Austin City Limits Music Festival 2011 Recap 

Austin City Limits Music Festival 2011 Recap 

Going all out for its 10th edition, the annual Austin City Limits Festival was the usual mix of veteran favorites (Arcade Fire, Coldplay) and living legends (Stevie Wonder, Randy Newman), and one first-timer who’s already a legend in his own mind (Kanye West). It was also the usual mix of niche indie acts suddenly thrust onto giant stages, festival-goers making their own unlikely bids for attention via ridiculous headgear and handcrafted flags, and, of course, hot and humid weather, with Austin ending a nearly four-month drought just in time for the one weekend everyone goes outdoors. Oh, and Christian Bale and Terrence Malick were there filming a suitably mysterious project, just because. So was The A.V. Club—we didn’t film anything, but we were there for all three sold-out days—and here’s what we could salvage from our sweat-and-rain-soaked notes.   

FRIDAY

YES
The Secret Sisters make it pretty easy to fall in love with them: They do their hair with ’50s-pinup panache, dress with monochromatic, period-piece class, and—even better for an ACL crowd—they have quite a few nice things to say about Willie Nelson. Laura and Lydia Rogers (yes, actual sisters) have about as many covers as original compositions, but you never get the feeling they’re playing Hank Williams songs out of a lack of material—it’s simply what they love. With their sharp, interlocking voices and just a single acoustic guitar between them, their eons-old-yet-timeless country tunes were more than capable of filling up the Google+ stage’s real estate. Not like they had to do much convincing: The traditionally folkie ACL crowd seemed like they were sold before the Sisters even started playing. [Luke Winkie]

• The hype may have moved on, but Fool’s Gold remains an effortlessly effective live band. Buoyant African-inspired pop tends to go down soft, and the group’s live incarnation is accordingly fluffy, made by six dudes who radiate nothing but love in sunny, shuffling tunes like “Surprise Hotel.” It was catchy and catching: By the time the group closed out, most of the (mostly young) audience was moshing as happily as one can mosh. Given the group’s niche appeal, plenty of onlookers were likely there just to bide time for later acts or out of curiosity, but Fool’s Gold proved quite adept at sweeping everyone up in their globe-trotting sound. [LW]

• “The Dirty South is in the house, y’all,” announced a member of Big Boi’s entourage, just before Outkast’s less-weird half took the stage. For a festival with a notorious hip-hop problem like ACL (where normally you’re lucky just to catch a single token act like Mos Def or Common), it was a clarion call that hopefully heralds a shift in ACL’s future. If the rush of Kanye-related ticket sales weren’t enough to convince organizers that hip-hop has a viable place in Zilker Park, they should have been swayed by the vast sea of hands that went up on the bouncing chorus of “Follow Us,” just one of the many moments when Big Boi—who prowled the stage like a panther, breathlessly bowling through his rat-a-tat lyrics—infused the festival with some much-needed midday energy. While other Sir Lucious songs like “General Patton” radiated the kind of swaggering, aggressive vibes that may have scared ACL into shying away from rap acts in general, Big Boi’s set was also heavy on sing-along Outkast party-starters like “Rosa Parks,” “Ms. Jackson,” and “Bombs Over Baghdad,” which hopefully argued for letting a little more Dirty South—and other far-flung corners of hip-hop—in the house in the future. [Sean O’Neal]

• Flown in via elevated platform to a stage where a troupe of ballet dancers were already contorting themselves in front of an ornate Gothic backdrop, Kanye West created drama before he said a single word, his entrance literally trumpeted by the Howard Shore-esque overture of “H.A.M.” before he finally touched down to launch properly into “Dark Fantasy.” It was an overblown beginning to a predictably overblown show from an overblown persona—a set so theatrical it was broken into three acts. Yet it was also surprisingly streamlined, with Kanye going it nearly alone with nothing but himself and a mic. And his interpretive dancers and giant fucking lasers, of course. But for the most part it was a no-waiting, no-frills run through a set heavy on hits, from the early punch of “Jesus Walks” through equally crowd-pleasing hits like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Stronger,” “Good Life,” “Touch The Sky,” and “All Falls Down.” Kanye even forgot to bring his baggage: While he’s developed a reputation for having just a teensy, eensy bit of a persecution complex and turning his concerts into therapy sessions, here he was remarkably restrained. That was much to the disappointment of us media types, whose efforts at “mind control” Kanye excoriated with a little Auto-Tuned flavor during the breakdown of “Heartless,” speak-singing that he couldn’t “talk my shit” thanks not only to the impending “curfew, because they gonna pull the plug on me,” but also because he didn’t want to be “blackballed for two years” should any of us reporter-types in the crowd catch him speaking the “truth.”

