At a few minutes before 2 p.m. on Saturday (Oct. 9), the Jones Family Singers -- a grass-roots, nine-member gospel band from small-town Bay City, Texas -- started to bring their set to a close with a few lines from the great soul singer Solomon Burke's signature song, "Everybody Needs Someone To Love." Only a few hours later, the cover would prove an unintentionally inspired eulogy when 70-year-old Burke, who had actually played ACL himself back in 2004, was declared dead in an Amsterdam airport. The next day, under the same tent, eclectic New Orleans parade-brass player Trombone Shorty worked in a brief snippet of the same tune, as part of a set-ending medley that also took in the Neville Brothers, Louis Armstrong, and a bar or two of the Violent Femmes' "Blister In The Sun."
The ACL-perennial Jones Family's performance ranked among the more energetic of the three-day festival. The set, which took place on one of the fest's eight stages, incorporated call-and-response, instrument tradeoffs, hard rock guitar riffs, five-part harmonies, and an "Animal House"-worthy take on Isley Brothers' "Shout." The Clear 4G tent stage, where the Jones Family performed, seemed to be the one generally reserved for revelatory jazz, folk, gospel, and "world music" - including an exuberant bash by horn-augmented Sicilian ska-rockers Qbeta on Friday, and a matched pair by Tijuana's Nortec Collective and Monterrey's Kinky, two combos that mix Mexican-border oompah with modern electronic sounds.
Nortec's Friday set, like the Jones Family show, was a meeting of generations - in this case, synth hipsters surrounded by older regional traditionalists in cowboy hats. Late Saturday afternoon, the more song-oriented but less polkafied Kinky worked in funk and metal riffs, and voiced a plea for accord across the national border, partially via music. Add in Ukraine-to-New York-to-Rio gypsy rockers Gogol Bordello's typically crazed Saturday evening shindig on the headliner-capacity AMD stage, and it's probably worth noting that accordions figured in at least three of the festival's livelier throwdowns.
The real star of ACL's ninth annual installment, though, was the weather. It was reportedly the most comfortable the festival has ever had. Perfectly sunny, peaking in the mid 80s during the day then dipping into the 50s after dark, ACL 2010 was devoid of both unbearable Texas scorch and last year's downpour-enabled "Dillo Dirt" monsoon of manure. (Best fan-made flag seen at the fest: "Dillo Dirt Is People!")
Given an amended agreement with Austin that allowed promoter C3 Presents to let in 10,000 more ticket-buyers - the cap is now 75,000 - the temperatures and dry skies were a godsend, though the elliptical field could get fairly claustrophobic with congestion. Overflowing porta-potties, sparsely located garbage receptacles, and lousy cell phone reception are obstacles still to be tackled. And the fairly prohibitive price for music you couldn't always get close enough to see or hear, plus a lineup nearly free of contemporary R&B and hip-hop, certainly helped make the crowd more homogenous than you might expect in central Texas's liberal oasis.
The audience ranged widely age-wise however - from hundreds of under-tens brought in free by parents to bounce around in front of the Austin Kiddie Limits stage, to retirees excited about seeing the Eagles headlining set on Sunday night. But as somebody in the press tent pointed out, "Austinites will pay to drink beer in a field" - especially frat boys and sorority girls, apparently. A significant fraction came from out of town and state, too. And really, given the size and scope of the event, it's impressive how smoothly ACL runs: It was managed meticulously, with corrections made as the weekend progressed. And if you timed it right, you barely even had to stand in line for food or water.
It was tough to absorb much of the Sword, or Black Lips, unless you got to the ZYNC Card stage way before their sets. The respective Austin metallers and Atlanta garagers were two of the more promising bands on the hundred-plus-act schedule, and both did okay. But even from not-too-far-back, their loud guitars mostly disintegrated into borderline discernible mush.
They were both kind of fun to watch on the big screen beside the stage, though. The Sword, with their flying V guitar and longer hair than anyone in the crowd, picked up whenever they speeded toward thrash and when they did their awesome 2010 should-be-a-single "Night City." Black Lips looked convincingly snotty and scrappy in boys' haircuts and ball caps, surf-harmonizing and seemingly channeling Austin's legendary 13th Floor Elevators at points.
Like Kentucky's surprisingly punkish one-almost-hit wonders Cage The Elephant on the smaller Austin Ventures stage Sunday, both the Sword and Black Lips were welcome respites from the ACL roster's primarily over-polite nerd pop. But sonically, they didn't really click - the ZYNC stage somehow made more sense for world-beating NYC Haircut 100 revivalists Vampire Weekend (who seemed to inspire the festival's clumsiest dancing, mostly from drunk college girls) and Mercury Prize-winning London introverts the XX -- who started out with huge tribal rhythms, then (apparently unaccustomed to Texas heat) turned immediately bashful, and played their quasi-hit "Crystalized" early enough to result in a mass XX-odus of bored fans only a few songs in.
