The Austin Chronicle

ACL Prime Time

The Austin Chronicle Guide to ACL Fest 2003

September 19, 2003, Music

"Why didn't someone think of this earlier?"

Probably because Austin's been spoiled by South by Southwest, that's why. And yet, even with wristband-exchange woes and a shortage of food that could have used intervention from the Red Cross, it was still the most obvious response to last year's inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival.

And we all have our memories: from Robert Randolph, Wilco, and Emmylou Harris, to seeing Lance Armstrong welcoming a reunited Arc Angels. Or maybe they hail from spending an afternoon dodging Ryan Adams' hijacked golf cart. Either way, in only its second year, ACL already occupies a SXSW-style appreciation in our collective musical radar. This year's lineup, offering a similar embarrassment of riches, also means a secondary influx of tourism dollars and national media.

In fact, with 40% of the presales coming from out of town, futon space is already at a SXSW-style premium. And with popular demand for a third day, Friday's bound to be a nasty day for the flu. Here's betting there will be more than a few Ferris Bueller moments where "sick" colleagues bump into each other in the beer line.

With organizers having the luxury of a year to evaluate inaugural snags and anticipate sophomore jitters, there's nothing to suggest anything other than a fine weekend of music. If you're like us, your biggest crisis comes in picking which act to see when.

To that end, let us recommend comfortable shoes to navigate between eight stages and our lineup of "Prime Times," a handpicked game plan for enjoying both ol' reliables and newcomers alike.

Damn, why didn't someone think of this earlier? -- Andy Langer


Midlake, Noon, Austin Ventures stage

Boasting an arsenal of bittersweet, organ-drenched Radiohead-circa-1997 hymns, Denton's Midlake stands out among the early-day festival performers. After this year's SXSW, Midlake became the third Denton band (along with Lift to Experience and Jetscreamer) to sign to Bella Union, the British label run by Cocteau Twins Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde. Their oddly titled debut, Bamnan and Slivercork, is out early next year in Europe. Wanted: an American deal. -- Michael Chamy

Spacetruck, 12:50pm, Austin Ventures stage

Spacetruck is like electronica in a '74 Texas pickup: open windows along the highway, Moog-addled rock, and Lone Star tall boys. Their 2003 debut, Night Rider (Brachiator), showcases the original rock tunes that helped earn this Austin quartet opening slots with the Tragically Hip and Wilco. Spacetruck's penchant for orbital rhythms and gurgling sounds is best experienced live. -- David Lynch

Shawn Colvin, 1pm, Cingular stage

After soothing the savage beasts waiting for Neil Young & Crazy Horse at Willie's picnic this year, the divine Ms. C. proved her Iron Woman training was worth the pain. Far from retiring that dreamy, honeyed alto anytime soon, the Austin chanteuse is taking a break from charity gigs to indulge in a 25-date acoustic tour with fellow lady folksingers Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Griffin, and Dar Williams. -- Melanie Haupt

Craig Ross, 1:50pm, Austin Ventures stage

While producing Patty Griffin's next album, Austin producer/singer-songwriter Craig Ross is also putting the finishing touches on his first solo album in years, Love Songs for the Dearly Departed. Set for release on a new imprint from British UK impresario Nigel Grainge (Sinéad O' Connor, Waterboys), it features what Grainge calls "great songs from an eccentric genius." A trio featuring Brian Beattie and Jon Greene will provide the preview. -- Andy Langer

Gary Clark Jr., 3:15pm, American Original stage

When the future of Austin blues is mentioned, Gary Clark Jr. is among the first names cited. No wonder: The 19-year-old guitarist/vocalist (cousin of W.C. Clark) is stepping out with all the right names in all the right places. With thumbs up from fellow guitarists like Jimmie Vaughan and accompaniment from the legendary Bill Campbell, Clark's soulful, youthful blues is good news indeed. -- Margaret Moser

Julieta Venegas, 4pm, Heineken stage

Another ACL coup, this one in español: Long Beach-born, Tijuana-raised, Mexico City-dwelling llorona Julieta Venegas. Pianist, punk, and pop diva accordionist, Venegas' witchy Latin pop snakes like that of Andrea Echeverri's Aterciopelados, with whom she's toured. Best English translation might be Suzanne Vega. If Patty Griffin and Beth Orton mark your ACL planner, pencil in Venegas' feminine wiles. -- Raoul Hernandez

