ACL is pretty fun. Despite the anti-hip-hop bookings, the beguiling focus on folk, the heat, the dirt, the elbows, and, of course, all the fucking people, everyone ends up having a good time. Even in the central Texas scorch. Three–day festivals are always wild experiments in short term insanity, but you have to take the bad with the good, and the good for ACL includes people like Kanye West and Stevie Wonder. Not bad. I give you Prefix’s guide to the Austin City Limits weekend.
For most, and by most I mean people who read blogs or listen to Urban Outfitters MP3s, the festival will begin with Cults at 11:45 on the Honda stage. If you find their charmed, dewy-eyed indie pop as beatific as the hype claims, there really ain’t much to lose with the Cults live experience. Their rambunctiously playful little tunes aren’t the type to be sabotaged by the midday sun; basically it’s just up to you to get out of bed and hope the ticket line is reasonable. Considering that sort of thing is traditionally a fiasco, you oughta get there early if their 40-minute set is important to you.
After that you’ve got the choice for An Horse, a band that seems gets their name written on bills but never in blogs, and Reptar, a hyperactive electropop group in the exact way anybody taking their name from a Rugrats character has to be a hyperactive electropop group. If that doesn’t suit your fancy, the Secret Sisters are all the way over on the Google+ stage – they’re responsible for some delectably sturdy country-folk, which isn’t the sort of thing that gets written about too much at Prefix. They can be soft, they can be sexy, they can be idyllic, nurturing, southern and slightly inebriated. But mostly, they can be pitch-perfect on almost all occasions. Generally that’s what you want out of a traditionalist roots duo.
Then there’s Fool’s Gold doing their shockingly idiosyncratic thing over at the Austin Ventures starting at 2:30. The only really notable thing they’re facing up against is Delta Spirit, which, chances are, won’t be much for competition. James Blake and Smith Westerns follow, and just based on how ubiquitous Smith Westerns have become after a solid couple of months touring the still-pretty-fun Dye it Blonde, I think most people would prefer rolling the dice with James. Having seen the dude weave a quiet thunderstorm in a hush-fallen church, and also get his mix blown out by Neko Case, it’s fair to say a festival date with Mr. Blake certainly isn’t a riskless move. But I think ACL is a big enough festival that it won’t be too much of a problem. You’ll still have to deal with the sun interrupting his incredibly nocturnal tunes, though.
Another tour-monster Big Boi is set for 4:30, and if you have a remote interest in seeing Big Boi and you somehow haven’t caught him yet, you clearly haven’t been paying enough attention. The guy has been literally everywhere, from festival-sets, to college campuses, to corporate after-parties. I mean, it’s not to say his sets aren’t good, if you are one of the few that hasn’t caught him, expect a bunch of Outkast songs, a few Sir Luscious Left Foot joints, and a bunch of empty, Andre-shaped holes in your heart. For everyone else, go see Kurt Vile, for those of you who haven’t read a music blog since 2004, go see Cold War Kids.
I’ll be honest with you; at this point I’m just going to wait for Kanye. Frankly, watching Bright Eyes work through their flavorless new record or hearing a bunch of kids go nuts for “Pumped Up Kicks” doesn’t quite stimulate in the same way hearing “Power” get knocked out of the park might. The big question is how much Coldplay will sap from the Kanye crowd; personally I think it’s more than you might think. A shame Chris Martin will be too busy playing a set to sing “Homecoming.” I expect a 60/40 split in favor of Coldplay simply because Austin has a stigma of being a tad rap-phobic, so that means I’d start heading to the Bud Light stage right around 6:30. But frankly, it all depends on how devoted the Kanye kids are. I remember at Lollapalooza last year seeing a ton of kids streak up to the main-stage only to plop their asses down for the 7 hour wait till Gaga’s set. It probably won’t be that severe, but you never know, he’s definitely the one rapper whose truly crossed over rockist boundaries.
Day 2 begins with Telekinesis, a Seattle pop-rock songwriter-project that put out a perfectly inconsequential record earlier this year. They go on at 11:45, but given the Day 2 blues, after-party hangovers, and the fact that parking will probably be even worse, I doubt many people are going to make it out, which is a shame; they have at least two good songs.
After that you’ve got a split on either ends of the schedule, with The Antlers taking over the AMD stage and Aloe “I Need a Dollar” Blacc storming Bud Light. I’m not a betting man but I’m pretty sure if you’re reading this you’ll be over at The Antlers, and I can’t really argue with that. They’ve got two beautiful LPs and a lot of emotional gravitas. I can say that weepy, ascendant, slow-motion art rock doesn’t really do much at 12:30 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, traditionalist R&B about economic hardship, addiction, and no-good women, is crowd-music no matter the time. I’ve never seen The Antlers, so I don’t know – but they certainly seem like more of a record-band. I’m hedging that they’ll be the more interesting act, while Aloe is the most fun.
Twin Shadow’s 45-minute set isn’t going up against anything too exciting, so he’s an easy claim for 1:15, but he’s also been touring with lucrative abandon. I can personally guarantee the second time you see him won’t differ much from the first, so consider it lunchbreak potential. After that you’ve got Phosphorescent and Young the Giant, I don’t know much about Young the Giant but I know plenty that Phosphorescent has been one of the most dependable folkie collectives accepted by the indie kids. They’ll be good; because I’m pretty sure they’ve forgotten how to be bad.
