If last year’s inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival was The Godfather, then this year’s edition was Godfather II — bigger, sleeker, glossier, and arguably better.
Expanded from two days to three, boasting a correspondingly bigger array of acts, and as glitch-free as human ingenuity could ensure, the sophomore edition of the ACL Fest demonstrated a seamless utility and aura of professionalism that other festivals take years, or even decades, to achieve. The organizers seemed entitled to the toasts from the ceremonial bottle of tequila they saved for when the last act, R.E.M., took the stage Sunday night.
Organizers began tweaking the sophomore edition of the festival a couple weeks after the conclusion of last year’s event. Although the first-year problems were relatively benign — logistical logjams at food concessions, ticket booths, portable toilets and shuttle buses — those issues were addressed with single-minded zeal. The food concessions, for instance, were doubled to more than 40, including representatives from such notable Austin eateries as Stubb’s BBQ to Hudson’s On The Bend.
No amount of logistical sophistication, of course, would mitigate an indifferent musical lineup, and in that regard, the ACL bookers seem to have gotten their talent lists and their Christmas lists confused. From Shawn Colvin, who helped kick off Friday’s sets, to the stylistic shootout of Texas good-ol’-boy icon Pat Green and popular jam-band String Cheese Incident, which capped Saturday’s bill, to the eclectic hopscotch of Caitlin Cary, Jack Ingram, Ben Kweller, Jack Johnson, Lucinda Williams, and the Yonder Mountain String Band that preceded R.E.M. on Sunday, the seven stages on the site offered something for everyone.
Well, nearly everyone. Hip-hop and jazz devotees would have found precious little in the three-day lineup to divert them. And Latin music (even the Lone Star variants of Tejano and conjunto) was in short supply; Los Lobos played their share of Tex-Mex, but where were local stars such as Ruben Ramos and Little Joe y La Familia?
There was a continuing emphasis on jam bands (a mysterious fixation to this graying and increasingly dyspeptic reporter), and one might have wished for a more rousing Sunday afternoon alternative to Kweller, Johnson, and Karl Denson. But that, as they say, is what makes a horserace.
Almost all of the 45,000-60,000 attendees each day (by Austin Police and concert staff estimates) could find something diversionary and even revelatory. Unfortunately, some of the acts on the smaller stages found themselves competing with the louder bands on the feature stages. It was a rare snafu on the part of festival logisticians.
One of the few other remaining bones of contention was the perhaps insoluble problem of getting most of the near-capacity crowd onto departing shuttles in reasonable intervals. The problem was exacerbated Friday night, when Dwight Yoakam and Al Green wrapped up their headlining sets at the same time.
One thing the Festival couldn’t control was a hurricane off the Pacific coast of Mexico that spun bands of moisture up into Central Texas, inspiring a steady drizzle on Saturday and Sunday which dampened patrons and performers alike.
The simultaneous presence of Yoakam and Green — Bakersfield twang vs. Memphis/Philly soul — at opposite ends of the sprawling Zilker Park concert site indicates the diversity of styles the Festival sought to present. Just as its parent entity, the PBS television music series Austin City Limits, has nourished and diversified its “American music” format for the past 29 years, the ACL Festival strove for a head-turning array of musical genres: the choir-robed Dada gospel of Dallas’ Polyphonic Spree and Asleep At the Wheel’s vintage western swing…the New Orleans funk of Galactic and the soaring pop-country vocals of the reconstituted Mavericks…Dead-Lite jam-band stars String Cheese Incident and the supersonic sacred steel of Robert Randolph & the Family Band.
Randolph’s set, on Saturday afternoon, was the highlight of the entire weekend for more than one festivalgoer. Raised in the House of God Pentecostal church, where the steel guitar is used to jump-start the congregation into religious ecstasy, Randolph has used his virtuosity to win converts in the secular world. If Stevie Ray Vaughan had lived long enough to pick up the steel guitar, he might have approximated Randolph’s audacious talent and propulsive velocity. (Standing in the wings during Randolph’s set was like sticking your head into a jet turbine at full throttle.)
Just before Randolph’s set, on the other side of the site, an impromptu tribute to Johnny Cash filled the slot previously reserved for Rosanne Cash. Cash had canceled her scheduled appearance when her father passed away a week before the festival. Rather than replacing her, festival producers decided to use the time to honor Johnny’s memory, and a hasty tribute set was cobbled together over the course of Friday afternoon.
It began with a reprise of Cash’s harrowing video for his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”, projected on the big screen beside the stage. To follow, nearly a score of musicians from different bands acknowledged the Man In Black’s influence on their art the best way they knew how.
Emceed by Asleep At The Wheel frontman Ray Benson, the hastily assembled memorial (all the more moving for its impromptu nature) found Tift Merritt singing Johnny’s “I Still Miss Someone” and Rosanne’s “Seven Year Ache”. The North Mississippi Allstars, in an acoustic configuration, performed “Big River” and “Home Of The Blues”. The Drive-By Truckers essayed “Give My Love To Rose” and “I Walk The Line” (after singer Patterson Hood evoked a moving vision of Cash and June Carter Cash reunited at a feast in heaven). The Old 97′s wound things up with “Let The Train Blow The Whistle” (one of Cash’s myriad train songs) and an ensemble rendition of “Ring Of Fire”.
Cash, with his famous distaste for musical boundaries, probably would have enjoyed the Austin City Limits Festival. Even the people-watching was great: There’s a rail-thin Steve Earle, a walking testament to the Atkins diet (“You can eat a LOT of barbecue on Atkins,” he said, with evident satisfaction)…There’s five-time Tour De France winner (and Austin homeboy) Lance Armstrong, introducing R.E.M.…There’s Robert Earl Keen, whose flowing, leonine mane made him a dead-ringer for Jeff Bridges’ character in The Big Lebowski…There’s Liz Phair, going native in a real short denim skirt and new cowboy hat (the weekend’s most successful makeover, in this chauvinistic reporter’s opinion)…And there’s Leslie Cochran, the city’s iconic homeless person/transvestite/mayoral candidate, being arrested. Whoops, nope, he’s not headed for the slammer after all; the cops are just giving him a lift away from the masses. Perhaps his high heels were killing him.
It was that kind of weekend.