Joe Firstman, 4pm, Austin Ventures stage

Joe Firstman is a singer-songwriter with an acidic debut on Atlantic, The War of Women, that serves as a soundtrack to those nights ending in drunken phone calls to exes. Sounding a lot like Adam Duritz behind the mic and piano, the North Carolina native knows how to burn bridges with choruses. The 23-year-old pianist is out to prove that his bitter batch of new songs is as captivating onstage. -- Matt Dentler

Galactic, 5pm, Capital Metro stage

Incorporating all the musical colors that give their New Orleans hometown its rep, Galactic is one of the more cogent jazz-funk-rock bands currently motoring. Using the Meters and the Neville Brothers as guiding stars and incorporating stage time with everyone from DJ Logic to B.B. King, this sixpiece is right at home with the 15-minute jam. Their newest, the Dan "The Automator" Nakamura-produced Ruckus, is due next month. -- David Lynch

The Pierces, 5:15pm, Austin Ventures stage

Already buzzing big time in their adopted hometown of NYC, Birmingham-bred sisters Catherine and Allison Pierce could be one of the festival's brightest you-heard-'em-first moments. Polished, yet unquestionably sincere, next year's Universal debut is underscored by the hum of an ATM: Their pairing of whip-smart harmonies and immensely radio-ready songcraft is pure money. -- Andy Langer

J.T. Van Zandt. 5:30pm, BMI stage

The genes fit JTVZ just as long and tall as his father, the late Townes Van Zandt, whose enduring legacy the young man perpetuates with regular appearances at tribute shows. Not that he isn't carving his own niche in a genre he was born into, a sometimes-daunting task he handles with aplomb. -- Margaret Moser

Los Lonely Boys, 5:45pm, American Original stage

Willie Nelson's favorite San Angeloans stop off on their grueling fall tour to grace Austin yet again with their exuberant Tex-Mex valentines to Stevie, Santana, and Los Lobos. You can't swing a dead gato on local airwaves these days without hearing a track from the tres hermanos' much-ballyhooed eponymous debut, and it's well-deserved. -- Melanie Haupt

Leftover Salmon, 6pm, HEB stage

Self-proclaimed purveyors of poly-ethnic Cajun slamgrass, Leftover Salmon has moved beyond their Colorado roots and turned into a national phenomenon. With a new lineup, which emerged following the passing of co-founder and banjo player Mark Vann in 2002, LoS has launched into new, powerful, but still unclassifiable territory. Their latest CD, Oh Cracker Where Art Thou?, is a collaboration with David Lowery and Johnny Hickman of Cracker. -- Jim Caligiuri

Spoon, 8pm, Heineken stage

That couldn't have been a snippet of Spoon you heard on the new Fox teen drama hit The O.C. a few weeks ago, could it? Oh yes. Thanks to last year's Kill the Moonlight, a punchy commingling of rock teeth and geek chic, college-radio deejays coast-to-coast and critics from Rolling Stone to the Village Voice are now over the moon about our li'l ol' Spoon. -- Christopher Gray


The Gourds, 12:15pm, HEB stage

Since the first Gourds practice nearly a decade ago in an a.c.-less Austin house known as the Steamy Bowl, the local quintet has perfected its unique Cajun/rock/bluegrass/funk stomp on albums like 2002's barnyard tour de force Cow Fish Fowl or Pig. They've also spawned one of the most hysterical discussion groups on the web, and even gained the approval of Snoop Dogg himself. The Gourds are for rizzle, my nizzles. -- Christopher Gray

Old 97's, 1pm, Capital Metro stage

Now that Rhett Miller has gone back to his day job, perhaps we'll see a sixth (!) Old 97's album soon. In the meantime, luxuriate in the knowledge that no matter how hooky and melodic more recent efforts like 2001's Satellite Rides have become, these good Texans are only too proud to scrawl Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" onto their set list. "Doreen" rocks as hard as ever, too. -- Christopher Gray

