Crazy from the HeatWhen all was said and sung, TCB caught about a third of the musical offerings at last weekend's sweat-off in Zilker Park: full sets by about 10 bands, partials by another 20, and 10 more heard from a distance. Such a clip cost the use of his legs for 48 hours, gallons of dust his lungs have yet to expel, and feet no longer on speaking terms with their owner. Unlike SXSW's perfect spring days and occasional downpour, Austin's autumn music fest has thus far been cursed with hellishly hot temperatures and not a prayer of rain. 2005 was the most biblical yet: triple-digit highs all weekend, peaking with Sunday's all-time fall record of 108. For good measure, strong breezes from Hurricane Rita's outer bands stirred up the acres of parkland, already parched from weeks of dry conditions, into something out of The Grapes of Wrath; Steve Earle preaching about global warming before "Jerusalem" drove home the Steinbeck-ian parallels that much more. He may have made a few converts by Saturday, when Oasis held forth as a dusty haze hung over the field like a British fog.
Another effect of the heat, seen in most Oliver Stone movies, is that when combined with music it frequently causes visions. Only after roasting in the Texas sun for hours on end do the secret languages of such a huge festival become apparent: beyond the blues and bluegrass, there was Neil Young, disco, OK Computer, Rod Stewart, the Stones, Eighties rock from John Mellencamp to Tears for Fears. Even metal. Dios (Malos) quoted "Sweet Child o' Mine" when not channeling Pavement, and Mike Doughty broke into "Paradise City." The Black Crowes made "She Talks to Angels" a shaggy power ballad to rival Bon Jovi or Poison. Like Oasis and Wilco, the Crowes otherwise chose to orient themselves toward Exile on Main Street instead of ex-tourmate Jimmy Page's old band, but Zeppelin was never far from anyone watching the Drive-by Truckers and Black Keys. Even Tracy Bonham, one of the dozen last-minute fill-ins, covered "Black Dog."
The festival in full swing is a sight to behold, an enormous city of music. Tents and trees dot the plains with every square inch of shade spoken for. Hundreds of flags (most popular: Jolly Roger) mark positions for people separated from their packs. Herds of them, clad in tank tops, peasant skirts, cowboy boots, and Old Navy cargo shorts, migrating back and forth, asking each other, "How do people live here?" (And answering, "I have no idea.") Lou Neff Road encircles a ring of stages spanning an area from Barton Creek to the MoPac pedestrian bridge, more than a mile of ground. In the southeast quadrant, among century-old live oaks, is the production area, where tour buses idle, walkie-talkies crackle, golf carts whoosh by, and chain-link fences separate media from artists' lounge from catering. People with various badges scurry about with clipboards and cocktails, never far from their cell phones. The comfy couches and open bar kept the artists' tent, twice the size of last year's, packed. This was the only place in the park where long pants outnumbered shorts, and the bar ran out of Red Bull several times.
The adjoining patio offered excellent listening for the Heineken stage, where Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs anguished Sunday afternoon. "If it was this hot in Leeds, England, where we're from," he told the crowd, "we'd think it was the end of the world." But his band plugged away, rendering the full-bodied pub-rock of "Modern Way" and "I Predict a Riot" in fine form. The heat turned performers sympathetic and defiant, like Arcade Fire. Clad in their traditional gothic-funeral attire, the Canadians took the Cingular stage during the worst part of Sunday, opened with the grandiose "Wake Up," and never looked back. Spoon's "I Turn My Camera On," the Walkmen's "The Rat," and Wilco's "Kingpin" all heralded the onset of evening, the sun at last giving way to stuttery guitars and thoughts of indoors.
It was around twilight Saturday that a svelte and shorn Roky Erickson affirmed his place in the Texas rock pantheon on the Chuck Berry gallop of "Don't Shake Me Lucifer," Austin's Real Heroes outdueled Jet by combining Van Halen and Some Girls, and the Truckers' bourbon-soaked riffs poured from the sky. "It's like they just shifted gears," said their label boss, New West's Jay Woods, as "Never Gonna Change" thundered around him. Every year in the withering Texas heat, ACL forges the American musical aristocracy for the coming year, and musicians and fans alike know that surviving three days of pure hell on Earth will bring untold rewards in the months ahead. Why else, after all, would they do it?
Eat 'Em & SmileColdplay set up camp at the Four Seasons, where Chris Martin told KGSR's Kevin Connor Arcade Fire was "the best band in the world." True to his word, he was stage right during their sweltering set, wife Gwyneth Paltrow shielding herself with a Chinese parasol as a nanny danced daughter Apple around during "Haiti." Many hipster feathers were ruffled when the crew closed down the backstage area to allow the First Family to depart; Martin then raved about what he'd just seen several times during Coldplay's set.
The Austin Ventures stage, situated under a rock outcropping in the center of the park, was a dependable destination for interesting under-the-radar music all weekend, much of it local: Austin groove merchants Hairy Apes BMX welcomed Davíd Garza onstage for a slippery cumbia, Nic Armstrong & the Thieves broke two drumsticks during their driving set, Sound Team bopped out some vampy, modernist dance-rock of their own, Wammo extolled the virtues of beer for the Asylum Street Spankers, What Made Milwaukee Famous' genial power-pop was as breezy as the weather, and Zykos extracted Cure-sized angst from their perpetual keyboard-guitar power struggle. Stealing the show was Scotland's Sons and Daughters' very New Wave cool during their X-like set of goth-tinged rockabilly. A few AV artists said they had trouble hearing, but otherwise the festival's persistent sound problems were a thing of the past.
The festival eventually sold out all three days for a total projected attendance of 195,000. Officials said Monday they estimated any attendance drop-off due to the heat and/or Hurricane Rita as minimal. However, several bands dropped out, mostly due to Rita-related travel difficulties: the Lost Trailers, Naturally 7, the Massacoustics, Mindy Smith, Kathleen Edwards, Bettye LaVette, the Ditty Bops, Free Sõl, Tegan & Sara, Nine Black Alps, Missy Higgins, and Aterciopelados. Stepping in were Bobby Bare Jr., the Rev. Dan Willis & the All Nations Choir (both joining Widespread Panic as the only artists to play twice), Brent Palmer, Kate Earl, Dan Dyer, J.T. Van Zandt, the Double, the Iguanas, Tracy Bonham, What Made Milwaukee Famous, Dead Boy & the Elephantmen, Sons & Daughters, and Hanna McEuen. A holdup in St. Louis made Franz Ferdinand late for their ACL taping Saturday, but not Sunday's penultimate slot. The Frames, meanwhile, racing to Austin from Dallas, made it in two hours flat, arriving minutes before their start time Saturday.
Best native moment was watching fans do-si-do during Asleep at the Wheel's "Cotton-Eyed Joe." Kevin Fowler also drew some lusty yee-haws for Texas Tornados homage "Senorita Mas Fina," exactly what the hundreds parked in University of Texas collapsible chairs were thirsty for. And of all the songs Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett both know, "This Old Porch" remains, apparently, the only one they can agree on performing publicly together.