Saturday in the Park

Saturday at ACL Music Fest 2011

Gillian Welch's ACL Fest setlist
Gillian Welch's ACL Fest setlist

Saturday at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival had the potential to be a great day. I noted 11 acts I wanted to see, capped by Stevie Wonder, who I hadn’t seen live since the mid 1970s. Like most things, the day didn’t turn out as planned.

Actually, the day got off to a great start with Phosphorescent. It was my first time with Matthew Houck and friends. While the crowd cheered the occasional raindrop, the Brooklyn-based band’s roaring sound enveloped me in a way that recalled the first time I saw My Morning Jacket. It shape shifted, quietly going country for a bit, but never left you feeling it was anything but sincere.

That was followed by Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub, which was much more dynamic live than on disc, and Abigail Washburn, who proved my love for women who sing in Mandarin while playing the banjo. Then things got tricky.

Just about the time Gillian Welch was supposed to take the stage in the Vista Equity tent, it was announced that her set had been delayed because of a “scheduling conflict.” When she and partner David Rawlings appeared some 20 minutes later, they made no effort to hide the fact that the “conflict” was actually the sound on the Google+ stage from Skrillex, which was blasting into the tent. Performing on acoustic instruments during this “Martian invasion,” as Welch referred to it, tested the duo's abilities to hear each other and communicate to the audience. Despite the noise, they prevailed on songs old and new, with the trance-like “Time The Revelator” a personal favorite.

Next on the same stage came the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, the pairing of which was as delightful as expected, including when they threw ice cream into the crowd to cool things off. In spite of Welch’s delay, PHJB/DMB started only five minutes late, which I figured would mean only missing the beginning of Stevie Wonder. Wrong. Wonder started at least 15 minutes late, which was a bonus. I thought.

Unfortunately, the crowd was so huge that fighting it to get close was like running a human obstacle course. Then, when I got as close as I could, in front of the speakers on the left side of the stage and close enough that I could actually see the performers on stage, the sound died. I could hear some of it, but it wasn’t nearly loud enough, and when Wonder spoke between songs, I could barely make out what he was saying.

After about 20 minutes of that frustration, I thought I'd move around some to see if the sound was any better in another spot. No luck. All I know is that outside the park walking back to my car, I could hear My Morning Jacket booming while it didn’t sound like there was another act playing at all.

I later read somewhere that the speakers further out in the crowd on the Stevie Wonder stage had been blown out Friday and that the only comment from the festival promoters was “no comment.”

Disappointment doesn’t quite accurately capture my experience.

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Austin City Limits Music Festival 2011 wrap-up, Phosphorescent, Daniel Lanois, Gillian Welch, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Del McCoury Band, Stevie Wonder

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