Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

1:25 p.m.: It's been a long three days, but this year's ACL has been blessedly short on disappointments. The set times have been flowing like clockwork, the heat is really only unbearable for a couple of hours out of the day (and frequently broken up by a cool breeze), and I've yet to get into any scuffles with the "chair people"–thanks in no small part to this year's "No Chairs Past This Point" boundary being extended more than 50 feet back from where it was last year. Really, my only complaint is with my own tired, aging body, which refuses to put down the coffee, get dressed, and get out to the park any earlier than this to catch Yo La Tengo. Instead, I arrive to hear the dying notes of an epic feedback freak-out that is undeniably theirs and I'm immediately sad I missed out.

1:35 p.m.: My spirits pick up upon seeing that the crowd is considerably thinner than it's been for the last two days, and I'm actually able to get within 50 yards of the AT&T; Blue Room Stage to see The National. Here's another band playing songs meant for smoky nightclubs unfairly stuck with a blistering midday slot, prompting lead singer Matt Berninger to beg the skies to "Bring in the clouds, please!" Despite the incongruity between the band's stately, gray-hued sound and the cheerful blue skies above, the crowd is very responsive to a set that's evenly split between songs from Boxer and Alligator. After a particularly stirring rendition of "Baby, We'll Be Fine" I scribble the following in my notebook: "This is the kind of music I wish Leonard Cohen were making now." I'll leave it to you to decide if that's blasphemy–and if so, blame it on exhaustion.


2:20 p.m.: For the most part, every act playing has stuck to the sort of "Gee whiz, I can't believe this big stage is for little old us" attitude common among indie-rock acts who have suddenly graduated to festivals, but today might be the day they finally break out: The normally reserved Berninger jumps down from the stage and climbs onto the barricades at the front of the crowd for "Mr. November," singing to the sky like a true Bono acolyte and even turning to scream the chorus at his own band. Uh oh. Have we abandoned disaffected cool and fully embraced stadium rock grandstanding? By the hammer of Thor!


2:45 p.m.: The day's only dead spot, when Robert Earl Keen, Ben Kweller, Grace Potter, and assorted other people I'm too tired to work up the enthusiasm for compete for my attentions and lose out to the pleasures of the VIP Grove, where I spot the first (and only) quasi-celebrity of the weekend: Austin Nichols, of the frustrating, recently cancelled HBO series John From Cincinnati.


(Apologies for the blurriness. I was trying to be discreet.)

This continues my streak of running into weird-character-actors-who-have-graduated-to-cable-series at ACL, which began with Martin Donovan three years ago. (For what it's worth, Nichols seemed far more approachable.)

3:20 p.m.: And now a public service for these two potential soulmates. I hope they eventually find each other and have lots of unselfconscious children who love shopping for silly hats.


3:45 p.m.: DeVotchKa's Nick Urata takes a long pull from a bottle of merlot and says, "Cheers, y'all!" to approving hollers. The band's infectious Balkan-punk sound wins plenty of new converts thanks to one of the most energetic sets of the day–despite being unfortunately scheduled against Common, one of the only hip-hop acts playing the festival (something that should definitely be corrected in the future)–with Urata and bass/sousaphone player Jeanie Schroder performing lively kick-steps while a stoic Tom Hagerman (dressed in a full wool suit no less) provides most of the band's Eastern European flavor with equal handiness on violin, accordion, and piano. When drummer Shawn King whips out the trumpet while keeping a perfect beat, all of the hack rock "musicians" in the crowd hang their heads in shame.

4:20 p.m.: Electric mandolin! Urata plugs in and creates waves of sinister, stuttering feedback for the band's propulsive version of The Velvet Underground's "Venus In Furs," a set highlight that's topped only by another Curse Your Little Heart track, "El Zopilote Mojado." Did I mention that whistling was in this year? Urata's low, Ennio Morricone warble is as smooth as his elastic croon and it makes the traditional Mexican song (well-known around these parts) a huge crowd favorite, with hundreds whistling along. Good. Maybe this means I've finally heard the last of "Young Folks." DeVotchKa goes out with "Such A Lovely Thing," Urata hitting his (wine-induced) stride on the line, "You only love me because I'm leaving." Not true. I also love you for all the Eddie Van Halen finger-tapping you're doing on that electric mandolin.

