[23 October 2012]
The Austin City Limits Music Festival is at a crossroads. After over a decade of bringing in hundreds of thousands of people (not to mention millions of dollars) to Austin by uniting both casual listeners and die hard music fans alike, it will be following megafest Coachella into the realm of multi-weekend extravaganza starting next year. That made this year’s edition of the festival all the more unique, as it marked the last time the festivities would be confined to a single weekend.
Sporting an audience ranging from high school ravers to frat boys and their sorority counterparts to apathetic hipsters to your grandparents, the festival had a very laid back feeling throughout the course of the weekend. Lawn chairs were planted for entire afternoons, people entered and left the festival at a leisurely pace, and food was surprisingly affordable. While the unpredictable Texas weather was a rude awakening for the throngs of out-of-towners, there were very few qualms with the overall festival experience. It was almost kind of relaxing in its own weird way.
While this year’s lineup was a little weaker than it has been in the past, those who did play had nothing but good things to say about the festival and the city that hosted it, and just about all of them performed with a sense of excitement that stemmed from playing at what has become an Austin institution. While it was impossible to see everything worth seeing, as is the case with any festival, there were many great moments to be had throughout the course of the weekend. Sunburn, fatigue, and five hours in wet clothing were a small price to pay for what turned out to be a solid festival.
While there were a few bands who played smaller stages as people were arriving to the already sweltering heat on Friday morning, the festival officially started when Welsh septet Los Campesinos! kicked off the headlining Bud Light Stage. It was clear from the outset that there were very few in the crowd who were familiar with the band, which makes sense, given the fact that the band is one of the UK’s most underrated acts of the past five years. However, by the end of the group’s set they had made more than a few converts out of the uninitiated. The band was in top form as their set was a career spanning highlight reel that showcased the band’s sheer musical ability and band leader Gareth’s lyrical talent and stage presence. Songs like “By Your Hand”, “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed”, and “The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future” were performed with the same energy and vitality that the band wields as their stock and trade. Gareth cheekily acknowledged their brief flirtation with mainstream recognition during “You! Me! Dancing!” by incorporating a nod to Budweiser (who used the song in a commercial last year), and those who have been following the band for years sang along to every lyric of every song with the kind of glee that only a band like Los Campesinos! can conjure (guilty as charged). The crowd’s increasingly rapturous applause was a sign that the group had gotten the festival off on the right foot.
Equally as impressive was First Aid Kit, the sister duo of Klara and Johanna Söderberg, whose mystic and forceful representation of American folk music continued to advance the argument that the Swedes have a pulse on American folk that went out the window when bands like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes became nauseatingly ubiquitous. Not only are they capable of producing some of the loveliest harmonies you are likely to hear, but their songwriting chops allow their songs to stick for days at a time. Soon afterward, Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs served up a freewheeling set of their dense and layered Americana, with Adam Granduciel’s Dylan-like voice permeating over the music like a logical extension of the arrangements, making it a set that appealed to young and old generations alike. Tegan and Sara played a very solid set that incorporated old hits like “Walking With A Ghost” and “The Con” with some new material that showed the group has been busy the last few years.
Weezer turned in what was perhaps the best surprise of the day, as the band seemed revitalized and full of energy in front of a crowd that ranged from Pinkerton die-hards to those who screamed like school children when the opening riff to “Beverly Hills” was played. There was an aura to the band onstage that made it seem like they’ve earned their place as one of the biggest rock bands in the world, a stark contrast to what many critics have considered a regressive and phoned in half decade of album output. Rivers Cuomo seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, evidenced by his calmly kicking a soccer ball backstage before the set, and the relative ease he had at getting a reaction from the audience while doing it. All of this seemed to make it easy to forget that this is the same band that gave us Raditude only three years ago. There was something for everyone, as several of the bands early highlights like “Buddy Holly”, “El Scorcho”, and set opener “My Name Is Jonas” fit nicely in between songs like “Hash Pipe”, “Perfect Situation”, and “If You’re Wondering If I Want You To” - songs that even the most cynical of music critics couldn’t help but sing along to. For those who had never seen Weezer live before, it was a great feeling to see the long running band put their full attention into making their set a great one.
