Austin City Limits Festival – Zilker Park (Austin, TX)
Shawn Colvin stood alone, dwarfed by the big stage, and surveyed a sight she has viewed hundreds of times before: an outdoor festival crowd of sun-baked bodies spilling across a grassy plain.
“This is a familiar scene,” she said to the rapt crowd. “But it’s never been Austin before. It just makes sense, doesn’t it?”
That is precisely what the organizers of the first Austin City Limits Music Festival must have thought. The self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” has never had a successful, sustained outdoor music festival (Willie Nelson’s march-or-die Independence Day marathons notwithstanding).
The idea behind the production was to “build out” the well-established and highly-regarded brand name of Austin City Limits, the 28-year old public television series which has become the medium’s longest-running musical forum. What evolved was a two-day weekend event designed to lay the groundwork for a festival series modeled along the lines of New Orleans’ venerable Jazz and Heritage Festival. Concert organizers and promoters went to school at Jazzfest and imported many of that event’s most successful concepts, right down to the covered tent featuring gospel music that provided an oasis for sun-stricken (or guilt-stricken) patrons.
The second central concept was to mirror ACL’s eclectic booking policy, highlighting Austin’s checkerboard music scene while importing exemplars of rock, blues, folk, country, bluegrass, gospel, salsa, Americana, and Texas music — precisely the kind of eclectic “American music” blend for which the television show has become famous.
By nearly every yardstick, it was a successful event. A total of just about 75,000 fans from Austin, around the country and overseas sampled over 70 acts on six outdoor stages in Austin’s 15-acre Zilker Park, all for a ludicrously affordable $40 two-day ticket. Even the gods cooperated, serving up the kind of unimpeachably gorgeous weather that Chamber of Commerce brochures are made of. In the background, smiling down as though in benediction, was the real-life Austin skyline, the template for Austin City Limits’ famous stage backdrop.
The phrase “something for everyone” seems more than apt in talking about the music. While fans of gangsta rap, Britney Spears pap or mainstream country sap might have gone wanting, ACL Festival audiences could take their pick between acts as diverse as Los Lobos, Emmylou Harris, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Patty Griffin, Nickel Creek, Ryan Adams, String Cheese Incident, and the Rebirth Brass Band.
Out-of-town visitors, meanwhile, got to sample some of the city’s ridiculously sprawling music scene, from Western Swing avatars Asleep At the Wheel to pop journeyman Bob Schneider, along with salsa/merengue/cumbia fusionistos Beto y los Fairlanes, extraterrestrial guitarist Eric Johnson, laconic storyteller James McMurtry, rhythm and blues pioneer W.C. Clark, and an angels’ chorus of singers including Colvin, Griffin, Kelly Willis and Abra Moore.
There were inevitable problems and freshman-year snafus that included long lines on Saturday for ticket exchanges, shuttle buses and food vendors. By Sunday, those issues had been largely addressed by shifting volunteer and staff resources, and the event rolled on to a seemingly successful conclusion.
Some scheduling glitches manifested themselves, such as the climactic Saturday night pairing of String Cheese Incident and Pat Green. The idea of giving listeners a take-it-or-leave-it choice between endless, Dead-but-not-forgotten jams and gimme-cap, beer-slamming populist Texas country-rock might have struck some festival goers as a trifle draconian.
(Though, while we’re on the subject, let’s spare a kind word for Pat Green, who has robbed no banks nor tied any widows to railroad tracks. The guy might not be Townes Van Zandt, but he is working in the long-established tradition of the Eagles, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, and even the yodeling movie cowboys of yesteryear, singing about a larger-than-life lifestyle. He’s never tried to pretend he is anything other than what he is, and, as he demonstrated again on Saturday, he works like a coal miner onstage.)
There was an odd, restless hour or so of downtime on Sunday afternoon when little of interest seemed to be happening — which was a shame, given that it came on the heels of an impossibly tantalizing early-afternoon conflict that found Colvin, Tift Merritt and gifted folk-blues songwriter Ruthie Foster all on different stages at the same time. Another scheduling snafu later Sunday found Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris directly up against each other; even the two artists themselves lamented from the stage about having to miss each other’s set.
But when it worked — which it did most of the time — the Austin City Limits Music Festival really worked. Through it all, there were indelible images that will galvanize momentum for what is certain to be a repeat performance next year:
Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos playing a gold Gibson Les Paul that gleamed like a molten Aztec mask as the band cranked through a set derived largely from their new album, Good Morning Aztlan (with a little “Anselmo”, from their long-ago debut, thrown in).
Shawn Colvin inviting her young daughter and niece to dance and gambol around the enormous stage while she performed “Diamond In The Rough” during her solo set.
The Mighty Sincere Voices of Navasota (from the same East Texas town that yielded protean acoustic bluesman Mance Lipscomb) selling sweat and salvation while, across the way, Li’l Cap’n Travis sang about cheap whiskey and faithless women.
Patty Griffin chanting the incantatory “flaming red…flaming red…flaming red” chorus from the title song of her second album, even as the setting sun turned her own auburn coif into a halo of fire.
The impossibly young prodigies of Nickel Creek segueing from the antique sing-along “The Fox” to an overcaffeinated version of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.
A surprise 30-minute mini-set by an unbilled Robert Earl Keen — just a little bit of lagniappe to an already-crowded musical menu.
Ryan Adams trading heavily on his Twerp From Hell persona, segueing between some pretty good songs from his new Demolition album with tiresome and ceaseless references to getting high and/or getting laid (but at least the music was mostly first-rate, right down to a rocking cover of “Brown Sugar”).
The Rebirth Brass Band bringing a bit of Jazzfest to the Texas Hill Country, setting off seismic waves of dancing and butt-rocking for an acre around the American Original Stage.
…And finally, walking up the hill above Barton Springs, Austin’s fabled natural-spring swimming hole, leaving the Festival to wind down in the gloaming on Sunday night, and hearing — balanced perfectly for just an instant — Ryan Adams’ crunching, heart-wounded lovers’ rock juxtaposed with Emmylou Harris’ cut-crystal soprano winging in from the other end of the Festival site.
It was a moment of grace, and it seemed to augur well for the future of a festival that, in Shawn Colvin’s words, “just makes sense.”