Before we start discussing the great music we heard yesterday, we would like to take time to thank the Gods Of Rock for blessing Day One of the Austin City Limits Festival (ACL) 2009 with an amazing afternoon and evening of weather. Anyone who has partaken of this three-day jaunt in the Texas sun in past years can relate horror stories filled with 100-degree-plus heat and rolling dust storms that, for some of Aftermath's friends, occasionally ruined the music for them. Not so, dear reader: on this fine day, temperatures rarely touched 80 degrees (though the sun shone ever so brightly), there was just the right amount of cloud cover, and a breeze blew across our face on a regular basis. It was damn near a perfect set-up for an outdoor festival.
Oh yes - the music, the reason you're reading this post and the reason we drove to Austin in the first place. We began the day on the east side of Zilker Park at the Livestrong Stage (yes, Lance Armstrong's foundation is an ACL sponsor) for School Of Seven Bells. This Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas trio spent the better part of an hour weaving together a dense droning blanket of shoegaze-friendly electro-pop that conjured up images of Annie Lennox collaborating with Bauhaus and early Depeche Mode. Aftermath had two concerns with this band's set: 1) its icy, cold synth tones didn't quite match up with the wonderful sunshine under which we all stood and 2) while the deep, resonant bass-heavy samples carried well across the festival grounds, there were instances when the group's fuzzed-out guitar work faded out into the atmosphere (as opposed to bounding over us as they would in a club setting). Then again, when you pare the pristine harmonies created the Deheza twins against some dance-ready '80s pop, we'll enjoy the music, no matter the environs.
From there, we ambled over to the Dell Stage for Blitzen Trapper. We've heard and read people compare this Portland sextet's sound to The Grateful Dead, Wilco, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but we're more than happy ignoring those people and enjoying the band's brand of ramshackle country-folk for what it is. Unfortunately, at least to our ears, the group had to contend with a few sound concerns during the first third of its set, muffling and distorting the Laurel-Canyon-meets-psychedelic-folk sounds the crowd was there to hear. Thankfully, by the time the hour was over, the problems had been rectified in time for the band to whip through a few raucous country jams and some introspective folk ballads, much to the delight of those people singing along and dancing.
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Aftermath still hadn't sated our craving for new-school Americana, so we wandered over to the AMD Stage for the indie-fied rocking bluegrass of The Avett Brothers. These three gentlemen (two of whom are actually the Avett brothers) blazed through a collection of fun, rambunctious tunes that meshed together dirty outlaw county with punk fervor and aspects of Southern hardcore. Like many artists influenced by the music of Appalachia and The South, the band's lyrics are steeped in life, love, loss, and religious imagery, but there's nothing heavy-handed or overly preachy to be heard. Standing tall upon the accolades given its new record, I And Love And You, these passionate performers kept our attention throughout their stellar, engaging show. Then again, no matter how serious or sincere the material, when there's a gaggle of hipsters decked out in Ray Bans and copious neon dancing nearby, everything quickly turns into a comedic spectacle.
We were quite excited to hear Phoenix cross the Atlantic to wow us with their highly catchy, expressive brand of silky smooth pop music, but it seems that Thomas Mars and his compatriots were even more excited than the crowd to be at ACL Fest. Over and over again, Mars' energy overflowed onto the rest of the band and then out amongst the people, creating an environment at the AMD Stage that was more akin to a celebration of all that is good and holy in music than a traditional rock concert. Yes, this Paris-based group knows how to construct gloriously bright, clean, sun-drenched pop music (complete with synth-laden hooks, pristine syncopated post-punk drumming, and crystal-clear vocals), but Aftermath completely underestimated how much Phoenix really wanted this show to be a roaring success. Every possible stop was pulled out at every possible opportunity and the crowd ate it up; and when the band broke out tracks like "Lisztomania," "Fences," and "1901" from this year's critically acclaimed Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, we all went nuts with glee. The music of Saturday and Sunday will be hard-pressed to top this performance from Phoenix.
Unfortunately for K'Naan, we saw his at The Wildflower Center Stage set right after we left Phoenix; thus, despite how much verve, swing, and swagger this Canadian-based Somali refugee might have worked up for us, it didn't compare to what we had just experienced. That being said, the people who showed up for this show were quite excited to be there, with the attendees ranging from college-aged bros and sorority girls to 40-something dads and soccer moms (with the occasional hipster mixed in for flavor). K'Naan himself possessed a solid flow to his lyrical style, while his music was a mix of '90s hip-hop, soul, and reggae-infused world beat. Moreover, if it's possible for an artist to be militant about his positive outlook on life, K'Naan achieved it via the flood of good energy and vibes flowing from the stage and into a crowd eager to receive them and sing along with this confident very MC. Aftermath was quite amazed to see a few hundred beached-out dudes and hippie chicks openly moving their arms around in the space above their heads, as if they didn't have any concerns in the world.
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At this point, Aftermath decided to return to the AMD Stage to enjoy the dulcet baritone utterances of John Legend wash over our ears. Opening with a relaxed cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," Legend immediately jumped in a rollicking, up-tempo set that further proves that Motown still exists, even if that legacy is contained within one man. Gospel roots met with sexy '60s soul rave-ups and slinky '70s funk grooves to create somewhat of a party atmosphere, but it all came back to Legend's crooning and the screams of the adoring women hanging on his every note. He has this sexy poise about him that never drifts into cockiness, a showman who never feels the need to go over the top to connect with his audience. The icing on the cake for this set was hearing the outstanding backing band showcase Legend's voice and songwriting acumen while still taking pride in its own work and talent level.
To end our evening, we joined with tens of thousands of other ACL Fest 2009 attendees to watch one of the more anticipated "new" acts of the year work its magic. When Them Crooked Vultures walked onto the Xbox 360 Stage, the crowd just about peed on itself with excitement. For those of you not quite in the know, this little outfit is the brainchild of Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters on drums, Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age on guitar and vocals, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin on bass and keys. And as opposed to other presupposed "super-group" receiving attention this year (yes, I'm poking fun at you, Monsters Of Folk), we were more than interested in just what might come of this. Rest assured, our fears were allayed and our ears were certainly piqued when the guys ran through an hour's worth of all-original, hard-rocking material that reminded us how great of a drummer Grohl is (and always was) and how underappreciated John Paul Jones is in terms of the mythology of Led Zeppelin. Them Crooked Vultures, at least on this night to this music fan, doesn't appear to be about a bunch of friends hanging out and having a good time playing music together; there's a tangible urgency to these songs that gives this group a credence that other musical arrangements of this nature often severely lack.
Suffice to say, Aftermath had a great day traversing the grassy knolls of Zilker Park for Day One of Austin City Limits Fest 2009. Who knows what Saturday and Sunday might hold for us?