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ACL Music Festival

(9 Oct 2010: Zilker Park — Austin, TX)

Immediately upon waking up the next morning, I feel much more refreshed and ready to tackle the heat and the festival for Day Two. The forecast reads like the weather will continue to treat us well and I decide to apply sunscreen before leaving the house and down a couple bottles of water. I am already better prepared than the day before and looking forward to getting back to the festival grounds.


The first set we see is The Very Best and I can’t recall the last time I saw a more appropriate early afternoon opener at a festival. I heard about the band mostly through buzz over the past year, vaguely familiar with their Afro-beat sound and a choice guest appearance by Ezra Koening on their last record.  Say what you will about Vampire Weekend, but you must applaud them for putting as much thought into their networking as they do their wardrobe.


Lead singer Esau Mwamwaya is the voice and soul of an amazing performance. The Malawian MC brings pure joy to the electro African music of his homeland and Austin seems to be enjoying it. More so than any other set all weekend, this crowd truly highlights the diverse mash up that is the city of Austin - the topless, muscle bound frat boy; the tattooed, pierced hipster girl in pig tails both dancing beside a father slowly hopping around with his son on his shoulders. Mwamwaya is joined by two gorgeous and talented dancers who remove their excessive clothing as their dancing becomes progressively more rhythmic and challenging. The crowd goes bananas when the mash ups start to pick up at the end of his set especially when “Paper Planes” comes in and “Will You Be There” by Michael Jackson gets the biggest response from the crowd. Adam and I are all smiles and that is when he suggests we pick up trash.


Austin, being the green friendly and environmentally conscious city it is, aimed to make ACL a100% carbon neutral festival. They were promoting different projects on their site in the weeks leading up to the start of the festival with the most popular amongst them being the Rock & Recycle program. Any festival attendee could grab a large, blue tinted recycle bag from one of several collection centers clustered throughout the grounds and collect any paper, plastic or aluminum cans and exchange a full bag for a festival t-shirt. In 2009, between the purchasing of energy credits through a donation and the recycling accomplished on site, the festival had the same environmental impact as recycling over 6 million aluminum cans or 970,000 newspapers. I would like to think I am as much of a friend of Mother Earth as the next guy but when I considered the idea of lugging around a big plastic bag through some of these crowds, I wasn’t the most enthused environmentalist at the moment.


“It will be a great ice breaker,” Adam says. “You know - get out there and talk to some other attendees. For your piece.”


The next thing I know, we each grab a huge trash bag before rolling one up in my backpack, deciding to operate as a team. We stick around for Bear in Heaven’s set for the better part of ten minutes before getting bored. I was a casual listener of their debut album last year and today we make the decision to leave any set that doesn’t have our entire, undivided attention and the only thing interesting about them is their creatively groomed facial hair. There is plenty of music to choose from and we assume by walking around and staying hydrated, we will vastly improve our chances of lasting longer in the sun and I avoid any sort of competiveness trying to keep up with the college crowd of which I am far removed. Besides, we have cans that need collecting and we decide to act as hunters more than gatherers for this assignment.


By the time we walk over to a tent across the grounds, Adam’s bag is already 20% full and we have already received dozens of smiles and even two or three legitimate “thank yous” for our efforts. We then stumble upon the Jones Family Singers. Apparently the family, led by patriarch Bishop Fred A. Jones, Sr., is comprised of five of his six daughters, one of his two sons, a grandson & a son-in-law. The good bishop didn’t get into details of why one of his daughters and sons wasn’t invited to the party, but I am certain there is a story. The group is an ACL festival institution and by the size of the crowd, that could not be debated.


“Let’s have a holy ghost party!” Jones Sr. yells to his newly formed congregation. The gospel group brings smiles to everyone’s face. I notice that literally EVERYONE in the crowd is white, which I find to be interesting rather than revealing. Is this how those token white families end up at a dominantly black church, I ask myself. Whatever the reason, the result speaks for itself. The group is a reminder that worship can be a joyful and blessed thing, and not fear and redemption based like so many of the messages of hate we hear today. Their performance is another pleasant surprise that we only discovered because we refuse to be as stationary as we were the day before opting to take in as much music as we possibly can.


We walk through the audience during Pete Yorn’s set and tons of people have set up camp with clear intentions of never leaving that stage all day. I check the schedule and it looks like everyone is waiting for Temper Trap and Matt & Kim’s closing set some five plus hours later. I feel sorry for these folks who are settling for such obvious, mainstream performances when so much musical diversity exists within walking distance.


Many of my friends mention their excitement to see Gaslight Anthem during the weekend, so I am curious to get a look. As I approach the main stage I begin to make out that their backdrop is a skull and cross bones. Just when I assure myself it can’t get any worse, I walk close enough to hear their music. “Here’s Looking at You, Kid” is a poor man’s Springsteen and considering the band hails from Jersey, I am sure they would take that as a compliment. But the more I listen, the more I hear Bryan Adams and there is no way that could be misconstrued as an endorsement to anyone not from Canada. I figure now is a good time to make sure we have a good spot for the Black Lips set. I later learn that folk group The Dough Rollers features the sons of Gabriel Byrne and Harrison Ford, and I am super bummed I missed out on watching Han Solo’s offspring play the fiddle.


