So, what happens to freshly laid grass in a public park after a day full of rain and thousands of people walking back and forth across it at the same time? Well, as anyone who was present for Day Three of Austin City Limits Festival 2009 (ACL) could tell you, it turns into a big muddy, stinking, sloppy mess, one with the power to swallow shoes and small children whole. The stories from this day will mostly revolve around how people were able to survive the conditions at Zilker Park without becoming a drunken bog monster, but Aftermath braved it all (including the projected 80 percent chance of rain, which thankfully never showed up), because the music is just that damn important.
Our day began at the Austin Ventures stage where we enjoyed the sounds of David Garza. It's been awhile since we've had the opportunity to hear this long-standing Austin singer-songwriter ply his trade, and it was nice to hear that he hasn't lost any of his chops. His 40-minute set featured an energetic version of soulful pop-rock that was laced with Latin flavors and Texas blues, and was an overall good fit for the tempo, feel, and mood of ACL. At one point, Garza looked out across the mud pit that passed for the grass where the crowd was eating up his music to declare, "Thanks for joining me here today. This is the coolest stage at the festival, even if we don't have the crazy big screen."
From there, we safely (meaning no spills, stutters, or drops) to the AMD Stage to get a little crazy with the kings and queens of camp - The B-52's. The '80s new wave band beloved by every karaoke DJ and performer wasted no time getting the crowd excited by quickly breaking out "Mesopotamia" and "Private Idaho." Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson were looking especially fabulous in a royal blue gown and teal go-go-stlyed dress, respectively, while Fred Schneider was decked out like a mod rocker with his black attire and silver high-top sneakers. The crowd was a good mix of 40-somethings reliving their youth (and their children) and 20-somethings familiar with the songs primarily because "Best of the '80s and More" radio stations. The band itself seemed to be having a great time together on stage, and that mood was matched by that of the eagerly dancing crowd, despite the thick mud all around. Schneider elicited a big smile from Aftermath when he shouted out, "Here's one we learned at karaoke," right before the group launched headlong into "Love Shack." Toss in "Roam," "Hot Corner," and "Rock Lobster," and you've got a concert packed to the gills with great songs and a great atmosphere.
Aftermath has a close friend who firmly believes that there are whole legions of bands, both signed and underground, from the past 25 years that all owe their existence to "Blue Monday" by New Order. Hailing from the United Kingdom, White Lies is certainly one of those acts, but these gents rise above many of their competitors by making music that sounds fresh, vital, and original, and not some sort of hackneyed copycat. It's true that the band is painting from the same palette as Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and Bloc Party, in terms of rehashing early '80s post-punk into a workable form for this decade, but it's difficult to ignore any band that placed big, soaring tenor vocals over just the right amount of the typical British penchant for rainy, gloomy melodrama. We really dug this act's electric energy and how it balanced its sound carefully between the flashy sheen of Brit-pop and the dark dreariness of post-punk, but we do wonder how much longer this style of music might be sustainable and still relevant.
After departing the White Lies show at the Xbox 360 stage, we safely passed through the crowded, sloppy eating area to The Wildflower Center so that we could hopefully learn something about Ben Sollee. What followed was an enjoyable performance from a fresh-faced young gentleman with an expressive voice and over 20 years of formal training as a cellist, along with two associates, one on violin and the other on drums. Sollee's sound is most certainly influenced by the bluegrass of his Kentucky/Appalachian roots, but he's primarily a folk-pop singer-songwriter in the vein of Amos Less or Ray LaMontagne (but on the happier side of the spectrum). On the whole, it was refreshing to see this performer so excited and happy to be playing for people, and it didn't hurt that the crowd seemed to really be getting into his songs.
Much like Grizzly Bear on Saturday, Aftermath was quite curious how the quirky, Talking Heads-esque, avant-pop music of Dirty Projectors would come across at such a large festival like ACL. And much like Grizzly Bear on Saturday, Aftermath was impressed by how effectively and powerfully Dave Longstreth and Company projected their music upon the assembled crowd. Backed up by three lovely female vocalists, one of whom also played guitar and possessed a tremendous, almost R&B-flavored voice, and another of whom could be seen playing guitar, bass, or synth at any given time, Longstreth's own considerable guitar chops and affection for delectably left-of-center poppy world-beat melodies were consistently on display.
