We sent Mark Stock to Austin City Limits because—well, because he wanted to go to Austin City Limits, and because we wanted to hear about it. It's going up a bit late due to unforeseen circumstances at the home office. -Ed.
Local legend and troubled grunge born songwriter Daniel Johnston plays a sobering set of hits. His arms shake violently and he can barely bring a bottle of water to his face. The guitar he plays convulses as though being electrocuted, the work of wheelbarrows worth of medication. “There are a lot of you out there,” he continues to note. And while Daniel can hardly strum anymore, his lyrics amaze. The guy wrote some of the best—and most repressed—songs of the '90s. What a pleasure to finally see him live, if only to show my gratitude. The crowd shouts encouragement, referring to him by his first name and guiding him along like a child on his first bike ride. Again, sobering.
Bassnectar, widely considered to be San Francisco's best DJ, makes a lot of noise off in the distance and Thievery Corporation is readying for a main stage show. The drive to Austin from Los Angeles was a lengthy one and I've already missed Portland's beloved Blitzen Trapper, who played at 1:30. The chatter around the beer tent is that they played well at last night's after show, but their pairing with the Walkmen was a little off (the two played a show at Emo's Thursday evening). I would not miss Andrew Bird, an artist I've been tracking all the closer since viewing his mind-bending Cemetery Gates performance on pitchfork (link?).
He played mostly from his latest, Noble Beast, wowing the audience with his hasty transitions from violin plucking and layering, to guitar strumming to songbird whistling. His classically trained instincts come forth in everything he does, especially the swirling “Effigy” and epic baroque meets operatic, eclectic rock “Anonanimal.” The new incarnation of John Paul Jones and company Them Crooked Vultures can be heard in between tracks from a stage that's too far away to see, but Bird's got our full attention. He's a hurricane of delicate activity, with the speed and precision of a hummingbird.
I forfeit Kings of Leon for the long and entertaining walk down Barton Springs Road to town. It's like MFNW on performance enhancers, street vendors dancing to reggae, bars jam packed and blaring live music and bike taxis shuffle in and out of traffic.
*The night ends up abruptly thanks to a mishap at La Zona Rosa, where Devotchka are set to play an after show with Venezuelan disco group Los Amigos Invisibles. I am told my camera could potentially be used to transport drugs into the venue and is therefore not allowed admittance.
*Not a jab at La Zona Rosa, I should have deposited my camera before attempting an entrance. Or actually placed drugs in it so that their paranoid theory proved right, at least once.
I start the day with a split between !!! and Mute Math, thrown off in a good way by the latter, expecting noise rock and getting explosive soul. Grizzly Bear take to a smaller stage and start slowly. But after golden piped Ed Droste eats a Tootsie Roll a crowd member throw on stage, the band lightens up and directs the sugar high toward a memorable set of Veckatimest wonder. Every member of Grizzly Bear carries the vocal load, the big picture being a chorus of Brian Wilson inspired, waterfowl born magic. They play a confident take on “Ready,” running through the song's pulsating crescendo an extra time just for good measure.
By the time Bon Iver takes his place on the same stage, the rain is coming down in sheets. Whomever is responsible for Zilker Park's million dollar makeover is punching every person he sees. Texas doesn't do well with heavy precipitation, especially when it's falling on acres and acres freshly planted grass. ACL shifted back a week this year to avoid the heat typical of late September. They had not forecasted three inches of rain in a day at the time.
In unison, everyone at ACL either put on a poncho or extended their umbrella. Suddenly, the park was a colorful collage of nylon, to see it from the air would have been remarkable. Yet, stage visibility was sacrificed in this malay and one could no longer see Justin Vernon's mangy beard. We could only hear his tearful incantations.
My sanctuary came in the form of the press tent, where chicken wraps and whisky greeted me like a mixed up old friend. The rain was tropical and the patience of the people was wearing thin. People began to debate the merits of Dave Matthews, the headliner of the night. I decided a trip to South Congress for some local punk would be best. One can hear - or overhear - Dave just about anywhere.
Sunday morning in Texas can mean only two things: Football and God. I've chosen the latter, as religion tends to get along more favorably with music. Which brings me to Stubb's, Austin's top shelf barbecue joint and venue. Brisket, Bloody Mary's and gospel. A band three generations deep plays the lower stage, chiming in and out with each song's backstory. It's rich, wailing, gospel blues powered by four well dressed vocalists and an aggressive rhythm guitar.
The rains of yesterday have turned into the swine flu infested swamplands of today. Six inches of mud top every square foot of Zilker Park and the Nickelodeon-like sound of mud squishing through toes is almost unbearable. It's a shoe graveyard, abandoned sandals and low top sneakers left for dead or swallowed hole by the earthy beast beneath. It's literally Woodstock here.
I trudge close enough to the AMD stage to witness the B-52s play a smattering of their karaoke friendly numbers. They look exactly the same, which terrifies me, and the hypnotic background art coupled with the smell of wet hay used to absorb some of the ground moisture makes me want to vomit. Better grab a beer.
Jostling for position at Passion Pit proves difficult and it's clear the Boston synth adoring band is this year's MGMT. The glow sticks come out in force and the average age of the festival seems to plummet instantly. They start in on a slow and safe set, not enough to keep me around, and I paddle over to Dirty Projectors.
Which turns out to be the best decision of the weekend. Their clang and clamor is beautiful, their obscure guitar work creative, their shared vocals swift and infective. It's the first time at ACL '09 I feel a band is doing something entirely new and their own. It's as though Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Beirut shared a basement for a set. Dave Longstreth's voice is baritone and beaming, playing off the angelic backup vocals os his two female counterparts. It's often a funky, reverb rich guitar riff that begins their material, chased by dueling soul and dirty percussion (try, “Stillness Is The Move”). What's most impressive is how many tangents each track visits without being lost. Hats off to my pick for band of the festival.
The Dead Weather finally do their thing, after days of hype and rumor. Alison Mosshart is as dark and brooding as ever and it's nice to see Jack White in a more subdued role, in this case, drummer. Their material is sinister and simplistic, but expertly done, some of the murkiest blues - even goth rock at times - heard in a while. The crowd is not let down by their supergroup status. The guitar of Dean Fertita (Queens Of The Stone Age) steals the stage and I have to be told several times that he's the one with the axe, not Mr. White. A solid, solid set.
Last up for the day and weekend at large is Dan Auerbach, the treble behind the Black Keys. His static blues is right at home in Austin, though the crowds have grown exhausted by the loose soil beneath their feet and it's incredibly easy to get right up to the stage. He bounces from recent Black Keys tracks to his own material, never shying away from a split-second solo. His sonic personality is astounding. He plays until his fingers fall off.