praises of groups who trade in faux sentimentality and who are designed for mass consumption (Avett Brothers, Edward Sharpe, Mumford & Sons, et al). What they may have managed to miss in their dust bowl hoedowns and frontier fashion shows is that one of the best folk albums of the 2012 comes courtesy of the Swedes. With their sophomore The Lion’s Roar, First Aid Kit took a bold step forward from their promising 2010 debut into a place all their own. Featuring gorgeous arrangements and the otherworldly harmonizing ability of sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, it is an album that perfectly captures the mysticism and wonder in modern folk music that is too often ignored in favor of railroad tours and trust-fund hippie “truisms.”
The War On Drugs: 2:30 PM; Bud Light Stage
Few modern bands encapsulate the expansive tendencies of Americana music like Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs. While purists may cry foul at their recording process, which consists of layering songs until they almost drown in their own density while utilizing the effects and possibilities of the recording studio, the results more than speak for themselves. The group’s songs have a sense of openness and momentum to them that recall many of the best elements of American roots music, and bandleader Adam Granduciel’s Dylan-like voice permeates over them like a logical extension of the arrangements. It’s a winning formula that has garnered the band much critical acclaim and recognition over the past few years, and the band’s extensive tour history should ensure a smooth transition of their sound to the festival stage.
Zola Jesus: 1:15 PM; Honda Stage
Growing up in small town Wisconsin, Nika Roza Danilova occupied most of her free time as a child studying opera, continuing to grow and develop her now one-of-a-kind voice in relative isolation. After battling years of anxiety and self-doubt brought upon by the demands of the music and the opera scene, she formally introduced herself as Zola Jesus in 2008 at the age of 19, releasing the lo-fi and gothic influenced The Spoils the following year. However, it was with 2010’s Stridulum and Valusia EP’s that Danilova emerged with fuller sounding and darker arrangements, complete with an increased level of confidence in her powerful alto. Since then, she has toured extensively, wowing audiences with her undeniable stage presence and the sheer force of her voice, collaborated with Fucked Up, M83, and electronic legends Orbital, and released the excellent Conatus in 2011. Her ACL performance will be her second appearance in Austin this year.
Big K.R.I.T.: 3:00 PM; Honda Stage
With his unique flow and distinctly southern aesthetic, Big K.R.I.T. (which stands for Kings Remembered In Time) has established himself as one of hip-hop’s rising stars. With three exceptional mixtapes under his belt, including his highly lauded debut K.R.I.T Wuz Here, the Mississippi native (who produces all of his own songs) was scooped up by Def Jam Records for this year’s Live From the Underground. K.R.I.T has a knack for storytelling, and his low-voiced and clear delivery allow his tales of growing up in the deep south and of the ambitions of making a living out of rapping resonate like few of his contemporaries. This year’s ACL lineup is very thin when it comes to rap (The Roots, Die Antwoord, and Childish Gambino being the only other groups or artists representing the genre), so the chance to see a young and talented MC like Big K.R.I.T is not to be missed.
Punch Brothers: 5:45 PM; Austin Ventures Stage
As one of the creative forces behind the much respected and Grammy Award winning Nickel Creek, Chris Thile established himself as one of the most talented and ambitious bluegrass artists around, bringing a style of music not often associated with mainstream country to the fore. However, since the group disbanded in 2007, he has been the leader of the bluegrass collective Punch Brothers, a group with a more freewheeling sound than his previous outfit. With a sound that is at once familiar and timeless, the band has continued to evolve as a percussion-less force with a sterling live reputation. Combining Thile’s well-established abilities on the mandolin along with the talents of guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjoist Noam Pikelny, and violinist Gabe Witcher, the band has continued to inject pop sensibilities and excitement into a genre steeped in tradition.
Polica: 3:15 PM; Honda Stage
One of the most promising new bands this year, Minneapolis group Poliça thrive on creating darkly atmospheric music that their press releases describe as “super slick electronic pop-soul.” Fronted by Gayngs member Channy Leanagh, and including both members of both Gayngs and Bon Iver, their much praised debut Give You the Ghost is an album full of meditative songs that fully utilize the group’s musical set-up of a keyboardist, a bassist, and two drummers. While her voice was largely untouched and in the fore of her previous outfit Roma di Luna, Leanagh’s vocals are liberally auto-tuned and double tracked, allowing her voice to better complement the heavily digitized arrangements. The result is a sound that is at once yearning and seductive, evidenced by songs such as “Lay Your Cards Out” and “Dark Star”.
The Weeknd: 5:15 PM; Barton Springs Stage
Abel Tesfaye’s Weeknd project benefitted from arriving just as introspective R&B was becoming the flavor d’jour of the blogosphere and from initially keeping said hungry journalists in the dark about the group’s identity (Tesfaye continues to be elusive of the press, declining interviews and not engaging very much with his fanbase). The lyrical motifs of sex, drugs, and shame, and the heady production work of his House of Balloons mixtape received an extra boost from being released onto an unsuspecting public. Tesfaye’s Michael Jackson-esque voice and Doc McKinney and Illangelo’s effortless production talents didn’t hurt either. In the nine month period that began with House of Balloons, The Weeknd released the Thursday and Echoes of Silence mixtapes, ended up on many year-end lists, and inspired more than a few think pieces about where R&B is heading. The group finally made their live debut earlier this year, and a slot opening for British megastar Florence + The Machine along with Universal’s mastering and releasing all three mixtapes (along with a few new songs) as Trilogy on November 13th should ensure that this will be one of the most eagerly anticipated sets of the festival.
Old 97’s: 6:15 PM; Austin Ventures Stage
For almost 20 years now, the men of Old 97’s have been a staple of the once seminal alt-country movement. The Dallas band has a kind of chemistry that can only come from being together for as long as they have, and they have maintained the same lineup since the day they started. Vocalist/Guitarist Rhett Miller is one of the most consistently excellent songwriters around, and his tales of heartache, debauchery, and longing have lost none of their bite as the band has aged. Along with bassist/vocalist (and sometimes lead singer) Murray Hammond’s distinctive twang and bass playing abilities, guitarist Ken Bethea’s six-string heroics, and Philip Peeples excellent drumming abilities, the band has never released a bad album. 2011’s The Grand Theater Volume 1 and The Grand Theater: Volume 2 marked a return to the group’s more rock-centric sound and contained some of their best work to date; no small feat for a band entering their third decade together. The band also has a reputation as a barn burning live act, so those looking for a true taste of Texas music owe it to themselves to experience Old 97’s in concert.