[10 October 2005]
PopMatters hits the highs and the lows of the Austin City Limits 2005 festival. From the hot it-bands of indie rock to legends of Western swing and country, we braved it all in the 100-degree heat.
Steve Earle & The Dukes
After opening with his hit “The Revolution Starts Now,” plus a couple of songs with his wife Allison Moorer, Steve Earle wanted his audience to know that though he usually plays what people want, “I’m going to play the songs of mine that offend people the most.” And contrary to what he said was an exception, Earle did what has become his standard fare—he bashed authority (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Fortunately for the large crowd who came to hear his music, he didn’t disappoint, playing favorites like “Copperhead Road” (containing one of the greatest mandolin riffs in musical history). Thievery Corporation
I didn’t know what to expect from Thievery Corporation. And after hearing them, I didn’t know what to say except, “Wow!” Possibly the most energetic set of the entire festival, band creators Rob Garza and Eric Hilton pulled together a diverse group of musicians, creating an international blend of Jamaican and Eastern music (and others) that got everyone smiling and dancing to a world beat. I will never hear the sitar in the same way. Doves
With a heat index reportedly at 115 degrees on Sunday afternoon, The Doves took the stage as audience members searched out what little shade could be found. Hurricane Rita not only missed Austin, but left it with hardly a breeze. That didn’t stop singer and frontman Jimi Goodwin and the band from putting out a lively—yes, even “hot”—performance of the grand, melodic songs that have made them one of Britain’s greatest recent exports.
Nic Armstrong & The Thieves
Having already seen their short, and tasteful, acoustic set at KGSR’s live broadcast from Austin’s Four Seasons earlier in the day, this was my second look at Nic Armstrong & The Thieves—another British invader hanging on to that mid-sixties conquest. On the other hand, Nic and his Thieves came closer than most to giving us a taste of that era with an energetic set of Yardbirds/Kinks/Who/Stones-like tunes while merely standing in the shadows of giants instead of on their shoulders.
Asleep At The Wheel
Thirty-five years ago, this band was opening for Alice Cooper. Veterans of the Austin City Limits television show, Ray Benson and a trailer-load of great musicians blasted through kick-ass versions of some Bob Wills classics and tributes as in “Bob Wills Is Still The King”. Singer/guitarist Elizabeth McQueen’s healthy pipes were a terrific addition. Longevity counts for something, it seems, because this is one act that grows better with age.
South Austin Jug Band
The fact that it’s hard to fit them into your average bluegrass/country band compartment says a lot about the South Austin Jug Band. Looking like a bunch of hired hands on their way to the local dancehall after a day of working the farm, these guys played like seasoned Nashville session men. With two talented fiddlers from a state full of them—Dennis Ludiker (who doubles on mandolin)—it didn’t take the band long to win an appreciative crowd with their roots mix of “newgrass,” blues and alt-country. Grupo Fantasma
Playing a traditional blend of Latin cumbia and salsa, Grupo Fantasma’s funky, edgy music sounded like they were happy keeping that groove, but also itching to let loose with a Stevie Ray Vaughan lick. With horns blasting, and guitars chinking, the audience ate it up. And as people passed the shaded tent under which the band played, those walk-by listeners stopped in for more than just the shade.
Armed with a large band, Lyle Lovett and 16 singers and musicians gave a classic Lovett concert—solid and spirited—running through material that ranged from gospel and blues to old standards and newer originals. Whether it’s a gentle classic like “If I Had a Boat” or the hot and bluesy “I’m Gonna Wait” with the lovely Francine Reed, the man knows how to command a huge event like ACL. One highlight was Lyle’s duet on “The Front Porch Song” with Texas great Robert Earl Keen.
This UK trio had an impressively large sound despite instrumentation consisting primarily of piano and drums. And though I longed for an occasional guitar blast to help lift the crescendos of singer Tom Chaplin, it may have been too much for the band’s sweeping melodies—they come dangerously close to self-aggrandizing melodramatics as it is. Their giant audience, however, seemed to adore them especially through their hit, “Somewhere Only We Know”.
Jet has my vote for the festival’s most underrated show. Whereas bands like Oasis say they are the next Beatles, Jet actually play like the next Beatles, offering a diverse selection of original material that rocks with an easy intensity. Singer/guitarist Cameron Muncy may seem like just another angry, young punk but he’s got a voice like scratched leather that never seems to wear out. Reaching a climax with their hit “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” the Aussie quartet gave an awesome performance.
I know they say youth has its indiscretions, but there’s a big difference between a band that acts aloof and one that actually performs that way. Though honesty in a performance is important, showmanship is as well and the young Ambulance’s members could use a lesson from other worthy ACL combos like The Frames and Jet. At their best, with layered, jangly guitar playing, lead singer and guitarist Marcus Congleton still struggled with his vocal performance. The band’s first album LP has some tasty gems that deserve better representation live.
