Austin City Limits 2009: In Review

The Austin City Limits Music Festival celebrated its eighth anniversary this year, and it’s gone beyond being Texas’ little festival that could. It’s now its own destination. All tickets to the three-day festival sold out earlier than they ever had before, and the lineup was one of its most diverse in its brief history. Tucked away in expansive Zilker Park in Austin, ACL usually feels like a musical marathon. Unlike other festivals that take place on remote locations where you have to camp or in the middle of cities where you can walk a few feet from the train, ACL is in the middle of a mid-size city that’s equal parts cosmopolitan and college town. You either make a hefty walk to the park or drive for the day-either way you’re doomed to stand in painful sun for three days.  Still, it’s always worth it.

Austin prides itself on being a cultural oasis in a massive and diverse state, and ACL has long attempted to translate that into its lineup. This year might be the first time it achieved that. With big names of today’s indie scenes, radio staples, and classic acts, ACL offered something for everyone this year. And to top it off, festival organizers pushed the dates back to avoid conflicting with the University of Texas’ football schedule and to ease the pain of the state’s unrivaled heat. As a result, we ended up with a unique fall festival that felt a little misplaced (thanks to erratic weather) but ultimately refreshing.

Friday, October 2nd:

The scene at Zilker Park on Friday was disconcerting for two reasons. First, the sun was shining but in a pleasant, early autumn kind of way-drastically different than the typical scorching way Texas sun tends to be. Second, the park was covered with grass! In past years, much of Zilker Park was closer to a sea of dirty than a fluffy, grassy park. Over the past year, Austin was busy getting new grass planted, and it paid off. The park looked gorgeous and it was Crayola green as far as the eye could see.

On the Xbox 360 stage, New York’s The Walkmen were greeted by an enthusiastic and surprisingly large crowd (for being midday Friday) as they launched into “On the River”, a standout track from last year’s stellar You & Me. Dressed in conservative button-up shirts and dark pants, all five members looked like they were on their way to a business casual lunch meeting, not an outdoor music festival. Yet, as soon as vocalist Hamilton Leithauser let out his smooth vocals (which sound like a more polished and palatable Bob Dylan), he transformed the sunny field into a moody club. The band held the audience’s attention without an elaborate lighting system seeing as the sun was shining and without much interaction. Aside from the occasional addition of a tight trumpet quartet who augmented certain tracks, the band pounded out song after song from its catalog. Leithauser stood next in the center of the stage, gripped the microphone in his hand, and squeezed his eyes shut while forcing the words from his mouth. Their 60-minute set was a lesson that strong music is enough to entertain a field of festival goers.

Next up was French band and 2009 darlings Phoenix on the AMD stage. The audience for Phoenix was so large it spilled over into the Xbox 360 portion of the field, proving both that Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has garnered the band quite a few new fans and that festival organizers could have easily put the band in a later slot. Although Phoenix included a few older tracks in the set, the strongest tracks came from their latest release. “Lisztomania”, “1901”, and “Fences” sounded as crisp as they do in the studio, but frontman Thomas Mars brought a new energy to each track. He claimed that it was the largest audience they had ever played for, and true or not, it wasn’t hard to imagine that the band will continue to play to audiences numbering tens of thousands for the foreseeable future. You could easily spot listeners relaxing in the far back of the lawn who were casually listening at the set’s beginning but wound up dancing (poorly) midway through the set. The appeal of Phoenix’s addictive but inoffensive pop made for a perfect way to wave off the setting sun.

Phoenix was also a fitting segue from the grim sounds of The Walkmen to the dance party of Bassnectar across the park on the Dell stage. Bassnectar, often referred to as a “project” rather than as a “band”, brought much-needed energy to the first day of the festival. Although ACL thrives on its diversity and tends to skew less rock and dance than other major festivals, it’s nice to have some unbridled dance parties here and there. Bassnectar spun an absurdly diverse mix of tracks, including Rob Zombie, Blur, Prodigy, and Madison Avenue. It was as if your iTunes Genius had a stroke and just sputtered out whatever songs it came across, but they blended together with ease. At times the tunes were slowed down or buried under bass that actually made it difficult to dance to. The artistry of sliding from one track to the other became apparent when, 15 minutes into the set, I was less fascinated with the fact that we’d gone from reggae to “Breathe” and more focused on how effective the contrast between the two was. Still, the majority of the set was an excuse to watch some trippy visuals and pretend no one was watching you dance poorly with thousands of your closest friends.

