When Austin City Limits Music Festival began in 2002, it lasted two days and attracted close to 40,000 fans. Wilco, Shawn Colvin and hometown guitar hero Gary Clark Jr. occupied a bill of 70-some acts. Clark, responsible for this year's most memorable set, was just a high-schooler, eager to play on a big stage in a festival with an unpredictable future.
Austin, the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World," knew better. Attendance doubled expectations during the opening years, and the festival grew into a model citizen for major music gatherings. Much has changed since '02, but the ACL recipe has stayed the same: Efficiency, cheap food and drink, decent sound and a reliable lineup have kept ACL at the top of this writer's shortlist of great festivals.
Austin City Limits 2012 drew 75,000 people to the five stages of Zilker Park. Sound troubles persisted, heavy rain turned mossy grass into mud, and Iggy Pop showed us all what it looks like when a zombie goes tanning. Still, thanks to endless brisket, an unexpected marriage of gritty southern blues and R&B, and that certain Texan air that seems to demand a little more out of every musician, Austin once again proved itself as a worthy candidate for its lofty, self-given title.
Headliners this year included Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jack White, the Black Keys and some guy named Gotye. The token aging act was Neil Young and Crazy Horse, who managed to stretch the first three songs of their Saturday evening set well past the 40-minute mark. As satisfying as Young's performance was, bolstered by the razor-sharp support offered by original Crazy Horse folk Billy Talbot, Frank Sampedro and Ralph Molina, the competition was as thick and heavy as Texas chile.
My top five performances of ACL 2012 include a Portlander, a band that broke up in 2001 and a rising young Austinite people are already comparing to Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Honorable Mention: Polica
While I'm not sure what Channy Leaneagh's voice would sound like without all of the dials and knobs of her effects station, it sounds damn good with the heavy treatment. Polica's set was crisp and percussive, backed by the band's traditional dual drumkit approach. Buoyant, bass-driven tracks like "I See My Mother" and "The Maker" are better suited for a small club, but had the crowd shaking nonetheless.
The Twin Cities digital-slow-jam group debuted a couple of new tracks, which bended in the general direction of present-day Yeasayer or its old group, Gayngs. The fluidity with which the band played had an almost hydrating effect on the sunburned Sunday afternoon crowd. When the band gave a shout out to the Gayngs' tour bus that mysteriously disappeared from ACL two years ago, denying them a chance to play, many confused faces asked, "Who in Gayngs died?" "Nobody," I replied. "It's a long story."
5) Esperanza Spalding
There's simply nobody in pop music today doing what Ms. Spalding is doing: her angelic vocals, so often diced up and sent out in pseudo-scat form, her back-and-forth exchange between upright bass and electric bass at ACL making the perfect metaphor for her old-jazz-meets-avant-garde musical stance. Portland's own bassist-vocalist is like a Julliard-trained Erykah Badu.
Spalding's warm personality kept the crowd engaged and also sanded down her extremely high jazz IQ so as not to come across as esoteric. The old-school geeks got theirs with her complex, classically-trained melodies, while the street-smart pop fans enjoyed her band's big breakdowns and funkadelic tangents. "Hold On Me" and "Endangered Species" (which she played beautifully during her '09 taping of the ACL show) showed Spalding to be as comfortable and entertaining on stage as a member of the Rat Pack in an old Vegas theater.
4) Band Of Skulls
A torrential downpour cut Band of Skulls' set short, but there's really no holding down this trio from Southampton, England. While fans made ponchos out of trash bags and photographers cowered under the stage, Emma Richardson and co. limped off stage. Unlike most of Texas, these guys have seen rain before.
Fortunately, the band returned after about 30 minutes. Band Of Skulls delivered everything I wanted Jack White to and feared wouldn't. Recent headlines spoke of White's habit of cutting big shows short on account of beef with the sound tech or venue acoustics. Turns out, one can get his hard rock elsewhere.