There’s a popular slogan in Austin, Texas: “Keep Austin Weird”. I’ve never been to Texas before but I am praying that the music gods keep Austin dry as well. I arrive at LaGuardia airport and am told by my friend that there will be a press conference at 6:30 to determine the fate of the festival—Hurricane Rita is hovering like a jealous lover waiting to lay a beating on Texas’s eastern coast. Thankfully fate works in my favor and 24 hours later I am racing to the AMD stage to catch Austin’s favorite sons Spoon as they swagger coolly into the opening riff of “The Beast and Dragon, Adored”.
Every teenager in Austin seems to be standing behind me as I settle in the photo pit. Armed with their disposable cameras, they scream for Britt as their metal-filled mouths send a shimmering light in the direction of Daniel and company. I see kids under the age of 10 singing “Small Stakes” and “Me and the Bean” with as much familiarity as a Raffi album; I am comforted by the thought that the next generation is already developing better taste than their older brothers and sisters.
I am on my way to Thievery Corporation when a blistering bass line catches my ear and I am immediately drawn to a small stage nestled beneath a large rock and overgrown trees. The band is in the shade but everyone else faces the relentless sun. The band is Sound Team and despite having the least ironic name of anyone at the festival, they are my first pleasant surprise. They close with a song the bassist says is called “Movie Monster” and I make a note to catch them opening for the Walkmen later that evening at The Parish.
D.C.-based electronic duo Thievery Corporation have a huge crowd at their stage. They step up their arsenal when they play live, and their swanky club-fueled beats get a freshening up with the addition of a couple of beautiful singers. If I wasn’t stepping over children playing in bed sheet forts in ninety-five degree weather, this would be one hell of rave.
I have two after-festival gigs to catch tonight, so I head out early as the sounds of the Allman Brothers “Ramblin’ Man” play in the distance. I have no interest in catching tonight’s headliner The Black Crowes. A girl I once dated adored the band and since I have buried her in time, I must also do away with the Robinson brothers. The unavoidable aspect of associating music with the people in our lives—past and present—is any music fan’s ultimate catch-22.
I arrive at Zilker Park too late to see Aqualung and am bummed to discover that Tegan & Sara’s performance has been cancelled—I am certain I will never have another opportunity to be so close to lesbian twins.
Built to Spill
Doug Martsch looks like someone’s uncle. Whether he’s the quirky uncle who collects McDonald’s Happy Meal toys or the one who gets bombed before the turkey is carved, Built to Spill’s lead singer/guitarist has an affable nature as he stands on stage. The crowd is already swelling for this early afternoon show and the band sounds splendid as they play familiar songs from Keep It Like a Secret. I often hear people complain when a live band sounds too much like their album. Love it or hate it, these guys play a spot-perfect set.
I was recently introduced to Martin Sexton‘s music by a friend who put the singer’s sentimental “Wasted” on a mix. Sexton resembles a stockier Neil Young circa 1978 and as he croons “rock and roll filled my dreams”, he seems enthusiastic, excited to be on this weekend’s bill.
He is a coffeehouse singer, sure, but with the chops to make it. His words are poetic, his heart like a bear’s. In the midst of one song he has two mics rigged up. He harmonizes in one of them and, as he hums, his voice takes the place of a lead guitar. This is all before breaking into Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”.
Death Cab for Cutie
I head over to Death Cab for Cutie only because I feel obligated see if anyone from the O.C. cast is lingering backstage. The stage is packed with sullen, adolescent, middle class, white kids. Before I even get to the pit I see a girl being escorted from the crowd with freshly congealed vomit decorating her T-shirt. Nostalgia sweeps over me and I long to be 15 again and hate my parents. I hear the loudest applause of the weekend as Ben Gibbard waddles on to thestage. I don’t see anyone from the O.C.. How disappointing…
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Robert Randolph is one smooth dude. He is sporting a Jeremy Shockey Giants jersey today and sits above his famed steel guitar. The official festival program warns the un-anointed to “be prepared for an amazing baptism”—I couldn’t say it better myself. He has everyone in the palms of his hands as he jumps between pedal steel guitar, drums, and the bass. He plays like he is racing against the clock and the heat, smiling joyously through an entire set of funky jams and blue-hearted soul; he keeps the jam like a kid pumping quarters into a video game even after his parents tell him it’s time to go home. This song won’t quit, as his Family Band takes their cues from one another. The crowd keeps cheering the song on and explodes when he places a t-shirt atop his steel guitar that reads “Fuck Off Rita!”
I’m excited to see The Walkmen perform even though I caught them the night before at The Parish. They open with a new song called “Cheetah” and play a handful of new material from their upcoming album. The crowd gains energy with “The Rat” and I stare from a distance when lead singer Hamilton Leithauser laments, “When I used to go out/ I knew everyone I saw/ Now I go out alone/ if I go out at all.”
I decide to cool off in the media trailer for a bit and check my e-mail. I am regretting not applying sunscreen today. Some Irish fans are spreading rumors that the government-issued helicopters flying overhead is Oasis, starving for attention, and not some government official getting a lift to the office. I see a woman shooting pictures of Ben Gibbard while he chats with a couple who are each wearing ankle socks pulled high.
Everyone is amped for Bloc Party. I may be the only person on the East Coast who hasn’t seen the band live since the release of their excellent debut Silent Alarm. The band is appropriately draped in blue lights during “Blue Light” and met with thunderous applause. Playing from an album full of nearly perfect pop songs, the band makes everybody want to dance under the no setting sun.