Of course, he didn’t really have anything to worry about. Other than a bizarre ramble in that song’s same stream-of-consciousness coda about how there was “no Gucci I can buy / No Louis Vitton I can put on / No clothes I can buy that can turn back time” (uh… okay), Kanye mostly stuck to the lyrical script, thereby thwarting our nefarious plans to make him seem kind of spoiled and silly. In fact, he was mostly in a sentimental mood, even paying double tribute to self-proclaimed role model Michael Jackson by following “Flashing Lights” with a sample of “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” and demanding everyone “put their hands up for MJ,” then later restarting “All Of The Lights” to exhort them to yell, “MJ gone—our nigga dead” loud enough for his satisfaction. Finally, “Act 3” consisted almost entirely of a drawn-out version of “Runaway” in which he offered a repeated pleading refrain for lovers to hold each other tight, a bit of cloying sincerity that sounded increasingly lonely and desperate each time it was repeated. 

Some of that sentimentality may have been due to, as West explained, this being the last night of his current stage show; or maybe it was just that he was tired and slightly vulnerable, apologizing for a hoarse voice (“I just got off a plane from London,” he sort-of explained) and noticeably frustrated with the occasional sound problems. Or maybe it was just due to being all alone (except for his ever-present dancers), as the weeks-long rumors that he’d be joined by Jay-Z began to evaporate after the latter failed to materialize during “Monster”—and were completely obliterated after the tease of “Run This Town,” which consisted of only Kanye’s verse. By the time he hit closer “Lost In The World,” it seemed like Kanye meant it. Still, a little vulnerability looks good on him. His instant-classic ACL set was free of bullshit, strong on showmanship, and summarily disappointed anyone who may have turned up looking for new reason to hate him. How are we supposed to exert our mind control when he does that?! [SO]

NO
Wild Beasts have three records of beautiful, confounding, and genuinely idiosyncratic art rock to their name. Their densely layered, studio-fussed compositions are truly impressive when they’re given the chance for close consideration—much less so during an early-hour outdoor festival set, where most people were paying cursory attention at best. It’s not that Wild Beasts didn’t sound good; pulsing, sprawling songs like “Lion’s Share” may have grown narrower in the sun, but still evoked a one-of-a-kind, abstract beauty. It’s just that the time of day when most of the audience is just arriving and getting settled offers far too many distractions for those subtleties to become a truly spiritual experience. [LW]

MAYBE
• Far more suited for a 3 a.m. comedown in a dark, quiet room than a 3 p.m. outdoor set in the Austin sun, James Blake commendably didn’t try to change up his style just to suit his surroundings. Though he occasionally boosted the drone of his analog synths to a jet-engine scream, his glitchy soul collages sounded as gorgeously fragile as ever—and of course, the crowd mercilessly stomped on them, talking loudly over his set after almost immediately giving up on trying to catch hold of the slippery rhythms of opener “Unluck.” To his credit, the commotion didn’t affect Blake, who remained charmingly, British-ly gracious (“Thank you ever so much,” he said repeatedly) as he proceeded unhurried through quiet torch songs like “Limit To Your Love,” all while visibly shrinking behind his bank of keyboards. And yes, there were moments both spellbinding (“I Never Learnt To Share,” with Blake’s multi-tracked harmonies building to a chill-inducing swirl) and downright groovy (the schizo R&B of “CMYK”—its U.S. debut, according to Blake). But by the time Blake closed with the hypnotic “Wilhelms Scream,” the audience had long since broken free of his trance and noisily dispersed elsewhere. It was a textbook example of how music festivals are often pretty shitty places to, y’know, listen to music. [SO] 

