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The Best of ACL Fest

I'd like to think that as I "mature," I'm getting savvier about covering outsize musical events like SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. But the truth is, I'm pretty much making it up as I go along. Should I take the pulse of the crowd? Go behind the scenes and report the concert-making machine in action? Hobnob in the artists' village? Spend the weekend chained to either a laptop or a microphone like some of my unfortunate media colleagues?

Well, the crowd was huge, happy, hot and high; the massive crew did a deadly efficient job; from what I heard, backstage was boring (it nearly always is); and the Houston Press's Keith Plocek, Craig Hlavaty and Michael Hoinski (and a couple of our Dallas Observer brethren) did a fine job holding down the digital fort. Besides, ACL promoter C3 Presents made it easy this year, restricting access more than ever to the point where the only thing to do besides hope there was something to eat in the media area — whose much-upgraded hospitality more than made up for its remote location — was to hit the grounds and see as much music as possible.

Fine by me. So with all due credit to Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raconteurs, MGMT, CSS, Iron & Wine, Yonder Mountain String Band, Eli "Paperboy" Reed, Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears, Sunny Sweeney, Neko Case, Nakia & His Southern Cousins, the Kills, Against Me! and Shooter Jennings, here's the best of the fest, 2008-style.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: Every year, if you're lucky, one set or even one song will make the heat, the dust, the sore feet, the shuttle-bus lines — the whole cottonpicking weekend — worthwhile. This year, shortly after Noise got to Zilker Saturday, it was Jones and the Dap-Kings' note-perfect cover of James Brown's "This Is a Man's World." With gospel fervor and serious horn action, the Georgia-born Jones and her Brooklyn-based band handily stole right out from under the late Godfather of Soul himself. If Tina Turner needs an opener for her tour that stops at Toyota Center later this month, she'd better look elsewhere, because Jones and the Dap-Kings have the chops and the material — songs you feel like you've heard all your life, even hearing them for the first time — to upstage even miss "Nutbush City Limits."

John Fogerty: John Fogerty has always seemed a little too clean-cut to be truly hip, but with a back catalog like his, who really cares? Spurred by wifebeater-clad ace drummer Kenny Aronoff, the frisky flannel-clad Fogerty led his band through some of the best rock and roll of the Vietnam years, from opening Little Richard romp "Travelin' Band" through a fierce "Fortunate Son" and heartfelt "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" that was as beautiful as the Central Texas sunset behind him. I'll even forgive him for changing the line in "Midnight Special," one of many enthusiastic crowd singalongs, from "If you're ever in Houston" to "If you're ever in ­Austin."

Roky Erickson: Fresh off of Fogerty, Erickson's imposing psych-rock was like the dark side of Creedence. "White Faces" was truly fearsome, the harrowing "The Beast Is Coming" reminded everyone Halloween is just around the corner, and a crushing "Bermuda" called up some of Black Sabbath's children of the grave. Warping Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the old R&B nugget "Before You Accuse Me," Erickson and band's in-the-red performance vanquished — momentarily, anyway — whatever evil spirits gave rise to the Texas rock icon's songs. "I think of demons they never will," Erickson sang. Ain't that the truth.

Beck: The new pollution was nowhere to be found, but Beck brought his A game to the AT&T stage Saturday with boho style and guero soul. He even redeemed Bob Dylan's frightful set last year with a whip-smart cover of "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat," and "Hellyes" was the first time I've ever heard anyone say "Beyatch!" on an ACL stage. The festival-sized versions of "Where It's At" and "E-Pro" were reliably crowd-pleasing, but the real gems were "The Golden Age" and "Lost Cause," two haunted missives from 2002 heartbreak hotel Sea Change that melted the long, grueling day in the cool autumn night.

Octopus Project: Gotta give it up for the home folks (even if they do reside in Austin now), and besides Rodney Crowell, the infectious instrumental quartet was the only ACL performer this year representing H-town. Robotic, hypnotic and melodic, the Project stayed in constant motion — it's a wonder Josh Lambert and Toto Miranda didn't sustain a nasty case of whiplash — as Yvonne Lambert cast her eerie Theramin spell. It was like a toybox come to life, especially when the band brought out several students from nearby Austin High School's marching band for a raucous duet.

Heartless Bastards: By Sunday, I had already seen this Cincinnati/Austin trio lay waste to Last Concert Cafe (Thursday) and Emo's (Friday) with its back-alley blues-rock. Erika Wennerstrom's husky vocals, both defiant and vulnerable, and the rhythm section's garage-y lockstep made the third time a real charm as well.

Band of Horses: Having previously written of the South Carolina equines as Flaming Lips for beardoes, allow me to hereby help myself to a generous serving of crow. Changing my mind were the epic "The Great Salt Lake" and "Weed Party," folk-rock in overdrive with echoes of Paul Westerberg, the Infinite guitar of U2's Edge and Life's Rich Pageant-era R.E.M. By the time they closed with some sinister blues à la "I Put a Spell on You," they certainly had.

Okkervil River: People hear what they want to hear, and for me a steady diet of Clash recently led to obvious parallels between that band and Okkervil's buoyant blend of folk-rock and new wave. Drumming up R.E.M. and the Cure on "Real Knives," they closed with singer Will Sheff urging the crowd, "Let's make some magic," and the band working up from a "Pinball Wizard" vamp to authentic "Clampdown" grandeur. Call them Okkervil Rockstars now.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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