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Austin City Limits Music Festival: 10 years in Zilker Park

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com
Music fan's paradise: The crowd cheers for Gomez on opening day of the fifth festival. After the 2005 dust bowl, fest organizers paid half of the cost to install a new irrigation system in Zilker Park to improve conditions. Musical stars that year included Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Flaming Lips and Matisyahu.

On Friday, the 10th annual Austin City Limits Music Festival launches in Zilker Park. For three days, tens of thousands of fans from Austin and beyond will watch more than 100 sets from legendary veterans (Stevie Wonder), pop phenomenons (Kanye West) and up-and-coming acts (Kurt Vile and the Violators).

Most fans know ACL Fest, produced by Austin's C3 Presents, as one of the festival season's most sure-fire attractions, a three-day weekend of music, sun (most of the time) and chicken cones that sells out cold every year. But it wasn't always thus.

In 2002, ACL Fest was the little festival that could, a total crapshoot from the guy who put on shows at Stubb's, the road manager of Sister 7 and Lance Armstrong's agent. This is the story of the first nine years, from the folks who made it happen.

Patrice Pike, Austin musician: "Charlie Jones was on tour with (Pike's then-band) Sister 7 (as road manager) before the festival started, and he would talk to me about what he was envisioning. I remember him talking about the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and how he had always wanted to do a festival that was similar in that it was very eclectic, lots of stages in a very large natural park space."

Charlie Jones, co-founder of C3 Presents, then with Capital Sports and Entertainment: "I was doing 101X stuff, had done the millennium celebrations for the city and had spent a few years trying to develop my credibility with them because I really wanted to do an experience-based festival. In 2001, my old company Middle Man merged with (Lance Armstrong agent) Bill Stapleton's company Capital Sports to form Capital Sports and Entertainment."

Lisa Hickey C3 marketing director, then Jones' assistant: "He would go out on these runs around Barton Springs with his dog and imagine the layout."

Charles Attal, C3 co-founder, then head of Charles Attal Presents: "Charlie Jones and I were officing in the same building, in a small little house, it couldn't have been 1,000 square feet, on Fifth Street next to El Arroyo. It was him and Lisa Hickey, me and Amy Corbin. We were good buddies, but we were competitors."

Meanwhile, KLRU was trying to figure out what to do with "Austin City Limits." It was the longest-running music show on television, and it was time to tap the brand's equity.

Ed Bailey, marketing director, KLRU: "Around 2000, we had an ambition at KLRU to create brand extensions for the TV series. We talked about a festival, a small event that happened some part of the year where we could create music outside in the park, because there had always been this mythology that `Austin City Limits' had been shot in a park somewhere."

Though House of Blues had expressed interest in working on a festival with KLRU, Stapleton suggested that the newly minted CSE - a local company, after all - be given a shot. KLRU agreed.

Bailey: "I vividly remember the first meeting when we all got together to talk about this. Charlie (Jones) had a good relationship with the parks department, we had a great relationship in general with the city. `Austin City Limits' has in some ways been an outreach vehicle for the city for decades; it plays a role in the idea of the Live Music Capital."

Attal: "Jones, he came in one day and said, `Hey, I'm doing a press conference in Zilker; I want you to come and check it out, and put on some nice pants. Don't wear your T-shirt and flip-flops.' I said OK, and went to the press conference just to check it out."

Bailey: "On April 30, 2002, we literally went down to Zilker Park and set up a tiny stage with some chairs on it, invited the media down, and we made the announcement that `Austin City Limits' with Capital Sports and Entertainment was announcing the first ever Austin City Limits Music Festival for Sept. 28 and 29."

Jones: "I invited two promoters; only Attal showed up, so I asked him to work with me."

Attal: "I had never booked a festival before. Amy and I worked on it night and day. Putting it together in three weeks with two people was a little bit nutty."

While the acts had to be booked extremely quickly, Jones and his production team had a little more time. But just a little.

Dirk Stalnecker, C3 production director: "My jaw dropped when I found out we had three or four months to put it together."

