Like the WeatherAustin's tens of thousands of guests are likely to see the fickleness and the fury of Texas weather this weekend. It's something natives tolerate, endure, dread, occasionally even exalt, but it can also be downright dangerous. Rita, a lovely meter maid of a hurricane, is gathering steam in the Gulf of Mexico and is expected to make her presence known locally between Friday and Sunday. Impeccable timing. What that means exactly is still unclear, but forecasts call for heavy rains, possible wind gusts in the 90 mph range, and who knows what else. Two hundred miles inland, Austin is well buffered against a direct hit, but if Rita comes ashore between Brownsville and Beaumont, the city will feel some effect all the same.
The Austin City Limits Music Festival will proceed as scheduled, because with 130 acts booked to play before sellout crowds of 65,000 all three days, it doesn't have much choice. At the fest's annual media press conference Wednesday morning, "rain or shine" was the operative phrase, organizers conceding that if conditions got dangerous (i.e., lightning), alternate plans would be made, though what those were, nobody was saying. In the meantime, crews have been working for weeks to prepare Zilker Park for the festival. Now in its fourth year, ACL ranks alongside Coachella and Bonnaroo in the handful of American festivals that compare in size and import to epic European gatherings like Glastonbury. For musicians, the imprimatur of the venerable PBS program affords its namesake festival a similar prestige. And oh how it's grown. Just look at the finishers: In 2002, the first year, it was the Arc Angels, whom most people outside Austin probably don't even remember (and one of whom reappears this year in Grady). This year it's Coldplay, a fair contender for biggest band in the world, plus Wilco, Oasis, the Allman Brothers Band. Then there's the Pitchfork A-list of Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, Bloc Party, Rilo Kiley, and Spoon, going for an ACL hat trick under the suffocating heat of 5:30 Friday afternoon.
Roky Erickson, at his first proper public performance in a generation, may well play to a mud-caked mass at the Austin Ventures stage 26 hours later. Inclement conditions aren't something ACL Fest has had to deal with before; the only real rain it's seen was a light drizzle one day in 2003. It's always been the heat. The first year was punishingly hot, and last year's three hottest days happened to fall over ACL weekend. At least this year can't be any worse in that regard. Remember, the mercury has to hit 95 before most Texans even notice. The rest of you, drink plenty of water, and bring a poncho on Saturday.
Also for the first time, ACL's ascension into the upper tier of music festivals has caused some grumbling on the home front. In the past, local merchants like Flipnotics and Quackenbush's have had the coffee concession, so the fest's decision to partner up with Starbucks this year has had some area java hounds scrambling to their laptops in indignation. This is a sign, their irate e-mails contend, that the festival has gotten above its raising. Those behind ACL think this is ridiculous. "They don't have the facts," counters producer Charlie Jones. "Ninety-five percent of our vendors are local," says his partner, Charles Attal.
In their production trailer, appointed with an aerial photograph of last year's festival, Jones and Attal bristle at anyone who questions their commitment to local businesses and call any charges of placing corporate interests above Austinites' ludicrous. (Almost as crazy as queueing up for coffee on a wilting Texas afternoon.) "We're still running a business here," acknowledges Jones. "It's hard to keep everybody happy all the time."
From the beginning, the festival has enlisted the support of big-name (and by and large Texas-based) companies like SBC, HEB, and Cingular. This year it added local semiconductor giant AMD. The result, contend the producers, shows up in the ticket prices. A three-day pass this year opened at $85, considerably less than Coachella. "Year one, we made a conscious decision to be involved in the corporate world," says Jones. Such engagements are also the reason, they add, they could keep prices down even while lowering capacity by 10,000 after complaints of overcrowding at last year's festival. They can also lead to opportunities like using Starbucks' newfound clout as a music retailer to offer exclusive ACL product or SBC and AMD technology to send the festival out over the Web.
"You see the caliber of talent we have," notes Jones. "It's not cheap."
With a budget of more than $1 million, no one doubts the stakes are high. Because ACL is such a big event, Jones and Attal know that this weekend they're responsible for not only the reputation of the festival, and their own companies, but the city of Austin at large. That's all they think about this time of year, and come Friday, the show will go on. Rain or shine.
"When you set up at this size," Jones says, "you gotta keep rolling."
ACL Odds & EndsThe Austin City Limits studios at KLRU's campus quarters will be almost as busy as Zilker Park. Arcade Fire was forced to cancel, so stepping in to tape on Saturday are Franz Ferdinand, with in-demand local rockers What Made Milwaukee Famous, the first act without a label to appear on the program in years. The Montreal ensemble is still on for Friday's sold-out aftershow at Stubb's, and WMMF, who recently signed with Attal's management company, have been added to the bill to precede the Black Keys. Blues Traveler, and Widespread Panic also tape ACL sets Monday.
Festival organizers hope this is the year they can sort out some of ACL's lingering traffic difficulties. As always, parking will be extremely limited around Zilker Park, so don't even try. A second entrance to the festival will be open on the north side of the grounds, near the Town Lake passenger drop-off point and pedestrian bridge. They'd also like to avoid another run on the shuttle buses, which was especially pronounced Saturday night. "The big mistake was having both headliners finish at the same time," says Charlie Jones. "This year they're 30 minutes apart."
This weekend, thousands will take off work, make travel arrangements, buy sunglasses and sandals and collapsible chairs, and spend at least another $200 on tickets, food, and drinks. So who are these people? Last year, they were 55% female, 40% between ages 25 and 34, and they pumped about $23 million into the local economy. Fifty-one percent had an undergraduate degree, with another 22% finishing grad school. Forty-nine percent were from Austin, 33% somewhere in Texas, and 18% from points beyond. Out-of-state visitors are expected to increase sharply this year, as is overall revenue by about $3 million.
Even as Rita looms offshore, Katrina remains on everyone's mind. Two donation stations, with all funds going straight to the Red Cross, will be positioned near the two entrances on Barton Springs and Town Lake. All profits from a special commemorative T-shirt will go to the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic emergency fund, which offers financial aid to Big Easy musicians recovering from the storm. Expect to hear plenty about both during sets by Louisianans Kermit Ruffins, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Lucinda Williams.
Off the Grid
If for some unearthly reason the festival and aftershows aren't enough, the rest of the city has hardly shut down. Factory People promises all sorts of ACL-related activity (aka guest DJs) and afterparties into the wee hours all weekend... the annual Old Pecan Street Arts Festival is on Sixth Street, free, Saturday and Sunday... the Applicators, Los Platos, 20-Eyed Dragon, and more play the "Austin Outer Limits" Katrina benefit Friday night at Ruta Maya International Headquarters... the Black Angels, Youngmond Grand, Vacation Gold, and Japansterdam take over Gallery Lombardi the same night for an 11pm-4am blowout... the Action Is, the Pretty Please, Masonic, Underwood, and many others breeze into Trophy's for tonight's (Thursday) Flaming Lips Hoot Night. Put your money where someone else's mouth is at the return of Miss Emily's karaoke to Club de Ville Tuesday. The $5 cover goes to Katrina relief.