Austin City Limits Festival Report

Friday was sunny and beautiful with good vibes abounding as we made our way around the various stages and checked out a huge variety of music. Highlights of the day were Martin Sexton’s wide-ranging, vocally creative solo set and, to our great surprise, Dwight Yoakam’s headlining slot. Never a big fan of Dwight’s brand of old-school country and honky-tonk, I just couldn’t deny the guy’s incredible charisma and showmanship, and his band was absolutely jumpin’.

Nothing Friday, however, could touch what we saw Saturday. Austin’s best and least-appreciated hard rock band, Endochine, started off our day at the local-artists stage. I thought it was just business-as-usual ass-kicking for these boys, when suddenly they announced a “special guest,” confirming the rumors printed in the Austin Chronicle’s festival preview: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers) on guitar. The very unlikely combination seemed to work out just fine, as the grey-haired Skunk fired off guitar solos that had the crowd whooping it up.

Then we settled in for a truly incredible five-hour block of music: first up was the Johnny Cash tribute, set up to fill Roseanne Cash’s cancelled 3pm show. Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson acted as MC, relaying fond memories of the Man in Black and introducing (and occasionally backing up) Tift Merritt, Drive-by-Truckers, the North Mississippi All-Stars, and Old 97s playing classic Johnny Cash songs. Though the music was a bit ragged at times, the mood was right, and the crowd reacted well, especially when the big TV screen next to the stage started rolling footage of Cash’s 1987 Austin City Limits TV appearance when the live music had come to an end.

At 4 o’clock, we braved the intermittent gentle rain as we walked over to adjoining stage to see Jay Farrar. Now, we all know that Jay’s ex-Uncle-Tupelo bandmate Jeff Tweedy has turned Wilco into one of the world’s biggest bands… but it seems certain that Jay Farrar is not about to disappear entirely just because he doesn’t get Tweedy’s level of attention. Jay’s backing band had the perfect balance of firecracker dynamics and tasteful restraint, and Jay’s voice was in perfect form — that melancholy yet smooth delivery he’s got was an ideal fit with the weather. His original material and song arrangements seem to be getting a bit more ambitious, too; it’s as if he’s growing his own artistic vision with small, stable steps as opposed to Wilco’s daring leaps and bounds. Overall, an very emotional and memorable set.

We moseyed back to the chairs we’d planted at the big stage for the JC tribute and settled in for Patty Griffin. As always, Patty put on an absolutely devastating performance. She followed pretty much the same strategy she employed at the Old Settler’s festival: front-load the set with the best-loved tracks from her latest album 1,000 Kisses, and then use the crowd’s rapt attention to feature some new or lesser-known (but no less gorgeous) material. Though her radio favorites “Rain” and “Long Ride Home” were beautiful as always, she really hit me straight in the heart with “Making Pies” and “Chief.”

Still reeling from Patty’s set, we managed to divert our attention to Bright Eyes on the next stage. We knew nothing of the band, but our buddy Brent Dudley (one of our cohorts throughout the day along with his brother Justin) explained that the songwriter behind the act, Connor Oberst, is the latest indie-pop/ critical darling, and the live set proved why. Gorgeous melodies, strong accompaniment with subtle instrumentation changes, and a haunting vocal style made for a really impressive first look at a young musician with a great career ahead of him.

Speaking of young musicians with great careers ahead of them, next up was the incomparable Nickel Creek. If your impression of this band has been shaped by the slightly syrupy radio tracks “A Lighthouse’s Tale” and “This Side,” please consider this: you have NO idea what this band is about until you see them live. They take big, big chances and hit the ball out of the park most every time. With musicianship light years beyond any other act making popular music, the Creekers stretched, contorted, and mutated their tunes into beautiful spontaneous musical creations. Even “Lighthouse,” which they could have played in its exact album arrangement and still thrilled the crowd, was split wide open into mesmerizing solo sections and flowed seamlessly into snippets of Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and Coldplay’s “Yellow” — not bad for a group that started out as a bluegrass-festival-circuit kid band. If the size and the reaction of the audience was any indication, people are more than willing to join them on these brave musical excursions, from the opening track to their closer, the stunning and sinuous “Crooked Jack,” by far their most ambitious composition to date [correction: that’s not their tune, but it was a damn ambitious arrangement, anyway].

And as for today… we’re gonna see Ween. Oh mercy.

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