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ACL in Review

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photos by Anthony Chapman
words by Johnathon Updegrove

I’ll admit when it comes to seeing live music, particularly festivals, I’m lazy. Lazy in the sense that I show up late to the party, and most of the time it is after it has gone through its popular phase. Typically, this means that everything that I have heard about it, i.e.; the community around it, the potential for great musical discovery, and the overall feel of the show itself, has long ago been purged from it, in order to make room for the one thing killing current music (and honestly, music in general), capitalism.

So, this being my first time to experience ACL, you may understand my apprehension when I heard four of the “bigger” bands consisted of the Mars Volta, Beck, Gnarles Barkley, and the Foo Fighters. Granted, three out of those four deserve all the praise, success, and admiration they garner, in my opinion. However, we must face the facts, all of these bands have been very prevalent on MTV, 104.1 KRBE, and every magazine out there that is more interested in the grooming techniques of the band then they are their musical talents, in the past 15 years. Just so there is no confusion, The Mars Volta is not one of those three bands.

Well, I’m pleased to say, that I was wrong. The Austin City Limits Music Festival, although horribly crowded, still has its independent, almost home town music festival feel. (By the way, the Westheimer Block Party is coming up on October 11th. It’s free and all day. I think you should go, you may like it.)

However, this is not going to be an article kissing the ass of the people who run ACL, nor an article that will be an experiment in the most creative ways to plug an upcoming music festival of our own. So I’m going to pull back to something I mentioned before, the possibility of musical discovery.

There is one obvious thing that you realize within five minutes of walking through the gates, besides the massive amount of humanity and horrible air quality (side note: walking around with a bandana across your face does not make you hate Screamo any less). Okay, so three obvious things that you realize, the third being, that you are going to find out about new music. There are over 130 bands at this festival. I don’t care how in tune with the underground music scene you are; you are going to be surprised at least once.

Everyone’s experience will be different, but I’m the one writing the article so here is the few that I found.

The Black and White Years: At first glance this band is aptly named. Each of the members are either wearing Black, White, or both (yes, I realize that statement is hypocritical with what I mentioned in the second paragraph, but seeing a live show actually requires you to, well, see). However, once they start playing, it really doesn’t matter what they are wearing. They have an almost electro Clash feel, fitting in nicely with the dance rock genre that I so love. They also mix in the garage rock sound of the 60’s as well, to create a sound that is delightfully refreshing yet familiar. Throw in a lead singer whose chops could rival Robert Plant, and you have got yourself a very good band, which just happens to be local to Austin.

Speaking of Robert Plant, he performed at ACL as well, teaming up with Allison Kraus. This is the reason why you won’t be seeing a Beck review here, at least from me. Both acts shared a time slot, so unfortunately, I had to choose. Being the classic rock whore that I am, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see a God amongst men (and I missed John Fogerty earlier). That, and Beck’s crowd was at least a half-mile back from the stage (a phenomenon that both he and The Foo Fighters experienced that weekend).

Back to the show though. Plant’s and Kraus’s voices mesh surprisingly well, but that’s not where the mash up stops. Their backing band managed to bring the two styles of classic rock and bluegrass together quite gloriously. Trust me; you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a fiddle being played like Jimmy Paige. It made for an all around good show, and it was pleasing to see that Plant still had his microphone tricks up his sleeve.

Surprises go both ways though. When I heard there was a band by the name of We Go To 11, I thought my wildest dreams had come true. I was thinking a Spinal Tap tribute band, maybe even one that would have taken the original style and created new music. What I got was a trio, who decided that their shtick was to play loud, horrible metal (and by that I mean their skill, not musicianship) in which they will play the “verses” at half speed, and the “chorus” at double speed with tremendous amounts of double kick. That and they are high school kids. I wish that was a joke. To paraphrase the ACL program, “none of the band members know how to drive yet.”

Then came CSS, a band who I had heard before. But there is a difference between hearing and seeing, as stated previously. Granted what I have heard was only in passing and while conversing with my friends, but they had always been a band I had wanted to find out more about. So, really CSS was a surprise to me. Their high energy new wave like show even had my head bobbing to the music, a rare notion for bands that I don’t know the words of their songs by heart. Not to mention that their lead singer interacted with the crowd so well, a rare trait in most live acts today.

Finally, there is Teagan and Sara. The Canadian duo manages to keep a very poppy sound, while still being careful to not become generic. Their harmonies are pitch perfect (pun intended), but the best part of their act was their humor. They had a tremendous rapport with the crowd, keeping us entertained while instruments were switched, and even when they screwed up their own song (which led to an interesting factoid about the details of their birth, involving a “sucking reflex”). At the same time, it never took away from the musical portion of their act. Many bands today attempt humor at shows, many with much success, but it’s typically an action to compensate for their musical talent. Teagan and Sara are a rare breed, a band that is very good both live and recorded, that is not afraid to poke fun of themselves as long as it keeps the crowd entertained.

I wish I could sit here and tell you that this show was amazing, that I was blown away. I wish I could give you a tag line like “Thumbs up!” or an “Astounding, fruitful experience” to be on next year’s poster. Unfortunately, I’d have to be ten people to be able to cover enough of this festival to be able to comfortably say something like that.
What I can say is that is was fun. There were no big promotions, not much hoopla. Hell, even the four bands I mentioned at the beginning managed to still keep their sets insanely fun, even if you are not a fan of their music. It just felt like you, the band you were watching, and probably 150,000 of your closest friends. It was like a gigantic party, which for a festival of this size is very…surprising.

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