The story at the fourth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival ended up being not the spectacular headlining set by Coldplay, the debut of some frenzied new Franz Ferdinand material or the reputation-cementing set by the Arcade Fire.
It was, as anyone who attended the fest will attest, the hot. The insane hot. The crazy hot. The baking-under-a-Texas-sky-with-nary-a-cloud-in-sight hot. Spectators sprinted from the gates directly to the shade of Zilker Park’s precious few giving trees, and sat massed there like they were protecting valuable treasure, which, of course, they were.
As the days wore on, the dust rose up — the park, at the end of each afternoon, was coated in a mist made of Texas’ finest dirt. Friday and Saturday hovered around a temperate 100 degrees; day three topped out at a record-shattering 108, making Sunday officially The Hot Day. Around 4 p.m. on that final day, Jason Mraz remarked that his band hadn’t seen that many naked people in years; the Arcade Fire performed in full black dress regalia and made the massive crowd wonder why they weren’t nearly as dedicated to their own jobs.
Prior to the weekend, ACL organizers and fans worried with good reason about the looming march of Hurricane Rita, but by the time the fest opened on Friday, all the rain icons in the weather forecasts had been replaced by giant sun globes. This was, of course, a welcome development, not just as the bruises from Katrina were still plenty evident but given that Austin was playing host to thousands of Rita evacuees from Houston and Texas’ gulf coast, who were shoehorned into a town that had been booked solid months before.
But the effort that went into it was welcoming and well orchestrated. Aside from the usual traffic jumbles here and there, Austin didn’t break a sweat in accommodating the two groups (that said, about a dozen acts, including Bettye LaVette and Mindy Smith, were forced to cancel their appearances due to Rita’s effects on travel).
ACL Fest doesn’t have the persistent-but-diminished name recognition of Lollapalooza nor the potential for pure discovery of its citymate South by Southwest. But it does have impeccable organization and maintenance, and a reliably strong and varied (though not quite enough) lineup of alt-leaning bands, super-heavy on British and new-wave revivalists (the Kaiser Chiefs, the Bravery, Kasabian, Bloc Party, the Walkmen, Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand, to name seven of them) and bands that sound a whole lot like headliner Coldplay (the Doves, Keane).
Gospel, blues and country were to be found on the smaller corners only, and were often blown down by the rock sounds from the big stages. If anything, ACL could have used more sets like the Thievery Corporation’s, whose transglobal dance stew of reggae, funk, Indian music and hip-hop injected its giant, dried-out crowd masses with a dose of much-needed get-down.
Thievery was one of Friday’s highlights, but hardly the only one. The day opened with a strong and plenty humid set from Jacksonville, Fla.’s Mofro, whose gravel-driveway voiced singer, JJ Grey, unspoiled tales of swampland living over a groovy rhythm section.
The ultra-dependable Lucinda Williams tried out a number of seriously countrified new tracks on her Friday audience; Austin’s own Spoon unfurled their set to the rapturous hometown crowd. And for some pre-evening goodness, the peerless John Prine delivered the perfect sundown set, which drew liberally from his exquisite new “Fair and Square.” Prine dialed up a wistful “Glory of True Love,” the sweetly brushing “Taking a Walk” and “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” which includes a crack at George Bush that sneaks right up on you.
This was the opposite of the tack taken by Steve Earle, who, like a good number of acts, took shots at same, airing out the reggae gag “Condi Condi” and beckoning fans to the next day’s anti-war rally in D.C. “if that hurricane comes.” To close out Friday, the reconstituted Black Crowes rocked one end of the dust bowl; home-stater Lyle Lovett brought out Robert Earl Keen on the other.
Saturday brought a bit of lineup shuffling; Tracy Bonham stepped in to open the day on the AMD stage, recruiting members of Aqualung for her violin-addled confessionals and a ragged cover of “Black Dog” whose slapdashness was completely ingratiating, somehow. Sadly, Built To Spill was a disappointing snore and a half. Doug Martsch’s shoegazing comes off OK in clubs, but during a sweltering afternoon it’s just boring. Surprisingly effective to that end was Martin Sexton, who did his Jack Johnson-with-a-smirking-groove thing to a large and receptive crowd.
