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ACL Music Festival

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

Every year that passes, it is that much more difficult for me to get up out of bed that last day of the festival.  Two days of standing in the sun, guzzling warm beers amongst 60,000 of your closest friends, starts to wear on you. The soreness and the stink often times matching one another. Today we start off with an Austin tradition—the Blood Mary ACL pregame at my friend, Carter’s. We casually mingle, introducing ourselves to one another while watching the Rangers slowly give runs to the AL east division winning Rays. I am a baseball fan in football country and my knowledge of the game and circumstances makes the casual Ranger fan uneasy, like I am an undercover officer looking to break up the party.


After loading up on pre-show drinks, we strolled in just as Trombone Shorty (aka Troy Andrews) takes the stage. The tent is absolutely packed and given Shorty’s reputation for owning the crown of the funk and brass sound of New Orleans, it is no wonder. Still, I cannot believe how many people are waiting to hear the man play.


Andrews, 22, was discovered at a young age by Bono and The Edge (how about that for making a first impression?), and has been playing in brass bands since he was six. I recently become familiar with him and his famed reputation through a few cameo appearances in the HBO mini series, Treme. Treme is the oldest black neighborhood in the US and the section of New Orleans where its music is born from; world famous for producing some of the best brass blues musicians of the past century.


It is difficult to really remain engaged as we are pushed out to the food area of the tent to really follow his set but two things are becoming abundantly clear in no time at all: Shorty not only can play the ‘bone and the trumpet superbly well but the dude can also sing. I mean he has a swagger that runs throughout him, apparent in his voice and presence. He is the perfect ambassador for the city he calls home. I read one reviewer comparing his showmanship as a mix between Michael Jackson and James Brown and while that is a heavy crown to wear, this guy looks like he has the talents to be a mainstay at the festival for a long time to come. 


I caught Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes a few months ago when they were in town and left extremely impressed.  I sit down in a pit of UT students lounging out on blankets passing cigarettes and crackers amongst one another. One girl, no more than 19, has model quality looks and looks like she is one more joint away from evaporating but it is the sweet, secret smile of anticipation that leaves an impression: there is nowhere else she would rather be.


The band opens with “40 Day Dream”, the opening track to their self-titled debut. It has become clear from extensive touring that each of their songs have now morphed into a seasoned, tested remix of their recording counterparts. The song perfectly introduces the listener to the record and today to their crowd. A strongly participated hand clapping begins without any real prodding and Alex Ebert’s voice soars today.  He hits all the notes and throws the microphone to his audience to help bring him through the chorus. “Janglin”, the most radio friendly song Devendra Banhart never wrote, comes across a bit folksy this afternoon but “Carries On” and its slow burning intro recreates the best of early U2 balladry before Bono went out to save the world. But like any new kid on the block, they know the song that brought them to this stage and they wisely decide to wait to play “Home” as their encore song.


I remember the first time I heard the hippie, whistling song that came to define this band over a year ago. My girlfriend pointed out how well the June & Johnny Cash formula worked with the band’s two lead singers. Once the song appeared on an episode of Glee, the band propelled into a whole new atmosphere of popularity and was likely to suffer from over exposure. But watching Ebert and Jade Castrinos alternate lines talking about how their home is not defined by their square footage, zip code or possessions but instead wherever the other person lies their head, you have to have a block of ice over your heart if you can’t get swept up by the simple beauty of it all. 


I want to catch some of Band of Horses’ set but as soon as we get close enough to hear the music, I am instantly reminded of the Allman Brothers concerts that rolled through my town every summer and I have little enthusiasm for southern rock this evening. 


We find ourselves back in the football tent watching the Cowboys struggle against the Titans. There are hundreds of people opting to skip music this afternoon to watch their Cowboys try to climb their way out of a thus far nightmare season, delusional hopes holding onto a Super Bowl appearance. Fans around the tent groan when scores are updated periodically at the bottom of the screen and many upsets are popping up around the league. Parity has never been more obvious in recent years in the NFL and when Tony Romo throws another pick on a last ditch drive, the tent clears out and people are not hiding their anger. I see a friend of mine approaching me from the middle of the packed tent and he is visibly hammered. I ask him what shows he had seen today and he looks at me like I a crazy. “None,” he replies. “I have been in here all day.”


We watch the Flaming Lips from a distance, near the sports tent. The Lips are now a regular on the festival circuit after almost 30 years of playing by their own rules. The festive atmosphere of the party has become as relevant as the music during the Lips’ set and though the band doesn’t appear to have any new tricks up their sleeve, they don’t need to fix anything that isn’t broken. Wayne Coyne still gets in his big plastic ball and crowd surfs over the masses. Confetti guns still shoot over the crowd and the debris hang in the air like the aftermath of a fireworks show. Tonight a creepy close up of an eye is lit up on the screen behind the band and they play many tracks off their latest album, Embryonic. When they bust out a rendition of “She Don’t Use Jelly”, the sweet nostalgia that was elusive to me on Friday night comes back in waves and I feel like I am 12 again buying cassette singles at Tower Records in the mall. They close with “Do You Realize?” which besides being the only official state song played all weekend, is also arguably the best closing song of any set. Similar to the brilliance of LCD Soundsytem’s perspective on getting old but not being sad about it, the Lips anthem about the preciousness of our own mortality is the stuff of celebrations. I will never tire of this song and I hope the Lips are playing it for many years to come.


We wander over to see The National. A band most definitely appropriate for an evening slot, I have been following the Brooklyn-based band for several years now. I know many people who disregard the band for being too sad, too slow, and for not liking Matt Berninger’s voice. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it but I contend that very few bands playing today evoke the certain sort of adult observations about the trivial repetitions of our day to day quite as well as these guys. 


They were self deprecating when introducing “Abel” as a song about brothers who want to kill each other, coyly acknowledging that two sets of brothers make up eighty percent of the band. “Mr. November” comes across like a schizophrenic confession and “Fake Empire” demonstrates how talented the group is at demonstrating restraint when focusing on their ballads. “We are half awake in our fake empire,” Berninger croons and I find myself instinctively looking at the state capitol in the distance. But it is “Bloodbuzz Ohio” off of their latest album High Violet that makes the strongest impression of the latest batch of songs. The drums pound away as Berninger keeps his voice relatively soft but forceful. “I never thought about love when I thought about home” may be one of my favorite choruses of recent years and when I hear it there is nothing remotely depressing about the sentiment. It is more of a fact mentioned as an aside; an observation about how much has changed around you when you weren’t paying close enough attention.


The band brings tons of energy and passion when performing live, yet I find myself yearning for a hammock, a scotch and my headphones when listening to them. I will never turn down the opportunity to see the band play live but like so many other of my favorite groups this weekend, I wonder how well suited they are for festival slots despite my deep pleasure that they have in fact earned everything they have received.


And that is that. We slowly make our way to the festival entrance for the last time this weekend. I take a quick look at the size of the audience at the Eagles’ set and I severely underestimated the interest level for the seminal ‘70s rock group. Their stage is packed. None of us have any interest in seeing any of their set and decide to try to beat the masses. As we walk out of the gates the opening chords of “Hotel California” come in and a collective laugh breaks out amongst a hundred people around me. I can’t help but listen to Don Henley sing because everyone knows every word to this song:


“There she stood in the doorway / I heard the mission bell / And I was thinking to myself / This could be heaven or this could be hell” Henley moans and I can’t think of a more appropriate sign off to my mixed feelings about attending the festival this weekend. But as I walk slowly down the street, back towards the heart of South Austin that I now call my home, I realize there is no other place I would rather be and I look forward to next year, despite the inevitable truth that I will be another year older.

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