Austin Texas is commonly known as the “Live Music Capital of The World.” Since 1976 the city of Austin, and until recently the University of Texas, has hosted Austin City Limits on PBS. The show features eclectic local, national, and international acts performing for a word-wide audience. Though the program was originally intended to showcase the music of Texas, it has grown exponentially and eventually blossomed into the Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL) and new traditions were born. It’s only been 11 years, but ACL has gained a reputation as the premiere music lover’s festival and has cemented Austin as the greatest music town in the universe.
This is the last year ACL is sticking to a traditional single weekend format as they made the decision to move to two separate weekends in 2013 to accommodate the massive crowds that enter the gates every day. This year’s festival was a joy to behold as Zilker Park played host to incredible performances from Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Gary Clark Jr., Avicii, The Lumineers, The Roots and much more. I feel very blessed to have been part of these incredible three days of music and good old fashioned Texas hospitality. You would be hard pressed to find a more professional and well-orchestrated festival and, although the weather didn’t completely cooperate, I was blown away by the quality of music, the setting and the attention to detail that ACL puts into their product. I’ll do my absolute best to summarize this epic experience as each and every performance exceeded my expectations and added to my growing appreciation for the state of Texas.
Every time I make my way to the Lone Star state I’m reminded that everything is bigger in Texas, and ACL follows that sentiment very closely. This is a massive festival that stretches across the lush confines of Zilker Park. Eight stages are spread across this huge green space, and there are incredible views of the downtown skyline just a few miles away. Because many of the stages are separated by a lengthy distance, it makes navigating through the crowd an interesting experience but also allows the artists room to thrive in their performance space. Incredible food from famous local vendors such as Stubbs, Torchy’s Tacos, and Salt Lick BBQ as well as amazing art, including a large reconstruction of the Texas capital complete with a spinning guitarist on top, help make this a top notch festival experience.
We arrived on Friday to a typical hot and humid Texas afternoon. As ACL takes place in a neighborhood setting, parking is limited and many people choose to use the buses that transport you several miles from downtown to Zilker Park. A large crowd had already congregated at the large banner and guitar that greets guests at the entrance to the festival. Using the automated ticket scanners that access the RF chip in your wristband, we zipped through the line and entered the festival for the first time. The park was in amazing shape and I could easily have walked around barefoot all weekend if the rains hadn’t come and turned the place into a mud-pit on Saturday. Grabbing the first beer of the weekend, we raised our glasses to the Austin skyline and commenced what would be an epic three days of music.
We rushed to the AMD stage to catch the first performance of the weekend from Long Beach rockers, Delta Spirit. Delta Spirit caught my attention back in 2008 with their Ode to Sunshine album and although I’ve haven’t dug too deeply into their most recent work, they opened the festival with an absolutely blistering performance that even included a full stage climb from leader singer and guitarist Mike Vasquez. He kept singing even as he scaled the side of the stage and even though the audience couldn’t hear him at times, it turned the growing afternoon crowd into a frenzied bunch. I could feel the energy spouting from the rooftops of the skyscrapers behind me and this was only the beginning. Highlights included rousing performances of “People C’mon” and “Trashcan” off the Ode to Sunshine album and “Tear It Up” off their self–titled album released in March. Not only did Delta Spirit deliver a killer 12 song set, they conquered the heat and provided energy, enthusiasm, and great musicianship to kick-off the first afternoon of the festival.
A sweaty Friday rolled on with arguably the most enjoyable set of the weekend from The Relatives, a Dallas Gospel Funk act. Led by Reverend Gean West, The Relatives have been funkifying traditional Gospel music since way back in 1971. Its one thing for a band like this to make people casually boogie, but The Relatives literally had the entire audience swaying back and forth for 15 minutes straight. Towards the end of the set it even appeared Reverend Gean had passed out on stage from singing so forcefully that he had to be helped to his feet by his fellow band members. I’ve been to enough music festivals to know that there will always be at least one absolute surprise act per weekend, and The Relatives literally blew me off my feet. I later learned that The Relatives were broadcast live on TV in 1974. This video aired Christmas Day 1974, I highly recommend you watch it to get a true of understanding of Gospel Funk at its finest,(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWfIvy1YCys) . Although they have obviously aged significantly this was still a tremendous show.
