Austin City Limits 2011
Diversity was the word of the weekend in Austin, as both weather and music were different by the hour or stage. From rain and shine to rock, dub, country and hip hop, Austin City Limits 2011 had everything. In general the festival went smoother than it ever has in years past. This was especially evident with entry and exit, as the new automated wristband scanning machines took out the majority of human and handheld scanner error from years past, making entry into the park no more than a 5 minute affair in most cases. Security was present and vigilant, but not overbearing or petty. Every day the park was packed, but rarely did the crowds feel overwhelming for anything except the nightly closers. The food was just as delicious as usual and did not disappoint. Bathroom lines were long at peak hours, just as expected. But this is standard for most festivals.
The only true daily nuisance was the sheer amount of flags and other “we’re here” signals. In years past they were plentiful, but this year it seemed like more people had them than did not, and at times it made seeing the stage from anywhere but up front obstructed. It’s important to find your friends, but more important to respect your fellow concert-goers so as many people get to see the performances as clearly as possible. With the general festival atmosphere and issues addressed, let’s talk about the day to day performances.
Friday: A searing day of heat with a brief blast of rain early in the day.
The Secret Sisters – With no stage adornments or additional musicians, The Secret Sisters took the stage, armed with only a single guitar and two of the most gorgeous female voices to emerge in music in a long time. “We’re gonna depress you with some sad old country music,” was met with a great chuckle from audience as they drenched the audience in amazing harmonies. They performed thoughtful originals and some outstanding covers of everything from Hank Williams and Patsy Cline to the Everly Brothers.
Delta Spirit – “We’re the only rock band on this stage today…and we’re proud,” singer Matthew Vasquez stated as the band tore through a set of raucous and rowdy tunes that played out like Woody Guthrie through a punk rock filter with some Neil Young tendencies. A heartfelt moment came when he dedicated “People C’mon” to the fire victims of Bastrop County.Smith Westerns – Weekend by 247QM
Smith Westerns – These guys were a total surprise. Their album is very enjoyable, but the live performance comes off differently. Much mellower in-person, they’re the hit indie rock band that is secretly closer to a classic rock than anything on college radio these days. Perfect laying on your blanket spacing out type music.
Big Boi – Everything you want and more. He has undeniable swagger and charisma. He knows how to get a whole audience hopping, playing something from every stage in his career and unlike many big artists, completely unafraid of playing his hits. This surprised and delighted the whole enraptured audience.
Bright Eyes – Just as powerful and relevant as ever, Bright Eyes stormed the AMD stage with a set of mostly newer material, flavored with trumpet solos that made some songs take on an almost Morricone-esque feel. The whole audience was surprised and delighted when oldie but fan favorite “The Calendar Hung Itself” appeared. The band was tight and hit hard, much more rock-oriented than any previous incarnation of Oberst’s seminal group.
Pretty Lights – On the way to get a good spot for Kanye this band’s visually arresting stage presence caught many an attendee’s eye and held their attention with catchy, incredibly danceable electronic beats.
Kanye West – Some may accuse him of being hot-headed and controversial just for the sake of it, but fortunately that sense of drama translates into high-level theatricality in his stage performances. Ballerinas thrashed around in front of a backdrop that wouldn’t be out of place in Renaissance-era Italy as the operatic instrumental of “H.A.M.” blared. Suddenly, Kanye appears on a crane in the middle of the audience, rapping. It was an incredible way to start a show and the theatrics didn’t stop there as the concert was broken up into 3 “Acts” where he performed songs from all stages of his career, yet carefully put together in acts, almost to tell a story of Kanye and his mentality. The entire time the audience was wild, dancing, singing along and throwing their Roc-signs in the air in what was possibly the best show of ACL 2011.
Saturday: It started out as a spirit-dampening rainout but gave way to a beautiful evening of cool temperatures and hot performances.
City and Colour – At times electric and brooding impressionistic touches of the Grateful Dead, and at other times acoustic country twang; who knew a post-hardcore musician could produce such tender music. This was another one that left this audience member completely caught off guard.
Cee Lo – This was the strangest audience yet. Despite having amassed a huge crowd, many were incredibly apathetic, only getting mildly interactive when he played his biggest hits or elicited a call and response action. Despite some sound problems, Cee Lo pressed, trying his hardest to put on a great show. The biggest response was of course to current radio staple “Fuck You” but the truly inspired moments came when older songs took on dramatic new atmospheres with full band execution, such as “Closet Freak” or “Crazy.”My Name Is Skrillex by skrillex
Skrillex – Never underestimate the hypnotic power of a bass-ridden beat. Like flies on flypaper, anyone who passed by Skrillex was stuck. They had to stop and stare at not only the amazing music and spirited interaction of the man himself, but to look on in awe at the first half of the crowd as they waved their arms in unison. Playing long but never boring mixes, Skrillex knows how to work audience, hyping them up with sounds and dropping the beat right when people need it most. It’s a fine art and this man certainly proved his craftsmanship, no doubt earning some new fans that day. Despite being and outdoors and a drizzle of rain, Skrillex commanded a club atmosphere.
