It's easy to complain about the weather conditions during the Austin City Limits Festival.
This was the festival’s fifth year, and with heat indices hovering around 100 degrees on Friday and Saturday and scattered rain showers early and late on Sunday that only made the air cooler but thicker, not much has changed in that department. Still environmental factors didn't stop one band after another from playing their hearts out to huge crowds of adoring fans — likely the largest audiences some of the acts had ever seen. In fact, it's a mirror of the Austin music scene, where every night of the week something special occurs in front of wildly appreciative audiences.
The best part of the festival is the fantastic range of music one can expose themselves to — with 130 bands appearing on 8 stages over three days — including everything from art punk to zydeco.
Friday was generally discouraging, with only the passionate pop-punk of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, the rootsy jangle and bristling soundscapes of Okkervil River and traditional twang and sturdy songwriting of Jimmie Dale Gilmore hitting their marks. Gnarls Barkley, in one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend, seemed tamed by the incredible heat of their mid-afternoon performance and the sun that shone too brightly in their eyes. Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo brought an entertaining and visual show with their mix of soul and new-wave, but it never really gelled into anything extraordinary. Van Morrison closed the night with a disappointingly tame set, undermined by a band that seemed pedestrian and The Man's seemingly emotionless attitude.
Thankfully, the rest of the weekend gloriously made up for those frustrations. Some days, Marah is the best rock band in America, and despite the early hour — it started at 11:45 a.m. on Saturday — this was one of those days. It poured as much enthusiasm and soul into 45 minutes as possible, ending up in the audience and with a mind-bending rendition of the Who's "Baba O'Riley.” Centro-Matic proved up to the task of playing on one of the headliner's stages with a sound that was muscular and melodic.
One of the joys of so many stages going at once is the opportunity to taste a variety of sounds over the course of the day. So it was easy to groove to the masterful jazz-funk of Galactic, follow it up with a taste of frolicking pub rock from Ian McLagan and the Bump Band, run head-on into the noisy and not-nearly-as-subtle-as-they-are-on-record TV On The Radio, then end up watching Los Lobos mix styles of Americana with unmatched aplomb. After that much excitement, it was relaxing to encounter Aimee Mann's melodic introspection. With only bass and keyboards as backing, her set was low-key, yet deeply rewarding.
The last time Kings of Leon appeared at the ACL Festival, it was a sparsely attended, early-in-the-day gig. But Saturday night, there were tens of thousands singing along to their ringing guitars and Southern attitude as they introduced songs from their forthcoming album. In his first appearance at ACL, Willie Nelson rounded out the night with a performance he seemed to enjoy just as much as the fans.
Thundershowers late Sunday morning threatened to delay some of the day’s performances, but they held off until late in the evening, and everything went on as scheduled.
The Black Angels showed why they are one of Austin’s buzz bands with a too-brief set that featured their mysterious mix of goth vocals, military and tribal beats and intricate slabs of sounds. This was followed with a hardy helping of sweaty, youthful and melodic heartland rock from the Sam Roberts Band and Rodney Hayden’s mix of swing and country that felt contemporary while leaning heavily on traditional roots. Several thousand gathered for Jose Gonzalez, but unfortunately, just his voice and acoustic guitar proved unable to hold the attention of most. His stunning abilities on his axe, though, saved the singer-songwriter from being reduced to just another depressing, introspective folkie.
Matisyahu performed on the same stage as Gnarls Barkley did earlier in the weekend, but the saturated air and the glaring sun didn’t prevent him from putting on the performance of the festival. The Orthodox Jew played reggae with a five-piece band that was as close in spirit to 311 as they were to Bob Marley & the Wailers. With his unconventional dance moves, infectious songs and moments of deep space dub, he made an irresistible impression.
The evening closed with the state-of-the-art roots-rock of Son Volt, whose sound has crystallized in monstrous proportions, and the traveling circus that is the Flaming Lips. At times the onstage antics — including large balloons shaped like aliens, a crowd of dancing Santas, stage hands dressed as superheroes and a near-constant barrage of steamers and confetti — seemed to overshadow the Lips’ futuristic art-rock. But one thing is sure: No band has more fun onstage than this group of deranged Oklahomans. It was a fitting end to a frenetic weekend, to say the least.