AVC at ACL: Day One
Before we get started, a disclaimer: I'm not really feeling it this year. Maybe it's because this is my fourth festival in six months. Maybe I'm burned out on packaged, multi-stage affairs dominated by warm beer, shitty sound systems, sweaty crowds, and constantly being jostled by dudes squeezing past me bearing backpacks so overstuffed they look like they just stepped out of The Road. (Seriously guys, what's in those things? Textbooks so you can study in your downtime? Canned goods and a portable stove, in case the world ends and we all have to ride it out in this park? Can you really not spend eight hours subsisting on bottled water, beer, and fried food like the rest of us?) So, you know. Maybe it's just a simple case of festival fatigue.
Well, maybe that's part of it, but judging by an informal poll of friends and acquaintances, it's also not just me. The fact is, this year's ACL lineup leaves a little something to be desired–and by "little something," I mean "bands worth caring about." Sure, there are some up-and-coming contenders in there, a couple of leftfield hits, some old reliables, a few surprises. But compared to last year (Arcade Fire, Björk, Bob Dylan, Wilco, LCD Soundsystem, DeVotchKa, The National, Blonde Redhead, etc. etc.) the 2008 lineup reads like the leftover scraps of a festival season that's already been bled dry–and that's because it is. Fest organizer C3 Presents also books Lollapalooza, and this summer it's been the talk of the town that C3 blew their wad early on Lolla, saving only the uncomfortable post-coital snuggle for ACL, with the whispered promise that things will be different next time.
And maybe they will be. But in the meantime, I want to be up front with you, since we'll be spending the next three days together and all. In fact, I've abandoned all professional pretense this time out and I'm just going to level with you. Of course, chances are some of you will disagree, which is fine. Blast away. I just hope we can still be Internet friends.
12:30pm: After last year's shuttle disaster–where our bewildered driver took us on a truly scary detour around the perimeter of Zilker Park, running over curbs and nearly taking out a traffic sign or two–this year's ride is fairly uneventful. Things run smoothly, the bus boards and departs in record time, and I even spy several of my fellow passengers thumbing through the The Onion and the ACL Guide I spent the last two weeks so painstakingly assembling or maybe they're just trying to get to "Savage Love." Pretty boring all in all Good thing I'm being kept entertained by these three teenage boys acting out South Park's "Towelie" episode in its entirety. That towel was so high! He had no idea what was going on.
1:05pm: Sigh, Even the process of getting in is wholly unremarkable: Unlike years past, nobody's trying to sneak in any giant purple octopuses or wielding broadswords or carrying 12-packs of Lone Star under their arm. Has the whole world gone sane?
1:10pm: Willie Nelson's most famous daughter–at least, of the children he knows about–Paula Nelson is twangin' it up on the BMI Stage on a cover of "Jackson." Those are two things you can hear just about every night in this city, by the way. I'm not big on most modern country, but as far as local practitioners go I've always admired Paula for trying to make it on her own. She probably could have milked that family connection for all it's worth, but instead she built up her own reputation by playing Antone's club gigs and holding down a weekly residence at the Saxon Pub. I mean, she's never going to be big or anything, but good for her for carving out her own little niche.
1:25pm: A quick note on the weather: It's hot and sunny (of course), but compared to previous years it's damn near temperate, topping out around 91 degrees. (As opposed to the year the Pixies played, when the high was around 112.) There's even a nice, intermittent breeze giving the occasional illusion of autumn–which locals know is still at least a month away. Perhaps that's why Austin's Batman thought it was safe to come out of his cave. Unfortunately, the city's second-favorite costumed character that everyone's completely bored with–transvestite mayoral candidate Leslie always tops this category–has left his signature leather vest with the cut-out bat insignia at home, along with the cape he's been known to sport when he's feeling especially frisky. Here you see the lengths he goes to to maintain his vampiric pallor.
1:30pm: Uh oh. I think The A.V. Club might actually deserve some of the blame for this: Yeasayer guitarist Anand Wilder–who previously sported a long, shimmering mane of hair that caused some of my esteemed colleagues (and okay, me as well) to compare them to bands like Kansas and throw the word "patchouli" around willy-nilly–has shorn his luxurious locks. Gone too are his blousy paisley shirts and peace beads. Hell, with his short, spiky hairdo and neon-colored t-shirt he could be in Vampire Weekend. And something tells me that's the point, seeing as bassist Ira Wolf Tuton has also gone to great efforts to tame his luscious stoner curls, squeezing them into two tiny braids that look like they're straining to burst out in a shower of periwinkles–a yen for shagadelic freedom further repressed by the grim authority of a black skull cap. Somebody at their PR company must have sat them down for a serious talk. Sorry, dudes.
1:33pm: Tuton attempts some banter: "Who else had a difficult time getting up this early?" Um, it's almost 2 p.m. What, are you still waiting tables at night?
1:40pm: Minutes into opener "Red Cave," I'm enveloped in my first marijuana cloud of the day. I immediately get the urge to quit my job and devote my life to doing increasingly harder drugs until I die penniless in prison.
