Rain jokes are a big no-no in these parts. Riddled with wildfires and what may be the worst drought in Texas history, Austinites stare at the sky with forlorn faces. But the clouds have followed me from Portland and when a few sprinkles do fall during the opening hours of the festival (the first in four months), the applause is deafening. I have never seen a thirstier landscape.
Record-setting, fucked-up climates aside, there were lots of sounds to digest on day one. My first stop was at the American Legion building where Big Boi—who would go on to play a big-band backed "Best of" set later in the day—was to guest DJ for an hour or so. He thumbed through vinyls with his other half, DJ Swiff. The two joked over old-gangster-rap licks and Big Boi escaped often to answer phone calls. Without warning, Boi shot up from his perch and started free styling. The early hour didn't keep him from his typically silky-smooth line dropping. As stunned as they were impressed, the crowd of a few dozen media types bobbed their heads but struggled to keep up.
The clouds are locking in the humidity and when it does rain, it's like pouring water on sauna rocks. Steam rises from the blacktop and there's literally no footing. Scalpers are sliding across the pavement like they're on ice skates. Much to my joy, the grass that was planted and replanted in 2009 (after the muddiest festival since Woodstock) has deeper roots and looks up to the task, rain or no rain.
Outside from a park-wide smoking ban, the atmosphere at Zilker is much the same. A few day passes remain for Sunday, but ACL will undoubtedly sell out for the umpteenth consecutive year. Last spring, many wondered what moving the festival forward a couple of weeks would do, but the answer seems to be a resounding, "nothing, really."
At the Austin Ventures Stage, Electric Touch is gearing up. The band is a union of England and Austin, dance-pop and neo-punk. Forged from the same polished new-gaze that produced the Horrors, ET also boasts the Austin-ian ability to keep a crowd rowdy, even when it's 92 degrees. Front man Shane Lawlor now lives a bike ride away from the venue but his Britishness—in the form of pasty white skin, a thick accent and a vampirish demeanor—traveled with him. He and the band buzz through capsule-like songs that rarely exceed three minutes but are packed with tastefully distorted centers. While they'll never match Thermals' post-punk potency, ET is about as catchy.
Under the tent and dangerously close to the Stubb's barbecue stand, Charles Bradley's band is grooving. It is intro music. I can't help but feel nostalgic for the days when this was the norm and curious about what song I'd prefer to walk onto stage to. Bradley has chosen some badass instrumental fare that sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a 1970s pimp film. The band is a cross between bluesy gypsy-rock (dressed in big felt hats) and big soul (dressed in suits and vests).
Having missed Bradley at MFNW, I had to see him in Austin. Without an ounce of hyperbole, this guy is worth following around the country. His story is fetching—a Gainesville native with no formal record deal until his early 50s. His delivery is mesmerizing, mixing James Brown's magnetism with the passion (an overused but appropriate word) of a mad reverend.
Bradley sweats through a labored set rich with conviction and emotion he seems to cry after every track. He says "I love you" constantly, and it seems genuine; the crowd's general feeling was that the man behind this colossal voice is either incredibly humble, or simply has no idea what kind of soul strength he wields. Either way, comparisons to Otis Redding, Sly and Booker T all fall short. Perhaps it's the wonder inherent in seeing an electric and endangered genre live and in stereo.
Or perhaps Charles Bradley is his own entity. The "screaming eagle of soul" is doing more than reviving the craft; he's reminding us that it's as powerful and timeless as jazz or classical. For shit's sake, we have so much to complain about right now—he could be the Dylan of the 21st Century. But for clarity's sake, no soulsmith is anything without his band, and Bradley's funky guitarists, spot-on drummer and shining brass section served as his wings.
I don't even care about anything else right now. Forget Coldplay*. Forget Santigold. Forget Kanye**.
I don't want any interference.
* To its credit, Coldplay did cover Amy Winehouse's "Rehab."
** I saw a bit of Kanye's set circling back to a house party. My suggestion: Reinvest one-fifth of what he spent on stage props and silly explosions into the economy, and America is back on its feet again. That, or spend it on at least one guest to share the stage with the collaboration-dependent West. Yet, Kanye feeds on hatred and validation, so I've already lost this battle.
A house party kicked the festival off, sponsored this time by some shoot 'em up video game, Rock The Vote and a bunch of booze. On top of the sweet, cooling relief the darkness brings in Texas, I was lucky enough to see the following bands in a tiny house just across the river from Zilker Park.
BK & Mr E: Local ex-marching band-mates who decided to come together in the name of spacey, howling, Prince-inspired synth-pop. The crowd didn't know whether to laugh maniacally or dance maniacally.
The Belle Brigade: One of few bands able to make a song about losers cool (Beck notwithstanding). The excitable LA suede-folk band sported just enough twang to appease the locals while turning up the volume enough to lure in the unfamiliar in the backyard.
DJ Chillakillas: Who seemed stuck on autopilot at first with selections like "Thriller" but ended up mashing up unlikely artists like Local Natives and Aaliyah and winning the whole house over.
Dale Jr. Earnhardt Jr.: The Detroit group that's on a fast path to mainstream success. Devoted to hometown pride, richly layered electro-rock and seamless vocal dualism, DEJJ stole the party, officially.