We have lived in Austin for two years now and each year during ACL we host first time visitors to the city. This is not the most ideal circumstance for anyone as the guide isn’t presented with the opportunity to truly show a city’s highlights or character. My guests this year arrived from Brooklyn just short of midnight the evening before. We didn’t retire until just before 4 am catching up over drinks in my backyard and there is a characteristic laziness in the way we start our morning. Both Brent and Anna are interested in seeing the Antlers 12:30 set but Anna made it clear that food is her top priority for this weekend’s visit. I throw out the idea of breakfast tacos and we go to Torchy’s at one of the trailer courts south of us near the festival. Hospice is one of my favorite albums of the past few years but nobody expresses any regret when we stroll in ten minutes after the Antlers set our bellies full of migas and coffee.
Alexander is the solo project from Alex Ebert from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. A web search revealed that the band’s first show was in nearby Martha, Texas so the boy has some Texas ties. He seemed well at ease when I saw them play a couple shows last year here in Austin. Ebert is a little more cleaned up and a little less hippie when he comes out to a packed crowd in the early afternoon sun. “Truth” is a shaman doing his best take at a gentle hip-hop flow and it works. “All my enemies are turning into my teachers” he swoons and his crowd bobs along. “A Million Years” is more what Alexander is all about, mixing a Paul Simon-esque bassline with the jangle of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind”. A great mid afternoon slow burning treat and many around me lay out in the grass.
We come over to a stage expecting to see Iron & Wine but hear the band playing a much fuller, fully accompanied band version of his songs and are taken a back. I last saw Sam Beam four years ago at a seated venue in New York. He played a significant portion of the show with his back to his audience. Today I have seen a transformation in more ways than one. Beam looks fantastic—his hair is no longer a tangles mess but instead cropped short and his beard has lost any length past his chin. He is in a suit on this muggy afternoon and rain has started to fall during his opening song. It has been one of the hottest and driest Texas summers in history, so when the skies open up and a summer rain begins to fall on the crowd, people start dancing and the mood lightens with the temperature. I am a simple man and still yearn for the Iron & Wine from his early four track recordings, simple whispered parables and nighttime stories for his wife and little daughters sleeping a room over. Yet today I fully appreciate the fully fleshed out version of the group’s catalogue especially “Wolves” that makes me feel like I am lost in the Appalachians and trying to find my way out as the sinister groove in between verses acts as effective foreshadowing.
I end up going over to the Google stage area as Skrillex takes the stage. The crowd is massive and I must call party foul and admit I have never heard of Skrillex but immediately it strikes me as a poor chosen stage name for anything outside of the comic book universe. His music… how can I describe his music? You know Girl Talk? It is like that instead he is mashing up shit NOBODY has ever heard and it sounds like bad dubstep mixed with the boxed intensity of a Gatorade commercial. When I lay my eyes on Mr. Ex he instantly reminds me of a goth Corey Feldman. Dressed all in black with one of those Flock of Seagulls do’s with a trace of Poison to accentuate his tips, a cigarette dangles from his lips as he plays with his computer and Edgar Frog smiles like he is surprised so many people are in front of him, which in hindsight may be a sign of humility and unfair of me to criticize. Teddy Duchamp is a real sweetheart though when some little boy with a face painting went out next to his station and started shaking his hips before the screams of many teenage girls who very likely could be his babysitter or older sister.
I left TV on the Radio’s set at the Pitchfork festival after two songs this past summer because the sound is notoriously difficult to reproduce live. When the sound settings are right, they are some of the best in the business. When TVOTR don’t sound check or play a festival, it sounds like a guy screaming into a tub full of water while he knocks a bat repeatedly in a trashcan. Today, fortunately the sound is great.
The band played a few strong tunes from their latest album including “Second Song” & “Will Do”. The new album was at first underwhelming to me upon. But today I began to appreciate just how fun and real this love album is for the group. A couple songs into the set somebody points out Christian Bale standing a few feet from guitarist Kyp Malone. I didn’t know Batman was an indie music fan and questioned whether current Dark Knight Rises co-star Anne Hathaway introduced Bale to Tunde Adebimpe, her co-star from Rachel Getting Married. I later learn that Tree of Life director, visionary and Austin resident Terrence Malick is actually seen walking around with Bale and a small crew filming him amongst the festival crowd and this may be the most exciting take-away from the weekend completely independent of music.
“Halfway Home” is still a great song live and the “ba ba ba ba ba ba” intro gets everyone swaying in their flip-flops. The precisely organized drum loop and sonic fuzz on the track are just as visceral when hearing them live as they are on the recording and I remind myself to listen to Dear Science again soon. But it is “Young Liars” that still remains their most faithful tune live and the one that is carried by the sheer sweaty swagger of that song. I listen to that song and I feel like I just did something wrong; like I got dirt on my soul. To me—no matter if the sound is pristine or obscured—the band can carry this song and play it like a last rites confession on the way to the cemetery.
And then it is time to head to Stevie Wonder. For me, this was the most appealing set of the entire weekend. Informed by numerous sources, I know Stevie is a must on any audiophile’s bucket list of live shows. I was told the set would make me appreciate music in such a fun and inspirational way. We are standing twenty minutes after the set was supposed to start and people’s body language seem restless and are clearly tied. Brent reminds me “once you get to Stevie level, people are going to wait for you and not really complain”. Spot on.
When he does come on, it is a bit of surprise because the band had been warming up without the stage fully lit up when, Stevie appears on the far left side smiling and holding a keytar and wearing a large sort of moomoo meets silk pajama thing. What a sight! I immediately begin laughing as Wonder faces his stage, his fingers effortlessly finding their home on the intended keys and the crowd lets out a roar.
Stevie breaks out the usual hits: “Superstition”, “How Sweet it is to be Loved by You” and even a fun cover of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”. Apparently the sound was spotty in different areas of the audience, which explains why there were massive exoduses throughout the set. Wonder peppers the breaks between songs with various political commentaries about Obama and the urgent need to make gun laws stricter. There are two sacred things in Texas, football and guns—and only Stevie Wonder could get away with saying such a thing in the middle of Texas. After encouraging his crowd for the majority of his set to “everyday put your best love forward”, Wonder closes his set with a stretched out version of his Song In the Key of Life gem, “As”. As we rush for the exits with our hearts set on lamb kebabs and hydration, we can hear the pulsing bass line from My Morning Jacket’s set and I actually consider that I made a mistake skipping their set.
Iron & Wine:
TV on the Radio: