AUSTIN — With Day 1 lessons learned, and the weather report predicting another day of direct sun, the masses flocked into Austin’s Zilker Park for the second day of the 9th Annual Austin City Limits Festival, shielded by sheens of sunscreen and hats on-head, if not in-hand.
Entering the park early, the audience ambled about, selected their spots at stages and began to telescope their personal flags into the air (as discovered on the first day of the festival, these flags are as much a means to locate one another, as they are a physical extension of people’s unique personalities, running the gambit from classic to esoteric.) An early arrival also provided the opportunity to explore the grounds before the day’s attendance was at its apex.
The stillness offered one striking observation on ACL. In a sports and entertainment culture where we have come to expect a deluge of sponsor and advertiser messages, sponsor presence appears limited throughout the park. While the stages are notably branded, the few festival sponsors to make prominent showings in this regard came from Honda and State Farm Insurance, each capturing fan information for the chance to walk (or drive) home a winner. Honda lured the audience in with their latest hybrid model (and co-branded ACL temporary tattoos … or at least I hope those were temporary). Strolling into State Farm’s 17k Club, the enclosed space provided a respite from the already-warm mid-day sun. Inside: a rowdy group tapping their way through a touch-screen kiosk, wavering over such questions as “What is your gender?” (the unsure stylus floating between the two choices). Survey complete, a woman wearing fringed moccasin boots and a Waterloo Records hat and her shirtless male companion (with beer in hand), took to a small stage to sing the insurance company’s jingle on camera. The payout: possible VIP upgrades. While their hip-hop dance-a-thon performance was delivered jubilantly (awarding them a chair massage), the day’s scheduled performances beckoned.
Walking barefoot onto the sun-heated stage, Illinois-artist Lissie found quick comfort in a towel laid out at her mic stand. She habitually hopped away from it mid-performance, only to quickly step forward again fast. Her beach blonde hair pulled to the side in a braid, the singer further-braced the sun with tiger-print glasses (thematically in-line with her current album, Catching a Tiger). Joined by Lewis Keller (bass and drums) and Eric Sullivan (guitar), the trio set out with the sorrowful and somewhat haunting “Wedding Bells.” While the raspy-voiced vocalist battled audio bleed from the Budweiser stage for 30 of her 45-minute set, fans kept focus and remained through numerous self-penned songs including “In Sleep,” “Little Lovin’” and “Cuckoo,” closing with the crowd-pleasing Kid Cudi cover, “Pursuit of Happiness.”
Roaming through the Rock Island Hideaway tent, the day’s college football was fully underway on two giant LED screens, offering shelter from the heat as well as high-fives and head shakes. Rounding the corner toward the Honda stage, lines formed 50-deep in queue for free water bottle refills. While the lines moved with moderate pace, others perched against a nearby barricade, physically following the arc of five motorized misting fans, providing immediate relief to sun-kissed skin (as well as a wash for eyeglasses, dirtied by the park’s kicked-up dust).
Just beyond the hydration stations, an ever-disheveled Pete Yorn and band performed songs from his 2010 Frank Black-produced eponymous release, including “Rock Crowd,” (“I wrote this for you guys…”) as well as fan favorites going back to 2001’s Music for the Morning After including “Strange Condition” and “Murray.”
While the mid-schedule artists received festival-sized audiences (Northern Ireland’s Two Door Cinema Club performed at a modest stage and lured in an audience featuring 30 fan flags!), the real fan fare was found in the food court. With menu items ranging from Austin’s best barbecue brisket, to Tex-Mex, to bags from Children of the Kettle Corn (winner of the novel name – nom), the best discovery came from Austin’s Juicebox: a fresh cherry limeade complete with summer-fresh fruit garnish… (“I’m gonna get one more… (5 minutes pass) OK, really just one more…”)
Somewhat sated, fans continued the day’s path from stage to stage. Captured by the popular neo-Motown sounds of Mayer Hawthorne & The County on the Austin Ventures Stage, the swaying audience continued to expand for the Michigan-based group. Tambourine in-hand, the skinny-tied Hawthorne and besuited musicians offered fans of wedding bands everywhere an accessible, soulful and importantly, fun 45 minutes. Sharing the disappointing story of being mistaken as Michael Buble the night prior at Waterloo Records, Hawthorne segued seamlessly into “Maybe So, Maybe No.” With the reverb on Hawthorne’s mic high (evident by the echo, echo, echo, every time he said, “Thanks,” “Thanks,” “Thanks,”) his lotion-coated voice came through smooth (cite: Ryan Bingham from Day 1 review).
As the sun mercifully sank, Broken Bells began a set on the AMD Stage. Unfortunately, at the same time a nearby man in a sleeveless shirt raised two presumably empty beer cans in the air and stammered to his friend, “We have a situation.” True… to be beverage-less would have been a shame, but to walk away as Broken Bells began to perform would have been a far greater loss; they chose wisely. James Mercer, Danger Mouse and band (including Seattle’s-own percussionist Davey Brozowki of Black Whales) performed what proved to be the perfect soundtrack to the day’s sunset, despite being distracted by the far-away resemblance of Mercer to Kevin Spacey.
With one band ending as the next begins, fans dissolved from the west end of the park, regrouping to show their support of early ‘90s haircuts, the melancholic romance of The xx and slow-dancing. While a poignant air of silent heartache and understanding took hold, even the man with the “flag” of a faux-gorilla paw on a pike seemed to go a little swoony over “Heart Skipped A Beat” and “Crystalised.”
Carrying the emotive theme into the evening, both David Bazan and Monsters of Folk offered tales of woe and strength. Like Lissie early in the day, Bazan’s set was focused, though at times battled the audio bleed stemming from LCD Soundsystem. The audience at the intimate BMI Stage touted only two flags (compared to The xx’s 50+ and LCD Spoundsystem’s 80+) though to be fair, Bazan’s fans may not be the flag flaunting type. Those in attendance were attentive from the start, asking Bazan questions and intently listening to “Bless This Mess,” “Gas and Matches, “I Do,” “Start Without Me” and “Please, Baby Please” among others.
Shifting back to the Austin Ventures Stage, where suits seemed to be en vogue Saturday, Monsters of Folk dynamic two-hour stage stint included Bright Eyes’ “Soul Singer in a Section Band” and “Man Named Truth,” M. Ward’s “To Save Me” and My Morning Jacket’s “Golden.” All of this outpouring of emotion begs the question: Did Conor Oberst finally cry? No he did not. (At least not on stage.)
Catching the last song of Gogol Bordello (“Start Wearing Purple” from 2005’s Gypsy Punks Underworld Strike) the raucous performance transformed the audience into a hallucinogenic scene a la Baz Luhrman, only snapping back into reality when the stage lights switched off (“What just happened?!?!”) Shifting to the slight right, Matt and Kim beamed their bright smiles and sassed their sweet songs, making everyone in the audience want to hug them, or be their best friends. While the age-old chicken before the egg debate can be applied here, it seems the duo’s infectious energy brings depth to their music (rather than the music inciting euphoria); either way, happiness spreads and the hillside played with Matt & Kim, sang along with their Biz Markie cover and delighted at the intro to “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” handling Kim with care as she danced on top of the crowd (literally balanced by fans’ hands steadying her feet.)
The day’s end delivered two sets, splitting the crowds east and west (or to the streets): Muse and M.I.A.
While M.I.A’s performance began strong, the artist’s video program displayed on large IMAG screens on either side of the stage (and backdrop) featured running animals, dropping bombs and fast-moving graphics. Surely an interesting element for an arena show, the scale of ACL limits the ability to see performances, often relying on these screens to offer a visual glimpse of the show. Not being able to see, and tired of running tigers, I made the move to see Muse.
A polarizing band for some, if nothing else, they have laser power. Unlike M.I.A.s performance, attendees at the back of Muse’s audience may have received the best performance yet: with songs including “Undiscovered Desires,” “Hysteria,” and “Resistance,” brilliant green lasers shot from the stage in a most-impressive light display, while the band members could be easily viewed on the screens flocking the stage. Beyond watching a keytar get purposely strapped on (Internal monologue: “This is a public service announcement… with KEYTAR!”), the massive light show, Matthew Bellamy singing into a bullhorn a la Tom Waits (not to mention his sequined piano jacket (Internal monologue: “It’s a good thing Oberst and Bellamy had different dressing rooms; that wardrobe mix-up could have been a disaster!”)), Muse’s cover of Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good” was a welcome surprise and break from the band’s set of fist-pumping anthems.
Another day complete, the second day of the festival came to a close with a cool evening breeze, a slight dust-inflicted cough (“Ahhhh, so that’s why people are wearing bandanas over their mouths … they weren’t about to hold-up a train after all!”), and the promise of a new dawn, and a new day at ACL; everyone was feelin’ good.