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Behind the stage at ACL Fest: how the music and the show come together

Before bands perform, 2 festival vets will have plotted show logistics: lights, sound, spacing.

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com
Need tickets? For some Austinites, the Austin City Limits Festival is a chance to raise some cash. Lynn Anderson tries to sell a few three-day festival passes on Barton Springs Road on Thursday. In addition to the tickets for sale, Anderson is renting a spare bedroom at her home to festivalgoers. She's using the money to help with tuition costs for her daughter, who's attending St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M.

While you were sleeping, Phish delivered virtually its entire touring spectacle to Zilker Park.

The video, lighting, audio equipment and other gear were loaded onto the Budweiser stage overnight Thursday to create the sort of show you might see if you were going to a regular Phish concert instead of a two-hour festival set. The noted jam band is tonight's headliner at the three-day Austin City Limits Music Festival, which opens today.

At 10 tonight, after Phish and the four earlier acts on that stage are done and the crowd is heading home, the crew will start striking Phish's equipment, finishing about 1:30 a.m. Staff will then start to set the stage for Saturday night headliner, Muse, a band known for its elaborate laser show. A crew from ACL producers C3 Presents will build Muse's lights and video consoles to the band's specifications.

By the time the sun comes up Saturday morning, Muse and its crew should have arrived from Oklahoma City and will have a sound check and make sure all the lights and video work for each song, essentially running a rehearsal in Zilker's morning light.

When Muse leaves the stage Saturday night, the whole process begins again for Sunday's headliner, the Eagles.

This hectic scene will play out to varying degrees at ACL's seven other stages all weekend, as well.

The primary difference between a music festival and a show in a club, theater or arena is that you have to build everything, and it has to work like it's always been there. This sounds obvious, but a million small details need to be considered - from accessibility for the disabled to caring for Zilker's turf.

The modern American music festival circuit is only about 9 years old, the same age as ACL. In that time, production values have skyrocketed at every major fest.

For ACL's first few years, bands came to Austin and played on stages provided by C3 Presents, which also provided their sound system and lights. Acts brought their own instruments, their own onstage equipment such as amps or drums, and that was about it.

Now, headlining acts at festivals such as Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn.; Coachella in Indio, Calif.; Lollapalooza in Chicago (also produced by C3); and ACL want to present the same show you would get if you saw that act alone, so they bring it to ACL.

The responsibility for making the music run on time at ACL falls on two sets of shoulders: C3 production director Dirk Stalnecker and ACL Fest production manager Chris Sorlie.

Both Stalnecker and Sorlie rose up through the rock 'n' roll ranks.

Stalnecker was high school pals with the folks who formed the band Blues Traveler. "When I got out of college, they asked me to come work for them," Stalnecker said. "I would stay home and they would tour, and I would call the Days Inn and make sure they had the rooms ready for the band."

He went on to work on Blues Traveler's HORDE festival tour, where he met Sorlie in the early 1990s. Stalnecker managed Widespread Panic's tours for years, but he's been with the ACL festival since its beginning.

Sorlie worked for various production companies before working with ACL as a stage manager in 2003. He's served as production manager for the past six festivals, overseeing what Stalnecker calls "all things rock 'n' roll: staging, sound, lighting."

Stalnecker is with C3 full time, but Sorlie is an independent contractor. With ACL, Stalnecker concentrates on the big picture, such as emergency planning, city negotiations and meeting with neighborhood groups. Sorlie focuses on the day-to-day production.

"A lot of the people in our business who work the festival circuit travel 10 months out of the year," C3 co-founder Charlie Jones said. "It's like the movie business - once you get to the top of the game, you move around. Sorlie's as knowledgeable as they come."

Zilker Park is unusually well-shaped for a music festival. "There is a lower tier of stages (anchored by the Budweiser stage) and an upper tier (anchored by the AMD stage). Rock Island and the Austin Ventures stage is in the middle. There's a working road around the whole thing and a lake to act as a natural perimeter," Jones said.

"I look at things from a production perspective," Stalnecker said. "I'm thinking about how easy or hard things are to build. Jones looks at things from an audience perspective."

Stalnecker pulls out blueprints of the entire park. Everything is surveyed to scale and rendered: trees, vendor areas, barricades, platforms, loading areas, media vans and little triangles of sound pointing out over the crowd.

In front of the Budweiser stage, for example, the sound system covers about 180 degrees wide by 300 yards long. The trick is to know both where the sound is going to go and when it's going to drop off, to balance getting the music to everyone who wants to hear it versus people who are watching other acts.

For example, the Honda stage faces a part of the park that is almost bowl-shaped. At the same time, it is extremely close to the neighborhood behind it. The sound has to be carefully calibrated to best serve both parties.

"It's still far better than trying to make an arena sound good, which, being a big round thing with hard surfaces for sound to reflect, is no fun at all," Sorlie said. "There's an art to it, and it doesn't always work out as perfectly as you hope, but quite a bit of thought goes into the mapping out of what band is playing on what stage at what time."

All of this is considered at the booking and scheduling stage. For example, acts on the smaller Honda stage usually alternate with acts on the much larger (and nearby) AMD stage to avoid sound bleed: Spoon plays AMD at 6 tonight, Sonic Youth plays Honda at 7, and the Strokes play AMD at 8.

As the schedule is worked out, Sorlie and Stalnecker send their blueprints to various sound and light subcontractors so those groups can put together their various pieces, all ultimately reporting to Sorlie.

There are always hiccups. For example, the Eagles are used to playing on an 80-foot-wide stage. Trees at Zilker prevent the Budweiser stage from being wider than 60 feet, so the challenge is to fit an 80-foot show onto a smaller stage. "That's the job," Sorlie said. "That's where the work comes in."

This means the guys in the Eagles will have to stand closer to each other - maybe they'll just have to get along better.

"Not our job," Stalnecker said with a grin.

The punch line is that as technology has advanced and sound systems have gotten more focused, bands have simply amped up the production values for what they want to present at a festival. "The bands all want to outdo each other," Stalnecker said.

"And we want to do it," Sorlie added. "They designed their show, their music, their vibe, and it's going to give the kids the most bang for their buck when you give the bands the opportunity to put it all together."

Lady Gaga, who had been playing her own arena shows, performed at Lollapalooza this year.

"She had 35 semis' worth of stuff," Stalnecker said. "I think we talked her down to 22. But she had her full Broadway-esque show at Lollapalooza, complete with the graffitied limo driving across the stage. You saw her do her show, not a smaller version."

"Then Green Day had their 11 or 12 semis for the next night," Sorlie said. "So we loaded out the 22 for Gaga, then Green Day's went on, one headlining show right into another."

"It's hard, it's challenging, but these crazy logistics are kind of the only thing that Chris and I get off on anymore," Stalnecker says.

"We try not to say, `No,'" Sorlie said.

"But without saying `Yes' to everything," Stalnecker said.

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926