Austin City Limits Festival | 2015

ACLSign sqLong live ACL’s big tent, whatever form it may take and music it may embrace.

 

 

AntonioBillyIdol 500

All Photos: Antonio Giovanni Soresh

How do you even begin to capture an event that contains both Dwight Yoakam and Deadmau5? The Austin City Limits Festival began in 2002, based on the long-running PBS television show of the same name. While the show originated in 1974 to showcase Austin’s singer-songwriters at a time when few associated the city with music at all, the festival arrived as Austin became a hyped leisure destination. The festival originally followed the show’s lead, anchored in Americana. In the years since, though, both the show and festival have branched out considerably, aiming to capture a bit more of the musical zeitgeist. It’s a tricky balancing act, and the 2015 lineup teetered on the edge between eclectic and random. At its best, we might see it as a snapshot of the state of contemporary music, but in moments it could also veer toward an algorithmless Pandora on the fritz. The Americana accents are still there, but the festival’s identity could be hard to ascertain amid all the teen power-pop and EDM. That said, in the end, ACL’s programming choices remain inventive, relevant, and even exhilarating, and when a festival aims to have something for everyone, well, maybe we just take it at face value and celebrate that populism.

ACL now unfolds over two weekends. With a few exceptions, the bill is identical across both (Alabama Shakes, Strokes, Brandon Flowers only the first; Future, Florence and the Machine, Modest Mouse only the second). In the process of lengthening the festival, organizers have also pushed it back from September to October, ostensibly to save us from the worst of the Texas heat. Nevertheless, it was still in the upper 90s on the second weekend, prompting Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock to ask, “Is it ever not summer here anymore?”

I attended both weekends and will mash up my impressions accordingly.

The Days One (10/2 and 10/9)

I didn’t agree with much Julian Casablancas had to say in closing the first weekend, except for that moment when he decried of the festival format that pitted him against the Weeknd: “Why do we have to choose?” I never felt this more acutely than in my first moments at ACL, when Billy Idol (top) and Leon Bridges held down the main stages on either end of the festival grounds. On the one hand, there’s no reason to forgo the more vital artist of the moment, Fort Worth’s brilliant retro-soulster Bridges. On the other, I’ll likely see Bridges again, and soon, whereas I’m not sure whether I could say the same for Idol. Here was my strategy: Listen to an old Idol classic—“Rebel Yell,” “White Wedding,” “Eyes without a Face”—then run to the other end to catch a new Bridges classic—“Coming Home,” “Better Man.” It mostly worked, although I did miss out on a good portion of “Rebel Yell.” Idol was solid. His vocals faltered every now and again, but he prowled the stage looking like a combination of his ’80s self, contemporary Keith Richards, and his undead avatar Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The set ended on a somewhat sluggish “Mony, Mony,” but even in those moments, much was salvaged by the presence of Idol’s sonic architect, guitarist Steve Stevens. Bridges delivered the goods, too, which is saying something, given his meteoric rise. At SXSW in March, his voice rang like a bell, but his stage presence could still be a bit tentative. He’s a seasoned festival act by now, and even engaged in some playful banter with the crowd. A great band anchored by members of Austin’s White Denim helped matters along.

Hip-hop’s presence at the festival has grown year by year, and El-P and Killer Mike’s Run the Jewels represent one of the best fits to the spirit of festivals past. This was their sixth Austin appearance this year, and they tore through this set just as they did their explosive ones at SXSW and Fun Fun Fun Festival, a brilliant mix of party anthems and politics steeped in a fluid lyricism that combines the best of old and new school. Then again, there are those who might see RTJ as nostalgic hip-hop in comparison to Future’s triumphant appearance on the next stage over. I preferred the former to the latter, but there’s no arguing with the reply Future got to his call-and-response-ready club bangers. “Fuck Up Some Commas” had the younger crowd fully riled.

