Fans: 65,000. Bands: 130. Stages: 8. Days: 3.
A game plan about who to see: priceless.
If you really want to, you can get right up front for any band at the
Austin City Limits Music Festival. You just have to show up early enough, sometimes before the preceding act. Just try not to think about who you’re missing.
My only real must-see on Day 1 was Patty Griffin. The festival program describes her as “the gold standard of contemporary singer-songwriters.” I’d take it further – some of those songs come out of some pretty deep mine shafts. She started with “Heavenly Day” and then launched into a cover of the Tom Waits tune “Hang On, St. Christopher.” That was too much to ask for. Another favorite of mine, “Go Now,” was in there somewhere and also a tune she said she learned from Mavis Staples, “Wait for My Child.” Towards the end she tried an a cappella thing but the bleed from some other stage was too much, so she brought the band back for “Lonely Avenue” instead.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First thing to do, according to my festival veteran friend, was to check out the food before the lines formed. Stubb’s Bar-be-que, Conchinita Pabil Tacos, Coconut Plantain Shrimp, Blackpepper Fries and an item I would get to know well - the Chicken Cone. It all sounded good, but so did the Jones Family Singers who were performing right at the end of the food area on the WaMu stage. It seemed appropriate that all of the gospel acts were booked on the stage sponsored by Washington Mutual. The lending giant was in the headlines that morning, having been seized by federal regulators the night before. Shareholders and employees were no doubt praying that day. In light of the company’s apparent irresponsibility, their ad in the ACL program didn’t come off too well…
From there we picked up our first two ice-cold cans of Lone Star beer (it was technically afternoon) and headed over the see Texas legends Asleep at the Wheel. Ray Benson and company have been keeping the western swing of Bob Wills alive and well for decades now, and all that experience helped them steer straight down “Route 66” and drain all the ache out of “Faded Love.” As their last song “Happy Trails” trailed off, Vampire Weekend fans swooped down on the AMD stage and us old people went elsewhere.
Actually there were quite a few teens and college kids singing along to Asleep at the Wheel, so that’s a good sign. There was a good mix of ages at the Jakob Dylan show, too, but not many knew the words. Jakob’s new album is on the quiet side and didn’t translate too well to the festival’s biggest stage. Audio issues didn’t help. He opened with “Something Good This Way Comes,” which turned out to be true. After his set we went to get a couple chicken cones. As far as I know it’s the only specific ACL food offering that got local press coverage. The Austin-American Statesman ran a story the day before the festival with the headline, “Widespread Love for the Chicken Cone.” It’s breaded in almonds, sesame seeds, corn flakes, chile flakes and sugar, then fried and placed in a tortilla lined with a jalapeño and mango slaw. Yum.
The food choice was easier than what came next: David Byrne or Ryan Bingham. Sounds easy enough. You knew David would unpack a few Talking Heads tunes, but you hate to just go see artists you know. The program had a compelling quote about Ryan being the legitimate heir to Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams so we went with him, and had time to sneak right in front. The band took the stage and let the songs loose. They charged out with a buck and a snap, kicking up dust. Ryan's a former professional bull rider and sees a similarity between his old life and new career. “You’re trying to ride an uncontrollable force, there are no rules or limits or regulations, and there’s a freedom in it that’s also a bit terrifying. You can learn a lot about yourself through some of those scarier moments.”
Alejandro Escovedo has had some scary moments. He’s still riding out a bout with hepatitis C. I’m not familiar with his songs and couldn’t catch all the lyrics but the band was ferocious: loud rock and roll guitars along with a cello and violin sawing away.
Leaving The Mars Volta and Manu Chao to others, we made our weary way back to the air-conned shuttle bus, waiting no more than a few minutes. Riding along through the dark Texas night, we looked ahead at Saturday’s schedule…