• The Colorado-based Pretty Lights—a.k.a. Derek Smith—lived up to his stage name with a retina-scorching backdrop of flashing, multicolored illuminations that resembled a Nintendo on the fritz, all strobing in time to his hip-hop-inflected rave sounds. Like his music, it was both entrancing and sort of overbearing: Smith’s non-stop sample party was perfectly timed for a just-after-sunset hour when the booze (and other substances) kicked in, rolling along on monster beats, hive-of-bees synth lines, and Smith’s constant exhortations that the crowd “put your fucking hands up.” It also benefitted heavily from its stage position just across the way from where Kanye West was setting up—a crossover crowd Smith acknowledged with a frenetic remix of “All Of The Lights” just before departing. But remove any element of that context, and Pretty Lights is just as proudly style-over-substance as the name sounds. Pretty lights, though. [SO]

BONUS
Coldplay’s Austin City Limits taping was for an episode that wouldn’t air until New Year’s Eve, which may explain why the band took the stage to Alan Silvestri’s overture from Back To The Future. Actually, no, that probably doesn’t explain anything, but when it comes to Coldplay and its safely straightforward, no-surprises music, any hint of weirdness is welcome—which may be why the stage was doused in so much DayGlo paint, it seemed like it might break out into a Blue Man Group show any minute. The audience was drawn into the band’s little time-travel ruse, asked to don special luminescent T-shirts and do a countdown to midnight (complete with traditional lovers’ kiss) following “Viva La Vida,” but this was about as unusual as things got during an otherwise predictably, predictably just-fine set of epic, sort-of-rocking hits like “Yellow,” “Lost,” “The Scientist,” “Clocks,” and closer “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall,” which should have achieved the same sort of drilled-into-your-subconscious, how-do-I-know-all-the-words-to-this? ubiquity by the time the episode actually airs. Anyway, I guess I’ve now spoiled the illusion for you. That episode was not really taped on New Year’s Eve! Tell everyone! [SO]

SEEN & HEARD
• A quartet of dudes who looked as though they wandered out of the “Sabotage” video—all fake mustaches, Hawaiian shirts, aviators, and too-short chinos—walking toward Fool’s Gold. The same group was later seen drinking (sans mustaches) in a Barton Springs-area bar. [LW]

• Two guys in the same throwback Julius Erving jerseys eyeing each other suspiciously. [LW]

• A young boy—with a terrified look on his face—crowd-surfing before Kanye. A solid portion of the crowd began chanting, “WHERE’S YOUR MOM? WHERE’S YOUR MOM?” [LW]

•  “Have you heard of Foursquare? It’s like the next big thing in social media!” —some guy who probably thinks Cold War Kids are the newest buzz band. [LW]

• Flag/sign watch: 

- A returning favorite from last year, the cardboard dick-and-balls with “GO NUTS” on one side and “CUM HITHER” on the other. Nice to see you again, old friend. [SO]

- “RESPECT THE BURN BAN, BITCHES. NO SMOKING.” — a large sign carried by a guy who was way too young to look that serious and humorless. Also, people were smoking. Didn’t they see his sign?! [SO]

• Stupid hat watch: Four dudes in brightly colored felt hats shaped like chickens, complete with beaks and feathered tails. Whenever they were separated and trying to find each other again, they called out, “Chicken heads! Chicken heads!” This was incredibly funny (to them). [SO]


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SATURDAY

YES
Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr. doesn’t really do modesty. In fact, he’s on record saying that he’s in the business for the money. Decked out in a trendy wardrobe and equally chic haircut, Lewis made those aspirations obvious on the Google+ stage: His banter was politely snobbish, his band looked appropriately aloof, and he let the unironic indulgence of his songs fly, from the snaky, icy ’80s synths of “Castles In The Snow” to the enthusiastically sexed-up “Slow.” Twin Shadow is an entity that gets off on the politics of being on a stage, surrounded by supporters that allow it to believe its own hype and wipe away any hint of blushing. And for those 45 minutes, George Lewis Jr. was exactly what he wanted to be: an avatar of pop success, an icon, a hero, and, most importantly, everyone’s favorite band. His outsized set made a convincing argument for graduation to an even bigger stage, one to match the ambitious scale he’s working on. [LW]

