UPDATED: Is ACL Festival Ignoring Houston? Does It Even Matter?
ACL at sunset, 2010
Photo by Marco Torres
UPDATED (Thursday, 2:50 p.m.) to reflect the Houston-area roots of a few ACL performers this year, as pointed out by reader comments. We stand by our original point, though.
As most of our readers no doubt know by now, the Austin City Limits Music Festival announced its 2013 lineup at the stroke of midnight Tuesday. This fall will mark ACL's twelfth edition in Zilker Park on the shores of Town Lake, and its first expanding to two identical weekends: October 4-6 and 11-13.
Looking over this year's lineup, what leaps out first about the headliners is that, perhaps for the first time, the festival seems to consider thirty- and fortysomethings as the absolute upper range of its audience. This year's "heritage acts," what few there really are, all arrived on the scene in the late '70s or early '80s -- Depeche Mode, The Cure, Lionel Richie -- compared to the baby-boomer icons of ACLs past: Al Green, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan.
The other thing that stood out is that, once again, the lineup is utterly lacking in any representation by artists from a most active if not outright thriving music scene barely 150 miles to ACL's east, aka us.
Throughout the festival's 2013 lineup (both weekends), all the way down to the gospel choirs and children's-stage performers, there is not one artist who is either
a native Houstonian, a current resident , or -- to the best of Rocks Off's knowledge, and we ought to know -- has ever lived here for a significant period of time.
This is hardly a new phenomenon, either. This may shock you, but not us: since its first year in 2002, not one prominent Houston-based artist or band has performed at ACL. The only ones who have even been based remotely in the area at the time of their performance were gospel groups the Jones Family Singers (of Bay City), who appear almost annually, and the Mighty Sincere Voices of Navasota.
Admittedly, most of the city's best-known, still-living musical "graduates" -- Rodney Crowell, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jack Ingram, Blue October, Hayes Carll -- have played the festival at least once, but with the exception of Blue October and Carll, all with several years' distance between those artists' Houston years and Zilker Park. By contrast, here are the North Texas acts who have played ACL, most of them still living in either Denton or the Metroplex at the time: Toadies, Midlake, Old 97's, Ben Kweller, Centro-Matic, Brave Combo, Erykah Badu, Sara Hickman, Sarah Jaffe and Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights.
So that's a dozen years now, well north of 1,000 ACL performers in all -- at a rate of roughly 100 acts each year -- and only a handful of artists even with ties to the fourth-largest city in the nation, one that gets bigger every day. That's nobody who lives here (or lived here), and outside maybe Blue October, nobody who could be considered an "emerging" artist.
At face value, that seems to add up to a slight so big it has to be intentional, but that may not necessarily be the case.
One important thing to consider is who exactly puts on ACL. Today C3 Presents is the events behemoth behind ACL and Lollapalooza in both North and South America, but its roots are as a (relatively) humble promoter booking shows at mid-size venues such as Trees and the Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas and Stubb's in Austin. More than a few of the aforementioned North Texans cut their teeth in those rooms, becoming known ticket-selling quantities to the agents and talent buyers in a position to put them in front of ACL audiences. The music business will always be about networking.
By contrast, C3 has never had much of a presence in Houston apart from presenting one-off shows by artists such as David Byrne or Neil Young, and even then once in a very blue moon. Even that has been a relatively recent development as C3 has grown large enough to occasionally challenge the longtime concert gorilla in these parts, Pace/Live Nation. Perhaps a better question is why those promoters didn't explore putting on their own festival somewhere around here, but there are probably a million answers to that one.
Another thing worth considering is that the types of music that ACL Fest tends to book in large quantities -- "adult alternative," indie-rock, jam bands, Americana -- have always been if not specific to Austin, certainly appreciated by audiences in the so-called Live Music Capitol of the World more than almost anywhere else in this part of the country, and certainly more than in Houston. Although the demographics are changing with the recent influx of new residents, Houston has historically preferred its music to be more belligerent and confrontational, and often the work of some fairly drug-addled imaginations.
So as flabbergasting as the thought of ZZ Top's now being bypassed a dozen years in a row is -- or that ACL hasn't somehow lucked into a surprise Beyonce miracle -- it's equally hard to imagine some of our better recent punk or metal bands (Venomous Maximus, Born Liars or Poor Dumb Bastards, say) killing an ACL crowd, except perhaps literally.
By the same token, the thought of unleashing unsettling performers like Indian Jewelry, Z-Ro, Linus Pauling Quartet or Fatal Flying Guilloteens on hippie-dippy Zilker Park is downright laughable. (Roky Erickson of recent ACLs has been serene, almost grandfatherly, not the troubled psych-rock wild man of his youth.) Wild Moccasins, Buxton, Grandfather Child, or the Tontons all could have probably made it these past two or three years, but maybe the stars just didn't line up right. We may never know.
Accordingly, some local artists have found a warmer reception at ACL's "edgier," tattooed younger cousin Fun Fun Fun Fest, which has welcomed Black Congress, Bun B, Devin the Dude, B L A C K I E and Fat Tony in years past. And as little love as has sometimes been lost over the years between the Houston Press and the people behind Free Press Summer Fest, specifically Free Press Houston, we really have no other choice than to salute FPSF for realizing in 2009 that if you want to see a bunch of Houston acts play a big music festival, you might as well start one in Houston.
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