To the Limits

Who Said Rock Was Easy?

It wasn't an easy ACL Fest. The lack of any banter from Black Francis (Frank Black, whatever) and the Pixies was unnerving. So was their decision to forgo both an encore and their one pop hit "Here Comes Your Man" in front of this huge crossover audience. It wasn't easy to feel the band's full explosiveness at a relatively reduced volume, even for those close to the stage. Yet in the end, a three-song run through "Debaser," "Velouria" and "Gigantic" (featuring a refreshing Kim Deal giggle fit) reaffirmed their place as one of the most influential and definitive alt-rock bands ever. Right, Mr. Cobain?

It wasn't easy to understand why it was so simple to get up close for Broken Social Scene, whose huge ensemble parties onstage like nobody else--that is, when they're not busy throwing down pure pop tag-teams tucked inside massive wall-of-sound jams.

It wasn't easy to understand how longtime D-FW sensations the Earl Harvin Trio could boast possibly the weekend's three most talented musicians--not to mention the Solo of the Fest (courtesy mind-boggling rhythm-meister Mr. Harvin)--and reel in one of the smaller crowds (a still-hearty 300 or so in the stage's general area).

It wasn't easy to get to the grounds by noon on Sunday to witness the American Analog Set, easily the most "cool" band of the fest, thanks to the breezy vibes, maracas and vintage synths.

It wasn't easy to understand what Spoon's Britt Daniel and company were thinking when they started playing even though Elvis Costello was still pumping it up just across the way. Maybe the band's engaging set, equal parts herk and jerk, was a response to Costello's grand oversight. Elvis, what's so funny 'bout a "Peace Love & Understanding" pep talk in these belligerent times?

It couldn't have been easy for the Pixies' Joey Santiago to make his guitar sound like a vacuum cleaner from hell, as he did on the band's set-closing bilingual freakout "Vamos." And it wasn't even easy for the tenuously allied quartet to clasp hands for a cathartic closing bow. Yet like the whole ball of melted wax that was the 2004 ACL Fest, it was worth every sun-baked second. --Michael Chamy

Sounds Like Trouble

Five words I never expected: a disappointing Elvis Costello show. From the opener "Accidents Will Happen" to the encore, the sound was in and out, quiet to loud, staticky to clear--but never for long. Apparently, it was better for those close enough to see Costello sweating in his violet button-down shirt and purple jacket. But the thousands relying on the video screen heard bursts of booming piano, backup vocals that drowned out every other instrument and under-miked lyrics from the set of mostly new songs (from The Delivery Man, released September 21). Things were better for the almost-redeeming encore of "Alison" (which segued into the other Elvis' "Suspicious Minds") and the super-extended "Pump It Up," which overlapped the first song by Spoon, who started at the adjacent stage--with much better sound.

People crowded in for Cat Power's show on Saturday at 1 p.m., and when Chan Marshall took the stage--just her, a guitar and a keyboard--an eerie silence fell over the audience. The reverence lasted half a dozen songs, until restlessness took over. Heat, a constant stream of newcomers and planes overhead distracted from the quiet, lyrics-centric act. Though Marshall has a history of freezing up at shows, she seemed to enjoy this one, even leading the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" for a friend.

It's hard to believe so many people would have packed in for Modest Mouse if "Float On" hadn't flooded the radio; in fact, it's hard to believe the band would be at ACL at all. Modest Mouse formed just more than a decade ago--several more years than the kid next to me had been alive. But he knew every word, and so did every high school soccer player and aspiring hippie. Modest Mouse re-created Good News for People Who Love Bad News with extra musicians, including a second drummer and a guy who seemed to be onstage only to play occasional cello and sing the high parts vocalist/guitarist Isaac Brock can't reach.

I was certain everyone who rushed the stage before Dashboard Confessional was staking a claim before the Pixies (who played next). Who besides lovelorn high school girls in studded Hot Topic wrist cuffs likes Dashboard? Well, for one, the 40-something guy who stood up to sing along to the set closers "Vindicated," from Spider-Man 2, and "Hands Down," from last year's A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar. After Chris Carrabba said goodnight, a mass exodus of teenagers left a gaping hole near the stage--perfect for music fans of a different stripe to elbow their way closer for that night's true finale. --Shannon Sutlief

Luck Be a Lady
(or a Hairy Psychedelic Country Band)

Out of the many talented women who graced this year's Austin City Limits festival, Neko Case out-sang 'em all. The Canadian alt-country goddess was in top form on Friday, belting brand-new songs like "Sparrow" and covers like Dylan's "Buckets of Rain" so boldly that she hardly needed a microphone. Ryan Adams didn't have such luck, however, as his players sounded as lame as Sheryl Crow's backing band. Adams made up for his band's slack with great crooning and surprisingly solid guitar work, but he lacked the swagger of his 2002 ACL performance, replacing his strutting and bravado with stoner jokes between songs. After Adams' set, Franz Ferdinand proved that even skinny Scottish guys can pull off the rock-star act. It wasn't until the fourth song, when the crowd reacted in Pavlovian fashion to MTV single "Take Me Out," that the band took off, but once they did, not even the heat could've stopped the thousands in the crowd from dancing their sweaty butts off, particularly during the supercharged rendition of "Holiday."

I knew My Morning Jacket's live show was a totally different beast than their sleepy albums let on, but I still wasn't prepared for the enormity that songs like "One Big Holiday" and "Run Thru" would reach in concert. Jim James and company combined the experimentation of Canyon with the arena-country power of Lynyrd Skynyrd in such impressive fashion that even country-haters in the crowd got into the act.

No strangers to experimentation themselves, Wilco bowed on Sunday night with a set that rekindled my faith in the band. Nels Cline's wild lead guitar in songs like "Handshake Drugs" added energy that Wilco had sorely lacked since Jay Bennett flew the coop, and when Jeff Tweedy wasn't hogging the stage with wheedling guitar solos, he let the rest of the band produce magic, particularly when re-creating the enigmatic "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" well enough to rival the album version. --Sam Machkovech

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