When Austin City Limits premiered their little music festival, they swore up and down they'd move the date in the future. Fast forward two years, and many things have changed--the lineup grew legendary, the crowds exploded (this year boasted around 200,000 attendants), the ticket price shot up, but there we all were again in the mad glare of mid-September, stinking of sun block and sweat. Heat was the punctuation point at the end of every show and every casual conversation. Sun-stroked teens collapsed at the otherwise bloodless Dashboard Confessional show. Over at G Love, frat boys in the crowd displayed the ultimate effects of all-day drinking in the sun: They thought they could rap.
But heat wasn't the only problem at ACL. Sound problems plagued a handful of marquee shows, from the tragedy that was Elvis Costello (see "To the Limits" on page 75 for reviews of Costello and others) to a boisterous Ben Kweller set punctured by the booming bass of the North Mississippi All-Stars way at the other end of the park. Modest Mouse, perhaps pissed off at the thumping bleed-over from The Wailers (or perhaps pissed off that half the crowd left after "Float On," or perhaps pissed off that they sounded terrible or perhaps just pissed off in general), ended their set early, abandoning the stage and leaving puzzled audience members to wonder what just happened.
But let's not dwell on the negative. ACL was, in many ways, a triumph: There were bang-up shows from the Pixies, Franz Ferdinand and My Morning Jacket, to name a few. Shuttle transportation to the park was so efficient as to seem positively utopian (although Saturday night's line to get back on the bus was positively draconian). The sprawling food court offered not only cheeseburgers and falafel but such exotica as pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo. People were drunk, yes, and a thousand cell phones were lost, yes, but in the heat and the crowds and the stress, there was not one arrest. Phish's Trey Anastasio (who played back-to-back sets on Saturday night) told ACL booker Charles Attal it was the best festival he had ever been to.
ACL did seem blessed by that feel-good familiarity Austin does so well: Families came together. Couples came together. There were old folks at the Elvis Costello show talking about the first time they heard My Aim Is True. There were kids at the Dashboard Confessional show talking about curfew and whether or not to lose their virginity. There were so many bands to see, so many people to run into, so many things to process that most sleepy-eyed, sunburned festivalgoers are likely to respond to the question "How was ACL?" merely one way, a reductive statement that nevertheless says it all: "It was hot. It was really, really hot."