As a society, we value milestones and anniversaries as a sort of commentary on who we are as people, valuing our persistence and longevity as qualities reflective of who we are as individuals. Whether it is sports, romantic relationships or sobriety we all like to acknowledge the time and effort we put into our rituals and ceremonies. This year marks the ten-year anniversary of the Austin City Limits festival and like many things that have grown to become a custom, some things improve with time and inevitably some of the best aspects are lost.
When this year’s lineup was revealed several months ago, there seemed to be a universal sigh of relief in Austin when the headliners were revealed — in contrast to last years mix bag of musical taste buffet. It is hard to be judgmental of headlining acts that include recent Album of the Year Grammy winners Arcade Fire and musical god and infrequent touring Stevie Wonder claiming the last sets of the evening. Even the sticky situation of having Kanye West and Coldplay sort of split the Friday night finale on opposite sides of Zilker Park was a wise and calculated decision that couldn’t get too many people’s feathers ruffled because both possess a little bit of something appealing to everybody.
In what has become a bit of an unfortunate theme, I again get off to a late start on Friday afternoon as I debate the merits of the bus, a cab or the park and walk combination to get down to the festival grounds in South Austin this afternoon. When I attempt to book a cab I am informed by our notoriously ineffective cab company that there is absolutely no guarantee that any driver will be able to pick me up even within a two hour time frame of my requested pick up time or that I will even be picked up at all. This is sort of akin to ordering a pizza at a pizza delivery place and being told that you may not get to eat your pizza at all that night. I laugh at the dispatcher and hang up. I can use the exercise.
I park around two miles away from the festival grounds and decide to huff it with a friend of mine. Dan and his friend from Australia have decided to make the most of the festival rules of being allowed two sealed water bottles when passing through the festival entrance by emptying contents of said bottles and filling them with top shelf vodka and resealing the Evian bottles so nobody could be the wiser. I am 30 years old yet developing strategies to sneak drinks into anywhere is still embarrassingly exciting to me.
During the weekend of ACL, Austin sort of resembles the last day of school depicted in Richard Linklater’s film Dazed & Confused. People have to go to work and school but there is this underlying current of energy permeating through the town that just begs everyone to call it a day and play hooky. Even if you don’t attend the festival it is impossible not to partake in this adult playground and that cannot be counted as a bad thing.
I walk in to the festival entrance as Delta Spirit’s “Trash Can” plays in the distance. My fiancée and I have a lot of history with the band and I am bummed out that two years in a row I have missed my desired early Friday afternoon slot even though I live only a few miles away. I hear from several people throughout the weekend that Delta Spirit put on one of their trademark tight shows and many people leave their set as new fans and that is the best take away any band performing this weekend can hope for.
An unusual move for me, I post up with a handful of former colleagues at the massive Bud Light stage where hip hop acts fill the remainder of the day’s schedule after Delta Sprit’s set. My friend Jeremy has developed an exceedingly brilliant strategy at ACL year after year, putting together a circle of lawn chairs around a selected area and then sealing the area with yellow CAUTION tape to keep outsiders at bay. Jeremy is welcoming to anyone that has a chair to add to the circle expanding his small community’s county lines so long as they possess a favorable attitude and a similar respect for the shared space. It is amazing how many drunken college kids and stoned hippies will ultimately respect the familiar warning of a crime scene accessory. We sit most of the afternoon during Big Boi’s and the Nas / Damian Marley set with little interference from the outside world.
Both Big Boi and the Nas / Marley set both prove to be similar affairs for me. I am a pretty modest hip hop fan at best, as I rarely find myself in the mood to blast bass heavy music and embarrassingly have a lack of appreciation for the rhymes and brilliance of two of today’s best rap lyricists. I find myself distracted so I head off to the media area. This ends up being arguably my best decision of the weekend.
In line for a beverage, I hear a man in front of me endorsing an upcoming set as the “best soul show you are ever going to see”. Curious, I butt myself into his conversation and ask him to who he is referring. “Charles Bradley”, he replies. He listens to me repeat the musician’s name and begins to list the merits of Bradley’s music before he grabs me by the shoulders, looking into my eyes and simply instructs, “Just go. Trust me”.
I head over to the medium sized tent by the food court and I find I am a couple minutes into Bradley’s set. I overhear from the crowd that Bradley is backed tonight by the Dap Kings, Sharon Jones usual outfit. Bradley is quite the presence on stage, to say the least. In his early 60s, he prowls that stage and engages his audience like he is 40 years younger and still looking for his big break. He is dressed in a purple silk, spread collar shirt and wears a cummerbund tucked in by a black vest with sequins that reflects a city skyline, that though I cannot confirm, looks an awful lot like Austin.
Upon some further research, I learn that Bradley hails from Florida, was only properly “discovered” in 2002 and has adopted the nickname, “The Screaming Eagle of Soul”. This name would later make sense and his performance leaves me absolutely speechless. In between songs he continues to pull his audience closer, screaming with his eyes closed “I love you” before he blows kisses to the thousand plus members of his audience. For no rhyme or reason whatsoever, he randomly starts waving his arms in full extension like a bird swooping over the heads of the audience. At one point he politely excuses himself from the stage and returns a couple minutes later as the Dap Kings keep the stage humming and warm for him when he returns sans purple shirt but still wearing his cummerbund and black vest. By no means does Bradley have the physique to pull off this look but the man sure as hell possesses the confidence. For the remainder of the set, sweat cascades off of his shoulders and down his face like water dripping from melting icicles caught unprepared for a sudden warm spell in the midst of winter. He peppers his set with a cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” that gets the entire crowd singing. Like many years, I receive an early reminder that often times the best moments at a music festival come from the sets you stumble upon and a musician you had never heard of before.
