Austin City Limits Festival – Zilker Park (Austin, TX)
In its fifth year, The Austin City Limits Festival continues to pose many questions, but one is straightforward enough for this review: “What is rock ‘n’ roll?”
Rock ‘n’ roll, to begin, is in the blood.
Day One: Ted Leo jumped off a 6-foot stage to rap out “Ballad Of The Sin Father” to the beat of a kick drum, only to crack open his forehead as he climbed back up. He finished with blood in his eye.
Day Two: Ben Kweller suffered a double nosebleed before his midafternoon set, and played regardless, only to stop when the gushing turned macabre. “Does anyone have a tampon?” he asked. Playtex flew toward the stage, he ripped open one, shoved it up his nose, played some more. His piano looked like a Peckinpah still on the behemoth screen stage left. He couldn’t continue.
Day Three: The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, vowing he would not be outdone by Kweller, doused himself in red ink and begged for feminine products. Coyne is rock ‘n’ roll’s Willy Wonka, unleashing whatever giddy novelty comes to mind, streamer guns and fog blasters, the notorious bubble entrance and 20-foot inflated aliens, purple and silver clad debutantes and Santas dancing everywhere, plus a few fun tunes: “Yoshimi” Parts 1 & 2, “She Don’t Use Jelly” and a failed “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” group-sing.
Rock ‘n’ roll, however, is not standing with your back to the luminous and surprisingly potent Iron And Wine as you try to keep your tent-pole flag erect so your fraternity brothers can find you. It is not Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley ripping off his father’s hits and grinding them into dub dirt. It is not Cat Power fussing and stumbling through a solo piano encore when her Day One set — complete with horns, strings and soul-singer backup — was so open, full, warm and alive. She skipped and jigged, deconstructed “Satisfaction” and quoted Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” — “She’s fucking crazy” was her inevitable revision — in one of the festival’s best unscripted moments.
Nor is rock ‘n’ roll waiting in line fifteen minutes for a fish taco that’s half the size of the previous days’ portions, only to have the vendor (Saba’s of Austin) explain that the “fish was just too big for the tortilla.” And rock ‘n’ roll is definitely not Jack Ingram bellowing at a few thousand more people than his shtick deserves: “Let me repeat for those of you who missed it. My name is Jack Ingram. And I play country music!” No, Jack, you don’t. But your Beat Up Ford band might, and they might rock as well, if you’d stop pandering for a song or two.
Rock ‘n’ roll is Marah, on Day Two, stuck with the opening 11:45 a.m. slot, knocking song after song straight back to Willie’s fleet of buses. The band hasn’t always handled high-pressure moments so well, but there they were, funny, hard, just aggressive enough. “I spent all the money I had on a light show,” Serge Bielanko cracked, but they didn’t need the festival’s multimillion-dollar infrastructure. They perched on the railing at the edge of the pit and closed with a fusion of “Feather Boa” and “Baba O’Riley”. A few thousand fans less than they deserved won’t forget them.
Rock ‘n’ roll is being 18 and climbing on top of a row of Port-A-Potties to see a band over the human sea: in this case, the Raconteurs, who, yes, are also rock ‘n’ roll, and not only for balls-to-the-wall-of-amps guitarist Jack White, but for a rhythm section as wild and locked-in as any of the weekend. And rock ‘n’ roll is arriving too late to squeeze up front for the Shins — Nada Surf played a somewhat desultory set just before on the opposite end of the 358-acre Zilker Park — but lucking into a spot near five blissed-out teens who sang every song as they passed around an apparently limitless supply of joints to friends and strangers alike.
In past years, the weather at ACL has not been rock ‘n’ roll. It’s been hell — with dust devils to prove it. This year the grass was thick and ankle deep, and highs barely scratched the mid-90s. The second and third days began with brief showers that cleared out with a steady breeze pushing clouds that blunted the sun.
Only during the last night’s finale — Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers — did the weather threaten doom. Beginning with crisp guitar-and-keys-balanced versions of “Listen To Her Heart”, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “I Won’t Back Down”, before easing into an acoustic “Free Falling” sing-along, Petty and band finally took a 25 minute break — during which soaked babes crowd-surfed, flung glowsticks struck golf umbrellas, and lightning flickered to the north. The band returned to push through a hurried final set including Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business”, an overly long “Good To Be King”, and a raging cover of Them’s “Mystic Eyes” into “You Wreck Me”. They were gone before the rain turned hard again.
Rock ‘n’ roll is tough choices: Calexico or Aimee Mann? Los Lobos or the Long Winters? The New Pornographers or Son Volt? A hunch that Jay Farrar would try out some new material paid off, with two stunning songs that recalled the pure melodies and landscapes of Trace. And the band is genuinely a band now — they play as deeply inside the songs as their writer sings them.
Rock ‘n’ roll is Gnarls Barkley, likely the first ACL headliner with the song of the summer to their credit, strutting out in white lab coats and ties, warming up with “She Blinded Me With Science” — Cee Lo introduced the band as John Nash & the Beautiful Minds — covering obscure Doors and Greenhornes songs, and inevitably, delivering “Crazy”.
The other highlight, against all rumors of diffident estrangement, was Van Morrison. If the rolling soul thunder of his ’70s big-band days are long gone, he’s found a countrypolitan jazz swing with plenty of space for biting blues harp solos, saxophone and trumpet duels, and his own voice — definitively undiminished, round and wild as ever — that is its own musicological continuum. The somewhat stiff country documented on this year’s Pay The Devil blossomed, with Cindy Cashdollar on slide and longtime guitarist John Platania and bassist David Hayes capturing something very close to the twangy soul of Into The Music (“Bright Side Of The Road” and “It’s All In The Game/You Know What They’re Writing About” were dazzling). Only on “Real Real Gone” did the band or the singer — hard to say which — get lost; little matter when Van reared back beneath his fedora and shades and freed up “Muleskinner Blues” and a final, heavy sound shower of “Gloria”. Day One ended; everything else, rock ‘n’ roll or not, was an encore.