September 16, 2011 | 7:46pm
The first day of Austin City Limits Music Festival was a surprise to say the least. Having never been to one of these outdoor music festivals, I wasn't sure what to expect.
I had a hunch that getting close the stage at any act I wanted to see would be tough. For the most part, I was right. But the sense of claustrophobia couldn't be shaken no matter where I went in Zilker Park.
That didn't stop me from jumping in head first. As soon as my press pass was secured at the press tent, I set out directly for my first show. I made it just in time to catch Smith Westerns about halfway through their set. And as soon as I could elbow my way to a decent vantage point, it didn't take long for the disappointment to set in.
It was surprising how poorly their brand of glammy indie-pop translated to the crowd of about 2,000 onlookers. Songs seemed to be played with a lackluster enthusiasm and at a tempo slower than the recorded versions of the songs. Aside from "Be My Girl," they drew mostly from their new record Dye It Blonde
. But despite the massive crowd, the energy of the recordings didn't make it to the live performance. On "All Die Young," which is a slow song to begin with, the tempo dragged and the drummer dragged the tempo back with light taps -- a polar opposite of the huge drum sound on the record. By the end of the set, the massive crowd had shrunk.
Electric Touch, who played a set that overlapped Smith Westerns, took a more energetic approach. Their blend of dance rock and gritty soul had the crowd moving, but between the Dave Navarro look-a-like bass player and the lowest common denominator pop hooks, all they had to rely on was stage presence. There were about 3,000 people in front of the stage who might disagree, though, as they heeded the lead singers urging to sing along. The lyrics, "Na Na Na," by design, were easy to sing. Unfortunately, much like the rest of the band's set, they were easy to forget.
The balmy sound of Ray LaMontagne's band was much more country than expected -- thanks mostly to his backing band, a group of musicians who are on producer T-Bone Burnett's speed dial. Judging by the crowd, you'd think his music offered relief from the hot sun beating down on the festival. But, really, it was the nice breeze that cooled the crowd at least 20,000 people in front of his stage. The pedal steel solos at every turn didn't hurt either. Things went about as good as could be expected until the band devolved into a white-boy funk jam halfway through the set. Too bad there wasn't enough room to break out the hacky sacks.
Interesting sidenote: LaMontagne introduced the Secret Sisters to join him for a song. They were just in Dallas last night, being backed by The King Bucks.
Kurt Vile's set was, by far, the best set of Friday afternoon. According to Vile, the band had only just returned from Europe two days prior to their ACL set, which only suffered from jet lag a little. Highlights from the set were "Jesus Fever" from his 2011 album Smoke Ring For My Halo, and "Runner Ups." There was no crowd to win over, as the group that started out around 500 were clearly there to see him. But "Highway" was his top song. A hamfisted to the bassy tom toms made for a deep low end (there was no bass guitar), but it also made for a disjointed rhythm that was charming at times and at others, disappointing. Blame it on jet lag.