19 September 2007

P+R: ACLFest Day 1

OK, I think I can finally settle in and try to recap this, although you'll have to forgive me since I'm working 100% from memory and Ace likely stole all my more astute observations made in situ. So, I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot and probably not formulating all my thoughts with the utmost coherence, but if you read until the end of all 3 days worth of blather, I will reward you with my undying love.

This was our 3rd Austin City Limits festival and the 1st without lugging the kids around, so it was really all about devouring as much music as humanly possible. And whoa-boy, did I get it by the wheelbarrowful! There were bands that I saw a significant portion of (SPO) -- meaning at least 20 minutes of the sets, which ranged form 45 minutes to an hour plus -- and some that I just saw some of (SSO), that is about two songs before moving on... I'd say about 90% of it was worth sticking around for the entire set, but there was so much going on, it was tough to stay still. The best shirt we saw all weekend (and there were quite a few good 'uns) was the one with the AC/DC logo with a lightning bolt replacing the forward slash... except it said AD/HD and it was on the back of a 15ish-year-old boy who's probably seen his fair share of Focusin... and that's exactly the way I felt. Unable to stick to one stage when I was worried about what I was missing, twitching and stumbling from one stage to the next. Thankfully, the festival is so perfectly sized that it was easy to zigzag across Zilker Park and catch 2-3 bands within a single block and still feel like you got enough of each.

The park was like a giant Venn diagram where sounds and bands and tastes overlapped and it was up to the audience to find the spot that met their needs. For me, the acts fell into a few different categories: bands I've seen before and loved and wanted to see again (and again and again), bands I know from albums but have never seen before, bands I've heard of and have wanted to check out, and finally, the most intriguing at all, the high risk/high reward category of musicians I was totally oblivious to and stumbled upon for worse, but mostly better.

With that intro out of the way, I'll split this into 3 days and try to mention every band I saw, but keep my wordage to just a sentence or two about each. I've got a few pix below, but have taken way way, too many more. For the full day 1 album, go here.

Landed about 11:15ish, picked up the rental car and made it on-site with music filling our souls by the 12:30 set. L'shana tova to us! First band I caught was Asleep At the Wheel, which just screams "Austin!" in so many ways. Full-on country rockabilly that got me deep into the Texas mood within moments. Steel guitars, fiddles, et al, all the cowboy hats in attendance were quickly validated.
Within the 1st hour, it was decision time. But with the OTW method of festival enjoyment, it's never an either/or. Heartless Bastards are one of those bands I've heard and always wanted to catch and they totally kicked butt. The lady rockmatrons were in full effect all weekend long and the Bastards feature one of the better ones up front on guitar and lead vocals, giving this power trio a little something extra. Her voice is what makes the band, it's like she's got this classically trained songbird inside that's just screaming to rock out. It seems like it shouldn't work, but it's the most endearing thing about these guys. But, it'd only be a SPO as I made sure to see a nice big chunk of Del McCoury's set over at the always-awesome Austin Ventures stage. It was hot out already, but watching these guys pull the profesh bluegrass fully suited-up made everyone sweat that much more. That is one badass mandolin player Del has spawned. Who doesn't love these guys? Country>rock>bluegrass and I hadn't even munched my first BBQ of the weekend yet.

Still, the heat was too much to keep me huddled around the huddled-around microphone and I decided to let the band name "Joseph Arthur & the Lonely Astronauts" pull me to the Dell Stage for a try. I gave them one song that was kinda generic pop-rock and started to drift, but the second number intrigued me and when I noticed that the semi-shredding on guitar was the second axewoman of the afternoon, I decided to stick around. JoeArt was the nominal leader of the band, but it was the girls on guitar and bass who really seemed to carry these guys, er... gals. Then he announced they were from Brooklyn and I was left wondering how I'd never heard of them before. Things opened up quite a bit and the guitarist reminded me of a slightly tamer Scott Metzger, down to the nasty tone and perfectly placed chops. Her raccoon eye make-up and Twisted Sister t-shirt did little to lessen the appeal. I overheard guys in the audience talking about potential 20 minute epics from these guys, but we were stuck with just the garden variety sweetness. I may be lacking on more detail due to the 50+ bands I saw after these guys, but I will definitely be checking out more of them -- sick! I will, though, here relay the observation I made at almost every stage all weekend long: no matter what the band, the first few rows of that stage were undoubtedly convinced that that band, that their band was the best thing to ever happen to music. I know that feeling, it's a wonderful notion and it permeated the whole festival.