Tift Merritt, 2pm, Heineken stage

Like Robert Randolph and Sound Tribe Sector 9, Texas-born and North Carolina-raised Tift Merritt walked away from last year's ACL Festival with a field full of new devotees preaching the gospel of a subtle woman with a surprisingly big voice. Still-overlooked Bramble Rose is aging well, but reports on her new songs suggest tunes slightly less literary and significantly more rock. -- Andy Langer

Los Lobos, 3pm, Capital Metro stage

Bluesy, kinetic, and truly uplifting, Los Lobos' muy caliente set at last year's ACL Fest set the standard for the entire weekend, so it's no surprise that 2002's Good Morning Aztlán is one of the best of their 20-plus-year career. Just another band from East L.A., and essential to the library of any halfway sensible music fan. -- Christopher Gray

Drive-By Truckers, 4pm, Heineken stage

Athens, Ga.'s Drive-by Truckers have certainly come a long way from the days when they'd come through town and play at the Hole in the Wall. They have a couple of European tours under their belt, Southern Rock Opera got the band picked up (and dropped) by Lost Highway, and their new CD, Decoration Day, just got released on Austin's New West. It's thinking man's rock, with three guitars and more than a little Skynyrd boogie thrown in. -- Jerry Renshaw

Mason Jennings, 4:15pm, BMI stage

Originally from Hawaii, but currently a resident of Minneapolis, Mason Jennings has been compared to no less than Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, yet maintains enough variety in his songwriting to make it fresh and appealing. The 28-year-old's brand of folk-pop is closer to that of John Mayer and Jack Johnson, which explains his rapidly expanding and dedicated fan base. -- Jim Caligiuri

The Original Bells of Joy, 4:30pm, American Original stage

Arguably Austin's best-known gospel group, the Bells of Joy charted with "Let's Talk About Jesus," a million-seller for Houston's prestigious Duke/Peacock label in the early Fifties, and their righteous blend of sacred and spiritual has not wavered since. In 1998, the venerable group cut Second Time Around, reaffirming their fervent devotion with a joyous re-recording of "Let's Talk About Jesus." Bless us. -- Margaret Moser

Patty Griffin, 5pm, Cingular stage

In a city overrun by singer-songwriters, Patty Griffin is quite possibly Austin's finest. Few song crafters anywhere handle both sides of the equation with similar finesse and vitality. Her new live CD/DVD combo, A Kiss in Time, is due imminently. Her last local gig did the impossible: made Willie's picnic feel as intimate as the Cactus Cafe. -- Andy Langer

Bruce Robison, 5:30pm, BMI stage

You want hits? Bruce Robison's got 'em. Even if he's been spending more time these days putting diapers on twins than putting pen to paper, he's no less the songwriter's songwriter: George Strait recently released a version of Robison's "Desperately," while the precontroversy Dixie Chicks took "Travelin' Soldier" to the top of the country charts. -- Andy Langer

Ruthie Foster, 5:45pm, American Original stage

With a voice that's earned her comparisons to Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald, Ruthie Foster is one of those musicians that you need to see up close and personal to really believe. Foster mixes folk, gospel, and blues into a distinct and righteous whole, one that made her latest disc, Runaway Soul, an overwhelming success with both critics and her rapidly expanding fan base. -- Jim Caligiuri

Abra Moore, 6:30pm, Austin Ventures stage

Even after her brush with Clive Davis and J Records, one presumes Austin songbird Abra Moore still has No Fear, the title of her Avril Lavigne-challenged album now expected on KOCH this fall. Songs saved and/or reworked suggest Moore's lush pop still resides in the Strangest Places, like adult playlists such as KGSR rather than Teen magazine. -- Raoul Hernandez

ReBirth Brass Band, 7:15pm, American Original stage

An acoustic marching band from the Crescent City, ReBirth Brass Band puts out more wattage than a gaggle of Marshall stacks. Their several albums are fine documents, but the band is not to be missed onstage, where their polyrhythms are pure booty fuel. -- David Lynch

