[23 October 2012]
The Austin City Limits Music festival boasts 130 bands on eight stages across a three-day weekend. As any seasoned festival-goer knows, the task of taking in as many of those acts as possible is no small feat. Tough decisions have to be made when multiple bands you want to see are playing at different stages in the same time slot, and when a festival is housed in a 46 acre park that has been filled with 75,000 people, you also have to account for the time it will take you to get from point A to point B. Oh, and if you want to eat, drink, or go to the bathroom at any point, that’s time away from the compelling line up as well. A perk of the chaotic festival layout is that you’re never too far away from a stage. Friday when I had to take time out from the heat to stand in line for a popsicle, I got to hear a good portion of LP’s set, and Saturday, standing in line for the bathroom, I hummed along to Rufus Wainwright, neither of whom I would otherwise have heard.
Most people who attend ACL arrive later in the day and start inching their way towards the main stages for the headliners, but I’ve always preferred arriving early when it’s less crowded, which makes it easier to get a good sampling of the up and coming bands. Most people who went to ACL this year will tell you about Jack White and his band of angelic looking girls, or about how the Black Keys are still awesome, or about the much anticipated Red Hot Chili Peppers closing night set. Assuming you’ve heard all of that already, I am going to tell you about the bands I saw, not because they were headlining, but because they are what’s in heavy rotation on my iPod. I can’t pretend to be an unbiased reviewer.
First on my agenda Friday afternoon was British singer-songwriter Ben Howard whose song “Old Pine” off his debut album Every Kingdom gained major popularity in the US after first breaking into the UK indie charts. Usually thought of as rainy day music, it was a little peculiar hearing Howard outside on a blazing hot Texas day, and his music is a tad quiet for a festival in my opinion, but he played his heart out, even breaking a guitar string, and sounded spot on.
There was a divide in the crowd Friday night when it came time for Weezer and Florence + The Machine to play up against each other, and it seemed the guys went one way and the girls went the other. Not necessarily trying to feed the stereotype, I went with the girls to see Florence. More than a phenomenal singer, Florence Welch is a mesmerizing performer – from her extravagant gowns, elegant hair-dos, and the way she glides around on stage, she seems more like Glinda the Good Witch than a British pop star. And the way she spoke to the crowd was more like a queen addressing her kingdom, in contrast to the usual, “Hey Austin, how is everyone doing tonight?!” from most every band. At one point, Flo (as fans call her) said through waving arms and twinkling fingers, “We come from England and we have a reputation for demanding human sacrifices,” which got a hushed laugh from the crowd because I don’t think people knew how to respond. When Flo closed her electric set with her most popular song, “Dogs Days Are Over”, she asked everyone to jump up and down until the song was finished. Tens of thousands of people proceeded to jump up and down for the entire song, because that’s how much of commanding presence Florence Welch has.
M83 played after Florence + The Machine at the main stage directly across the park. When planning my line up, it seemed that all I would have to do is turn around after Florence’s set and walk several hundred yards across the park to hear M83. But when 30,000 people are trying to do the same thing and you run into a wall of two thousand lawn chairs with no discernable aisle, this plan deflates like a punctured swimming pool raft. By the time I made it across the park, “Midnight City” was blaring and M83’s set was coming to a close. Luckily, much of the French electric band’s performance is spectacle, which could probably be seen/heard/enjoyed from outer space, let alone the other side of a field.
These days, it’s getting harder to describe what a band sounds like when such a large percentage could be described simply as “hipster,” and people know precisely what you mean by that. Bombay Bicycle Club is one of those bands. They’re classified as “indie rock” and they’re British—two qualifications at the very core of hipster. They were the first set I caught on Saturday, and whenever bands play early in the day they always thank the crowd at least a dozen times for “coming out early” (it was 1PM), which I find amusing. Their songs “Ivy & Gold” and “Shuffle” are perfect sunny sounding and catchy festival songs, and these tunes were obviously what the enthusiastic crowd came out to hear and sing along to. A four-member band, Bombay Bicycle Club has an additional two touring members, one on guitar/keys and one on tambourine/harmonies. These band members would appear to play their parts in the various songs and then disappear offstage. While it’s not rare for a band to have touring members, I had never seen one that excuses them from the stage once they aren’t needed. I thoroughly enjoyed their set, but after a while, watching this humorous disappearing act became the selling point. Especially the part when the keyboardist chucked a lime green shaker all the way to the other side of the stage before he exited.
