By the time the final day of the final weekend of Austin City Limits 2016 rolls around, I realize just how well-oiled the machine of the festival is. Just about every set is on time. The lines for food and merchandise, while predictably long at peak hours, are never so slow that waiting in them is prohibitive to experiencing the music. Because Austin traffic moves centimeter by centimeter, the shuttles to the festival are slowed down, but they are free and efficient.
Those who don’t like doing many of the things that attending a music festival requires – standing to get a good view, being out in the hot sun for several consecutive hours – won’t be sold on ACL or any festival like it. Provided one is adaptable to those elements, however, she’ll find ACL to be a high quality music experience. I know that well after this weekend, the scorching sun and occasionally claustrophobic crowds won’t be the things I remember. Cannons of fire shooting in sync to the beats of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Prinze George’s underrated afternoon set, and an incredible view of the Austin skyline as Radiohead takes to the stage: I don’t have to think hard to see the things I’ll take with me after this weekend.
Sunday begins much like Friday and Saturday: when I arrive to the festival grounds in the early afternoon, there are far too few people present. Perhaps a significant portion of the festival goers can’t tolerate the sun; or, as I occasionally suspect, many are under the delusional impression that the best bands only come out in the evening. Thus far into ACL, I’ve encountered some of the strongest performances in these early afternoon sets, where the audiences are small but, to their credit, usually eager. Sunday proves no exception to this pattern; my first concert of the weekend at the tiny BMI stage happens Sunday at 2 PM, when the hugely talented Arkansas outfit Amasa Hines takes to the stage.
On the ACL website, many band profiles go on at length about what the respective groups are bringing to ACL; sometimes they are slightly modified press releases. Amasa Hines’ bio wastes no time in elaboration: “Amasa Hines is a seven-piece, Little Rock, Arkansas based band whose sound is as big as their influences are wide. Their influences come from a diverse range of soul, Afrobeat, psychedelic, blues, bub, and indie rock stylings.” On the surface this seems like easy promotional copy: “These guys do everything!” Genre-melding or “boundlessness” when it comes to style is so commonplace these days, so much so that it’s arguably as common as “straight” interpretations of any one genre. But Amasa Hines’ sonic shapeshifting doesn’t come from a lack of confidence in any one sound, nor is it indicative of a lack of identity being filled with as many signifiers as possible. This is a band that’s talented in numerous voices and styles; over the course of their hour-long set at ACL, I am reminded of, variously, the Strokes, Pink Floyd, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. (A friend of mine likens frontman Joshua Asante’s raspy pipes to Tom Waits.)
Although given the smallest of the stages at ACL – the Tito’s stage comes close – Amasa Hines performs with the gusto of a rock band worthy of the larger stages nearby. Especially powerful is the band’s cover of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”, which climaxes with an astounding saxophone solo by Norman Williamson. In just an hour, Amasa Hines gives its ACL audience a sonic travelogue of musical approaches; in these guy’s hands, rock, funk, blues, and soul aren’t separate genres that needed to be melded together, but natural extensions of each other. Tempting as it may be, don’t call Amasa Hines “genre-proof”: their ACL set shows that, to amend David Mitchell’s phrase, genres are conventions, not boundaries.
Pete Yorn (Photo by Jim Wright)
From Amasa Hines’ set I head over to the Miller Lite stage, where Pete Yorn has already begun his gig. “Amped up” is not a saying I’ve ever heard used to describe someone’s emotions toward Yorn’s music. I know plenty of folks who have nostalgia for Yorn’s early ‘00s output, and plenty more who wouldn’t have any reason to complain if his songs came on the radio. I’ve got a soft spot for 2001’s Musicforthemorningafter, so much of Yorn’s set is a pleasant reminder of my junior high days. There are no frills or flash to Yorn’s set, just dutifully peformed, tuneful numbers that thoroughly endear him to the crowd by the time his hour is up.
Local Natives (Photo by Bryan Sheffield)
Following Foals (Friday) and Cage the Elephant (Saturday), Local Natives completes this weekend’s trifecta of middle-brow, mainstream-bent indie rock. The Los Angeles-based Local Natives are easily the best of those three; a proficient balance of melodic leads and choruses with jump-inducing rhythms keeps the Honda stage crowd bristling with energy, even as it faces the most direct sunlight out of any set of the day. Local Natives are also one of the few groups at ACL – which is held in Austin, a bastion of blue in a red state—to directly mention the upcoming US election; the band calls for the audience to get out and vote. Everyone cheers. Although this statement is couched in non-partisan language, it’s hard to imagine these guys voting Trump. “We believe that no matter your sexual orientation or gender, you deserve respect and equal treatment”, vocalist Taylor Rice says. The specificity of gender and sexuality is hard not to read in light of the revelation about Trump’s bragging about sexual assault back in 2005, which came to public light during this second weekend of ACL.
