ACL Fest 2011: How sweet it was
Legendary performances, spirited crowd leave good vibes
Check "done" on the 10th Austin City Limits Music Festival.
This year's three-day orgy of music, weather and chicken cones brought things both rare — rain, Stevie Wonder — and usual — vastly different experiences of the same set — to Zilker Park. Here are the highlights from our team.
• Kanye West. Standout moments included an over-the-top entrance from the center of the crowd in which the rapper rose above Zilker on an elevated platform. A troupe of ballerinas gave the Bud Light stage a touch of Broadway, and supercharged versions of West's older material, including "The Good Life," "Jesus Walks" and "Stronger" were a fine way to end the first day. Set review
• Phosphorescent. The Alabama-via-Brooklyn country rock band led by Matthew Houck, whose understated, weary voice coupled with pedal steel guitar on songs including "Mermaid Parade." Any question that the set would lull the crowd to sleep (or succumb to painful sound bleed from the AMD stage) with too many Neil Young-style ballads was answered with perfect moments of classic rock crescendo from the six-member band.
• Stevie Wonder. Wonder delivered with his hits — "Superstition," "Higher Ground," Living For the City" — and a couple of covers, including the pumped-up opener "How Sweet it Is" and Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel." The latter had the whole place dancing, except the folks driven away by what they said was bad sound in the back. Set review
• The jubilant Preservation Hall Jazz Band/Del McCoury Band show that had fans young and old hollering themselves hoarse and beaming around at strangers as though they were long-lost friends. Set review
• Raindrops! When the rain started, you could tell right away who was from Texas — the ones with their hands in the air and wondering smiles on their faces.
• Alison Krauss and Union Station's sublime set, emotionally rich as well as masterful in its musicianship. Set review
• Noelle Scaggs and Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and the Tantrums delivering musically while working hard to loosen up the audience and finally prevailing in their determination to instigate a dance party. Set review
• The Lee Boys' funk-soul revival/wild-and-crazy dance party.
• TV on the Radio playing "Young Liars," a song that can go anywhere, an emotional blowout in the tradition of the MC5's "Black to Comm," Yo La Tengo's "Blue Line Swinger" or U2's "Bad." They reminded that, at their best, they are absolutely America's Radiohead.
• Kurt Vile's three guitar, drums and no bass setup. Miles of hair playing nothing but treble on the Austin Ventures stage, consistently the most sonically underrated place at the festival. Set review
• Hearing the opening notes of My Morning Jacket's inviting-yet-menacing "Victory Dance" streaking over the park at the top of their set. The band sounded phenomenal — a little too phenomenal for a lot of people trying to listen to Stevie Wonder.
• Stevie Wonder. Hits paraded. Humanity affirmed. Bucket list lightened considerably. Set review
• Charles Bradley. If Stevie's a flowing faucet of love and affirmation, soulman Bradley is a surging fire hydrant — a growling, hip-shaking fire hydrant.Set review
• Santigold. More artists should find a way to have as much fun on stage as Santi White. That stuff is contagious, and so are her bouncy, beat-filled songs. Set review
• Arcade Fire. Familiar songs muscled up and deepened, maligned "headliners" proved themselves and left everything on the stage.
• Theophilus London. One of my favorite opening sets ever: A cool cat delivers dance rap with a side of raindrops.
• It was a blast to walk between the simultaneous dance parties in front of Skrillex and Fitz and the Tantrums on Saturday. One of my favorite things in general: how music in a big field gets thousands of people grooving together as one. Set review
• Stevie Wonder! Standing in one of the sweet spots in the field, I was moved to tears more than once by the glorious music and the positive message. Set review
• Gary Clark Jr. I was blown away when I walked up to the normally chill BMI stage and saw the massive crowd dancing to Austin's guitar phenom, who was just stunning. Set review
• Kanye West. Unlike headliners in the past who've phoned it in, Kanye brought everything he had, and we still wanted more. Set review
• The Cults. I missed their Friday morning set, but their aftershow at the Parish that night was haunting and seductive, from the moment the "Twin Peaks" theme song brought them on to stage to the last note. Set review
• Big Boi. All eyes were on Kanye's headlining set on Friday, and Yeezy didn't disappoint, but I had more fun at Big Boi, who shredded madly through a perfect hour of material drawn from both his exceptional "Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty" and his days in OutKast.
• Aloe Blacc and the Grand Scheme. In a year filled with funk and soul — Cee-Lo Green, Charles Bradley, Fitz and the Tantrums, a young up-and-comer by the name of Stevie Wonder — Blacc put on the smoothest, slickest, funnest show of them all. Set review
• The early booking in general. This might be the first festival where I've showed up at 12:30 p.m. or earlier every day. If you wanted to catch some of the best acts this year — the aforementioned Aloe Blacc, Cults, Theophilus London, Mariachi El Bronx, Ruby Jane, the Antlers — you had to wake up bright and early.
• The widespread, ecstatic response each time the rain commenced, followed by a sort of resigned sigh when people realized that everything would be wet for hours, then another burst of group energy once that funk had passed.
• Succumbing to the joyous, dancing hordes jazzed by electronica magician Pretty Lights, after a personal feeling of crowd panic, and despite some poor concert citizenship nearby. Set review
• Realizing that acts that I'd merely admired — Iron and Wine, Bright Eyes, Kanye West — were infinitely more charismatic live, performing in an epic setting.
• Basking in the outflow of love for local acts such as Gary Clark Jr., Patrice Pike and Electric Touch — they deserve it.
John T. Davis
• Those first magic drops of moisture descending from the heavens early on Friday afternoon — and the reactions to them. Namely, stupified awe and gratitude on the part of the locals and befuddled bewilderment on the part of visiting out-of-towners at the ecstatic reaction to a smattering of raindrops.
• The abrupt and bracing transition of going from 10,000 people singing along with Foster the People's summer pop hit "Pumped-Up Kicks" into the master's seminar on blues, soul and R&B that Charles Bradley was conducting in the dark and sweaty Vista Equity tent. It was like going from Venice Beach to the Fifth Ward of Houston in a heartbeat.
• The sight of one dad alternating between his young son and daughter, taking turns swinging them in circles and tossing them up and down on Saturday morning to their giddy hearts' content as the Belle Brigade pumped out a sweet, Fleetwood Mac-inspired pop soundtrack in the background as the sun beamed down. How few perfect moments in life are there, when all is said and done? Set review