The Austin Chronicle

Off the Record

By Austin Powell, September 23, 2011, Music

Can We Get Much Higher?

Let's, as Kanye West demanded during "Runaway" on Friday, have a toast for the douche bags.

Opening on a massive scissor lift in the middle of the audience, the rapper literally rose to the occasion of headlining the Austin City Limits Music Festival, setting a new benchmark for pop spectacle at Zilker Park. Complete with stunning ballet accompaniment, West delivered a three-act drama of Dark Knight proportions that, like his 2008 Glow in the Dark tour, formed a fractured narrative, torn between suburban classics and personal bloodletting. "Runaway" proved a festival highlight, a 10-minute Auto-Tuned confessional about having too good a time.

ACL 2011, after all, was nothing if not an embarrassment of riches. C3 Presents once more heightened its own standard for festival accommodations, with additional hydration stations, shade structures, enhanced composting options, and the finest food court to date. The local entertainment conglomerate also helped raise more than $35,000 for the Red Cross and the Texas Wildfire Relief Fund.

Despite the worst drought in Texas history, the grounds held up, the smoking ban was mostly respected, and the annual X Factor – the weather – doubled-down in the fest's favor, as a distant hurricane brought a consistent breeze and mostly overcast skies. The light rain on Friday and Sunday received a proper soundtrack from the heartland Americana of Ha Ha Tonka and Daniel Lanois' Black Dub's sacred steel reveries.

Friday began with showtime at the Four Seasons as Charles Bradley rocked KUT's early morning live broadcast. Daptone Records' "Screaming Eagle of Soul" – or as OTR prefers, the "Praying Mantis of Funk" – offered not a revue but a resurrection, with autobiographical tales of concrete dreams and hard-wrought redemption. Local troubadour Hayes Carll responded in kind on his acoustic rendition of "Stomp and Holler": "I'm like James Brown just white and taller."

Bradley repeated the feat later that evening in the gospel tent, adding a sterling soul revision of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" that paved the way for Mavis Staples' Civil Rights-era social protest. "They're mixing up the Kool-Aid and passing it off as tea," Staples reckoned after "Freedom Highway." "They want to take our country back. Back to what? That don't sound like progress."

There was a strong strain of Neo-Romanticism (Wild Beasts, Twin Shadow, the Antlers) and outlaw country: Athens, Ga.'s band of heathens, Futurebirds; J. Roddy Walston & the Business' great balls of fire; rustic ringer Ryan Bingham; and Wanda Jackson prison riot rockabilly. Yet, 2011 belonged to the ravers. The aggressive dubstep and electro-house of Skrillex and Pretty Lights reverberated across the Great Lawn, genre elements rippling into Foster the People, Santigold, and James Blake. The latter crafted icy, fractured avant-dub, all smoke and mirrors, like a modern version of Arthur Russell. Gillian Welch was less than impressed. "I wasn't expecting the Martian landing next to us, but we'll do what we can," she complained in regards to the neighboring Skrillex.

Many patrons, this one included, expressed similar frustrations about the sound – or lack thereof – for Saturday anchor Stevie Wonder, whose Motown deliverance was reduced to a faint echo of greatness. That issue seemed festivalwide, with the volume – even for Arcade Fire's grand finale on Sunday – being turned down across the board. C3 Presents declined to comment.

The most talked about collaboration was neither Nakia's cameo with his The Voice coach Cee Lo Green for "Forget You" nor the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's guest spot with My Morning Jacket. Instead, that distinction went to the spotting of local director Terrence Malick and Christian Bale filming stageside for Bright Eyes, among others.

For OTR, ACL weekend began and ended at the Moody Theater. The difference between Coldplay's 2005 taping and the one that occurred Thursday night? In a word: lasers. Chris Martin and company rolled out adult contemporary classics ("God Put a Smile Upon Your Face"), premiered a new piano ballad from next month's Mylo Xyloto ("Up in Flames"), and hosted a fake New Year's Eve countdown – to coincide with the airdate – that peaked with the black lights and confetti of encore "Clocks."

Randy Newman, on the other hand, was in a league of his own on Monday night. The 67-year-old raconteur offered wry narratives unaccompanied on piano that stretched from Dixieland to Tin Pan Alley, sounding off on immigration ("Laugh and Be Happy"), foreign policy ("Political Science"), Toy Story ("You've Got a Friend in Me"), heartache ("Losing You"), and "Short People." The dire satire of his lyricism contrasted perfectly with the sincere whimsy of his delivery, as in the encore's slave-trader lullaby, "Sail Away." In that regard, Newman provided the ultimate capstone to the whirlwind of ACL, iconic, endearing, and unforgettable.

So cheers.

Blood on Our Hands

"If you want to save the demolition crew some work, go ahead," Death From Above 1979 bassist Jesse Keeler instructed a sold-out Emo's on Saturday night. On short notice, the ACL aftershow was declared the final outdoor event at the iconic Red River venue, with DFA's logo even being spray-painted on the wall to mark the occasion. The short-lived Toronto twopiece certainly did its part, shrieking with thrash velocity through the rhythm and skuzz of both the band's 2002 EP and lone album, 2004's You're a Woman, I'm a Machine, in all their feral glory. DFA's riot yielded an impressive, if not symbolic, ending to a seedy legacy. Some employees, however, expressed concern about the future of the inside room at the Sixth Street location. "They asked me not to discuss anything about it until the property closes," responded Emo's owner Frank Hendrix on Monday. At OTR's hard-hat tour of the new Emo's East in late August, Hendrix hinted at major changes in the works but stressed the importance of the small room ("The inside room we'll keep the way it is"). What changed? "It's terms of the sale, nothing I had any control over," Hendrix said. "When I spoke to you before, that's what the situation was that day I spoke to you."

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