An all star performance from local Austin Reggae, Dub and electro masters Lance Herbstrong followed, featuring, Ricky Gonzalez of the Chicago Afrobeat Project, Frank Orrall of Thievery Corporation and Joel Cummins of Umphrey’s McGee on keyboard. Lance Herbstrong blended Reggae and Dancehall with electronic elements and even brought out what seemed like the entire horn section from Thievery Corporation for a song. With local Austinite Bill Sarver throwing down the beats, its no wonder these guys have been all over the map lately.
As the weather cooled, Weezer brought out the new and old for their early evening nostalgia party. I’ve never been a huge fan of Weezer, so their newer material including “Beverly Hills” and “Pork and Beans” didn’t bring me much excitement but they quickly dove headfirst into “Island In The Sun,” complete with a small improv routine from Rivers Cuomo about finding a dance partner, and the crowd energy picked up as did the excitement in Rivers voice. “Hash Pipe” and “Buddy Holly” were played back to back soon after and it became clearer that Weezer can still pull off the 90’s rock act pretty well. Although this was a lazy moment for our group, I still managed to stand up several times and put my fist in the air as the opening words of “Undone- The Sweater Song” rang out.
The blistering electro beats of Avicii followed soon after Weezer exited the stage. Although the majority of the crowd departed to watch The Black Keys on the other side of the festival, I’ve always admired Avicii’s visual performance and his overall style so I elected to stay in my convenient spot up front. Avicii didn’t disappoint and busted out all the tricks for a relatively sparse crowd. Luckily the schedule was set up so that Avicii ended 30 minutes prior to The Black Keys so I managed to make it across the festival just in time to hear several rousing songs before they concluded. We retired early that evening full of stories about the day and ready for the rest of the weekend.
Saturday brought an incredible lineup but also the serious threat of rain. We managed to crawl out of bed, down several mimosas, and make it to festival at 3 o clock for the end of B.I.G. K.R.I.T. Mississippi native Justin Scott, aka B.I.G. K.R.I.T, has been pumping out quality productions for Def Jam Records over the last couple years and his southern fried party rap had the early crowd bouncing wildly when we arrived. The festival was more crowded and it became increasingly easy to lose members of our group in the ruckus.
After a trip through the saucy beats of Space Capone, a brief rain filled party with Big Gigantic, and a glimpse at the always pleasant Andrew Bird, we made our to way one of the most anticipated shows of the weekend, The Roots. Although the downpours were off and on at this point and the festival grounds were slowly turning into a soggy mess, The Roots commanded the stage and delivered one of best shows of the weekend. I was expecting to hear songs off their most recent record, Undun, but instead we were greeted with near perfect covers of The Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up,” and Kool G’s “Men at Work.” They even managed to slip in several powerful classics from their own catalog including “The Seed (2.0),” “Here I Come,” and “Break You Off.” I’m always impressed with Black Thought’s ability to speak to his audience, and although I thought the volume could have been slightly louder, he still managed to rock a massive festival crowd. The Roots are without a doubt the top live act in Hip-Hop and bring incredible versatility and instrumentation to the stage. With Questlove maintaining a killer beat and Dame “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson, and Martin “Luther String Jr. “ McCoy leading the talented band, The Roots never fail to deliver. The only thing missing from this performance was the lack of a parade style introduction that I’ve become accustomed to with these guys over the years.
We pushed forward close to the stage in anticipation of Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Although Jack White tempted me across the festival, I decided to stay with one of our friends and witness my first live Neil Young show. We both concluded that limited opportunities exist to witness the rock legend and his band perform live. Needless to say we made the right choice. With a large stallion behind them, Neil and company entered the stage and proceeded to melt my face with a perfect jam of “Love and Only Love.” Maybe it was just a long day but these guys sounded down right amazing. After the psychedelic madness of “Powderfinger” had descended on the crowd, they served up some newer material with “Walk Like A Giant,” the new single off their upcoming record Psychedelic Pill. My friend later told me that he lost the band during this song and subsequent newer material but I adamantly disagree as I felt Neil’s voice rang out truer than ever. Neil took the stage by himself for the next two songs, busting out “The Needle and The Damage Done” and “Twisted Road” for a mesmerized crowd. One thing’s for sure, these boys still known how to jam, and the last couple songs brought me back to classic Crazy Horse glory.
