Rick Mitchell Pops His ACL Cherry

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What am I doing here? I haven’t written a concert review in eight years, since I walked out on the Old Gray Lady. Why did I volunteer to spend all day moving, standing and sitting under the hot sun, waiting for Bob Dylan? I sometimes jokingly tell people that I am in recovery from being a music critic, a way of life in which one’s own opinion can serve as an intoxicant. If so, I guess I fell off the wagon

And in that spirit, I made a vow to try to see as many acts that I’d never seen before – and in some cases, never heard of – rather than sticking with the known quantities. Not counting Dylan (reviewed elsewhere), I caught parts of 24 sets. What’s cool about the ACL festival is that you have quintessentially Texas/Americana acts like Robert Earl Keen and Lucinda Williams at one end of the park, and modern rock favorites Ben Kweller, Bloc Party and My Morning Jacket at the other end, and both play to huge crowds. That’s Austin for you. The other thing that’s Austin for you is that the crowd, while very diverse in terms of age, was overwhelmingly white. I couldn’t help but wonder what the Starbucks-endorsed, college-rated rapper Common must have thought when he looked out at the sea of pale faces in front of him. “Cha-ching!” maybe?

Here are some comments on those sets where I stayed long enough to venture an opinion.

Ryan Shaw, the first act I saw after coming through the gate at 1 pm, sings kind of like Michael Jackson covering Wilson Pickett and looks kind of like the young Al Green with dreadlocks. He grew up singing in church, and carries that gospel fervor with him into the secular music game. His debut album channels the mid-60s Motown sock-hop flavor of Little Stevie and Junior Walker with 80s/90s bubblegum pop-soul production. As a gimmick, it might work. But he deserves better. The highlight of his set was a transcendent reading of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” that altered the lyrics just enough to turn it into a hymn.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is one of those acts that not only had I not heard, I’d never heard of. They played on the WAMU stage, which doubles as a gospel tent early in the day. Potter, who hails from New England, plays Hammond B-3 and electric piano and sings in an air-raid siren of a voice. Like Susan Tedeschi, Joss Stone, and pretty much every other white soul shouter to come down the road in the past three decades, she draws comparisons to Bonnie Raitt and Janis Joplin. But the reference point I homed on is Joy of Cooking, the female-fronted, Texas-based funk-rock band that has been pretty much forgotten by all but a few diehards in the women’s music movement. The other reference point is Marc Broussard, the Louisiana-based white soul singer who is bringing this music – classic soul and R&B – to a new generation raised on alt-rock and hip-hop.

In the mid-1960s, Charlie Musselwhite was among the first young white blues musicians to gain street credibility in the black blues world of Southside Chicago. He also has a connection to Dylan, in that they both play the harmonica – though Musselwhite plays it with considerably more chops – and they shared a guitar player, Mike Bloomfield, for a time. Now in his late 60s, and looking every minute of it, Musselwhite is the epitome of a blues journeyman. Backed by a road-tight band, his set had an authenticity and integrity no younger act (black or white, see above) could really contest at this point.

The last time I saw Wilco, they were playing at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, supporting the band’s first solo album after the Uncle Tupelo split. Now Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is both an alt-country founding father and an indie-rock hero to a 30-something generation of music critics. The band has a following, but I doubt they’ve played to too many crowds as big as this one. Again, only in Austin, where the worlds of rock and country have been cooperating outdoors since Willie’s first picnic. The key to Wilco’s current sound is the tension between Tweedy’s bucolic melodies and wistful singing and Nels Cline’s guitar playing, in which his avant-noise tendencies are always threatening to seep through the pretty melodies. Even had Jack White not cancelled Saturday night, and with all due respect to all the other rock, blues and country axe-pickers assembled over three days, no guitarist in modern music is doing anything more innovative than Cline right now. You just don’t notice it, because it is so subtle compared to, say, My Morning Jacket.

Speaking of which, what was the deal with the Johnny Winter wig and the girls holding pineapples? Uh, oh. I am starting to feel that old intoxicating critic’s buzz that comes from telling people the music they like actually sucks. Better get me back to rehab, no, no, no…

One more thing. As a first-time ACL-goer, I was very impressed with the efficiency of the city-run operation. I parked downtown for $5 in a garage at noon and got right on the Metro shuttle bus. I left immediately after the show at 10:15 pm, got back on the bus with little wait and was back at my car by 10:30 p.m. I couldn’t help but compare it to the waits I used to endure at the Houston Rodeo, or the mess that typically ensues at the close of Jazzfest in New Orleans every day. As we now know, Houston and New Orleans are not so good at getting people out… -- Rick Mitchell

Click here for a slideshow of the action.

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