The first of our three day coverage of the Austin City Limits Music Festival finds PopMatters' Eddie Ciminelli experiencing euphoria, nostalgia and some serious fatigue.
ACL Music FestivalCity: Austin, TX
Venue: Zilker Park
It has only been a couple years since I swore off music festivals entirely. Unlike, say, sex but very much like skydiving or ecstasy, the first time you attend a music festival always is remembered as the best. My first was Coachella in 2003 and I was approximately six weeks from graduating college. I remember feeling like I was at Disneyworld for adults. There were multiple stages offering twelve hours of uninterrupted music and I was constantly calculating how much it would cost me to attend each of these shows separately. The anticipation of seeing a band that hadn’t yet traveled through my town and the secret yearning to find the next band whose discography I would next devour and obsess over was overwhelming. One hundred degree days and overpriced food never even crossed my mind as dampening my experience.
To me, this was heaven, and the reason college students were allowed to have credit cards. That high stayed with me the entire weekend. So many things in my life were coming to an end and I was able to truly live in the moment while daydreaming about the limitless possibilities of what my tomorrow could be.
Now as every day is one day closer to my 30th birthday, music festivals have become more of a pain in the ass than anything else. I will no longer subject myself to crashing on people’s floors to save money on hotel costs. The aches and pains of standing around all day are now more pronounced. The SPF level of my sunscreen has steadily risen every year and post festival bar visits have ceased to exist. I told myself that I was done with these things entirely, but when you move to a city that offers not one, but two, world-class music festivals in the same year, you start to make concessions…especially when you can walk to the venue.
The last time I attended the Austin City Limits Music Festival was in 2005. I was living in New York City but now I find myself calling Austin home. As a resident of the city, I begin to realize that this festival is also a reflection of me as a part of the city as a living-breathing organism. I hope that this festival is a genuine representation of what this city represents- the vibrant atmosphere, delicious cuisine and the people who truly act as the heart of the city. Before I am able to really chew on this idea, I suddenly sense that childlike wonder come over me as I pass through security. It is a gorgeous Friday in Austin and I am playing hooky from work and only asked to listen to music all day long. That feeling always sneaks up on me and much like that one, lone perfect drive off the tee in an otherwise ugly round of golf, always seems to find me coming back for more.
The first set I catch is from California based CHIEF and I begin to consider just how important first impressions are in music and how much the ritual of music listening is like dating. Your favorite band of today could have been a band around for five years that you never listened to only because you thought their first radio single sucked. The other day I smirked when a friend made a castaway comment that he didn’t much care for jazz but knew that one day he would and I knew EXACTLY what he was talking about. Sometimes a band or even more specifically a song seems to find a person at the most important moment to them. The night I heard CHIEF’s “ Night & Day” was one of those times. On first listen, the snares brought me in right before lead singer Danny Fujikawa’s voice hooked me in. Blending the best anthem bits of Doves mixed with pensive lyrics of yearning, the song sounds like it came off of the National’s album Alligator but hopeful because of how perfect Fujikawa’s voice compliments the melody and differs from the brooding mood of The National’s sound. But almost anyone can look attractive with a carefully chosen picture, so it is important to reserve judgment for when you meet in person.
This girl is a bit jittery on our first date. The band begins by explaining to the crowd that they barely got any sleep the night before and start a song only to cut it off a few bars in. There are plenty of people attending their set but it seems like this shtick fell flat and some in the crowd became despondent pretty early on, myself included. It isn’t that they are bad but I feel like I am sitting in on a coffeehouse set and wish I had a book with me. Nothing in the first part of their set is as pop oriented or layered as “Night & Day” and I am becoming restless as I hear the Mountain Goats set. I bail after four songs only learn that they close their set with a bombastic version of my favorite song and I feel slightly annoyed I don’t have the attention span I once did.
