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Touch the Sky

The 2011 Austin City Limits Music Festival in exactly 12 paragraphs.

Since I skipped last year's Austin City Limits Music Festival, I must have been trying to make up for lost time.

Friday I bounced around Zilker Park almost nonstop, rarely pausing at any stage longer than a couple of songs. This approach yielded worthwhile new discoveries (Fool's Gold, Delta Spirit, Kurt Vile) and an amazing hour-long run through about 50 years of blues, R&B, soul, reggae and rap courtesy of the North Mississippi All-Stars, Gary Clark Jr., Charles Bradley and Nas & Damien "Jr. Gong" Marley.

It also plain wore me out. Saturday afternoon's high point was acoustic duo Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, whose haunted folk songs and backwoods finger-picking literally lulled me into a trance that had me half-convinced I had dreamed the whole thing. ACL experiences come in all shapes, sizes and states of consciousness.

I did slow down some in the evenings. Friday, Coldplay pounded and strummed out a string of hits that charted the band's trajectory from earnest postgrads to masters of high-gloss orchestral pomp in a heart-nudging parade from "Yellow" to latest single "Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall." Stevie Wonder was the Master Blaster Saturday night, flexing his magical fingertips for nearly two hours in a divinely funky set that spanned Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson to his own "Superstition" and "Sir Duke."

Sunday, I slowed down even more, and had the best day of all. Ryan Bingham came out as much more of a stomping Zeppelinesque blues-rocker than the Oscar-winning "Weary Kind" folkie, Manu Chao was an acoustic Latin fireball tinged with punk and reggae, and the Walkmen delivered the best pure rock and roll set of the weekend in three short songs.

Until Arcade Fire, that is. The first band born after ACL to also shut it down did so with anthem after anthem of hope, angst and survival for 90 minutes, in great waves of sound that ended ACL's first decade in truly epic fashion.

I think my goal every year is to come away from ACL a little smarter, more up-to-date on what people are listening to — even if I don't always understand it, like electronic acts that favored spectacle over substance (Pretty Lights, Empire of the Sun) and flavors of the month à la Foster the People — and overall, better-rounded musically.

I think I did. So next year I'm going to take it a little bit easier and see what happens. Chris Gray

We had almost every kind of weather at the Austin City Limits Music Festival this year, from blazing heat and stifling humidity Sunday afternoon, to rain on half of Saturday proper, to reasonably seasonal cool breezes that ushered in some of the timeliest cloud cover we could ask for.

This was also the most diverse year I can remember, with electro acts like Skrillex and Pretty Lights rubbing elbows and sharing backstage amenities with country singers like Nick 13 and Hayes Carll. No doubt for the next few years, in keeping with the younger set's tastes, electronica will be a big part of ACL.

Spectacle was also a big draw this year, with acts like Empire of the Sun and Kanye West using dancers and hard-to-explain motifs to wow thousands upon thousands. Stevie Wonder took everyone to music school on Saturday night, a living legend with a fountain of energy. Some grumbled about the volume, depending on their distance from the stage, but hearing "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" live was worth all the weekend's chafing and sweating.

My favorites were My Morning Jacket and Randy Newman, with Jim James and company collaborating with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for the home stretch of their set. Newman closed out Sunday in the Vista Equity tent with a triumph of wit, simplicity and expert, bedrock songwriting. Craig Hlavaty

 
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