Playing from sophomore full-length Sweet Sour, the trio offered ringing, raucous garage rock that nearly shook a few amps off their tethers. Especially Southern-inspired numbers like âThe Devils Takes Care Of His Ownâ and âYouâre Not Pretty But You Got It Goinâ Onâ proved big favorites. Given the voltage BOS played with, itâs no wonder they were advised to halt while the rains swept through.
3) The Roots
They do it time and time again. The sprawling band is just about flawless, twice as good live as its already remarkable catalogue of studio recordings. They began with an admirable tribute to Adam "MCA" Yauch, covering Beastie Boys' âPaul Revere.â The band also covered Curtis Mayfield with âMove On Up.â
Throughout, the band was exuberant and energetic. Not enough can be said about hip-hop set to live instrumentation, especially where a large brass section is concerned. The Roots are worth seeing whenever, and wherever, whether itâs the first time youâve heard them play âThe Seed 2.0â or the hundredth.
2) Afghan Whigs
Welcome back, pride of Cincinnati. Raised by brotherâs grunge-loving iron fist, I felt somewhat dragged to this show by my gut. After spot-on renditions of âMy Enemyâ and âGoing To Townââboth from Afghan Whigsâ near flawless 1996 album, Black Loveâhowever, I knew I had made the right choice. Besides, with Tegan and Sara playing a few stages over, I could avoid the sing-along youngsters by visiting the graying post-punk band from yesteryear.
Props to Greg Dulli: Not only does he look like Joaquin Phoenix, but he bears a similar unruly and unpredictable disposition. Stoic during one song, parading around amongst the pit the next, the Afghan Whigs frontman missed the memo saying it was 2012. As far as the in-sync band was concerned, it was 1996 all over again. An explosive version of "Honky's Ladder," with its many riff-pauses and open spaces in which Dulli proved his signature howl hasn't faltered a bit, solidified things. These guys still have it.
1) Gary Clark Jr.
Expectations can break a musician. How Gary Clark Jr. is still playing is beyond me. The true-blue 28-year-old guitarist spends just as much time dodging comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Lightninâ Hopkins as he does shredding. I had heard Clark Jr.âs semi-hit single âBright Lightsâ a few months before the festival and worried it might be the beginning of the end. A hefty amount of press, play on genre-less stations, mutterings that his 2011 EP was as good as it gets, the work of a genius âblues revivalistââI hadnât heard as much pre-show hype for a live performance since the heyday of Rage Against the Machine.
Alas, Clark Jr. did what everyone said he would do: He blew me out of the water. Drawing a sonic timeline with the neck of his restless guitar from Delta blues to classic rock, Austin's favorite youngster played like someone B.B. King's age and stature. Pulling material from standout record Blak and Blu, Clark Jr. provided an encyclopedic tour on how to play Southern-inspired blues-rock.
With âDonât Owe You a Thing,â he showed his prowess, offering blistering fingerwork and an electrified bayou sound that had fans clapping often before the song was over. To his credit, Clark Jr.âs voice stood up to his guitar, alternating between rich and raspy (âNext Door Neighbor Bluesâ) and Marvin Gaye-esque (âPlease Come Homeâ).
Where many praised musicians start slow and build to a crescendo, making the crowd wait for the fireworks, Clark Jr. hit hard straight out of the gates with an extended version of âWhen My Train Pulls In.â The song provides pure testimony for his gift as a soloist and his respect and sophisticated incorporation of the countless blues legends who came before him. Sure, Clark Jr. saved âBright Lightsâ for last, but he didnât need to preach his gospel any further at that point. The people were putty.
Overall, it was another tremendous Austin City Limits. On top of the festival itself, special attention ought to go to Reignwolf, who put on one of the coolest âfuck you, Iâm a rock starâ shows Iâve ever seen at an aftershow at Stubbâs. Also, thanks to the Music Lounge at the American Legion Hall for assembling for a sixth consecutive year. The weekend-long part on the grass was the perfect welcome mat for press and showcased a few stellar DJ sets, including one by Metricâs Emily Haines and a short but sweet set from Bombay Bicycle Clubâall, mind you, overlooking the gorgeous Colorado River and the five stages of ACL beyond.
Until next year...sigh.