Like Amasa Hines, St. Paul and the Broken Bones belong on the main stage. The moment that powerhouse singer Paul Janeway struts out onto the HomeAway stage, it’s obvious to everyone just how enormously talented these guys are. Janeway’s magnetism is only bested – or, arguably, matched – by Kendrick Lamar the night before. St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ band of soul is maximal, no matter the tempo: even the slow, sultry songs hit with the weight of a sack of bricks. Janeway’s bandmates are all superlative players: with a setup that includes trumpet, saxophone, trombone, drums, bass, guitar, and keys, the group fills a short hour with a lot of verve. After each song, at least a few people in the crowd turn to the people around them, incredulous of the show being put on in front of them. I myself have that reaction when the group effortlessly dives into a cover of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” – a song nobody knew was soul.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones
Janeway’s talents aren’t simply limited to his scraggly singing voice. He dances almost nonstop, and knows just when to gesticulate for maximum effect. When he first walks out on to the stage he is adorned in a cape, which he then stylishly flings off of his body when the first song kicks in. During one lively instrumental jam, he adorns a Deadpool mask, which matches his flashy red suit. Most memorable of all is when he, in a moment of gravitas that gives way to goofiness, lays down on the ground and rolls himself under the fringes of the platform suspending the drummer. Still singing while hidden from the audience, he then rolls back out, cocooning himself in a bit of carpet. “Sometimes you just gotta roll yourself into a burrito,” he says to the audience after the song. I can’t say I have ever thought that before, but when Janeway says it, I believe him.
At 6 PM, ACL gets a dose of Americana. Amanda Shires is a roots music multi-talent: her Parton-esque voice and delicate touch with a fiddle bow are on full display at the small BMI stage, where she performed a range of tunes, including some from her new LP My Piece of Land. She even breaks out a tenor guitar, an instrument that no one but folk musicians and guitar obsessives know still exists. I am pleasantly surprised by Shires’ upbeat set; many of the tunes I first heard from My Piece of Land were quiet, contemplative numbers, which at an event like ACL should be played sparingly at most. Shires knows the festival she’s playing to, and adapts effectively to an audience that’s been exposed to a lot of indie rock, electronic/dance, and hip-hop. There’s little Americana on the ticket.
Amanda Shires (Photo by Josh Wool)
Shires is lucky to be blessed with such musical prowess. At ACL 2016, however, she’s unlucky in that her set conflicts with Willie Nelson’s, which plays out not far from the BMI stage. Shires jokes about this conflict when she mentions that her last time at ACL was playing fiddle for Billie Joe Shaver: “I wish [Shaver] were here right now”, she says, “Maybe he’s at the Willie Nelson show.”
The Willie Nelson show is a national event. Though there are flags being carried about the festival for the entire weekend, Nelson’s set sees dozens of audience members hoisting up flags into the sky. The Texas flag projects onto the back of the main stage. No matter what Nelson does up on that stage, the massive crowd staring intently at him is there out of reverence. Austin, a city that prides itself on music, knows what it’s like to have an icon in its midst.
Nelson isn’t the only Austin favorite present, either; just before the country music veteran takes to the stage with his beaten-and-bruised acoustic guitar, Matthew McConaughey comes out to introduce him, a man who certainly needs no such introduction. Based on the instantaneous social media frenzy following McConaughey’s surprise visit, the crowd doesn’t mind at all; one might even say they found it alright, alright, alright.
Watching Nelson through occasional vapor clouds of marijuana smoke wafting intermittently ahead of me, I am taken by just how different this main stage set feels from all the rest. Nelson’s performance shares many features with the shows by Kendrick Lamar and Radiohead the previous two evenings: people seem to know the words to most songs, the crowd is massive, and the spirit of the space is communal. But with Nelson, there’s also a sense of showing respect to a legend. The flags dotting the crowd become a kind of United Nations in microcosm: many of the flags represent different countries, while others display the rebellious iconography that Texas so prides itself on (I see more than one “Don’t Tread on Me” flag throughout the weekend). I don’t get to see the entirety of Nelson’s set, but what I do see reminds me that even big-ticket, corporate-sponsored music festivals can still carve out spaces to pay homage to the greats.
