Wednesday, October 09, 2013

ACL 2013

So, this past weekend we went to the Austin City Limits Music Festival.  Now, in keeping with tradition, a brief recap of what we saw and what we did.

We took off work Friday to go to the festival.  Friday was one of the warmer days that we had this time around, although it still wasn't nearly as hot as some of the days we've experienced during the festival in prior years.  We used our little mini umbrellas for shade at times and drank lost of water (and some beer).

(Thao & the Get Down Stay Down.  Good music. 
GREAT name.)
We started the festival with Thao & the Get Down Stay Down.  It was a pretty good show.  The crowd was sort of mellow because it was early on the first day, but the music was good and interesting and easy to listen to.  Thao Nguyen has an interesting voice.
The second band we saw was Shovels & Rope.  They played on the Austin Ventures stage.  Sort of an interesting two person group.  Reminded me of a kind of bluegrass/folk/country version of The White Stripes.  Cary Ann Hearst has a cool, twangy voice.  During Shovels & Rope we had a visit from our friend, Kim, and a flyby from our friend, Bill.

Next we caught a few songs by Pacha Massive over in the Zilker tent.  They were okay, but I wasn't totally blown away.  Electronic rhythms and a style that reminded me, at least during the little bit that we saw, of a sort of Thievery Corporation kind of thing (except maybe a little less compelling?).
Following that we went and saw fun. (did I mention that I'm not a huge fan of gimmicky punctuation and capitalization in band names?)  fun. were pretty, well, erm... fun...?  They have really good vocals and some catchy harmonies/melodies, but listening to fun., I was kind of left with the impression that I was watching a very pre-packaged production that didn't leave a lot of room for genuine emotion and/or spontaneous artistic expression.  As Amy said, it sort of felt almost like watching performers in some sort of pop/rock musical.  Still, they were... fun.

(Okkervil River)
Next we saw Okkervil River.  I had seen at least part of an Okkervil set before, but this time I was a lot more impressed.  They played with good energy, and the vocals, the lyrics, and the instrumentation just came together in ways that I hadn't noticed before.  The band includes at least 8 people, and they use the different parts to good effect.  I think I might consider myself an Okkervil convert at this point.  I need to get my hands on an album or two by those guys.

After Okkervil we saw Vampire Weekend.  Vampire Weekend is a good band.  Their peppiness and their preppiness might be a bit much for some people, but those guys are good musicians who play interesting music.  Their sound reminds me of Paul Simon to no small degree, but they're different enough to be laying a valid claim to having a unique sound.  Their show was a lot of fun. 

After Vampire Weekend we sort of just hung out at the AMD stage in anticipation of Depeche Mode's Friday night closing set.  A huge crowd gathered at the neighboring Honda stage for a DJ named Kaskade that we had never heard of.  Kaskade sounded pretty good, I guess (I'm not really into electronic dance music- but he sounded as good as anyone else I've heard).  The crowd went nuts for the guy.  Then Amy looked him up on da smartphone, and we were both a little surprised to find out that he's apparently a devout Mormon.    You don't find that many Mormons in the dance club/rave/EDM scene.  Maybe I'm oversimplifying a bit, but I thought that usually that scene was a little more about ecstacy, xanax, and cocktails.  Anyway, good for Kaskade.  He was this year's Dead Mouse, apparently.

Depeche Mode rounded out Friday night.  I've never really been a huge Depeche Mode fan.  I knew a lot of people in high school who were nuts for them, but I never really got it.  Sort of like The Smiths, they always seemed a little too drama club for my taste.  But they were sort of ubiquitous in the late 80's alternative music scene.  Anyway, given the fact that you define yourself as much by what you resist as by what you like, I wanted to catch part of their set.  It's been decades since high school, so I thought that maybe older Steanso would be a bigger fan.
Turns out, not much had changed.  The Depeche Mode fans might've been way into the show, but we were ready to grab something to eat and head out for a shower after about four songs.  I heard that they supposedly got better as they got farther into our set, so maybe we missed something, but I don't think I'll be losing sleep over it.
In observance of National Taco Day we stopped at Torchy's and had some muy bueno tacos on the way home. 

On Saturday we started the day off with HAIM.  Those sisters from California rocked a lot harder than I expected.  They were good.  They know how to play their instruments, and they feel like a legit, organically grown rock band.  They're also fond of dropping f-bombs at their shows.  Actually, A LOT of the bands at ACL Fest were fond of the F word.  I don't know if the bands were just super excited to be there or what, but over the weekend Zilker Park got virtually carpet bombed with what has traditionally been considered pretty bad language.  I'm not a prude.  I don't really get offended by those sorts of things, but by the end of the weekend it was just sort of sounding dumb.  Just throwing out f-bombs as a half assed way of attempting to engage the crowd amounts to about the unwittiest banter that I can imagine. 
Anyway, HAIM was good.  Their music was good.  I will be listening to them again.

