Rain or Shine

We drove to the Austin City Limits Music Festival in ponchos, but we left wearing surgeon's masks

This year's Austin City Limits Music Festival proved to be the year of the bandit. By the end of Sunday night, so many concertgoers had covered their faces with bandannas and handkerchiefs that you had to wonder when the world's largest stick-'em-up would begin. But these people weren't trying to hide. They were trying to breathe.

Last year, the outdoor concert was plagued by torturous heat, and weather was once again on everyone's mind thanks to dismal Rita projections. Torrential storms and 40 mph winds never came, which should have delighted fans of Coldplay, Oasis and The Black Crowes, but the cloudless skies and dry weather turned Austin's Zilker Park into a 100-plus-degree dust bowl for three days.

Of course, as the weather has warmed up every year of ACL's four-year lifespan, so has its lineup. Gone are the days when The Jayhawks were the biggest name on the schedule; ACL has quickly become Texas' Coachella, an event where rare, stand-out performances by Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould and the 13th Floor Elevators' Roky Erickson were actually overshadowed by the rest of the lineup.

Eisley's Sherri DuPree looks hot, but 100-degree weather didn't ruin her band's awesome set.
Mary Sledd
Eisley's Sherri DuPree looks hot, but 100-degree weather didn't ruin her band's awesome set.

The same could be said about the entire first day of the 2005 fest--its radio-friendly star power topped out with '90s smashes Blues Traveler and The Black Crowes--but both still knew how to work a crowd. In fact, the Robinson brothers whipped up what may have been the most tolerable jam band set I've ever heard, expanding hits like "Thorn in my Pride" with structured, never-ending blasts of guitar and organ that proved the Crowes have some life in them yet.

Newer bands hipped up Friday, too, and while Mates of State and Keane delivered decent sets, the best college band of the day was Spoon. The hometown indie rockers made up for their boring 2004 ACL gig with shining moments like a blistering take on "Small Stakes" and an ethereal, feedback-crazy version of "Paper Tiger." On the smaller Austin Ventures stage, the hipster sandwich of Nic Armstrong & The Thieves and Sound Team gave locals even more to be proud of, with the former showing their U.K. roots with a set of bluesy British Invasion rock and the latter combining the best of Interpol and the Constantines.

But Friday belonged to the legends. John Prine played while the sun set, soothing the heat-battered masses with folk classics like "Angel from Montgomery" and "Souvenirs." Later, Lyle Lovett stole the night with a 13-member band full of the finest hands in Nashville, and they stirred soul, gospel, blues, country and rock into a near-perfect serving of Americana. Horns blared, choirs sang and guitars howled--really, anyone could sound good with a band this adept, but Lovett's honey-coated tenor was what completed moving renditions of originals like "The Glory of Love" and "In My Own Mind." But seriously, Lyle--a seven-minute interview with band members about trucks? Not even you can get away with that.

At Friday's end, clouds formed and winds blew, but the only reason anyone needed an umbrella the next day was for shade. Saturday's clear, rainless sky made last-minute cancellations by Kathleen Edwards, Bettye LaVette and Tegan and Sara seem ridiculous, but at least those artists escaped the heat. Replacements like Deadboy & The Elephantmen (a Louisiana blues-rock duo) and What Made Milwaukee Famous (a snappy Austin synth-rock quartet), though catchy, certainly seemed caught off guard and unprepared for the fest, but the best bands of the day made up for it.

Anyone worried about the state of modern pop music didn't see the massive crowds pulled by college favorites Built to Spill, Death Cab for Cutie and Bloc Party, but their solid sets lacked the excitement of Saturday's best acts. Ireland's The Frames unleashed more energy than those three bands combined, thanks to their soaring melodies and the near-psychosis of cheerful, ecstatic lead singer Glen Hansard. The red-haired man with golden pipes howled, danced and joked with the crowd for a full hour like a true rock star and gave music lovers a good reason to endure all of that sun, particularly on "Dream Away," the band's most potent blend of indie and arena elements.

Later, Oak Park, Illinois' Fiery Furnaces screwed with the crowd's heads by reconstructing and slicing up their Zappa-loving songs with unexpected '70s psych-rock grooves--their whirlwind of sound left fans and newcomers alike breathless, particularly with the crunchy guitar and rattling organ that was newly added to "Straight Street." Speaking of breathless, the park was covered in a fog of dust by 8 p.m. Rather than choke, we split early for an off-site Wilco concert, where guitarist Nels Cline made his instrument sound like everything from a pedal steel to a jet engine, and the group closed with a rousing cover of The Band's "I Shall Be Released" that solidified the sextet's status as the best touring band in America.

DFW saw its only representation on Sunday, starting with an early, ballsy set by Eisley. The Tyler titans played more than a few songs not found on Room Noises, opening with the brand-new "Lady of the Wood" and plucking out older, unreleased songs like "Mister Pine," but the teen-packed crowd was too charmed by Sherri and Stacy DuPree's unbelievable dual-harmony vocals to care. Denton's Brave Combo, on the other hand, stuck to the crowd-pleasers, whipping their crowd into a dancing frenzy with "The Hokey Pokey." Take that, hipsters.

Rilo Kiley also got its crowd dancing and singing, as lead singer Jenny Lewis conjured Dusty Springfield on opener "I Never" and sang her ass off for the remainder of a set that mixed loud indie rock with sweet So-Cal pop. The addition of a trumpet player added a sunny vibe to songs like "It's a Hit" and guitarist Blake Sennet's "Ripchord," which showed you can still rock a festival crowd with an acoustic guitar and a tambourine if you know what you're doing.

Of course, add violins, horns and keyboards and you're rocking the crowd as the Arcade Fire, who answered all accusations of overhypedom with endless gang vocals, on-stage roughhousing and the most exciting orchestral pop that has hit Zilker Park in four years. In addition, the crowd participation of The Decemberists, the U2-meets-Beatles piano-pop of Austin's Zykos, the Hüsker Dü revival by Bob Mould ("I Apologize," yesss!) and the Bloc Party-beating Kaiser Chiefs made the rest of the disgustingly hot afternoon worth sweating through, but even Coldplay wasn't worth enduring another night of thick dust. The fog was even thicker on Sunday, so we left early, though we did catch a glimpse of the famed Brits--along with Gwyneth Paltrow and little Apple--arriving backstage earlier in the afternoon, which suited us fine. They wore very large sunglasses.

Fears of Rita-related weather didn't keep the crowds away, and judging by the mass numbers at the biggest shows of the fest, the 10,000 tickets per day reduction compared to last year was hardly noticeable. And in spite of never-ending sweat sessions, water bottles were not in short supply--a few dozen people were treated at medical tents, but for the most part, the thousands remained hydrated and incredibly civil. Even with heat in the equation, there's still no bigger, better, friendlier music event within driving distance, and compared to SXSW, it's nice to not be turned away from a concert no matter how popular the band is.

But, seriously, Austin--reschedule this thing for October (November, even!) next year, or we're staying the hell home.

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