AUSTIN — Oh! To be in Austin in October!
Under a deep blue sky and the hot Texas sun, music fans felt the early promise of perfect weather for the 2010 Austin City Limits Festival: a relief from 2009’s rain and its mud-caked masses. Approximately 68,000 attendees filtered through the event’s two gates into the city’s Zilker Park, anticipating the day’s headliners: The Strokes and Phish, as well as sets from Spoon, The Black Keys, Sonic Youth, Ryan Bingham, Vampire Weekend and many more.
With no on-site parking and the only road cutting through the park grounds closed, fans walk into the festival from afar, hop a shuttle, arrive on personal bike, or glide in easefully (for those paying) on a pedi-cab. While limited parking and transportation would seem to set off frustrations, the audience seemed to accepted the park’s situation in stride, taking to the streets and expanding the festival environment beyond its gates with unofficial vendor booths, Airstream food carts and renegade stages promoting local artists along the way.
Inside the gates, ACL’s layout includes eight music stages (including one smaller stage designated to “Austin Kiddie Limits”); a row of 32 food vendors; a compound of 32 local artists (and a helpful USPS tent to ship home any acquired keepsakes); booths for non-profit organizations; the HOPE (Helping Other People Everywhere) Farmer’s Market that offerslocal and sustainable foods and goods; and two unique shaded areas: Zilker Beach (a tent-covered, cooling fan-enforced sandpit) and the Rock Island Hideaway (a haven for the sports enthusiast needing to catch the latest score, with two 12’x9’ LED television screens, bleacher seating, and draft pours). All of this is situated in an otherwise open space, segmented by the park’s natural landscaping.
With the scene set, and monitors turned on, fans began to fill each stage’s lawn, triple-checking their program (or app-based) schedules to start their day with great intention. Like other festivals, ACL challenges its attendees with difficult choices, unintentionally pitting fans’ favorite bands against one another, drawing the questions of: Who to see? For how long? Can I do both somehow? One group of high school students stumbled over these questions until the teen touting a Bonnaroo t-shirt halted the deliberation: “Guys, I feel like we’re missing out on ACL!” Alas, it seems to make the best of any festival, is to skip the schedule, and take to the stages.
The early hours of the festival included a set of songs for the kids from The Verve Pipe (seemingly taking a new tack on their career), Donavon Frankenreiter’s mustache, the creepily-masked Miike Snow, and the crowd-friendly, harmonica-heavy sounds of Blues Traveler.
John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats’ dark and often difficult narratives were impassioned, and in stark contrast to the day’s bright sun and cloudless skies. Dressed in a suit (in the near-90 degree heat), Darnielle took barefoot to the stage vocally punching-out each line. With lyrics ranging from “I hope you die. I hope we both die,” (“No Children”) to the determined, and at times anthemic, “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” (“This Year”), each emotive song tells a story that’s rarely forgettable, further underscored by the set’s menacing end, a cover of Nothing Painted Blue’s “Houseguest,” allowing all in the audience to reconsider ever offering Darnielle a temporary key to their homes.
Travelling from one end of the park to the other, The Black Keys’ rapidly-growing fanbase was evident with an audience estimated at over 50,000, enjoying an hour-long set that included the popular “Tighten Up,” from the band’s 2010 release, Brothers. While the duo commanded the stage; and the fuzzed-out, soul-infused sounds dominated the air; a new festival element was introduced to this festival attendee: the flag.
Throughout the audience a sea of flags and windsocks were hoisted high into the air on telescoping sticks and poles. The flags were often distinctive (as not to be confused by another’s) and personal (touting unique affinities, encouraging conversations within the crowd). To scan the crowd was to quickly find the Michigan State fan, sight the paleontologist (Is that a brontosaurus? Or an apatosaurus?), or anyone who claimed Scottish clan roots. Taken further, the aerial marker expanded to anything that could be lifted overhead including a tower of empty, tall beer cans duct-taped together; limber bamboo shoots; a disco ball (with battery-operated lights); and a floor lamp (of course).
