Wednesday, October 17, 2012

ACL 2012

Well, another ACL Fest has come and gone.
On Friday I took the day off, and Amy came home early.  We headed down to Zilker in time to see The War on Drugs at 2:30.  They were pretty good.  Didn't totally blow me away, but the lead singer had some nice guitar work, and they had a pretty good sound.  Their mellowish, guitar-centric rock songs all started to sound a little bit alike, though.  I liked the fact that they had only one guitar and a keyboard.
After that we went to see Esperanza Spalding.  I think she probably put on a fine performance, but the sound was really messed up at the Barton Springs stage, so it was hard to pick out many of the instruments or backing vocals, or even some of the notes on her bass.  I moved closer to the stage in an effort to hear better, but things didn't improve much.  It was a shame because I like her voice and her style, and she seemed to be putting on a lively performance.
After that we saw part of the Afghan Whigs and part of Alabama Shakes.  Afghan Whigs were decent, but Alabama Shakes were over on the Barton Springs stage, and once again the sound was messed up.  Also, by this time it was really crowded at that stage, and it was hard to even find a place to stand comfortably.
We moved to see Florence and the Machine for the next show, and it was much better.  Florence Welch has a heck of a voice (no sound problems at this show), and she's a talented performer.  She's got a sort of Stevie Nicks kind of vibe (flowing gowns and quite possibly a witch), but she obviously loves crowds and loves to perform.  Apparently this show was the last stop on the tour for Florence and the Machine, and they put on an energetic, enthusiastic, memorable concert.  The crowd ate it up, and we really enjoyed it.
After Flo and Co. we hung out for The Black Keys.  They also put on a really good show.  Simple, straight ahead rock music that's heavy on grooves, but lacking in gimmickry.  It was a fun concert.  We stayed for most of it, but left before the end just because we were tired.
On Saturday we got there in time to see Gardens and Villa.  I had never heard of them, but Amy had read up on them, and they turned out to be pretty good.  They had sort of an 80's keyboard synth sound, but their songs were catchy and easy to listen to.  The lead singer also had some sort of wooden flute that he kept in some kind of case on his back, and he would bust it out on some songs for a rock flute solo.  You gotta like that.  Anyway, they were fun and catchy.
We saw Andrew Bird next (overhearing some Overhofer as we set up our stuff).  Andrew Bird was really good.  He's a really good musician, and he has interesting songs with distinctly different parts and layers.  His band is very talented, and I also really like his voice.  He mentioned during the show that he'd been suffering from a fever all day.  It's pretty impressive that Andrew Bird, while sick, can outperform a whole lot of other professional musicians on their best days.
It started raining pretty hard after Andrew Bird, but it didn't rain for all that long.  We made our way over to the Austin Ventures Stage to see Punch Brothers.
Punch Brothers were really good.  Really, really good.  This was their first time to play at ACL Fest, and they were playing at one of the smaller stages, and they were playing during the rain on Saturday afternoon.  It also took them a while to get their sound check straightened out.  In the end, though, they had one of the best sets that I saw.  The crowd loved them, and I think they were both surprised and excited by the enthusiasm.  Every one of the guys in that group is pretty much a virtuoso on his respective instrument, and they take bluegrass and stretch it into shapes you just wouldn't expect.  Just to get your attention, they'll throw out a Radiohead cover, or, in mid song, burst from full speed bluegrass into something that sounds an awful lot like jazz.  To top it off, they have strong vocals and cool lyrics.  Anyway, I thought they put on a great show.
(Punch Brothers)

