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October 2010

ACL 2010 Wrap Up

DSC01285This year’s edition of the Austin City Limits Music Festival was the usual mix of dependable old favorites, thrilling new discoveries -and a lot of hype and promise that fell somewhere in between. After years of blazing heat and inclement weather, this year’s festival brought bright blue skies and moderate temperatures to Zilker Park along the banks of Barton Creek.

Saturday

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After parking our car in the neighborhood up the hill from Zilker (which, btw, you're not supposed to do), my brother and I arrived at the festival around 3pm, just as things were getting into full swing. After getting our bearings – which didn’t take long, considering ACL has used the same basic layout for the past nine years - we made our way over to see Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra: a raw, hard-rocking indie outfit that felt a bit rough around the edges.

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After 20 minutes or so, we wandered over to the nearby Austin Ventures stage, typically home to some of the most interesting up-and-coming talent from around the country. That’s where we discovered Mayer Hawthorne and the County: a retro-soul outfit named after charismatic lead Andrew Mayer Cohen, who wore a black suit and sang falsetto in the mold of Smokey Robinson and Al Green. With deep bass lines and sampled grooves, it was straight out of 70’s Motown, right down to the three-foot high “M” and “H” lit up in white bulbs.

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Under a nearby tent, San Francisco’s Beats Antique plied an exotic and intoxicating mix of Middle Eastern beats with live guitar and percussion, though none of the electronics were produced live. The (male) duo filled in with a rotating mix of (female) guest artists, including a tattooed singer and a belly dancer.

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Next, we made our way over to one of the two main stages to catch the Silversun Pickups, who last played ACL in 2008 and further proved that L.A. is putting out some of the best grooves in the country.  Great hooks and energy, punctuated by Brain Aubert’s wide-eyed singing, Christopher Guanlao’s feral drumming, and Nikki Monninger doing her best Kim Deal imitation on bass and backing vocals.

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We skipped over-hyped sad sacks The XX for Monterrey’s Kinky, who mixed rock and electronic music with Mexican horns and percussion. The result was a fun, high energy sound that had everyone up and dancing.

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From there, we made it back to the Austin Ventures stage in time to catch supergroup Monsters of Folk. Led by three of the biggest names in indie rock (Conor Oberst, Jim James and M. Ward) they played a two hour set straight into the sunset, taking turns at lead vocals and switching instruments from guitar to piano to banjo, and back again. But for all their combined talent, their playing was eclipsed by the stunning quality of songs themselves, which ranged from murder ballads to full-on rockers, all sewn with the golden thread of American roots music.

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As the sun went down over Zilker Park, the electronic vibe rose to the surface. LCD Soundsystem, led by the always-unflappable James Murphy, played an tight and engaging set, mixing old school disco with modern dance beats. By contrast, someone should have put out a glue trap for DJ/producer Deadmau5 (a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman) who played a pointless progressive house set while wearing a huge faceless Mouse mask. And M.I.A. – one of the evening’s two headliners – seemed to be hiding behind her tribal beats and sensory-overload digi-screen, shrieking nonsensically without the benefit of a spotlight.

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Amidst all this electronic blare, we managed to catch the tail-end of Ozomatli’s over-the-top Latin rock party. After lighting up the tent with brass, guitar and percussion, they invited a bunch of kids up onstage, handing them various instruments to bang on. “Let’s hear it for the next generation!” they shouted. They closed their set by climbing down from the stage to dance through the audience in a big conga line: an act of creative abandon which got them arrested during SXSW 2004. This time, the crowd roared its approval, dancing right alongside them.

Sunday

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Sunday afternoon at ACL was all about NOLA, with two blazing acts that illuminated the Crescent City's rich and diverse musical heritage. MyNameIsJohnMichael, led by charismatic frontman John Michael Rouchell, blew the roof off the tiny BMI stage, fusing soul, jazz and orchestral rock with guitars, trumpets, keys, and upside-down trash cans. It was like Broken Social Scene, Mumford and Sons, and the Neville Brothers, all rolled up into one.
DSC01373 Then, I wandered over to the tent where Trombone Shorty lived up to his rep as one of his generation's most exciting performers. A consummate showman, he played trumpet and trombone like Louie Armstrong, got funky like James Brown, and even worked in some rock and hip hop like the Rebirth Brass Band. Shorty moved easily between new numbers and old standards like "On the Sunny Side of the Street," which sent the crowd into ecstatics with a display of circular breathing that lasted nearly three minutes. And, after closing with an extended version of "When the Saints Go Marching In," Shorty clutched his trumpet and trombone over his heard while the crowd roared its approval.