The band led off its set at the Dell Stage with "Knotty Pine" (its contribution to the Dark Was The Night compilation), but most of its time on stage was spent performing a good chunk of its critically acclaimed 2009 release Bitte Orca (including "Temecula Sunrise" and "Stillness Is The Move), though time was given to a couple of freaked-out psych-pop numbers from Rise Above. Thus, if you choose to disdain the group merely because of the praise heaped upon it by the hipster and/or indie rock communities, you're the one missing out on hearing the music of an outstanding, skilled group of artists.
Since the east field at Zilker Park seemed like the place to be (mostly because Pearl Jam would be performing there later that night to close out the festival), we decided to partake of the music from Jack White's newest musical vehicle, The Dead Weather, as it performed on the Livestrong Stage. Say what you will about White's near ubiquity as musical juggernaut, it's hard to fault the man's taste in collaborators, from his buddies in The Raconteurs and his album of duets with Loretta Lynn, to the devilishly sexy Allison Mosshart of The Kills here with The Dead Weather. Toss in the searing guitar work of Dean Fertita (Queens Of The Stone Age) and the steady bass presence of Jack Lawrence (who teams with White in The Raconteurs), and we had ourselves an amazing hour of ghostly, eerie, gospel-meets-dirty-Delta-blues rock. Just like the other "supergroup" at ACL, Them Crooked Vultures, this quartet is most certainly a cohesive unit, one able to cook up an aggressive batch of songs that are equal parts dark psychedelic stoner rock, neo-classic blues, and hard rock grit. Aftermath just might have found the house band in the Church Of Rock.
Our friend with lots of theories regarding the state of popular music and he firmly believes that Michael Franti & Spearhead are the ultimate band for Democracy Now! He says this with all due respect for Franti, a man whose earlier work as part of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopricy he counts as supremely influential for his own music. What he's trying to say is this: Franti's intelligent and passionate blend of politics, world music, hip-hop, and funky roots rock is engaging, accessible, and fun, but oh so compelling in tone and feel.
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From the outset of his time on the Dell Stage, this gentleman had the crowd rocking and rolling with a heavy blend of rock, hip-hop, and reggae, complete with rapid-fire toasting. Moreover, his backing band knew how set an impressively smooth groove, sustain in, and let it build to a rousing climax, all while Franti and the crowd were feeding off each other's energy. Franti himself was relentless, running around the stage constantly, all while singing, playing guitar, and working the crowd into a fine frenzy. Truly, this was a nearly non-stop hour of great music and positive vibes from a talented showman who ably displayed his belief that "everyone deserves music, sweet music."
Honestly, it was hard for Aftermath to be anything remotely close to objective about seeing Pearl Jam close out ACL. After all, this was one of the first groups we discovered on our own as a young whippersnapper in middle school (courtesy of our friend's cassette tape), and Eddie Vedder's voice sang to us nightly through the little speakers on our tiny red tape deck all throughout high school. So, when we tell you that we were a little more than excited to see Pearl Jam play live for the first time ever, we hope that you forgive us for gushing a bit. The crowd itself was an extra band member on this night, whether we were belting out the lyrics to "Why Go," "Evenflow," Daughter," or "Do The Evolution" with abandon, or playing furious air guitar along with Stone Gossard and Mike McCready.
At one point, upon disclosing that he had been up until 8:30 a.m. that morning solving the world's problems with Ben Harper, Vedder brings out Harper to riff with the band a bit, much to the delight of the two overly enthusiastic bros standing right next to us. Soon afterward though, our own enthusiasm skyrocketed as the first notes of "Alive" leapt from the stage, and we quickly reverted to our high school selves, driving around our home town with the windows down, singing our heart out at the top of our lungs. To top it all off, the band returned to the stage for a short encore accompanied by Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction, who led Pearl Jam in a rousing rendition of "Coming Down The Mountain," before Vedder took back the mic as the band closed out the night with "Keep On Rocking In The Free World."
So, despite the unfortunate conditions that threatened to ruin Days Two and Three, Aftermath left Austin City Limits quite pleased with ourselves, both in terms of our relative productivity and how much we enjoyed the music as a whole. So, we'll raise a Lone Star tallboy or four to you, Austin, TX, and to the brave and hardy (read: possibly crazy and insane) souls who joyfully danced in the rain and gladly tromped through the mud, all because you enjoy great live music.