Equally as surprising was Swedish House/Rave wunderkind Avicii, but for much different reasons. He is one of those rare artists who is able to take just about every cliché associated with his genre and make it his own. The rave synths, the build ups and beat drops, that “Baba O’Reily” sample, the giant white plaster-head-looking structure he plugs into all screams of populist cheese and self-indulgence. Yet Avicii was able to sell it thanks to his unwavering confidence in his music and his pop smarts that make songs like “Silhouettes” and “Levels” absolutely euphoric when surrounded by a bunch of people losing their shit. While no one except your younger brother or that drunk sorority girl you’re trying to hook up with will argue that Avicii belongs in the upper tier of electronic artists, as a performer and festival crowd pleaser he delivered on all fronts.
Nika Roza Danilova is a force of nature. It’s no secret that the Zola Jesus front-woman has one of the most powerful voices of her generation, but the way she completely controlled the stage and transfixed the audience through the use of that instrument was something else entirely. Armed with little more than a synth player, a violinist, and a percussionist, she belted out her dark and goth tinged tunes with the kind of confidence that can only come with years of self training and constant improvement. Not to read too much into it, but not even a minute after explaining to the audience that it always rains when she plays festivals, the powerful chorus of “In Your Nature” brought a light drizzle that was a sign of things to come. While she was content to stay still during the first part of her set, Danilova became increasingly comfortable in front of the audience, allowing her to flex her vocal muscles on a slower rendition of “Trust Me”, move around stage with swagger, and even descend into the audience during “Shivers”. It was a set that only added to her ever-increasing profile and served as ample proof that she is a unique talent.
I’m very glad that I agreed to meet a friend at the Bud Light Stage for Rufus Wainwright shortly after, as he put on a fascinating show that I did not know I needed to experience until after it had happened. It was by far the most eclectic set of the weekend. Wainwright knocked out songs like the triumphant title track of this year’s Out of the Game, cooed the soft and heartbreaking piano ballad “The Art Teacher”, and gave a lively performance of Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away”, which he had renamed “The Bitch That Got Away” after Liza Minnelli had given him grievances over it. Wainwright honored his family by performing “One Man Guy”, a song written by his father Loudon Wainwright III, and inviting one of his backup singers to deliver an awe-inspiring performance of a song written by his mother Kate McGarrigle. The rest of his set was just as heartfelt and uplifting. It was an excellent showing by a man who knows a thing or two about showmanship.
Shortly after Andrew Bird delivered a very Andrew Bird like set (which is a good thing), rain entered the picture. For close to an hour, the grounds of Zilker Park and its patrons alike were soaked by a tricky downfall that would let up in spots and come back even harder. Some found refuge in the eating areas and tents, where large screens had been playing college football (for those who spend $200 to attend a music festival to watch a football game, naturally), while others embraced it with arms wide open. Punch Brothers took it all in stride, and their mostly improvised set showed that no matter how hard it’s pouring, Ausitnites will brave the elements to see one of the best bluegrass groups around. Besides, with a man like Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile at the helm, you can’t go wrong.
Easily one of the most anticipated sets at the festival (and for me, a perfect excuse to stay far away from Bassnectar) was Gotye, the Australian multi-instrumentalist who took the internet by storm earlier this year with the left field smash “Somebody That I Used To Know”. It was clear that many members of the audience were displeased by the fact that he didn’t play it right away, as evidenced by the throngs of transients making their way to and from the Barton Springs Stage. Those who hung around were treated to a pleasant, if not particularly good or earth shattering, set. The most surprising aspect of Gotye’s performance was how talented he is as a percussionist. Manning many of the pads with precision, and even playing the full drum kit on a couple of songs, he gave the backup band the energy they needed to make up for the stage’s rather uneven sound quality. Tracks like “Eyes Wide Open” and “State of the Art” were obvious highlights, though many of his songs began to sound similar towards the middle of the set and there were several musical diversions that overstayed their welcome. Of course, everyone in the crowd gave “Somebody That I Used To Know” the greatest applause, and there were more than a few screams when Kimbra (predictably) emerged to sing her verse complete with over dramatic gestures and facial expressions. And, of course (just as predictably), the crowd dispersed once the song was over despite that the set was still ongoing. The people got their hit, and that was just fine by them.