Traversing away from the flag-flocked mass, The Band of Heathens (Austin’s own) proved to be the perfect performance prior to Amos Lee. With a sound richly influenced by The Band, Black Crowes, Randy Newman, and The subdudes, BoH offered Southern harmonies, strong guitar and several tracks from the group’s 2009 release, One Foot in the Ether including “L.A. County Blues,” “Golden Calf,” and “Right Here With Me.”
From one Austin-born band to another, Spoon followed The Black Keys set at the AMD Stage, playing to the still-massive audience. The homecoming set, including “Don’t You Evah,” “I Turn My Camera On,” and the handclap- and horn-rich “The Underdog,” delighted the roving fans, as well as those strategically camped-out in chairs, angled to see acts on both the AMD and Honda stages (as one band ends those well-positioned merely need to slightly shift their gaze and seat, to enjoy the sounds (if not the sights) of the next).
Then came the most difficult hour of the day. How does one see Sarah Harmer, Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, and Vampire Weekend? Answer: In quick succession of one another, enjoying what you can, as you can.
A focused dash between the four stages began with Canadian songstress Sarah Harmer’s “Around This Corner,” the intro track to her 2000 release You Were Here, and “Washington” from 2010’s Oh Little Fire. Heading counterclockwise, to the steel-drum sounds of Vampire Weekend, fans raised their flags in staccato while dancing to “A-Punk,” shouting along with “Oh, Oh, Oh” and “Ay! Ay! Ay! Ay!” (Couldn’t have written it better myself.) Moving counter-clockwise once again, a welcome respite from the direct sun was found at the Clear 4G Stage. While the stage’s tented roof offered protection from the day’s rays, the body heat emanating from the crowd was undeniable – to say nothing of the heat energy pouring off the stage from Robert Randolph & The Family Band.
Inspired by church musicians and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Randolph took to the pedal steel guitar when he was 15-years-old and in the last decade has been recognized for his energized (and energizing) performances. Walking away from The Family Band, as they seamlessly flowed into Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken,” the four-artist sprint stint came nearly full-circle with current Austin-residents, Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses. While Bingham’s songwriting skills are undeniable, earning him both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award in 2010, it seems that his graveled voice has an unparalleled talent of it’s own: to evoke thirst, specifically inciting in me the need to find a bottle of lotion, only so that I could offer it to him to drink.
While the sun set on the first day of ACL 2010, the day’s headlining acts faced-off at 8pm, with the audience splitting in half for the return of The Strokes and Phish.
The Strokes, led by a leather jacket-clad Julian Casablancas in sunglasses, jumped into a 90-minute set with fan favorites including “American Girl” by Tom Petty… (Oh wait, or was that “Last Nite”? That’s right, “Last Nite” is The Strokes. Easy mistake.) The garage rock band tore through a set list featuring “Reptilia,” “ Juicebox,” “Under Control,” “Someday,” and an interesting ode to the cartoon Thunder Cats, inciting the audience to scream back “Hoooo!,” as if Casablancas himself held the Eye of Thundera.
Trapped in a crowd of tens of thousands (the opportunity to view the band up-close having slipped past before noon as fans staked their claim on the land (with their flags no less), the most transfixing aspect of the performance came through the massive LED screens on either side of the stage. While the video program offered fans and looky-loos alike the opportunity to ogle from afar, the deep red lights gave the performance the look of a band developing in a dark room – their performance a moving black and white photo, illuminated by the bare red bulb overhead. Of course, this begs for an allegory that includes overexposure, gritty resolution, and a finished product that encapsulates a specific moment in time.
While The Strokes shared a slice of New York’s club-turned-festival-sized flavor, Zilker’s other half beckoned fans of Phish, Vermont’s finest, for a two-hour set. The band’s performance – to say nothing of their light show – seemed flawless, though what was deemed most impressive, being at the end of a long hot day, was the energy with which the young dancer nearby took to his modified “running man” moves, song after song.
As exhaustion set in, my ears overwhelmed, Day 1 of ACL came to a close, leaving only time to seek out a late night nosh, a quiet pillow and another bottle of lotion, having given mine earlier to Ryan Bingham.