You're back in your old neighborhood... cigarettes taste so good..." "Misunderstood" wasn't part of Wilco's twilight set Sunday evening, but it didn't need to be, as those lyrics had already been running through my head since I arrived in Austin Thursday night. After five years of covering the Austin City Limits Music Festival for the hometown weekly, it was odd to be on the visiting team. No more all-access wristband and free food and drink at the artists' village, just a media badge and acres and acres of music. Which was just fine with me.
There isn't that much going on behind the scenes at ACL anyway, beyond hundreds of crew and volunteers busting their asses to make everything run smoothly in case the unthinkable happens — which it did Friday afternoon. Around3 p.m., a propane tank inside a beverage distributor's RV exploded, sending a column of thick black smoke above the park. The fire spread to two nearby 18-wheelers and Port-o-Lets — you haven't lived until you've smelled burning rubber, fiberglass and chemical waste on a 95-degree Texas afternoon — and although two of the four people injured in the explosion had to be airlifted to the Army burn hospital in San Antonio, all were expected to recover. The entire episode was over in less than 20 minutes, and was really the only distraction from the music all weekend. That and persistent rumors that Bono and Bill Clinton might be wandering around, but neither of them ever showed. (The hot couple of ACL '07 was Drew Barrymore and actor/Mac pitchman Justin Long.)
Friday was a minor watershed for ACL, though, the first time dance and techno-based music eclipsed, both in crowd size and quality, the festival's more traditional genres. At the head of the class was M.I.A., whose late-afternoon set was superb. With an infectious personality to match the huge beats of "Bird Flu" and "Bucky Done Gun," she prowled and strutted around the Dell stage like a younger Tina Turner, and had the huge crowd eating out of her hand — especially after inviting a couple hundred people down front to join her onstage during "Boys." (Her DJ draping his turntables with a Mexican flag was a nice touch, too.)
LCD Soundsystem likewise had their crowd grooving with electro-rock hipster favorites like "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House," Paris's Gotan Project provided tango-laced Continental allure, and Blonde Redhead somehow managed to make their über-arty hybrid of noise-rock and lounge-pop hold up under the withering afternoon heat. And although Björk's headlining set was a little chilly for my tastes, her robe-clad choir of singing horn players and Pink Floyd-worthy laser show was easily the most impressive thing I've ever seen at ACL. Of Friday's rockers, Queens of the Stone Age took top honors with a taut, bluesy set, edging out the always-anthemic Killers and garage warhorses Heartless Bastards.
Saturday was even hotter and musically thinner, with Steve Earle and Cold War Kids both not quite hitting the sweet spot the Legendary Soul Stirrers found on "A Change Is Gonna Come." Blue October had the highest number of shirtless dudes so far on hand and almost tied with Queens for heaviest band at the festival; as overwrought as they may be, their songs had no trouble connecting with the same crowd that loved Arctic Monkeys' Blur-meets-Chili Peppers bounce about an hour later. BeauSoleil's chank-a-chank had everyone waltzing happily, Andrew Bird's intricate indie-folk conjured the old country (several, in fact), and Dax Riggs gave Townes Van Zandt's "Lungs" a steamy grunge-blues makeover for the weekend's coolest cover. Muse was simply breathtaking — their melodies and choruses were even grander than their Star Wars stage set.
Sunday began like an indie-rock episode of The Amazing Race: Would an hour be enough time to walk from my friend's Eastside house to the downtown shuttle-bus pickup point, and get to Zilker in time to see the National? Indeed it was, and the much-hyped New York band's folksier take on Joy Division slowcore, each song opening their emotional lens a little wider, was the weekend's unlikeliest crowd-pleaser. Robert Earl Keen, sporting a Rick Rubin starter beard, rallied the ballcap faithful with a sly "Dreadful Selfish Crime" and a Dickey Betts-like "Gringo Honeymoon."
DeVotchKa's unhinged gypsy rock, Gomez frontman Ian Ball's Pavement pop, Charlie Musselwhite's crawling-kingsnake harp mastery, Rose Hill Drive's thundering Zeppelin/Who revival and a plethora of Beatles quotations (Regina Spektor, Ziggy Marley) all came close, but Sunday's coolest moment — even cooler than Wilco unearthing the rowdy "Casino Queen" from 1995's A.M. — was the Paul Green School of Rock All-Stars, Austin high school students swapping instruments and bringing the house down on Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" and Jane's Addiction's "Stop." ACL might pump up Austin's "Live Music Capitol of the World" reputation a little more each year, but it's kids like these who keep the city's musical DNA healthy. Maybe there's something to that whole home-field advantage thing after all. — Chris Gray
I Shall Be Released
Bob Dylan is now nearing 2,000 performances on the "never-ending tour" that supposedly began in 1988, but it's hard to imagine he's played to many crowds larger than Sunday's ACL finale. As the other stages shut down, everyone from cellphone-toting high school kids to grandparents with lawn chairs flocked toward Zilker Park's gigantic AT&T stage where the rock icon, once and future Voice of a Generation, was set to perform.
So it might have come as a shock to some when Dylan launched into "Rainy Day Women" and out came a strange and painful sound. This was way beyond the proverbial frog in the throat — more like an old Delta blues singer who'd just gargled with Sterno. The band, anchored by Austinites Tony Garnier (bass) and Denny Freeman (guitar), began to find its groove on the blues "Watchin' the River Flow." The set list alternated old favorites ("It Ain't Me, Babe," "Tangled Up In Blue") with selections from last year's Modern Times ("Spirit On the Water," "The Levee's Gonna Break").
By the time they got to "Highway 61," another blues number, the band was really locked in the groove and Dylan's voice seemed to be loosening up. Lying on my back on the grass about 300 yards from the stage, I convinced myself that it didn't matter if this was a great show or not. What mattered is that he is still out there doing it, and all these kids will be able to tell their grandchildren that they saw the legendary Bob Dylan in his white straw hat and white-striped trousers — the stage uniform of a road-show trooper.
He encored with, of course, "Like a Rolling Stone." Forty years ago, this song asked a generation that imagined it was breaking loose from all the old rules, "How does it feel?" Now it could be the question one hears at one's 40th high school reunion. "How does it feel?" Well, it hurts. And not just my aching back. My soul hurts, because the world is as fucked up as it ever was and our country is stuck in another war that should never have been started. It's like we — our generation — never learned a goddamn thing. Walking toward the exit, I thought that Dylan, the history buff, might have predicted as much. Human nature does not change. What matters is that the show must go on.
But then Dylan pulled a surprise: For the first time all night, he spoke, introducing the members of the band in his antiquated, carnival-showman's accent. And then he sang one of the most beautiful songs he's ever written, "I Shall Be Released," a prayer for spiritual and psychological liberation from life's inevitable suffering. And suddenly, Dylan's voice didn't sound wrecked anymore — it sounded, well, hopeful. Even more than that, it sounded human; not the voice of a generation, the voice of one man. And I walked out smiling into the night. — Rick Mitchell
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