Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ready, sweat, rock: Austin City Limits 2007

Returning to Austin has meant a return to the short hiatus from college football I take at the mid-point of September to take in the Austin City Limits music festival. Usually, Georgia is tuning up on a cupcake (like Western Carolina this year) and Florida and Tennessee are tangling in what, to me, amounts, to an annual Blimp Crash Bowl (so dubbed for the best possible outcome of such a retina-searing assembly of orange). So I let the DVR do its thang while I get my rock on.

Also, as next year's ACL likely will find me either changing diapers or attending to a very pregnant wife (not announcing anything here, just stating what's on the '08 agenda), this year's ACL could be my last for a while. Which is fine. In general, as I move farther from my 20s, I'm less and less enchanted with outdoor music festivals, particularly the variety that involve 65,000 people and late-summer central Texas heat, both of which ACL brings with a fury.

But while those factors have always presented a tolerance hurdle, ACL, now in its sixth year, always rewards your effort. ACL is consistently one of the best-run festivals I've ever attended and there's probably not a better bang for your buck anywhere: a three-day pass costs less than $200 (even less than $100 if you get in on it early) and gets you lineups as outstanding as this year's, which featured Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Arctic Monkeys, Steve Earle, The National, Bloc Party, Spoon, the Killers, Bjork, Stephen Marley, Damien Rice, Muse, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Beau Soleil and several dozen others. So impressive was the lineup that cancellations by the White Stripes and Amy Winehouse went practically unnoticed. Past ACLs have featured R.E.M., the Pixies, Al Green, Coldplay, Elvis Costello, Broken Social Scene and much more.

The festival takes place across seven stages in Zilker Park, which has more than enough acreage to handle the crowds and the ingress and egress is a hell of a lot less painful than some of the cattle drives I've been herded through to see music. There's bus service all over town, an adjacent bike park and throngs of rickshaws, all of which serve to diffuse traffic so effectively that ACL bears no resemblance whatsoever to the endless phalanxes of cars that creep with glacial speed into Manchester, Tenn., for Bonnarroo. With its streams of bicycles, mopeds, rickshaws and pedestrians, Barton Springs Road last night resembled a street in Bangkok or Saigon. But unlike Bangkok, Saigon or Bonnaroo, ACL leaves a considerably narrower carbon footprint, from the biodiesel-powered generators to the recycled toilet paper in the porta-potties.

Perhaps due to the demographics of the ACL acts' fanbases (and the fact that they're not being treated like livestock), there's a kind of group consideration and respectfulness among ACL festival-goers that seemed remarkable in comparison to some of the chaotic festivals I've read about and participated in. My wife and I strolled easily in and out of ACL on Friday night with tens of thousands of other attendees who, by and large, evidenced none of the irritability that comes with milling about for several hours in 100-degree temps. We remarked that this cooperative atmosphere sadly wouldn't be possible in my wife's hometown of Memphis, where the Beale Street Music Festival has been marred racial, adolescent and drug/alcohol-fueled shenanigans and the kind of general idiocy that lends steep irony to the book title The Wisdom of Crowds. As ACL showed, enjoying good music with lots of people who also appreciate music is a practical, simple matter: you don't need to be bought in to some hippie utopian communal dogma to know how not to be a dick at a rock show.

And, yeah, in case I under-emphasized this, it's hot. Real hot. The dearth of trees in Zilker Park makes for great site lines, but, between noon and 6:30 p.m., it also makes you feel like you're an ant under some giant kid's magnifying glass. Based on crowd attire, I'm not sure the average Texan is aware that black attracts light, such as the burning variety beaming down from that fiery orb in the sky known as the sun, or that denim isn't what you'd call "breathable." That said, it's hard work looking cool, especially if you can't leave it at just being a state of mind. Wearing an all-white polypro t-shirt, polypro boxers and linen shorts, I probably dropped close to five pounds in water weight, so I can't imagine what these idiots in black jeans, boots and black shirts were going through. Fortunately, there's a gazillion drink stands, some water misters at the festival; plus the WaMu Tent, aside from some great gospel, blues and zydeco, also features shade, blessed shade.

Really, the hardest thing about ACL is the musical tradeoffs. Before the White Stripes cancelled, you were going to have to choose between seeing them and Arcade Fire for the Saturday closer. Tonight's show, which I'm missing due to business travel (yeah, but it's to San Francisco, a merciful change of weather), forces you to choose between My Morning Jacket and Wilco. Like South By Southwest, you're dogged by the feeling that, no matter how rockin' the show is you're attending, people are getting their minds blown a few stages over.

Regardless, you are bound to be treated to some pretty transcendent moments, like last night's Arcade Fire set. Like fellow Canadians Broken Social Scene, the Fire feature roughly a dozen people onstage playing a lot of unconventional instruments for rock 'n' roll, with each band member rocking out so aggressively that it's like watching a band with a dozen frontmen – impossible to fully digest all at once. They can be sublime, but rarely are they subtle.

In a smirking reference to the title of their latest long-player, Neon Bible, Arcade Fire took the stage under a widely viewed YouTube clip of the female televangelist notoriously exhorting her audience to take "an enema of the holy spirit … straight up the rear."

Arcade Fire opened their set with Neon Bible's first track, "Black Mirror," kicking off a stream of swooping, anthemic mini-symphonies arranged with violins, French horn, tuba and church organ along with the traditional guitar, bass, drums, percussion and keyboards. And while the Killers did a compelling job of kicking up vaguely high school drama the night before, it still seemed like adolescent bluster when contrasted with Arcade Fire's soaring hymns to deceased family and friends, existential angst and all the other Big Questions that roil with fear, exaltation, dread, hope, etc. With fraught song titles like "My Body is a Cage" and "Une Année Sans Lumière" ("A Year without Light"), Arcade Fire's music is the kind of big, Gothic sound instantly recognizable as something that demands to be played in arenas but, due to commercial interests, rarely is. Thankfully and as always, ACL delivered the appropriate venue at nightfall Saturday.



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