The 7th edition of the Austin City Limits Music Festival got off to a great start on Friday with clear blue skies and cooler temperatures than we have experienced in the past. Texas swing legends Asleep at The Wheel helped get things going early on in the day with their seventh straight ACL performance. While the Brooklyn experimental rockers Yeasayer and What Made Milwaukee Famous were entertaining their respective audiences, an Austin-via-Dallas band called The Strange Boys were making a bunch of new fans over at the smaller Austin Ventures stage. Their jangly garage-pop songs have a vintage quality that got the crowd grooving along in no time, getting their blood pumping for a long day of good music. The highly touted band Vampire Weekend were next up on many people’s schedules, and while their softer brand of pop music isn’t exactly suited for large festival, they seemed to do be able pull it off and keep the crowd’s attention.
We decided to go see Jamie Lidell next, and the Berlin-based neo-soul musician turned out to be the best act we had seen so far. Lidell did a little bit of everything, showcasing his seriously good vocal talent, beatboxing, and even getting behind the record decks for a while to crank out some chest thumping dance beats. By this time the heat was becoming a factor, so we sadly had to skip out on Gogol Bordello in exchange for a bite to eat, a couple of Sweetleaf teas, and a nice piece of shade.
After we had regained our momentum, we fought our way to the front of the AT&T Blue Room stage to see one of London’s finest, Hot Chip. After catching the electro-pop band in an intimate setting at Antone’s last year, and thoroughly enjoying it, I was excited to see them on the big stage. Unfortunately the combination of an additional live drummer, a mid-day set time, and a general lack of sound clarity all contributed in making this performance less spectacular than it could have been. N.E.R.D made up for it immediately afterward, performing all of their hits with a full live band and really getting the crowd involved. By the end of their set the entire stage was filled with female concert-goers who were free to shake their stuff, creating a party atmosphere that everyone seemed to enjoy. Ending with a cover of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” was a good touch.
By this time Antibalas, the Afrobeat Orchestra who were one of the special performing acts at the 2007 Do512 SXSX party, were entertaining everyone who could fit under the tent at the WaMu stage. As the sun was setting we were presented with one of the tougher decisions of the day: to dance our heels off with Manu Chao, or bang our heads with the Mars Volta. We opted for Manu Chao, and once the band had jammed their last note and we were all happily exhausted from dancing around in circles, we knew we had made the right decision. This was already going to be a special occasion due to the fact that Manu Chao only plays a handful of dates in the United States, but we had no idea it was going to be so much fun. Chao and the band did a little bit of everything, mixing a lot of fast-paced rock with groovy explorations that any jam band would be jealous of, while adjusting the tempo in between with an occasional love song.
Though we could have definitely used more sleep on Saturday, especially after heading out late for an afterparty at Emo’s with Dead Confederate and the Heartless Bastards, we really didn’t want to miss Fleet Foxes at 12:30. Before the show I had heard lots of good things about this Seattle folk band and listened to a few songs, but I was still mostly undecided. However, seeing them live really sealed the deal, and their album hasn’t left my car ever since. Though they kept expressing to the crowd (lightheartedly) that they weren’t meant to be a festival band, their performance was outstanding. Their rich vocal harmonies sounded great blasting out of those huge stacks of speakers, with multi-layered songs like “Ragged Wood” keeping the audience’s attention, and presence.
Moving from this performance to the minimalistic singer-songwriter José Gonzalez was a perfect segue. Even though it merely consisted of Gonzalez, a guitar, and occasional backing vocals/instrumentation, there was nothing lacking here. The Argentinian folk singer-songwriter captivated the crowd with songs from his two solo albums, and his cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” was one of the many highlights. I would have liked to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings next, (I heard it was great), but I also wanted to catch some of the Drive-By Truckers, Man Man (another Do512 party alumnus) and also head to the media tent for some shade and conversation.