One of the weekend’s strongest sets was Andrew Bird‘s twilight performance on the Dell stage. Opening with “Masterswarm” and running through tracks from several of his albums, he was equal parts classical musician and rock star. How often do you hear people shriek “I love you!” when a guy picks up a violin and begins to whistle? As the sun disappeared and the stage lights blanketed the stage, he ran through some of his most notable songs (“Fake Palindromes” and “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left”), but the night belonged to numbers from this year’s Noble Beast. The back-to-back combo of “Not a Robot But a Ghost” and “Anonanimal” was stunning for several reasons. The musicianship of Bird and his band, most notably percussionist Martin Dosh, is something to behold. Both tracks are beautifully crafted on the record, but on stage they are tweaked with additional loops (of vocals, hand claps, and whistles) and extended violin solos. Although Bird doesn’t have the name recognition to headline a night, he has the showmanship to do it, and judging by the shrieks (and chorus of “Ohmygodthisguyisamazing!”) of people around me, he has the fanatic fan base to eventually get him there.

Saturday, October 3rd:

Saturday was not Friday in any way, shape, or form. The sun was nowhere to be found, the temperature was at least degrees cooler for most of the day, and the rain was everywhere. What started as a steady drizzle became a downpour that even hundreds of acres of grass couldn’t soak up. So the sunglasses came off and the rain ponchos came on.

On the Xbox 360 stage, The Airborne Toxic Event‘s brand of straight forward rock proved a worthy antidote for the rain. The five-piece band embraces a simple guitar-plus-drums approach to making succinct tunes, but it also dabbles in a little glam rock that brings to mind Franz Ferdinand with more testosterone (and looser pants). Aside from a sound mix that sometimes muddied the guitars and highlighted the bass too much, The Airborne Toxic Event sounded like a well polished group of musicians who have honed their skills while touring heavily for their self-titled LP over the last year. At no time were the songs too polished. They retained enough edge to make them interesting without sounding like an excuse to make a guitar screech.

On the Livestrong headliner stage at the opposite end of the park, Citizen Cope was a polar opposite of Airborne.  Cope, aka Clarence Greenwood, wasn’t a letdown so much as he was simply pleasant. His brand of soft rock makes for enjoyable music to put on as background music or while reclining at a music festival. Had the ground not been so soggy, the latter might’ve made the perfect choice. Instead, his calm stage presence and enjoyable repertoire made for a nice way to pass an hour but didn’t hold my attention. The chatty audience seemed to be feeling the same.

At the nearby Dell stage, Bon Iver proved quiet and introspective didn’t have to mean boring, even in a festival. Perhaps it was the grey skies and unexpected chill forcing everyone to huddle for warmth, but Justin Vernon and company’s indie folk enraptured the large crowd. Vernon wasn’t afraid to let the quiet introspection of “Creature Fear” do the talking. Still, he took risks and turned the soft rhythm of “Skinny Love” into a more aggressive number that somehow felt even more heartfelt and passionate than the acoustic version on For Emma, Forever Ago.

Afterward, The Zac Brown Band gave Austin a shot of fiddle-heavy country on the Austin Ventures stage. After playing much-hyped sets at other festivals this year, Zac Brown and his band of able musicians turned its corner of Zilker Park into a true country party. The band’s lyrics have a direct style that some critics use to dismiss country as lazy songwriting, but these naysayers are missing out The words mix with the Georgia band’s authentic southern twang to create a powerful listening experience. Even in the middle of a muddy, cool park, their faithful cover of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” made the audience feel like it was transported back to the sunny, blistering ACLs of years past.

As the evening sky darkened (even more than it had been for most of the day), The Decemberists took to the Dell stage to perform the entirety of this year’s The Hazards of Love. Was the move risky? Yes. Was it successfully? Absolutely. Fans hoping to hear classics from previous albums probably felt disappointed, but they couldn’t have walked away from the set displeased. The Decemberists, which temporarily includes guest players Shara Worden and Becky Stark, were decked out in costumes representing the characters of the rock opera that is the latest album. The songs didn’t stray much from the studio versions except they were often just harder. The drums, the vocals, the guitars-all stronger and louder. The centerpiece of the set was the combination of “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” and “The Rake’s Song”. In the former, Worden came from the back of the stage to the front to play the wicked queen and the audience howled every time she opened her mouth and let her operatic voice soar. During the latter song, as frontman Colin Meloy listed the ways he murdered his children, the audience raised its fists to cheer along with the chorus of “All right! All right! All right!” Set against a dark sky with red lights and drizzle, the scene was poetic and haunting.