Still, as the sun set, the XX's space-with-some-music-in-it managed to provide a decently hazy soundtrack for simply walking across the field, just as Brooklyn prog-poppers Bear In Heaven had done from the same stage, earlier in the day. As for L.A. hippies Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, whose Sunday ZNYC stage set drew an inexplicably massive crowd.
Migratory patterns of the festival-goer species were interesting to observe in general -- For instance, a significant portion of the crowd simultaneously departed a perfectly competent set by homegrown heroes Spoon at 6:37 p.m. Friday, apparently to dance badly for Vampire Weekend. M.I.A.'s Saturday headline set on the big AMD stage - the same platform that Spoon and the Strokes had played - was mostly packed shoulder-to-shoulder unless you were right in front of the sound booth.
From that vantage point, though, M.I.A.'s visual and rhythmic extravaganza made for the weekend's most colorfully over-the-top experience. While for most acts, the side-screens usually just showed the band playing, M.I.A. utilized them to show bombs bursting in air and aggressive dancing, street-art cartoon images, seeming gunshot victims and people running down the middle of the highway. Fluorescent-clad power walkers and three woman dancers in middle-eastern veils on stage, explosions and machine-gun fire and other disorienting effects chopping up both whatever you heard or saw added to the spectacle. There were times, though, when it was hard to tell whether the masking of M.I.A.'s newer songs was an intentional artistic statement or just a crummy sound mix.
M.I.A. was probably as hip-hop as Austin City Limits got this year, which is somewhat odd for a festival that started out in 2002 with a more adult-alternative roots aesthetic congruent to its namesake television series, but which has featured such acts as the Roots, Mos Def, and Common in recent years. Outside of M.I.A., the closest the 2010 fest came to covering the genre was Brooklyn's Ninjasonik - punk-inspired electro-rappers who, admittedly, covered Fugazi, but whose smug potty-mouth pop-crunk mostly came off like a more racially diverse version of 3Oh!3 for trust-fund babies.
A couple of hours after Ninjasonik's Saturday afternoon set on the Austin Ventures stage, blue-eyed soulster Mayer Hawthorne put on a way more entertaining show with his four-piece the County. All wearing pressed long-sleeve white button-down shirts with skinny black ties, and with a nightclub-ready "M.W." lighting up neon-like behind him, the band had its snazzy old-school moves down. And the singer's falsetto was practiced enough to carry the more quiet-storming prom ballads - not to mention the Doobie Brothers' "What A Fool Believes" - if not always the chunkier funk numbers. They could sure use a horn section, but Hawthorne's stage presence, including straight-faced romantic patter, was top-notch.
As for old-school ACL types, there was country guy Pat Green, whose three-guitared band rocked out Petty/Mellencamp-style when he wasn't dedicating slow ones to his better half on the Budweiser stage Friday afternoon. His fellow Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen was there Sunday, though sadly easy to miss if you wound up at Trombone Shorty. And New Jersey's Gaslight Anthem did their scratchy-voiced faux E Street bar-band-with-the-R&B-drained-out thing on Budweiser Saturday, which surely sounded no less compelling than Muse's vaguely bombastic Brit-pomp anthems that eventually closed the night there.
Sonic Youth on the Honda stage Friday rocked out something fierce. 57-year-old Kim Gordon danced sexy wearing gold lamé, her still youthful 52-year-old hubbie Thurston Moore attacked his guitar with a file, and though the shtick hadn't changed much since a quarter-century ago, it still worked. Then on Sunday evening on the AMD stage, the Flaming Lips - led by Wayne Coyne, pushing 50 - didn't exactly kick out the Oklahoma acid-rock jams like they used to back in their own struggling mid '80s, but at least they made the overabundance of fans wearing Pink Floyd T-shirts happy, particularly with their films of great big eyeballs and roaring lions.
Brit folk-guitar reliable Richard Thompson finished playing the Clear 4G tent on 8 p.m. Sunday right when the Eagles started up on the Budweiser stage, with the Austin skyline behind them and half the entire field filled with festers stretched out in front. It was a darn near religious sight to witness, no kidding. They opened with a couple snoozes that weren't giant hits, and some younger folks - though by no means all - started heading out. But before you knew it, they were on "Take It To The Limit." By "Hotel California," the crickets outside in Zilker Park were chirping along.