Iron And Wine’s Sam Beam entered the stage humbly in a dour black overcoat, boasting matted hair and a neatly trimmed beard, and ACL’s audience—many of whom probably would’ve been fine with him being the undisputed headliner—went completely apeshit. Never one to be overwhelmed by attention, Beam laid out a plainspoken battle plan and got nearly all of his banter out of the way up front: “We’re gonna play some songs and check back in every now and then. Thanks for coming. Be safe.” The man has come a long way since his demos first made Sub Pop swoon; you could almost call him a pop star, even as newer folkies like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes may have superseded his notoriety in his own idiom. Still, Beam made a convincing argument for himself: Backed by a sprawling live band, his hushed folk staples were reworked into full-bodied bangers like “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven,” which was translated into pure honky-tonk. There were moments when the band ditched the semblance of sustained melody completely and seemed happy to just jam out, a privilege earned by few acts. Iron And Wine didn’t pull off all its Phish-isms with total grace, but watching Beam transform his oldest compositions into festival-filling movements was like witnessing a championship victory for a longtime underdog. [LW]

• Obviously shaped by this year’s aggressive festival regimen, TV On The Radio has learned to mold its sets to suit a bigger stage—and here it launched into a run of its punchiest songs that was as blunt and built for speed as Kyp Malone’s newly shorn and streamlined Afro. Opening with an urgent version of “Halfway Home” and concluding with a fiery triptych of “Repetition,” “Staring At The Sun,” and “Wolf Like Me” that connected the dots between the various high points of its already-considerable career, the band made the most of its pre-Stevie Wonder timeslot by ensuring no one could ignore it—even if Malone’s utterance of “Stevie Wonder! Seriously, what time is it?” suggested he was anxious to get there himself. The set stuck primarily to barn-burners like “Red Dress” and “Caffeinated Consciousness,” easing up only for Nine Types Of Light’s slinky “Will Do” and “Second Song.” Of course, all of that aggressiveness didn’t stop a very noticeable Christian Bale from mostly just staring at his phone from a few paces away. But there’s probably no amount of festival sets that will help you figure out how to impress that guy. [SO]

NO
• Perhaps it’s unfair to demand that Cee Lo Green deliver anything more than a solid run-through of his songs. But damn it, he’s the one who’s developed the reputation for dressing like some sort of outré, modern-day Elton John and hitting otherworldly vocal highs, so it was a disappointment to see him take the stage in nothing but a modest Adidas tracksuit and perform a set equally stripped of verve. Granted, the brief burst of rain had turned Zilker Park somewhat muggy, so it was hardly outrageous costume weather. But the lack of flash was part of an overall dampening of high expectations—one that definitely could also be blamed on the horrible, horribly frustrating volume problems that plagued the Bud Light stage all day, foreshadowing the forthcoming Stevie Wonder disaster. Cee Lo himself tried hard to get the audience excited about his “raw sexuality”—certainly aided by a band that consisted of nothing but pretty, busty ladies in revealing uniforms—and repeatedly chided the crowd for seeming tired. (“I’m 230 pounds and I ain’t tired!” he yelled at one point, though his frequent bouts of mid-song breathlessness argued otherwise.) 

Unfortunately, that energy never fully translated to the set, which, after the spy-movie bombast of opener “Bright Lights, Big City,” became a very mixed bag, with highlights such as Gnarls Barkley’s “Run” and “Gone Daddy Gone” barely making up for silly-stupid diversions like a gender-flipped version of the (Cee Lo-produced) Pussycat Dolls track “Don’t Cha” and a dull, rock-inflected take on “Crazy” (with Cee Lo working a bit of Moby’s “Natural Blues” into the coda) that only advertised how bored he must be with that song. In that case, he must be downright exhausted with “Fuck You,” bringing out Austin’s own The Voice contestant Nakia to carry most of the tune, which then segued into a bizarre, pointless jam on The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah.” Combined with the sound frustratingly dipping in and out, and the way Cee Lo’s voice never hit one of those wow-inducing moments for which he’s so famous, the peaks and valleys in momentum were ultimately too much, and Cee Lo walked away with a barely okay set that had every potential to be great. [SO]

MAYBE
Stevie Wonder was the very definition of a “maybe” set. Was it good? Maybe. Who the hell could tell, thanks to one of the worst sound mixes in the history of ACL’s 10-year run. Perhaps Kanye West’s set from the previous night blew out half the speakers on the Bud Light stage, but whatever the reason, Wonder’s performance was almost completely inaudible from about 75 to 100 yards back, frustrating a massive crowd that strained to hear and chanted, “Turn it up!” even as he was playing. Wonder certainly looked like he was giving it his all: Dressed in a red and gold dashiki and rocking a keytar—occasionally dropping to his knees and then flat on his back to waggle out the notes—he was all smiles and exhortations for everyone to come together in unity and harmony, which was unfortunately impossible, seeing as more than half the crowd couldn’t hear a fucking word he was saying. (The insanely loud, distorted juggernaut that was the My Morning Jacket stage certainly didn’t help, drowning things out all the way from the complete opposite end of the park.) 