DSC01332Houston native and alt-country fave Robert Earl Keen has been playing ACL since the very first festival in 2002, and he was back again this year with an hour-long set on the mainstage. A bit heavier, a bit grayer, he sounded a bit out of it but somehow managed to pull himself together to deliver the goods. Call it the Willie Nelson school of music. 

DSC01409Walking back from REK, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros were the manifestation of cultish excess, with lead singer Sharpe shrieking desperately for attention as his minions danced around him. In sharp contrast, DIY folkie Martin Sexton needed nothing more than a guitar amp and a microphone to keep the tent crowd in thrall for over an hour.  DSC01476The festival reached its apogee when the Flaming Lips came out and played for 70 minutes as the sun set behind the mainstage. It was the familiar circus of bear costumes, confetti cannons, and Wayne Coyne bouncing around the crowd in an inflatable bubble, but there was a tender, emotional underpinning to the whole crazy scene. As Coyne told us: "This may be the last day of the festival, but the point the organizers are trying to make is that you'll leave here and spend the rest of the year living as if there's no tomorrow." With his wild gray hair and worn gray suit, I couldn't tell if he looked more like a mad scientist or a prophet. Maybe a bit of both.

DSC01517For my final hour at ACL 2010, I split my time between three simultaneous acts, any of whom could have easily held my attention for their full set. The National were no less magical than during their home show at Prospect Park earlier this summer. Richard Thompson lived up to his rep as one of the world's great guitarists, playing everything from blues to folk - even a bit of Polka. And Norah Jones - a triple-threat on vox, piano and guitar - held her home state in thrall with her lush, dreamy voice.

DSC01576As I left Zilker and started the long walk along Barton Creek back to my car, I was serenaded by The Eagles who, for all their soft rock underpinnings, have made an undeniably huge contribution to the American songbook with hits like "Hotel California" and "Life in the Fast Lane." I can't say for sure what sort of ACL fan would be into the Eagles - who initially broke up long before most of them were even born - but what better testament to the remarkably expansive tent ACL pitches, or to the flow of music across generation like the waters of the Creek. 

More pics on Flickr here and here


ACL 2010

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"This is one of the greatest festivals in the world - and it's right here!"         Wayne Coyne, Flaming Lips

The sun has set on the 2010 edition of the 9th annual Austin City Limits Festival, which I've been flying down for (with one or two exceptions) since the inaugural edition in 2002. (Check out my posts from the 2007 and 2008 ACLs.) As in the past, this year's ACL pitched a particularly wide musical tent, offering up everything from indie and classic rock, to roots and country, to jazz and gospel.

But, for me, this festival has never been just about the music: just walking around the 10 sun-dappled acres of Zilker Park - filled with art, crafts, and beautiful people of all ages - offers its own inspiration. After nearly a decade of ACL's, I've become convinced that there's something magical that takes place here each fall, some sort of temporary vortex that opens up and fills you with enough warmth and inspiration to last the whole winter through. Or, as the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne put it last night just as the sun faded into gold and lit up 30,000 smiles: "The idea is that you'll leave here tonight and spend the rest of the year living as if there's no tomorrow."

More thoughts/pics to come.


Vienna in New York

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"Autumn in New York/ It spells the thrill of first-nighting" (Vernon Duke)

As Tony Tommasini wrote last week in the Times, it's always a privilege to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in concert. And we, in New York, are more privileged than most, given that the VPO returns here each and every season for a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, usually in the dead of winter when the city is dark and cold. But, to have the VPO open the fall season with a series featuring not one but two conductors - not to mention two of the most famous soloists in classical music - is enough to make you toss your beach blanket into a bonfire.

Last Thursday, Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt led a complete performance of Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast: a vast cycle of six symphonic poems inspired by various aspects of Czech culture and history: from the Vysherad castle in Prague, to scenes from rural Bohemia. (Originally, the VPO was to perform Bruckner's mighty 8th symphony; no word as to why they made the switch.)

