We sent Mark Stock to Austin for the ACL festival again this year (well, he sent himself, but we got him a press pass), only to find out that he's a Phish fan. He took lots of photos with a non-digital camera. Those are coming tomorrow. So without further ado, part one of his Austin adventures...
Damn it's good to be back in Texas. I can already smell the faint hints of dead animal on the grill and it takes all of a single trip through Austin's Waterloo records for me to drop the petty grudge I've harbored against the city since last year's climate-based fiasco.
You see, monsoon rains turned ACL 2009 into a stinky mud wrestling arena full of contaminated fans. Imagine all of Delta Park and nearby Portland International Raceway under six inches of mud that's mostly manure. Austin's Zilker Park turned into Woodstock for three wet days last year but the shows went on. In fact, the festival carried on with little more than a blink, outdoing Mother Nature's tantrum with great sets, cheap eats and plenty of non-festival charm.
This year, Austin City Limits turned nine and the sun shone on some stellar performances, unpredictable covers and a small but significant Portland presence. Moreover, M. Ward won my Best Dressed Artist award, Local Natives managed to steal by heart through the crowded circumstances of a living room after party and Gayngs tour bus was stolen in the middle of the night. But I won't give away the ending. Not yet, anyway.
Sacrifices had to be made, as they always do at festivals of this size. Still, you can't lose in Austin.
Not the fantasy start I had hoped for. Rumors are running rampant that ACL is 10,000 fans stronger this year (which later proved to be fact), the biggest attendance to date. Also, Lone Star Beer - Austin's answer to Pabst - is not on the bar menu inside festival grounds. I guess I'll try Costa Rica's Imperial, a beer fans are calling “Nazi beer” on account of its sinister bird-themed logo.
Mountain Goats at the Budweiser Stage
(Sacrifice: Blues Traveler)
This stage is responsible for my overpriced, corn-flavored, sorry excuse for suds. It's also hosting The Mountain Goats, a band 16 records deep that I've still never seen live. The Carolina trio plays a nerdy batch of lo-fi rock, but I'm too busy plotting my move to the next stage to really fixate on the theological tinged lyrics of the Goats' newest record. Later, I hear John Popper has covered both “Creep” by Radiohead and “Santeria” by Sublime and I'm not unhappy to have avoided his big harmonica.
Girls at the Zync Card Stage
(Sacrifice: Miike Snow)
Surf-pop doesn't quite do San Francisco's Girls justice. The group is darker, more contemplative. Its songs tend to sizzle like embers, calm for extended periods before flickering to life and providing frontman Christopher Owens a proper pedestal. His voice is delightfully haggard, but plenty polished for the radio. In fact, the whole band seems like the contemporary to Buddy Holly. The band is mostly sitting, singing into microphones dressed in red roses and it feels like a fireside performance for a lucky few.
The Black Keys at the AMD Stage
Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney take the stage a few minutes late to the kind of intense screams usually devoted to Beatlemania. The two have been quite busy with a handful of side projects but still managed one of the strongest records this year in Brothers
. The pride of Akron plays dirty, blues-based rock that seems meant for Austin; there's a crowded scene beside the stage even half an hour before the duo's set proves this.
They play hard, but the sound system lets the nose-bleed section down. Up close, they're tearing it up—Dan, with his customary stage-pacing and Patrick, hunched over the trap set like a giant squid. “The Only One,” “Howling For You” and “She's Long Gone” are all on the agenda. The Keys play the crisp and catchy opening track to Brothers
, “Everlasting Light” (covered the next day by Broken Bells). But it's not until “Too Afraid To Love You,”—a shivering, gospel infused number—that the two begin improvising. At home now, they stretch out a few solos and communicate via gasps and nods under a steady stream of sweat. They play “Ten Cent Pistol,” a blistering song in which Dan has his guitar singing alongside his lyrics (think of a milder Peter Frampton) and it's settled: Best Rock ‘n' Roll Band working today.
The Band of Heathens at the Austin Ventures Stage
(Sacrifice: Beach House)
Austin's own Band of Heathens has officially broken out. They were even featured on an episode of PBS' Austin City Limits during its coveted 35th Anniversary season. The locals drift to their stage, set beautifully before stacks of natural rock and overarching oak trees. The and is five strong and deliver a solid set of Americana. Like Menomena in its structure, BOH shares command of its songwriting amongst three members. Which means they can change faces almost instantly, like open mic night at a swampy club. The many pieces fit together for a clean, clean sound, so much so that I wonder if it's learned professionalism or safe reservedness at work here. Either way, it's tremendously accessible—the seated fans, out in masse due to this year's headliner The Eagles, can't get enough. I'd like to see them in a smaller setting and away from the 45-minute set restriction.
Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses at the Austin Ventures Stage
(Sacrifice: Sonic Youth and Vampire Weekend)
Raised in rural west Texas, Ryan Binghman had the crowd in his hands before taking the stage. His work as co-writer of the Crazy Heart
theme song (“The Weary Kind”) has launched him into the fore, but his ACL performance suggests he hasn't strayed from his tumbleweed town roots.
Bingham growls like a chain smoker, despite his tender age and tailored look. I wondered what he'd be like live, without the aid of the legendary T-Bone Burnett, who produced his last record. His band The Dead Horses is sturdy, built from grassy roots rock and some southern fried grit inherent and strengthened from collaboration with the Black Crowes on their debut album. Band mate Corby Schaub worked diligently from his post behind the mandolin or electric guitar. His quick fingers and timing scrubbed the dirt off of Bingham's voice, like shoe polish to your favorite pair of old boots. It's got the most gruffness of the country acts I've seen this year and remorse from not escaping early to see Sonic Youth fades.
The Strokes at the AMD Stage
Julian Casablancas is tipsy and he forgets the lines to a couple of songs. It's tough to blame him, given the birthdate of most of the tracks and the iconic NYC band's recent hiatus. The Stokes epitomized cool years ago, still possesses that swagger and they sound good doing it. “Like an asshole,” Casablancas admits, “I wear my sunglasses at night.”
Albert Hammond Jr.'s graceful post-rock rhythms motored the band's 50-minute set. They touched equally on hits from Room On Fire and Is This It and the audience often sang with greater strength than Casablancas. He proved infectious, however, taking swigs of ale while he wasn't head banging or taking a moment to readjust himself to the adoring festival crowd base. A new record is supposedly coming out next year, but the band stuck to what the crowd was comfortable with, plus a few off of 2006's lesser-known First Impressions of Earth. This included a rousing version of “Juicebox,” song everyone seemed to hate initially, until they realized it was by the infallible Strokes. Its creepy bass line seems taken straight from “Monster Mash” and bassist Nikolai Fraiture is nailing it.
Overall, a compact but in-sync performance from one of the biggest acts of the last ten years. I feel a little more together knowing The Strokes are still in the hunt.
Phish at the Budweiser Stage
Sacrifice: The entire set (arrived late, or in Phish terms, two songs deep)
I catch just a few jams, including a fifteen minute take of “Picture of Nectar.” Phish still has it and they're a sight to behold. Trey and Mike even pull out the trampolines for some choreographed jumping. I can barely see Jon Fishman through his giant fort of drums and cymbals and the light show, per usual (even without the aid of hallucinogens) is still really, really entrancing. But I feel old and sad, having just seen two headliners in the last hour that ran the charts a decade ago and are playing mostly the same material today. As one confused Phan said, “it's like my life is on replay or something.”
Coming Up: Day Two (plus a house party), Day Three and....VISUAL ACCOMPANIMENT!!!