Something tells me this rock goddess is neither an astronaut nor really all that lonely.

One of these dudes is Peter Yorn, but they're all pretty darn good.

Will Hoge gets his Shearwater on

Pete Yorn was much better than expected, even though I have no idea what I was expecting. Totally giddy-up Uncle-Tupelo-esque alt-country with the perfect instrumentation to match. Very impressed with these guys. Didn't really want to leave, but it's been like nearly a decade since I last saw the Flecktones, so I sauntered across town to give 'em a listen. On the way I discovered some raunchy rock from Will Hoge which kinda reminded me of the band from Almost Famous... almost. Oh yeah, and I almost forgot there was a big ass fire that interrupted the Yorn set and got everyone's digital camera clicking away. It was totally bizarre and invited extensive use of variations on the "it was the heat" double entendre. Totally smokin!

Bela and company were as I remembered them from the days 10 years ago when I felt like I was seeing too much of them. Not sure that pound for pound you'll find a more talented band and they played that way for most of the set. They settled on material mostly from their newest (Grammy-winning) album which, as Bela was sure to point out, had all these nifty time signatures that probably no one in the audience gave two sweaty shits about. Still, overall enjoyable and I was still batting 1.000.

Blonde Redhead was as good live as they are on CD, which is to say they were fucking awesome. Definitely a big highlight of day one for me. I love their newest album and they hit on that heavily as well as some well-placed back catalog. More sexy ladies doing the rock and roll with the men. This is a band that is locked into one another very nicely with some nicely laid loops and all that jazz. I still can't get "23" out of my head a week later and without even knowing the friggin' words. Now that's a title track. I kinda wish I had had the energy to check out their after hours show, but alas, they'll just have to leave me wanting mo'.
I did not want to pull myself away from BR and I'm not even a big fan of them, but I felt obligated to check out Peter Bjorn and John just in case it came to be that they were the sickest thing since influenza. Alas, it was a wasted trip. Just as their album fails to pass muster with my highly trained sick-or-not-sick meter, their live set was topping out on the shoulder-shrug scale. The whole thing seemed like a bad translation of what rock and roll should be. Like when someone learns English from a book but has no conversational skills, PB&J (best band abbreviation, though!) has all the words right, but is somehow missing the grammar to make it work. This was best illustrated when the guitar player jumped into the trench in front of the crowd and sort of "soloed" -- a term I place in quotes for a reason -- and thrashed about like he was some sort of rock star, when really he just looked like a dork with a tennis racket in front of his bedroom mirror. And that's all I can say about that. PBJ from left field

Between those two was a song or two from Manchester Orchestra which I remember as loud and rocking and not much else... which is to say pretty darn good, but not good enough for me to change horses midstream.

Manchester Orchestra

Met up with Ace after many crossed paths in the WaMu tent which sort of serves as a NOLAJazzfest in miniature... well, not just miniature, but on the head of a pin... housing not just all the Nawlins music but all the stuff that would probably be featured at their fest, not the least of which was a ton of gospel acts and other PTL types. Our first trip there was for Big Sam's Funky Nation which may not be quite as large as to require U.N. consideration, but is most certainly way, way funky. This was a deep, spaced out get-your-mind-and-body-out-there funk that had the entire tent in "throw your hands in the air" mode and dancing like it was merely 90 degrees outside. Hey, what can I say, they done killed it, no doubt.
What's that one song that Crowded House hit it big with? yeah, that's the one. We got about 3 football fields away from the stage where they were playing, heard that one, marked our life lists and turned around. Good timing by we. Similarly, we hit the stage where Joss Stone was playing and made it for one long, soulful medley; heard the funky-butt backing band, the sweet soul of the backup singers and got a quick throw-you-to-the-floor from Stone's voice and realized one thing... we didn't see quite as much of Joss Stone as we should have. Oh well! The beauty of the Austin Ventures stage = on the way back and forth, in between and significantly afterward we got a heavy dollop of Mofro (featuring and starring the one and only JJ Grey). Dude's got it, see if you can find him in the below picture.