As everyone tried hard to curtail their own conversations—which should indicate how severe the problem was—they could just barely make out what sounded like covers of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” alongside Wonder favorites like “Higher Ground,” “Living For The City,” and “Ribbon In The Sky.” Then they would gently whisper-sing along, mindful of how easily they could lose the song completely. Judging from accounts by the people who showed up several hours early to camp out next to the soundboard or closer, it was a joyous, revelatory experience. For about 75 percent of the audience (most of whom gave up and left about halfway through), it was that time they sort-of saw Stevie Wonder. [SO]

SEEN & HEARD
•  “You realize we’re basically watching a Widespread Panic show” —some guy during a particularly lengthy Iron & Wine jam. [LW]

•  “Everyone here just knows him because of Twilight.” —a girl who probably owned Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank The Cradle in middle school. [LW]

•  “It’s like the Nickelback of dance music” —exasperated dude (and probable Resident Advisor reader) storming away from Skrillex’s wonk-heavy set. [LW]

• The TV On The Radio crowd slowly starting to chant “CHRISTIAN! CHRISTIAN!” when it became abundantly clear that it was, in fact, Christian Bale on the side stage. [LW]

• “Man, remember when we looked forward to music festivals?” —two very tired looking journalists (not us!) strung out in the media lounge. [LW]

• “Stevie Wonder really bombed at #ACL tonight. Don’t start concert telling us to vote for #Obama and don't tell #Texas to get rid of our guns!” —a person on Twitter who, even given the iffy sound, heard some things we’re not sure anyone else did. [SO]

• Flag/sign watch:

  • In a sea of same-y Texas state flags and frat letters, two guys figured out a way to ensure they’d never lose each other in the crowd by blowing up photos of their own heads into four-foot wide signs. [SO]
  • This year’s most popular motif: Family Guy, from the strange, giant Stewie-with-skeleton-body contraption to the handmade “Petoria” replica. [SO]
  • “ACL GONE WILD FILM CREW—CLOTHING OPTIONAL ZONE” being held aloft by a group consisting of two (thankfully clothed) creepy couples in their mid-to-late 40s…
  • …one of whom was also wearing a cardboard sign around his neck that read “DIRTY JOKES $1.” You probably don’t want to know what these people get up to in the privacy of their own homes. [SO]

• Stupid hat watch: Apparently unsatisfied with merely wearing a stupid knit hat in the middle of an oppressively humid, 95-degree Austin day, one guy went all out and dressed entirely as Waldo, complete with striped sweater and oversized glasses. Get it? I’m Waldo, and I’m in a crowd, and it’s like, “Where’s Waldo?” Yes, we get it. You’re sweating like an idiot. [SO]

SUNDAY

YES
• The brief bursts of rain that had left Zilker Park slightly cooler than expected on Friday and Saturday gave way to a more familiar sweltering heat by Sunday afternoon, just in time for The Walkmen to take the stage dressed in dapper, rapidly darkening-with-sweat suits. “If I’d known it was going to be this hot, I would have worn my shorty-shorts,” singer Hamilton Leithauser joked—answered by a girl yelling, “Just take your suit off!”—but clearly neither of those things were going to happen. After all, The Walkmen have only become more elegantly restrained as the years have worn on, much like the band members’ refined stage attire. Most of the set was given over to debuting new songs that sounded like logical progressions from the slow-rolling waves and gentle surf of Lisbon, including a strummy, subdued opener that found Leithauser on acoustic guitar, and a country-flavored song with Leithauser playing solo, crooning, “It’s your Southern heart I’m after,” plus three more slightly up-tempo numbers—one, a catchy ’60s-pop jingle that boasted the chorus, “I’m not your heartbreaker,” that Leithauser claimed had just been written. 

