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The Ten Best Bands at ACL 2013

Photos by Jim Bricker (except noted)
BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA If you want to catch an act in the one and only tented stage at ACL, it's recommended to do it early in the day or towards the end of the weekend. It always seems to get pretty packed on Saturday when people realize they can escape the sun and hear some pretty good jams while doing so. One of the only times Rocks Off made it into the tent was for an early afternoon set from the ever-so-soulful stylings of the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Consisting of a quartet of aged soul singers who happen to be both blind and from Alabama, the group led the crowd through a set of sing-a-longs that included reworked takes on Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In The Sky" and a fitting cover of Gladys Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia." Just a few songs into their set, if they didn't already have everyone in the audience captive, they were joined by their latest album's producer, Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver. While Vernon didn't lend his vocal talents (like there wasn't enough of that going on with the Blind Boys), he added his skillful guitar work on a few songs. It was a great way to spend an hour. JIM BRICKER

DEPECHE MODE I still can't say that I love Depeche Mode after this set, but I chose them as one of my favorites because they put on such a damn good performance. I wasn't expecting to be so into it, and I think that was a common theme throughout the crowd at the beginning of the set. By the end of the set, every single person in the audience were enthralled by each sultry move that lead singer and sex machine Dave Gahan made. If he waved his arm, the audience immediately followed suit. If he told the crowd to jump off a bridge, they would have found the nearest one.

The biggest dance party of the weekend came along with "Just Can't Get Enough," and "Personal Jesus" was some bucket -list shit. "Enjoy the Silence" was probably the most fun to be had the whole weekend. All five guys onstage knew exactly what they were doing from front to finish, which I guess explained their top billing. It was just a really solid showing from a group of veteran performers. Just makes me wish I caught that Houston show a few weeks ago. JIM BRICKER

ELECTRIC GUEST Electric Guest win the award for the youngest, yet most seasoned group, of performers at the festival. In what was probably a never-ending couple of years they toured relentlessly, honing their craft along the way. A group that Danger Mouse once took under his ever-expanding wing with production of their first LP, they've taken what he gave them and made it their own. I understand why Danger Mouse decided to produce their first record, because they sound like a perfect mix of anything he's ever done.

Take a huge handful of Portugal. The Man, mix in some Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells and add a funky little touch of their own, and that's what you get with Electric Guest. Their set, which grew as much in size as it did with energy, really proved that their one of those exciting bands to watch. I just really wish they changed their name when they had the chance. JIM BRICKER

List continues on the next page.

HAIM This young L.A. band led by sisters Alana, Daniella and Este Haim had two strikes against it going into their mid-afternoon set Saturday: First, they were arguably the most-hyped act coming into the festival thanks to their backstory and Columbia debut Days Are Gone, which has been out all of two weeks. Second, it was already hot, steamy and gross at Zilker. (Two and a half: they were up against the Texas-OU game in the nearby Barton Springs Beer Hall.) But HAIM came through with a sturdy set of mainstream rock, tinged with reggae and synths on ballads like "Go Slow," and a chirpy stream of stage patter that made it clear they were tickled pink to be at ACL. "Bras are for work, and I'm not wearing a bra," quipped Este.

As for the music, their fan base may not have heard much of Melissa Etheridge, Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde, but HAIM sure has, and did a more than passable Lady Zeppelin on Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" to boot. Their one concession to youth was an extended closing percussion jam also popular with other groups in their middle twenties, but after all the good vibes and solid tunes it was hard to begrudge HAIM a little fun. UT even won the Red River Shootout 36-20; hook 'em Horns! CHRIS GRAY

Photo by Chris Gray
JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION Pushed all the way up to the front of the stage, the Jon Spencer Blues explosion put on a different sort of revival closing out Friday in the Zilker Tent. The rejuvenated NYC trio that was once the last word in feral '90s garage mania came off as a mass of hair and black clothing as they powered through still-potent riff-heavy tracks such as "Identify" and "Bellbottoms." (It's always better if you spell it out.)

That old Mississippi-spawned stomp has taken on a host of different flavors over almost 100 years, here hardcore punk and hip-hop; guitarist Judah Bauer even rapped out a dead-on version of the Beasties' "She's On It." But make no mistake, the blues is still No. 1. Bellbottoms! CHRIS GRAY

KENDRICK LAMAR The best overall show of the weekend came from the one and only hip-hop act to perform at ACL this year. K. Dot aka King Kendrick aka Kendrick Lamar has become the biggest rapper in the world in the shortest possible time period. Within the past year and a half, Lamar has gone from dive to club to arena, pulling in more and more fans along the way. For his set, which seemed to draw the biggest crowd of the weekend save the headliners and a few other main-stage acts, the Honda stage wasn't equipped for the amount of people that descended upon it. The set ran as a greatest hits of Lamar's small-yet-stout material, which is pretty much the entirety of his freshman LP good kid, m.A.A.d. city.

