By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
One could argue that North Texas' fingerprints were all over last weekend's ninth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Pretty much no one from outside of the region would agree with you, but, hey, you could argue it.
It wouldn't be completely unfounded, either. Five acts with North Texas ties played the three-day event over the course of the weekend: Should-be-legendary area songsmith Will Johnson of Centro-matic performed his duties as Monsters of Folk's drummer early Saturday evening; 15-year-old Dallas native Ruby Jane, a virtuoso on the fiddle, opened up Sunday morning; Denton folk heroes Midlake offered up a Sunday mid-afternoon set; Dallas-born Norah Jones closed out Sunday night's side stages; and the Eagles, with Dallas' own Don Henley and all, closed the three-day weekend's main stage.
Hey, maybe five isn't all that much—but it sure beats last year's total of three.
And, let's face it, last year's ordeal—which was, yes, very much an ordeal, what with its torrential rains, muddy fields and human feces-filled fertilizer—just didn't have the same feel as this year's.
Last year, three locals, all with serious promise and potential on the precipice of would-be greatness—Sarah Jaffe, Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights and Neon Indian—played the festival. Whereas their sets felt more like auditions (each of which went well), this year's North Texas-involved performances felt decidedly different.
They were more than potential coronations; they were celebrations.
That much can be said of the whole weekend, actually. There weren't many surprises to be found: Aside from a few notable exceptions (Phish, The Strokes, Spoon and Broken Bells among them), nearly every act on the bill has played the Dallas area in recent memory. (Yes, even the mighty Eagles, who soared into the American Airlines Center back in June.)
Yet, somehow, we managed to enjoy ourselves—because even if this ACL looked a bit like a snoozer on paper, it was anything but. Each day, an intentional move from mega-promoter C3 Productions or not, offered up two decidedly different potential ways of splitting up your show-viewing day (on Day One, for instance, you were either a hippie passing the time until Phish or a hipster catching all you could in the amp-up to The Strokes), and each day had a different feel than the last.
In some ways, it felt a bit like a boxing card with three intriguing matchups of modern music preferences.
So, in the end, did the festival feel like a statement on the current climate of music? Probably not. But we did learn a few things along the way. And we kept diligent notes as we hustled from one end of Zilker Park to the other, catching as much as possible. We're paying the price now, but we caught a ton of performances—as many as we felt physically possible. Our leg muscles have never been more toned.
(Pro Tip: When at a festival, don't bother rushing the stage; the pits are far too crowded and the speakers far too loud. Instead, make a beeline to the sound-tent out in the field, where not only is the crowd more maneuverable, but the band's mix is heard the way it was intended.)
And, with that, we present the following all-encapsulating retrospective field report, taking a look back at the 2010 edition of Austin City Limits, one day at a time:
Day One: Friday
In Opposite Corners: Hipsters, Hippies.
Headliner(s): Phish, The Strokes.
Deep On The Bench: The Soft Pack, Those Darlins, GIVERS.
Local Ties: None.
Field Report: Like ACl 2009, a gorgeous Friday—the kind that makes you relish the fact that you're not stuck in the office. Featuring the strongest night pairing of headliners, Friday falls a little flat because of its supporting acts, which, until work officially lets out at 5 o'clock, is a little spare. Few acts before The Black Keys serve as much of a draw—something the Keys remedy immediately with a fiery set heavily culled from this year's Brothers, the band's most accessible and successful release to date. Spoon continue the momentum, performing arguably the best show of the weekend with what amounts to a greatest-hits set, reveling in their hometown Austin glory and giving the crowd something familiar to embrace. Vampire Weekend follow with the biggest side-stage draw of the weekend, proving the band's popularity and serving as a prime example of the importance of including pop (as in "popularity," not sound) acts in these settings. The Strokes perform a short, nonchalant (albeit crisp and still relevant) performance, exciting only in the regard that it's happening and not because it's something revelatory. Phish score, oddly enough, for the same reasons The Strokes failed; a Strokes concert doesn't bear the same levity that a Phish performance does, and, as such, droves of former Phish-heads (still active in full-on tie-dye and dreadlocks or reformed, rocking khaki shorts, tucked-in shirts and baseball caps covering their bald spots) arrive, infesting the grounds beforehand with their chipper attitudes and kind demeanors. Phish, for all their joke-inducing ways, delight, coming off less as a jam band that meanders in all directions and more like a ridiculously meticulous band trying to cram all its clever ploys into as concise a space as possible. They kind of come off like the anti-jam band, actually—other than the 15-minute songs.
Best Performer: Phish make it close, but the nod goes to Spoon. You forget how many great songs these guys have produced until you hear them all back to back. And you don't realize what great performers these guys are until you see them plying their craft in a live setting—emotion and grandeur on full display.
Random Note: We'd blame the Frisbee-tossing happening around Zilker on Day One on the Phish contingent, but we saw this phenomenon last year, too. Aren't there other, public parks in Austin?
Winner: Hippies, believe it or not. They're a surprisingly enduring people, you know. They may not age gracefully, but dammit, they age well enough. Something about these thirty- and fortysomethings just seemed wise. Like, if someone accidentally ate too many mushrooms, no worries—this crowd's been there before and can handle it, no problem. Plus, the hipsters just seemed so disinterested and unwilling to act like they were happy to be there. Thanks for fulfilling the stereotype, The Strokes.
Day Two: Saturday
In Opposite Corners: Dude-Bros, Dancing Dudes.
Headliner(s): Muse, M.I.A.
Local Ties: Will Johnson (drums) of Monsters of Folk.
