This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Houston 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.
Walking 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. The 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.
For 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.
As 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.