Elsewhere in the festival, there’s a smaller, gospel revival–style, tent-like structure sponsored by Tito’s vodka. It was here that Rhiannon Giddens offered a master course in Americana roots music to audiences both weekends, beginning with Bob Dylan’s recovered “Spanish Mary” from the New Basement Tapes project, working through country standards from Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline, and then diving into the history of African-American string music. I spent much of the weekend seeking out artists in the same vein. String bands were few and far between, obviously, with the Spirit Family Reunion of New York a real standout. They had (1) a rakish lead singer who careened between classic James Dean and Charlie Starkweather cool; (2) a multi-instrumentalist playing a washboard that he stabilized by sticking one corner of it into the front of his pants; (3) a banjo player who had more than a little of early Minnie Pearl to her; and (4) a bearded fiddler who played the bashful country rube, helpfully explaining the meaning behind the song “Keep Your Skillet Good and Greasy” as a means of maintaining a good and greasy skillet. As they stopped mid-set to deal with re-tuning instruments and other sound matters, they quipped, “Next time we’ll bring our Macbooks, I swear.” Now that’s a band to watch, and hear.

They had Giddens’s throwback sound, while Nashville’s Adla Victoria had her subversive intellectualism, only adding a dark twist in gothic songs like “Stuck in the South.” All right; I’m scrambling my days here by sticking to a theme, but it’s all about trying to work through the riddle of the smaller BMI stage and the Tito’s tent, the occasional bastions of Americana in a festival with an evolving relationship with the genre. The persistence of the gospel-style enclosure is one of the most curious relics of ACLs past, particularly when it’s sponsored by a distillery and taken over by EDM and pop acts like Griz and Kali Uchis later in the evening. Tito’s is great, that’s not a knock against them at all, but it’s just that it’s a bit curious that there’s an entire lineup of gospel acts playing here all weekend. Then again, there’s that old standard about the kinship of Saturday nights and Sunday mornings in the joyful noises they might make. The gospel groups gave it their all, with some of the strongest voices and most energetic performances of the whole weekend. But there often seemed to be a disconnect between the setting and the crowd, making it hard to get that whole call-and-response spirit going. Nevertheless, the best that I caught here included The Levites, Tyree Morris & Hearts of Worship, and the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers. The Levites and Tyree Morris did music very much of the moment, steeped in contemporary worship. The Eagle Rock Gospel Singers purveyed a rock-and-soul hybrid that revisioned gospel as retro-hip. Great stuff.

Aussies Tame Impala have built a local base of support in Texas through performances at spring’s PyschFest/Levitation curated by the Black Angels. That served them well on the large Samsung stage, armed with a light show that matched their mellow and pulsing disco-psych. Glass Animals on the second day followed a similar game plan. Brandon Flowers held the other main stage in this slot on the first weekend, doing a great deal of new material but mixing in enough Killers standards to please the crowd, including a rousing sing along of “Mr. Brightside.”

 

AntonioGaryClark 300

There’s nothing quite like watching a hometown hero play to a festival crowd. Bluesman Gary Clark, Jr. (right) returned to ACL as a force who has come, seen, and conquered over the last year. He proved himself able, as almost no one else was, to bridge the festival’s past and present. Clark is among the last in the lineage of artists nurtured by the same Antone’s blues club that brought up Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and he channeled such mentors and surpassed them as the afternoon turned into evening both weekends, guitar soaring above the crowd. After all his success on stage and screen, you might expect him to be jaded about the whole thing, but when he said, “Thank you, Austin, Texas, ACL. This is beautiful,” I think I kinda believed it. It was a thing of beauty, after all.

The Foo Fighters and Disclosure closed out the first day both weekends. I’ve likely made my rock bias apparent by now, so I gravitated toward the Foo Fighters. Of the EDM acts growing on the ACL roster, Disclosure set the tone in terms of elaborate stagecraft and, for what it’s worth, demonstrated their ability as multi-instrumentalists alongside their original compositions. The Foo Fighters’ set testified to the depth of their catalogue, the length of their tenure, and Dave Grohl’s commitment to putting on a show even with a broken leg while seated on a throne. Grohl screeched into the Austin night, blasting the Foo into seemingly each and every hit they’d produced and making reference to his recent visit to town as part of the Sonic Highways project. As such, he professed a love for the city, but a recognition that he didn’t need to move here. Pandering? Sure, it’s the coin of the trade, but Grohl pulled it off with good humor. Their set the second weekend saw guest stints by Austinities Gary Clark, Jr. and Ben Kweller, and the Foo Fighters reportedly recorded a song with the latter while they were in town.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply