20 September 2007

P+R: ACLFest Day 3

Day 1 review
Day 1 photo album
Day 2 review
Day 2 photo album
Day 3 photo album

You'd think after the monster Friday and the big chunks of glee from Saturday that Sunday was just afterthought... that the heat and the exhaustion might have put me into cruise control. But nay! Nay! Sunday was looking, on paper, to be the best of the bunch and if the Wilco vs. My Morning Jacket throwdown of the late afternoon wasn't enough to get this rockaholic psyched, certainly the bouts of epicness from Midlake, the Nocturnals and the possiblity of a big fat close-out by the grandaddy of all 'em would be enough fuel to keep my motor puffing along.

Once again, the lack of the dreaded child-schlep had us up and atom bright and early. Yo La Tengo was a band that somehow has drifted off my radar time and time again. No more. They lit up the AMD stage bright and early with some scattershot genre bending that was just the jolt of musical espresso to get me bowling. This trio is the most unassuming, unlikely bunch of rockmeisters to make their way through Zilker Park, but they wasted no time getting to that louder than loud level. Total off-center guitar shredding started the set off, but it moved too all sorts of different corners of the guitar(or piano)/bass/drum bedroom. A couple songs in the bass player laid down this ultra-groove: two or three notes cylced over and over and over, the repetitiveness building up tension despite going nowhere. It was a glorious stretch as the guitar just blazed and blistered and blew a gasket or two. This went on for a nice long stretch and
pretty much blew me away. Later they got soft and sweet and then followed that up with something a little loopy and dancey. It was a heady mix all bound together by three musicians who know each other damn well. All 3 got to sing, lead the way and hang back. Loved it.
Lunchtime brought me close to Fionn Regan on the stage-you-cannot-avoid. Kinda United Kingdom-esque singer-songwriter on rhythm-heavy acoustic guitar kind of stuff. The twist was that he was paired with a drummer which seemed a bit much, but it worked for the most part. The second twist was the overdressed lady doing backing vocals and adding in some well-times percussive elements. The third twist was the out-of-mode hairdo and what was either the worst mustache ever or just a smudge above his upper lip. Distracting.
ACLFest was full of some very tempting either/or's all weekend long; the promoters certainly thought out the schedule with the idea of fucking with people's heads. Then again, some choices were totally weird that you were wondering if you were missing something. Case in point: The National vs. STS9. If ever two fanbases didn't overlap, there you have 'em. Still, I was determined to get a slice from each pie if I could. We started at Sound Tribe Sector 9 and immediately remarked at how large the crowd was. There wasn't a lot of dance music at the festival and these guys brought the groove from the get-go. There is an undeniable addictive nature to these guys, like shoveling a plateful of vegetable fried rice down your yap and wondering if you could ever get enough in you to be full. Then, after dancing and pulsing as much as the heat will allow, you kind of lose the groove. Part of it is that the music's appeal is in the night, the dark being split by high-tech lights and the eeriness of evening being split by impossible beats and wildly intoxicating synthesized notes. The same effect just can't be had at 2 in the afternoon. Still, I was impressed with these guys once again... but had my fill by 2.5 songs.
You don't go from the Dell stage to the AT&T Blue Room stage without passing by the ubiquitous Austin Ventures stage and thus you cannot transition from STS9 to the National without at least catching a glimpse of The Broken West. And if you like good music and like to rock the casbah like any other true-blooded American, you do not catch a glimpse of The Broken West without saying "damn, that's pretty good, maybe I should stick around." Sometimes it's not that a band is doing anything special or out of the ordinary, it's just that they're really fucking good. That's the kind of band these guys are. They were totally comfortable up there, opening things up, stretching it out just enough, bringing just enough energy and power to the sound. I was mad impressed, but felt obligated to give the National a shot as well. It's a shame I couldn't give these guys more than 2 or 3 tunes, because they deserved my full and undivided. I will return to these guys, no doubt... check 'em out when you get a chance. (PS I love digging on a band like this and then coming home and discovering I've got several tracks on my hard drive... I got them here, go for it).
