Off the Record
"Everyone has rain boots on, right?" quipped Austin City Limits Music Festival promoter/booker Charles Attal on Sunday afternoon, forcing a smile near the entrance of Zilker Park.
After $2.5 million in landscaping improvements, the Downtown greenbelt resembled the fairways at the Barton Creek Country Club on Friday, but due to heavy rains and foot traffic the following afternoon, it morphed into what looked and smelled like a cow pasture, attributable to the use of Dillo Dirt, a city-backed compost that combines curbside yard trimmings and treated sewage.
And yet, the whole weekend of ACL 2009 was something to smile about, and Attal and C3 Presents deserve all due credit for that triumph. The hospitality, recycling efforts, and food courts were all first-class affairs, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' art-punk theatrics proved a solid replacement for the Beastie Boys. Even when it was pouring rain like a Kurosawa film on Saturday, the festival continued like clockwork. If anything, the rain actually accented Flogging Molly's Dublin mud slides, not to mention the open air grandeur of Grizzly Bear, Papa Mali's drum circle with Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead, and the cold chill of Bon Iver's cabin fever balladry. Those retreating to the Wildflower Center stage were treated to timeless gospel from the Soul Stirrers and the barrelhouse thunder of New Orleans pianist Henry Butler.
The new harvest of indie folk was certainly in full bloom all weekend. Rhode Island's the Low Anthem hosted an enthralling three-person tent revival on Friday afternoon with antique instrumentation and backwoods tales about John the Baptist. (The band encores at the Parish Oct. 29.) The dustbowl èlan of the Felice Brothers came off like a hillbilly Rolling Thunder Revue, while North Carolina's like-minded Avett Brothers stomped their way through a set of cotton gin bluegrass with modern pop sensibilities. The latter has since been tapped for an Austin City Limits in November.
Still hungover from the previous night's midnight ramble at Emo's, Deer Tick hurled confederate narratives and a gloriously shambling version of Townes Van Zandt's "White Freight Liner Blues," while Alela Diane offered Sunday morning redemption with imagistic mountain folk. Both traced back to Levon Helm, who was unfortunately on doctor-ordered vocal rest after having a lesion removed from his vocal cords. The Band drummer was the consummate host, swinging behind his kit to Music From Big Pink.
The festival breakout bar none was Raphael Saadiq, a smooth criminal who made clear the difference between a soul revue and the soul revue, chasing his Motown revival with the Stooges' "Search and Destroy." Detroit cult songwriter Rodriguez appeared more a rock & roll casualty than survivor, but thankfully that wasn't the case for his solo acoustic retread of "Forget It" backstage for a segment of Road Trippin' With Ice Cream Man. Other highlights included the crossroads bloodletting of Alison Mosshart and Jack White in the Dead Weather, the Brit-pop evolution of the Arctic Monkeys, Phoenix's ecstatic electro-jetliner, and Ben Sollee coloring outside the lines on the Austin Kiddie Limits stage with "Boys Don't Cry."
On the local front, Leatherbag's tightly wound power-pop hit the sweet spot between Peter Buck's Baseball Project at the Continental Club late Thursday night and the R.E.M. guitarist backing Robyn Hitchcock on Friday afternoon. Ghostland Observatory earned its headlining stripes with a laser spectacular assisted by the University of Texas Longhorn Band. For his part, David Garza raised sand alongside John Paul Jones and Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins for a stark rendition of John Hartford's "Long Hot Summer Days" that morphed into a misty-mountain jam. "Of course, it's such an honor to get to play with your heroes and friends," Garza said afterward, "but I really wish someone was recording the warm-up session in the trailer beforehand. It was incredible."
It was a historic week for Austin City Limits as well. With help from Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, the seminal television series was officially declared a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Landmark on Thursday and premiered its 35th anniversary season on Saturday, airing an episode of Dave Matthews Band at the same time that the marquee headliner was getting his rocks off with Big Whiskey & the Groogrux King at Zilker.
Dubbed "our little social experiment" by Queens of the Stone Age monarch Josh Homme, Them Crooked Vultures – his project with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones – descended with sleazy prog-rock on Wednesday that made good use of the complimentary earplugs provided at the taping. Asked later how he ever got roped in with that other motley crew, Austin's Butthole Surfers, for 1993's Independent Worm Saloon, the Zeppelin bassist laughed: "The only thing I remember was there being a $4,000 bar tab at the end of those sessions."
If "preservation makes the best hip-hop," as Mos Def quipped from studio 6A the following evening in "Quiet Dog Bite Hard," validation was found in the form of K'Naan, who opened the show's double feature hip-hop debut with war-torn raps that peaked with his beautifully pained African burial hymn "Somalia." The two MCs traded verses on "America," but Mos Def ultimately stole the show, attacking his rhythms from behind a stand-up drum kit, crooning in Spanish for "No Hay Nada Mas Dos/Cinco" and moonwalking through a sleek rendition of "Billie Jean."
And then there was Pearl Jam. One man desperate for a ticket went down the line waiting to get in offering $700 for a ticket. Since he was later spotted in the studio audience, he caught a bargain. Eddie Vedder opened with an acoustic "Walking the Cow," a tribute to his "favorite Austin, Texas, songwriter, Daniel Johnston," that perfectly captured the emotional vulnerability of the original, followed by Backspacer ballads "Just Breathe" and "The End" with Austin's Will Taylor & Strings Attached. In a room of 300 to 400, you could feel the burden he shoulders – politically, emotionally – in his staggering intensity for "Porch," his personable introductions to "Do the Evolution" and the Police's "Driven to Tears," and in his humbled appreciation of Iraq veterans and the Wounded Warrior Project, the nonprofit to whom the show was dedicated.
What transpired the following evening at Zilker was exactly what should be expected from a festival headliner, a performance that trumps all others that came before it. The Seattle titans thrashed through their catalog with punk velocity and expert precision, Mike McCready and Stone Gossard proving one of modern rock's better guitar tandems in anthems "Even Flow" and "Why Go." Pearl Jam was joined once more by Ben Harper on slide guitar for a voltaic "Red Mosquito" and later, in the second encore, by Perry Farrell for Jane's Addiction's "Mountain Song" before ramming home "Rockin' in the Free World." It was the perfect ending to a glorious, unforgettable, drought-scoffing mess.
• Longtime local fiddler and singer Amy Farris, who was a member of Dave Alvin's Guilty Women and also played along Kelly Willis and Alejandro Escovedo, was found dead in her Los Angeles home on Tuesday, Sept. 29, after an apparent suicide. She was 40.
• The University of Texas Project on Conflict Resolution is honoring Cyril Neville, the late Clifford Antone, and DiverseArts Director Harold McMillan with the 2009 Bridging Divides Award for their humanitarian efforts. The music tie-in takes place at Antone's Thursday, Oct. 15, with Neville, Gary Clark Jr., and Eve Monsees, among others.
• A German film crew will be on hand to document the phenomenon that is the biannual Austin Record Convention this Saturday and Sunday, 10am-5pm, at the Crockett Event Center (10601 N. Lamar) for a segment that will air on PBS. Early bird shopping ($25) begins on Friday at 10am. This weekend also marks the last chance to dig through the crates at North Loop punk outlet Sound on Sound.