Austin City Limits. The very name conjures up memories of many a Saturday night spent nestled on the couch while some band I’d scarcely heard of sent me scrambling to update my tattered “Must Buy” list. I think (but can’t be entirely sure) that in my early days of watching the show, that it was decidely Texas-centric. Whether that was true or not, the show has definitely become one of the places to catch quality music from both established acts and rising stars from every geographic region. That spirit of openness definitely applies to the show’s younger sibling, the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Seeing as how the Austin City Limits is in the midst of celebrating its 30th birthday, it’s hard to believe that the festival itself is only three years old. But there you go. At any rate, it’s remedied now, with this year’s lineup boasting over 130 acts. Naturally, the accompanying samplers can’t even begin to address that breadth of talent, but the 2003 Collection is a slightly curious beast anyway. All at once, it seemingly wants to say that there’s more to the festival than the big names, and that even with the big names there are songs worth hearing that you might not be familiar with. For the most part, it works.
Overall, the performances found here are strong, and the producers of the disc manipulate the crowd noise to make sure one song flows pretty seamlessly into the next. Obviously, though, some performances stand out over others. Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals settle into “Diamonds on the Inside” like it’s a warm, comfortable coat, while Robert Randolph & the Family Band sail for jam-band nirvana on “The March”. Bright Eyes’ “Spent on Rainy Days” clocks in at barely over two minutes, but more than makes up for its brevity with Conor Oberst’s insistence and troubled lyrics. And while there’s not a whole lot to Jack Ingram’s “Keep On Keepin’ On” other than its roadhouse groove, there’s a lot to be said for that groove. Martin Sexton evokes every fading porch light and every snaked-out stretch of asphalt he’s ever seen on his heartfelt “Freedom of the Road”.
Of the odd choices, it’s really a matter of degree — nothing comes remotely close to sucking. “Outfit” is one of the Drive-by Truckers’ finer songs on disc, but I’ve yet to hear it even come close to dominating one of their blistering live sets. Kings of Leon, for their part, seem a bit out of place; fine performance aside, they don’t seem to hold the same sort of promise as some of the disc’s other fledgling acts. On the other end of the age scale is Steve Winwood, who released what was actually a fairly decent album this past year, so what initially seems like a wasted nostalgia track actually hits its stride pretty well.
In the end, Austin City Limits Music Festival: 2003 Collection probably serves as a fine souvenir for anyone who was there, and as a decent enough appetite-whetter for upcoming festivals. Completists of various stripes will rightly get excited at the prospect of unreleased live recordings of their favorites, but in all honesty, there aren’t performances that strike this listener as particularly transcendent or essential, enjoyable though they all are. Still, a cozy listen.