Imaginary road trip: Austin City Limits journal, part II

Show Date: October 3, 2009

{Make sure to check out part I of our imaginary look back at Austin City Limits!}

Past reports from Austin City Limits have detailed woes of the duststorms created by the crowds at Zilker Park, to the tune of mandatory bandanas and SARS masks. Not exactly what most would call fun. So this year, to avoid a similar situation, the kind and thoughtful city planners decided to fertilize and sod the entire park pre-festival. From what I can gather, this was a multi-million dollar project, and on Friday, it looked absolutely lovely. As far as you could see, grassy knolls a la Windows desktop stock photography stretched out to greet and welcome your feet and your blankets and your lawnchairs.

Then the rain happened. And then the mud happened. We’re talking sloshy, squishy, can’t-go-anywhere-without-getting-covered-in-it mud. The kind of mud that suctions to your galoshes so that you walk right out of them. It was kind of fun, and kind of nasty, and kind of awesome all at once. Personally, I got tired of walking right out of my flip-flops and hooked them to my skirt (which was already trashed) and spent the better part of two days running around barefoot. Cut to things getting extra festival-y, between that and the huge influx of people that the weekend days brought on. Fun, right? Well, don’t forget the “kind of nasty” part: did you catch the first paragraph up there where I used the word “fertilize” when describing the new sod? Right. Ew. I tried not to think about it too much, and instead pretended like I was getting a two-day version of one of those forty dollar clay masks they put on your legs at the fancy spas.

Gross. I know. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Let’s get back to the music.

Day 2: All we need is feet, and rollerskates (and yes, we still know these songs, Dave Matthews).

The plan: More breakfast tacos, since they close on Sundays. Henry Clay People, Deer Tick, Alberta Cross, The Raveonettes, Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, John Vanderslice, DeVotchKa, and Ghostland Observatory. Avoidance of sunburn, ingestion of the killer featured restaurant-provided dinner in the press tent.

The reality: More breakfast tacos, followed by hot pink umbrella purchase. Excessive rain leading to raunchy, sloppy mud. More DMB fans in one place than I’ve ever seen in my life, Grizzly Bear > Bon Iver > borderline religious experience, a thousand-person DeVotchKa show, and the realization that the lead dude from Ghostland Observatory has got some serious game. Oh, and a slumber party.

We could tell from the get-go that it was going to be cool and drizzly, so the post-breakfast coffee run was followed by a trip to the local Walgreens (along with half of the attendees of the festival) to pick up some umbrellas. Sidenote, it’s worth noting that the cafe had a quad espresso up on the board listed as “The Crowbar.” As a result of the errands, we wound up with a bit of a late start to day two, and missed out on the Henry Clay People and Deer Tick, both of whom reportedly put on fantastic sets. A few strains of Alberta Cross drifted out across the field from one of the larger stages, creating a little bit of a My Morning Jacket vibe that was laced with some Black Crowes Lite. A little further out, the Felice Brothers started an early set — I really wanted to like them, but the sub-par mix coupled with a recurring chorus about chickens made it difficult to tough out the songs. Snapshots of Cotton Jones, and Vega — a local band filling in for the mysteriously absent Raveonettes — rounded out our ease into the grey, drizzly morning.

We made our way over to the stage where Grizzly Bear was slated to perform about thrity minutes early, and I was shocked to see the field already completely packed with people. To the point of Facebooking about it. That’s one of the parts of the bubble for me, of being a dedicated KEXP listener so far as radio is concerned — sometimes I have no idea just how famous bands have gotten. So we all packed in like sardines and waited, and thankfully the ongoing simulcast on Hulu made for some absolutely excellent video coverage that displayed up on the screen for the people way out in the field. It ran through great ACL TV sets gone by, laced with prior festival footage, and the wait flew by — suddenly the screens shifted, the band ambled on stage to start their set, and really — the whole rest of the world evaporated at that point.

Grizzly Bear took every ounce of our attention and hyper-focused it on the exact pinpoint of their trip, to the point of where the hair on the back of my neck practically stood on end when that loud, gorgeous, jangly lead guitar kicked in. It didn’t matter that the rain was coming back, or that I was forty rows back from the stage — from the instant they made the slightest sound to about an hour after they finished, this band had me completely captivated. They were stunningly flawless, and the screens allowed me that front-row view of their earnest faces as they nailed song after song, syncing with each other perfectly, all achy eyebrow-face as they conducted each other through the vocals. These four guys took on harmonies that bent around curves and corners so tightly that, side-by-side, I’d say they could almost give the Beach Boys a run for their money. (Yes, I know that’s a serious statement and yes, I really mean it. Note the use of “almost.”) Epic bridges, cuts to sixties-style keyboard sounds and back, wall-of-guitar symphonies and heart-shattering lyrics annihilated us for a solid hour — practically to the point where I thought I wouldn’t be able to stand it anymore. They left the stage precisely and gratefully, and my friends and I looked around at each other, unable to believe what we had just witnessed. Knowing that we were about to bliss out with Bon Iver in a mere forty-five minutes just made it all the better.

