Imaginary road trip: Austin City Limits journal, part I

Show Date: October 2, 2008

I had some great ideas going into my weekend at Austin City Limits — live reports, blog posts, and photos from the field. Coverage would be grand and frequent! Snuck-in-camera photos would abound! I wanted everyone to take this trip with me, to show what Austin looked like, and what the bands felt like, and everything — right down to the soaring temperatures and with extensive adjectives about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs echoing out into the nighttime over a few thousand people.

Then the rain happened. And the mud happened. And all at once, our lovely press tent because a hostile environment, at least for the electronic side of things. I decided to shelf the laptop, along with the idea of field updates — although I did pull off a tweet here and there from my phone, for what it’s worth. I was pretty dismayed about it, as I tried to rack my brain for ideas on how to revamp the master plan, to give these bands the coverage they deserved.

And then — well, a funny thing happened on the way to the festival. The weekend suddenly became about being present at the festival. Period. Not about bolting to a computer to update, and missing my favorite acts for the sake of loading up pictures. I went from being a correspondent quasi-rock journalist to a full-force, performance-ready fan. I armed myself with pen and paper, slapped on some sunblock, and skipped the shower — and I proceeded to get my festival on. One hundred and ten percent. As a result, I’m of the opinion that my rain-soaked notebook and front-row geeking made for much better, more realistic coverage to provide in retrospect — and what follows is the best recollection I can provide of a weekend that shifted a few of my musical stitches, in a big way. For the good.

Day zero: The pre-funk.

The plan: Land. Eat. Come up with game plan for Friday’s schedule. Catch up with friends. Sleep.

The reality: Drop bags. Load gear from several locations. Wind up at pizza bar eating “The Lance” and getting my ass kicked by a local band called Framing Strangers.

Quite unexpectedly, I wound up at a rad little pizza place in the north loop of Austin to see a band Thursday night. After a few stops with my host to help some friends get their gear to the bar, I sat back with a big, gorgeous slice of Pagliacci-grade pizza and dug on the band taking the makeshift “stage.” My ears perked up as they started to play, this band I’d never heard of called Framing Strangers — who proceeded to blow away the crowd at the tiny-capacity bar.

Framing Strangers, by my observations, are a tight-knit authentic “alternative” band, and by “alternative” I mean the modern equivalent of whatever that word means, a genuinely independent-sounding band that I can’t quite make any lateral comparisons to — the kind of band you see opening for someone else or catch on the dial going through a town and go, “Who is this? This is fantastic!” because they don’t sound like everything else. Good early-nineties punk-girl-singing-for-real vocal tones, strong sad-chord harmonies, an occasional violin, and brilliant lyrics. Undertones of the Frames, a twist of Regina Spektor, and something else really good that I just can’t place kept my full attention on this four-piece through the duration of their half-hour set.

Sleep took a backseat, and we went to bed late with alarms set to the promise of breakfast tacos and Andrew Bird to bookend the first day of the festival.

Day one: Holy Crap This Place Is Awesome.

The plan: Ticket procurement, possible housesitting arrangements, coffee and real Mexican breakfast tacos. Blitzen Trapper, Avett Brothers, The Walkmen, Robyn Hitchcock, Andrew Bird.

The reality: Coffee and real Mexican breakfast tacos. An awesome press tent. Christoper Nelson and a few fellow Seattleites. Sunny skies, rolling lawns, Avett Brothers, The Walkmen, Andrew Bird, and some authentic Yeah Yeah Yeahs madness. And a whole lot of people in one place.

The day went from overcast to a brilliant 80 degrees, extending the endless summer across the freshly-sodded fields of Zilker Park and bathing everyone in hot Texas sunshine. The place was huge. A giant, expansive open park with city-skyline views, the perimeter of which was spotted with stages for all of the different sets of acts. By the time we got oriented and caught portions of a handful of sets, the morning honed in on one of the big stages where the crowd had gathered for the Avett Brothers set.

It was, in short, moving. Glorious, even. The thing about the Avett Brothers, outside of all the adjectives I’ve already used up geeking about them, is that they translate. Fully. They’re not a bunch of kids singing about things that haven’t happened to them yet, they’re just — they’re completely real. Authentic ache and storylines of relationships pour off the stage as they offer out the life they’ve racked up so far in the form of song. Heartache and bliss filled up the sunny, open field as we were treated to their hour-long set; the sky was dotted with dragonflies and the clouds were doing one of those things clouds do that make the sky look exceptionally huge. So there we were, all big skies and broken hearts with the Avett Brothers. It was about this time that the trip caught up to me and I realized that I was actually physically at Austin City Limits, for real, and about to see a slew of bands in my top-ever list from very close proximity. My beaming seemed to vibe perfectly with the energy of the crowd, and then all at once we shifted gears and headed over to see the Walkmen at an adjacent stage.

