Playback: I'm in Love! What's That Song?

Weekend one ACL Fest wrap

Trombone Shorty and the UT Marching Band
Trombone Shorty and the UT Marching Band (Photo by Gary Miller)

"I hope all the bands play your favorite songs," Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem announced to ACL Fest on Sunday.

My magic moment arrived early Friday, first day of the first weekend. Jimmy Cliff belted "You Can Get It If You Really Want" and the musical notation of which has been tattooed on my arm for a decade rose with goosebumps. That occasion came for others when the Replacements walked off from an equally hair-raising set with "Alex Chilton." Likewise Eminem spitting "Lose Yourself" and Iggy Azalea shaking her "big booty" to "Fancy."

The songs are subjective, but that feeling of Pavlovian sound waves transmitting straight from the speakers into your soul remains universal. With 120 acts playing to 75,000 fans for six total days comes great odds of elation.

As always, there's heaping context to extrapolate from Austin's biggest outdoor show: the justice of hip-hop being doubly consecrated on the main stage, the cultural divide between EDM and rock, and news breaking that ACL Fest promoters C3 Presents might sell their majority to corporate giant Live Nation, already well entrenched in this market at the Circuit of the Americas and Frank Erwin Center. We met with principal Charles Attal six months ago about that same rumor, to which he replied that offers were always on the table for the Austin events ruler. We woke him Monday morning from a post-weekend one slumber to get the lowdown, and did. Sort of. We've made plans to meet next week – after the festival.

Meanwhile, for Average Joe Festivalgoer, business mergers mattered zero. The weather was gorgeous, the bands were on time, and a golden weekend in the park was had by most, if not all.

Zilker's abundance of strollers got me thinking how ACL Fest is so many Austinites' first concert. For others, it must be a domain for landmark experiences: awkward first kisses, teens crystallizing friendships over snuck-in flasks, overworked families getting a rare day out together. A mainstream option to Austin's alternative hipness, the wide-appeal event might as well stand for "Austin's Common Listener."

"A very warm welcome to the freaks and others of Austin," greeted St. Vincent midway through her explosive Friday afternoon set. The Dallas-reared singer skittered amongst synthesizers, shredded almighty through hot guitar signals, and fearlessly breached the crowd barrier. Annie Clark's an art rocker at peak performance power (see Abby Johnston's revealing Q&A with her on p.80).

That day's real issue was choosing between an alt bard and two funky Southern G's as Beck and Outkast co-headlined with simultaneous start times. I stood at the fest equator and gauged traffic. The majority headed west to Outkast, so I followed. The reunited Atlanta rap duo proved tremendous in a relentless greatest hits set that found André 3000 and Big Boi storming the stage with high spirits and sharp tongues. (Visit Earache! for our run of first weekend "Live Shots.")

Jimmy Cliff
Jimmy Cliff (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Saturday's early risers were rewarded with a hot streak starting just after noon with Spanish Gold, featuring local aces Adrian Quesada and John Branch, and ending with indie rock slacker Mac DeMarco. In betwixt, New Orleans garage boogie upstart Benjamin Booker whipped out a raw rock & roll spirit recalling last year's ACL breakout Reignwolf.

"This is the biggest crowd I've had at a festival so far," enthused the 25-year-old afterward backstage, admitting he only started gigging two years ago, but recently toured with Jack White. "Festivals can be so overwhelming and terrible, but today felt incredible."

Soon thereafter, Trombone Shorty collaborated with UT's marching band on the Longhorns fight song, which was broadcast at the stadium, where the Horns got their asses handed to them by Baylor.

"We're actually LSU fans," Troy Andrews conceded later. "But the team needed some help, and I like the band's cowboy outfits."

Tune-Yards' looped experimentalism, Lucius' sophisticated duets, and the Avett Brothers' stadium-sized Americana all led up to the real Slim Shady that night, the 41-year-old Detroit MC delivering a 90-minute playlist ranging from day-one middle finger bravado ("Just Don't Give a Fuck") to modern radio bait ("The Monster") and every hit in between. As good as Outkast? Not by a Longhorn longshot.

Famous faces roamed ACL: Matthew McConaughey was l-i-v-i-n' backstage, Adrian Grenier rolled with an Entourage, and Walking Dead's Norman Reedus was hardly recognizable sans crossbow. Meanwhile, supersized mugs from Emilio Estevez to Steve Urkel appeared on flagpoles. One fan held a sign reading, "When does Nickelback play?" with "Dad?" on the flipside. Not only was it staked out at the stage sporting Sunday's dad-rock flannel block of the Gaslight Anthem, Replacements, and Pearl Jam, 'Mats frontman Paul Westerberg saw it and called it out.

His band, reunited in 2013 after 22 years down, earned ACL cool points amongst the rock snob contingent and delivered all anyone could ask for minus the live rarity "Unsatisfied." Lone original members Westerberg and Tommy Stinson sealed the occasion with a smooch during "Kiss Me on the Bus." Tired of being surrounded by 50-year-old dudes, I ventured across the park for a taste of the EDM scene and found Zedd sparing no expense on propane, blasting pyrotechnics with every bass drop in front of 10,000 cute young girls bouncing with arms aloft.

One can fault EDM for having predictable structural techniques: build it up/drop the bass/cut to the isolated vocal sample with added keyboard backing/repeat. And also for relying on dynamics instead of composition. But don't say it has no place at a music festival because EDM brings the babes. Some of which, as Major Lazer proved the previous day, will take their shirts off on request.

Benjamin Booker
Benjamin Booker (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The children of the Nineties had their day too as Pearl Jam, a rock solid festival staple, brought ACL's first weekend to a logical conclusion, headlining Sunday for the second time in five years. Eddie Vedder constantly reminded everyone to vote, thanked Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, and offered a beautiful acoustic take on John Lennon's "Imagine."

One year ago to the week, Lionel Richie closed down ACL with "We Are the World." On Sunday Pearl Jam ended with Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." One's a hopeful charity anthem, the other a fatalistic commentary on consumerism and social inequality with a sarcastic chorus. Kind of dark, but it's doubtlessly someone's favorite song.

ACL Fest Uncovered

Covers noted during weekend one.

A Thousand Horses: "Dead Flowers" (Rolling Stones)

Jhené Aiko: "Keep Ya Head Up" (2Pac)

Avett Brothers: "The Race Is On" (George Jones)

Beck: "I Feel Love" (Donna Summer)

Benjamin Booker: "Mean Jumper Blues" (Blind Lemon Jefferson)

Jimmy Cliff: "I Can See Clearly Now" (Johnny Nash)/"Wild World" (Cat Stevens)

Cults: "Total Control" (Motels)

Jamestown Revival: "Born on the Bayou" (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Lake Street Dive: "I Want You Back" (Jackson 5)

Nikki Lane: "Waymore's Blues" (Waylon Jennings)

Vic Mensa: "Seven Nation Army" (White Stripes)

: "Say You'll Be There" (Spice Girls)

Pearl Jam: "Imagine" (John Lennon)/ "Rockin' in the Free World" (Neil Young)

Replacements: "I Want You Back" (Jackson 5)

Spanish Gold: "Poison" (Bell Biv DeVoe)

Trombone Shorty: "Brain Stew" (Green Day)

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ACL Fest 2014, Jimmy Cliff, Benjamin Booker, Outkast, Eminem, Zedd, Major Lazer, Pearl Jam

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