Prior to ACL, I had mixed feelings about Haim. A catchy single (“The Wire”) drew my attention to the sister trio, but upon giving their 2013 debut Days Are Gone a spin, I found myself underwhelmed. The talent of Este, Alana, and Danielle Haim is undeniable, but too often on Days are Gone I hear their influences, rather than their own voices. Much of my experience with that record involved me going back to the Linda Rondstadt and Fleetwood Mac records I was reminded of in listening to Haim. Trepidation stemming from this experience mingled with curiosity as I went to the trio’s 7 PM set.
I see quickly that Haim live is not equivalent or reducible to Haim on album. Festivals are good for introducing large crowds to new bands, and they’re also good for giving people a chance to look anew on a group they might have written off or miscategorized. And so it is with me and Haim: by the end of the gig, I’m sold. The rapport these sisters have with each other is astounding; there’s not a single instance during their hourlong show where things are slack. Perhaps this has to do with Haim’s own affinity for the city of Austin; during a song break, Este tells the audience that she and her sisters realized a dream in playing at SXSW in 2012, which led to their first record deal.
Days Are Gone is given a breath of fresh air in a live setting. On that album, a track like “My Song 5” sounds like it’s supposed to be a rocker; the boot-stompin’ rhythm and buzzy distortion are signifiers of something heavier than what’s coming out of the speakers. When I watch that song being performed at ACL, however, each downward strum of the guitar hits with a resounding thud. Bass drums and toms are pounded with ferocity, quick flashes of light augmenting the intensity of Haim’s revenge song to “people who fucked us over”, per Alana’s description. Between “My Song 5” and two promising new tracks from the forthcoming second LP by Haim – the Cyndi Lauper-indebted “Give Me Just a Little Bit of Your Love” and the power ballad “Nothing’s Wrong” – Haim gets a lot done in an hour, more than most artists at ACL.
Across the festival grounds at the Honda stage, someone is getting ready to announce that Daft Punk is playing at his house. Unlike most in the music press, I had an entirely blasé reaction to the late 2015 announcement of LCD Soundsystem’s return. The return is hardly surprising to anyone who knows even a smidgen about the economics of a comeback. The first five years of the ‘10s saw a litany of comebacks spanning the unnecessary (My Bloody Valentine) to the entirely welcome (Sleater-Kinney). Admittedly, the five years between LCD Soundsystem’s much-ballyhooed “funeral” show at Madison Square Garden in New York City and ACL 2016 are brief, so brief that a proclamation like one made on an LCD Soundsystem shirt being sold at ACL – “Back from the Dead” – reads like nothing more than preposterous hyperbole.
Still, despite only having released three studio records between 2005 and 2010, LCD Soundsystem is one of those bands that Means a Lot to a Lot of People, and for those not moneyed enough to put up a fight against the scalpers that price gouged the tickets to the Madison Square Garden (pseudo) farewell, this ACL performance is a special privilege. Me, I’m happy to see the group – Sound of Silver is a consensus pick for “Best of the Aughts” that I wholeheartedly endorse – but I don’t have any grand romantic notions attached to its return. There is no special importance to the reunion for me, but nor do I have any resentment about the band “reneging on its retirement”. Those who feel that their experience at the Madison Square Garden show is now cheapened because the band hasn’t really broken up will have their complaints quashed when they see just how happy so many people are to see this band, having never gotten the chance before. For those who clamored for tickets to Madison Square Garden only to have their hopes come up short, a set like the one LCD Soundsystem performs at ACL makes the waiting worthwhile.
The title of the 2012 documentary about the Madison Square Garden gig is called Shut Up and Play the Hits. At ACL, LCD Soundsystem does just that. “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”, “All My Friends”, and the aforementioned “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” are given pedal-to-the-metal renditions, the former being the standout of the set. Although frontman James Murphy mentions that the band will soon be going into the studio to make a new record, no unreleased songs are played. “You wanted a hit / Well, this is how we do hits,” Murphy sings on “You Wanted a Hit”, reminding the audience of the retrospective nature of the setlist.
Superficially this can come across as nostalgia pandering – and those cynical about LCD’s return aren’t without good reason, if one thinks about how much money the band is probably raking in – but it doesn’t feel that way at ACL. Seeing the ecstatic faces of the people around me as I weave my way toward the middle of the crowd, I get the feeling that I’ve walked into a dance party that’s started several years too late. Few groups invite music critic narrative gaming in the way LCD Soundsystem does, but in these, the final moments of ACL, all narrative dissolves, and all that’s left are the beats. Years later, you can still dance to ‘em.
// Notes from the Road
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