Austin City Limits Goes Mainstream
A few lessons learned at the 2011 Austin City Limits Music Festival this past weekend, just a three-hour dive south on Interstate 35: Kanye West still loves himself; crowds close enough to hear him still love Stevie Wonder; and despite an entire Grammy-winning album (The Suburbs) seemingly dedicated to arguing otherwise, Arcade Fire still love Texas, especially Austin. They said as much repeatedly during Sunday night's festival-closing appearance.
That's all hunky-dory — expected, even — except for maybe the Wonder note, which was more of a festival gaffe than anything else. Wonder tried mightily on Saturday night to prove himself worthy of his legacy ACL designation, continuing along the lines of past headlining performers The Eagles, Phish and Pearl Jam and aiming to quench attendees' decidedly non-buzzing thirsts. Very near his stage, he appeared to succeed, running through a checklist of his impressive catalog of hits.
Problem is, anyone not standing really close to the stage, which at a festival as large as ACL means most people, heard a mostly muffled sound, the result of the park's second set of speakers — in place hundreds of yards from the stage, specifically intended to blast a stage's music out into the distance — completely failing. It was an awkward scene, this legend bellowing out a heartfelt performance as listeners near the back of his crowd slowly sulked away. Tough to blame them: Across the park in a competing, night-ending performance, My Morning Jacket was turning in a legendary set. Their massive, suddenly less-Southern rock and beefier sound boomed over Zilker Park and, one imagines, across much of Austin as a whole. It boomed over Wonder too: 200 yards away from Wonder's stage, My Morning Jacket could be heard clearly, almost half a mile away from their own setup.
Funny thing about that unfortunate incident, though: It grabbed headlines because of the performer it affected, but it was the only area in which the celebratory, 10th-anniversary rendition of the festival failed to earn high marks. Indeed, the 2011 run of ACL seemed a huge success according to all the basic barometers, the most important being the fact that the festival officially sold out of passes by Saturday evening. Why did it work? Here's a theory: After 10 years, the festival has finally given in and succumbed to its mainstream appeal.
Before you run off and grab your pitchforks (or Pitchforks) and cry foul, know this: It's all for the best.
Honest, it is.
Fact is, the summer festival circuit has become rather overwhelming at this point. A few years back, that seemed unlikely as a number of high-profile fests folded (Monolith, Langerado). But after that crash has come something of a boom, especially in Texas. Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, Austin City Limits was the state's Lone Star; these days, it has some significant competition from other upstart fests. There's the Free Press Summer Fest in Houston (Weezer, Ween, Cut Copy, Beirut, Yeasayer). There's Denton's own 35 Denton festival (Big Boi, Local Natives, Gayngs, Mavis Staples). Even the Homegrown Festival made a splash (Neon Indian, School of Seven Bells). And there's also been an uprising of new, band-driven deals from the likes of the Toadies, Randy Rogers Band and, starting this year, ZZ Top.
The most important newcomer is in ACL's own backyard: Fun Fun Fun Fest, which will host its sixth annual three-day event the first weekend of November, has grown exponentially in recent years. This year, it's moving to a bigger home (from Waterloo Park to Auditorium Shores) and bringing bigger names along for the ride (Slayer, Public Enemy, Spoon, Passion Pit).
So it's important that Austin City Limits distinguish itself somehow. It's probably the right move for it to edge in a mainstream direction given Fun Fun Fun Fest's harsher leanings. And make no mistake: This year's Austin City Limits was very much mainstream. Felt significantly more so than it had in year's past.
The bold-faced names on the lineup are to be credited for much of that — short of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, it doesn't get much more mainstream than Kanye West and Coldplay, both of whom played main stages this year. Even the undercard had its radio cred: Massive crowds turn out to see and sing along with sets from Foster the People and Young the Giant, two bands that have broken out in big ways on Clear Channel-backed modern rock stations around the country this summer on the heels of hit debut singles. The media-tent rats, meanwhile, were a who's who of mainstream press: They represented Rolling Stone, VH1, daily newspapers galore and FM rock station after FM rock station.
Sure, the festival still had some off-the-cuff edge — Aaron Bruno of AWOLNATION, themselves budding radio stars, literally crowd-surfed on Sunday, being passed around above his audience's heads while standing on a boogie board — and, yes, at least a hint of marijuana smoke seemed noticeable in every corner of the park. (Interesting sidenote: Pot-smoking seemed even less an offense at this year's ordeal than cigarette smoking, in part because of the statewide burn ban and the festival's announcement that smoking would be banned at this year's event.) But the festival also felt somewhat formal in its presentation — albeit it in a good, practiced and perhaps thus inherently mainstream way.
Ten years into ACL, C3 Productions, the Austin-based company behind both this festival and Lollapalooza in Chicago, knows how to run a tight ship. Entrance into the festival was a breeze. Water stations were everywhere — as they were in past festivals, but still nice to see after a few dehydration-related deaths at festivals this year, including Dallas' electronic-themed Electric Daisy Carnival. C3 has an advantage here: As the last festival of the formal summer festival touring circuit, they see get to see what works and what doesn't. One sign of this leg up came during English rockers Elbow's set on Sunday; after a run of tragic stage-collapse incidents across the globe this year, C3 quickly dropped the screens and stage banners mid-set on the Google-Plus stage, not wanting to take any chances against an early warning of strong winds.
The performers, too, are prepared. Most have played festivals in the months leading up to this one; many use the ACL stop as a way to end their tour runs. That was certainly the case for Kanye West and Arcade Fire, both of which boasted impressive set backdrops, but ones that had been used as their tour set-pieces on the road all summer long. As opposed to stale, however, it all came off rather crisp. Better to see a band that knows what it's doing than one that's trying something new that could go awry.
Shame the one awry moment at this year's festival had to happen to Stevie Wonder, sure, but for a festival of this size to only have one faux pas is kind of a miracle. It's kind of storybook. It's kind of, well, the professionalism you might expect from something childishly derided as being mainstream.
One last lesson, in that case: Mainstream isn't a dirty word in the world of commerce. ACL sure seems to be thriving on it.
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