Three days of sweat, rain and beautifully loud music have come to a close once again in Austin, Texas. The 11th Annual Austin City Limits Music Festival brought together a wide range of music, fans and even weather over the course of the weekend, making for 3 days of mostly fantastic experiences.
First, let’s talk about all aspects that make this festival significant. Since switching to micro-chipped wristbands last year, entering and exiting the festival runs smoother than ever, with wait times very minimal at most times of the day. The staff was present and assertive, but never bordered on overbearing or unreasonable. There were also plenty of volunteers both inside and outside the park ready to dispense information and help concertgoers. Both beverage and food tents were plentiful, with beverage tents all over the entire park so refueling or waiting in lines to do so was never a big deal. Thanks to incentives like the chance to win a car, people took an active role in keeping the park clean, collecting bottles and cans from attendees throughout the day. This means the grounds are much nicer throughout the weekend, which makes a subtle yet important difference.
Some of the negative aspects were beyond anybody’s control, but present nonetheless. The bathrooms to people ratio has always been unbalanced, so if you’re talking in lots of liquids (alcoholic or just hydrating) there was always a wait to access porta potties. This festival also draws what feels like a much older demographic than many other festivals due to the inclusion of such eclectic music styles. This means lots of chairs. Sure, there’s a no-chair area near the front of the stage, but when trying to stage-hop, seeing as many bands as you can, it feels like an epic journey to wade through the massive expanse of chairs to get remotely close to a stage. There should certainly be an area for people to casually enjoy the music but pushing it back a little further wouldn’t be a bad idea. But still, a mix of age groups is overall a good characteristic of a fest.
While the number of attendees this year isn’t the max the festival has attempted, it felt really crowded, with traffic jams resulting from crossing one stage’s area to get to another. The festival should either cut out a stage or two or lower the maximum number of ticket-holders. The thought of having to fight a sea of people to get across the park sometimes made the difference between catching a great band or not. This especially became a deal breaker when the rain poured or in the aftermath when highly trafficked areas turned into slippery fields of mud. Hopefully with expansion of the festival into two weekends next year they can lower the attendance each weekend to make for a less crowded experience. Now onto the music!
Friday – The archetypal beautiful day of great music.
Delta Spirit – It was thrilling to a see a crowd at least double the size they commanded last year at the festival. The band knew it too and put on an incredibly passionate set, kicking things off with a favorite from their first album, “People C’mon.” The set was a good mix of all three of their albums, with the obvious leanings toward the newest. Lead singer Matthew Vasquez was in sky-high spirits, asking the crowd to say hi to his mom who was watching the show. He also pulled off the most impressive on-stage stunt of the weekend: he climbed the speaker/stage rig almost to the very top, stopping every so often to wave to everyone. It was exciting to witness as few bands have this sort of reckless abandon that personifies the rock and roll attitude.
Tegan and Sara – This Canadian duo have steadily grown in popularity and critical acclaim, so seeing the sizable audience they commanded was great. The crowd was full of people jumping around to some of their best songs, including “Walking with a Ghost.” A particularly funny moment was when prior to playing a downbeat song Tegan said, “It’s too beautiful of a day and too beautiful of an audience for a song like this. Pretend we’re in a dark club and life sucks shit.” We did our best, but with such fun, rocking music it was hard to wipe the smile away.
Alabama Shakes – Making their Austin debut earlier this year at SxSW, word had gotten out just how incredible this band is, so the crowd for the Shakes dwarfed most audiences for the Barton Springs stage on Friday. Unfortunately, by the time I made my way over from Tegan and Sara the crowd was massive, so the band could only be enjoyed from incredibly far away. But even from a distance you could tell they had a new command of the stage not present during SxSW. The band seemed comfortable and even welcomed horn players on the stage to add flavor to the songs.
Weezer – To some this band is a textbook case of diminishing returns, with the last couple of albums being dreadful compared to their untouchable classic first two albums. With expectations lowered, Weezer brought their A-game, playing the best they’ve been in years, delighting the crowd whom sang along loudly to almost every song. The set focused on their earlier material, but when newer material appeared it was easily the best tracks from those albums. The band was loud and tight, opening with “My Name Is Jonas” and closing with “Undone (The Sweater Song).” More than anything, you could tell they were having a great time, especially guitarist Brian Bell, sporting a bowtie and goofy grin for the entire set.
Thievery Corporation – As the last notes of Weezer faded, the adjacent stage came to life with exotic beats and the slinky sensuality of Thievery Corporation. Wasting no time, “Lebanese Blonde,” appeared as the second song in their set. Despite the wildly different styles of dub, reggae and dance, complete with different vocalists for each, they kept the crowd engaged. Their audience seemed smaller than it should have been, but that was probably because M83 was also playing, splintering what was probably a very similar audience.
The Black Keys – It’s been quite a banner year for the duo. After release two incredibly popular albums the bands has been touring the world over, selling out huge arenas never meant to hear such gritty blues rock. Was the evening’s set near-identical to the same set they’ve been playing all tour? Yes. However, that doesn’t mean they didn’t provide pure guitar-shredding groove for everyone in attendance. The most memorable moment of the evening came during “Ten Cent Pistol” when during the breakdown they took a painfully extended pause, confusing some audience members into thinking the show was over, even chanting for an encore. After what seemed like ages the band roared back to life with the song, surprising many before rocking several more songs to make for an incredible end to the first night of the festival.
