Austin City Limits Festival | 09.26-28.08

fest_acl.jpgThere was plenty of dancing, singing and clapping along. Whenever a band interacted with the audience for their participation, they always got a unanimously enthusiastic response.



Zilker Park, Austin, Texas

At first I was a bit hesitant to make the trek down to Texas for a three-day outside music festival featuring a few famous headliners and about 130 bands that I was not all too familiar with; now I want to go back every year! Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Austin City Limits whenever I could. It was always a rarity to have a great live music show like that on public TV where you could catch some of the finest musical acts of the day. One show that has always stood out in my mind was the first really big break for the now legendary guitar hero Eric Johnson. That is the ethics that ACL has stood for in my mind: helping to break ground for up-and-coming musicians to be exposed to a much wider audience, right alongside of delivering the endearing music of established artists already revered by the public. This festival was an amazing success in the same spirit.

The Setting | The festival was held in Zilker Park, which is just across the river from downtown Austin. It is close enough that you could walk to it from the 6th Street, the entertainment district with all the clubs and music venues, but far enough, that you really wouldn’t want to in the heat. That’s right, in spite of it being the last weekend in September, Austin was still sporting 90-degree days and beautiful sunny summer weather, a nice retreat from the quickly cooling north. The city did an amazing job of working with the festival hand in hand to make the whole event flow as smoothly as possible for residents and tourists alike. The organization that went into moving the people to and from the venue was truly impressive. You have to picture that there was an average of 65,000 people in attendance on each of the three days. There was no onsite parking, so you had to walk, bike, take a taxi or ride the shuttle buses provided by the city. It was so unusual to see the number of bikes that were locked up on the parking lot lined with racks, a truly surreal scene to have thousands of bikes clustered together like something you would expect to see in Beijing.

It is hard to describe the mass of humanity that filled the park. At the end of the day, an endless sea of people formed a line as far as you could see to grab a taxi or to get on the shuttle busses back to downtown to continue the party. The police orchestrated a constant circulation of public transportation that moved the crowds in and out much faster than you would have thought possible. After standing at the end of a line that looked like it might take hours, I was surprised to find that I was on a bus and back in town within half an hour. I’ve spent much longer than that waiting to get my car out of the parking lot here at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre time and time again.

Every aspect of providing adequate amounts of beverages, food and facilities was also handled well. There were food vendors from a dozen or so local restaurants providing a wide variety of yummy, healthy and reasonably priced eats of every kind. Not least of all is that there were bountiful amounts of Heineken about. There was also a small market area for some vendors to sell clothing, trinkets and artwork, including one booth proudly displaying wares affixed with the city’s self adopted catch phrase "Keep Austin Weird." A merchandise tent and full record store was also set up so that you could purchase music and memorabilia from the plethora of bands playing at the festival.

The Scene | It was so refreshing to see so many freaky people out and about. Everybody there seemed to have some sort of self expression going on; there wasn’t any of the bland conformist look you get so much at concerts here in the Midwest. The crowd was incredibly diverse in age, race and style. The musical acts were equally as varied, from classic rock to country, hip-hop to gospel, metal to world music, R&B to bluegrass, electronica to blues, and indie to modern rock. That is the essence of the importance of the ACL festival: exposing fans to a broader range of music and creating a forum for bands to be heard by an audience that they might not be able to reach through traditional mediums.

ACL had a total of eight stages going, so there were always four bands playing at any given time. At opposite ends of the park they had two main stages that would each alternate; then there were four smaller stages in the middle of the park rotating music. Each stage tended to have similar types of music on it throughout the day, so if you wanted, you could just plant yourself in front of one of them and hear bands of complimentary styles. Most people had chairs and blankets along with some kind of sun shade device, in hat or umbrella form. Across the sea of people were flags hoisted on makeshift flagpoles almost like a scene out of Braveheart where each clan had its own crest hoisted on the battle field. That’s right, people literally letting their freak flags fly. Actually, just a really pragmatic way of finding your group of friends in a field filled with fans.

Everyone there seemed to be upbeat and energized, true music fans. The people from Austin whom I spoke to were all friendly, helpful and proud of their town. The crowd acted with a lot of respect toward each other in terms of personal space, belongings and individuality. There was a strong police and security presence, but they seemed more concerned with the general safety than sticking their nose into your good time. There was plenty of dancing, singing and clapping along. Whenever a band interacted with the audience for their participation, they always got a unanimously enthusiastic response. That, in turn, kept the bands pumped; every act there was on their A-game for sure.

{mospagebreak}The Highlights | I have to say that seeing Robert Plant playing to such a large outside crowd was an ethereal experience. His pairing with Allison Kraus just really works, and they put a fun and fresh spin on some of the Zeppelin classics. Seeing John Fogerty playing the old CCR tunes as the sun was setting over the crowd was also a magical moment; somehow reassuring in showing the continuity of the connection between people and music through time.

