"We think of this as the kickoff to ACL Fest," proclaimed Terry Lickona, executive producer of the Austin City Limits TV show, to an unusually rowdy taping last Thursday night at the Moody Theater as he introduced Queens of the Stone Age, whose high-voltage performance primed us for the coming weekend.
The next morning, the Star Wars theme boomed as gray-hairs dashed through the gates to stake out a shady spot for their lawn chairs. Garage punks Fidlar broke in the Bud Light stage with a frantic set that blew the power, which made the distant sounds of Asleep at the Wheel's "Big Balls in Cowtown" hilariously omnipresent. Outside the fest gates, scalpers offered three-day wristbands at fire sale pricing (as low as $80) and cursed promoter C3 Presents for adding another weekend.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell was in attendance, hosting Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Toronto officials hope to stimulate their city's musical economy by emulating Austin. Be careful what you wish for, Toronto. This ain't no walk in the park ...
On the main stage, NYC indie-pop hitmakers Fun demonstrated that their saccharine singles, which even live sound like processed cheese, had unmatchable sing-along potential. Their version of the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," though, was utter desecration. Backstage, I asked a toddler who her favorite band was.
"Fun, because they pway them on the wadio!" Oh grow up.
I was much less disappointed in another Grammy-winning act, Muse, whose Super Bowl-sized stage show employed futuro gadgetry like LED guitars and closed-captioning sunglasses, but maintained the ethics of a good rock band: strong riffs, bold lyrics, and fantastic chemistry, which they maintained despite being interrupted by power outages. Whoever's job it was to gas up the generators on Friday was likely filing for unemployment on Monday.
"It's too fucking early!" shouted bassist Seth Gibbs as local heavy pop quintet, Bobby Jealousy, shook the Saturday morning spectators awake with a high-energy performance that included twerking from his wife and singer Sabrina Ellis. That established them as the best local act until reformed guitar army the True Believers ignited the Zilker Tent with a set so fierce that Scratch Acid drummer Rey Washam left in bandages.
Hard rock sister act Haim drew a large crowd to the main stage early in the day.
"We're happy to be here the week our record comes out because this is where it all started for us!" declared multi-instrumentalist Alana Haim.
"We put out our first EP at South by Southwest two years ago," she explained to me backstage afterward. "We weren't even on the bill. We just kind of came and a DJ heard us and started playing our music in the UK and it exploded from there. So we basically love Austin."
The crowd response verified the feeling is mutual.
All day, rumors swirled that gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis would introduce headliners Kings of Leon. This proved false, and thank God because while I want a democratic Texas governor, I won't vote for anyone who forces me to listen to Kings of Leon.
Co-headlining was the Cure, whose minor key, heartfelt pop proved durable in the live environment, and provided an appropriate soundtrack for all the fortysomething couples in attendance. No amount of hand-holding and pop nostalgia could compare, however, to the unreal energy that young rapper Kendrick Lamar conjured up prior.
The Compton MC's raspy voice blasted from the Honda stage, drawing an oversized crowd. He didn't dance, he didn't sweat. He just stood in front of his band and made everyone go apeshit using his words. He even managed the impossible feat of making cell phones beautiful by ordering the audience to light up the sky like stars. No performer before or after Lamar received such a rapturous response. Shout-out to the stage's enthusiastic sign language translator. Now I know how to sign, "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe."
The breeze that brought a nipple-hardening chill on Saturday night mingled with the Sunday sun to create weather so ideal it hardly mattered that the daytime schedule seemed light. California retro-spazzes Foxygen basically pissed on the main stage, playing their genre-hacking tunes with utter carelessness, ordering away photographers, talking in goofball non sequiturs, and walking offstage 15 minutes early, leaving the audience visibly upset. In a subversive sense, it was the best show of the afternoon because they challenged the completeness and professionalism audiences feel entitled to at festivals.
As my predecessor Austin Powell pointed out, this is the year of the side project, with the Shouting Matches, Junip, Court Yard Hounds, Divine Fits, the Midnight Stroll, and Shinyribs all boasting famous personnel, though none more significant than Thom Yorke and Flea's trance-y, percussion heavy, global groove collective Atoms for Peace, which co-headlined Sunday. They're an interesting act to close a festival, having no hits, and as the Radiohead frontman repeatedly proved, no danceability. Nevertheless, their pulse proved meditative.
Across the park, a popmaster's spirit glowed bright, and he didn't need a trance to get there. Lionel Richie, appearing eternally youthful and sounding like a million bucks, rolled through a parade of hits with extraordinary grace and closed with an anthem.
"There's a song that means a great deal to me because it gave me an opportunity to give back to the world," said Richie, introducing his epic Eighties charity collaboration.
Singing "We Are the World" with tens of thousands of people in a park felt equally ridiculous and profound, but it made me smile because, somehow, I didn't see it coming. As the audience flooded out, a group of stumbling drunks slurred the chorus of "All Night Long" and a lady walking next to me exclaimed, "He was so good I called my grandma twice!" Lionel Richie made an impression on Austin, all right. The next night, he was spotted at Justine's.
After any festival, you kick yourself for missing a few artists. For me, it was Canadian shredder Reignwolf and Brooklyn's percussive ensemble Red Baraat. For once I'm not sweating it, though. I can catch it this weekend.
No time like a festival to pull out a great cover song. Here's some we overheard at ACL Fest first weekend:
• Blind Boys of Alabama, "Way Down in the Hole" (Tom Waits)
• J.C. Brooks & the Uptown Sound, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" (Wilco)
• Jake Bugg, "My My, Hey Hey" (Neil Young)
• Divine Fits, "Lost" (Frank Ocean)
• Haim, "Oh Well" (Fleetwood Mac)
• Fidlar, "Red Right Hand" (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds)
• Portugal the Man, "Day Man" (from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia)
• Purity Ring, "Grammy" (Soulja Boy)
• Shinyribs, "Buy U a Drank" (T-Pain)
• Shouting Matches, "Crazy Mama" (J.J. Cale)
• Shovels & Rope, "Johnny 99" (Bruce Springsteen)
• Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "She's on It" (Beastie Boys)
• Holly Williams, "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" (Willie Nelson)
› French electro-rock powerhouse Phoenix made the most of its extra time in Austin, playing a secret show in the gymnasium of Anderson High School on Monday.
› If you missed South Carolina duo Shovels & Rope at Zilker Park, you can catch the premiere of their Austin City Limits episode next Saturday, Oct. 19.
› Weekend two of the fest swaps several local acts, including ACL virgins Not in the Face, My Jerusalem, Shakey Graves, Whiskey Shivers, the Preservation, and Sons of Fathers.
› Just as ACL doubled down, so did the anti-ACL events. Raw Paw Records' Ditch the Fest invades the Scoot Inn for another Saturday with Danny Malone, Sip Sip, Subkulture Patriots, Boombaptist, Berkshire Hounds, and more. Similarly, the Austin Corn Lovers' Fiesta rages on with the Old 97's at Hole in the Wall on Friday and the Beaumonts and Churchwood at the White Horse on Saturday (see "Music Listings").
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