By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Each year, the lineup announcement for the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival garners some serious discussion, and it all essentially boils down to this: Is this year's collection of talent a successful one, or will it all amount to a wasted weekend?
Truth is, this year's bill is a rather impressive one, featuring headlining performances from Kanye West, Stevie Wonder, Arcade Fire and Coldplay, among many, many others. The reason for those big names at the top of the heap: This is the year that ACL turns 10 years old. And, as the festival enters its tweens, its role is now clear. Whereas it started in 2002 as a two-day gathering of roots, country and jam-band acts, it now stands as the last major stop of the summer festival season.
In the spirit of the festival's birthday, we thought we'd discuss 10 things you can expect to see at this year's offering.
1. A much larger variety of styles. ACL has very much broken from its roots. The Austin-set PBS television show that the festival takes its name from built its considerable legend with performances from artists such as Willie Nelson, Texas Tornados and Roy Orbison. In 2002, Pat Green, Patty Griffin, Los Lobos and String Cheese Incident were among the largest names playing. While there's still some roots talent to be heard this year, its slice in the pie is much, much smaller — maybe smaller than ever before.
2. Coldplay vs. Elbow. This year's docket provides the patrons of Zilker Park the chance to compare and contrast two British acts that excel in arena-ready anthems. Here's the thing, though: Coldplay are an international powerhouse that could draw 70,000 people just to watch Chris Martin cough; Elbow remain a little-known entity on this side of the pond, despite regularly winning top music honors in their home country and drawing thousands upon thousands when near home. Could this be the year that Elbow finally assert themselves alongside or even ahead of Coldplay? With any luck, yes.
3. More hip-hop flavor. At ACL's 2004 event, The Roots were more the exception than the rule in terms of how hip-hop was represented in Zilker Park. Perhaps the ocean of people who took in their midday set convinced organizers to continually step things up on that front. Hip-hop offerings in various forms are well-represented this year, and perhaps more so than ever before. Kanye West, Big Boi and Nas & Damian Marley are all certainly enticing at the top of the bill, but Aloe Blacc and Chiddy Bang will also help give the weekend the urban cache that's been missing in years past.
4. Much, much more musical wattage. Another clear sign that the pulse of the fest has quickened can be seen in how full this year's electronic dance music docket is. In the past, these sets have gone over surprisingly well; Ghostland Observatory's 2006 set is still spoken about with awe, and Deadmau5's 2010 performance took over Saturday night's proceedings thanks to an insane, sense-assaulting affair. This year, EDM fans will have more than one or two legit global headliners to choose from: Skrillex, Pretty Lights and Empire of the Sun will be forced to compete with Santigold, AWOLNATION and others for the electronica crown of ACL 2011.
5. The female force is strong. While not exactly a recent development or an increased trend, this year's bill boasts some estrogen-scented greatness like few ACL bills before it. Last year, the Saturday shows began with Lissie, Basia Bulat, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and 16-year-old Dallas-bred fiddle prodigy Ruby Jane all hitting the stage around the same time as one another, forcing stares in multiple directions. Look for equally tough choices again this year among the fairer section of the bill: Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Brandi Carlile, Sara Bareilles, Abigail Washburn, Austin's own Patrice Pike and a return appearance from Jane are but a few standout billings that give energy to the woman power that always shows itself so strongly at ACL.
6. Rockers for the ages. Pick a festival — any large festival, really — and you'll typically catch an older act playing at least one of the larger stages. Bruce Springsteen has played Bonnaroo. Paul McCartney and Prince have played Coachella. ACL, meanwhile, has always done a decent job — perhaps too decent a job — of giving the older folks a shot over the course of its decade-long run. Heck, the bill in 2006 was topped by Willie Nelson, Van Morrison and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. But after the head-scratching call to book a relatively dormant The Eagles as last year's headliner, ACL was ridiculed around the country. This year, however, organizers got serious with booking artistic elder statesmen who are still quite relevant. Stevie Wonder is an easy example of aged greatness. Scroll down the lineup list and you'll also notice scheduled performances from Wanda Jackson, Mavis Staples and the slightly younger Social Distortion. These acts aren't only older than most others on the bill, but their recent albums are also better than most of their ACL-mate's albums this year, too.
7. Continued bowing to the buzz. The term "buzz" is a bit annoying, but we all know what it means. And we also know that a festival needs to have a healthy dose of bands that possess it. ACL has made yearly strides to build its buzz quotient. This year, that trend continues. Really: How many bands have made bigger splashes in 2011 than festival performers Foster the People or James Blake? Not many, unless you count Cults, The Moondoggies, Smith Westerns and The Head and The Heart, all of whom are also on the bill.
8. The schedule giveth and it taketh away. Year in and year out, ACL's performance schedule grid is responsible for more frustration than even the lines for the port-o-johns. Last year, the timing of certain sets was especially annoying. At one point, Sonic Youth, Ryan Bingham, Vampire Weekend and Robert Randolph & The Family Band all took to their respective stages within minutes of each other, and in vastly different areas of the park. It was heart-wrenching. Make no mistake, though; there are tons of powerful conflicts over the course of this coming weekend as well. The first major one comes at the tail-end of Friday night, when attendees will surely be torn between the act everyone says they want to see at this year's festival (Kanye West) going head-to-head with the band everyone is afraid to admit that they want to see more (Coldplay).
9. ACL is where everyone knows their name. Here's a helpful tidbit when making those tough decisions about which acts to see: Skip the acts you've seen at ACL in previous years. Granted, that means skipping the likes of Ray Lamontagne, Bright Eyes, TV on the Radio and Iron & Wine this time around — acts that are all touring behind new albums — but, hey, tough choices will need to be made, and this is one easy way out of driving yourself mad.
10. Festival season limits. The best and worst thing about ACL is the fact that it comes at the end of the summer festival season and that its lineup isn't even announced until after a few of the major festivals have actually taken place. Fact is, year in and year out, there's going to be some redundancy between what those earlier festivals had to offer and what ACL is bringing to the table. Sure, while that may steal from the climactic nature of the lineup reveal, it doesn't subtract from the quality. Who cares if many of the names that top ACL's lineups have played the big stages at Coachella and Lollapalooza earlier in the year? When you've got West, Wonder, Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Coldplay, Krauss, Cee-Lo Green, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and so many others playing inside the confines of one single park, it's the most righteous park around.