Photo credit: Jennifer Bendery
G-Love and the Special Sauce
Photo credit: Jennifer Bendery
Photo credit: Jennifer Bendery
You would think the city known as the “live music capital of the country” would host a festival to showcase the “best of the best” live performers around, but not until this year has there been one: the Austin City Limits Music Festival. With 40,000 people each day swarming around under the blazing Texas sun, this two-day festival featured 70 bands on 6 stages, an Austin-style food court and art market, and an interactive space starring TV’s longest-running music program, the PBS-sponsored Austin City Limits. This much-anticipated event was a blast for the fans of Austin’s booming folk-country-bluegrass-rock-blues-psychedelic jam scene, as well as a dream for many of the performers whose musical beginnings were inspired by watching their favorite musicians perform live on Austin City Limits throughout the last 28 years.
One thing is for sure: this is a distinctly Austin-style event. Upon entering the grounds, you find yourself bobbling in a sea of cowboy hats, UT longhorn T-shirts, and pimped-out lawn chairs, many proudly featuring footrests and beer holders. People are huddled under the sparse trees in the park, packing themselves into the circle of shade under each tree. To help combat the heat as well as market competition, thousands of little cardboard fans are passed out with “Heineken” and “Tony Sanchez for Texas Governor” emblazoned in big letters across each side. For such a busy event, the crowd is unusually friendly, which is especially noteworthy considering the sweltering heat, the limited access to food, and the long, long lines to just about everything.
In fact, perhaps the only crappy aspect of the festival was waiting in lines as sweat poured down your cheeks and back, along with hordes of other sweaty, sticky people. With lines taking up to an hour to catch a shuttle bus, an hour to swap your ticket for a wristband, and up to 2 1/2 hours in the food lines where crying children were telling their mommies they wanted to go home, festival organizers were obviously unprepared for the mad influx of concert-goers on Saturday afternoon. In the case of Michael Timme, who flew in from Nashville to see the festival, he waited in lines for 5 out of 8 hours spent attending the Saturday show. Still, festival organizers cleaned up the situation surprisingly fast, bringing in extra buses and reducing line waits by Saturday night. Plus, it didn’t hurt to sneak food in for the second day.
Of course, the mix of top-notch musical acts helped make up for the problems. Artists included Los Lobos, Emmylou Harris, Ryan Adams, Shawn Colvin, G. Love and Special Sauce, Wilco, Nickel Creek, The Arc Angels, Patty Griffin, String Cheese Incident, Luna, Abra Moore, and Jimmie Vaughn. Staying true to Austin-style musical exhibitions, the festival also showcased some noteworthy local singer/songwriters, including Caroline Herring and Tift Merritt. The only downside to the jam-packed musical line-up was, well, what are you supposed to do when Ryan Adams is playing at the same time as Emmylou Harris? Harris seemed aware of shared time-slot conflicts too, when she said after her first song, “I told Ryan I would wave to him since we can’t see each other play. Hi Ryan!”
So, without further ado, let’s step inside. . . .
3pm: What I mistook for the sweet sounds of a Mississippi songbird turned out to be local singer/songwriter Caroline Herring, one of the most impressive acts at the festival. Armed with an acoustic guitar and bandmates playing dobro and bass, Herring captivated listeners with her resonant voice, her smart and reflective lyrics (“hands on a levee/fistful of cotton/old times here/will not be forgotten”), and charming folk melodies infused with bluegrass and classic country. Particularly after hearing her Joni-Mitchell-with-a-twang voice in the haunting ballad “Emma”, one wonders if Herring ran into Robert Johnson at the crossroads and sold her soul for such a rich sound at such a young age. Her debut album Twilight is well worth acquiring.
3:30pm: Meanwhile, drawing quite a crowd at the “Texas Stage”, Gillian Welch played a tight set of Appalachian-style music with her adept guitarist, David Rollins. Welch finished her performance with a squeal-inducing encore of “Fly Away”, the song that launched her to mainstream success with its inclusion in the highly popular movie soundtrack, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
5pm: With a strikingly natural, gothic beauty, Patty Griffin appeared on stage in a vibrant purple dress and with fiery orange hair, a stark contrast to her pale white skin. Easing the crowd into a cooler state as the tiresome sun began its descent behind the Austin skyline, the emotion conveyed in Griffin’s gentle, pained voice carried people through a reflective moment with her heart-wrenching, popular song, “Rain, and then eased into a rousing, toe-tapping, guitar-banging performance of the title track off her new album, “Flamin’ Red”. Accompanied by a fantastic combination of cello, accordion, and electric guitar, Griffin strummed her acoustic guitar into dusk and brought a renewed sense of energy to the crowd. Even when Griffin’s guitar periodically lost sound, her front-row fans shouted out, “We’re not going anywhere Patty!” Lying back in the grass, listening to Griffin finish her set with an old, Latin standard (“Mil Besos”), I noticed a cluster of dragonflies that appeared above the crowd. Then, they began to sting hundreds of people! Not really, but the dragonflies did appear, swishing and swirling over the crowd, soaring across the cloudless blue sky. It was a strange, fitting moment for Griffin’s moving set.
