Monday, September 29, 2008

ACL '08 enters dustbin of history

Another Austin City Limits Music Festival is now fodder for the ol’ memory banks. Aside from inhaling copious amounts of souvenir Zilker Park dust (no, I wasn’t partying backstage), this year’s installment was pretty decent. The daytime highs were almost reasonable, the stage sound was markedly improved and there were no major last-minute cancellations.

Because of a work-related trip to Dallas, I didn’t make it out on Friday. I wouldn’t have minded seeing David Byrne and Antibalas, but if I had to skip a day, the Friday line-up was one I could live with missing.

Kate and I started our Saturday with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. As a fan of Stax/Volt-style R&B, I’d been meaning to see them for awhile. Jones and company put on a fine show. I can’t attest to how much was lost in the festival setting, but as a first-timer, I thought they held their own and then some. Then we headed over to the tent sponsored by beleaguered Washington Mutual to see Boston’s Eli “Paperboy” Reed, yet another energetic soul revivalist. My Chron colleague Darcie Stevens found Reed’s Roll with You a bit too color-by-numbers for her taste. I can see where she gets that. After all, Reed was at least a decade from birth when his sound developed. Even so, the young man certainly knows how to work a room (or tent).

With Erykah Badu canceling her ACL TV taping at the last minute due to issues with her band, I wondered if her Saturday set would be up to par. Though I’ve only followed Badu’s music in passing, I thought her set was quite good. She reminds me of Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder, invoking a spirit of activism and adventure while maintaining a fair degree of pop accessibility.

I enjoyed John Fogerty at the Backyard in 2004, but this set was even better. No other act at the fest had this many Top 40 bullets in the war chest. Three generations were dancing in the dead grass to “Down on the Corner” and singing along to other Creedence classics.

After catching the first few songs of Roky Erickson’s set (which roughly mirrored his 2005 ACL performance), Kate and I situated ourselves just to the right of the sound tent for Beck. I thought his hit-laden set was good but not great. As someone who prefers Midnite Vultures to Sea Change, I find it troubling that Beck doesn’t dance like he used to.

The first band we saw on Sunday was the M’s. The Chicago indie quartet had an interesting sound, but their songs failed to seal the deal. They never got more than a polite response. It was hilarious to watch the Kills wilt in the heat later that afternoon. I really like their new album, but the London-based electropop duo was clearly out of their element. If they’d been performing a Sunday slot in 2005 when it was 108 degrees, I’m pretty sure one of them would’ve died onstage. Here’s a million dollar idea – goth clothes that wick.

We spent the next few hours wandering the festival grounds, watching bits and pieces of acts between handfuls of kettle corn. The dust was becoming more irritating and I finally resorted to covering my mouth and nose with a bandanna. Subcomandante Marcos would’ve been proud.

The last full set I saw was from Austin’s own White Denim. Though familiar with their music, this was the first time I’d seen White Denim live. It was something special, too. The trio’s rapid fire post-punk sound is girded by the big-time rock charisma of late Sixties rock titans like the Who and the MC5. It won’t be long before I see them again.

On the way out, I caught the tail end of the Raconteurs' blues-based hard rock explosion. It proved to be a nice belt to end the evening on before going home to file reviews.

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