Austin City Limits 2011: 14 Things Seen & Heard Friday
"Keep Austin Weird" has become something of an official tagline for Texas' capital city -- a notion that even Kanye and Coldplay tried to abide by on Friday (Sept. 16). Did the first day of the tenth annual Austin City Limits festival live up to expectations? Read onward for 14 highlights and overheards at Zilker Park.
1. There was a lack of boastfulness surrounding Kanye West's headlining set over on Friday -- which, for him, means that his only brag concerned just how many hits he's accumulated through the years (and boy did he play 'em). He took the time to thank a laundry list of crew and cast on his live show, including, most specifically, his bevy of ballerinas and modern dancers. "This is my ode to you, for all the work you put in, all the passion you put in," 'Ye said during his sendoff during "All of the Lights." On top of all that, this took place after Kanye had spent 10 minutes berating himself as an asshole, apologizing for his "horse voice," and dismissing the "fake-ass media" (he pondered if he might be "blackballed for two years again"). The whole spiel felt like a turning point for Kanye -- a cartharsis -- a coda. In a way, it was: Nearly a year after he premiered his ballet-driven visual treatment for "Runaway" on "Saturday Night Live," West revealed to the crowd that his ACL show would be the last time the "Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" track would be performed in such a manner. So while his dance troupes joined him onstage, no other special guests dropped by. Thus, no "Watch the Throne" tracks made their way into his nearly two-hour set, which was split into three acts.
2. Thursday night (Sept. 15), as the city geared up for three sweaty days of festival fun, Friday headliners Coldplay warmed up in fluorescent style, taping their Austin City Limits TV performance under a host of blacklights. The special will air on New Year's Eve, a fact that frontman Chris Martin hammed up in full -- confetti drop and fake countdown included. Friday night, the band surprised fans with a partial cover of the late Amy Winehouse's hit, "Rehab."
3. Maybe it was the bone-melting 100+ degree heat, but the atmosphere at Zilker as ACL kicked off was unusually mellow, with noticeably few zany costumes (as seen at fests like Bonnaroo) and tribal gear (the trademark of fellow desert fest, Coachella). We're going to chock it up to the laid-back, good-time attitude of the festival's hometown.
4. Electronic newcomer James Blake delivered a mid-afternoon set that, at first, seemed lost on the noisy, restless crowd -- even on his stunning yet slight cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love." But by the time he made it to the end of his "hit" "The Wilhelm Scream," the stage was pulsating with a humming crescendo. Unbeknownst to the crowd, the London singer/composer was rumored to have been held up with immigration problems on his way into Austin.
5. Following his band's morning set, Cults guitarist Brian Oblivion was on the hunt for two things: Red Bull and Smith Westerns. Oblivion was spotted in the press lounge making a beeline for the free stock of Red Bull, and shortly after, backstage during fellow buzz band Smith Westerns' set. (Listen, dude, word to the wise? With luscious locks like that, you can't waltz into a crowd of journalists and expect to go unnoticed.)
6. And now, for the Overheard at ACL Awards. Day one: "Okay, dude, do you see Kanye?" -- bro navigating friend over the phone, during Kanye's set (which included his signature towering platform). Runners-up: "Follow me on Twitter; I'm gonna be PISSED OFF TONIGHT." -- post-Kanye set, guy imitating 'Ye. "Is that the Kanye stage or the Coldplay stage?" -- ACL security.
7. Fueled by their hit "Pumped Up Kicks," Foster the People created a frenzy over at the ill-positioned Google+ stage. The crowd was so massive that, not only were attendees smushed up against porta-potties (and all the way over to the flea market area) just to catch a glimpse of the L.A. indie-pop act, but from the middle-back of the crowd, it was difficult to even discern that the set started. Escaping was one of the more hellish experiences of the day.
8. In what had to be the most perfect Austin moment, Bright Eyes played to a massive crowd -- many napping in the grass -- as the searing sun set. Latest single "Shell Games" followed fan favorites like "Lover I Don't Have to Love," all the while frontman Conor Oberst auspiciously quiet with his oft-political stage banter. Even he was too sun-stroked to get on his soapbox.
9. The Austin City Limits festival kicked off Friday at Austin's Zilker Park, with notable early sets from up-and-coming pop rockers Reptar (one member of which performed in an anatomy-defying full-body unitard) and festival veterans Delta Spirit. The previous night, the Long Beach, CA, native Delta played a raucous, drunken show at local Austin mainstay Emo's, which will be closing its doors after this weekend to make room for what frontman Matt Vasquez called "a fuckin' hotel." The band rolled out nearly identical sets at Emo's and on the Bud Light main stage the next day, featuring new songs from their freshly announced record; according to Vasquez, the album drops in March.
10. Late in the afternoon, Big Boi (of Outkast) rolled up and commanded the main stage with a larger-than-life posse, a handful of festival-going ladies pulled on-stage to dance, and some revamped Outkast hits like "The Way You Move." Later on, Big Boi posted a photo of his adoring audience on Instagram. His crowd-pleasing set was easily one of the best performances of Day 1, a sentiment no doubt shared by "Superbad" star Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who was spotted checking out the set. (The unlikely duo posed for photos later on.)
11. By this point in the summer festival season (the merciful end of it), those pesky "Chair People" are more or less expected to cause some roadblocks and annoy more ambulatory patrons. ACL is no exception to the rule, but this fest brought with it a new breed of prop-handlers: Flag People. At any given performance throughout the day, giant stakes with balloons, stuffed animals, and pendants waved above the crowds, delineating tribes in a clever, albeit at times obnoxious (Inflatable Swan Stick guy, beware of everyone behind you at Kanye's set--they are not amused) solution to getting separated from one's herd in a sea of thousands. One of our favorites? This Stewie-headed Skeletor, shown at right.
12. A notable lesser-known performance on Day 1 was Seattle's Cave Singers, whose set beneath the merciful shade of the fest's only tent venue tickled audience members who knew all the words off their most recent album, "No Witch" (Jagjaguwar, 2011). The band, whose members include Derek Fudesco (formerly of Pretty Girls Make Graves), sweated their souls out, playing their stripped down acoustic set with gusto that did not go under-appreciated.
13. Another surprise was critically acclaimed guitarist Kurt Vile, whose set drew a decidedly older crowd Friday afternoon. Decked out in an Orangina t-shirt and his signature curtain of curly hair, the solo artist's youth was amusingly juxtaposed with the mass of "cool indie rock dads" who composed the majority of the assembled crowd.
14. Mavis Staples brought her usual show-stopping performance, with Robbie Robertson of The Band accompanying her on guitar. Flying through crowd-pleasing covers like "The Weight" and "Help Me," the 72-year-old raspy soul queen then waxed political, singing Civil Rights-era tunes written by her father and taking jabs at the Tea Party and other Obama naysayers, exclaiming, "These days, people seem to be confusing Kool-Aid for tea!" and "What's with all these people going and disrespecting our president?" between verses of "This is My Country." Nevertheless, she voiced her confidence in American perseverance, proclaiming, "We gonna be alright, as long as we keep working together, marching together, laughing together," as she launched into "We're Gonna Make It." As she wound down her set-closing "I'll Take You There," she proclaimed, "You ain't seen the last of me!"
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