Hickey: "None of my friends really knew what I was doing. It was my job to do the marketing for this thing and I was 22. A friend and I flew up to Chicago to go to a Wilco show and a Grateful Dead show in Alpine Valley (in Wisconsin) to pass out fliers at both. I once sat in Tower Records for an entire day selling tickets while my then-boyfriend put on a squirrel suit to hand out fliers up and down the Drag. He'd take off the head, have a smoke break."

Organizers were expecting a minimum of around 20,000 fans and hoping for 30,000 to attend; 42,000 people showed up on the Saturday of the first fest in 2002. The Arc Angels, the String Cheese Incident, Pat Green and Wilco were the big names. One-day tickets were $25.

Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel frontman and show opener: "Nobody knew what to expect. I remember sitting there with Bill (Stapleton) and Bart (Knaggs) and Charlie (Jones), them going, `We could lose a million dollars on this. Oh my God.' They were nervous. It was a gamble, but we got on stage and it was beautiful."

Attal: "We weren't expecting the walk-up that we had. Ticket sales were light early, and in the last seven days it kind of just exploded."

There were plenty of logistical problems, the first of which was a huge wait to exchange tickets for wristbands.

Jones: "I remember the `Star Wars' theme and suddenly people came from all directions. The line was half a mile long, and we went all hands on deck. It didn't matter whether you had a receipt, a ticket or what, we just had to get everybody off the street and in the front door." (The fest still opens with the "Star Wars" theme each year.)

Once fans got in the door, they were greeted with a huge park full of music .

Pike: "The first year, it wasn't packed, it was really comfy and perfect. It was really special. Even though the vendors ran out of food because they had never done this before, a lot of people were happy."

David Sanger, Asleep at the Wheel drummer: "At the very first ones, basically anyone could go up onstage if you had any pass and mill around backstage and watch any show."

Benson: "After year one, it was, `Wow. This is going to be huge.' The first year was the scary one."

Of course, there was some work to do. Jones and company wanted to expand to three days, and transportation glitches - such as the enormous line for the buses and cabs and the giant lines for food vendors - had to be solved.

Jones: "We spent the next year working on the layout, people flow, educating our food vendors, plotting how people move around the park, the stages, all of it. If you want to put that many people in one location three full days, you've got to give them a lot more to do. If it's two days, you might come in and stay one night. You come for three nights, that's a destination weekend."

Attal: "The destination festivals in America were still kind of in their infant stages then. There was Jazz Fest, but the Bonnaroos, Coachella, Lolla and ACL all kind of grew up together as big three-day destination festivals. The energy around the office was great, because landing a band like R.E.M. was a big deal for us, but we were still at that grass-roots level."

Hickey: "Three days means people skipping school."

The second year saw the festival expand to three days with 150,000 attendees, and R.E.M., Steve Winwood and Al Green headlining.

Stalnecker: "Adding in that Friday, the work increased exponentially. I think R.E.M. was a little hesitant, and not without cause. But it turned out great."

Attal: "The one downside to booking bigger names is that the bigger the names you book, the more expectations come on you the next year. So it was bittersweet; it was great at the time, and next year we were like, `How are we going to top this?' "

String Cheese Incident relaunched the Pink Floyd pig while they played "The Wall."

Chris Sorlie, ACL Fest production manager: "That pig was pretty cool. I think it overshadowed their set, actually."

Stalnecker: "I remember Al Green had these roses he wanted to give out, and we ended up removing these thorns from two dozen roses."

Benson: "Al Green kicked my (expletive)! I loved that (set)."

Sorlie: "There was a fair amount of partying at night. I remember Ben Harper's crew throwing up on one side of the stage while the Jack Johnson crew was throwing up on the other side of the stage."

The third year, 2004, was a learning year. With 200,000 people or more during three days, the park felt cramped, especially during the set by the Pixies, who were in the middle of the reunion tour that would kick off reunion mania among vintage '90s acts. Citing concerns from the neighborhood, ACL Fest promoters put a 65,000-per-day cap on attendance for the next several years.

