By Jim Schutze
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Last week, for the first time in its five-year existence, we neglected to attend the Austin City Limits Music Festival, opting instead to take in several acts as they stopped by Dallas en route to Austin. Sure, the life-changing Sufjan Stevens and Cat Power sets we caught were better than the 40-minute swelterthons we would have endured at the overcrowded fest, but we were still sad to miss out on acts such as Iron & Wine, Gnarls Barkley, Guy Clark and Sparklehorse. Looking over the reviews of everything we didn't see, we couldn't help but wonder: Where in the hell is Dallas' big music festival?
The Dallas area certainly has no shortage of large, festive gatherings, from the State Fair to Richardson's Wildflower Fest to the Taste of Dallas, but it's also abundantly clear that none of these events cater to true music lovers, instead opting to book cover bands, has-beens (see: Davy Jones, Jerry Jeff Walker) and total crap (see: Bo Bice, Jars of Clay) on their stages. Fort Worth fares better than other local cities, with the Main Street Arts Festival landing a few legitimate acts every spring and Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic bringing out the masses to the Stockyards for the past three years. With all due respect to Willie, however, it seems logical to us that the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the country might be able to muster something a little bigger...and maybe even a little better.
After all, Austin isn't the only city in the country that hosts a sizable music fest. Milwaukee's Summerfest brings a couple hundred thousand music fans to the shores of Lake Michigan every year, where they enjoy everything from commercial giants such as Tom Petty, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails to critical faves such as Wilco and Andrew Bird. Seattle's Bumbershoot also splits the difference between commercial and indie acts, with this year's edition sporting appearances by Kanye West, Blondie and the New Pornographers. And if New Orleans could still put on its annual Jazz & Heritage Festival(with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon, no less) despite losing half its population last year, Dallas really has no excuses.
We even have the perfect spot in Fair Park, a gem of a location that, let's face it, sits largely unused for much of the year. Think of the possibilities: The Cotton Bowl. Smirnoff. The band shell. A couple of smaller stages on the promenade or in the exhibition buildings. Local sponsors (paging Mark Cuban). Abundant parking. Clean, non-portable restrooms. Vending booths selling albums, posters and assorted crafts. Corn dogs and funnel cakes...sounds like fun to us.
As local music fans, we'd not only appreciate the national acts coming to town, but also the chance for our local heroes to show their stuff. ACL and Bumbershoot book plenty of local acts among the national ones; there's no reason a Dallas fest couldn't do the same.
Imagine, if you will, a sunny Texas afternoon in May. Thousands of music fans from across the state have arrived in town for the first Big Tex Music Fest, drawn in by an eclectic bill featuring headliners such as Dwight Yoakam, Common and the White Stripes. As the first few hundred fans file in to stake out spots in front of the main stages, their ears are greeted by the ringing guitars and soulful harmonies of Dallas' own Pleasant Grove, who prove a worthy warm-up for the acts to come, which include My Morning Jacket, Lyle Lovett, John Mellencamp and a reunited Soundgarden (we're using our imaginations, remember?). New fans are made. CDs and T-shirts are sold. Tours are booked. A great Dallas band catches one heck of a break.
Of course, there are those among us who might look down upon a large local fest, pointing to the overwhelming crowds and hassles that accompany such events. Perhaps we'd rather keep seeing our favorite local bands toil away at the Cavern or the Double Wide, playing for the same 40 people they played for last weekend, hoping for the occasional Polyphonic Spree-style break out. Or maybe, just maybe, our city could pitch in, throw a party and give the scene a boost before all the bands split town and move to Austin or New York. Sure, we can't realistically expect to compete with the "Live Music Capital of the World" in the fest department. But with Atlanta, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., all kicking our ass, too, something needs to be done. Big Tex, we're looking to you.
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