Various Artists – Austin City Limits Music Festival – Zilker Park (Austin, TX)
It’s all naked sun and cloudless skies on Friday, as late-afternoon Texas humidity chokes the air with temperatures in the high 90s. A first-timer in Austin, I’m drenched in sweat and sunburned, walking on at least three blisters before the first evening falls over the festival. “This is August weather in September, man,” says an Austin native security guard. “It doesn’t usually get higher than 90 degrees during September.”
Today it does. The heat index, by the guard’s estimate, is about 120 in the sun, and official reports later agree. (And the security guard was optimistic at best; weather data shows the average high temperature in Austin in September is 90.1 degrees, meaning there’s typically plenty of days well above that.)
Even hotter, though, is the set Ryan Adams plays as dusk nears. Always as capable of brilliance as well as disaster when he takes the stage, Adams is in his finest form tonight. He appears focused and centered, even hungry again, with a fine backing band including ace pedal steel player Cindy Cashdollar.
It seems the time Adams spent off the road after breaking his wrist at a January gig in England has been rejuvenating. The former Whiskeytown leader comes out blazing with “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)”, “Anybody Want To Take Me Home” and “Love Is Hell”, rocking as if he’d never spent time in Nashville. But then he turns on a dime toward Tennessee and points beyond. “Please Do Not Let Me Go” takes a wonderfully soulful stroll along Memphis streets; “When The Stars Go Blue” and “Oh My Sweet Carolina” drip with southern sorrow and hope; “La Cienega Just Smiled” swoons dreamily at a California sunset. Adams is on the road to a flawless outing.
Then comes the stoner monologue. “I know the police are here, but y’all should get high,” he says. “I wanna jam up here. I just got real high; I don’t care.” Cartoonish pot-smoking dialogue ensues. Sweet Jesus, eyes rolling all around say, please stick to the music. And other than this misguided diversion, Adams does. His extended lead-guitar noodling on “New York, New York” and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Wharf Rat” shows impressive chops, though it also causes both to drag. Either way, Adams sets the standard for the festival. He certainly balances Sheryl Crow’s bland effort that followed, a fizzle-out at best.
There are other successes, though, most notably Rosanne Cash’s tender reading of her father’s signature “I Still Miss Someone”. The sweltering climate remains a factor all weekend — paramedics say they’ve treated more than 450 for heat-related illnesses at the end of the third day — but it suits Terri Hendrix. She thrives on the steamy environment, and boasts of her hometown pride midway through a riotous set. “I live in San Marcos, and there’s lots of great radio there,” Hendrix says. “But when you get out of Texas, it seems like there’s the same programming everywhere.” ACL’s lineup backs her point about diversity: The vast range of artists — from art-rockers Gomez to jam-band favorite Trey Anastasio to Flatlander Butch Hancock — is far beyond the reach of most radio playlists.
Though Saturday is a complete sellout at 75,000 (over 200,000 altogether attended the festival), its content is shallow when held against the other two days. It pays to arrive early on Sunday, though — Samantha Stollenwerck’s “Cali-soul” is as delicious as a late-morning Bloody Mary, even if the buzz goes unnoticed by all but a couple dozen gathered for her 40 minutes. Stollenwerck’s phenomenal, near-gospel reading of Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” alone justifies my trip from Denver.
Mindy Smith enjoys the flip side — hordes pushing toward the front to catch a glimpse of her. But front-row positioning isn’t much of a bonus; with rare exceptions that seem to stem from nervous energy, Smith’s stage presence has all the animation of Jay Farrar strumming his guitar on the living room couch. Regardless, her songs resonate. Two of the best from her sensational debut One Moment More, “Rattle The Cage” and “Fighting For It All”, are polar opposites. Feedback deflates the former’s growling energy, but the latter maintains its glorious fists-in-the-air snarl. A couple jazz-inflected new songs lean a little too close to Norah Jones for comfort, but the elegant “Hurricane” and the touching “One Moment More” inspire pin-drop silence to save the hour.
Jack Ingram, on the other hand, drips charisma; his crowd at the small Austin Ventures stage is the biggest of the weekend at that spot. Many dance and sing along to “I Would”, “Work This Out” and the title track to his 1999 album Hey You. There might not be anything profound about these songs on the surface, but their universal boy-girl themes and Ingram’s unadorned writing style make it easy to see why he is a Texas honky-tonk favorite.
“Willie [Nelson] would be very proud of what his town has put on this weekend, wouldn’t he?” Ingram asks. Indeed, the musical selection here is unbeatable. But there are a fundamental problems with the festival. First, there’s the heat — something that could easily be avoided if the event were simply moved to early fall instead of late summer. Second, there’s the transportation situation; snags with the shuttle (from a location three miles away consisting primarily of garages that charge for parking) cause too many issues over the three days to deem it a complete success. You can’t drive anywhere near Zilker Park, and the shuttles are bombarded with demand. On Friday night, the wait to hail a taxi outside festival grounds was longer than two hours.
But Wilco mirrors the whirling bedlam in the streets to its advantage on Sunday evening. “Jesus Etc.” feels like a slow-motion tumble down the stairs in black and white, while the controlled chaos of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” splinters into beautiful stained-glass shrapnel. In between, “Kingpin” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” dissolve into magnificent pandemonium. The performance more than justifies the band’s popularity and acclaim.
Masses file out of the park as Wilco wraps up, and it seems like everyone heads to the Continental Club. The Gourds close out the weekend there with a sold-out midnight show. Cheerfully accepting a tray of what looks like whiskey shots from the crowd just before 1 a.m., frontman Kevin Russell barks, “Who’s awake out there?” Everyone screams, pumping fists into the air. And with more than a hundred folks listening outside the small club, it’s clear no one wants to call it a weekend before closing time forces its end.