Listen to Austin 360 Radio

ACL gets rolling

Patrick Caldwell
Brick Tucker, 4, of Cedar Park listens to the Verve Pipe perform Friday on the Austin Kiddie Limits Stage at Zilker Park.

After last year's trial by Dillo Dirt and the searing heat and dust bowl conditions that have defined other years of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the biggest news on Friday's opening day was the weather: mercifully temperate, sunny and even accompanied by a leisurely breeze.

Without the specter of rain that haunted 2009's otherwise pastoral opening day, the predominant feeling on the grounds for ACL Fest veterans was relief.

"After last year, it's so pleasant to be dry and feel the warm sun," said Sarah DeGroat, 22, who traveled to the festival from Texas A&M University in College Station. "We left it as a mud pit last year, and it's so beautiful! We even took our shoes off, although for a different reason than at the end of last year."

From the time the opening bell — or, in the ACL Fest's tradition, the booming notes of John Williams' "Star Wars" theme — signaled the opening of the gates, Friday adopted what would be its daylong posture: warm enough to justify the festival's shirtless throngs but far short of the broiling heat that has defined it through its worst years.

That was good news for festivalgoers like Z. Kudski, who traveled from Dallas for his first ACL and anticipates spending about $1,000 this weekend. A report prepared by Angelou Economics and commissioned by ACL Fest producer C3 Presents estimates that the festival's economic impact on Austin last year was just short of $82 million and that 25 percent of attendees came from outside Texas and 33 percent from outside Austin.

"I've been wanting to come down for a while. I was looking forward to it so much, and so far it's living up. It's just been fantastic," said Kudski, 52.

While fan reaction was largely positive, it was apparent by midday from lines to get in and enormous crowds at afternoon shows — like trio Miike Snow's sweaty electronic dance party and a massive, much-anticipated set from the Akron, Ohio, garage rock duo the Black Keys — that the attendance cap, increased to 75,000 from 65,000 in previous years, according to the City of Austin's contract with C3 Presents, was making Zilker Park more congested.

"You can really feel the extra 10,000," said 35-year-old glass blower Mark Alexander of Fort Worth. "Especially between the stages. You're stuck. Then a corridor suddenly opens up."

Even vendors in the art market, where traffic was brisk and hats were doing particularly big business, noticed the change, though none would complain; bigger crowds mean more potential sales.

"I feel like the crowd, even right off the bat, was much more than usual. But obviously the weather is perfect and puts everybody in a good mood, which just makes things better for me," said Bekka Smith, co-owner of Sola boutique . "Last year was so exhausting. With the mud and people being so dour, it was easily the most trying year we've ever had. So to go from the hardest year ever to the most beautiful year yet makes me feel really optimistic for the weekend."

Musical highlights included a bubbly early set from the Givers of Lafayette, La., who kicked the day off with spirited Afrobeat-influenced pop. Miike Snow attracted a crowd to the Honda stage to rival 2007's infamous MGMT show and featured a spirited guest turn from Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, providing vocals for that band's "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance." Local country prodigy Sahara Smith played a passionate 40 minutes of sultry, smoky Americana. Spoon received a hero's welcome on the AMD stage, and Austin's own metal master the Sword was equally well-received in a late afternoon set at the ZYNC Card stage. New York indie darling Vampire Weekend charmed a joyous crowd with its plentiful hooks and a surprisingly elaborate light show.

After nightfall, the New York City cool of the Strokes made for the ideal rock 'n' roll closer. Across the park, Phish played to a smaller than usual crowd for a headliner but put on a passionate set sure to appeal to the band's die-hard fan base.

For one proud father, the Soft Pack's blast of summery garage rock proved worth the trip. Vin McLoughlin, 56, came from Atlanta to see son Matty, the band's lead guitarist, tear it up on a furious string of grinding guitar solos.

"He's a good kid, and when he first started playing guitar, I just said: 'Hey, go as hard for as long as you can. Follow your passion. Not everybody gets to do that,'\u2009" McLoughlin said. "It's better than working at the Home Depot answering phones. All his college buddies that he played baseball with say: 'You ain't in a cubicle, but I am. So enjoy it.'"

The festival unofficially kicked off early Friday with a decidedly SXSW feel: Two live radio shows open to the public featured several of the official acts; KUT was at the Four Seasons, and KGSR was at Threadgill's. Each charged a $5 cover, which went to the Seton Shivers Cancer Center. Kerri Holden, director of public relations for the Four Seasons, said the KUT event raised more than $4,500.

Outside the festival the scene was lively as crowds streamed into Zilker Park, perusing the vendors, from food carts to clothing stands, along Barton Springs Road. Code enforcement officials said that as of Friday afternoon, they hadn't found a single vendor operating nearby without a permit.

"This is our second year walking the perimeter, and it appears the educational messaging has worked ," said Melissa Martinez, division manager for the city's code compliance department. "Compliance is our goal, and looks like we're getting there."

A less regulated market emerged in the secondhand ticket and wristband economy. Before noon, many scalpers near the entrance of the festival were selling single-day tickets for around $100; the going rate for three-day wristbands hovered closer to $200. It didn't take long for that to become a buyer's market, though; by midafternoon wristbands were easy to find for under $150.

Another telltale sign of a popular festival could be glimpsed in the bicycle racks across from the festival entrance along Barton Springs Road, where locked bicycles competed for space. Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop mechanic Clark Simensen said cycling looked to be a popular way to get to the grounds this year.

"It's the biggest year for bicycling we've seen since we've been doing it," Simensen said. Mellow Johnny's has set up a satellite location on site since 2008. "I think next year they're probably going to have to beef up the bike racks a little bit because I'm seeing a lot of bikes in trees right now."

The medical team working at the festival treated about 100 people, team chief Tannifer Ayres said. People were treated for general injuries, alcohol- or drug-related illnesses or heat-related symptoms, she said.

Additional material from staff writers Michael Barnes, Michael Corcoran, Barry Harrell and Matthew Odam.