I really wanted to get a nice heavy dose of LCD Soundsystem but by this time in the afternoon the festival grounds were frogging packed with people. On top of that, a lethal combination of hallucinatingly hot heat and hitch-halting hipsterism caused a level 1 no-dance zone a good fraction of a mile around the stage where they were playing. I have little doubts in the right circumstances that these guys would blow the lid off of the right sized venue, but in that heat with that crowd of people around, it was dead on arrival. Gave 'em a couple songs and realized I would have been better off in the hotel listening to their CD (which you certainly should buy!) so we moved on.

Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective
are from Belize, I believe, which sparked an almost bizarre conversation with the lady standing next to us outside the WaMu tent... oh, the people you'll meet! Anyway, this was an unexpected detour and, no surprise, quite a nice one. Total Latin grooving that pushed the genre count for the day to the toes.

The endgame was in sight here, I had to unbutton the top button of my swampass shorts to make room in there for the rest of the music. It was only day one and the whole concept of pacing oneself seemed to have drowned in my sweat back around 3:45. Anyway, the end of the day/night went something like Spoon > Queens of the Stone Age > Kaiser Chiefs > Rev. Horton Heat > Gotan Project > Rev. Horton Heat > The Killers > Bjork > [imitates voice from the Fly (original i.e. VincentPrice, not JeffGoldblum version)]HELP ME HELP ME!

Spoon was totally awesome, I think they played almost all stuff from their newest, damn good album. A horn section materialized halfway through and kinda brought things up a level in the way a really well-placed horn section can. Very nice addition, ye hometown heroes. QoTSA (2nd best abbreviation, renamed "Al Qotsa") were like the frantic near-metal inclusion of the festival and might have held me for an entire set had I not been bent on Spoon.

Kaiser Chiefs were one of the big outta leftfielders for me on Friday, just crazy, crazy, crazy energy. Those guys connected with their audience better than any other band I saw all weekend long, they just had the crowd going absolutely nuts and played 'em like the best can. It was pretty hard not to be enthralled by these guys. I didn't have them pegged as this sort of Franz Ferdinand like party band that maybe even better than those guys (who killed the last ACLFest I went to as well), but damn! Color me impressed. I felt obligated to check out Gotan Project midway through cause maybe they were just as awesome, ya never know, you know? Those guys had one of the better concepts that I've seen, but somehow the delivery wasn't as engaging as the idea. Basically, they were playing this tango music heavily leaning on an accordion player and then there was a string section and a piano player and behind all this were a couple of DJ's and a guy rapping in a language that wasn't English (I want to say it was French, but it could have been Spanish... I would even agree to Portugese if my arm were twisted that way. Google could settle this, but why ruin the mystery?). Anyway, it was fun and totally inoffensive and kept me interested for a song or three, but eventually I realized that I would have much more fun at the Kaiser Chiefs. In between was Rev. Horton Heat which was just plain loud and raunchy and not nearly as good as KC.

The Killers were just not all that to me, although I gave 'em a fair shot and I was much more interested in getting at least a small sniff of what Bjork was up to across the way, so I ditched on them. Bjork was one of the few acts of the weekend that brought something more than just musicians playing music to their stage. She had the whole visual thing going and outfits for everyone that synched up with the music and the lights and a full-on French horn section, etc. Bjork is what it is and I enjoyed it, but I was exhausted from waking up at 4am for our flight and 95 degree heat in the form of Texas sun on my neck all day, so we packed it in for day 1.

Ay carumba, that's a lot of music. Final tally for Friday was 23 bands seen in total, with a SPO of 15. Stay tuned for days 2 and 3 soon....

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