Harnoncourt, now 80, is one of the world's most esteemed and versatile conductors. In addition to being an honorary member of the Vienna Philharmonic - a rare honor accorded to only a handful of conductors, including Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan - he is even better known as a pioneer of the early music movement, having formed the Concentus Music Wien in 1953: the world's first period instrument ensemble, with which he still regularly performs. 

As he took the podium - figuratively speaking since there was, in fact, no podium - Harnoncourt stared long and hard out into the audience, as if he were trying to make us out to the same degree we were him. That intensity was sustained throughout the two-hour performance, which ranged from majestic to sublime, stormy to tranquil. Early on, the VPO seemed to be a bit outside their comfort zone with this music, but they soon came roaring back with astonishing texture and precision anchored by the strings, which were both deep and driving and crisp and clear. In Harnoncourt's hands, the music seemed to live somewhere between Wagner's Rhine journey and a Strauss waltz, both of which this orchestra plays better than any other. 

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Sunday's matinee concert featured a conductor of a far different pedigree: Gustavo Dudamel, the 29 year old music director of the LA Philharmonic and one of the classical world's brightest - and flashiest - stars. At first glance, it felt like some kind of ill-advised stunt: revered orchestra pairs up with hot young conductor. (Dudamel will also be conducting the Berlin Philharmonic later this season.)

But, from the moment Duda let his baton drop on the opening bars of Brahms' Tragic Overture, it was clear that this was, in fact, a serious venture. As if to confound our expectations, Dudamel took the Brahms slow. Really slow. His take was both restrained and straightforward, squeezing out every last drop of essence out of the piece, which stretched out to nearly 20 minutes (from it's usual 15.) Whether his glacial pace was motivated by reverence or uncertainty I couldn't say, but he seemed to have the players' full buy-in - never an easy task with this famously-independent group of musicians.

Next came Schumann's Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma, who I last saw leading the Silk Road Ensemble at Tanglewood this summer. Aside from all of his extra-classical ventures, Ma has been, without question, the world's greatest cellist for over 20 years, attributable less to his virtuosity than the extreme generosity of his spirit.

Ma is an old hand at this concerto: an intimate, tortured piece Schumann dashed off in two weeks then continued to revise over the next several years, right up until his final descent into madness. Duda and the VPO kept their distance, allowing Ma's highly emotional playing to shine through. Throughout, Ma seemed to be lost in an ecstatic trance, smiling broadly and nearly leaping out of his chair during major crescendos. Yet, his approach was that of a chamber musician, continually catching the eye of concertmaster Rainer Kuchl and principal cellist Franz Bartolomey, with whom he shared an extended duet. It was the performance of a lifetime.

After bouncing around the stage during curtain calls like an exuberant teenager, Ma played the prelude to Bach's first Cello Suite as an encore, holding the hall in his thrall for two more entrancing minutes. (In 1991, Ma performed all six of the Bach suites at Carnegie, in a marathon 4 1/2 hour concert that remains legendary.) And then, after a few more smiles and handshakes with the Vienna musicians, he was gone.

After intermission, the VPO and Dudamel returned with Dvorak's 9th Symphony: the so-called "New World" symphony. The symbolism couldn't have been starker: new world conductor leading the old world's greatest orchestra, in the hall where the symphony was first performed back in 1893. Duda, who conducted the 40 minute score from memory, unleashed all of the VPO's fury on the opening Allegro. The Largo was tender and glistening, while the Scherzo had Duda up and jumping around the podium. By the time they reached the Finale, Duda's curly mop of hair was flying all over the place, and the VPO erupted with a full roar which was soon returned by the full house, everyone rising to their feet. 

Customarily, the VPO performs a waltz or two as an encore whenever they visit Carnegie, usually something heard during their annual New Year's concert. But, for this occasion, Duda chose Bernstein's Waltz from the Divertimento for Orchestra: a nod both to Lenny's hometown and to his status as one of the VPO's favorite collaborators. And then, less than a minute after they finished, the musicians had cleared the stage, with motorcoaches waiting on 7th Ave. to take them to their custom charter at JFK. It was almost as if the whole thing had never happened... 

Until next year. DSC00800