By Mark Guarino
Hurricane Rita huffed and puffed but did not blow down the Austin City Limits Music Festival in late September. Because predictions said nearby Houston would suffer a direct hit, it was assumed fallout storms would force cancellations of a portion or all of the festivities in Austin.
Turned out Houston was largely spared and, besides the influx of its evacuees into Austin the same weekend, it was business as usual under the big sky of Zilker Park. The real terror turned out to be the heat. Austin baked in record-breaking temperatures dialed above 100 degrees all weekend — on Sunday, a high of 108. That was bad, but not as uncomfortable as it might have been considering festival organizers capped ticket sales at 65,000 people, a reduction from 75,000 last year. No doubt that prevented actual human melting, giving people more space to keep moving.
This was the fourth annual installment of ACL and already it is considered one of the nation’s leading destination festivals. Here is a weekend programmed with a wide range, where Texas eccentric Roky Erickson and Brit-pop snobs Oasis play back-to-back sets. Of course headliners like Wilco and Coldplay attract the swarms, but it was refreshing to see lesser-known artists like New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins play to crowds four times the size he’s used to back home.
Although Rita veered east, it was still on the minds of most people to the west. Steve Earle built his entire Friday afternoon set around the disaster, including Katrina, and connected the dots back to the White House. “Tomorrow, if the hurricane runs you out of here, head for Washington,” he said. By now, all the president’s men have been a bounty of inspiration for Earle and he has several albums to prove it. His setlist was almost all cherrypicked from those recent albums. Some were story songs, other outward protests, but driven by the Dukes, his band of hardcore country rockers, they were together slammed with indignation that felt very much tuned to the present day.
Daytime slots were filled by many marquee names in indie rock. Hype alone was enough to draw crowds, although some bands proved that when it came to playing a big festival stage as opposed to your friendly neighborhood rock club, they were lemmings.
The Fiery Furnaces played a disjointed shoegazing set Saturday. The idiosyncrasies of sibling duo Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger is what gives their albums their charm. But in performance, they felt distanced from any effort to make those songs sound compelling. The results were rushed fragments, with twisted guitars, stomping beats and vocals by Eleanor Friedberger that tended to be flat and tuneless.
If the description sounds too much like it was born from an art school senior project, then right across the quad from the Fiery Furnaces would have to be the Decemberists. This six-member Portland band dresses very self-consciously cute, with outfits that seem to have been plucked from the wardrobe department of a high school that does a lot of musicals. On Sunday, their set was extremely well mannered, with fey pop melodies, some with a sedate country rock glaze. If the Eagles went to grad school and traded their drugs for espresso, this may have well been the result.
The champion band of all rising newcomers was the Arcade Fire, from Montreal. Finally, here’s hype to believe: a triumphant live band that understands how to make a crowd reach a higher state of mind and body. Nine members set things off Sunday with songs that created a cacophony of sound, swirling into major dance grooves. Sure, their funeral dress — all black and long sleeves — looked half-baked in the cooking heat, but the band perfected a kind of controlled chaos that trumped intellectual posturing with primal drama.
Another band that lived up to expectation was Bloc Party, from England. If Coldplay is becoming the new U2, this band is right on cue to take their old spot. They opened their Saturday set with a song that surged forward, resulting in a kind of grand epic, sold sweetly through the falsetto singing of vocalist Kele Okereke. From there, the band introduced chiming guitars, buzzing bass lines and top flight energy that provided what were the essential ingredients for a dance-pop rave.
Many rock veterans were peppered into this year’s line-up and some proved they still have chapters to write. Bob Mould, who in 1998 said he would never play in a rock band again, showed up Sunday with a rock band that tore through a setlist of new songs plus Husker Du and Sugar favorites. In a foursome that included Jason Narducy of Verbow on bass and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, Mould bounced all over the stage playing solos that were dense and resilient.
Wilco debuted a new song but mostly stuck to material from its last two albums. Jeff Tweedy revealed his newfound thirst for audience participation and he wasn’t above stopping the show to beg for handclaps, singalongs and screaming. “Please God, show some enthusiasm,” he said.
With 130 bands spread over eight stages, where were all the Texans? Lyle Lovett and Spoon were obvious representatives, but for those wanting local color in a lower key had to show up at the Austin Ventures stage which featured mostly singer-songwriter fare. On Saturday, Bruce Robison played a sensible set of elegant honkytonk country, but once it got dark, the stage was set for psychedelic rock pioneer/casualty Roky Erickson. Erickson cut a strange figure, wobbling out like an Oompa Loompa and rocking a mullet to boot. But when he sang he sounded like a teenager stuck in a lost dimension. With his band the Explosives, he presented the eerie end of the early rock underground — the scuzz guitars and rumble beat of “White Faces” and “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer,” a rockabilly tune that sounded plucked from Chuck Berry’s catalog except for its demonic threat that is both childlike and terrifying.
An amusing highlight of Erickson’s set came at the start with the introduction by cigar-chomping Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman. Yes, Friedman is perfect political material — after assuring the crowd Erickson was his “spiritual advisor” and showering him with many other accolades, Friedman quickly took off before the first song was over.
Since a majority of New Orleans musicians are temporarily calling Austin home due to Hurricane Katrina, they were received especially well ACL weekend. The hottest dance party of the festival was when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band played to an overcapacity crowd spilling out of the gospel and blues tent. Likewise, Kermit Ruffins and his band the Barbecue Swingers brought the second line beat and his signature casual cool to his set Sunday. Both performances were capsules of the New Orleans spirit and became hopeful celebrations for the city’s rejuvenation.
The moneymakers for ACL were the late night headliners. They brought star power, but for some the calling card was long faded. Friday closed with the Black Crowes resurrecting the Southern rock boogie. Besides lead singer Chris Robinson demonstrating the many ways he knows how to wield a microphone stand, the bustling jams did not feel much more than revivalist posturing.
On Saturday, Oasis continued to prove why they are the most boring live band on the planet. Swagger used to have a kind of cache once, but to brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher, it typifies standing frozen and mumbling incoherencies. Sure, their older Brit-pop hits still maintain their sneering grandeur, but otherwise this band seems to be stuck in a holding pattern that has crossed the border into caricature.
Coldplay ended the weekend Sunday. A clear crowd-pleaser across the board, the band demonstrated they are much more of a muscular band in performance than would be expected. Lead singer Chris Martin continually sang the praises of his ACL mates the Arcade Fire and Franz Ferdinand while rising to the occasion to make his band’s music connect in visceral ways, which included dozens of giant yellow balloons lofted over the crowd during the song “Yellow.” The band transferred to a small, extended stage where, in stripped-down roots mode, they paid tribute to Johnny Cash with their song “Til Kingdom Come” which blended into the Cash signature, “Ring of Fire.”
For a festival on such a mass scale, ACL gave slots to many singer-songwriters with nothing at their disposal but their voice and guitar. Finding novel ways to expand his sound while still playing solo, Martin Sexton created many mesmerizing moments during his Saturday set.
But no slot seemed to defy the logic of the large-scale rock festival so completely than that of Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon of Phish. Facing each other and looking eye to eye, the guitarist and bassist interwove their instruments in instrumentals that were understated and frisky. Their Friday afternoon performance proved that, even in a setting where all gestures are supposed to be broad, simple and concise can pack thrills too.