The remainder of the evening is spent catching various moments of different sets but there is an energy in the air and you can practically feel everyone moving towards one end of the park to secure a position for Coldplay’s or Kanye’s set. Not surprisingly, age seems to dictate a large percentage of which direction tonight’s crowd flows.
I have not caught Kanye live in concert so I decide to find a spot for his set amongst Jeremy’s caution tape community. By the time it gets dark and the stage lights set in, boundaries are no longer respected and the space around me is tight. The production design is pretty much what one would expect given the well-documented ego of Kanye and his respected genius. West possesses a flair not seen in some time, perhaps since the glory days of the King of Pop himself. Granted Jay-Z has long maintained the throne of Rap’s de facto leader but he resides on his throne with a certain amount of restraint and elegance while Kanye has always been about bombast and letting his star shine bright any room he walks into. So when the backdrop is lowered and the audience bears witness to Greco and Roman images of angles and gods fighting and Kanye himself ascends from a platform in the middle of the crowd shaking his head to the screams of his fans, a Cheshire grin across his face, I dare say anyone in the crowd is surprised.
“POWER”, despite consistent rotation in every club, bar and radio station over the past year is still a ridiculously fabulous song and the crowd all waves their hands in the air as the bass and the King Crimson sample rips through the audience. I am surprised that a couple songs later, Yeezy breaks out “ Jesus Walks” as both songs are strikingly similar when heard in a short amount of time, with the chanting chorus of men versus women holding the weight of that hook in each respective track.
In large part because of my journalistic responsibilities, I venture over to the other main stage to catch some of Coldplay’s set. Coldplay was the headliner in 2006 when I first visited Austin and they had just released the follow up to their worldwide hit, A Rush of Blood to the Head. I saw them a month before that album dropped and anyone in that crowd just knew that this band was on the brink of blowing up. Four years later at ACL, I was disappointed by their third album X&Y but chalked it up to high expectations and a much larger audience to appease. Two albums later, here in 2011, I have now just irritated by their career trajectory and a group who clearly possess little self-awareness about why their music was so embraced out of the gates. Lead singer Chris Martin went public several years ago saying that the band was embarrassed by their simple but gorgeous debut, Parachutes. He lost me after that statement and I began to question his motives. Their debut was sparse so it do not hurt that Martin wasn’t the most talented lyricist or the band not nearly as gifted as some others out there. My godson is probably writing more profound feelings about his packed lunch in the fourth grade these days yet he got a free pass because it came from the heart. The music effective on the most basic of levels but then he had a taste of success, Gwyneth Paltrow on his arm and a ten million people buying his new album, he dismissed that accessibility as some sort of weakness. Just because Brian Eno puts his name on the inner sleeve of your album doesn’t mean you get street cred, Chris.
The portion of their set goes exactly as one would expect and my attention level is minimal as I am a fifth of a mile away lying on a hill staring up at the stars. He slowly teases out a cover of “Rehab” in tribute to Amy Winehouse before seguing into “Fix You” which still makes my insides curl at the under handed sentiment. The chorus says it all: “lights will guide you home / and ignite your bones / and I will try to fix you”. I wouldn’t pay $3.95 for that sentiment in a greeting card much less $50 bucks for a seat in this band’s audience. It is interesting closing my eyes and listening to the band rather than being impressed by the theatrical strobe lights that color their stage or the 50,000 people that seem to identify with every single word this man utters. With clear ears and no judgment, I can acknowledge the following: a) Martin has a great leading man’s voice b) the band’s instrumental composition is average at best, c) Coldplay owes everything to the Pixies like the vast majority of modern music who employs the quiet-loud-quiet blueprint d) the band knows how to embed a hook in a listener’s head and e) the band realized that “Clocks” was their first big hit and decided to base the rest of their catalogue on the sonic blueprint of that single song.
The set ends abruptly as the lights die from the stage but Coldplay’s fans remain screaming. I make an abrupt turn towards the exit as parents guided their kids out, holding hands and sharing their favorite moments from Coldplay’s set. I am alone, separated from my friends, walking down the long corridor that is Barton Springs Road any evening after ACL when I hear the keyboard twinkle come in from Kanye’s “Runaway”. I am later told that ballerinas join Kanye on stage, as has been a sort of tradition on this latest tour. The juxtaposition between those people walking down the street with me and those who remain at Kanye couldn’t be more evident. As the vitriol runs through me as the disappointing reminder that Coldplay will likely never write another song that means something to me ever again, a woman beside me calls her husband. I listen to this woman around my age claiming that Coldplay’s set just changed her life and she wishes he were there to have experienced it with her. Rather than dismiss this fan’s claims as misplaced or exaggerated, I simply choose to remind myself that vocalizing one’s love for something artistic takes a lot more courage than simply dumping all over it and for that, I will always have nothing but respect. And I mean for the fan — Chris Martin has a long road to travel before meeting me there.