Saturday – Rain may dampen spirits, but not the rock!
Civil Twilight – Having never heard this band before, it was a pleasant surprise watching their performance. They had moody, atmospheric instrumentation reminiscent of The National but with vocals that conjured the sound of an early Bono (of U2). Their performance was intense, matching the overcast day. Easily the highlight was when they played a cover of the incredible Massive Attack song “Teardrop.” It was surprising coming from this band, but it worked well and left me with the desire to check out their records.
Rufus Wainwright – This quirky yet amazing singer took the stage wearing a multicolored zebra-striped suit. Armed with a great backing band and several backing singers, the man tore through a diverse set of songs from his first hit “April Fools” to songs from both his father, Loudon Wainwright and his mother, Kate McGarrigle. The man is as engaging and witty as ever, combining with that golden voice for an unbeatable combination.
Metric – These Canadians didn’t disappoint as they ripped through a set of high-energy tracks, especially from their latest release Synthetica. Lead singer Emily Haines was covered in sweat and red in the face by the time they played their incredible set closer, an acoustic version of “Gimme Sympathy.”
Band of Skulls – Halfway through their first song the rains came. Not just a sprinkle, either. No, it was a torrential downpour, surprising everyone in the crowd as people tried to hide under umbrellas or struggle to put on rain ponchos. The band continued on un-phased, playing a propulsive set of songs that reminded me of The Kills. Definitely a great band and worth checking out more of when not fighting to stay dry.
Punch Brothers – The rain continued through most of the Punch Brothers’ set though fortunately it lessened to a light spritz. Undeterred, the band ripped through a masterful set of neo-classical bluegrass numbers that pleased the crowd. While their instrumental cover of “Kid A” had wowed the SxSW crowd earlier this year, this rainy day audience had no patience for such indulgences, saving their enthusiasm for more hoedown-worthy numbers like “Rye Whiskey.”
Steve Earle – A living legend to many country music fans, the man and his talented band ripped through a set of crowd pleasers and politically-charged numbers to the delight of the smallish but dedicated crowd. Not that this is an indication of this Texas native’s popularity or ability. By this point in the evening many of the older crowd had left due to the soggy festival conditions or were staking out a good spot for Neil Young.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Breaks my heart to not have seen Jack White, one of my favorite artists. However, after seeing him up-close and personal during SxSW it seemed much more important this evening to witness the full performance of the incomparable Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Despite his age Neil still does solo tours fairly often, but to see him with the full Crazy Horse lineup? Now that was something truly special. As is their nature, the band opened with a near-twenty minute jam on the song “Love and Only Love” before tearing through a fantastic set. Material ranged from classic like “Down By The River,” to songs from his forthcoming album Psychedelic Pill. The crowd was definitely more relaxed and fewer in number than at The Black Keys last night, choosing instead to camp further back in folding chairs. Those up close however, experienced the performance of a lifetime from one of the defining musicians of the 20th century.
Sunday – A day of raw power and mud.
Die Antwoord – Maybe there was sizable spillover from those waiting to see Avett Brothers on the neighboring AMD stage, but regardless these South African hip hop/electronica artists had a large crowd, most of which was jumping around to the music. They did a great job at engaging the crowd, but personally it felt like a little too much crowd-hyping and instrumental dance breaks and not enough focus on rapping or vocals.
DJ Mel – The Weeknd were highly anticipated this weekend, but due to health issues of the lead singer, the band canceled very last minute. In their place was a DJ, spinning tracks to keep the crowd jumping. It certainly paled in comparison to seeing the band everyone wanted to see, but playing tracks from Jay-Z and Kanye West was a great way to pass time while waiting for the next act…
Iggy and the Stooges – This was one of the most incredible performances of the entire weekend! For a guy pushing 65, Iggy Pop has more stage presence, energy and vitality in concert than the majority of younger musicians appearing the entire weekend. The band plowed through a turbo-charged set of classics such as “Search and Destroy,” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The band laid a solid foundation for Iggy’s antics, demanding the crowd bum rush the stage and get up and dance with them. The best line of the night came when just before their second or third song Iggy said, “We’re the Stooges and we’re straight from hell!” Loud, exciting and dangerous, just like rock and roll should be.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Since there was no other act competing with them, this show was far more crowded than both the Black Keys and Neil Young. Anthony Kedis entered the stage wearing an Off! hat and Flea’s hair was dyed a bright purple so it definitely felt like the same band as always but something just didn’t quite sit right. Maybe it was their focus on their post-2000s output. In this writer’s opinion everything post-Californication has been incredibly lackluster. Their irreverence for the past (more fun) material created indifference in my weary legs that needed a reason to dance to keep motivated. Near the end of the set they played several tracks from the classic Blood Sugar Sex Magick, even busting out a 10 minute version of deep album cut “Sir Psycho Sexy” but by then their music was faintly in the distance. If only they did a better job of mixing up the old and new they could’ve kept an old school fan there a little bit longer. But that’s okay, a whole weekend of great music more than made up for a lackluster ending to what was another great year of fantastic music.
Jarad Matula | Senior Writer
Photos by Matthew Danser