TV On The Radio – If a band lives up to all the hype, it is these gentlemen. The energy maintained from even the very first song was incredible. Playing old and new tracks throughout, the crowd became an explosion of dancing when they launched into “Wolf Like Me” and carried through until the last notes of set closer “Repetition.” Even those not as familiar with the band seemed to appreciate the amount of musicianship and passion they brought to their set.
My Morning Jacket – The sound blared and the band embraced their more “wall of sound” tendencies as they ripped through a set that included new songs, but was heavy on the back catalog by including crowd pleasers “Mahgeetah” and “One Big Holiday.” They even including a guest appearance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Stevie Wonder – Arriving a little later than expected, Stevie appeared on stage wearing a keytar and huge smile. For almost two hours he proceeded to tear through hit after hit, and not just his. Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Fell” made a surprise appearance and Motown classic “How Sweet It Is” had the whole crowd singing and swaying. He interacted with the audience and drew a big reaction when playing mega-hit “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” To witness a legend in action you couldn’t ask for much more.
Sunday: Back to blistering heat with slight teases of rain and cool evening breezes.
AWOLNATION – What energetic and fantastic performers. The singer crowd-surfed and sang in the audience and did everything within their power to captivate the midday audience as best they could. They certainly made fans with such a great performance and even got a surprise cheer and fist-pump as they teased Rage Against The Machine’s classic “Bulls On Parade” just before leaving the stage.
Broken Social Scene – This band functioned something like large machinery — slow to start with a laid back groove, but once they got warmed up, they were firing on all pistons with some spirited performances. A mellow cover of Modest Mouse’s “The World At Large,” was included in the set, as well as a few saxophone solos. It was nice to see them again before their next hiatus.
Elbow – Simply hypnotic. It’s the only way to describe this set. Through each song they wove a feeling of emotional ennui and sadness with defiant yet hushed-intimacy. It was a sharp contrast to the sunlight and party-like atmosphere of the rest of the day. Those who were in attendance felt something strange and unique when Elbow took the stage. From newer songs to fan favorite “Grounds for Divorce” the band never let up, giving everyone something truly special and unique, like bottled lightning.
Death From Above 1979 – They thrashed and screamed and the audience moved right along with them in what looked like the biggest group catharsis of the festival. The amount of “umph” and manic energy put into their shows inspired everyone who saw it. Certainly more than a few people in the crowd hoped this was new beginnings for group, not a final glimpse in the rear-view mirror of raw rocking explosiveness.
Fleet Foxes – With all of the flags and banners flapping in the breeze and Fleet Foxes’ beautiful yet archaic sounding chords and harmonies it felt like a renaissance festival. That’s not disparaging at all the by the way. There was a gentle beauty to their performance that captivated the audience, everyone a little more introspective for witnessing it. Some lie on blankets communing with the sky, others hula-hooped and some stared at the stage as if absorbing the words of a latter-day prophet.
Social Distortion – There is something incredibly satisfying about a punk rock show. Maybe it’s the shared energy of defiance, maybe it’s just good tunes. Whatever the combination, it was wholeheartedly present as Social Distortion took the stage at nightfall. They ripped through classics like “Bad Luck” and newer gems like “Machine Gun Blues” blended seamlessly with the older tracks. The audience, a wide cross-section of people, kicked, thrashed and bobbed along to every song. Despite their punk roots the band were humble and appreciative, saying they liked being invited to ACL and how much they enjoy Austin’s friendliness compared to the “assholes” of California, which caused many cheers of pride from the crowd. Combine rock solid performance, humble and engaging performers and a huge catalog of some of the best anti-establishment songs of the past 30 years and you have what was to many the highlight performance of Sunday’s offerings.
Arcade Fire – Returning to Austin for the 2nd time this year, the band put on yet another spirited and unforgettable performance. After set opener “Ready to Start” Win Butler thanked Austin, saying, “We said this last night at our ACL taping and we’ll say it again, this feels like out home town performance in the States. We love Austin and begged them to let us come play ACL again.” The crowd erupted in cheers at this and the band proceeded to play a fantastic set heavy on latest opus The Suburbs, but didn’t leave out any gems from the first two albums, even including rarely played live Suburbs outtake “Speaking In Tongues,” which was recently released on the deluxe edition of the album. The band rotated through instruments and chairs like a traveling circus, showing off their diverse and incredibly deft musicianship. Throughout the performance they commanded the audience’s attention proving why they are worthy of their Grammy and why they are one of the best, most socially relevant bands working in the mainstream today, ending the 10th Annual Austin City Limits Festival with one of the best performances of its history.
Thank you Austin City Limits!
Written by Jarad Matula
Photos from Matt Danser