Richard Buckner, 7:45pm, Austin Ventures stage

Until recently, it seemed that the only advantage to Richard Buckner calling Austin home is that we get to see him out nightclubbing. That was until word came that his new band features Jason Morales and Andrew Duplantis of psyche blasters Tia Carrera and the Butthole Surfers' King Coffey on drums. One of the best songwriters of our time just got heavy as shit. -- Jim Caligiuri


Beaver Nelson, Noon, Austin Ventures stage

With his fourth full-length, last year's Legends of the Super Heroes, A-town's Beaver Nelson went from scraggy, shit-kicking singer-songwriter par excellence to veteran scraggy singer-songwriter nonpareil. And it only took him half a lifetime to achieve the musical wisdom of Jon Dee Graham, even as parenthood has made his muse that much more tender. -- Raoul Hernandez

The Shins, 12:30pm, Capital Metro stage

The Shins' debut, Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop), was the toast of the retro pop revival, complete with precision keyboards and swirly guitars. An overnight success a decade in the making, singer-songwriter-guitarist James Mercer and drummer Jesse Sandoval moved from Albuquerque to Portland, Ore., where they're preparing for the release of Chutes Too Narrow, the Shins' heavily anticipated follow-up. -- Melanie Haupt

Monte Warden, 12:30pm, BMI stage

Local appearances from Monte Warden have been rare of late, and for good reason: He's writing for a new record while managing a publishing catalog that's on fire. For ACL, he'll play songs George Strait, Travis Tritt, Patty Loveless, and Asleep at the Wheel have recorded, plus a batch of what could well be tomorrow's hits today -- most notably, "I Waved," a song that had folks pulling over their cars and calling for an encore after its live debut on KGSR. -- Andy Langer

Caitlin Cary, 12:50pm, Austin Ventures stage

Caitlin Cary's rich alto is among the most striking voices of today. The former singer/fiddle player for darlings Whiskeytown wowed longtime fans and won new ones last year with her debut, While You Weren't Looking, and again with this year's I'm Staying Out. As good as her dreamy vocals are, Cary's songwriting is wonderfully evocative. -- Margaret Moser

Soulive, 1:45pm, HEB stage

One of the most important evolutionary jumps in jazz has been the remix album. Soulive's upcoming Turn It Out Remixed doesn't rifle through their Blue Note parent's archives as it hip-hops the East Coast organ trio's sound with the likes of Jurassic 5's Chali 2na & Akil, the Beatnuts, and Meshell Ndegeocello. Live, the groove is all the hip-hop you'll need. -- Raoul Hernandez

Doyle Bramhall, 2:30pm, American Original stage

For a man who's spent most of his life as a songwriting credit and oft-cited influence of SRV ("Life by the Drop," "Change It"), Doyle Bramhall continues to shine like the star he is. The release earlier this year of Fitchburg Street, a tribute to the R&B and soul music that shaped his style, brought his prestigious career full circle as a singer, songwriter, drummer, and producer. -- Margaret Moser

Lucinda Williams, 2:30pm, Cingular stage

The release of World Without Tears last spring was a turning point in an already stellar career for the performer Time magazine declared the best songwriter in America. From her days playing on the Drag in the Seventies to winning Grammys in the Nineties, she's dazzled audiences with LPs like Sweet Old World, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and Essence. -- Margaret Moser

Kaki King, 3pm, BMI stage

At 23, Atlanta native Kaki King may be the last guitarist on Earth this town hasn't seen. Her Everybody Loves You snaps, crackles, and pops with wildly innovative solo acoustic playing made explicable by bonus video footage of her tapping out melodies on the high frets with her plucking hand while banging out counter-melodies with her other hand. -- Andy Langer

Tim Easton, 4:15pm, BMI stage

One of Ohio's finest exports, singer-songwriter Tim Easton is hard to pin down. A contemporary of such iconoclasts as Alejandro Escovedo and Freedy Johnston, Easton writes tunes that are both anthemic and shyly quiet, countrified rock and poppy jangle, all ebbing and flowing with a satisfying rhythm. Earlier this year he released his third CD, Break Your Mother's Heart, to noteworthy acclaim. -- Jim Caligiuri

