Chinese folk music wasn’t on my list of expectations going into the Austin City Limits Music Festival, but it definitely ended up on my list of highlights. We started Day 3 with Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet featuring Bela Fleck (AWATSQFBF for short). They're in the midst of a US tour, but nobody here knows the words to Taiyang Chulai. When the group toured Tibet, thousands of school kids sang along to the traditional melody.
There was bluegrass in the set, too, plus some traditional American music (Nobody’s Fault But Mine) and a Beatles cover (Eleanor Rigby). Throughout it all the playing was extraordinary. You might think Bela would outshine the others (he was given time for an impressive solo) but I actually thought cellist Ben Solee stole the show. Ben looks to be about 12, but there were many more years of experience in his sound. He gave the quartet a soulful undertow.
By contrast, at the other end of Zilker Park, a gray-bearded David Rawlings looked a lot older than he really is. Regardless, I think he’s one of the best guitarists around, up there with Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. Those guys don’t generally have to complement singers, though. Even when his partner Gillian Welch is at the mic David is adding interesting details to their songs of hope and heartbreak. The solos are something else. He unspools these long intricate lines that surge in unexpected directions. He can sing, too. Toward the end of the set Gillian introduced a special guest – Alison Krauss – and the three of them recreated the siren song from O Brother Where Art Thou. If you saw the film, you remember the bathing beauties that tempted George Clooney and company. That wasn’t quite the scene along Barton Springs Road, but a lot of festival goers were drawn to cool off in the little river that runs just south of the park.
By the time we got back The Raconteurs were in progress, too cool for color on the big video screens. We caught a bit of Galactic, but decided to skip the big Foo Fighters finale. As we made our way out, fellow revelers poured over the rise toward the AT&T stage like a cattle drive. After one last shuttle bus ride we ended up at Momo’s, a little rooftop bar just a few blocks from the hotel. From our table on the patio we could see the band inside, down a few steps, framed by a red curtain and lights. One of Austin’s new condos towered high above nearby, dotted with flickering blue TVs.
I am generally immune to the whole celebrity worship thing, so I’m a little embarrassed to admit that one of the high points of the trip came on Monday, after the festival was over. We had stopped at a downtown CVS before leaving for the airport. I was scanning the shelves, and happened to glance up. There she was...another special guest appearance by Alison Krauss. There I was, standing in the aisle, shipwrecked.