After Punch Brothers we hung out for Steve Earle.  He was also really good.  I like his voice, I like his lyrics, and I like his style.  Steve Earle is full of great stories, but also unapologetically political and opinionated.  Mostly he's just a songwriter who takes pride in his work and who has become very good at what he does over the years.  He's the real deal, and his live show is really good. 
After the Steve Earle show we walked over to see Neil Young.  You know it's a good festival when you can describe part of it by saying, "After Steve Earle we walked over to see Neil Young."
Neil Young was great.  He's a legendary songwriter, he has a cool voice, and he's a great live performer.  On that last point, I have to admit that Young is probably not going to appeal to everyone.  Young has been playing off and on with his band, Crazy Horse, since about 1968.  They're famous, among other reasons, for the fact that they tend to jam out songs, improvise, and make each performance unique.  Rarely ever is a Neil Young song played exactly the same way twice when performed live, and often songs are stretched out as the band wokrs its way through solos and explores different endings.
(This is Amy in her hat.  I like
Amy, her hat, and Amy in her hat)
And so the Neil Young show at ACL was a sort of quintessential Neil Young and Crazy Horse performance-  lots of feedback, extended solos, and just about every song involved improvisational jamming.  Either you like that sort of thing, or you don't.  Having played in a band myself for many years that aspires to that sort of aesthetic, I really enjoyed it.  Neil Young has been playing many of these songs for decades, and he still finds ways to infuse them with freshness and creativity.  Sometimes they're pretty, and sometimes they're angrier and uglier, but they remain full of emotion and relevant after all of this time.
Anyway, it was really cool to get a chance to see the man do his thing live with Crazy Horse, and the sound quality was really good.
Saturday night it rained again, and so Sunday was a bit muddy (especially early in the day).  Amy had managed to get us tickets to see the Jack White ACL taping at the Moody Theater for Sunday night, so she took the day off from going to the festival to get a few things done and rest up, while I headed out.
I got to Zilker early and went to see alt-J at 11:30.  They're from England, and I had heard of them only recently, but I really enjoyed their set.  Their sound is a little different.  They have some unusual vocal harmonies, and they just write some songs that have interesting parts.  Interesting use of keyboards, guitars, drums, and electronics (e.g., sometimes they use a bass player and sometimes the bass part is covered by keyboards).  Sort of vaguely reminiscent of TV on the Radio, whom I also really enjoy.  Anyway, alt-J played early in the day.  The crowd was sort of medium sized, at most, but almost everyone who had bothered to come out to see them that early seemed into the music, so they got a good audience reaction.  Cool show.
After alt-J I saw Kimbra.  I really only knew about her because of her vocal part on "Somebody That I Used to Know" (which is a Gotye song).  Anyway, she put on a good show.  Not exactly my normal sort of thing, but it was high energy, and she has a cool voice.  She had some interesting songs in her set, and she put a ton of enthusiasm into her performance.
After Kimbra I wandered over and caught part of Freelance Whales.  They played fine, but somehow I just didn't get all that caught up in their set.  Not really their fault, probably.  I was trying to find a spot for the next set at the neighboring stage, and I ended up talking to some random guy named Craig (who was as tall as me, but in his 60's, I think) about politics and family and life in general, and I sort of lost track of the show, which wasn't really blowing me away, anyway.
After Freelance Whales I hung out for Gary Clark Jr..  Clark is a local, so it was nice to see him on one of the main stages.  For those who haven't heard him, he plays a fairly traditional sort of blues rock thing.  He's a great guitar player, and he has a cool voice that's really well suited to the bluesy sort of music that he plays.  He put on a good set.  He mentioned that he has a new album coming out, and it's about time.  I don't think he's put anything out since releasing an EP in 2010.  That's almost a Mono Ensemble-like work ethic.  :-)
Anyway, Gary Clark Jr. put on a good, solid show.  He had a good crowd, and they seemed pretty into his set.
After Gary Clark Jr. I met up with some friends and hung out to see Tennis.  They were okay, but not exactly my thing (Tennis- noth the friends).  Anyway, I had a good time with Allison and Michael.
And that was it for the actual festival.  I took off and headed home.
Sunday night we went back downtown, though, and went to see the Jack White ACL taping.  Amy had gotten some tickets from a friend who was going to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers instead.  I'm not going to mention this friend by name since the tickets are supposed to be non transferable, but Amy and I were/are very grateful to have received them!  Thanks, nameless friend!
The Jack White taping was awesome.  Really.  It was just a great show.  White came out, barely spoke to the audience at all, and just rocked really hard for about an hour and a half.  He split his set into two portions, one with a backing band full of men, and the second half with a group of women.  Both bands played with a lot of focus and intensity, putting so much energy into their music that it felt like, at moments, they almost forgot about the audience altogether.  In particular, it was cool to see a band full of women who were clearly excellent musicians and who were just there to play really hard without having to smile and mug for the audience.  I thought, at first, that White was just bringing them out for one song, but they ended up playing for the whole second half of the show, and they really tore it up.  It was crazy to watch White prowl back and forth across the stage during both bands, speaking to his fellow performers and egging them on like a coach trying to pump up his players and wring better performances out of them during a big game.
It was a really cool experience.  Blunderbuss is White's first album where he's officially solo (i.e., responsible for everything from top to bottom), and it's a great record.  Right out of the gate, I think White's determined to lay claim to a significant legacy in the annals of rock history, and he's driven to accomplish this feat at every turn.  I think he saw this ACL appearance as a sort of demonstration of what he's capable of as a solo artist- an important piece of the puzzle in establishing himself as a very formidable solo talent.  Recording a strong episode for the longest running music show in television history can only be seen as a smart move.  We'll have to see how the final episode plays out, but I thnk he probably surpassed expectations.  The energy was definitely powerful in the theater.  I guess the question is how well it translates onto the recording.  From our spot down on the floor this looked like it's going to be one of the better episodes that they've recorded recently for ACL.
At any rate, closing the three day festival weekend with the Jack White taping was definitely a sort of magical capstone event.  It really helped to make it one of the most memorable ACL weekends that I've experienced.  Thanks so much to Amy and her friends for making that taping happen!

(Amy.  Just a teensy bit excited to be at a Jack White taping!)

So it was a really good ACL Festival weekend.  Yes, there were moments when the crowds were annoying, and yes, there were moments when the rain was a brief inconvenience, but that's the sort of thing that you get when your march out into the world in search of musical adventure.  On the whole, the cool moments far surpassed the negative ones.
The music was really good, on the whole.  I saw some great performances.  Punch Brothers really stood out, alt-J were very cool, Florence and the Machine were impressive, and it was really cool to finally see Neil young do his Neil Young thing (after covering Powderfinger for years, it gave me goosebumps to hear it live).
On top of all of this stuff, it was fun to just hang out at the festival.  I had a really nice time with Amy.  I love her, and I love that she loves music!
I also had fun running into some people from work, and talking to some friendly strangers from Austin and from other parts of the country (I met people from Chicago, Iowa, and California, and several Austinites).  Meeting people from other parts of the country who have flown in for this sort of thing sort of reminds you that we're lucky to live in a town that offers so many cool experiences.

There are always going to be some people who complain about the festival experience, and some complaints have more legitimacy than others. On the whole, though, I love music, and I think that the festival makes life better as an Austinite.  I may enjoy it in a different way than I did ten years ago (I feel less pressured to see as many things and these days I try to just make sure that my/our festival experience, overall, is a positive one), but I still enjoy ACL Fest and I'm glad it's still going.
Now I just have to figure out how to navigate this whole two weekend thing that they're cooking up for next year...

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