The group certainly seems to have hit a prolific streak after settling on this comfortable sound—though it was a little hard to concentrate properly on either the new tunes or the subdued moments from its more recent albums while essentially standing on the surface of the sun. Jumpier Lisbon tracks “Juveniles” and “Woe Is Me” cooled things off before they became too stagnant, while somehow, when we weren’t paying attention, the group has turned A Hundred Miles Off’s “All Hands And The Cook” into a veritable show-stopper, with the music dropping out at one point and Leithauser striking a dramatic, Robert Plant-esque stance to wail out the “If you don’t like it” refrain solo with surprising swagger. A cursory run through “The Rat” and “In The New Year” ended things on an energetic note for the patient, slowly melting audience, but you could tell that The Walkmen—who mentioned how excited they were to check out Randy Newman later—were looking ahead to their own more idiosyncratic and refined songwriting being received with the same enthusiasm. [SO] 

• The near-criminally inoffensive Mancunians of Elbow could almost call themselves pop stars back in the U.K., but stateside they’re still deep within the indie circuit. Given that they were going up against the rawks-off juvenilia of Death From Above 1979, they played to the cool parents and more mellow youth of ACL on a much smaller stage than they’re probably used to back home. Nevertheless, singer Guy Garvey embraced every festival cliché imaginable (Hands in the air! One hand in the air with wiggling fingers! Hands side to side!) while “Grounds For Divorce,” the group’s indisputable jam, was foreshadowed with a lot of call-and-repeat nonsense before the band finally tipped their hand. Still, there’s no arguing that songs like “Mirrorball” demand a thousand swaying arms in the air, and Elbow has been in this game too long to be aloof about it. [LW]

• Looking slightly swallowed up by his surroundings, Randy Newman fought back the way he always has—with the sharpness of his words. Taking his place at the piano inside a tent crammed with adoring fans (and a few people looking to get out of the rain) and bombarded by relentless beats from Empire Of The Sun’s nearby set, Newman opened with the sardonic “It’s Money That I Love”—a nod, perhaps, to the reasons Newman would find himself at a place like ACL in the first place. Joking or not, Newman’s set featured frequent concessions to his more commercial work and the casual fans it’s brought him, with obligatory appearances from “Short People,” “You’ve Got A Friend In Me,” and “I Love L.A.” They were joined by classic-rock staples like “Mama Told Me Not To Come” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On” (“This is sort of a diseased love song,” Newman said by way of introduction) that many there probably didn’t realize were Newman compositions—all seemingly timed to keep their interest. But the diehards appreciated deeper cuts like the haunting “In Germany Before The War” and “Louisiana 1927,” the latter of which still holds a redemptive emotional power over its audience even after years of becoming inured to Hurricane Katrina heartbreak. It may have been love of money that brought Newman there, but moments like these were when it truly paid off. [SO]

• “We always think of playing Austin as a hometown show,” Arcade Fire’s Win Butler said midway through his band’s festival-closing set, just one of several “look how far we’ve come” nods sprinkled throughout the show. As Butler noted, the first time the band arrived at Zilker Park in 2005, it was for a mid-afternoon showcase on a much smaller stage, eventually climbing its way up to a shared headlining spot in 2007, and now here it was, tasked with batting clean-up on three days of huge names from the biggest stage in the city. “I think I can see my old house from here,” Butler said of his old home in The Woodlands just before launching into “The Suburbs.” Obviously he was joking, but as proved by that song (and the Grammy-winning album it hails from), he’s never stopped looking back at those humble beginnings, and marveling at how channeling that nowhere-town malaise can take you places you’d never imagine. 

Of course, some of that humility is just a put-on: Arcade Fire has never been a small or intimate band, even in its small and intimate beginnings. It specializes in big, grandiose moments, and this setting was just a natural realization of all those outsized ambitions. From the churning opener “Ready To Start” to the euphoric closer “Sprawl II,” it was full-bore intensity from start to finish, a reach for maximum, punishing effect epitomized by the frenetic take on “Month Of May” that was as close as the meticulously layered band has ever come to wild abandon. All of the band’s most crowd-galvanizing songs were represented—“Wake Up,” “Rebellion,” “We Used To Wait,” all three “Neighborhoods”—and outside of the rarely performed David Byrne collaboration “Speaking In Tongues,” there were few detours into deeper cuts that might have allowed a weary audience to consider beginning the trek back home. For all his professions of gee-whiz small-town-ness, Butler also dabbled in some decidedly rock star, Bono-esque politicizing, dedicating “Wake Up” to Haiti and dropping a plug for pih.org, and introducing “Intervention” by remarking, “When we wrote this, there was another Texas governor trying to be president” to a chorus of appreciative audience boos. It was one big moment after another, and a compelling argument that, however much Arcade Fire couldn’t quite believe it’d been elevated to this place, it definitely belonged there. [SO]

