Tuesday, September 28, 2004 ... 5:55 PM

K.'s Austin City Limits Music Festival Review -- Part 2

My buddy K. and her husband went to the Austin City Limits Music Festival last weekend. Here is Part 2 of her review. (Read Part 1 here.)

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Saturday we did the nomadic thing and wandered from stage to stage, like turning a radio dial until you come across something that holds your interest. We checked out Big Head Todd & The Monsters (a little bland), Bob Marley's old backing band The Wailers (great, but I can only take about ten minutes of reggae before I've had enough), The Holmes Brothers (excellent gospel blues) and then, the highlight of my whole festival experience -- My Morning Jacket. These guys ... well, they ain't twang, Boney, but they are southern boys who've been influenced by all kinds of good old stuff, country and rocknroll. But the thing they delivered, and thing I was craving above all else this weekend, was Something I Haven't Heard Before. That was why Neko floored me. Music that's rooted in the old-timey sound I like, but brings it to a whole new, unique, mysterious place -- that's what I really want lately. And MMJ did it for me. I had heard they were amazing live, but I had no idea how amazing. The interaction between these guys onstage is absolutely magical. They make a ton of noise, they wail like any self-respecting southern rock band, but it's as if their ultimate aim is to make something beautiful. The music is loud and raucous (Patrick Hallahan is the best rock drummer I've ever seen) yet utterly beautiful. Jim James' strange, passionate voice is a big part of it, and his strange, passionate lyrics ("The brain melts in the twilight with the boar and moving trees. Your skin looks good in moonlight and goddamn those shaky knees. The fact that my heart's beating is all the proof you need.") I was standing in the middle of a mass of writhing tattooed people sweating to death, but it felt like I was soaring up over the stage. Man. It was like a dream. I was already in love with their albums -- which they record in a grain silo on their farm in Kentucky using heavy reverb to get an old, mysterious sound -- but now I know they are really a band to see live. And I'm gonna see them every chance I get.

After MMJ, I had no interest in seeing anyone else right away. I just wanted to let the echoes rattle around in my head for a while, so we left the festival early to cool off and get ready for the Wilco show at Stubb's later that night. I assumed MMJ was going to be the high point of my festival and it would all be a long slow slide downhill from there, but Wilco actually raised things even higher. I've seen the band, in all its many incarnations, maybe two dozen times over the past five years, and this was the best Wilco show I've ever witnessed. This new line-up has finally come together and the guitar interplay between Jeff and Nels was heartstopping. I'm not in love with every single song on the new record "A ghost is born" but I am in love with them all when they're done live outside at Stubb's BBQ on the banks of the Red River under a red crescent moon with the balmy Texas air sweeping back and forth across the tops of the pecan trees. At one point the girl next to me grabbed my arm and said, "Are you happy? I'm just so fucking happy right now!" Yeah, I was happy. This band is better than they've ever been, even if they left twang by the side of the road a few records ago.

Sunday morning back at the park started with Kelly Willis, who was perfectly wonderful, but by then I was so spoiled by Neko and Wilco and My Morning Jacket that anything short of revelatory sounded like crap to my ears. So we wandered over to hear Rachael Yamagata, in search of something new. She's got a great throaty voice and reminds me of Fiona Apple, only a little less psychotic. Just a little less. After a few too many between-song stories about the asshole who dumped her for some other girl, it was time to move on to Shelby Lynne. She's great, she is such a badass country singer, but again, it was like I'd heard it all before. So we moved on to Ben Kweller, who you either love or hate and I happen to love. Bizarre but earnest schoolboy lyrics and great, quirky, melodic songwriting and a killer backing band. He reminds me of Elvis Costello if Elvis Costello sang about junior high school. Good stuff. And speaking of Elvis, he was up next ... and here I am, so excited ... he takes the stage in a fabulous purple velvet suit ... and ... no vocals! The sound was completely messed up. He sang an entire song with no vocals, then they temporarily fixed the vocals and then there was no guitar. We waited through five songs hearing nothing but drums and bass, his voice barely audible through his monitors, and finally we gave up. They should've just stopped everything and fixed it, and if he ran late, so what, he ran late. But they didn't do that, and I was pretty pissed. There were about 30,000 people there to see him, and we had to wade through that crowd to get out. Total bummer. But it was okay because this whole thing really doesn't hinge on just one performer, not for me anyway, and Jack Ingram was coming up next on the Texas Stage. He's a good, solid Texas songwriter with a good, solid voice and a good, solid band called the Beat-Up Fords. Like he said, "My name's Jack Ingram and we play country music!" That's all -- pure, basic, satisfying country music. Then after Jack, we tried to head to the main stage to see Wilco but there were five zillion people already there, packed in like sardines. We knew there was no way that experience would top the glorious set at Stubb's the night before, so we said goodbye to the festival and started heading out. But on our way past the Gospel & Blues tent, we heard this wonderful sound and saw lots of people stomping around in there like an old-time revival was going on, and we ducked inside and saw a bit of New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band getting down and dirty. And that was all she wrote for this year.

The ACL Festival reminds me of the French immersion course I took in college, where we spent ten hours everyday speaking French and only French. It's a three-day-long immersion in live music -- you eat, sleep, drink and dream live music. You get a dizzying array of tastes of different bands all day long, and then at night you go to a small Austin music venue and see one of those bands do an intimate, full set, and just when you think there's no more music to be had, you come home from the show and turn on your motel TV and see that the local Austin station is doing backstage interviews with all the artists every hour on the hour. I pretty much forgot that the capitol of Texas is there, and the second largest university in the country, and all kinds of other stuff, because to me it was all music. Music and tacos. Best. Time. Ever.

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Great fucking review. Thanks again, K.



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Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas
(Novello Festival Press, April 2008)
includes my essay, "Link Wray"


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