Austin City Limits: Sunday 18 September 2011

As we walk through the gates for the last day of the festival, I can hear the jangling guitars of the Walkmen buzzing in the distance. They are one of my favorite bands to see perform and I have not seen them since the release of last year’s excellent album Lisbon.

Hamilton Leithuaser, always a stark but fashionable minimalist when it comes to his wardrobe, is in a soaking wet white suit today and struts across his stage while he wrangles his voice against the fast paced surfer rock of his band’s catalogue. The crowd is pretty large for their set today and those around me some several thousand feet away quietly sing the words to “Juveniles” and “Woe is Me”. The band breaks out a gritty version of their biggest hit “The Rat” and they close their set with an emotional, yet odd to hear in the sunlight, “In the New Year”.

Broken Social Scene has always put on a tight and well executed performance each time I have seen them but I can’t remember the last time I witnessed them holding the attention of a festival crowd as well as they are this afternoon. Lead singer Kevin Drew sports sunglasses and a pirate hat not quite embracing the BucO’s comeback season full heartedly as an element of disguise still remains. “Texico Bitches” is a great live song accompanied by a beer in the hand and while watching the liberal, Prius-driving Austin audience wave their hands in the air during the blitzed campy refrain “I want to be fair!”. The band does a lovely lo-fi cover of Modest Mouse’s “The World at Large” and make it all their own. One of the weekend highlights for me is when the guys break out a supped up version of mostly instrumental tune “Shampoo Suicide” and the swaying amongst the masses catches on like wild fire. Taking turns adding bursts of guitar reverb and swelling works wonders on the crowd, as smiles run rampant while several members trade vocal harmonies and loops to build a wave of sound. Their set is one of the best I see all weekend.

I am very excited to see Manchester band Elbow this afternoon despite having reservations about how they will come off in a festival setting. I have been a long time fan of the band but because they do not tour the US as often as Europe, I have only seen them three times in the past decade. The gray clouds roll over the park shortly after they take the stage. I have interviewed lead singer Guy Garvey for PopMatters a couple of times in the past (and he is one of the most gracious and intelligent lead singers I have spoken with) but today he is struggling to find common ground. The sun has been absolutely blazing the majority of the weekend and most people around me including those I am with are absolutely zapped from the weekend festivities.

The group opens up with “The Birds” the leading track off of their most recent album, build a rocket boys!. The band has a rich history of opening their albums with engaging jams peppered with catchy hooks and this one may be their best one yet but today it falls flat a bit. It seems that most people in the audience are unaware of this band’s catalogue and are either camping out for later sets or checking out a group they have never heard of. Garvey doesn’t care if they know his band or not as he insists that they participate. He begins by asking the crowd to chant with him for rain, confident that the British band is capable of inspiring the rain gods and giving us a shower.

“Mirrorball” is spot on as Craig Potter’s gifted piano composition acts as the foundation of the tune. Through several songs Garvey waves his right hand in the air trying to motivate the audience as active participants but only the first few rows of fans comply and people start leaving a couple songs into the set. Most lead singers would give up trying to get a tuckered out audience but not Garvey — he is red in the face and set on giving it his all. I find myself distracted by the lack of interest of those with me so we decide to go grab food before the set finishes. On the way to the food court, I continue to defend Garvey and simply chalk up today’s miscues as Elbow not being an ideal festival band or perhaps not an obvious selection for a US festival. My opinions of the band’s catalogue and talents remain unchanged and I look forward to catching them in a dark, small club – just as they should be enjoyed.

After we are done eating some of the best fried chicken I have ever had coupled with truffle oil mac n’ cheese, we wander over to Manu Chao’s set. There is a ton of people in front of his stage and the world music giant is resonating with his audience in a way that Elbow was striving so hard for. I have never listened to much Manu Chao in the past but his lively performance keeps me engaged so I make a note to start to explore his discography after the festival. He plays what seem to be a couple unexpected songs as an encore and literally a few moments after he finishes, Social Distortion opens up their set apparently behind the clock on their start time and eager to get out of the gate. One of my close friends is an enormous Social Distortion fan but I am interested in catching Empire of the Sun as they are one of the most buzzed about bands of the weekend.

Once their set begins, tons of people flood to the outskirts of the Google stage looking to get close for their well known spectacles. I can say, without hesitation, that I have never seen a performance quite like the one this band puts on. The audience is going absolutely batshit throughout the Australian dance/electro group’s set. There are multiple costume changes but their most worn attire looks like something straight off the wardrobe rack of Big Trouble in Little China.

The stage is washed in so many colors it is hard to pay attention to any one thing, which I guess is the point. A massive skeleton then sauntered across the stage. Female dancers wearing bird masks of some variety crawled across the stage as the band played music that sounded like the Prince soundtrack to Tim Burton’s original Batman. It was a good thing that the theatrics of their performance were so heavy and plentiful because it is clearly over compensating for a complete lack of originality in their music. But what do I know? I could just be another 30-year-old curmudgeon completely oblivious to what today’s youth generation is clamoring for because the audience leaves completely elated about what they just witnessed. But I just felt like I spent the past hour watching a performance art spectacle meets runway show on acid and even Randy Newman now seems like a better time spent in hindsight.

By the time Empire of the Sun finishes their glam show, Arcade Fire at the nearby, but so far away, main stage kicks right into their set. I caught the band a couple months ago at the Backyard and couldn’t have been more pleased by the setlist, the stage design and the sound. The band has come a long ways in the past few years and certainly deserve all of the acclaim they have been given as of late and this successful year is capped off with a headlining slot the last night of the festival. The band appropriately opens with “Ready to Start” off of last year’s The Suburbs for the clamoring audience. Next up is “Keep the Car Running” off of Neon Bible, an album that continues to grow on me. Lead singer Win Butler is extremely complimentary to this evening’s audience proclaiming Austin as the band’s stateside home while his audience is equally unabashed in this lovefest.

Despite having three albums of strong material, crossing the line between Springsteen rock and modern pop, no song still better defines Arcade Fire than “Wake Up”. The anthem continues to pull audiences in regardless of the setting and the song is one of my favorite sing-alongs of the past decade. The understanding that we are all mortal and that disappointment is inevitable in life:

Our bodies get bigger / but our hearts get torn up / We’re just a million little gods / causin’ rain storms / turnin’ every good thing to rust/ I guess we’ll just have to adjust”.

The song that breaks out into a ‘50’s sock hop that grounds everything, reminds us all that nothing is too serious if nothing lasts forever and that we all get another day to try to figure out how to do it just a little bit better. A fitting conclusion to another successful Austin City Limits festival and a song to see us off as we make our way back home to our showers, our beds and the jobs waiting for us all on Monday morning.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.:

The Walkmen:

Broken Social Scene:


Fleet Foxes:

Empire of the Sun:

Arcade Fire: