By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
If years from now people talk about the 2009 Austin City Limits Music Festival, they'll, without a doubt, start with Saturday.
That was the day on which the rains came crashing down on the festival-goers at Austin's Zilker Park, creating an abrupt roundabout from Friday's ideal conditions and setting the stage for Sunday's muddy mess. Even if Friday's headlining pair of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Kings of Leon served as the most exciting competing showcases of the weekend and Sunday's closing set from Pearl Jam offered the tumultuous weekend a fitting end, Saturday was its defining moment.
As much could also be said for the metroplex's contributions to the festival. Because, sure, while Dallas native Ben Curtis and his School of Seven Bells outfit served as one of the big draws of Friday afternoon, and while Sunday saw a set from former Dallasite David Garza and a massive audience packed in for a main stage performance from The Toadies, Saturday saw three of the region's most promising up-and-coming outfits making their ACL debut.
Wasn't always supposed to be that way. Originally, the day's schedule held just two sets from Dallas-based acts, but things changed when Danish duo The Raveonettes canceled its ACL appearance. Members of the outfit's touring lineup were stuck in Copenhagen because the city's American Embassy was overwhelmed with the likes of Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey coming to town for Olympic Committee meetings. So the locally based outfit Neon Indian (even though it was announced onstage as an Austin product) was asked to fill in the band's time slot.
For the blog-buzzing Neon Indian, it was an aligning-of-the-stars-type moment. In Austin already to play one of the many festival after-parties scheduled over the weekend, the band had less than 24 hours to prepare for its ACL debut. Even so, it was an opportunity the band couldn't pass up. Not surprising, when asked on Saturday if his band was excited about getting the call, drummer Jason Faries offered a quick response with more vigor than seen in his usual deadpan demeanor: "Are you freakin' kidding me?"
Onstage, though, Neon Indian could've done more to capitalize on its appearance. Though introduced to the crowd at set's start, frontman Alan Palomo never really addressed his audience—and late arrivers to the show, unaware of the lineup change, were never updated on whom they were seeing. As the day progressed and attendees across the park nonchalantly discussed the shows they'd caught, more than a few were overheard raving about The Raveonettes' performance from earlier in the day.
The raves, however misinformed, weren't unwarranted. Onstage, Neon Indian offered a largely young and hip audience a soundtrack to which it could dance in the day's early wetness. And that's what the bulk of those up front for the band's set did. More so than in earlier performances by the newest project from Palomo (also of VEGA and formerly of Ghosthustler), this one found the band displaying a greater confidence and comfort before an audience. The audience, already dreading the oncoming rain, could've done without the knob tweaks between songs to ensure that Neon Indian reproduced its intricate on-record sound in a live setting, but, for the most part, the crowd bounced about and sang along as best it could to the "oooohs" and "aaaahs" Palomo, keyboardist Leanne Macomber and guitarist Ronnie Gierhart offered during its familiar blog hit "Deadbeat Summer." And with Gierhart back in the mix after the guitarist missed the band's Monolith Festival debut last month, the band had an added punch to its sound—one that especially improved the thrust of the band's closing track, the gritty "Ephemeral Artery."
Earlier in the day, area folk hero Sarah Jaffe also benefited from an improved lineup. Unlike the usual three- or four-piece bands with which Jaffe usually plays, this show saw her fronting an eight-piece, with added members Paul Slavens and multi-instrumentalist Miranda Brown of Crooked Fingers.
"It was awesome," Jaffe says, a couple days removed from the performance. "I just thought, for the show, it'd be nice to have a big, full sound. I loved it. As much as I can—as much as I can afford, at least—I would love to have this band. I could get used to it."
So, too, could others. Jaffe's performance elicited a positive review in Rolling Stone's online coverage of the festival, despite the fact that the set was cut short from 45 minutes to 30 as sound technicians interrupted the show to waterproof the onstage electrical gear.
"Right when we started playing, it started raining," Jaffe says, "but I think everyone agreed that they'd rather perform in that than 100-plus degree heat."
Well, some people would agree to as much. Later in the day, as Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights prepared to perform its mid-afternoon set at the festival, the rain was coming down as hard as it would all day.
"It kinda sucked," Tyler admits in the festival's aftermath. "We were really excited going in to play this festival, just because of the level of talent on it and the level of cool factor all these bands have."