Kickin’ the Mud Off My Sneakers
A pretty good weekend in Geezerville
By Jim Caligiuri,
12:22PM, Wed. Oct. 7, 2009
I’m not like most of the folks who attended the Austin City Limits Music Festival. A t-shirt I saw last weekend pretty much sums it up: “I’m here for the opening band.” I get in early, get my fill, and leave before the headliners hit the stage.
Actually, I wanted to see Dave Matthews Saturday, but when the rain started up again after Levon Helm’s sensational set, I headed for the exit.
Friday started with Blitzen Trapper. Whoever compared them to the Grateful Dead in the festival program was smoking something funny. They had an easygoing sound, but someone needs to give this band hints for putting a set list together. Three-minute pop songs followed by two minutes of tuning up made me listless. The Avett Brothers have apparently grown up, as their set featured less screeching and stomping, more melodies and tenderness than the last time I saw them. I don’t think their longtime fans fully appreciated it though.
I hurried over to the tent to catch most of Poi Dog Pondering and they were in full flame. One of the best sets I witnessed all weekend featured old timers like Ted Cho, Adam Sultan, and even Abra Moore, who showed up to sing “Pulling Touch.” French pop band Phoenix seemed like just another rock band to me and the huge crowd they drew made it all the more confounding. Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 could have schooled the Trapper guys on how to play a set of three-minute songs and keep it interesting. With R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey on guitar and bass, respectively, Hitchcock kept things extraterrestrial with his stream of conscience raps between tunes. Yeah, there was a lot of gray hair onstage, but they sure were having fun.
I had to see Them Crooked Vultures, if only to see if the term supergroup really applied. Even with a second guitarist, they kept on reminding me of old-school power trios like Cream and Mountain. Josh Homme’s voice recalled Jack Bruce at times, and Dave Grohl overplayed his drums while John Paul Jones kept things steady like he always has. Not a bad way to end the day, actually.
The Soul Stirrers got the party started on Saturday. They may be one of the oldest bands in existence (started in 1926), but their just-past-noon gospel had the tent shaking. Dublin’s Bell X1 kept the anthems coming early and often. Jeffrey Steele proved to be the Sammy Hagar of country music, right down to the Led Zeppelin cover. The harmonies of Grizzly Bear were a highlight of the day. One song recalled the Beach Boys at their Smile-era purest.
I wanted to stick around and witness the Grateful Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann bang the skins with Papa Mali, but the rain was getting intense, so I opted to head under the tent again, where Henry Butler held court with his slick mixture of soul, jazz, and blues. The NOLA contingent was out in all its shimmying glory. There was quite a buzz over at the BMI stage, where Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights had things ramped up. More than one person exclaimed to me, “These guys are amazing.” I saw just another heartland rock band with a lot of energy. The rain was heavy until about 10 minutes before Levon Helm and his band were scheduled to go on. The only thing disappointing about their hour performance was that Helm was still on vocal rest. Otherwise, it was an impressive illustration of Americana.
Sunday started with Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. I’ve seen them more times than I can count, but needed to see how they would do on a big stage. Lewis was as confident as he’s ever been. The new horn section smokes, and there were a couple of dandy new songs. Afterwards, I finally felt awake.
The B-52’s aren’t much more than a nostalgia act at this point, but their vocals are still the way you remember them. Frugging in chocolate mud at 2pm on a Sunday? That’s what festivals are for. I caught some of the buzz on Britain’s White Lies and was curious to see if they could keep me interested. The music was derivative of old school post-punk bands like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnyman, yet the music seemed to jump out of them. Probably not something I’d listen to at home, but delicious in person.
The oddest instrumentation of the weekend had to be the cello, violin, and drums trio of Ben Sollee. Their mix of chamber jazz and traditional folk was appealing and a remix of “A Change Is Gonna Come” was inventive. I should have stayed longer, but the combination of goo under my feet and oppressive humidity had worn me out. I’d been laid out with back problems for almost two weeks before the festival and didn’t want to push it. In Geezerville, it was a good weekend of music and all the bands I missed will be back, eventually.