Now you’ve got yourself a solid hour-long gap for shade-time, shit-talk, and burger-shoveling. You know, usual festival downtime. Honestly I’d get some food and go park it near either Iron & Wine, Abigail Washburn, or Alison Krauss – all three go on at 5 p.m., and all three will make that awful sandwich you have in your hands go down smoother. Iron & Wine could practically be a headliner for the sort of crowd ACL brings, so if you don’t want to deal with density, go with Washburn. She writes great songs, and, like a lot of great old-time embracers, doesn’t beat around the bush with her M.O. That means coppered violin textures, wheelbarrow atmosphere, and her own heartened voice. Good picnic music, if you will.
At this point the sun should be flirting with the horizon. You can go see Skrillex if you hate yourself, but naturally, most will be drawn to the Cut Copy stage. Now, if you haven’t seen Cut Copy more than twice, it’s a pretty easy sell. Their ridiculously bouncy electropop is a practical body-high live, especially with a sunset’s backdrop. Then again, if you’re one of the many who has seen Cut Copy more than twice, you might be better off with Cee-Lo and Gillian Welch. Cut Copy have just announced yet another string of dates, and you just know the three minutes of “Fuck You” will make Cee-Lo’s set totally worth it. This is one of those festival-bottlenecks where there really isn’t a right answer.
I don’t know if it’s me, but every time I catch TV on the Radio there’s been some sort of sound issue –it’s probably because every time I see them I’m about a hundred yards to the right during a late-afternoon festival set or in a sweaty SXSW corridor. As someone who’s never really understood Chromeo’s appeal, securing a good spot for TVoTR seems like the obvious thing to do. To the majority of folks that perfectly understand Chromeo’s appeal, you probably don’t need commentary to understand why their live-show is pretty good. Then there’s Stevie Wonder, and I don’t think any act could put up much of a fight to the interest around his headliner slot. Nothing against My Morning Jacket, but they’ve been on the road forever; the same can’t be said for Stevie Wonder. Relevancy doesn’t matter in this situation, this is just careful deduction. A Louiseville southern-rock band with a lot of fans and a lot of sports-arenas to play, or a 61-year old legend that, while not releasing great material and vouching for the Jonas Brothers, has enough great songs to fill that hour-and-a-half slot twice over – I’m rolling with Stevie at the end of the night. Luckily for you, most of the youngsters will spend their evening with Jim James.
You honestly don’t have to show up till around 2 p.m.. I know that’s an awful thing to say, but in this case its kinda true. Okay, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. are playing a set starting at 1:30, but they’re not really the sort of band you show up early for. The Walkmen on the other hand, are exactly the sort of band you show up early for. Decaying, pavement-washed, alleyway-rock isn’t always a slam dunk in the mid-afternoon, but I’ve never been disappointed with a Walkmen festival set. The bouncier, fleet-footed tracks from Lisbon make for a romantic high-noon. Try grabbing your potential significant other’s hand during “Juveniles” and make sure to let go of it during “The Rat.”
As much as I want to spend the next hour booing Chiddy Bang, I’ll end up waiting around for a heavily truncated Broken Social Scene set. The last time I saw them they played for 3 hours, seemingly never running out of hits. I expect that to be packed even tightly together for the hour they’re signed up for. And Kevin Drew might not even by drunk yet. Afterwards there’s the balmy, intimate fidelity of the perennially-underrated Elbow, or the rawks-off earthquake-punk from Death From Above 1979. If you’re down with both ends of that spectrum equally, go see Elbow, they’ve got the deeper catalog and they don’t make it stateside too often. And frankly, it doesn’t seem like this DFA ‘reunion’ tour is ending any time soon.
Fleet Foxes at 6:30 seems like a no-brainer, but honestly, after three separate experiences with the band, it seems like they can’t help but be really, really boring. Good records and all, but standing in a field listening to harmonies doesn’t hold attention for as long as they’d probably hope. The concept of a Fleet Foxes live show is a lot better than the practice, especially at the tail end of a weary weekend. Instead, there’s the option of a sandwich and whatever disaster the Randy Newman set will be, after being thoroughly disappointed, go grab a spot for Arcade Fire.
It should be said, that no matter how tired your feet are, or the bad taste left in your mouth by Arcade Fire’s skyrocketed notoriety, you’d best stick around for their set. I don’t care how many times you’ve seen them, or how passé you may think their music is – they set out with the goal of crafting a spiritual experience night after night. That’s generally why we pay money to see live music, to have some sort of spiritual experience. “Wake Up” might be corny, but in a field with thousands of people, it’s a feeling you’ll spend your entire life trying to get back.
Apart from all that, it’s nice just to get wrapped up in Austin. It’s a great city to see bands, but it’s also a great city to eat food, to drink coffee, to take walks – it’s full to the brim with diversions. The unparalleled craziness of ACL might put things in fast-forward, but if you get a second to escape away from all the noise, there’s plenty within the city limits to keep you occupied.
Oh, and a local’s note, Kerbey Lane is open 24 hours and their pancakes are boss.
Check back during the weekend for our interview series from ACL!