I leave the Party early to catch Oasis, but they are some 20 minutes behind schedule. I am a skeptical person, figuring that there is an issue with the soundboard or tour bus and wagering that Liam is pouting about the crowd in front of Bloc Party and adamant about waiting until those “wankers” finish their set. Because the one thing that Liam Gallagher loves more than a big crowd is a crowd that is twice as big.
Sure enough shortly after the lights go out on the nearby stage, Liam comes strutting out eyeing his crowd. I decide to call it a night shortly after Gallagher places a tambourine on his face, grabs his cock and goes into “Live Forever”. That is something I remember liking much more when I was a sophomore in high school.
Why a band like M83 is scheduled for a set at 1:45 pm and not a cool romp under the stars is beyond me. I unfortunately miss the set. I settle for Doves as my first show of the last day and that is hardly a painful concession.
Lead singer Jimi Goodwin is in a long-sleeve button-down despite the 100-degree temperature. Just as I predicted, the crowd gets hopping when the band jumps into “Black & White Town”. “Cedar Room” is exquisite. For the second time this year I am disappointed when the band neglects to play the lead guitar part during the chorus of “Almost Forgot Myself” with the explosiveness of the album version. Alas.
I have never listened to The Bravery, but even I can tell that lead singer Sam Endicott looks exactly like he is supposed to: faux Mohawk, vintage tight jeans and mascara. The band’s sound has elements of E.L.O, Duran Duran, and Depeche Mode, and it’s catchy. Endicott introduces “Tyrant” as a song he wrote about a next door neighbor he used to go with and the period after they broke it off—he could hear her through the walls with other men. Nice. The song has a driving bassline; I imagine his mascara running down his face and that makes me smile.
I languidly walk over to the backstage media area for some water and to recharge my batteries and see Jason Mraz mugging for photos with fans. As I stand aside completely amused, a caravan of Suburbans comes speeding down the access way and comes to an abrupt stop. Four huge men jump out of the doors and two golf carts come zipping into sight. I am momentarily confused but then see a stunning Gwyneth Paltrow holding her beloved Apple a few feet in front of me. There are at best six people milling around and I don’t understand the big fuss. Then Mr. Coldplay himself comes trotting out of one of the SUVs as his security entourage controls the “crowd” so he can get to his tent. I truly miss the Chris Martin that once walked down the beach in the pouring rain at dusk singing about his favorite colors.
ACL veteran Wilco play a set that single-handedly makes this show worth the price of admission. Jeff Tweedy looks like he is having the time of his life. I am pleasantly reminded of what a heavily underrated album A Ghost Is Born was whenever I see the songs performed live. They are especially stunning with the added girth of guitar virtuoso Nels Cline. Cline’s face is contorted, his teeth clenched tight as he yanks on his whammy bar; his fingers tear easily at the chords as if they were blades of grass. “Handshake Drugs” is a gas and “At Least That’s What You Said” is delivered in the stagnant heat like a tender lullaby.
The Black Keys
I saw the Black Keys at Stubb’s two days earlier and have been anxious to see their festival set. Dust has been kicked around for three days now and it is difficult to see ten feet ahead of you—it’s like the showdown scene in a bad Spaghetti western. The blues may have started in the Delta, but something floated upstream and landed in Akron, Ohio. These white boys can get down. Dan Auerbach looks like a skateboarder but he sings like a god. Patrick Carney’s drumming is hypnotic and, as much as I appreciate the White Stripes, I can’t help wondering why these two aren’t on the cover of Rolling Stone.
And now it’s time for Coldplay. I leave the Keys show early to catch what the ACL program plugged as being “the world’s biggest band.” When I walk into the photo pit I realize that this fact cannot be disputed. I see thousands and thousands of fans pressed hard against one another and they are all smiling. And singing. I hear hundreds of teenagers break out in verse to “Hey Jude” and a bizarre rendition of The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”.
When the lights go out and a large digital stop watch appears in the background, I can’t hear myself think. Martin sits down at his piano and busts out the crowd-pleasing “Square One”. I must admit that the band still plays with the same exuberance and focus they had the last time I saw them play (and that was before A Rush of Blood to the Head sold eight million copies). Martin takes a few opportunities to interject his love for The Arcade Fire in alternate lyrics and in between songs, frequently mentioning how they have now inspired him to make better music.
During “Yellow” dozens of monstrous yellow balloons are set off in the crowd and on the stage, as Martin pops a couple that explode confetti all over. The crowd goes absolutely apeshit. It appears that this band has many years ahead of them before their own balloon bursts.
I leave Coldplay early because my ride is about to leave. I take a quick route to the exit via the quarter mile length of porta-potties to find dozens of pre teens climbing trees and sitting atop the restrooms to get a better view of the world’s biggest band. The weekend is over and not a drop of rain appeared. My lungs are coated in a thick dusty muck and my cheeks will begin peeling tomorrow—additional costs paid for a weekend of amazing music. I wouldn’t call Austin “weird” exactly, but whatever it is, I hope they keep it that way.