Getting to have a few words with John Popper of Blues Traveler was also a real hoot. The guy is quick witted and actually kind of a goof. Another fortuitous meeting I had was with Austin’s Mayor Will Wynn, a fellow architect who has a good grip on the importance of urban planning as a critical factor in the success and longevity of a city. Even the graphics for the festival that showed the city skyline included the multiple construction cranes that accent the horizon. In today’s economy, it is impressive to see construction progress being made.

Joe Bonamassa is definitely the best blues rock guitar player I have seen in a long time. Right up there with the greats, playing it the guitar the way it should be. The River City Christianettes had the gospel sounding so good and so right, it would make anyone get up and testify. The best of all had to be watching Big Don on the Austin Kiddie Limits stage lay out his children’s hip hop tunes. He has really done it right and I feel every minivan sold in this country should come with a complimentary copy of this disc; it’s that good. Don Robinson came out of St. Louis and has been putting out nonviolent rap for years from Austin as MC Overlord. Watching him get the crowd of kids going was really something to see.

Let’s see, other highlights, hmmm…did I mention the official beer of the event was Heineken?

The Music | Whether you have heard of them before or not, the quality of every act was there was clear. Even if you had a stylistic difference with the music, the bands were all giving it their best. Way, way too music to absorb, so here is a quick glimpse of the acts I was able to see:

Paula Nelson | Willie Nelson’s daughter has beautiful stage presence all her own with a strong, soulful voice capturing a wide range of emotions, blending southern roots with a bit of bluesy grit.

The Hensley Ensemble | A stage full of talent bringing a bigger-than-life sound to upbeat and contemporary gospel. Too much fun to just sit still. Great way to start of the festival…with goosebumps.

Brotherly Luv | Perfectly harmonized, upfront and upbeat modern gospel.

Jakob Dylan and the Gold Mountain Rebels | Despite the large shadow of being the son of a legend, Jakob has shaped a style of music and expression that is uniquely his own. His music is honest, sincere and moving.

Del the Funky Homosapien | Really had a great connection to the crowd. As one of the few hip-hop acts at the festival, he was well received and had the crowd pumped and following right along with him. I still don’t quite get why it is that, with that style, you don’t have a live band behind you, especially with the level of funk he was going for. Either way, the crowd was loving it and was going right along for the ride.

The Paul Green School of Rock All Stars | Just like the Jack Black movie, this group of kids put on a killer rock show playing some great cover tunes. Not only did they do some great versions of songs like "Roadhouse Blues" by the Doors and "Heart of Glass" by Blondie, but they also had some shredders on board, leading them to whip out some classic metal like "Motorbreath" off of Metallica’s first album and "Symptom of the Universe" by Sabbath. Nice!

Patty Griffin | A soulful vocalist whose sound helps to define a new generation of country artists.

Gogol Bordello | I could see this band hit the same audience as the next Black-Eyed Peas. A high-energy Gypsy blend of Zydeco, club music, rock and funk. With crazy outfits and sexy dancers with percussion props, they got the crowd not only on their feet, but jumping up and down and waving their arms for the whole show. They bring a strong, pulsating rhythm to exotic gypsy melodies played out skillfully on an accordion and violin.

{mospagebreak}David Byrne | Played a few of his classic Talking Head hits and material from his solo career. He had well-choreographed dancers all in white that helped take you right back to the blossoming days of music videos. I was a little surprised that he did not play "Burning Down the House," but then again, I don’t blame him; he’s paid his dues and doesn’t have to any more. He sounded great, still at the top of his game with plenty of music to give.

G. Love & Special Sauce | These funky dudes kept the grooves going and added a humorous element to the jam band sound. Great harmonica playing and intriguing vocals.

The Mars Volta | This headliner act had a massive crowd pressed to the stage. As it was night by this point, the haze and the lights gave the whole festival an otherworldly glow, adding to the power of having these guys cranked up loud. Their tunes were built around tight unison, funky blues riffs that locked in with the drums. The drummer is bad-ass and the singer has an incredible range. They had a lot of presence and control of the stage.

Manu Chao | A renowned crowd pleaser delivered a full blast of his unique mixture of world music, afro-pop, reggae, Latin and techno dance music. There was no standing still for this! And no, I do not have any idea what he was saying.

Bavu Blakes & the Extra Plairs | A stage full of talent laid out some hip-hop combined with rock with live drums and a great bass player, keys and three backup singers. They came out hittin’, playing "Cult of Personality" wearing Hillary and Obama masks. Bavu is a commanding and charismatic MC and has taken great care in putting together a strong band of straight-up talented musicians to back up his rap.

The Lee Boys | Amazing family of gospel music. All solid musicians, but the pedal steel player was one of the most amazing things I have heard in a long, long time. It is rare enough to hear some on ripping like that with a slide guitar, but to hear Roosevelt Collier play with such authority and expression on a pedal steel guitar was truly astounding. You don’t often hear a lot of wailing guitar playing in gospel outfits, but he was adding a sound kind of like Jeff Healy weaving in and out with the vocalists.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings | Tina Turner old-school R&B, great set of tunes even had the baritone sax in the horn section. All of her rhythm section and band were seasoned musicians backing her up in style as she belted out the vocals with a touch of the Aretha attitude.

