Eight stages. 132 bands. 65,000 fans to contend with. Set on the sweltering Texas fields of Zilker Park, making the most of the bands playing this year?s Austin City Limits Festival on a barbecue-filled stomach was no easy feat, but the chance to see My Morning Jacket, Bjork, Common, Andrew Bird, Cold War Kids and hundreds of others was too enticing not to try. Without further delay, here’s the full report from the festival frontlines.
After coming straight from the airport, I manage to catch the tail-end of Bjork?s set. Coming down the rolling hills of the park to the sounds of ?Hyperballad? was the precise salve needed after a long flight. The Icelandic nymph?s hyper-color show draws everyone nearer like moths and away from the Killers‘ Boss re-treads. After the primal thuds of ?Earth Intruders? Bjork closes with ?Declare Independence,? a directive the liberal crowd thunderously embraces.
Saturday finds most festival goers slightly rudderless, as the evening?s anchors the White Stripes pulled out of the festival due to drummer Meg White?s acute anxiety. I head to Dax Riggs? set early in the day at the AT&T Blue Room tent, where the former Deadboy and the Elephantmen frontman played goth rock straight out of the bayou. Riggs wins over the audience made lethargic by the midday son with a cover of hometown hero Townes Van Zandt?s ?Lungs.?
Immediately following on the neighboring AMD stage is VH1 poster boy Paolo Nutini, who takes the stage to the theme from Rocky. The grainy-voiced Scot kicks in with the rollicking ?Alloway Grove.? The grainy-voiced Nutini later gives the southern dirge ?Trouble So Hard? (made famous by Moby) a Marley-esque skank.
After jockeying for a spot during Cali indie darlings Cold War Kids, the band came out strong with a new song, ?Dreams Old Men Dream.? The band seemed to quickly wilt, though — be it the heat or the heavy narrative of their songs, they seemed ill-suited to the venue. You do have to give them credit for waiting until the end of the set to play their anguished first single ?Hang Me Up to Dry.? It?s during this set that I realize one of the neater yet more puzzling features of the festival: individuals are signing along to the songs for the deaf members of the audience. Not to sound evil, but what the deaf have to gain from an outdoor festival in Texas other than a sunburn is beyond me. Nevertheless, it?s the thought that counts.
The best act of Saturday was the one I was most hesitant about seeing. One would think ?twee? would have no place in a field in Texas, but then one would miss out on the majesty of Andrew Bird?s orchestra-pop. Huge phonographs anchored the stage as filigreed clouds framed the stage during the late afternoon set. In addition to Yo-Yo Ma level talent on the violin, Bird proved himself to be an imperturbable whistler. But he doesn?t just rest on his whistling laurels; his slightly reigned in vocals are reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, and his set, which pulled largely from this year?s Armchair Apocrypha, seemed custom-built for that setting. Anywhere else in Texas, a xylophone, whistling and a violin would have gotten Andrew Bird?s ass kicked. Here, it seemed to embody all that is good about the intersection of music in nature.
All roads lead to Dylan on the final day of the festival, but before Mr. Zimmerman takes the stage, there?s a whole day of bands to be seen. After a last minute cancellation by Mexican acoustic shredders Rodrigo y Gabriela, Common steps up, delivering a high energy, rhetoric-heavy set obscured only by the plumes of smoke rising from the crowd ? it?s like a field of chimneys. I have a newfound respect for the guy; anyone who can leap around in 100 degree heat and long pants I support.
Next up is Midlake, the Denton, Texas outfit who drove a whole four hours to be there (Amos Lee drove 30 hours). The band plays a tight yet fairly low-key set of Neil Young-infused ’70s rock, with the highlight being a marriage proposal prior to the glitchy, string-filled ?Young Bride.? After a slight bit of confusion as to whether the lady said yes, lead singer Tim Smith clears it up with the affirmative.
After a brief and ill-advised stop at Rose Hill Drive (heretofore known as the poor man’s Soundgarden), I head over to the AT&T stage where My Morning Jacket are about to go on. With Dylan a mere two hours away, islands of available real estate become rare. My Morning Jacket give new meaning to dressing for the event, and come out in full vacation regalia ? Jim James wore a platinum wig and tank top, while guitarist Carl Broemel looked like a misplaced tourist, and zinc oxide was liberally applied to other band members. In front of the mythical land of Z, guitar techs with metal detectors walked the stage as the band launched into ?Magheeta.? James then traded in his flying V guitar for ?Off the Record,? and Andrew Bird joined the band on stage for several songs, adding his fiddle-tastic stylings to ?Gideon? and ?One Big Holiday.? The band traded Andrew Bird for smoking hula girls, who provided a lovely backdrop as the band closed out an amazing set. It was a near impossible choice to make between Wilco and My Morning Jacket (who were playing the same slot at opposite ends of the grounds), but I think I chose wisely.
With Bob Dylan?s arrival imminent, the crowd swells to 40,000 strong, making it absolutely impossible to get closer to the stage. Not everyone?s a fan in the crowd though, as I overhear an impatient husband explain, ?No. Bob Evans is where I like to eat. Bob Dylan is who I like to listen to.? Dylan played the hits (seemingly begrudgingly in making some of the words unintelligible in his clipped growl) like ?Tangled Up In Blue? and ?It Ain?t Me Babe,? before launching into selections from his latest, Modern Times. In the final moments of his set, the taciturn legend introduced his band before launching into the festival closer, ?Like A Rolling Stone.?