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Exhaustin’ in Austin

September 22, 2011

This was the 10th year for the ACL fest.

Reporting from the Live Music Capital of the World, I am weary, sore, sweaty, stinky but exhilarated. (I started writing this in Austin, finished it at the airport in Minneapolis and filed it at home in Saskatoon.)

Austin must be short for Exhaustin’. I’ve seen about six years’ worth of live music in six days.

The ACL Fest did not disappoint.

I started things with a non-fest visit to the Continental Club, a hub of the South Congress area. The place is decorated all in red and would look right at home in a David Lynch movie. I stopped in during Happy Hour when the music’s free and caught a western swing trio — Hot Club of Cowtown. All fine young players, especially their slap bassist who sounded like he was about to pop his strings at any moment. I hung around for the next set — Alejandro Escovedo buddy Jon Dee Graham. His roots rock could be described as Exile on South Congress in more ways than one, as he took some digs at the fest, joking more than once about how they were going to be playing on the “Dell I Don’t Give a Fuck” stage (For the record, they were not playing the fest.) He explained to anyone who missed the joke that the thing he liked about big festivals is that they let you know your place in the musical food chain. I had to laugh. This is Austin, after all, home of Weird, which means supporting all things small and non-corporate.

The festival, itself, still is kind of blur. Nice people, well run and no major disappointments for me (though I have to say I was at odds with the Austin Chronicle’s scribes over a couple of the acts, at least based on their previews.)
Some high points from the fest or the after-shows:

  • If anyone wasn’t in love with The Head and the Heart singer/violinist Charity Rose Thielen’s voice by the end of their set, they had no head or heart. She has one of those sad, torchy voices like Jolie Holland.
  • Soulful Ray LaMontagne blowing some harmonica on Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame).
  • I’d heard a little of Brandi Carlisle before the fest, but her set was one of the highlights for me.
  • Great T-shirts (lots of Big Lebowski ones, even a L’il Sebastian one from Parks and Recreation) and great mascots/flags/signs/photos hoisted on poles all over the site. There’s a good photo essay waiting for someone shutterbug.
  • Elbow were, as the Brits like to say, “brilliant.” Great mix of tunes, stage presence and sound.
  • Gary Clark Jr. is one serious badass singer and guitar player. I caught him at an after-show at Antone’s, the city’s legendary blues club. He’s the real thing.
  • Brian Blade who was playing with Daniel Lanois. He weighs about 90 pounds, plays a four-piece Gretsch drum set with high-hats and one cymbal. Yes, that’s right: one cymbal. He should be giving drum lessons to body-building, double-kick jock skin beaters, on how less can be more.
  • Considering how sad some of her songs are, Gillian Welch was surprisingly funny, as she cracked wise about the “Martian invasion” blaring from an adjacent stage. (It was the bass from deejay Skrillex. Really, do you need so much of the No. 2-inducing brown notes?) As Welch put it, this was close as music got to being a competitive sport.
  • Ryan Bingham was mighty fine. His raspy voice though sounds like it will never make it till the end of the set.
  • I was a little disappointed with Fleet Foxes. I like their songs and their harmonies were great, but they spent a little too much time tuning between numbers. They could’ve used this time to converse with the crowd but they were pretty quiet. They still need some fine-tuning when playing before large crowds.
  • Stevie Wonder. I saw Stevie. Songs in the Key of Life was an important to me as a little kid as Let It Bleed or the White Album. (I point out I was listening to this stuff when the only music most pre-MTV kids knew was “The Happy Wanderer” — God, I still hate that song.)
  • The last set I caught at the fest on Sunday was Randy Newman, one of my all-time favourites. A young woman nearby had been calling out enthusiastically for “Political Science” throughout the show and when he ended his set with his classic nod to U.S. foreign policy, I thought she was going to burst. This gives me hope for the future. Maybe I shouldn’t underestimate people.

After Randy, I took in an official after-show at the famed Stubb’s Barbeque. Iron & Wine was playing at the outdoor amphitheatre. The music was a departure for Sam Beam and his electrified I&W. The electric piano and a horn section gave the music the feel of old Stax soul records. The setting was great — kind of like the ACL television set but with actual downtown Austin as the backdrop.

On the Monday, my last full day in Austin, I showed up in the morning for a tour Austin City Limits has started offering of the new Moody Theater studio. I hadn’t been one of the lucky ones to get tickets for tapings by Gomez and Randy Newman that day, so I thought this would at least get my foot in the door.

The tour gives a decent backstage look at the show, plus there’s a gallery of photos by legendary rock shutterbug Jim Marshall, as well as those of official show photographer Scott Newton (I really wanted to steal his Flaming Lips shot). Unfortunately, we couldn’t get much of a peak at the actual set because the Gomez sound check was happening.

Anyway, after spending a little time and too much money at landmark Waterloo Records, I followed the advice of the volunteer tour guide and came back shortly before the afternoon taping, and lucky me, got in for Gomez. Great sound, great tunes, charming performers. Stay tuned to your PBS station. All in all, a great dessert for the almost week-long feast for the ears in“Awe-stin,” the Live Musical Capital of the World.

One Comment
  1. Barbara Chouinard permalink

    Sounds wonderful and I got all pumped just reading about it. I will enjoy reading more on this blog.

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