The National is a band I've run hot and cold with and a band I did not expect to lick my goat in the live setting, but that's why we play the games. They totally nailed it on a sun-streaked Sunday afternoon. Sometimes they come off as a kind of whiny, depressing mess of music to me, but they had a joyous slant and the lead vocalists voice was like thick, sweetly appreciated cloud cover. Nice appearance by some violin and just enough guitar thrashing to raise your pulse a bit. Post-National, I caught a nice little dose of Robert Earl Keen. I remember digging hard on his countried-up rock and roll last time through ACLFest and moved my way over to his stage just in time to catch their opening number. The opening guitar riff of this one was a direct quote of China Cat Sunflower which was highly intriguing, I thought for sure they were going to cover it straight up, but the song materialized into a more standard country tune. Still, the band was tight and the guitarist had a nice Dickey Betts thing going on. A few stages had occasional sign language interpreters doing the lyrics during select sets and I really enjoyed watching this lady get down to Keen's music.
Grace Fucking Potter and the Fucking Nocturnals. Here I use "fucking" as both a means of emphasis -- e.g. "they fucking rocked!" -- as well as the actual movements of the band's leader: Ms. Potter seemed to fornicate with her organ, her guitar, her guitarist and who knows what else. That was all well and good, but damn, do these guys rock. Grace is the perfect kind of front(wo)man, leading her band mates to water and then letting them drink it all up on their own. They were a good rocking pick-me-up at Newport Folk Fest in August, but here they opened things up considerably and just flat out jammed the shit out of everything. The festival certainly was wanting for a little open-ended jam-out and the Nocturnals were utterly untethered. They all kill it, but the guitar/bass combo seemed especially on top of things. Grace ain't too shabby either, wailing away, and doing some way-nifty organ>guitar segues... and there ain't much hotter than a lady making rock and roll sexy time with a Flying V slung around her neck.
A few songs from DeVotchKa were plenty enough. Nice ethnic blend with some cool instrumentation (sousaphone, accordion) -- good, but not good enough to keep me away from Midlake. I've been utterly smitten with these guys since their Van Occupanther album was recommended to me and I proceeded to listen to it a zillion million times in a row... then they blew me away at the Bowery earlier this year PLUS introduced me to St. Vincent at that show. This ACL set wasn't much new or different from the other times I've seen them this year, but it was really, really awesome. The band just sounded so solid and the actual sound was just crisp enough to overcome that overlapping sound from the other stages to do their arrangements justice. I wasn't sure their sort of soft-rock blend would do well in an outdoor festival setting, but they totally nailed it and brought the whole Midlake gestalt up a notch. Needless to say, I stayed for the entirety, moving closer and closer in as the set went on. Midway through they allowed a nice marriage proposal to take place before launching into "Young Bride" which is almost certainly not a very happy song, but still, gotta love it. Anyway, Midlake kicks ass, and proved it, QED at ACL... if you think otherwise I hate you.
I've made very little mention of all those that I totally missed or skipped over, but there were so, so many of those. While Midlake was making me swoon, much of the festival crowd was split between Lucinda Williams and Bloc Party and I assure you that I saw the best that that slot had to offer. In lieu of any bit of Lu, we found a nice shady spot to sit and take in some Patterson Hood. Of course, said shady spot being less important as the sun dipped behind a nice cloud for our entire time there... appropriate because Hood's music, bordering on brilliant at times, is less than sunny. I was expecting it to be a sort of solo acoustic thing, but he had some nice accompaniment with some almost-groovy keyboards layering in some depth to his already powerful songwriting. I almost prefer that arrangement to the Truckers... almost.
In some ways, it was kind of sad, the festival drawing to a close, so many great memories to condense and file away, so little time to form new ones. In another more accurate way, though, we had seen a year's full of kick ass music and the best was arguably left to come. In fact, 4 of the best shows I've seen in the past 12 months were by bands still left to come at this point: Rose Hill Drive, Wilco, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket... holy shit!
Had they been there to play smashmouth rock and roll with them, Rose Hill Drive would have wiped the floor with Back Door Slam. Whoa boy those guys know how to give you a bloody nose. I especially liked to hear their take on the Beatles' "Birthday" as I was walking away to make camp for MMJ.