John Darnielle has to be hot. ACL is notorious for its unpredictable weather - be it mud pits from torrential down pours, whipping gusts of wind shaking dirt all over the audience like holy water or scorching suns that turn arms and faces beat red, planning one’s attire for the longevity of the day is pretty critical. Today’s temperature comfortably rests in the mid 80’s but Darnielle nonetheless wears a green sports jacket, black pants and flannel print shirt. The meta irony of watching a gifted lyricist like Darnielle pour his heart out on the stage that acts as his confession booth dubbed the Budweiser stage, is not lost on me.
Possessing one of the most distinct voices in indie rock today (existing somewhere between Colin Malloy and Ben Gibbard if they could tag team an artificial insemination), Darnielle, despite his philosophy teacher-esque get up, has a presence that commands attention. He roams around the stage barefoot and his conviction as sincere as if he were in the midst of a protest. I have been a casual listener of the Mountain Goats for a couple years now but always a strong admirer of his authentic perspective and heartbreaking lyrics of protagonists struggling to get through their days one at a time. I am not sure that Darnielle is a depressive or a masochist but today I am certain he is, without a doubt, one hell of a performer. Every time the big screen’s cameras scan the crowd, there is never a lack of fans with eyes closed, heads tilted back, belting out every word along with the man whose words seem to personify many of the feelings they seemingly possess.
There is tons of buzz leading up to Miike Snow’s set in the days before his performance and I sheepishly admit to a friend I have no idea who he is. I quickly learn that “he” is actually a “they” when I witness the mass migration to the Honda stage for the group’s afternoon set. The Swedish group broke into the industry manning the production booth and writing catchy hooks for pop icons Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears, even winning a Grammy for Spears’ hit “Toxic”. I decide to not hold this against the band and check out their set.
Lead singer Andrew Wyatt and his crew are dressed in all black and wear silver masks over their faces. A black screen hangs in the background. Wyatt’s mask is cut a bit short at the bottom to accommodate his singing and his neatly trimmed beard. I am not much a fan of the techno meets dance hall sound but it is Wyatt’s voice that brings this music to life. When you allow unabashed sincerity to play front and center in your front man, you make up for what is lost in the sterile, predictable synthetic sound of the club dance floor. Crowd favorite “Animal” makes me realize I have heard Miike Snow plenty of times and “Burial”, despite its morbid title, is a perfect song to soundtrack this early afternoon time slot and gorgeous weather. By the time they invite Ezra Koening from Vampire Weekend out to guest on their remix of “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance”, the audience is theirs and I am intrigued to begin downloading songs when I arrive home later that night.
I am extremely critical of the festival’s management of assigning appropriate set times to particular bands. The Black Keys of Akron, Ohio are a band meant for a smoke filled bar or underneath the light of the stars and moon. Despite their less than desirable mid afternoon slot, The Black Keys are the most anticipated set of the weekend for virtually everyone I speak to beforehand.
It is strange watching two people walk out to perform on such an enormous stage by themselves before a screaming crowd nearing several tens of thousands. The background of their stage is a massive curtain with two hands embracing in a bro-like embrace in black and red, the apparent color scheme of their most recent album, Brothers. Drummer Patrick Carney is wearing his trademark black rimmed glasses and a “Cleveland Is the City” t-shirt, a nice little wink at his recently adopted home New York and its well documented self absorbed fixation. The Black Keys’ sense of humor and wit has long since been documented in their Cretaaceous-era casted music videos and Halloween costume offerings and their meat and potatoes gritty blues rock very rarely leaves a first timer disappointed.
“Everlasting Light”, a head bobbing slow burner that finds Dan Auerbach channeling his inner T Rex is even better in a live setting. It is a welcome departure from the usual garage rock riffs that accentuate the majority of their set and is a perfect soundtrack for the early evening’s setting sun. The band whips through a gritty version of “Thickfreakness” that some of the fans older fan base greets with enthusiasm. When the duo breaks into “Sinister Kid”, two additional musicians join the guys on bass and keyboards, and the party really gets going. Auerbach really shines in the solos and the audience smiles as they scream back “The devil won’t let me be!” “Ten Cent Pistol” is stretched out and slowed down like a muggy, lazy Saturday afternoon in a bedroom without air conditioning. The Keys have always been aware of the mythic sexual power of the blues and when they decide to bring things down a couple notches it’s as suggestive as a high school slow dance. “There’s nothing worse / In this world / Than payback / From a jealous girl.” Auerbach moans this sentiment with caution and the many ladies in attendance wearing sun dresses find a perfect time to distract the eyes of many admiring men fixated by the swinging of their hips.