After catching the tail end of Man Man’s performance I went to get some prime seating for Erykah Badu, who won the crowd over from the start by blasting out a few verses from Lil Wayne before taking the stage. In the 2005 documentary Before the Music Dies Badu made a quote that has always stuck with me. It was directed at artists/songwriters, and went something like “When you’re saying something, make sure that you’re really saying something.” Erykah Badu embodies this idea both in song and performance, and she gets bonus points for coming out in the heat with a bun in the oven and managing to dance and sing her way to a memorable performance.
Next it would have been nice to see if MGMT were any better live than they were at Fun Fun Fun Fest, but we needed to take a food break before getting down on some John Fogerty action. It was great to see Fogerty up there doing his thing, and I’m glad that I got to hear live performances of some of the songs that I grew up on, but the massive crowd that showed up to watch it was almost too much to bear. After catching some of Fogerty’s set we packed up and started hiking over to hear a little Iron & Wine and get up close for Beck.
I don’t know what kind of show Robert Plant and Alison Krauss put on, but Beck did his very best to play every single one of the hit songs that we know so well, and I think he did a pretty good job of it. He started the show with “Loser,” went straight into “Nausea,” “Girl,” “Timebomb,” “Que Onda Guero,” and continued to blast through a set filled with over 20 songs. It was great to hear some material from Sea Change, (“The Golden Age” and “Lost Cause”), a killer Bob Dylan cover (“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”), and by the end of the night Beck had the crowd jumping in unison to “E Pro.”
On Sunday the plan was to make it to the park around 1:30 to check out The Kills or the Octopus Project, but Shady Grove was a neighboring beacon of light that promised real food and cheap(er) drinks, so we couldn’t resist. After another stop at the media tent we went to check out Against Me!, not only because the stage was right next to us, but also because a lot people seem to like them. Knowing very little about the band I wanted to give them three or four songs to impress me, but they didn’t, so we traveled on.
After taking a break to re-hydrate and wipe the dust from our eyes we were able to hear the last part of Okkervil River’s set, with “For Real” and “Unless It’s Kicks” both sounding really good from my vantage point. I then had a major conflict deciding on whether to see The Raconteurs, Gnarls Barkley or White Denim, so I just decided to see a little bit of all three. Luckily I was able to catch “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Run” from Gnarls, “Rich Kid Blues” and “Many Shades Of Black” from Raconteurs, and most of White Denim’s fun-filled performance.
After this trifecta I made sure not to miss Band of Horses, because out of all of the performing acts at the festival in 2008 this was one of the very few that I hadn’t actually seen before. Just like Manu Chao and Fleet Foxes before them, this is another band that I now have more respect for. “Is There A Ghost,” “The Great Salt Lake” and “Islands On The Coast” all sounded great in a live setting, and I would have been more than comfortable to chill out and watch the rest of their set. But, sacrifices have to be made if you want to see everything, so we began to make our way through the crowd to find a decent spot to watch the Foo Fighters.
Like Against Me! earlier in the day, Foo Fighters was another show that just didn’t do it for me. A few of the songs were actually kind of awesome, I think one of them was called “Young Man Blues,” but hearing live versions of over-played radio songs “All My Life,” “Times Like These,” and “Learn To Fly” just didn’t interest me at all. The thing I liked most was being able to see Dave Grohl, as he has been involved in so many good things that he’s pretty much rock royalty, I just think I like him better behind a guitar or drum kit. The crowd for Foo Fighters was huge and lots of people were singing along to every word, (”My Hero” especially), but I was more interested in grabbing a bowl of Amy’s ice cream and heading home for some much needed rest.
- Favorite acts: Manu Chao, Beck, Fleet Foxes, Hot Chip, Jamie Lidell
- Sorry I missed: Gogol Bordello, Sharon Jones, Silversun Pickups
- Positives: Better weather than usual, no big cancellations (White Stripes), giving people swag for picking up trash, plenty of free water
- Negatives: $8 beers, lungs (and cell phone) full of dust, hearing two stages at once