When traveling through Thailand last year, I met a couple Swedes who I ended up hanging out with for a couple days. They were in their early 20’s, liked to laugh a lot and could not get enough of the Black Lips.  I cannot even count how many times they told me that their favorite thing Americana were the Black Lips.  Anytime either of them was handling DJ duties on a random iPod, you could be sure that “O Katrina!” or “Bad Kids” would be selected. I had been a casual listener of the band for a couple years now but never had the opportunity to see them perform live. After absorbing the crowd’s energy for a couple of songs, I quickly realize how much I have been missing.


Long touted as an extremely unpredictable live band, the group has gotten into some trouble over the years with performance highlights including self-induced vomiting, urination, male-on-male kissing and the occasional cock flash. None such antics are on display today but in their denim jackets, cut off t shirts, fucked up hair cuts and unshaven faces they are the antithesis of the Strokes; it is pretty clear they are just as effortlessly cool.


While The Strokes coyly pouted the night before “Is this it?”, the Black Lips are the sort of band that don’t see the point of rhetorical questions and their response is “Fuck you. Let’s turn it up.” The sound is gritty and the vocals are shouted at us like we are being punished but man, do these guys put on a party. The first mosh pit I have seen all weekend forms near the stage but nobody is over 6 feet tall and poses an intimidating threat and everyone wears a smile as they push into one another. “Cold Hands” is the song that gets everyone hopping around and feels like a fair representation of the band’s energy during their live set. I leave the set a much bigger Black Lips fan then when I arrived.


Our first bag is full and we exchange it for a t-shirt voucher. Adam’s prediction was correct - offering to help the festival grounds was arguably the best icebreaker imaginable. People could be in the middle of a conversation and we would tap them on the shoulder asking to assist with a just-out-of-reach can and they would gladly oblige. People randomly stop us from time to time to thank us with so much sincerity for offering to help with the clean up; I become embarrassed and usually mutter something in response to the free t-shirt.


Always looking for the next grift, it occurs to me that we could simply empty out a free standing recycling bin but I realize that would defeat the purpose of the program and could be considered nothing but cheating. Minutes after expressing this thought out loud, we witness a man in his mid-fifties, a professor looking fella, do just that without any shame or care of indictment. But we are happy to walk amongst strangers, picking up idle cans seeing new bands we’ve never heard and beating the sun at its own game. It is an excuse to literally talk to anyone and it humanizes the festival that makes the day fly by.


We end up splitting the next half hour between the Broken Bells and Local Natives sets. I liked the Bells’ debut album just fine but I was relatively unimpressed when I saw them at SXSW. I also can’t get over the fact that any project James Mercer sings in immediately sounds like a Shins song which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but his voice is so distinct it somehow becomes a distraction. I sort of lost some respect for Mercer after he mercilessly dumped two of his band mates from the group once he felt their talents as musicians hit a plateau. Petty? Perhaps but I have other fish to fry. Local Natives have an ENORMOUS crowd and while Gorilla Manor remains one of my favorite debuts of the year, I had seen them at an in-store performance ten feet from the stage, so anything beyond that would be anticlimactic. And that acts as yet another obstacle for me enjoying the majority of any music festival these days as there are few bands that I care to see live that I have not yet already, so very few things are left to look forward to.


Thankfully, The xx are on deck and I have yet to see them perform. By any standards, the trio from London has had quite the trip over the past 18 months. Their self-titled debut was met with universal critical praise, they toured the world and recently won the coveted Mercury Prize. Reports have recently surfaced that the band plans to take a well-deserved break after this tour is completed. True to form, the group walks out to a wall of screaming fans dressed head to toe in black with the exception of bassist Oliver Sim’s blood red button down. Lead singer and guitarist Romy Madley Croft does not resemble the obvious front (wo)man and from a distance reminds me of the twin daughter on HBO’s Hung (which incidentally the group’s song “Infinity” is featured). 


The band opens with “Intro” the first track off their debut and I am thrilled. The song has a very ominous tone, as sparse drums make the speakers quiver and the guitar plucking picks up to get everyone on their toes. As soon as they break into a spot-on rendition of “Crystallized”, it is a relief that their voices are as striking when performing as in the studio. That is the magic of The xx. Their entire debut centers around the desire and anticipation of two people wanting to fuck one another and then the regrets that inevitably follow. I cannot recall a male/female combo whose voices complement each other as effortlessly as theirs in recent memory. This is especially evident during the breakdown in “ Infinity” as they both croon to one another as Sim commands “Give it up” before Croft purrs back “ I can’t give it up / To someone else’s touch / Cause I care too much” and you realize everyone in the audience has known exactly how that has felt one time or another. It is tranquil and seductive and strange to see in a festival setting, their set clearly made for a dark, intimate smaller venue.