There are good live bands out there, lots of them... and a lot of 'em were there for the picking at ACLFest. Then there are can't miss kick-ass bands, musicians who bring things to another level every single night. Sure things are few and far between, but the good folks at Austin City Limits somehow managed to line up two of them at the same time. It's a new form of torture: Wilco or My Morning Jacket? Of course, why choose? We settled into a soundboard spot for My Morning Jacket and were promptly swooning over Jim James & Co's backdrop of a desert island -- few bands brought the whole package, but MMJ would not let us down. Then some guys dressed up in beachwear start sweeping the stage back and forth with metal detectors and the band comes out all dressed up as different stereotypical beachgoers. These guys were there to have fun. The music was heavenly, of course, every MMJ show feels entirely special in some way, because that's the kind of band they are, but really, they are all just instances of the same kick-ass show. How they bring that much energy and that level of showmanship every night is beyond me, but man do these guys fwickin' rock! Ethereal "Wordless Tree" and downright groovtronic "Off the Record" and a heavenly "Gideon" -- it was all, in a word, awesome. The outfits rivaled Bjork's outlandish costumes, the backdrop outdid Arcade Fire's theatrics and the musicianship was up there with Andrew Bird... in fact, who's that up on stage, not only playing along but actually in costume/character? but Mr. Bird himself flailing away at the fiddle and adding just a little bit of extra yummy-in-our-tummy to the My Morning Jacket behemoth. It may have been the only special guest/sit-in of the weekend, utterly unnecessary from a musical point of view, but damn cool in all respects. We bow down to you, My Morning Jacket, you stole the show. Who needs Jack White when you have Jim James?And thus the conundrum... how do you leave such a spectacle, such rock greatness? How do you walk away from a sure thing? We would have been perfectly content with a full set of MMJ, but maybe, just maybe, half a set of them and a half a set of Wilco is even better. There are no wrong answers, no bad decisions. We went to check out Wilco... who of course was kicking ass in their own way. Laying down a sweet mix of old and new, dipping judiciously into the back catalog as the set went on. We had our cake and we ate it, too. Life was good... life was really good.
The second Wilco ended there was a veritable explosion at the Blue Room stage across the way as Ghostland Observatory immediately captured everyone's attention. It was like the scene in Revenge of the Nerds when the fireworks go off and everyone is drawn into the big finale number... clap your hands everybody and everybody clap your hands. Well, Ghostland ain't too far from that nerdrock, a duo augmented by electronics and high-pitched screamed vocals. They're sort of a cross between the Benevento/Russo Duo and the Fiery Furnaces and their first song was the most groovalicious dance number of the weekend. Apparently these guys slayed it last year at the fest and the entire city of Austin seemed totally amped for their appearance. As such, they were showered by a wild light and laser show to draw even more of the moths to their flame. Boom, chicka, boom that was a lot of fun and they kept the energy dialed up to eleven, but at some point the allure started to wear off and I felt a strong desire to catch at least half of the Decemberists downwind. Still, G.O. is on the Nedar and I would love to check out a full show from them inside somewhere. Here's a quick sniff of the Ghostland Observatory in video format:

video

Unfortunately, the Decemberists were already knee-deep into their routine which proved to be difficult to crack into. Oh, they were good and all, but I think missing the beginning and hopping into the act halfway through, not to mention being relegated to the outskirts of the crowd took away some of the transcendence that might have been. It was worth being a little mehed by Meloy & Co for a chance to get jiggy with the Observatory. No regrets at ACLFest.

Well, maybe one regret, well some really it was just plain sad. Bob Dylan, the godfather, really, of so much of the music that transpired over the weekend, rendered impotent by a voice that was pretty much painful to listen to. We came up with plenty of "it sounds like..." comparisons (e.g. Don Corleone doing a Dylan impression with an orange peel in his mouth), but nothing could do justice to the injustice of Bob trying to make his way through an undecipherable Rainy Day Women to open his set. Every time he opened his mouth our jaws dropped further and it was time to call it a night. As we walked away, Dylan eased into his "Modern Times" repertoire and seemed to sound better the further we got from the stage and the closer we got to the car. Actually, his band sounded terrific, it's a shame. A weird way to end an otherwise wonderful weekend, one of the best 3 days of music I could have imagined.

SSO -- Sunday: 16, total: 59
SPO -- Sunday: 15, total: 40