AUSTIN, TX—Alt country and rock nations collided in for the annual Austin City Limits (ACL) fest, in the self-proclaimed “live music capital of the world,” where the locals wear “keep Austin weird” t-shirts in celebration of the place’s boho spirit. It’s also home to the annual SXSW fest in the spring, where acts break, got broken and get presented to the national press. Named after the PBS show of the same name, the festival has taken its place amongst the other biggies including Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo with its eclectic mix and musical bang for the buck.
The 130 bands on eight stages didn’t disappoint. Sets ranged from an hour to and hour and a half for the headliners Bjork, Arcade Fire, Muse and Bob Dylan (The White Stripes cancelled their appearance citing band fatigue). Smaller acts ranged from the god-fearing honkytonk of Texas’ own Billy Joe Shaver to MIA’s fiery concocto of urban beats.
The event at Zilker Park, located two miles from downtown Austin, almost didn’t happen. On the first day during Pete Yorn’s set, a fire of a trailer backstage that held propane tanks left port-o-potties molten and a stream of black smoke airborne for 20 minutes, yet the show went on.
The smaller bands at the smaller stages that encircled the grounds were ultimately the most fulfilling at ACL as acts like MIA and Steve Earle turned the gigantic meadows into their own block parties. MIA’s set was a funked up affair of house beats and sassy mouthings by the pint sized fiery titan dressed in a neon purple body suit who belted out her rhymes to the crowd inWashington Square Serenade. A song cycle to his adopted new home in the West Village, it combines lefty politics and some finger picking to a clank of backbeats; in other words, classic Steve Earle. He started out with a rambling tribute to Austin native Townes Van Zandt, then on “Steve’s Hammer,” he urged the crowd to sing aloud the words—“stop this war”—as the scratches, pops and hisses from the drum machine laid down the rhythms.
Sunday’s opening band, Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo, played a diverse set, with raucous rockers one second and bedtime lullabies the next. Lead guitarist Ira Kaplan stumbled and fell into a transcendental state during “Sugercube” onstage as he ripped into some cathartic ear splitting squelch of metallic muscle. Drummer Georgia Hubley countered next with a quiet one that was followed by bassist James McNew who added his high-pitched falsetto to another one influenced by Prince’s “Kiss.”
Lucinda Williams and her backup band put on a blistering performance of dual guitar leads and gritty takes on barroom romance. On “Joy” she sounded like a mean assed stoner chick as she laid down the lines, “Shoot your love into my veins” to the band’s twangy psychedelics. They ended their set with The Doors’ “Riders On The Storm,” replacing the original keyboards with an organic mix of distorted Fenders and Williams’ whiskey laced vocals.
British vixen Joss Stone looked like a runway model in her purple hair and blue dress as she worked the stage, belting out numbers from her new one, Introducing Joss Stone. Her Janis Joplin-esque vocals and killer live performance added a hippie vibe to the designer duds and commercial excess of her last one.
Wilco were on fire for their set as they combined the countrified drawl of Jeff Tweedy to Mike Clines’ avante garde minimalist accentuations on electric guitar that he colored throughout the band’s musical palate into an interesting mix of beard rock. The guitarists pushing and pulling at the band’s pensive swings added an edgy counter to Tweedy’s lazy ramblings.
Regina Spector did “On The Radio” and The Beatles’ “Real Love” solo on piano, with eyes twinkling for the sisters in the crowd. The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger’s deep baritone and sentimental deliveries went down like Leonard Cohen from the band’s meandering buildups to its noisy endings.
Ben Kweller did one of the lamest songs of all time, about living in Brooklyn, called “My Apartment.” Ziggy Marley played “Dragonfly” and father Bob’s “Lively Up Yourself” for a short set for the little ones at the Austin Kiddie Limits stage.
Paolo Nutini, one of the last acts signed by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, left the girlies squealing for more as he showed his roots with Moby’s “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad,” done up reggae style, and Neilson’s “Everybody’s Talking” with an interesting creaky voice.
Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme introduced the song “Mexicola” with the goal—“For everyone to get laid tonight.” The band proceeded to pound its grungy licks at the crowd for another happy ending.
Ice queen Bjork, who owes a lot to Yoko Ono, played tunes from her latest, dressed in a gold outfit and wearing face makeup. The goddess of cold screeched, howled and offered up her edgy art rock to the masses with the help of an all women string section and cold beats.
The Cold War Kids were one of the surprises of the fest, with their mature and melodramatic songs. They did one to “all the boys on death row” in fitting tribute to the Lone Star State, where the electric chair presides as lawn furniture in the state capital.
Folkie Damien Rice added some acoustic/electric feedback and a drum solo to his man/child sappy songs. Brooklyn’s own Clap Your Hands And Say Yeah were a high pitched and feverous tribute to the twerky disco-fied jangle of the Talking Heads.
Bob Dylan and his band closed the fest. He played it like a growling curmudgeon to his band’s blues shuffles that attempted to push the stone faced maverick, who looks a lot like the village undertaker from a cheap B western, into performing his own songs with the respect they deserve. His voice sounded like the croaking of a dying animal on the opener “Rainy Day Women” but aged like a bottle of Colt 45 malt liquor as the night progressed onto Led Zep’s “When The Levee Breaks.” On “Highway 61” Dylan and his band gelled into a burning inferno of sliding guitars and snappy beats. On “Tangled Up in Blue” he changed the words and wrapped his phrases underneath, in front of, and behind the beat so many times and so inconsistently it was hard to tell if he was doing it on purpose or not. One thing is for sure, as his set was the festival’s closer, it helped clear the venue early for the cleaners.