The is no question that the Austin City Limits Music Festival is one of the best run festivals in the country. It always provides a wonderful mix of well-known headlining acts, acts establishing themselves as fixtures in the scene, local Austin favorites and exciting emerging artists. Austin, Texas and its beautiful Zilker Park provide a beautiful backdrop for a festival in one of the America’s hippest cities.
First, though, the problems. No festival is perfect, however: they all have kinks to work out. Transportation and logistical matters at ACL take some careful planning but are easily manageable. Exiting the festival, though, remains problematic. Since there is essentially no parking near the grounds, one must take one of the many trams to a point in downtown or a cab from the cab line provided on the grounds. This is a problem. Both lines invariably feature a massive wait, and over the years I have watched veterans of past festivals gradually leaving earlier and earlier to avoid this wait. This forces one to choose between missing the headlining acts in order to minimize the wait in line, or, remaining to hear incredible music knowing you’ll be stuck afterwards for a wait that averages over an hour. I am sure this is no secret to ACL’s organizers, and that they are working to solve it, but it remains an outstanding issue.
This year was a sell-out (a reported 75,000 tickets) and in 2013 ACL will follow Coachella’s lead (and now the Ultra Music Festival, as well) and offer two weekends of exactly the same acts. Potentially, this could alleviate the logistical issues, (if attendance was reduced in each rendition). If it were up to me, I would also ban both lawn chairs and baby strollers (for the life of me I don’t get why you would bring a baby to a rock show) because their presence made navigating the maze of both makes getting near several of the stages VERY problematic. But these issues, at the end of the day, are small prices to pay to hear the amazing music and have the wonderful experience that is ACL.
We come for the music and that is where ACL shines. This year saw newer acts establishing themselves as artists that are likely to entertain us for years to come, and acts of great importance showing why they have stood the test of time. While great sets were played by the awesome Jack White, the legendary Neil Young and the seemingly ageless Red Hot Chili Peppers, this review will focus on the artists you may not know and artists that you may have heard of but not had a chance to experience yet. Direct your attention towards Spotify and iTunes and have at it.
THE CIVIL WARS just get better and better and I am not quite sure how that is possible. It is quite the feat to draw around 20,000 people to the big stage with just 2 folks singing while one plays guitar. The vocal sound is one of those where the blend and harmony choices make the two sound like there are more than two people singing. It is simple proof that fantastic singing, tasty guitar playing and good songs are enough. One can only be hopeful that a sophomore effort is on the way and I would look for it to make a big splash as music fans seem to not be able to get enough of this Nashville duo.
The hard work of playing every major festival in the last year and tireless touring has now paid off for Austin guitar god/bluesman GARY CLARK JR. After seeing him last year on the small emerging artist BMI stage at last year’s ACL it was a thrill to see him take several big stages at other festivals culminating in his awesome set on the big stage at this year’s ACL. The spawn of Hendrix, Clapton and Stevie Ray is currently reigning as one of rock and blues most exciting artists and with a fawning full page review in Rolling Stone of his new album (Blak and Blu) the secret is now completely out. This is truly an artist not to be missed.
I hesitate to write about ALABAMA SHAKES as we have covered them here on WE many times but this show was just too good to not take notice. I have enjoyed them each time I have seen them but now they bring an act of great maturity and solidity that only time on the road can bring. Much of the band looks like characters one might see at a deep south truck stop around 2 in the AM…unexpected rock stars to be certain but the entire band plays with such a vast sense of style and purpose. They play and function with seemingly telepathic communication and manage to always be musically right where they should be. Of course, the standout is singer/guitarist Brittany Howard— whom Huey has dubbed “the love child of Janis Joplin and Otis Redding.” What may have seemed timid a year ago is now a dynamic, emotional presence on the stage with a voice polished beautifully rough by further experience. While they may not be buzzed about as much as they were when their debut album Boys & Girls hit big, expect to hear their name called when the Grammy nods are read.