Beginning with “Cinnamon Girl,” the volume was ratcheted up, the guitars took an intensely grimy form, and the best of the band emerged including emotionally charged renditions of “Down By the River” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” It was mentioned to me after the show that the band had to be crazy to descend into such madness for a drunk 25 year-old crowd at the end of a festival day. In fact, the exact words of wisdom about the crowd’s reaction came from a long time fan standing next to me throughout the show “I think they are freaked out at what just happened. If I didn’t know it was coming I would be freaked out too.” Although I felt awkwardly part of this statement, its no joke that Neil and company brought the crowd to his knees and overshadowed what I’m sure was an impressive display from Jack White. There’s no doubt that Rock and Roll was alive and well in the Capital of Texas tonight.
Sunday brought the weekend to a close with a bang. Yet another reason to love ACL is that they offer an all day bag check sponsored by American Airlines. Since half our group was departing early to head back to Colorado, my friend and I took advantage of this service and left our luggage with them for the remainder of the day. We arrived early in the afternoon to catch a set from local and emerging guitar maestro, Gary Clark Jr. Though personally I’ve had limited experience with Clark, I trusted my friend’s glowing review of one his shows earlier in the summer and from the moment he put his fingers on his guitar it was pure gold. Flowing quickly between wicked Blues jams and original material, Gary Clark Jr. proved his performance alongside Eric Clapton and B.B. King at the Crossroads Guitar Festival was no joke. He’s a local hero in Austin where his skills have been on display in the Austin Community since he was 12.
The weather had cleared since yesterday and the heat had returned in full force making this performance even more intense. As Gary dug deeper and deeper with his guitar, I recall wiping the sweat out of my eyes several times just to keep up. With his debut album Blak and Blu arriving on October 22nd Gary Clark Jr. won’t be able to avoid global fame for long. He has rare passion on stage, a voice that melts minds, and world-class guitar chops. This was certainly the fieriest performance of the weekend and a more than adequate introduction to this future star. Thoroughly wiped out after the set, the remaining members of our crew retreated to the shade for a Torchy’s Green Chili Pork Taco and a much needed break.
We returned to the Austin Ventures stage, anticipating The Lumineers. The Austin Ventures stage is situated in the middle of the festival, is smaller, and has a large rock wall behind it that seems to amplify the sound. This would end up being the perfect stage for the folksy sounds of The Lumineers.
The band from Denver has reached incredible new heights in the past several months with their album even reaching the Top 20 on the charts. Popularity aside, I knew how talented this group was and I expected a good performance. I was impressed as they took the stage and loudly proclaimed their place as one the best bands in the country. Wesley Schultz was loud and poignant with his vocals and guitar, Jeremiah moved effortlessly between instruments and Neyla soothed my mind with her cello and calming voice. I clearly remember getting the chills as the first notes of “Flowers In Her Hair” rang out. In my mind they are the perfect band and they are going to be unbelievably successful but I wasn’t sure if they could handle playing for such a large festival crowd. At one point they actually admitted to being fairly overwhelmed by the size of the crowd, but if the band was nervous it didn’t show up in their music because they were on point the entire time. This set went by so quickly that I couldn’t believe they were walking off the stage when they did. I can’t wait till The Lumineers develop a bigger catalog of music they can use in the live arena. They have serious staying power.
The remainder of the day featured the smooth Reggae vibes of Barrington Levy and an overwhelming and slightly underwhelming performance from The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Once we arrived at the main stage for the final performance of the weekend, I quickly realized why ACL had decided to expand to two weekends. This being the last set of the festival, the crowds were completely massive! We attempted to get a reasonable spot to catch the Chili Peppers in action but were denied forward motion by the enormous number of people, estimated at over 70,000! I still enjoyed listening to one of the greatest bands of our generation but the crowd limited my sightlines and even the sound. As my day three legs were starting to fail me, we headed away from the stage to listen to the last half of the set in peace.
Austin City Limits is a terrific festival and one that every music lover should attend in their lifetime. From the water fill-up stations, to the recycling program that sees people walking around with garbage bags throughout the weekend, ACL knows how to create a mature festival environment. Even watching the ACL archive videos on the screens before every show was a great learning lesson. I know I’ll be returning to Austin in the future, as the “Music Capital of The World” never fails to excite. As ACL looks towards the future I can’t wait to see what they have to store for the double weekend extravaganza…its bound to be a legendary time.