Jack Johnson, 4:30pm, Cingular stage

Not since Dick Dale has a surf 'n' turf guitar-slinger been as cherished by so many land lovers. Rather than fill his albums with instrumental throwbacks, the Hawaiian native specializes in eco-friendly acoustic rockers. Supporting his new album, On and On, Johnson is one of the only one-man jam bands to land mainstream success on the festival circuit. -- Matt Dentler

Reckless Kelly, 5:15pm, Austin Ventures stage

The Braun brothers and their bandmates have been busy touring, touring, touring their latest release, Under the Table and Above the Sun. Their Sugar Hill Records debut sounds as mature as any bunch of veterans who've been at it twice as long. If you've got any preconceptions about RK, it might be time to reassess them. -- Jerry Renshaw

Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, 5:30pm, Heineken stage

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Karl Denson honed his souljazzfunk chops with Lenny Kravitz, the Greyboy Allstars, and famed jazzers Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. Tiny Universe fires up jammers with a brawny brew of danceable styles, as on The Bridge (Relaxed), a live album featuring Fred Wesley, Roy Hargrove, and fellow ACL-er Michael Franti. -- David Lynch

O.A.R., 5:30pm, HEB stage

Regatta de blanc meets jamsta de Matthews. Having climbed aboard a major label with the Atlantic-sponsored In Between Now and Then, the D.C. band's fourth album, first O.A.R.sman Marc Roberge and his four mates sail the seas of airy festival folk rock. Mason Jennings, Jack Johnson, Keller Williams count O.A.R. among the scene's establishing core. -- Raoul Hernandez

Billy Joe Shaver, 6:30pm, Austin Ventures stage

Shaver is the tramp on the street, the rill dill. He's been there and lived to tell about it. After the deaths of son Eddy and lifelong love Brenda, plus an onstage heart attack, Shaver has just kept going, releasing 2001's The Earth Rolls On and last year's Freedom's Child. He's a real live Texas treasure, and if you haven't seen him, you might want to trade in your Resistol. -- Jerry Renshaw

Ben Harper, 6:30pm, Cingular stage

Ben Harper is equal parts R.E.M. and Al Green, which explains why the spiritual folkie is one of this year's ACL headliners. Though his latest album, Diamonds on the Inside, is a creative disappointment, he's got enough sharp and brittle ballads in his catalog to bring any audience to its feet. -- Matt Dentler

Kermit Ruffins, 7pm, American Original stage

New Orleans trumpeter and vocalist Kermit Ruffins furthers the viper heritage and joie de vivre of Louis Armstrong. Blending good food with good music, Ruffins often serves home-cooked barbecue to fans at his weekly Big Easy gigs. A founding member of the ReBirth Brass Band, Ruffins' Barbecue Swingers have been serving plates of traditionally based, tongue-in-cheek hot jazz since the Nineties. -- David Lynch

Cross Canadian Ragweed, 7:45pm, Austin Ventures stage

Among the dust and twang, the highs (Dead) and lows (Titty Bingo), Cross Canadian Ragweed's star-making set at Willie's Fourth of July picnic this summer was riveting. The redneck Okie boys shot a double-barreled dose of Waylon/Skynyrd/ Band into their adopted CenTexan fan base and came up outlaws. Wanted. -- Raoul Hernandez

Beth Orton, 7:45pm, Heineken stage

Never before did Beth Orton's jubilance and good nature shine through than on last year's Daybreaker, a gorgeous specimen of the sweet-faced Brit's completed shift from trip-hop to nicely mature, intelligent music for the hipster's singer-songwriter. Now there's more of it to love with The Other Side of Daybreak, the recently released collection of alternative takes, remixes, and live, acoustic versions of tracks from the original. -- Melanie Haupt

Yonder Mountain String Band, 7:45pm, HEB stage

Having played the Austin area three times this year already, including headlining the Old Settler's Music Festival in April, the Yonder Mountain String Band is familiar to this part of the world. A quartet of banjo, guitar, upright bass, and mandolin, YMSB is known for expanding their bluegrass roots in a creative and spontaneous way. Their latest, Old Hands, a collaboration with singer-songwriter Benny Galloway, is their most straightforward work to date. -- Jim Caligiuri

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