About 20 minutes or so into Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s set I was reminded that, in the same way one should not judge a book by its cover, one should never judge a band by their name. Admittedly, before their ACL festival performance, I was pretty sure I would never cross paths with this band for exactly that reason. It really is a ridiculous name. However, fortunately for me, festivals have a way of bringing you face to face with bands you might not otherwise hear. The pair took to the stage wearing matching, color-checkered jackets. They then proceeded to do a half spin to reveal “Jr.” in print on the back of each jacket. While the band definitely has a sense of humor about themselves, not just in their bold fashion choices but in their banter between songs, it does not really prepare you for the gentle, understated pop music they performed.
Backed by a drummer, they managed a tight set of beautifully crafted pop songs with dashes of soul and soft vocal harmonies layered on top of subtle electronics and guitar. The aforementioned reminder came as the band launched into an impressive cover of the Beach Boy’s “God Only Knows” which sent their haunting vocal harmonies out across the surprisingly large crowd for such an early set time. The band squeezed in a handful of covers during their set, which including Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, Thats No Way to Say Goodbye” and Steve Winwood’s “Higher Ground”. Towards the end of the set the band picked up the pace playing some more upbeat numbers. By the end of the set, with a sea of hands waving in the air to the music, it was clear they had the large crowd in the palm of their hands. It turned out to be one of the more enjoyable sets of the entire weekend and certainly the biggest surprise.
By all counts, I should be a fan of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes. The earthy, organic approach, the lovely, layered harmonies and a host of wonderful late ‘60’s influences are all qualities I would use to describe a number of band’s I listen to frequently. And yet, their live performance left me with a feeling of indifference and had me wandering, first mentally and then physically. Simply put, their live set bored me. On a stage that already manages to dwarf bands, they inexplicably set themselves up halfway back, leaving even the closest onlookers feeling removed from the performance. They offer very little in the way of stage presence, as most members stay firmly planted behind their microphones. Not all live performances need spectacle but it is nice to get a sense that the band members are at least enjoying themselves. To their credit, they cast a surprisingly huge sound for a band that generally deals in mellow, laid back folk music. The huge sound can be attributed to their impressively rich harmonies, which are often talked about but which really are capable of soaring across the largest of crowds. Undoubtedly, my feelings of boredom will likely stand in the minority, as the band apparently can do no wrong in the minds of critics and fans alike.
While it would be impossible to sum up the attitudes and habits of 50,000-plus people on any given day at a festival, there are at least two very distinct types of festivalgoers. There are those who bring a blanket and find a nice spot on the grass to spend the day and those who seek a more active participation, moving about from stage to stage and getting as close as possible. While the size of the crowd watching would indicate they pulled in people from both camps, their performance is really more suited for the blanket lounging set.
When you get right down to it, very few bands are truly capable of commanding a festival size crowd and won’t be getting any easier, as attention spans get ever shorter. Understanding their exceptions to everything, there are several different approaches employed — electronic acts are making greater use of grand, stage size light and visual shows, bands like The Flaming Lips make use of spectacle with a willingness to “roll out” any number of gimmicks, rap and hip-hop acts, such as Kanye West, are indulging in almost full theatre performances, while bands like the Arcade Fire attempt to get by on raw, driven emotional performance. Which one appeals to you is a matter of taste, but surely the last method would be considered the most difficult to pull off. I would say The Arcade Fire not only pull it off but they make it look easy, if it wasn’t so apparent that they were pouring everything they’ve got out on to the stage. As the only headliner that performed alone, it is safe to say the Arcade Fire were the weekend’s main event and they certainly delivered.
With a set that looked like they were performing under the marquee of a movie theatre, the band took the stage after some brief “Coming Attractions”. The film played like a slightly creepier version of a 1980’s PSA, with an ominous warning of strange event occurring in the suburbs (it may have been clips taken from the Spike Jonze short, “Scenes from the Suburbs”). As the short was ending, the musical outro “The Suburbs (Continued)”, the last track on the latest record, began playing, signaling the band’s entrance to the stage. This record, The Suburbs, and it’s themes loomed large throughout the evening as the bulk of the set consisted of more recent material, like opener “Ready to Start”, “Rococo”, “Month of May” and “We Used to Wait”.
However, it was the older material which seemed to strike the deepest chord during the course of the set. The performance of “Wake Up,” from their sensation first LP, mid set was chill inducing. After performing “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”, also from the first full length, the band departed the stage, but an encore was a certainty. After the short break, the band performed “Rebellion (Lies)” which was perhaps the pinnacle of the performance, with an energy coming from the stage that was palpable, even at a hundred yards. The song culminated with William Butler, the most animated member on stage, taking his drum and leaping from monitor to monitor out in front of the stage. The evening ended on with a rousing rendition of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, featuring Régine Chassagne’s intense vocals. The song, which is perhaps the best on the new record, features the lyric, “I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights”, which would reduce the stage to darkness each time it was completed. At the very end of the show as the band was taking their leave, lead singer Win Butler uttered a strange farewell, stating, “Thanks Austin, we won’t be seeing you for a couple of years so take care”. It was a cryptic statement that seemed to largely go unnoticed. But whatever its meaning, at least they left us with something wonderful to remember.