Bobby Bare Jr / Photo by Chris Gray
Maybe it wasn't such a good idea for Austin City Limits to put acoustic singer-songwriter M. Ward a few hundred yards away from boisterous gypsy-punks Gogol Bordello in the WaMu tent. (On a side not, I guess this year is the WaMu tent's last ACL hurrah. Sponsorship, anyone). Nevertheless, the Portlander's dusky death-blues more than held their own; amazingly enough, Gogol was hardly audible as the well-miced Ward came through loud and clear. Eventually aided by a full band, Ward shone on several cuts from 2006's stellar Post-War, particularly the strummy REM-ish rocker “Right In the Head,” beautiful sad-eyed country ballad “Pieces of a Broken Heart” and fuzz-clouded uplifter “He Was a Good Man.” He can pick like Chet Atkins (or not far off) if he's a mind to, too.
With apologies to the late Charlie Rich, I think it's safe to call David Byrne the Silver Fox now. Byrne's grasp of polyrhythmic African pop is basically everything Vampire Weekend wants to be – but he has been doing it a lot longer – and he knows how to slide in Western styles like rock, funk and soul without the result sounding too much like an episode of public radio's World Cafe. “I Zimbra” went well with the pungent weed aroma around where Rocks Off was sitting, too – the first time I smelled the sticky icky all day, believe it or don't. Still, “One Fine Day” was pretty much stock Byrne, but “Walking the Line” added some greasy Stevie Wonder Innervisions funk and went down much smoother. Byrne's wildly contorting dancers onstage were much more appealing than the hippies doing the same thing in the crowd, I might add.
After “Wasting Away” made me wish Byrne and band would play “Life During Wartime,” he detoured through “Once In a Lifetime” - proving once again even his poppiest stuff is still pretty exotic – and then played “Wartime.” Besides owning the best rock accordion lick of the '80s, the song pointed out one of the cooler things about ACL – it's great fun to watch the totally oblivious ACL crowd totally groove to a song that viciously skewers the middle-class lifestyle. Or it was for about 30 seconds, anyway.
So far the best stage has been the smallest, the BMI stage near the entrance, which is not coincidentally the easiest stage to elbow up front to take a few pictures. Between Byrne and Ward – sorry Jenny Lewis, you're lovely and tiny; I wanted to see you but there were a lot of friends in the media area at the moment – I managed to catch the tail ends of both Bobby Bare Jr. and Ryan Bingham's sets. Bare cut bootstrap alt-country with generous amounts of hard rock and soul, while Bingham was just wrapping up with a vicious solo courtesy of his slide player. I wish I had seen more of both sets, but so it goes at ACL. - Chris Gray