After HAIM we saw Junip.  I really liked Junip.  Weird mix of electronic synths, bass, and acoustic guitar.  Jose Gonzalez has a cool voice.  Mellow, but with energy.  Once again, a new band that I would definitely make space for on my iPhone.  Since the show we've already been streaming them on Spotify at home.

Next we saw Portugal. The Man.  (once again the thing with the weird punctuation and capitalization.  That fad must die.)  Portugal. The Man was pretty good.  They put on a good set.  Tight and solid.  People danced.  Good harmonies with solid beats.  Another band that I may have underestimated in the past.

We wandered around after that and watched a little bit of The Joy Formidable.  They were sort of unusual- interesting combination of rocking instrumentation with prettier, more delicate vocals.  More powerful than I expected. 

Passion Pit came on next.  They were like a giant dance party.  Easy to listen.  People were groovin' and bouncin' and shakin'.  Pretty cool stuff.  Passion Pit sort of washed over me.  I remember having a good time, but I don't remember much in terms of  details.  I guess that's good?

(The Mavericks are here to show you
that it's all gonna be okay)
We went over to the Zilker tent next and watched The Mavericks.  They were a lot of fun.  The Mavericks have been around for a while, and they're a pretty traditional band.  Raul Malo has a cool voice.  They have an interesting blend of country, Tex-Mex, and sort of 50's era rock and roll.  They're hard to describe, I'm learning, but very easy to enjoy.  The Mavericks play music that just puts you in a good mood.  They want to entertain.

A cold front blew in, the temperatures dropped, and we closed Saturday night with The Cure.  I've been a pretty big, unapologetic Cure fan since high school.  Robert Smith looks sort of freaky (and always has), but he writes great songs- songs that, at their melodramatic best, sound like heartbreak and confusion and painful longing.  It's hard to pull off that sort of music, but Smith does it exceptionally well.  The songs have the honest, earnest, and naive emotions that often are most associated with youth.  In the end, though, the songs are the sentiments of a person who's laying his soul bare while fully aware that such expressions can end disastrously.  Such a person might be tempted to hide himself behind crazy hair and weird makeup in order to distract people a bit from the content of his music...
The Cure have got some poppier, happier numbers (e.g., "Friday I'm in Love"), but in my mind those aren't the band at their best.
Anyway, The Cure sounded good.  People either get The Cure or they don't.  I'm a Cure guy.  Depeche Mode not really as much.
Saturday night we stopped in at Kerbey Lane on the way home and had a nice dinner.  We beat the rush.  As we were leaving, a small mob of tired, hungry festival goers was filling the waiting area. 

On Sunday the weather was just about as perfect as I've ever had at an ACL Festival.  Sunny and a light breeze and cool.
We started out seeing a band called MS MR.  They were pretty good.  Once again, a bit of an electronic dance vibe, but with some instrumentation.  They were fun.  Their lead singer, Lizzy Plapinger, seemed a little serious and stone faced at first, but as the set went on she seemed to enjoy herself and interacted more with the crowd.  They played a decent version of LCD Soundsystem's "Dance Yourself Clean".  Cool, but not as cool as the original. 
Following MS MR we saw Twin Forks.  They're a sort of folk/bluegrass kind of act, but they also played a Talking Heads cover ("And She Was"), so I guess they can play all kinds of stuff.  I had listened to one of their videos on the interwebs before seeing them, and I'm here to say that they were much better in person than Youtube might lead you to believe (those Youtube videos, for one thing, rarely do a good job of capturing the bass and drums).  They also played a cover of Getaway Gift by Steve Earle, which was kind of interesting because we had seen Steve Earle perform a really great set on that same Austin Ventures stage at ACL the year before.  One of those cool moments that the band probably didn't even know that they were creating.
We hung out with our friend Jessie during some of these earlier sets.  Jessie always manages to get free tickets to things.  It's her superpower.

Next we saw Grouplove.  Grouplove put on a cool set.  They're pretty easy to listen to.  They have some sort of throbbing rhythms, layered with cool vocals and melodies.  I enjoyed them, but sort of like Passion Pit, I don't have a lot of specific memories of the Grouplove set other than just a lot of happy people dancing to the music.  Kinda weird.

Following Grouplove we saw Divine Fits.  They put on a really good set.  They had a technical glitch or two with guitars cutting out, but they got things fixed quickly, and they put on a good show.  They rocked hard and sounded good.  Britt Daniel brings his clean, punchy, impeccable sense of rhythm, and Dan Broeckner lends his unique, powerful vocals and guitar stylings.  Would definitely see again.