4:45 p.m.: Maybe I'm right about this "embracing the arena-rock" thing today: Bloc Party is the first and only band this weekend to take the stage backed by a giant banner bearing their name. As if that weren't cheesy enough, lead singer Kele Okereke walks through every bloated rock 'n' roll trope in the book: asking how the audience is doing "in the back;" calling out, "Sing along if you know the words!"; clapping exaggeratedly over his head; saying, "This side of the audience is much louder than this side–you need to wake up!"; and yes, even jumping down onto the crowd barricades for "She's Hearing Voices." Unfortunately the band's sound never quite matches its ambitions, with Okereke frequently running out of gas and tripping on his own lyrics, and the lack of midrange spotlighting the emptiness of the band's angular arrangements. Still, the set is heavy on Silent Alarm favorites (suggesting that the band is painfully aware that A Weekend In The City isn't quite as popular as its debut), and the faithful scream and dance appreciatively for "Like Eating Glass," Helicopter," and "Banquet" all.

5:35 p.m.: Bloc Party ends with the drummer throwing his drumsticks into the crowd and then joining the rest of his band for a linked-arms group bow. It's official: We've entered some kind of time warp and ended up at Live Aid 1985. Then Okereke commits his most unforgivable sin, shouting, "Keep Austin weird!" as he exits. Dude, even if you're being ironic…fuck you. The larger-than-average contingent of self-congratulatory 78704 types here today don't need any further encouragement.


6:32 p.m.: ACL is when everyone (including Austinites) embraces their inner cowboy, and fittingly Jeff Tweedy takes the stage in a ten-gallon hat and aviator sunglasses, looking an awful lot like Hank Williams, Jr. Wilco's slot is perfectly timed with the sunset happening just over the tree line to the left of the stage, lending the band's warped roots music just the right amount of golden haze.

6:55 p.m.: Nels Cline demonstrates why he is one of the most revered guitar players in the business, ripping out amazing solos and wringing feedback and echoing sonar signals from his mad scientist's array of pedals. Wilco's is easily the best set of the day, concentrating on crowd-pleasing favorites like "A Shot In The Arm," "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," and "Handshake Drugs" while only occasionally dipping into the '70s lite-rock sounds of the recent Sky Blue Sky. When drummer Glenn Kotchke kicks in with the surprisingly wild metal-style drum solo in the middle of the otherwise spectral "Via Chicago," the audience snaps awake and cheers right on cue. All in all, this is a band that really knows how to work a crowd, as when Tweedy playfully interjects a little faux-soul falsetto at the end of "Too Far Apart," singing, "I couldn't be any closer to you…Austin!" and laughing at his own rock cliché. Bloc Party should be taking notes.

7:05 p.m.: Tweedy asks the huge crowd how many birthdays are in the audience; hundreds raise their hands. Neat. All in all, Tweedy is today's undisputed master of ceremonies, calling out Cline's "Wicked Witch Of The East socks," bewilderedly asking if the crowd is "throwing tortillas at each other," and preceding the song "I Hate It Here" by clarifying that, "This song is definitely not about Austin." No one doubts that.

7:38 p.m.: I totally called it on this "whistling" thing! The trill-aided "Red-Eyed And Blue" precedes a rollicking version of "I Got You (At The End Of The Century)," and the band caps off a glorious run through their history with "Outtasite (Outta Mind" from 1996's Being There, prompting me to text one of my Wilco-obsessed friends and admit that I need to give the band's pre-Summerteeth discography a second chance.

