Perhaps it was a mistake to toss frozen treats into the crowd so early in the set, but it is 95 degrees and the masses are desperate for refreshment. It’s a bit like pigeons fighting over bread crumbs. Darwin’s survival of the fittest is on full display, as the strong are corralling piles of popsicles while the weak are being shoved aside.
In fairness, the music should be garnering as much attention. The rock-tronica group from Detroit has covered Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” brilliantly and offered a surfy new track that cements Epstein and counterpart Daniel Zott’s love for vocal harmonies. The real barnburner comes in a completely reconstructed version of Leonard Cohen’s gorgeous ballad “Hey,That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.” The band feeds fuzz and force to the generally somber track, singing at the top of their longs and letting distortion run free.
“One of our core beliefs is that every human needs to sing and dance,” Epstein preaches. It’s a simple and tactical way to get a hot crowd on your side. Pair that comment with both bubble machines and the infectious melody of “Nothing But Our Love,” and you’ve got a rejuvenated, even dancing mid-afternoon audience. The song’s ticking samples and tinkering percussion are reminiscent of Múm, while the synth-laced guitar scratches and whirling vocals are entirely their own.
Back at the Legion House Lounge, a pair of Australians are pulling ice from their drinks and tossing it on the ground. “It’s to wet the Outback,” they say. They’re surfing across America - quite literally - and have swung by to see Cut Copy perform. I chose Cee Lo over the Australian techie/popsmith they so adore, mainly because the former’s band is comprised entirely of foxy women. My mistake. We share drinks.
From the photo pit, I can hear Fleet Foxes every word. Drummer and solo folkster J. Tillman is cracking jokes and the band is too busy laughing to play. They ultimately play through a big chunk of Helplessness Blues before cutting into a memorable stab at “Blue Ridge Mountains.” The track has a timeless quality to it. Witnessing it before 40,000 spectators gives it a Bob Dylan-at-Newport-Folk-Festival feel. Dylan may as well have written it, its heavy imagery, folky leanings and extended crescendo being right up his alley.
The main event tonight is Arcade Fire, the band that needs no introduction. Their live shows have become such spectacles that I can’t bear the thought of missing it. So far, I see a digital Marquee sign above the stage, a giant screen and plenty of spare instruments, as the band is known to destroy several thousand dollars worth every time they play “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”.
Fittingly, Win Butler and company open with “Ready To Start.” The bass sounds perfect and is guiding the track like a conductor. Butler seems happy to be back in his native Texas, grinning without sarcasm at most of the photographers in the pit. The band spills into “Keep the Car Running” before playing the lesser Neon Bible version of “No Cars Go” (Listen to the EP version if you don’t believe me).
Overall, the band played six tracks from near-perfect 2005 release Funeral. The best was “Laika,” which came fit with extra helpings of accordion and wheel fiddle. Whatever Arcade Fire takes backstage before a set, I want. Their energy and animalistic nature is never in question. In fact, it’s almost comical to see them play somewhat tempered tracks like “We Used To Wait.” During the soft sections, the band seems lost and more than eager to break out. When they do, it’s a fireworks display of crashing but classically trained instrumentation. I can’t tell you how happy it should make the music industry that these guys won the fucking grammy for best record this year. Hats off, deserved and respected.
The next day, I found myself unwilling to leave Austin. “Live Music Capital Of The World” is not just a slogan, it’s a real-life practice here. I extend my trip a day and end up at ACL Live, the new home of KLRU’s longstanding and legendary Austin City Limits broadcast.
For 36 years, the PBS-backed show was shot from the Communications department at the University of Texas. This year, the show moved to downtown Austin, to a $40 million dollar state-of-the-art theater co-sponsored by Willy Nelson. Allegedly, there was a no-smoking ban in effect before Nelson returned and demanded otherwise. Now, he owns his own smoking balcony just above the theater.
Turning down an invite to the Randy Newman taping would be sacrilege. The old-timey pianist put on a stellar set at the new venue. The floating stage, manually tuned speakers and horseshoe shaped theater made for an unforgettable sound. Everywhere I strolled in the mezzanine, Newman was right there with me. The sound was so crisp and clean I felt I was wearing headphones throughout.
Better still, I was lucky enough to witness the Mecca of live music. In addition to a significantly older and musically wise brother, ACL is responsible for my appreciation of music. To see the bread and butter of the show live—the soft red and blue lighting, paper Austin skyline, and gentle transitions—is like seeing the pyramids for the first time. When I’m told the swanky suites are $25,000 a year to sponsor, I wish I had the money to do it. This show has done that much for me as a listener.
Above the mezzanine and on the third floor is a gallery devoted to the late Jim Marshall. Due to a Jack Daniels sponsor, his photographs have been manipulated some. The focus had turned from the subject (Keith Richards, Janis Joplin, Greg Allman) to the product (a bottle of Jack). Nonetheless, the photos are breathtakingly good, all the better given that they were taken well before the digital age of shooting ten thousand photos and picking two you like.
(Image: Longtime KLRU photographer Scott Newton's impressive work was on display as well.)
Marshall was a master of timing and intimacy and while you may not recognize the name, you’ve certainly seen his work (especially this shot). It’s the perfect ending to a lovely weekend. My ears are ringing, my eyes are busy, and I can still taste the mac and chile I had an hour ago. ACL, you’ve done it again, you model festival you.