Ah, the Bon Iver set. There we were, fully rained on and beginning the part of the weekend where the mud had started to become unavoidable, freshly blown away by Grizzly Bear, up to our necks in that soul-searing, haunted vibe that Bon Iver brings forth, under a sea of umbrellas… I can state honestly and without exaggeration that it was one of those shows that permanently altered the fabric of my existence. There’s times at shows, for me at least, when I can feel that something much bigger than us and the band is taking place — and this set was one of those times. An hour full of tracks from For Emma, Forever Ago and the Blood Bank EP just sent wave after wave of mindblowing sound at us, as we watched on while (most of) the crowd stood just as rapt with attention. Enduring both the downpour and the amazing set for an hour, we walked away post-set practically in tears — the kicker being “Skinny Love” crooned from a stool, strummed out furiously with what looked like a hundred-year-old inlaid steel-cutout guitar… the crowd did get a little crappy when the radio-popular songs passed and saw fit to chat it up during the ones they didn’t know, but the whole thing was so amazing and surreal that it was easy to focus in on the sound and the stage and tune the rest of the world out completely.

Had my weekend ended there suddenly, it would have been more than enough to have made my trip. But it kept on going.

While my companions made their way to Mos Def and the Decemberists, I sped through the sloshy field to get to the tent stage where DeVotchKa was about to come on, working my way up to the front of the room as the previous act left and a portion of the crowd followed. Stage left, front row — I couldn’t have been positioned better for the stunning display of awesome that was about to take place.

DeVotchKa, like Andrew Bird, was one of the highlight acts for me coming into the trip. I’ve got a very close friend who is a huge DeVotchKa fan, and has been so for years and years — having seen them once, plus hearing her tales of being absolutely enraptured with every show she’s seen and every song that’s sliced her in two, I knew that they weren’t going to disappoint anyone in the room, no matter what size of stage they played. The lights shot off and they came on with a flourish, all foreign-wedding-of-indeterminate-origin plus carnival tuba plus insanely fantastic lighting plus Nick Urata’s sexy-slash-saddened vocals — it was so unbearably perfect! I totally and completely lost it. I was so full of show at that point and so totally blown away from what I had already experienced that their upbeat, symphony-laced set just cut right through me. The whole crowd danced along, improvising to the wandering beats, stunned into statuesque silence and then all-out cheers when a fabric-climbing acrobat suddenly appeared mid-set. It went on like that for over an hour, with Nick taking us up to the very peak of every ounce of energy they could pull out of us, building the last few songs up to such a frenzy that I thought the top of the tent was going to blow right off. And with a cut into darkness, they were done. Fini.

I don’t think I have to explain further how completely stunned I was at this point, like I’d just been run over by a car, only the car was made out of everything that’s amazing about every mindbending show you’ve ever been to. The rest of my festival-mates met up with me as we all spilled out of the tent and we all hooked arm-in-arm to brave the mud and watch the second half of Ghostland Observatory‘s set.

As stated earlier in the post — this guy’s got game. Pure and simple. His piercing-yet-perfect scream-singing layered with the most brilliant of laser-light shows, and he took over the stage like — well, like I don’t know what. Like him. With sunglasses, long braids, and a simple black pants / t-shirt / boots combo, the frontman for GO strutted around like a one-man show of sexy, seemingly indifferent to the fact that there were thousands upon thousands of people in attendance. You could tell from the get-go that performing is what this dude was born to do. We were so wiped out at this point that we kept saying, “Okay, we’re going to get going after this song,” only to find ourselves still standing there four songs later. GO brought us back from the sad bastard, heartshot theme of the day that had started to erode with DeVotchKa; and turned the whole section of crowd on their end of the field into a full-force dance party. We finally pulled ourselves away to walk back to the car towards the end of the set, and started the trip through the paths leading back to the car with strains of Dave Matthews floating in from a distance. To give credit where credit is due, even though it’s ceased to be my taste of music for quite some time now, they really did put on a flawless set. We even found ourselves singing along as the vocals rang out into the nighttime along the river, like a little nostalgic soundtrack for our trip back to the car.

The night finally ended after some well-deserved diner breakfast around 11, the rush for the bathtub to clean our feet off before we slept, and a pile of us in the living room, all strewn about on couchees while our hostess sang and tweaked out some of her gorgeous rock songs on an acoustic guitar. Finally, sleep got the best of us around 3am, and we fell away from the day with smiles plastered on our faces, knowing that a whole full day of festival would be waiting to meet us when we woke up. Check back for the festival wrap-up, including the muddiest Sunday ever known, spending the morning with Vince Mira, how the B-52s still have it, another round of Heartless Bastards, and that Girl Talk dance party that just wouldn’t quit!