1:50pm: After a truly stellar version of "Wait For The Summer," the band launches into "2080," a song that's poignantly attuned to these troubled times–until you actually look at the lyrics, that is. In fact, I recently read an interview with singer Chris Keating where he mused that it would make a great Obama campaign song. Because you know, "We can pickle the pain into blue ribbon winners at county contests" totally sums up Obama's platform. Whatever It's a good song, and Keating sells it remarkably well considering how many times he's had to play it this year, hitting the cracks in his voice just right and pitching his little indie-Joe Cocker fits. Even the dude next to me in the Kenny Wayne Shepherd shirt digs it–although his air guitar is a bit off.
2:18pm: This is my first complete Yeasayer set after three abbreviated teasers (all of which were cut short because the band took too way too long on soundcheck) and while I'm mostly glad I made the effort to get down here early enough to see it, now that it's over I find the songs that grabbed me the most were still that handful of "hits" I've heard every time previously. Today it would have been nice to be surprised. Unfortunately, the rest of the set was repetitive and undistinguished, relying on elements that were already put to better use elsewhere. I'm actually pulling for them–All Hour Cymbals was one of my favorites from last year, and I still can't get enough of today's closer "Sunrise"–but they're really going to have to knock it out of the park on the next album if they plan on sticking around.
2:28pm: As he's leaving the stage, Keating says, "Make sure y'all watch the presidential debates tonight!" Yeah, uh, we would, but we've got this festival to go to
2:30pm: Last year one of my favorite pastimes was photographing the weird totems people bring along to make it easier for their friends to find them. Already I've seen some familiar faces–the giant Father Guido Sarducci puppet, the inflatable sex doll, Mr. Giraffe Hat–but for the most part it's a pretty dry collection of pirate flags, Hello Kitty balloons, and nice-try wannabes like a New Kids On The Block pillowcase. But here I have to shamefully admit that I spent a good 15 minutes of Yeasayer's set trying to land a decent photograph of this guy's flag fluttering in the breeze. This is the best one I got.
I love this because it's so simple. "Meet me under the taco." I definitely would.
2:35pm: As I'm trying to edge my way out of the crowd, I spy my friend Logan. He tells me he's looking forward to seeing M. Ward later. "Uh, why don't you just have a Xanax and some warm milk?" I say. Holy fuck I'm funny. Good thing I wrote that down like the glib, conceited jackass I am.
2:45pm: Vampire Weekend. Discuss.
2:50pm: Okay, that's a bit of a cop-out, but look By this point I really have nothing to say about Vampire Weekend. Not to get all "Losing My Edge" up in here, but you know, "I was there" when they played their first club show in Austin, I've seen them three times since, and my opinion has remained steadfast throughout: There's nothing particularly offensive about them, but I find it awfully hard to get excited about anything they do. They don't make me want to dance (but then, I don't dance anyway) and they don't make me want to call everyone on the Internet a moron. I like the little organ breakdown in "A-Punk" and they seem like smart guys, if perhaps a little pretentious. I don't know. Really, work it out amongst yourselves. (For what it's worth, I later overhear a group of silver-haired ladies and gents say, "The Vampire Kids were really fun!")
3:10pm: Maybe my inability to formulate a strong opinion one way or the other about indie rock's most controversial band is a sign that I'm getting too old. So what do you do when you're over 30 and you find that you care less and less about chasing down the latest trends? Well, if you're at ACL, you bring along a blanket or collapsible chair and you park yourself under the shade trees in front of the BMI stage, where you stay put until it's damn well time to go home. Seriously, these people paid $80-and-up to get in here and nearly all of them never left this patch of ground.
3:45pm: Ladies love cool Jamie Lidell–and why shouldn't they? The guy can sing and dance like few others, and he's quite the snappy dresser. Lidell is also further proof that soul music is now the province of skinny, white British people, and while the set I saw a few months back at Sasquatch made equal time for straight-up funk and Lidell's electronic chicanery, this performance keeps it strictly traditional. (Although his bass and sax player are still wearing their Evel Knievel jumpsuit and samurai robe, respectively.) Lidell introduces "Out Of My System" by saying it was "inspired by a 7-year-old child" (huh?), then effortlessly segues the tune into a beatbox that eventually becomes a stripped-down take on "Multiply." After successfully coaxing the crowd into singing the "So tired" refrain, the song ends on a full-bore rock note before Lidell and band link arms and take a bow. Showmanship, ladies and gents.
4:35pm: Speaking of showmanship, gypsy-punk provocateurs Gogol Bordello have it in spades, with singer Eugene Hutz–whose long hair, unruly mustache, and sparkly rainbow shirt make him look like Doug Henning on a meth binge–barely contained by the lip of the stage. I've always had trouble discerning the lyrics to GB songs; here it seems like every other word is "revolution"–fitting, since if any band could incite a riot it's these guys. Right now the crowd looks straight out of a Czech beer hall. I could try to put the energy into words, but it's probably best summed up by this short video. (Apologies for the lack of sound; my camera sucks.)