6:15pm: While thousands of ravenous, woozy people waited in lines for a hot dog or a piece of doughy pizza, I slipped away to check out Sound Tribe Sector 9 on the “Jam Stage.” The scene turned out to be a groovy, psychedelic, instrumental jam session, attended by a younger, more vibrant, more stoned crowd of hippies and dancers. Between the wa-wa guitar peddles and turn-tables, whiffs of pot smoke, whirling dreadlocks and long skirts, and the occasional dubbed-in samples of Pac Man and Deep Forest blended together into a dreamy, underwater feeling, one couldn’t help but float here for a while.
7:00pm: Eventually, the food lines waned, people either got their hot dogs or passed out, and it was time for Nickel Creek. There’s quite a buzz about this band right now: a very young, very progressive bluegrass trio referred to as “Bluegrass Revivalists” and “Youthgrass.” Injecting a fresh, wild sound into the scene, Nickel Creek simply makes bluegrass cool. And the crowd seemed to think so too: fans of all ages were visibly bursting with excitement, as were the band members who literally came bouncing out onto the stage. Immediately, intricately layered sounds of violin, mandolin, and guitar strings began flying throughout the air. The band launched into a range of hoe-down style jams, gentler ballads, and bits of cover songs by bands you would never, ever expect a bluegrass band to touch: Nirvana, Radiohead, Pavement, and even “Peter and the Wolf”. Mandolin-player Chris Thile proved to be the most charismatic performer of the entire festival. His body thrashing about, his fingers weaving over the mandolin strings like spiders on speed, their legs dancing maniacally up and down a wall of music notes, Thile is so tall he looked like he was folding in half over his mandolin in a fit of musical epiphany, trying to bang out as much melody as possible from this tiny instrument.
Time to go home. Let’s come back tomorrow!
2:30pm: Okay, so her last album tanked, and she’s been missing from the music scene for a little while, but when Shawn Colvin came onto stage she proved she is still a kick-ass guitar player and a profoundly talented singer/songwriter. A forerunner for many of the female singer/songwriters at the festival (and there were many), Colvin’s presence was that of a seasoned performer amidst a crowd of many up-and-comings. She demonstrated the ease and self-assurance of someone who has won three Grammy Awards, who has experienced big hits as well as lesser-known albums, and who will continue to follow her sharp musical intuition. Colvin performed with just an acoustic guitar, which had to endure several funky tunings to keep up with her constantly changing melodies. Cranking out a string of catchy folk songs, including her popular “Sonny Came Home”, Colvin kept the crowd laughing as her toddler daughter and niece came onto stage for some “interpretative dancing.” A special surprise at the end of Colvin’s performance put the cherry on top: beloved Texas guitarist Robert Earl Keen came onstage for a few country songs, to the delight of many screaming fans.
4:30pm: Speaking of screaming fans, you should have seen the crowd at the grungy, hip-hop, blues performance by G. Love and Special Sauce. MMM-hmm girlfriend. Dressed in all black and sweating profusely within the first minute of being onstage, handsome G. Love’s dimples kept the girls screaming and the harmonica tooting for a solid hour. Pumping with enthusiasm, G. Love picked at his guitars and nodded to his stand-up bassist, rapping smoothly about how “my baby’s got sauce,” getting the crowd to swoon and raise their hands in the air and sing along with him.
5:30pm: It is still so damn hot.
6:30pm: Emmylou Harris appeared on stage, with her stunning, silvery hair and easy gait, and everything suddenly froze as if an angel had entered the room. I think everybody took a big, unexpected gasp at the same moment. Harris has been such a strong force in American country/folk music for so many years, and the result was this phenomenal energy radiating from her even before she began singing. “Thanks for listenin’ all these years,” she says after a couple of songs, evoking inaudible professions of love from men and women in the crowd. She may be older than many performers at the festival, but hell, the woman’s got edge: underneath her summery, floral dress are fishnet stockings. “Baby I’m 55 years old and I can do whatever I want.” Well, I guess she can. And she did, that night, including a beautiful duet with Patti Griffin and a cover of one of her earliest songs, “If I Could Only Win Your Love.
8:00pm: On one end of the park, Luna is cranking out repetitive, hypnotic tunes to fatigued fans lying in the grass, while The Arc Angels is drawing crowds of electric guitar enthusiasts at the other end. Staggering through a maze of floodlights and sagging tents, the grounds are amazingly clear of water bottles and trash. I don’t know if it’s the heat, or the people, or Texas ethics, but what has been most noticeable about this festival is how respectful and relaxed everybody has been. These folks simply want to put on a fabulous show and have fun, minus any attitude. In the words of George W., “make no mistake,” this festival is not to be “misunderestimated”. If there is a second annual Austin City Limits Music Festival, it will be phenomenal.