AUSTIN, Texas -- Before the Austin City Limits festival even began, some fans feared Hurricane Rita would ruin the three-day outdoor extravaganza in Texas' capital city. However, not a single drop of rain fell throughout the event, providing approximately 65,000 people each day an abundant harvest of rock, country, pop, folk, polka, Latin, African, gospel, Cajun, blues and more.
Now in its fourth year, the ACL Fest has learned to do a lot of things right but none more impressive than consistently booking an incredible selection of musicians. This year's event took place Friday-Sunday (Sept. 23-25) at Zilker Park.
John Prine, who played a twilight set on Friday, effortlessly mixed old favorites along with his new material. Within a minute of his set's end, the crowd migrated down the nearby slope toward new British pop band Keane, who earned their cool-kid cred over the last year with big melodies -- but no guitar. The sincere trio successfully tried out new material on the crowd, as did festival favorite Lucinda Williams and local songwriter Monte Warden.
Best of all, the audiences surprisingly overlap. More than one teenage girl was shown grinning on the Jumbotron during Prine's excellent set, and one middle-aged woman standing next to me gleefully sang along to pretty much every word in Keane's impressive show. On the way to the the food court, I heard an urban band shouting, "Shake your ass!" And by the time I actually got my slice of pizza, I boogied back to a Latin band's brass section at another stage.
In other words, pacing between the eight far-flung stages in the park is like turning yourself into a walking iPod -- only with slightly sore legs and very dusty shoes.
Performers who dropped off without explanation include Mindy Smith, Kate York, Kathleen Edwards, Tegan & Sara, Bettye Levette and Missy Higgins. Substitutes included Hanna-McEuen, Tracy Bonham and a handful of local club acts. Lyle Lovett, Asleep at the Wheel and Jack Ingram kept the Austin vibe strong on the bigger stages throughout the weekend.
On Saturday afternoon, about halfway through the festival, local songwriter Bruce Robison asked, "Are y'all hanging in there?" Naturally, I turned around to see the response and realized he had drawn thousands of people toward the centrally located stage -- partly because it was reasonably shady and partly because his music was, by far, the quietest option at that moment.
Still, if you poked around on Saturday, you could have found some pleasing sounds with mellow singer J.T. Van Zandt (son of Townes), upbeat combo the Weary Boys and the hard-working Bobby Bare Jr. Even the Australian rock band, Jet, cooled its engines enough to sound like an outstanding alt.country band on a few songs.
The Frames, a band from Dublin, Ireland, band made the drive from Dallas in just two hours, and their frantic pace translated well into their dramatic musical vision -- especially when the plaintive violin kicked in. The crowd demanded an encore, a true rarity at festivals. Once the stage cleared, I heard some girls saying that was the best thing they'd seen so far -- and I had to agree. During their set, I had already written: "Is there anything in life better than a music festival?"
Here are a few highlights leading up to that revelation:
Listening to ultra-cool band Thievery Corporation while browsing the vendors and realizing that squirrels and smiling pieces of toast are now stylish on purses.
Eating a different vegetarian food for every meal, with dozens of friendly local vendors to choose from. I'll always remember my first falafel at a festival.
Seeing young dudes hunched over the guitar in the Gibson booth within seconds of entering, already lost in the riffs wafting into their headphones.
Watching the nervous mothers as their wide-eyed sons and daughters investigated the colorful guitars in the kiddie tent.
Thinking I was generously being offered backstage passes, only to realize the guy was saying, "Do you want acid?"
Sunday afternoon (Sept. 25) brought a heavy level of dust, with asthmatics whipping out their masks just to get around. Shade was scarce, and the temperature reached a record high of a sweltering 108 degrees, but the audiences still turned out for enjoyable sets from the fine singer Kelley Hunt, buoyant pop band Rilo Kiley, Nashville songwriter Jeff Black, literate rockers the Decemberists and the invigorating rhythms of Ricardo Lemvo and Mikida Loca.
Only one big act was missing: That hip high schooler, Napoleon Dynamite. Every hour or so, you'd see another "Vote for Pedro" T-shirt, although it was hard to beat the homemade flag bearing the memorable message, "Tina, eat your ham!" All in all, men's fashion leaned toward board shorts without shirts. Women still favored the enormous sunglasses and flowing skirts that look like they were made in home economics class.
At an afternoon press conference, Ingram said keeping up with the latest music is "almost like my hobby," using iTunes and late night television as his resources.
"Everybody here makes good music," he added. "But everybody here also puts on great shows, and that doesn't always happen."
From the stage, Ingram called Austin "my new hometown." At a nearby stage, a member of jam band Donna the Buffalo mentioned that he'd thought about moving there. It's likely that Wilco's local fans -- and there were thousands hanging on every nuance -- would have passed the hat to get lead singer Jeff Tweedy to relocate right then and there.
This being a festival based on the Austin City Limits series on PBS, contemporary country music found a spot, too, as Dierks Bentley took the stage just before the hugely popular Coldplay. ("We flipped a coin," Bentley joked.) A longtime advocate of bringing country music to the masses, Bentley's energetic stage show captured more than a few passersby on their way across the field. From the stage, he estimated about 2,000 listeners checking him out -- a firm reminder that in the world of cool, cutting-edge music, there can indeed be a corner for contemporary country.