While the grounds were still muddy from the day before, making parts of Zilker Park smell like a huge fish market, there was nary a cloud in the sky as Stars took the Barton Springs stage early Sunday afternoon. While it’s been a long eight years since the band hit their creative peak with 2004’s Set Yourself On Fire, their set was a reminder of why they have at some point or another touched the heart of indie kids everywhere. It’s easy to forget just how many great songs the band have produced over their decade-plus career, and they have lost none of their sense of grandeur in a live setting. The band sounded as tight as ever, and lead singers Torquill Campbell and Amy Millan still posses a chemistry that few duos can match. Whether it was Millan’s excellent guitar driven “Ageless Beauty”, their vocal interplay on “We Don’t Want Your Body” and “Elevator Love Letter”, or Campbell’s set-defining bombast during his vocal outburst on “Take Me To The Riot”, Stars put their stamp on all those who experienced them for the first time. Likewise, longtime fans were given a jolt that undoubtedly had them spinning more than a few of their songs later on in the week.
There was kind of a lull in the middle of the afternoon and the onset fatigue from the days beforehand kept me from catching either Tennis or Polica, but I had regained my strength by the time Die Antwoord emerged onto the Honda Stage. The provocative, unapologetic, and meme-worthy South African rap group did what they do best, which consists of the kind of shock and awe that left many parents covering their children’s ears as they walked past. It didn’t help matters that the first words that emanated from the speakers were “DJ Hi-Tek gonna fuck you in the ass.” However, if one could get past the group’s fuck-all attitude and MC Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er’s misogynistic and braggadocious lyrics, it was clear that the group reveled in the mostly college-aged crowd’s adoration, as they had them waving their hands and saying phrases like, “That’s some expensive shit.” It was an entertaining and high intensity set, and though the group really aren’t the best rappers around (their whole existence is based on people not knowing whether or not to take them seriously), they know how to work an audience. It also served as a nice diversion from the fact that The Weeknd had cancelled his set (which was supposed to go off around the same time) at the request of his doctor.
Perhaps the biggest treat of the festival was finally getting to experience Iggy & The Stooges in concert. The group’s influence cannot be stated enough, and the chance to see them in the flesh was too good to pass up. Iggy’s ferocious energy took some time to make itself known, though the band ripped through songs like “Raw Power” and “Search and Destroy” early on. Only after proclaiming, “We’re the fucking Stooges!” and inviting members of the crowd onstage for “Shake Appeal” did the sextigenarian really cut loose. Moving around the stage like a madman, getting down on all fours for “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, and providing endless banter that could only come from his mouth, the still impossibly fit Iggy was a spectacle that complemented his group’s still earth shattering riffs and rhythms. With an emphasis on Stooges material, including “Fun House” and “Open Up & Bleed”, along with a helping of Iggy’s solo hits, it was nearly impossible to take one’s eyes off the stage. Forty years in and the band still performs as though it’s them against the world, and we’re all the better for it.
One of the great things about Austin City Limits is that you can miss most of the headliners and still have a wonderful time. For me, there was no Black Keys, Jack White, Neil Young, or Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I am perfectly okay with that. I went home gloriously exhausted all the same. The sets that I did catch, the sights and sounds of the festival, and the fact that I got to hang out with my friends and fellow music writers was just what I needed after a long week at work. How people plan to tackle the two weekend behemoth that looms next year remains to be seen, but for the last year of being a three day festival, Austin City Limits delivered with great music, a laid back environment, and even a shower for those who so desperately needed it.