Next was my most anticipated set of the weekend: LCD Soundsystem. James Murphy and his band of misfits claim that this is their farewell tour so the audience is packed accordingly. As soon as I hear the intro bass line and snares to This is Happening opener “Dance Yrself Clean”, I let out a loud, primitive yelp. People stare at me, but I do not care. Why are more people not talking about this song? In my book, it may be the best song of the year and the ideal opener to the set.


We start off, trying to navigate our way through the boring squares that are sitting in their chairs as the song gets going. I won’t judge anyone for camping out to see Muse (even though I wouldn’t) but to remain seated during this performance is borderline criminal. I start singing the words: “I miss the way the night comes / With friends who always make it feel good” and I eye a couple of other people approaching me singing along as well when we give each other high fives. After the song drags out for over nine minutes, the group wastes barely any time before breaking out into party tune “Drunk Girls”, just as sequenced on the album. I am not much a fan of the song but today it rings true and the party continues to rev up.


I find myself staring and marveling at Murphy; both when considering the arc of his career and the mere physical presence of the man. He is dressed in a black and white checkered shirt with his extra pounds showing like a big bear, blue sneakers and sunglasses. (The sunglasses, mind you, he actually apologizes for wearing when in between songs acknowledging the blinding setting sun as the “mid size star fucking with his version” and feeling foolish for “looking like a jerk.” Julian Casablancas he is not).


Once everyone has a thin sheen of sweat glistening from their skin and takes a moment to listen to the words to these dance party tunes, you really begin to appreciate the music in a new light. “I Can Change”, despite it’s 80’s video game sonic texture is an intelligent exploration about people’s ability to set themselves up for disappointment. You begin to listen to the lyrics and appreciate the imagery in his words. The song focuses on one’s attempt to make sense of the world falling apart around them even though they are pulling on the thread that continues to make it all unravel. A grown up song about dismissive self- rationalization… and you can dance to it!


“All My Friends”, despite being a couple years old has already established itself as a timeless song about growing old and shifting priorities in one’s life. Tonight it means something extra special to me as I stand beside two of my favorite people in the world: Two people who I walked into my 20’s with and now stand on the brink of my 30’s still trying to figure it all out. Rather than get dragged down by the heavy shit in life, Murphy encourages us to dance and I think he has a point, especially after last night’s self imposed pity party.


We decide to make our way over to MIA and it looks like more than half the festival has the same idea. The thing about festival crowds is that few people ever look to consider where the front and end of the audience begins. At every performance this weekend, the set sort of mutates like a plume of smoke or a drop of blood absorbing into a paper square. It just begins to drift out, where the “front” is the only recognizable territory. The rest of the crowd formation is built on one’s persistence to penetrate through the back of a crowd or your creativity to come from the side. Adam and I assess the situation and decide to head towards the Port-o Potties where traffic is limited because of less than pleasant smells and associations. Without barreling through thousands of people, we find ourselves about 500 ft from the left side of the stage with ample room to lie down.


So I do. And my legs thank me five times over. I look at the stars hanging in the night sky and close my eyes. I am exhausted but happy. I would be lying if I said I knew more than a couple MIA songs but I am looking forward to the set because I figure if Maya Arulpragasam is half the entertainer as she is divisive political commentator, I am in for a treat. 


The set starts off very confusing as she is barely on the stage during the course of the first song. Her entire set has some very bright colors and wild images drenching her and the audience in quick flashes of light. She is accompanied by a handful of background dancers including a set of male dancers working relentlessly to keep up with the aggressive, teret like beats of her catalogue. There are a few women dressed in burkas beside her, paying homage to the world music scene she now headlines. “Galang” gets the front of her audience moving like waves crashing across a rocky shore but of course, it is “Paper Planes” that gets the crowd partying right beside her. I recall stories that she almost didn’t include the track on her album Kala and since then she has become a household name for her fashion as much as her political alignments. It is fun to watch the crowd contort their hand into a gun and shoot for the stars during the famed hook and the audience lights up in agreement. 


MIA spends the majority of her set on level ground below the stage mixing with the front row of her audience. While anyone could appreciate a star including their fans in their live performance, we feel strangely distant from the music on the stage, as the video couldn’t capture MIA as she was doing her best to not be seen. When she was on the stage she held the attention of her fancied crowd but that seemed few and far between. Afterwards, many people acknowledge this set as the most disappointing of the entire weekend.


The set ends and we consider going to see Matt & Kim until I become instantly annoyed by their banter in between songs. They remind me of a highly annoying, slightly too enthusiastic pre-school teacher with the faux enthusiasm they have for their crowd’s energy, aura and other nutty shit. I want to slap Matt in his silly little mouth and I have no patience for his antics. I have no interest in seeing Muse and my heart is set on a lamb kebab from one of the trailers on our walk home that has been getting rave reviews. As we leave the grounds, shirtless frat boys with bikinied girlfriends mouth off to one another playfully. I hear one of them mention that then No.1 Alabama lost to South Carolina. Even in the midst of a music Mecca, it is impossible to escape football when living in Texas.

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