It's rare for a rap act to elicit a true singalong, but several times, specifically during "Swimming Pools (Drank)," "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" and "Poetic Justice," the entirety of the amassed crowd shouted out lyric after lyric as fast and as on-point as Lamar was doing from the stage. It was a sight to see. The energy that came from this set, and with it preceding both The Cure and Kings of Leon to close out Saturday -- two bands I wasn't entirely excited to see -- Kendrick Lamar served as my true Saturday headliner, and (thanks to the rain) festival closer. JIM BRICKER

OKKERVIL RIVER Not many bands can hold down an early-evening main stage slot at ACL, specifically when that band's roots are firmly planted in the same fair city that holds the festival. I can think of only a handful of Austin acts that can pull a huge crowd when there are so many other choices around the park. One of those other bands was doing their thing across the park (The Black Angels), but the one that seemed to garner the largest amount of hometown support was Okkervil River.

Front man Will Sheff is a true leader, and while he's surrounded by a solid cast of characters that have helped him steadily pump out quality record after quality record, his unprecedented charisma is what really sells their music in a live format. The songs are pretty damn good too. Jumping around through newer material from 2013's The Silver Gymnasium, the band also peppered in fan favorites from The Stand Ins, Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names. It was the new stuff, however, that really found the band hitting their stride. JIM BRICKER

List continues on the next page.

PRAYERS FOR RAIN It's easy to think that all anyone will remember from the Cure's set Saturday night was the rain. That was Biblical all right, but the band had been onstage for well over an hour before those first fat droplets begin to bounce against the ground (and us) during "Doing the Unstuck" and "Want." During the previous 75-some minutes, Robert Smith's magicians propped up one sinister epic centerpiece after another -- "Pictures of You," "Fascination Street," "Lullaby" -- around candy corn ("The Love Cats," "Close to Me") and obscurities better than the best-forgotten Cure records they came from, like 4:13 Dream's 'The Hungry Ghost." You know you're in for a good Cure show when "Lovesong" and "Just Like Heaven" come within the first five songs.

The truly amazing thing was how seamless at all sounded, lush and majestic and heartbreaking. By another deep, deep cut, The Top's "Give Me It," it was still a while before the band would wrap up its two-hour set with "Boys Don't Cry" and the sky was not just crying but full-on sobbing. Nobody in the crowd was, though. CHRIS GRAY

VINTAGE TROUBLE By far the sharpest-dressed men of the entire abbreviated ACL weekend, L.A. four-piece Vintage Trouble more than lived up to their onstage introduction as the "new protocol of soul." Front man Ty Taylor gave off as much energy as your average fission reaction as he spun like Prince and howled like Wilson Pickett with an axe to grind on "Low Down Dirty Dog," where he leered "Mr. Fox in the chicken coop ain't got nothin' on me." The crowd was Taylor's from about the first four bars, with many hands in the air; he even brought out ex-Houstonian Carolyn Wonderland for some righteous Stax-infused blessings on "You Better Believe It."

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His three bandmates were beyond super-tight, with more than enough oomph to back up a title like "Pelvis Pusher." "All I want is boners and moistness, so you'll go home and have sex with each other," Taylor told the crowd. This is baby-making music powerful enough to produce triplets. CHRIS GRAY

WILCO Pretty much anytime Wilco plays a festival, they're allowed to be included in a conversation about best bands of the weekend. Jeff Tweedy and company, joined by Ryan Bingham's fiddle player Richard Bowden, performed a catalog-busting set that ran from the quiet earlier folky Wilco ("Forget the Flowers," "California Stars"), psychedelic-tinged slow burners ("Misunderstood," "Via Chicago"), newer fan-friendly material ("Dawned On Me," "Art of Almost") and the hits ("Heavy Metal Drummer," "A Shot In the Arm," "I'm the Man Who Loves You").

Tweedy seemed a bit standoffish, which happens from time to time, but he might have just been worn out from their late-night set at Stubb's the night before that apparently found them playing more than 30 songs. Still, with the help of Glenn Kotche's never-ending rhythm and the ripping guitar work of both Nels Cline and Pat Sansone, Wilco proved why they were up there on the big-daddy stage playing for tens of thousands. JIM BRICKER

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