Back Door Slam | British blues rock with the warm tube sound reminiscent of Cream with Jack Bruce. Great tones coming out of the old amps and they paid attention to the authenticity of the era.

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears | This band can really put on a show! Big fat horn section, enthusiastic and soulful vocals, and Joe up front, telling it like it is. It all lends to their great showmanship.

Erykah Badu  | High tech pop diva, beautiful, talented, big hair, big voice

Les Frères Guissé | Modern folk music from Senegal played on acoustic guitars and drums. Fun-loving music that bridges borders with smiles all around.

John Fogerty | I didn’t know it, but I actually needed to hear some CCR at an outside festival. It is a part of the American experience for the people of our time. He is still sounding great and even has his guitar chops up! Along with tunes from his solo career, he played hit after hit, giving the people just what they wanted to hear.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss | They reworked versions of some of the great tunes from throughout his career, but also brought out some new material. My favorite tunes of the night had to be the extremely understated version of "Black Dog" and then, of course, the acoustic masterpiece "Battle of Evermore." The instruments and overall tone of the band gives a lot more room to breath for the expression of the vocals. Kraus has an amazing voice and her violin playing is as beautiful as she is; I can see why Plant chose to work with her.

Beck | Always a groove-filled good time! But I just can’t get the Futurama episode out of my mind

Elizabeth Wills | Beautiful voice and soul searching songs. A very talented and appealing up-and-coming singer songwriter.

Big Don | Somebody had to do it, and Big Don has done it right. He has created kid-friendly hip-hop by composing new and modified versions of nursery school rhymes and lessons for kids. He started off with a great rap talking about manners and how to act as a kid growing up. The project is genius in his simple, straightforward flow, as well as the logic and catchiness of the melody. His amiable personality and bigger-than-life smile drew in the kids and had them singing along and dancing even as they were learning the alphabet.

River City Christianettes | This gospel group got everybody’s hands in the air with a lot of energy and charisma from the four singers up front. It was a nonstop spirit-lifting experience.

Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet featuring Béla Fleck | The virtuoso master jazz bluegrass banjo player has combined forces with acclaimed violinist Casey Drissen and cellist Ben Sollee to back up this wonderfully imaginative singer. Her voice is perfectly suited to the instrumentation and she draws on musical styles as diverse and far reaching as Chinese folk music and early 20th-century atonalism combined with a healthy dose of bluegrass. They even did a great cover of "Eleanor Rigby." Bela Fleck’s playing as accompanist was jaw dropping and he played a solo piece that was awe inspiring; he even dabbled a little bit into his recently released Christmas album.

Scott Biram | One of the few that made me ask WTF? One guy cranking out with an electric guitar and a kick drum. I gotta hand it to him though; he did it with enthusiasm.

Nakia & His Southern Cousins | An incredibly powerful southern rock experience along the lines of the Black Crowes. He has a strong and emotional voice to lead the soulful yet heavy-hitting rhythm section. Their sound was full and complete with a couple of dancing backup singers and enthusiastic keyboard player jamming on the classic Hammond B-3 organ sound.

Octopus Project | The type of atmospheric, pulsating, rave-club music filled with crazy sounds that would definitely be better trippin’…unless, of course, you’re already literate in whale speak.

Flyleaf | A unique-sounding modern metal group with a female vocalist. They were tight and rockin’, fer sure, but I think they would have benefited from a time slot later in the day or at night.

Mike Farris featuring the Roseland Rhythm Revue | This dude has a great stage presence to go along with a distinctive voice. He led the band through a range of dynamics, rockin’ through funky soul tunes with a twist of a southern gospel.

Joe Bonamassa | My chance to hear some good guitar playing. Matter of fact, one of the best players that I’ve heard to come on the scene in a long while. Along with fiery solos during the tunes, he also played a rowdy acoustic solo piece with a fast rhythmic riff. Some of his tunes wandered into some great classic guitar riffs such as those by Deep Purple Zep and ZZ top. Great voice and stage presence, but it was definitely his guitar playing that stood out. It was so refreshing to hear an accomplished soloist like him at the festival.

Neko Case | A great atmosphere for her beautiful voice to be displayed in a more natural setting of country stylings than her previous punk-pop work. Definitely will be hearing more of her.

Blues Traveler | They were sounding a good as ever. There is just something about their sound that just jams. Always fun, funky and friendly to moving the feet. John Popper’s harmonica playing sometimes freaks me out as almost being inhuman, and yet he just seems to just get better. They played some material from their new studio album that got the crowd moving as much as hits from their past. They did a killer version of "Mulling It Over" and "Crash Burn," but also threw in a few surprises like a cover of "I Want You to Want Me." Good times, my friends. | Derek Lauer

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