Fests like ACL bring up great little juxtapositions like this: On one side of the field, Death Cab For Cutie was dialing up “O.C.”-ready indie rock, while Robert Randolph on the other was firing away 60 minutes of nonstop, bass-driven funk, kicked off by a reverent and rolling cover of “Billie Jean” and capped by a potent riff on Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” Randolph would later materialize during one of Widespread Panic’s somewhat head-scratching two sets.
Saturday closed with a typically workmanlike and inspired performance from the Drive-By Truckers, whose Patterson Hood drove the band nonstop through newer tracks like the once-again-timely “Puttin’ People on the Moon” and time-tested rockers like the Dixie-rock history lesson “Ronnie and Neil.” These guys are just headliners in waiting.
Headlining on the other side of the slope was Oasis, who largely phoned in its oddly ragged set, though things picked up during a rubbery “Lyla” and a soaring “Live Forever,” dedicated by Liam Gallagher to New Orleans. As could be expected, a number of acts did the same for the Crescent City and the Gulf Coast: Earle rocked through “Home to Houston” and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band amassed such a massive throng on the smaller Capital Metro stage that they were often invisible.
Day three of the festival proved a record setting one. Not because of the music, but the mercury — afternoon temperatures hit a sandal-frying 108 degrees. Appealing girl group Eisley opened the day by thanking the healthy crowd that stuck around for its pretty, dreamy pop; Coldplay’s Chris Martin closed it by thanking the 60,000 who caught the Brits’ headlining set in song — a smart move that was theatrical enough to make one wonder if it was Gwyneth’s idea.
Rachael Yamagata’s dark and musty voice snuggled nicely into her rocked-up arrangements, particularly on theatrically tinged tracks like “Happenstance,” where she came off as a more muscular Fiona Apple. Doves and Rilo Kiley drew slots playing under the right-overhead sun, but the latter especially drove through on goodwill anyway. The Kaiser Chiefs rewarded its fans with an instantly bounding taken on the unstoppable “I Predict A Riot.” And Jason Mraz and his cheeky pop-rap, somewhere between Young MC and a voice that can be not too far off Broadway, got the ladies squealing on lightweight but sticky tracks like “Geek in the Pink” and a version of “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)” that featured a little cameo from “Wonderwall.”
From there, the day belonged to the critical darlings, starting with Montreal’s Arcade Fire, whose all-black attire and massive array of instrumentation (five core members, a half-dozen guests, a French horn, two violins, an accordionist and a guy who beat on helmets like Fred Flintstone) gave them the day’s biggest E for effort. Undaunted by the giant crowd amassed before them, the Fire lived up to every last syllable of their press barrage, presenting a unified wall of sound that managed to be moody and melancholy one minute and wildly inspirational the next. “More people should listen to the Arcade Fire,” Coldplay’s Martin sang midway through his band’s set. At the very least, more people in Austin probably are.
The draw of fests like these is the ability to see loads of bands at the same time; the drawback is that sometimes Wilco and Franz Ferdinand are playing at the same time a half-mile away from each other. Jeff Tweedy and his band opened with a raucous “Kingpin” that found the unusually high-spirited frontman baiting the crowd into whooing like a well, heavy metal drummer. But the band was equally effective pulling back into a shimmering “Handshake Drugs” and a duly hammering “I am Trying To Break Your Heart.”
Franz Ferdinand debuted a number of tracks from the new album “You Could Have It So Much Better,” alongside its reheated new-wave material like smash single “Take Me Out” and set-closer “This Fire,” proving once again that you don’t have to do necessarily anything new to get a rock-thirsty crowd jumping.
Which is, of course, the approach taken by headliners Coldplay, but the erstwhile Brits did the rarest thing: a 90-minute hit-laden tour de force that justified its astounding hype. In fact, the band’s only misstep was its black wardrobe, leading Martin to wish his band was more like Velvet Revolver, where “shirts are optional.”
Martin opened an amended “Politik” for the occasion — “Give us Franz Ferdinand, the Arcade Fire, Coldplay / Thanks for waiting in the heat all day” — which was cheesy as all get-out but worked spectacularly, as did his propensity for cathartic and soaring sing-alongs and his trip to the makeshift soundbooth, where he sang a few verses deep within the thick crowd.
Even a tribute to Johnny Cash, which climaxed in a well-intentioned crowd singalong to “Ring of Fire” came off well. Coldplay’s records, for all their costly megaproduction, tend to come off chilly, but Martin, who was born to stand in front of audiences like this, was equal parts deferential and messianic, a near-perfect end to a heated weekend.