Jones: "It wasn't even the number of people inside the park as much as how we got people in and out of the park. We weren't quite experienced enough to handle it correctly."

Other headliners included Ben Harper and Sheryl Crow, while Franz Ferdinand had a breakout set.

Stalnecker: "That was the year we started to see a shift from bands conforming to what we had to us figuring out how to do what they wanted."

Elizabeth McQueen, singer, Asleep at the Wheel: "I had been in New Mexico the day before Elvis Costello performed. I drove straight 14 hours to get into town. I got backstage 15 minutes before Elvis was going to play."

Solie: "Franz Ferdinand's set got a little hectic. That was the Solomon Burke year, right? That was one heavy-(expletive) throne he was sitting on."

The fourth year, 2005, presented ACL's first major crisis. Days before the festival, it looked like Hurricane Rita would strike Austin. Instead, the hurricane stranded musicians and drove temperatures to 108 degrees on Sunday, turning Zilker Park into a dust bowl. Headliners included Coldplay, Widespread Panic and Oasis, while Arcade Fire played to tens of thousands in sweltering heat.

Jones: "It sucked all the moisture out of the air, and we got these desert-like conditions."

Hickey: "I remember tracking the storm at the office and trying to make a decision: `Do we need to cancel the festival?' Then the storm decided to veer, everyone from Houston evacuated, and we went from preparing for a storm to all the heat and dust."

Sorlie: "We had to load out half the festival overnight, just taking down everything in case the storm came. Then it took a right and completely missed us. We ended up bringing in dry ice and fans to keep amps and equipment cool."

Attal: "We had some bands cancel, because they weren't coming because the hurricane was coming. We didn't really water that grass at all, because we were worried about the rain. Then when (the hurricane) turned, we had such a dry heat come in, and because the grass wasn't prepped, the dust storm happened. We had about five things that added to the stress level."

Stalnecker: "I remember going out to buy gloves because the steel (the stages were made out of) was so hot you couldn't touch it. We shifted to overnights to get out of the heat of the day. Everything just goes really slowly, but you still have to work."

In spite of (and because of) the unpleasant conditions, many bands rose to the occasion.

Pike: "I think the most emotional that I've been at the festival watching a performance was when I saw the Frames (in 2005). I was standing on the side stage, I could see from behind them what was happening and the lead singer (Glen Hansard) threw his arms up in the air, and his hair was so bright red, and the electric violinist was playing. It was one of the most passionate sets of music I've ever seen, and I've been seeing bands since I was 3. I had tears running down my face."

Attal: "(Coldplay) really wanted to play it; they were great to work with, there were no issues, no egos that we had to deal with. They're all as professional as it gets. They were great, one of our first really, really big bands that we had, and they couldn't have been nicer, and it made our lives easier.

And even after the dust I thought, `We're onto something here; we need to make some adjustments to the grounds, obviously.' Zilker was pretty beat up; there were a lot of rocks and patchy grass. It needed some work."

Given those issues, in 2006, Jones and company, still doing business as Capital Sports and Entertainment and Charles Attal Presents, agreed to pay half the costs of an irrigation system being installed by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department at the concert site. The first phase was completed before the festival.

The irony? Headliner Tom Petty played during a rainstorm.

Benson: "(Petty) stopped for 30 minutes and said, `I'll be back.' He came back and did an incredible show. That was one of my favorite sets."

2007 was another complicated year. A propane tank ignited outside an RV, burning four employees of Brown Distributing beer suppliers and sending flames 75 feet in the air, an event that sounds all the more chilling now. The White Stripes canceled just days before the fest. And this was the year CSE and Charles Attal Presents officially merged, forming C3 Presents with third "C" Charlie Walker, who came over from concert giant Live Nation.

Attal: "It was like a punch to the stomach because you're not prepping for that. I remember being really depressed, and I remember also the backlash from fans emailing and saying `What are you going to do? How are you going to fix it?,' and they don't understand that behind the scenes you don't have any options, unless you get lucky."