The Walkmen. My goodness. The Walkmen are masters of the kind of cool that you can’t learn and can’t duplicate, even with the oldest of old-school cred and the trendiest (but not too trendy) clothes and an iPod full of songs that rage from bands that no one has heard of yet. You know the people you know who are just like that? They don’t even come close. Their sets start like someone has flipped a switch and they launch into it, with the huge, jangly guitar sound and the unmistakeable vocals. I stood about eight or ten rows back from the stage and just took it in — this… thing they had coming off of them. And the best part of the whole thing is that they never tell you they’re cool. They practically blow out a few blood vessels cranking through an amazing song, and then thank the crowd quietly afterwards, without pretense, as if to say, “Yeah, we’re alright. We’re kind of okay at this whole band thing. No bigs.”

No bigs. Right. They absolutely killed it.

After a trip through the park’s vendors and another slew of partial sets of bands, it was finally time to secure front-row spots for Andrew Bird — and as we headed over, we heard John Legend start to take the stage across the field. I have to give it to him, he was super-smooth, projecting up over the stage screens as he opened up with a Bob Marley track — and people just seemed to stop what they were doing as if they were getting pulled over, like metal shavings to a magnet. Zombies, popping up from picnics and blankets and moving in drothes towards the stage. We fought the crowd as we worked our way over to where Andrew Bird was due on, and finally settled in two rows back with a flock of teenagers.

I have no shame when it comes to performers like Andrew Bird. I will wait in line at a busy venue before the show to get a spot up front, I will hold my ground among the high school set, because shows like his are worth the trouble. And it paid off — witnessing the hour he played to the cooled-off Austin crowd in such close proximity was just completely epic. The dusky sky complimented every moment of his set, almost as if we were on a little journey into his world for this one slice of our night while the sky changed from day to dark. (Most of) the set list went as follows:

  • New song
  • Opposite Day
  • Fitz & Dizzyspells
  • (Instrumental / segue)
  • Oh No
  • Not a Robot, but a Ghost
  • Anonanimal
  • Scythian Empire
  • Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left
  • Fake Palindromes

I’ve got goosebumps just typing that up, remembering like a movie from an hour ago and re-feeling how completely brilliant the whole thing was. The crowd was rapt with attention — at several points in the set the songs would build up to a crescendo and then a completely silent moment, and the entire thousand-plus gathering of people were motionless and soundless — just hanging on the edge of the note that had happened and whatever was coming next. I couldn’t possibly describe that hour properly enough to do it justice, except to report that it was nothing short of absolutely magical. His performance was tied for first with my top show of the day, by a long shot.

As soon as his set ended we gathered to head back to the opposite end of the park, to catch what was left of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. What a show! The lighting synced up perfectly with the sound, and two huge — HUGE — eyeballs bounced and bobbed atop the crowd in place of the token beach balls that typically surf around. Karen O did not disappoint one bit, on any level — her literal talent as a performer, her bouts of crazy, her costume changes — at one point she stood fully draped in some kind of nutty hooded quilt-thing, and switched out two songs later to an outfit that glowed in the dark. There was really a gorgeous madness to it all. Having just come off of Andrew Bird’s set, which has an undeniable mad-scientist type of madness, a brilliant, faraway, not-quite-like-the-rest-of-us madness, Karen O was the perfect counterpart. The other half of the madness brain, if you will. Her madness was/is more of the metaphorical peyote-induced type, a modern-day Jim Morrison element with undertones of authentic band-grrl songstress and some classical vocal training way underneath it all.

The YYYs ran through song after song layered full of amazing, fantastic sounds and singing-from-the-crowd antics — peaking out with the tie for my top performance of the day, which was “Maps” echoing out over the thousands of people watching from under the stars. Karen O broke it down almost purely to her vocals, which were completely and totally flawless. A quiet strum on an acoustic guitar rounded out the sound and the hushed crowd started to sing along, but only in a half-voice — the kind of singing you do when you’re slow dancing with someone, meaning it with everything you’ve got, but with the volume practically down at a whisper. And they let her peak out on her high parts, accenting her only with whistles and cheers — I make note of this because there are few things I despise more than a completely epic moment being annihilated by drunken, full-bellow sing-a-long. It’s as if we all knew that we needed to let her make it happen for us, and we did, and she did.

Saturated with sight and sound, the YYYs finished out our first day in Austin perfectly. And so completely shifted after all of that, we took the long walk back to the car through the park and the trails, skipping down the side-streets all high with show, giddy at the thought of getting to do this for another two days! Stay tuned for part II of the ACL journal, wherein we proceed to party in a foot of mud with Girl Talk, get our hearts ripped out of our chests in the rain with Grizzly Bear and Bon Iver, and finish out the festival with Pearl Jam blowing the night away. (And DeVotchKa, and DeVotchKa, and DeVotchKa!)