This Thursday night, Rocks Off leaves for the 2011 Austin City Limits Music Festival at Austin's Zilker Park. This year promises to be a hot one, from the killer temperatures, the constant wildfires just miles from the venue, and the mouth of Friday's Bud Light stage headliner Kanye West. (Come on, man, give us something fun to write about.)
After covering the festival every year since 2007, we have developed a trusted theory. The ACL line-up very much starts shaping up right around SXSW in March, after the buzzy bands start making waves in town, telegraphing a probable ACL encore in the fall. According to a Texas Tribune/New York Times article this past Sunday, headliners are scheduled up to a year in advance, and the rest are filled in according to buzziness.
Faith in those breaking bands helps ensure that each year's festival will sell out, which it usually does before the lineup is even announced, and that there will be a wealth of talent on each stage for eight hours.
So each year, the most fun is scouting which bands will see a marked rise before the next year, and move up the food chain and headline, or at least play later in the day at their next ACL appearance.
Notable bands that have made that magnum leap in the past include Kings of Leon, TV On The Radio, Phoenix, The Black Keys, My Morning Jacket and The National. Each began playing to fervent and passionate smaller crowds and as the years passed, blossomed into major acts whose names are legible on the ACL lineup card without a magnifying glass.
The list of bands that sort of fell off the radar is even longer, and littered with indie bands that burned bright with hype from March until October of the calendar, only to fade into lower-mid-level obscurity by the time the grass at Zilker recovered from the thousands of feet trampling it.
The crop in 2011 isn't as bountiful as in previous years, but we can at least handicap who and what we think will go massive this year, provided a band stays radar-friendly, promotes itself, and doesn't disappear into obscurity between now and next year. Sorry, but a song about shoes doesn't foster a career, people.
5. Cults: Rocks Off fell in love with the debut by Manhattan's Cults a few weeks back, in defiance of our own strict "No Indie Hype" rule - which can't be that stringent seeing that a year ago we were begging for a Die Antwoord ACL berth. These Cults though marry the Shangri-Las with Jesus & Mary Chain and a strange Asian undercurrent, making something you would hear in your favorite Chinese dive restaurant. We could definitely see them coming back in a later slot next year; this year they play 11:45 a.m. Friday. (Houstonians not making the ACL trek this year can see them open for Foster the People at House of Blues Friday, but better get those tickets fast.)
4. Gary Clark Jr.: We really, really want this young Austin bluesman to get huge this year. If the Black Keys and techno can come back, why can't house-burning blues? There is a reality in his music that is missing right now, and we don't mean lyrically. (Clark plays 100 percent free Thursday evening at Discovery Green.)
3. Reptar: To be clear, this list isn't completely about our favorites, because we are sick of things like Reptar, after nearly four years of being fed Vampire Weekend. That doesn't mean we can't see this band getting much love this next year. Reptar returns to Houston November 10 at Fitzgerald's.
Simply put, kids love this shit, and it sounds like everything else right now. Rich, white kids who spend money. Labels are going to start sifting for bands that name check the Rapture and Kuti now the way that they looked for Sabbath and Nirvana creds in the '90s. Personally, we can hear an early Chili Peppers thing here, but for now it's nothing for us to dig into any further. Give us another year and another album, and maybe we will get off the hate train. Maybe.
Smith Westerns: As faceless as most of the indie stuff is now, at least Chicago's Smith Westerns have memorable songs like "Weekend" and whatnot. But is their sound big enough to captivate a large non-European festival crowd? We'll see. For now, enjoy the Jeff Lynne/T. Rex vibe.
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Young the Giant Opening for Incubus (The Woodlands, September 30) and Kings of Leon (God knows when they'll be back around here) will more than likely do wonders for Young The Giant, formerly known as the Jakes. Imagine a woozy, introspective Strokes that can also feed the Jack Johnson crowd, and you have a great dish to serve a festival crowd, with just enough mystery and warble in the lyrics to feign weirdness. "Cough Syrup" is a great senior-year mixtape cut.