Their set is excellent but something about their performance leaves me rather distracted. Maybe it is the fact that they are playing before the largest crowd I have ever seen at one of their shows. Maybe it is the time of day. It could be that I am just too far from the stage or I have seen them a half dozen time before today. Perhaps it is because they are kind of the “it” band of the moment, the band that suddenly everyone with a set of ears claims to have loved for years the same way Sox fans came out of the woodwork in 2004 once they finally got through the Yankees. Don’t get me wrong - I am not and never will be one of those fans that hope the bands whose music I love so much remains below the radar and forever mine; whose luster fades once word gets out about their talents. I am happy that the band seems to be doing right by years of hard work but something leaves me unsettled. As I am walking from the middle of the crowd, I realize it has nothing to do with the music. It is my body slowly shutting down.
All a sudden, like a ton of bricks, the sun hits me. I feel every one of the previous music festival’s scars on my body and I desperately need some water. I walk over to a large tent near the free water refill stations. There are two large screens at the far south corner. The Phillies/ Reds playoff game is playing in HD. Beside each screen a sign reads: “Schedules are pre-determined, sorry if we are not playing your team’s game.” The sign instantly amuses me but also leaves with me a sort of hometown pride. Only a festival in a city as accommodating as Austin would be so thoughtful to have a tent broadcasting sporting events at a music festival and then go so far as to apologize if your favorite team’s game isn’t playing.
Additional examples of this unparalleled hospitality are present everywhere if you look close enough - the cut off points for where chairs are permitted at each stage, the free water refill stations and something even as simple as the piles of toilet paper stacked outside all the Port-O-Potties (and anyone who has run out of TP in a similar situation can appreciate this stroke of genius) I feel an overwhelming sense of pride that my adopted home appears to do things the right way. Austin is a town made up of people who look out for one another. This sort of consideration is never better demonstrated than by the security officer at the media tent who suggested I fill my backpack full of bottled water to give to my friends. It’s a simple, but extremely revealing gesture.
I hear Beach House a couple songs deep in the background. Teen Dream is one of my favorite records of the year but I know myself well and if I don’t rest now, I won’t make it through the evening. This is only the first day and festivals must be approached like a marathon; not a sprint. When we sit down I say I need five minutes. Then ten. We end up being in the tent for over an hour missing all of Spoon’s set and I watch Jay Bruce and the Cincinnati Reds deconstruct on the playoff stage, their first trip to the post season in over 15 years.
After an hour, I feel much better and examine my schedule for the evening’s options. I am once again reminded how painfully disappointed I am by this year’s headliners. The solace this evening is that the recently reunited Strokes will be playing the same slot as Phish. And when I consider my company, no other band seems more appropriate to close out the first day’s festivities.
My companions this weekend are two people who I remember experiencing Strokes mania with almost a decade earlier. Adam lived next door to me my freshman year at Boston University and quickly became my music Svengali. At 18, he was the first person I ever met with a shared affection for Radiohead and is in from LA celebrating his first trip to Austin and his 30th birthday. My other accomplice is named Jess and she also lived on the third floor of Chlaflin Hall back in 1999. I still remember the first time I saw her in Adam’s room in her pajamas holding a cup of tea like it was yesterday. A week into my college experience, my crush on this woman began and manifested over several years and through a dozen mixes tapes that fed my unrequited love. Eleven years later, she stands beside me, hand in hand and somehow, someway my live in girlfriend who moved down to Austin just to be with me. What can I say? I am a patient, patient man and I feel extremely grateful to be seeing a band from our collective past with two of my favorite people in the world.