7:46 p.m.: More green lasers split the darkening sky and the thump of an 808 bass fills the air: Sure enough, Ghostland Observatory is back for a victory lap after playing one of last year's most talked-about sets. The band's mix of Daft Punk-esque electro with singer Aaron Behrens' Prince/Lenny Kravitz showboating is definitely a crowd-pleaser, inspiring widespread dancing. Behrens takes the stage in a sleek white ensemble and perfectly braided pigtails, shaking his moneymaker next to keyboardist/programmer Thomas Turner, who is dressed in his trademarked sequined pointed cape. While the band has always been big on outré showmanship even in its early club days (full disclosure: My own band once shared a label and the occasional stage with GLO), I've always been somewhat cold to their music, mostly because of Behrens' voice, a warbly falsetto that borders on Yoko Ono gibbering especially during the duo's "rock" numbers. Still (for the first 15 minutes at least) the band positively owns the field, turning in an energetic set big on spectacle and light on substance. See, I told you we were embracing the arena-rock today.

8:34 p.m.: Special guest Frank Oz comes out and does a wacky impersonation of Cookie Monster singing "Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35" that really gets the crowd laughing. Then it dawns on us that no, that's actually Bob Dylan up there, and everyone sighs in unison as our collective lowered expectations are met. Now before I start getting flamed in the comments, let me make this clear: I was raised on Bob Dylan. He's one of my personal heroes, and I've often turned to his music in times of great sadness, great joy, during life-changing epiphanies, and everywhere in between. I came with an open mind, knowing that the man's peak as a singer and live performer is well behind him, and also conscious of the fact that he's a living legend, and he's pretty much earned the right to do whatever the fuck he wants, period. Still, this was–unfortunately–my only chance to see him live in his or my lifetime, and I've come to a depressing realization: We broke Bob Dylan. All those years of demanding him to "play a song for me" have irreparably blown out his vocal chords, and now instead of merely emulating them, Dylan has actually transformed into a 100-year-old bluesman, sitting placidly at the back of the stage behind an organ and under a giant wide-brimmed hat, growling and wheezing his way through indecipherable lyrics and playing lazy country-flecked arrangements of his once fiery hits. I can't help it. I'm sad. It doesn't help matters that–at Dylan's request–no cameras are allowed in the photo pit, so the only view afforded on the Jumbotron is a static shot of the stage taken from a crane 100 yards back.

9:30 p.m.: The combination of not being able to see anything and the unwelcome "reimaginings"–combined with Dylan's gravelly voice–that makes songs like "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Highway 61 Revisited" virtually unrecognizable causes even the faithful fans to start streaming out in droves. The babble of the crowd is uniformly negative, with the words "terrible," "awful," and "shit" discernible through the din. One young girl pretty much sums it up, saying, "Eww, he sounds like my grandma!"

9:45 p.m.: A relatively stirring version of "Working Man's Blues" from last year's Modern Times is accompanied by the sight of lovely Japanese lantern-type things floating up from behind the stage. (Someone more cultured than I can probably pinpoint exactly what those are called.) This, along with a better-than-expected version of "Ballad Of A Thin Man" saves the set from being a total washout, although the idea that this is probably going to be the last time I will ever see Bob Dylan play is still getting to me. I ask my friend if he feels like staying through the encore, to which he says, "Only if it involves a time machine, and somehow Bob Dylan from 1967 walks out." Fair enough. Time to call it.

In conclusion:

Despite those ballyhooed high-profile cancellations and the occasional difficult choices spurred by aggravating scheduling decisions, this year's ACL might have been the best one yet. The weather was hot but surprisingly bearable (thanks to those hurricanes on the gulf, and with apologies to East Texas), the bands playing were all at the top of their game, and–aside from the RV fire that interrupted Day One–it was largely disaster-free. I didn't even find anyone in the relatively well-behaved crowd that I wished would die a fiery death on the way home–and that's really saying something. All in all, it was an unqualified success, and further proof that Austin City Limits has matured into one of the biggest festivals of the year. Everyone who continues to write Texas off as a "flyover state" might want to consider shutting the fuck up.


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