The influence of IGGY POP AND THE STOOGES on the punk movement in undeniable (they predated even the Sex Pistols with the style we now call punk); one can only imagine what folks thought when they first heard this sound in the late 60s…it must have been startling in a Beatles pop-driven world. The grunge sound also owes much to THE STOOGES’ style; most of the even remotely popular grunge acts cite THE STOOGES as a major influence. It’s one of those “we do it this way now because they did it that way then” sort of lessons. Was it musically perfect? No…not even remotely but it truly doesn’t matter. Some might call it sad to see these men of an advanced certain age hit the main stage and play rock star but the truth is that what Iggy and The Stooges do and have done for nearly 40 years is classic and influential far beyond what most might think. This act is proof that a group or artist does not HAVE to change what it does if what they do is classic and changes the art form…they do not HAVE to sell out (see Phil Collins circa 1985). At 65, a shirtless Iggy is not always the most attractive sight but it reminds us that rock is not about perfection or beauty or to a certain extent even talent. What it is about is attitude, and Iggy has enough to spread around to all of those that feign the rock persona— many would do well to take a hint or two from Iggy: his on-stage demeanor is the essence of rock and roll.
We have called this before but a major league set delivered by South Carolina rockers NEEDTOBREATHE hopefully will grab listeners by the ears and make them take note of one ACL’s most solid acts. Kick ass rock with tinges of southern rock a la The Allman Brothers and blues rock mixed with a touch of boogie woogie make these guys not only fun to listen to but a melting pot for so many of rock’s influences. NEEDTOBREATHE might hate the comparison but I find them like a slightly more accessible Kings of Leon. And ,with Caleb and the others feudin, they might just be their heir apparent.
Since making a somewhat quiet yet noticeable splash at this year’s Coachella festival, OBERHOFER is proving to be one of this year’s most enjoyable acts. Having producer extraordinaire Steve Lillywhite (U2, Rolling Stones, Morrissey) produce your debut effort doesn’t hurt anything either. Leader Brad Oberhofer creates his own brand of psychedelic, punk influenced alternative pop/rock that feels absolutely sincere in in its efforts to, as Oberhofer says, “make as many people as happy as possible.” Judging from the sizable crowd the 21 year-old and his cohorts drew, they seem to be doing just that.
EDM (electronic dance music) artist AVICII was an actual headliner at this year’s ACL showing that the love for this kind of act is not waning. Musically this is not the ever popular and ever maligned dubstep style but rather good ole four on the floor, oontz , techno bass and drum style electronica like “GrandPa’ul Oakenfold used to make. Visually this was certainly the most impressive act of this festival and definitely one of the most interesting I have ever seen. A 30- foot tall white face where AVICII was positioned atop was the canvas for some absolutely stunning hi-res graphic projections. Even if EDM is not your thing, check out AVICII’s show for a visually arresting experience.
CIVIL TWILIGHT may have been the most musically fulfilling act I took in at this ACL. I have been following them for the last 2 years, and have seen them play 3 sets on the small stages at Bonnaroo. This year, they graduated to the main stage at ACL and it seems that the music loving community is starting to get hip to this musically intriguing act. CIVIL TWILIGHT plays power trio rock in the vein of, say, U2 meets Radiohead. But, there are also shades of The Police and other bass driven acts as well as a bit of MUSE and the best parts of Coldplay. Between bass player Steven McKellar and guitarist Andrew McKellar they employ enough foot pedal effects to make The Edge and Ernie Ball jealous. Plus, they make use of both vocal and instrumental loops created live on stage a la tUnE-yArDs. At times, the brothers can be found crouched to the ground manipulating all the electronics while Steven continues to play one-handed hammer-on bass lines a la Geddy Lee. A move from their native South Africa to NashVegas (seemingly along with everyone else in the music business) was made to establish themselves in the states and here’s hoping that this ACL appearance will propel them into the field of vision of music fans as this is a band that truly deserves to be heard.