Is This It? dropped when we were juniors in college and couldn’t have come at a better time. Everyone seems to gloss over the shittastic soundtrack that was the late 90’s - long before Pitchfork was breaking bands, Napster changed the face of music and the sibling or divorced questions about the White Stripes began. We were subjected to long forgotten turds like Limp Bizkit, Fastball and The Barenaked Ladies if you were in the mood for rock and left with the teenage franchises of 98 Degrees, N’Sync and The Backstreet Boys if you leaned more towards the pop side of the spectrum. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, this band of rich kids from New York, who dressed like they were poor and partied like their days were numbered, broke through with a garage rock sound that was by no means brand new but suddenly the remedy for half a decade of an uninspired generation. They were, in essence, the perfect storm.
Great band name. Cool clothes. And an amazing album cover that was banned in the US (tell me you still remember this)? While it was easy to stand on a soapbox throwing stones at every other band that tried way too hard to be cool, these guys made it look easy. Is This It’s? effect on my generation is well documented but I suddenly realize I am not anxiously awaiting their performance and feel a misplaced sense of impending dread as the band strolls out to the screaming masses.
The band is twenty minutes late, though it seems no hard feelings exist as soon as they bust out into a tongue and cheek version of the title track of their debut. Gonzo guitarist Albert Hammond looks healthy and super sharp in a perfectly fitting white suit and his hair is shorter than it was in the early part of the decade, finally dropping all Booger from Revenge of the Nerds comparisons. Drummer Fab Morietti, always remembered as the good looking one who dated Drew Barrymore, still smiles in the same shy, charming “ It is super fucking cool I am in the Strokes” sort of way and keeps the pace of the band moving forward. And of course, there is Julian. Decked out in a hoodie, skinny jeans and a perfect black leather jacket and sunglasses, he still knows how to run a show and handle his crowd. He is self deprecating (“I can’t see anything because I am an asshole and wear sunglasses at night”) and still handles a microphone stand about as dramatically efficient as any front man without a guitar slung around his shoulder.
The band is tight and performs a straightforward interpretation of their catalogue. “Someday” makes me smile the same way it did while stoned on the beaches of Sydney without a care in the world. “Under Control” still makes me think of Jess and the few years we stopped speaking after the “let’s just be friends” conversation left me feeling empty though now I find her hand in mine. And “Last Night” is still the best pre- party/ during-party/ after-party song written in the past decade. As the cameras swung through the crowd and captured the drunken smiles of college students likely under the age of TEN when the song last charted, that feeling of dread begins to bubble back to the surface.
Suddenly, the Strokes’ set and the atmosphere becomes much less enjoyable that it was just forty five seconds earlier. It suddenly dawns on me that I want to leave their set early not because they aren’t playing well but mostly because I am exhausted and looking forward to my bed. I begin concentrating on Casablancas and recall his well-documented struggles with drugs and booze and his current commendable state of sobriety. I begin to consider how much fun these guys are now having, as their inner band disagreements became headlines forcing side projects with Julian’s, ironically, being the least critically successful of the bunch. These wild children of the new millennium from the city known for never sleeping are now all in their early 30’s, married and some with kids. I begin to wonder if any of this is still any fun for them anymore. Now, coupled with the heat exhaustion and these projected bitter questions, I suddenly feel extremely old.
The Strokes do me a tremendous favor by playing their entire set and encore in under an hour. As the three of us exchange brief reviews of the set, I find myself suddenly quiet as we truck over mounds of empty Imperial beer cans and crushed water bottles. This is the first time in my life I have experienced any sort of nostalgia from music that I grew up with. I was never naïve to think that I would never come face to face with this moment in my life of music appreciation, but I always assumed nostalgia would come across as something sweet - like returning home for the holidays to find the smell of your mother’s cookies in the kitchen. Instead, as we trek down Barton Springs Road, amongst the Pedi cabs and food vendors, I find the taste to be quite bitter, like a mouth full of pennies, and the only thing that allows me to keep these thoughts to myself is the complete and utter exhaustion I feel at that very moment.