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Million-Dollar Mud

The 2009 Austin City Limits Music Festival became a quagmire everywhere but onstage.

Night fell on the Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park this past Sunday under a full moon and over a sea of mud. (It wasn't strictly mud, but more on that in a bit.) Many in the crowd, especially those in the proximity of the Dell stage, responded the only logical way possible — by dancing, or something close to it.

Since the squishy, slippery ground made it a little difficult to move your feet — people weren't so much walking through the grounds at this point as gingerly creeping — Spearhead stepped in to pick up the slack. The Michael Franti-led Bay Area band has never let a sizable social conscience interfere with its mission to move the crowd, and its high-energy combination of rap, rock, reggae and R&B (and a little salsa and dancehall) had hands up and bodies moving from note one. In fact, it sparked a fascinating phenomenon Noise will remember forever after as the "electric mudslide."

For the ten minutes or so we stood on the fringes of the crowd, feet planted up to our ankles in the Zilker muck, a steady stream of people slid by, contorting their bodies to the beat in a parade of live-action stop-motion animation. How they kept their footing we'll never know, but considering Spearhead was sampling Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" at the time, maybe the Gloved One was supplying a little extra equilibrium from above. (We heard a similar phenomenon was happening simultaneously across the way at Girl Talk, but never made it that far.)

Pearl Jam built a "State of Love and Trust" tens of thousands of people strong Sunday night.
Mark C. Austin
Pearl Jam built a "State of Love and Trust" tens of thousands of people strong Sunday night.
This guy got off easy — trust us.
Craig Hlavaty
This guy got off easy — trust us.
The Dead Weather's Jack White (left) and Alison Mosshart cut like a buffalo at ACL.
Mark C. Austin
The Dead Weather's Jack White (left) and Alison Mosshart cut like a buffalo at ACL.
Arum Rae of brand-new ACL breakout stars White Dress.
Craig Hlavaty
Arum Rae of brand-new ACL breakout stars White Dress.

Now, about that "mud." The brown soup that subsumed Zilker Park Sunday was the unfortunate and probably unforeseen byproduct of several factors: years of drought in Central Texas that turned previous ACL fests into airway-choking dust bowls; an ambitious effort by the City of Austin and ACL producers C3 Entertainment to resod the entire Zilker Great Lawn — which, to be fair, did look lovely Friday; and the first real rainy day in ACL's history, which drenched the park for the majority of Saturday.

But mostly, Sunday's quagmire was due to the substance the city and C3, which contributed a $2.5 million donation, used in the resodding: something called "Dillo Dirt," a compost of curbside yard clippings and recycled sewage. Hats off to the city for its environmentally conscious efforts, but that didn't exactly lessen Noise's disgust that he and the 65,000 or so other festival-goers on hand spent an entire day trudging through treated human shit.

It smelled like it, too, and the ACL staff scattering bale after bale of hay around the park to shore up the footing only made the atmosphere that much more stable-like. In their post-ACL damage control Monday, the city and C3 were quick to point out that the composting process superheats said sewage to a temperature that destroys any harmful bacteria, but it was still gross. (As of Monday, officials were unsure how much permanent damage the new sod had sustained.)

This "Million-Dollar Mud," as a friend called it late Sunday evening, caused entire puddle-strewn sections of the park to be closed off with yellow police tape, and completely destroyed what had been a beautiful expanse of golf-course-caliber grass just a couple of days earlier. Monday, the Austin American-Statesman reported that the ACL area of Zilker would be closed until at least November for cleanup — after already being closed for the better part of a year to let that ill-fated grass grow in the first place — and that C3 would pay for the damage to the turf as per its contract with the city.

No doubt the outcome of this year's ACL wasn't quite what C3 was hoping for, and the damage is bound to make this the most expensive festival yet, both financially and in terms of public relations; angry commenters were already coming out of the woodwork Monday morning on the Statesman's Web site. But this weekend was also the most extreme example yet in what is becoming an annual demonstration of the hostile environmental conditions people are willing to endure in the name of three days of almost uninterrupted music.

Noise is no different. More and more, we use ACL more than SXSW to see which recent buzz bands are worth their salt, and of course to check on how some old favorites are doing. This year, tops on our new-to-us list were Blitzen Trapper, who managed to condense most of the late '60s and early '70s — Dylan, the Dead, CSNY and a lot more besides — into their hour-long set Friday, and MuteMath, neighbors from New Orleans whose echoing guitar, propulsive rhythms and spacious vocals made them a sort of junior U2 shortly before the rains came Saturday.

Not far behind were Phoenix, who energetically outdistanced their "French Strokes" tag with super-catchy indie-pop leavened with disco and even a little Bo Diddley; and White Lies, Londoners whose elegantly gloomy, melodic post-punk rivaled MuteMath for sheer scale — especially on closer "Death" — and made the Arctic Monkeys, who followed them, seem like yesterday's NME news.

Various soul, gospel and R&B acts bowled Noise over all weekend long — especially Raphael Saadiq, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, the Gospel Silvertones and Henry Butler — but our happiest discovery of the weekend came right here in Houston: brand-new Austin trio White Dress, who opened for the Heartless Bastards Thursday at House of Blues with a sound similar to the Velvet Underground fronted by PJ Harvey or Siouxsie Sioux.

While we're on the subject, the Bastards' titanic roots-rock continues to impress us every time we see them, and did so again both Thursday and what little we were able to catch of them Sunday afternoon. (Full disclosure: An old friend is now the Bastards' tour manager; she and the band were kind enough to give us a ride to Austin after Thursday's show, but we were fans well before we became friends.)

And despite its leader's vocal silence due to recent throat surgery, the Levon Helm Band conducted a thrilling tour through American music's back pages Saturday, highlighted by stirring versions of the Band's "It Makes No Difference" and "The Shape I'm In," and a swinging ragtime version of "Deep Ellum Blues." The rain was even kind enough to stop for the balance of their set, and although it started again shortly before the Decemberists, the dapper Portland band's soup-to-nuts performance of their medieval prog-folk opera The Hazards of Love — like Jethro Tull meets Arcade Fire — was even more gripping than at SXSW.

Honestly, though, the best part of our weekend came at the very end, when conditions at Zilker were at their absolute worst. The run started with the Dead Weather, Jack White's latest effort to ward off boredom or whatever it is that keeps him from making another White Stripes record. White stepped out front for a couple of songs, but mostly stayed behind the drums — he's at least as good a timekeeper as Meg — and allowed the focus to stay where it belonged: feral, feline singer Alison Mosshart, whose vocals were even rawer than the full-blast gutbucket-blues guitars and freakshow psychedelic keyboards on "I Cut Like a Buffalo," Bob Dylan's "New Pony" and songs that had nothing to do with animals at all.

After Spearhead's spontaneous dance party, we slogged over to see Dan Auerbach, stepping away from the Black Keys for an A-plus set of menacing, lupine blues-rock before closing with the husky power-pop of "My Last Mistake." And for the hour we saw them, Pearl Jam made a superb headliner, mixing punkish growlers like opener "Why Go," "Not for You," "Worldwide Suicide" and an extended, explosive "Evenflow" with more reflective ballads like "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" and a "Daughter" that raised a lump in our throat as fat as that full moon overhead.

Mud — "Dillo Dirt" or otherwise — washes off, after all. Memories like that don't. CHRIS GRAY

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

See our complete ACL Festival coverage — "Dillo Dirt" and everything else — at blogs.houstonpress.com/rocks/aclfest.

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