Field Report: Weather-wise, a little hotter than Friday, and the same is probably true of the day's bill. From top to bottom, this day is ACL 2010's strongest, and it gets going early thanks to opposing sets from the cowpunks Lucero and the Jersey-punks in Gaslight Anthem—acts that, in a proper world, would share much of the same target demographic. Mayer Hawthorne, who's not very punk at all, and quite the opposite with his Motown sound, follows and doesn't bother trying to split the difference; instead, his offerings are conspicuously cool in the face of the mid-afternoon heat. The heat, however, gets to Manchester Orchestra, whose drawn-out versions of their rock songs come off more weary than inspired. Broken Bells cover The Black Keys' "Everlasting Light" and don't quite do the song justice—it was heard less than 24 hours prior on the very same stage—and otherwise have difficulty getting the audience into their groove. A percussion-heavy and musically impressive set from Local Natives thankfully picks things up, and even includes an unexpected early ACL debut from Ruby Jane, who joins the band to provide backing vocals for a song. The xx then mention that their ACL performance would be their swan song—the band said this would be its last show for "a while" and played as much, with their heartbreakingly restrained groove coming off especially heartbreaking, and the crowd crushing with each note. LCD Soundsystem kick things up a notch with a party-starting set heavily culled from this year's This Is Happening, and Matt & Kim follow with an even more enjoyable performance, charming audiences with perky, simplistic dance anthems (it helps that they also crowd-surf and climb the stage façade). M.I.A. makes the mistake of not employing her stage's video screens properly, showing illustrations instead of her performance and effectively cutting off anyone more than 50 yards away from enjoying the show; it's a disaster until the screens finally show the singer perform her biggest hit, "Paper Planes," before reverting to its illustrations and disastrous desires. Muse, meanwhile, uses their visuals masterfully, sounding like Queen-meets-Radiohead and boasting a Pink Floyd-like display of lasers that shoot over the audience's heads, set to the band's bombastic arena anthems. Victorious, indeed.
Best Performer: A tough call thanks to great, if wildly different, sets from The xx and Matt & Kim, but the crown goes to Muse, who are making a serious case for becoming the greatest commercial rock band of our time.
Random Note: In an interview on our DC9atNight.com blog last week, we commiserated with Matt & Kim's Matt Johnson about how every piece of press his band receives is about how cute and adorable his band is. After the band's ACL performance, we can only offer this in response: IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, THEN STOP BEING SO ADORABLE, OK?!!
Winner: Dancing Dudes, surprisingly enough. Muse and their dude-bro-heavy fan base may have been the crowning jewel of ACL's second day, but the rest of the day's impressive dance-inducing offerings served as its overarching mark. Plus, it's just really fun to see people freak out and dance to LCD Soundsystem's "Drunk Girls."
Day Three: Sunday
In Opposite Corners: Dad-Rockers, Punk Rockers.
Headliner(s): The Eagles, The Flaming Lips.
Local Ties: Ruby Jane; Midlake; Norah Jones, The Eagles.
Field Report: Ruby Jane kicks off the day with a painfully early 11:15 a.m. set that few people see. Those who do report good things, but the day takes a decidedly heavier turn with a dirge-heavy performance from should-be stars in Warpaint and an inspiring offering of Jersey punk from Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, whose star power should be bigger than their timeslot indicates. Lyrical and swift, Leo's everything still good about a genre that's so heavily diluted these days with crap. Brit punk Frank Turner follows with a similarly rousing set, his own nationality and clear taste for American punk rock blending together into an endearing set of back-and-forth with his crowd. The brief punk respite then dies a quick death. White Rabbits offer up a noble effect of aping Spoon, Foals fail at trying to craft the same musical wizardry that Local Natives spun the day before, the Morning Benders do their best to charm as their live presentation lacks the depth of its records and Yeasayer similarly can't recreate their well-produced sound. Midlake, thankfully, do the opposite, performing a set indicating that their recorded sound is only half the story; this set sounded broader, deeper and even heavier than Midlake enthusiasts would expect from the band. The Denton septet played like they had something to prove, and, whatever it was, they won their argument. The Flaming Lips, as always, were winners, too; the consummate festival performers busted out all their tricks—costumed dancers, a crowd-surfing space ball, a visual splendor, confetti—that they did in Denton for NX35 earlier this year, and charmed here just as they did there. Norah Jones, too, charmed, if more in a consoling way, her familiar songs soothing the dying spirits of attendees' souls (which may or may not have actually just been lactic acid build-up in our muscles), and earning warm responses all the way—right up until the Eagles cut her set off and Jones and her band dutifully finished up their final song in the face of the headliners, and leaving her crowd all-too-pleased to vocally make their support known. The Eagles, seemingly miles away, hardly noticed, of course, their own harmonies, beautiful as ever if now in lower registers, blasted over Zilker Park in much the same way as they do through minivans across America.
Best Performer: Midlake, by a hair over Ted Leo. Both performed illuminating sets—but Midlake went further, hinting at something unexpected still to come from the band. Seriously: You should have heard this one almost metal-like instrumental jam the band offered up, seemingly on the spot. Whereas the Lips essentially offered up their NX35 set once more, Midlake showed some serious progression.
Random Note: Beyond being ridiculously compelling, Ted Leo's performance, when coupled with the Gaslight Anthem's the day before, confirmed our belief that Springsteen serves as a healthy, heavy influence over every good song a band from New Jersey has released in the past decade.
Winner: Dad-rockers, if only due to the fact that, with Norah Jones and the Eagles sharing the bill, this night was like a man-with-a-paid-off-mortgage's wet dream. You win again, Baby Boomers. You always do.