The night’s big headliner was Dave Matthews Band on the Livestrong stage, and it was a unique experience. Having seen the group several times, I knew they are a reliably strong live band, but I wasn’t sure how the act and its devotees would mesh with ACL’s crowd. Rather, I didn’t know if DMB devotees, which tend to skew a bit frat-tastic, could peacefully coexist with the often bohemian vibe that usually permeates ACL. Everyone got along, but it was definitely different than the typical DMB show. Fanatics were definitely in the crowd, but overall it was a subdued audience that cheered mostly for the radio hits (“Ants Marching” and “Don’t Drink the Water”). Newer and equally strong tracks “Seven” and “You Might Die Trying” received enthusiastic applause but failed to get the singalongs I’ve seen happen at other shows. Nonetheless, the band wisely played to its strengths and chose songs that highlighted its lyrics and musicianship and didn’t cater solely to radio fans (e.g. no “Crash Into Me”).

The two hour set limit also made for an unusual show that was sans encore. The group thrives on transforming five-minute pop songs into ten-minute jams, complete with violin solos and bass/drum showdowns. As a result, the band seemed constrained knowing it couldn’t stretch its set to two-and-a-half or three hours. Nonetheless, the band was in top form. Matthews’ raspy voice sounded surprisingly fresh considering the group was winding down a lengthy tour. On a cover of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”, Matthews delivered an assertive vocal performance that was stronger than anything he’s done on record since 1998. Bassist Stefan Lessard and drummer Carter Beauford often stole the show, as was most evident on the epic “Two Step”, which closed the set. The song ended with an intense jam session, relying mostly on Beauford’s intense skills. It was a welcome, fiery end to an otherwise cold autumn day.

Sunday, October 4th:

Sunday was supposed to involve flash floods, and everyone was dressed to brave another wet day. Instead, the sun was almost to its previous cruel Texas levels at times and other times it was hidden behind clouds, but the rain never came. However, Saturday’s downpour left its mark and you couldn’t see a speck of the beautiful green grass. Instead, the ground was brown. Inches of mud covered all of Zilker Park. Most people tossed aside their shoes and embraced the fact that footwear or not, you were going to be encased in mud over your feet and even up to your ankles at times.

Therefore, the unabashedly fun set by The B-52s on the AMD stage was a fitting way to embrace the last day of the festival. 30 years into their career, the band has not only retained its irreverent attitude and love for new wave-meets-pop, it’s also retained great vocals. While Fred Schneider’s monotone talking doesn’t require much effort (and his overall stage presence is equally stoic), Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson scream and coo like it’s the 1980s again. Both donning cerulean dresses and standing in front of a black-and-white psychedelic backdrop, Wilson and Pierson played sex kittens for the huge crowd. Although they included the biggest hits (“Roam”, “Love Shack”, “Rock Lobster”), all which still had surprising energy, the best moments were from the tracks that weren’t such global blockbusters. In “Give Me Back My Man” Wilson sounded venomous enough to teach today’s rockers a thing or two about delivering a line. Classic track “Planet Clair” sounded like The Dirty Projects on speed. Aside from being a fun set, it was also a great reminder that the band was innovative in its early careers and many of those songs really do stand the test of time, which is something worth noting at music festivals, where you know many acts won’t be around in two or three years, much less decades.

England Rockers White Lies stormed the Xbox 360 set with enough confidence to convince you they were the day’s headliners. Their midday performance drew a hearty crowd that seemed to know every word of the band’s debut album. They faithfully reproduced To Lose My Life and even brought some extra swagger. Perhaps the best proof of their bravado was their decision to cover Portishead’s “The Rip”, widely considered one of the best songs of 2008. They turned the haunting melody into a slow burner that erupted into a full-on rocker. Their 45-minute set felt like the work of seasoned pros.