Hickey: "You just scream (`Expletive!') and then what can you do but come up with the next plan."

Jones: "We knew we had a good a band just below them with Muse."

Attal: "I'm a little bit skewed. I love Muse, I've seen them live 25 times, and they know what they're doing."

Sorlie: "The funny thing is that Muse as headliner made life a little bit easier, having all of their stuff there for the end rather than the second-to-last band on that stage. The weirdest moment was when Björk's music lit a speaker on fire. She was driving so much low end there was a short. She was cool enough to very calmly dance off stage while we bum-rushed this speaker to fix it, and she just danced back out. Very cool of her."

By now, ACL Fest had become a well-oiled machine, one of the premier destination festivals in the States. 2008 was the year of glorious weather, and highlights included Robert Plant and Alison Krauss vs. Beck Saturday night and Foo Fighters at the other end Sunday night.

Sorlie: "Plant and Krauss' set was more like a living room than a big open stage. They looked so comfortable up there."

Attal: "My daughter was born in '08 and I remember being at home for the headliner, the Foo Fighters. I was living in Barton Hills at the time. I was sitting on my deck still awake. It was surreal - sitting at my house with my kid, listening to the Foo Fighters down in the park on a show that I worked on."

In 2009, 42 acres of Zilker Park closed for the first half of the year so that a permanent irrigation system, paid for by C3 Presents during a 10-year period, could be installed. The irrigation system was put in, and sod, Dillo Dirt and grass were replaced. Torrential rains on Saturday - after a glorious opening day - brought Dillo Dirt to the surface, resulting in parkwide mud.

Earlier, illness forced headliners the Beastie Boys to cancel (unlike the White Stripes, it happened weeks out), resulting in a headlining set from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, while Pearl Jam rocked tens of thousands on a completely disgusting, muddy Sunday night.

Jones: "It was not fun."

Attal: "The grass hadn't taken hold, we had fresh sod and the rain tore it up. Texas weather is funny. All it takes is one big storm, and it can pound you. I've learned to live with weather and not worry about it so much, because I used to worry about it a ton. Now I worry about things I can control."

Last year, the city and C3 agreed that the number of tickets sold for each day could jump to 75,000, up from 65,000 in 2009. (This year's contract also allows for 75,000 a day.) The reasoning is that because of attrition - people coming and going - there will never be more than 65,000 on hand at any one time. Nobody seemed to mind as the October dates gave fans the best weather in the festival's history. The Eagles, Phish, the Strokes and Muse played headlining sets.

Which brings us to 2011. To most folks, it should look, if not feel, like 2010.

Sorlie: "This year, 2011? Things are very close to last year. At this point, we know the park well enough such that any changes we need to make are artist-specific. Of course, this year, there is a YouTube channel on which people can watch the event, which is kind of exciting, as it makes the fest more accessible then it's ever been before."

In the years since the first ACL Fest, C3 took over the Lollapalooza Festival in 2006 andhas grown into perhaps the most important independent music production company in the United States. In Austin, the threat of fire and a summer of record-smashing heat will likely loom large in fans' minds (the contract with the city also bans smoking). But look for a festival that largely resembles last year's in sound and vision. From 42,000 people storming into Zilker, largely on a whim, in 2002 to the 75,000 a day this year, ACL Fest has found a built-in audience that knows what to expect year after year.

Attal: There's never the perfect lineup, I don't think. It's weird, because when you put it together, and when you get usually about a week out, and you start to look at it all gridded out, and some of the bands that you booked early that have kind of blown up since you booked them, there are usually seven or eight bands that I want to see. But I'm never satisfied. If I could get a Pink Floyd reunion and Led Zeppelin reunion, I'd be happy."

With additional reporting by writer Brian T. Atkinson.

Austin City Limits Music Festival 2011

When: Friday-Sept. 18. Gates at 11 a.m.

Where: Zilker Park

Tickets: All but Sunday day passes ($90) are sold out. (Kids younger than 10 get in free with a ticketed adult.)

Information:www.aclfestival.com