NO
• There’s no explanation for the sudden explosion in popularity for Death From Above 1979, a duo that floated on the spikier fringes of the mid-’00s dance-punk movement, landed on everyone’s mix CDs with “Romantic Rights,” and then quickly imploded without anyone really noticing. Yet somehow in death it became legend, and so here it was taking a high-profile early-evening spot on the Honda stage in front of a crowd that was barely in junior high when You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine was released. Given another chance to reevaluate them, DFA1979 sounds like, well, a second-stringer from the mid-’00s dance-punk movement—an aggressive, metal-tinged response to some of the genre’s more foppish moments, sure, but one still better suited for hammering it out in sweaty basement shows than broadcasting across a giant field. A fervent mosh pit of sweaty, shirtless bros began throwing down directly in front of the stage by the first squelchy note, and they kept it up through old, angular favorites like “Go Home, Get Down,” meaning any critical evaluation we might offer is probably total bullshit, dude. But as it has been since the band’s reunion was announced, it seemed like it was more about the idea of DFA1979—which was one of the few “heavy” acts on the weekend’s bill—than the actual music, which remained as same-y and spotty (and here, surprisingly brittle) in its live form as ever. Maybe more bands should try breaking up as a career move. [SO]

MAYBE
• Detroit’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. doesn’t perform in sponsor-laden NASCAR gear anymore—which, initially at least, was the primary reason people began paying attention to it. The group’s odd little ascension has brought it some surprisingly dedicated followers, a somewhat-inexplicable signing to Warner Bros., and plenty of hype—the group’s members were being passed around for interviews at an absurd rate throughout the weekend—all on the basis of an early, now-abandoned gimmick and few solid synth-flavored indie tunes. That shrewd marketing makes the title of the band’s debut, It’s A Corporate World, sound strikingly prophetic, but on the sun-baked Honda stage, all of that was put aside in favor of playing up their charmingly goofy-chic personas. Dressed in button-ups and bowties, Dale Earnhardt radiated playful sincerity—and it was almost certainly the only band of the weekend with the earnestness to attempt a “God Only Knows” cover. As expected, the banter was more memorable than the songs (singer Josh Epstein talked about how his father had warned him to “be courteous” should any girls throw their underwear at him), but the band succeeded in mirroring back the admiration it seems to get from its fans, even if their love is more about the spirit than the actual music. [LW]

• With just two albums, an EP, and no mainstream hit singles, Fleet Foxes have become a festival headliner almost by accident—their plum spot in the pre-Arcade Fire hour the result of being more universally tolerated than fervently loved—and their set once again proved that pleasantness and agreeability will get you pretty far. After all, Fleet Foxes’ easy-breezy melodies and Crosby, Stills And Nash harmonizing are so mellifluously rendered that hating them is like hating flowers for being pretty, babies for being so naïve, angels for playing those damn harps all the time. And yet they’re also very easy to ignore, which is what most of the crowd did behind the dense thicket of eager, younger fans who threw themselves into numbers like the mandolin-driven “Sim Sala Bim” and “Your Protector” as though they were physically pushing the band to the peaks demanded by the setting. Of course, Fleet Foxes doesn’t really do peaks; they’re more of a valleys and meadows kind of band, and so they lolled comfortably in old favorites like “Mykonos,” “Ragged Wood,” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” that floated by in a dreamy, half-remembered haze. [SO]  

SEEN & HEARD
• “Are you Christian Bale?” —earnest question asked toward someone who was clearly not Christian Bale. [LW]

• “Oh, this is that Michael Bolton song.” —guy unintentionally insulting Steve Winwood, whose “Higher Love” was currently being covered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. [SO]

• Dude walking around wearing snorkel gear, just because. [SO]

• Guy trying to look aloof while casually playing harmonica out in the crowd, his eyes desperately searching the passing people hoping to catch a girl who might stop and say, “Wow, you’re really good at playing harmonica, and now let’s have sex.” Because men can’t just present their swollen genitals like apes, we have to listen to dudes playing shitty harmonica at music festivals. Thanks, civilization. [SO]

Filed Under: Music

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