5:30pm-6:15pm: Considering AT&T; is a major sponsor of this festival, you'd think I'd get decent reception out here on my AT& motherfucking T phone. Instead I'm just now receiving text messages that were sent to me over two hours ago. I spend this hour trying (successfully) to track down my wife, who's just arrived, and (in vain) to find various friends who we were supposed to meet up with. As a result, I miss Mates Of State (don't care, actually), Jenny Lewis (nope, don't care), and Hot Chip (sorta care, but I've seen them a lot already). But I'll let my friend Matt fill you in on Hot Chip: "It was like watching New Order after they'd been in a really bad car accident." Probably a little harsh, but that's Matt.
6:20pm: Walking from one stage to another, I do hear a bit of "reggae-rock" group Slightly Stoopid, who are kinda dumb. Go figure.
6:30pm: For months I've been saying, "The only thing I'm really looking forward to is David Byrne"–as he is, along with David Bowie, as close as it gets to an idol in my world. Lucky me, I have a job that sometimes enables me to meet those idols, and yesterday morning I was fortunate to land a last-minute interview with Byrne (which you'll see here soon). As if that weren't enough, he even got me on the guest list for last night's show at the Paramount. Two hours of his "Songs Of David Byrne And Brian Eno Tour," which covered their new Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, the still insanely good My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and selections from the Talking Heads albums More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music, and Remain In Light, which are right up there in my top albums of all time. To say that it was an awesome show isn't nearly hyperbolic enough: I try not to throw around the word "transcendent," but consider it thrown. I saw the Paramount's 90-year-old ushers dancing in the aisles. It was that good.
But for everyone who wasn't as lucky as me, I doubt they came away from tonight's set feeling shortchanged, even if it was significantly shorter. Byrne, his backing band, chorus, and trio of dancers (all of whom were clad head-to-toe in white–good for "pop," but poor at concealing sweat stains) have put together a show that's choreographed down to the minute yet never once feels rote. And of course, at the center of it is some seriously amazing music: "I Zimbra." "Houses In Motion." "Crosseyed And Painless." "Life During Wartime." "The Great Curve." Bush Of Ghosts' "Help Me Somebody" (with Byrne reproducing those sampled evangelical ravings himself). And of course, "Once In A Lifetime." Call it trite or obvious, but that just happens to be my favorite song of all time. Does it get any better than hearing your favorite song performed live?
7:15pm: Okay, I suppose it could have been better without the guy yelling out "Psycho Killer!" at every quiet moment. Or the cut-up who screamed, "Eat your heart out, Britney!" during the big show-closing dance for "I Feel My Stuff." And here's a tip for the young lady in the Indian headdress behind me: You know what's a good thing to not bring to a concert if you have absolutely no sense of rhythm? A tambourine. Remember that next time. That way no one wil write any more snotty blogs about you.
7:30pm: During the long traipse between stages I'm forced to listen to G. Love And Special Sauce, who has been playing the same song for something like 15 years now. He's currently doing a "freestyle," laying out some chill raps about how "Austin, Texas is the coolest, yo." This guy couldn't pander more to his ridiculously easily impressed audience if he wrote a song called, I don't know "Who's Got The Weed."
7:45pm: The only other act I've really been looking forward to since the lineup was announced–one of the few diamonds in this ten miles of rough, as it were–is The Swell Season, that Oscar-winning, lovey-dovey collaboration between The Frames' Glen Hansard and his tiny, far-too-young-for-him girlfriend Markéta Irglová born out of Once, one of the few "romance" movies that I genuinely enjoy. (I even caught the film again on HBO over the weekend in preparation.) Too bad for me that they're playing the Blue Room Stage across this sea of people, and it sounds like it's coming out of somebody's shitty car speakers parked down the block. Not helping matters is the intrusion of Alejandro Escovedo from the next stage over. I can just barely discern that they're singing "Falling Slowly," but then it's drowned out by Escovedo's bass player. Hansard introduces "Happiness" by saying, "This is a very quiet song. Hope you can hear it out there." Fuck it. I give up. You win, Alejandro.
8:10pm: Oddly enough, Alejandro Escovedo has never played ACL before; I guess being out of the game due to his bouts with alcoholism and subsequent illness kept him from playing, because he's certainly earned it. But regardless, this is a great year for him to make his debut: His fiery new Real Animal may be his best yet. He dedicates that album's "People" to "all the Coloradians out there" (big up, Heller!) and notes that they played it at the Democratic National Convention, because it's a song that's meant for "all thinking beings." (Whether that's an intentional dig or not, I'm gonna say "ouch" for Sarah Palin.)
8:35pm: I decide to give Manu Chao a shot, because every time the guy plays here Austin goes fucking nuts. Supposedly people were even illegally scaling the fence to see his sold-out Stubb's show last night. So maybe they know something I don't.
8:45pm: Five straight songs of punked-up-reggae-ska-hybrid with "yo yo yo" choruses ensue. Okay, so maybe they know something I don't. Good for them.
8:50pm: If King Diamond and Rush had a baby and then dropped it on its head, it would grow up to be The Mars Volta. I've said it before and I'll say it again. To your face. This band is fucking horrible. Go on. Tell me I'm an idiot. See if I care. I'm going home.