Before this weekend, I'd never been to Austin City Limits Music Festival. Actually, I'd never been to any outdoor music festivals the scale of ACL. I've probably been to eight or nine South By Southwests, and, before heading down to Austin this weekend, I hypothesized that ACL wouldn't be my thing.
In many ways, I was right.
But the festival had some redeeming qualities. In fact, I enjoyed myself the entire time. I just prefer the smaller, more exclusive feel of SXSW, during which there are more opportunities to get behind the scenes, sneak in places you technically aren't supposed to be, and rub shoulders with the artists.
At ACL, you're in a giant field with everyone else, and the only exclusive place to get into is the port-a-potty, after standing in a 10-minute line. There weren't any small performances, either. It was rare to a band play a set to less than 1,000 people. But with the big audiences came the feeling of togetherness that I mentioned in my Arcade Fire review.
Seeing all those music fans together in one place confirmed a suspicion I'd long had, that indie rock has gone mainstream. If ACL isn't a mainstream festival, I don't know what is. It's not necessarily a bad thing, it was just a little shocking to be standing there with over 5,000 people watching The Walkmen -- especially considering the heat.
With an outdoor festival, it's impossible to escape the hot sun. Zilker park had a few large trees, but you'd have to fight off a shanty town of chair people for a square foot of shade. Thankfully, though, it rained sporadically, and the weather dropped to cool, comfortable temperatures during the nightly headlining sets.
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Another observation I made was how readily available weed was. The scent was constant throughout the park as folks lit up out in the open with no fear of getting busted. Walking into the festival, the pathway was lined with make-shift vendors selling pipes and other paraphernalia. Can you blame them for trying to make a buck? That's basically what was going on inside.
Anheuser-Busch was one of the festival's top advertisers and vendors. Unfortunately, their watered down grasp stretched all the way to the craft beer tent, where Michelob Ultra and Shock Top frothed over the sides of plastic cups. A lot like the festival, it's a corporate take on a pure product. Still, who wants to drink a stout beer in the unrelenting heat of Thursday and Saturday? I was plenty happy with Bud Light.
The biggest issue I take with the festival is stage proximity. Getting a good vantage point was one of the more difficult tasks of the weekend. Often times, I had to camp out in front of the stage in order to get a good spot. But even if you got a bad spot, other than the issues over at the Stevie Wonder show, the sound was impeccable. The mixes for Elbow The Walkmen, Kurt Vile, Phosphorescent, My Morning Jacket, Coldplay, and everyone else I saw sounded exactly as they do on record. You can't say the same about SXSW.
In a lot of ways, ACL impressed me. The organization, the quality of the stages, soundsystems, and a lot of the bands, made for a fun weekend. I'd go back again, but if given the choice between a wristband for SXSW or ACL, it's a no brainer.