After that we wandered over to listen to The National.  I like The National.  I enjoyed their set.  I like Matt Barninger's low voice, and The National are one of those bands that calm me down while still making me feel good.  We were hanging out with a friend, Meagan, and a friend of hers, and I was laying on the grass, listening to The National on a perfect day in Zilker Park with Amy, surrounded by happy people and music all around, the skyline of our fair city in the background, and I had one of those moments when you just realize how lucky you are.  Gotta enjoy those moments and recognize them while they're happening.


After The National we sort of listened to Tame Impala from a distance.  They sounded okay, but somehow different than I expected.  A friend had given me one of their CDs, and I liked it.  I guess I liked them live, too, but I can't help but feel that a little something was lost in translation between the recording and the stage.  Maybe the nuance of their sound on the album just didn't translate quite as well into a live setting.  I'm not sure.  They were pretty decent, but...

Next we saw Neko Case.  Neko Case has cool songs, a great voice, and a good band.  We'd seen her backup singer, Kelly Hogan, perform a show of her own during SXSW when we volunteered at our church, and Kelly Hogan was impressive in her own right.  Anyway, Neko Case put on a good show, but I felt bad for her because her set was wrought by technical difficulties.  They had trouble getting sound in any of the monitor speakers, apparently, and the stage lights kept going out, and there was horrible sound bleed over from the Atoms for Peace show, which was happening on the nearby AMD stage.  You could see Neko and her band getting visibly annoyed, and she finally announced that they were going to have to skip some slow songs because of the pounding drums from the other stage.  Still, there were some good songs in the set, and Neko and her crew did a great job of performing.

We finished up by watching a few songs by Atoms for Peace.  Amy didn't like them.  I thought they were okay, but probably not what we were looking for when we were a little tired, hungry, and worn out at the end of a three day festival.  Thom Yorke was engaged in his sort of high pitched, wailing sort of singing, but the pounding drums (and drum machines) accompanied by Flea's slapping, hammering bass just didn't generate the same sense of melody or mystery that Radiohead is able to create.  Conversely, Thom Yorke's drawn out lyrical phrasing doesn't lend itself to the dance rhythms quite as well as Anthony Kiedis's more punctuated, manic singing.

Anyway, we took off a little early and rolled over to Homeslice.  We sat in a cozy corner, Amy bought me some pizza and a beer, and it was the perfect end to a very nice festival weekend. 

Couple of closing thoughts on ACL 2013:

1)  The two weekend thing is not a terrible idea, but I think that this year will prove that it's pretty lame to have two weekends of the same lineup.  When they have the same experience duplicated on two consecutive weekends, it feels much more like you're buying an assembly line product instead of having a unique experience.  Even if you see a good show, it's hard not to wonder if the same band will do it better or worse the next weekend.  Also, with the same bands playing, it makes it feel like the weather is that much more important.  If you paid the same amount of money as people on a different weekend for the same bands, and they got sunshine while you got pouring rain, you're gonna feel like you lost some sort of weird gamble.  Also driving home the weirdness of the repeat scheduling, local news outlets have traditionally gotten really excited about covering ACL Fest as a one weekend, not-to-be-missed Austin event.  It's hard to muster that same level of excitement when you know that they're going to just try to repeat the whole thing again in the same way the following weekend.  You could literally miss it the first weekend without it being a big deal because there are still tickets available for weekend two.  Instead of being about a cool experience, the repeat weekends make it much more clear that it really is, at least for C3, all about the money.  If they were really interested in making it about putting on a world class, interesting festival, I think they'd have two different lineups (like Jazzfest does in New Orleans) and make single day passes available each weekend.
Next year they need to have different bands for each weekend, and they need to bring back single day passes.  If they can't pull off those two things, they should just go back to doing a one weekend event. 

2)  There's been talk of trying to move the festival out the F1 Circuit of the Americas track.  I think that would be a big mistake.  It would ruin the flavor of the festival.  Moving ACL would change the spirit of the city itself.  If Chicago can host Lollapalooza in Grant Park each year and New York can hold performances and concerts (and now the Global Citizen music festival) in Central Park, I think the neighbors around Zilker Park can suck it up a few times a year.  Zilker Park is Austin's backyard, and we strive to be the live music capital of the world.  There should be reasonable restrictions on the activities in Zilker, but, on balance, it's a space that belongs to the people of Austin- not to the affluent few who can afford to live in the neighborhoods around it.

3) Even after all of these years I still really enjoy ACL. Granted, there will always be things to complain about, but when you go down to Zilker each year and see people enjoying the festival who have travelled to Austin and shelled out money to cover all of the expenses of a regular vacation on top of paying for the festival tickets themselves, it makes you feel lucky to live here. It's a vibrant, exciting, enthusiastic city. I like it.  
Of course, it's easier to love it when the weather is nice.


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