Passion Pit‘s set on the same stage later that afternoon had less confidence, but that added to its charm. Although the sound mix was shaky, and Michael Angelakos’ shaky voice is an acquired taste, Passion Pit were playing to devotees. With only one album and one EP under its belt, the group has become 2009’s MGMT-a synthpop act that writes really good songs that you can’t get out of your head. From the sorrow-yet-danceable “I’ve Got Your Number” to the chant-worthy “Little Things”, the band only needed to show up to get a hoard of fans jumping up and down. Fortunately, the band not only showed up, they decided to have fun. Compared to their set at Lollapalooza two months ago, you can assume Angelakos and company are learning how to work a stage. At no time did it feel like they were going through the motions or intimidated to be playing to such a huge crowd. Their interaction between each other was often more playful than anything they directed at the audience, which suggested they’re just now learning how to have fun while performing live, but they always sounded just as fun as you wanted them to be.

The Dead Weather rocked the Livestrong stage with more ferocity than even the excellent Horehound suggested they could. Lead vocalist Alison Mosshart paced back and forth on the stage as if she were waiting to jump off and punch a fan or two. Her strong voice and enchanting presence made it easy to forget that, uh, Jack White’s back there on drums. That is until they let loose on “Treat Me Like Your Mother” and turned a brief but intense rock track into an extended jam that sounded like it could’ve been its own EP. Part of the band’s charm on record is how pristine the band sounds even through its mess of guitars and fuzzy vocals. Live the whole act had the potential to become a noisy mess. Instead, it was a tour de force that proved this is more than just a throwaway side project for any of its members.

Back on Xbox 360, Girl Talk (aka Greg Michael Gillis) scrolled his motto “I’m not a DJ” across the screens and then launched into an hour-long dance party. With dozens of fans dancing onstage behind him, Gillis demanded the audience jump, wave, and sing its way through his mix of rock, dance, and rap tracks. It’s hard to pinpoint any single moment that stood out. DJ or not, Gillis knows how to make thousands of fans who have been outside for three days in temperamental weather find some untapped energy.

No sooner had Gillis’ party stopped than Pearl Jam began its headlining slot on the Livestrong stage. Tearing through “Why Go?” and “Corduroy”, Pearl Jam proved why it’s still a band worth paying attention to 20 years into its career. Although it hasn’t been a radio mainstay for over a decade, Pearl Jam knows how to access the part of music fans’ brains that want to pound their fists in the air and profess something. Anything.

Photo by Karen Loria (via Pearl Jam).

As someone who wasn’t lucky enough to see the band perform live before, I wasn’t certain what to expect: Would the band be painfully beyond its prime? Were the devotees hyping up the band and setting an unrealistic standard? No and no. Eddie Vedder sounds as good as he ever did, and as a whole the band clicks the way you wish all rock acts did. No showboating or rock clichés. When Vedder crawls on the ground or hangs on to the microphone, he looks like he’s experiencing the songs for the first time. When they closed the first encore with “Alive”, a song they must’ve performed hundreds of times by now, each member sold it as if they still had something to prove. The audience, which was huge because the band was playing unopposed, sang along with more enthusiasm than any other band I saw all weekend. Although I felt a tinge of jealousy that I was too young to see the band on its early tours, when they were ushering in a new era of music, I was glad to see them now. As adults who have grown as musicians and had more life experiences, their words had more gravitas than they did 15 years ago.

When they were joined by fellow ACL performer Ben Harper on “Red Mosquito”, they seemed delighted to be sharing the stage with another artist, even though they’re frequent collaborators. They then went into the blazing “Do the Evolution”, which raised the energy level even higher. Little did we know that energy would be matched by the final encore set. First, surprise guest (and Lollapalooza organizer) Perry Farrell joined the band to cover Jane’s Addiction’s “Mountain Song”, which sounded even better than Jane’s Addiction’s performance of it at Lollapalooza. The band then ended the show with their usual cover of Neil Young’ “Rockin’ in The Free World”. It was an obvious thesis for the band and the weekend, and it could’ve come off as cheesy-especially when Vedder left the stage to get into the audience and slide around in the mud. Instead it felt like an authentic way to end the weekend. Earlier in the set, Vedder said that he was told the band hadn’t been to Austin in 15 years, and he wasn’t sure what they had been thinking. After the band walked off stage, I think most of Zilker Park was wondering the same thing.

Thousands of fans then streamed out of the park-or mud pit-filtered through the city in the cool October breeze. People were covered in mud and many flip-flops were left orphaned throughout the park.  It felt like the last day of a summer vacation, when you don’t want to leave the beach and go back to reality. Although this year’s later dates meant the festival was officially taking place in autumn, the whole experience acted as an official bookend to the summer festival season.

Additional photography by Karen Loria (via Pearl Jam).


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