Off the Record
Ring of Fire
The sixth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival could have been a catastrophe. Three main acts canceled (Rodrigo y Gabriela, Amy Winehouse, and headliners the White Stripes), and when the gates opened Friday, the water was temporarily cut off due to damage to a mainline near Pecan Grove RV Park. Mere hours after the situation had been remedied, a recreational vehicle caught fire and spread to two 18-wheelers in a gated service area in between the WaMu tent and the AT&T stage, injuring four male employees from Brown Distributing Co. As of Monday, all four men, including the two critically injured and transported to San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center, had been released and were expected to make a full recovery, according to Brown Distributing spokeswoman Diann Hodges.
Of course ACL 2007 wasn't a disaster. Just the opposite was true, in fact. From the performances and aftershows to the general hospitality of the park staff, the three-day local event was a world-class production, more rewarding and enjoyable than most destination festivals. Aside from the poor sound on the AMD stage, muffling both Wilco's and Arctic Monkeys' otherwise solid sets, the usual bleed-over onto the Austin Ventures stage – time to remedy that – and a lack of hand sanitizer, complaints are minimal on this end.
The aforementioned WaMu tent, especially, never disappointed. Charles Walker fronted Nashville's Dynamites through an earth-shaking soul revival, not unlike James Hunter's vintage vibes, detonating the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" as closer. Sam Cooke's old outfit, the Legendary Soul Stirrers, dedicated its a cappella classic "One More River to Cross" to the memory of the late Clifford Antone, while Bay City's Jones Family Singers rang sweet salvation Sunday morning. Chicago harpist Charlie Musselwhite nearly blew the roof off during Eddie Taylor's "Bad Boy" Sunday afternoon.
Power trios unexpectedly ruled the weekend, beginning with Heartless Bastards' Les Paul-driven post-blues, overseen by C3 Presents' Charlie Walker, and Peter Bjorn & John's cunning cover of the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks." Rose Hill Drive rode hard on the Allman Brothers, while 21-year-old guitarist and vocalist Davy Knowles showed flashes of Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton as Back Door Slam burned down Jimi Hendrix's "Red House."
One personal highlight included five minutes with Josh Homme in the artist area Friday afternoon. "We are manhandling our music in a very feminine way," the Queens of the Stone Age frontman opined. Agreed. The quintet twisted and turned metallic riffs without ever losing its grip on the underlying groove.
LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy felt the plight of being paired against M.I.A. "This is sad for us, because we really like her," he prefaced a rather intense version of "Us v Them." "Sorry, Maya. Hope you have a good set." Across the park, the new-world visionary welcomed a throng of patrons 200-strong onstage, quickly dispersed by festival security. "I got red-carded for that in Scotland," M.I.A. joked backstage. "They kicked me off the show."
The global trance continued with Gotan Project, a one-way trip to Buenos Aires via strings and turntables, and Björk's blinding performance, combining pagan poetry, tribal rhythms, and symphonic bliss that scorched the speakers, literally. The Icelandic sprite then led an after-hours dance party backstage, flanked by members of her tenpiece brass section. "I think it's part of her ritual," surmised Ice Cream Man Matt Allen, who partook in the jubilee at Sasquatch alongside the Arcade Fire.
Encircled by broken spokes of the Tonewheel Collective, Jared Van Fleet of Voxtrot and Sparrow House summed up the mood in the rafters Saturday morning for Sound Team's swan song, "It's so bittersweet. I'm excited for them individually, but they were such a great band." Later, last-minute ACL addition St. Vincent, in tattered fishnets, ripped the strings out of her Gibson SG like knives from her back during an equally emotional and intense solo set. "Now I'm bleeding," the Dallas native smiled. "I'm always bleeding."
Andrew Bird looped enough instruments for an entire band, but backed by a twopiece, the Chicago-bred pop magician soared eight miles high. Transforming sideman Martin Dosh's "Simple Exercises" into a multilayered masterpiece while reworking the finer points of this spring's Armchair Apocrypha, the whistling environmentalist was cornered in the press area by Chronicle scribes inquiring about bootlegs to his set. "It's a lot of adrenaline ... too much sometimes," Bird offered by way of explanation on Sunday before joining My Morning Jacket for its epic, Hawaii-themed set, which recalled that of the Decemberists in 2005. Colin Meloy and company, meanwhile, staged their best performance in Austin this year (which is saying something), though it was no match for Ghostland Observatory's laser spectacular.
Love was truly in the air on Sunday, with proposals taking place onstage during Midlake and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Ziggy Marley floated alongside Zilker's legion of dragonflies on the Austin Kiddie Limits stage, educating the children with universal truths through his father's words and presence during "Lively Up Yourself." The National's emotional ambivalence only magnified the weight of their orchestral swells, while Devotchka's gypsy groove proved a better soundtrack to the weekend than to Little Miss Sunshine.
The mystery of Bob Dylan was ingrained in the poet's almost indecipherable vocals, whose mere presence was enough to satisfy the sold-out audience at Stubb's Saturday night. Closing the festival Sunday, Dylan didn't translate quite as well, relying instead on his stellar backing band, led by longtime Austinite and lead guitarist Denny Freeman, and finishing on a memorable coupling of "Like a Rolling Stone" and "I Shall Be Released." Austin City Limits the show continued on Monday with a double taping of Regina Spektor and Bloc Party, both of whom fared better in the closed, studio setting, while Lucinda Williams proved the capstone Tuesday.
Next stop, the third Wall of Sound Festival, Saturday at LaGrave Field in Fort Worth, featuring local stars Explosions in the Sky; Ghostland Observatory; Brothers & Sisters; Peter & the Wolf; the Sword; Lions; Ume; White Denim; and Tacks, the Boy Disaster. Any day now I too shall be released.