Rain clouds rolled in on Saturday afternoon and teased with light sporadic showers all through Metric’s set. Umbrellas would go up for two minutes, and then come down. This routine repeated about half a dozen times. I am a big fan of Metric’s lead singer Emily Haines, who is also a member of the musical collective Broken Social Scene. Metric has that ‘80s New Wave sound that I can’t help but associate with movies of the ‘80s—especially with the Ferris Bueller type of rambunctiousness (harmless mischief that wants to be rebellious when it grows up). New Wave is punk without the yelling, right? Haines belts out her notes just as close as she can get to yelling without actually yelling, so we can feel the angst without having to classify it as punk. Having been around since ’98, and with a song, “Combat Baby”, on Rock Band, they were overdue to play ACL.
By the time the Punch Brothers took the stage, the crowd had persevered through three downpours. And while the rain was welcome relief from the heat, it came unexpectedly and left almost everyone sopping wet. When the Punch Brothers took the stage, Chris Thile said, “Oh you’re all freshly watered!” This was one of the acts I took a chance on – I was somewhat familiar with their music and of course well aware of the musical prowess of bandleader Thile, but their music had never quite grabbed hold of my attention before. It only took about a minute of mandolin, banjo, and fiddle to change my mind, and Punch Brothers ended up being one of my favorite acts of the whole weekend. Thile, who previously was in the band Nickel Creek, has played ACL before. However, this was his first time with Punch Brothers, and he seemed genuinely elated to be there. That kind of enthusiasm is contagious and had everyone stomping and dancing in puddles to the obvious fan favorites “This Girl” and “Rye Whisky”.
Kimbra appeared with Gotye on Saturday night to sing her part on “Somebody That I Used to Know”, and it did seem that everyone was waiting to hear that one song (as if we don’t hear it enough). Sunday morning when Kimbra played a set of her own, it was clear that everyone was there for her. A very theatrical New Zealander, Kimbra went through multiple costume changes that involved taking off layers of her massive tutu and cape. She reminded me of a hybrid of Katy Perry and Amy Winehouse. An insanely soulful singer, Kimbra at one point asked for help on a song from the audience, to which they cheered and she replied, “No, not like that. I need you to be quiet.” But that was only for her track “Settle Down”, which required her to record a vocal loop live on stage. After that it was back to upbeat pop and her dancing around the stage like a maniac while playing the tambourine. A stand out number was the new song “Warrior” that she recorded with Mark Foster of Foster the People - a track that I highly recommend you check out as soon as possible if you haven’t heard it yet.
Festival veterans Stars and newcomer Tennis were two other bands I got to squeeze in on Sunday that didn’t fail to please. Stars has been a band since ’99, but experienced a growth in popularity a few years back when their song “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” was featured on the TV show So You Think You Can Dance, and again last year when their song “Dead Hearts” was used in the trailer for the film Like Crazy. Tennis is an idie pop duo made up of husband and wife Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley. Their music is soft, sweet, and hard not to love, best showcased in their single “Marathon”.
My most anticipated act of the weekend was folk rock group the Lumineers, who had only just released their self-titled debut album when the festival line up was announced. Since then they have gone on to be one of the biggest new bands of the year, something that was not taken into consideration when the powers that be decided to put their set on one of the smallest stages at ACL. Their single “Ho Hey” is the song that finally dethroned “Somebody That I Used To Know” and “Call Me Maybe” as the most listened to track on Spotify. We were packed like sardines in the little venue, but none of the sardines were the least bit surprised by the turn out. Even Adrian Grenier from Entourage showed up to take a front row spot (and that bastard didn’t have to get there early). Maybe not even quite aware of their own popularity, lead singer Wesley Schultz kept teaching the songs to the audience, which was wholly unnecessary since everyone around me knew all of the words to every song. “Ho Hey” was belted out by the crowd when they played it mid-set, and the growing favorite among fans, “Stubborn Love”, left the band clearly overwhelmed by the rah-rah reception it received. If you haven’t heard of The Lumineers, you will. These musicians are awesomely talented and are sure to be a big deal very, very soon.
Trying to see as many bands out of a 130-band line up as you can, braving the elements, fighting dehydration, heat exhaustion, and masses of people, all in the course of three days, leaves you feeling like, as Florence Welch put it, “a human sacrifice.” What sane person would go through all that just for music? Well, you’ll have to ask a sane person because I’ll do it all again next year in a heartbeat.