Washed out but not washed up? By Corinna Burford
At 8:30 pm on Saturday, October 11th, The Cure and the Kings of Leon were half through their headlining sets of Austin City Limits Festival weekend two, Day Two, when the rain came down. This wasn’t just a passing shower: instead, it was the kind of downpour one associates with the tropics… or disaster movies. And for the thousands of weekend two ticket holders it was a disaster of sorts. There were flash flood warnings through the night. Zilker Park, the Festival’s venue of eleven years, became a swamp and day three of the festival was cancelled for the first time in history. Refunds were issued and the masses found shelter in the frat-bars of Austin’s ‘Dirty 6th’ street.
Following years of increasing overcrowding issues at ACL, C3 (the organiser and one of Austin’s three leading events companies), had decided to expand ACL 2013 to two weekends for the first time – following the lead of Indio, California’s Coachella. And in terms of crowding the shift definitely worked. While weekend one was sold out, prices for the second were cut in half by resellers desperate to get them off their plates. From the punters’ perspective, the event was seemed much more manageable on all fronts – from watching performances, to better phone reception, to shorter wait-times in portaloo lines.
The move can also be seen in as part of a much larger commercial expansion process for C3. In the past few years they have taken over both Chicago’s Lollapalooza Festival and our own Big Day Out as well as gaining the booking rights to many more of Texas’ music venues. This swift growth, predictably, has come at a cost. Every year, the presence of consumer branding at ACL is more dominant. The stages, once named after Austin landmarks, now have Samsung, BMI, Bud Light, Honda, AMD and Austin Ventures in their titles. At the same time, the list of acts booked has pushed musical and cultural boundaries less and less. This year, for example, felt like a reunion of early 2000’s buzz bands, including the Queens of the Stone Age, Muse and the Kings of Leon, combined with an 80s pop revival involving the Cure and Lionel Richie.
Despite this middle-of-the-road trajectory, ACL 2013 did feature a number of worthwhile performances, from artists new and old. And luckily, as an Austin resident, I got to enjoy parts of all three days.
In keeping with tradition, Asleep At The Wheel christened the main stage (AMD) with their country swing at noon on Friday. Two-stepping their way through a set of standards, they helped early birds get their kicks before the Austin heat settled in for the day. Courtyard Hounds (Martie Maguire and Emily Robinson from the Dixie Chicks) helped maintain the stage’s Texas spirit from 2pm.
LA’s Local Natives charmed their audience with mellow west coasts sounds in the late afternoon sun. Despite being up against pop giants Fun, they drew a significant crowd. Combining jangling guitars, sweet harmonies and bright melodies, Local Natives carry off the indie/surf/pop formula beautifully.
In the early evening on the Zilker stage, JD McPherson channeled Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly in a lively rock ‘n’ roll-meets r ‘n’ b set while a predominantly young crowd danced as though it were 1958. The raw but rich energy in his vocals and the ease with which he moved through many a pentatonic riff proved that McPherson’s retro style is anything but shtick – this white boy has soul.
Austin legends The True Believers, who played the Zilker Stage on Saturday afternoon, were arguably the highlight of the festival. The band, which reformed for the first time in 25 years last September, played a powerful rock’n’roll set to an audience of old friends and new fans. Alejandro Escovedo, in his signature tight pants and perfectly coiffed hair, was at the top of his game – pumping up the audience, shimmying across the stage and jamming with guitarist Jon Dee Graham with raucous perfection. He announced, on a somewhat melancholy note, that these ACL shows were the last the band would play together for a while. Ending their recent stint here, at ACL, gives the past year an almost poetic arc for the True Believers – their reformation last year was spurred by the sudden passing of Brent Grulke, close friend, creative director of South By South West and central figure in the Austin music scene over the past 25 years. Their first show back was Grulkefest, a commemoration of Brent.
Shakey Graves, a much younger member of the Austin music scene, played an overlapping timeslot across the park (coincidentally, his real name is also Alejandro). This was his first performance in the city after a long period on the road, and he was welcomed with open arms by the mainly local audience. Despite his only accompaniment being a kick-drum and a guitar, Shakey Graves’ sound never feels lacking and he is definitely an artist to watch – especially as he continues to grow beyond Austin.
Wilco’s show at 6pm at the huge Samsung Galaxy stage was noticeably under attended – not surprising, given that they haven’t had a big release for over two years. Regardless, they played a solid set, weighted heavily towards the Television-influenced sounds of their post Sky Blue Sky (2007) material.
The name on everybody’s lips this ACL, however, was Kendrick Lamar. The Compton rapper was the only hip-hop artist on the bill and his performances at the festival were some of his best yet. The recent addition of a live band has given him a much bigger, more dynamic sound and a more confident stage presence – transforming Kendrick from an introverted studio genius to a genuinely engaging performer.
Shuggie Otis, on Sunday, was the act I was most looking forward to seeing. After disappearing for 20 plus years, Shuggie’s soul-funk sounds reemerged in full force this April, with the re-release of 1974’s classic Inspiration Information. Unfortunately, though, his live show was thoroughly disappointing, even leaving aside the terrible sound mixing. He seemed like a shell of his past self – his voice was weak, and his guitar playing average. A passer-by would never guess the scope of his multi-instrumental talent.
Both Sunday headliners (Lionel Richie and Atoms for Peace) put on impressive shows. Lionel was in great shape, and performed with physicality surprising for his 64 years. The blandness of his material, however, meant that I couldn’t handle the whole set – not enough ‘Nightshift’ too much ‘Hello’.
Atoms For Peace on the other hand, proved a very positive surprise. Despite consisting of four aging 90s stars (Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich of Radiohead, Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Joey Waronker from REM), their songs were exciting and original – filled with complex syncopation, truly taking advantage of the expert rhythm section. Their performance, too, was remarkably engaging. Thom Yorke’s demeanor was candid and enthusiastic (a far cry from his sullen, silent Radiohead persona) and the band worked together in a way that highlighted each member’s incredible talent – a true ‘supergroup’.
Neko Case, Dawes, Phosphorescent and The National were some of the acts I missed due to the second Day Three cancellation. C3 is planning to host two weekends again in 2014. All I can hope is that ACL retains a degree of its fading Texas soul and quality programming. Perhaps taking a leaf out of the booking styles of New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, Chicago’s Pitchfork Fest or Austin’s own FunFunFun Fest would do ACL some good – striving for legendary on one hand, and breaking new talent on the other.
On Sunday afternoon, after the worst of the storm had passed, the thousands of disappointed music fans watching football in bars around town were greeted with a very Austin surprise. Many bands began to announce free shows around downtown. By evening, the list included Atoms for Peace, Franz Ferdinand, and the Lone Bellow. The limited venue capacities and slushy streets meant that these shows couldn’t make up for a full day of programming, but they certainly sent a strong message – while you can cancel the festival, you can’t stop the music in this city.