By Kimberly Selway
Austin, Texas, is known for a few things. As well as being the state capital, Austin is home to stiflingly hot summers and the University of Texas, adding over 50,000 students to the city’s 700,000-person population.
What surprises many is Austin’s position as one of the prominent music cities in the United States. Known as the “live music capital of the world,” the city has more live music venues than New York City, Memphis or Nashville. Every September, the Austin City Limits Music Festival combines performances from over 130 bands in a three-day, eight stage production attended by over 65,000 people. The festival was created by the same individuals who are responsible for “Austin City Limits” on PBS, which celebrated 30 years of broadcasting in 2006.
This year’s festival attracted a great deal of attention and anticipation with Bob Dylan, BjÃ¶rk and The Killers headlining. But sadly, with Amy Winehouse ironically ending up in rehab and Meg White of The White Stripes coming down with “acute anxiety,” their performances were cancelled. While ACL is known for supporting local musicians, this year’s performances highlighted the impact of European bands, particularly from the United Kingdom.
Day 1: Friday, Sept. 14
While an afternoon fire threatened to dampen the atmosphere on the first day of the festival, spirits were still high as the first bands took the stage.
Swedish rockers Peter Bjorn and John’s early afternoon performance set the tone for the rest of the day. After managing to keep the crowd going in the intense heat with catchy tunes from their third album “Writer’s Block,” the band launched into its 2006 hit “Young Folks.” While the band is primarily known for “Young Folks,” it proved that two straight years of touring have paid off by winning a new legion of fans.
Following New York rockers Blonde Redhead, British soul singer Joss Stone took to the main stage during the hottest part of the day. Traipsing around the stage barefoot with her signature purple/maroon hair, Stone worked the crowd like a seasoned veteran as she went through a sampling of her discography including “Super Duper Love (Are You Diggin’ On Me)” from her first album, as well as the more recent “You Had Me.” While the crowds at other stages were dwindling in the heat, the crowd at the main stage was energized by her performance, and it was obvious that Stone was having fun as well. Regardless of any quips about her age, Stone’s performance silenced a lot of her critics during her hour-long set.
The day’s highlights came in the early evening as dance-punk outfit LCD Soundsystem and Sri Lankan alt-rapper M.I.A. played concurrent sets on the two largest stages. LCD Soundsystem had the entire crowd dancing with the more notable “Daft Punk is Playing in My House,” as well as the Bowie-inspired “Get Innocuous.” While the band’s studio recordings sound incredibly busy and have real depth, the full band performance on Friday took that a step further as the crowd moved with the beats throughout their set.
Meanwhile, M.I.A.’s performance across the festival had a similar effect. Much like LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A.’s studio records have a lot going on in them, making it hard to imagine how she had planned to translate the same sound and overall vibe into a live performance. Launching into a remix of the track “20 Dollar” from her latest album “Kala,” M.I.A. proved that there was room in ACL for hip-hop. Many of the topics in her songs deal with heavy subjects like civil unrest and cultural autonomy, but the crowd danced along. At the end of her set, M.I.A. managed to bypass security as over 100 fans made it up onto the stage.
The Killers took the second-to-last slot of the night, and while there was a great deal of excitement surrounding their performance, the entire crowd seemed to be comprised of 15-to-24-year-olds. Lead singer Brandon Flowers is an engaging front-man and kept the crowd enraptured throughout their set. After going through tracks from their 2004 album “Hot Fuss” as well as the more recent “Sam’s Town,” the entire crowd sang along to “All These Things that I’ve Done.” Overall, The Killers provided an effervescent set that really got the crowd going.
Closing the first day of the festival, BjÃ¶rk’s performance was, well, interesting. But who would expect anything less? Her vocal style involves a lot of screeching and a lot of what she sings is hard to understand. However, no one can deny that she’s an incredibly visual performer and the die-hard BjÃ¶rk fans were obviously enthralled.
Day 2: Saturday, Sept. 15
Starting off the second day of the festival, Scottish singer Paolo Nutini’s set provided an acoustic vibe to ease everyone into another full day of performances. Managing to squeak out about a dozen tracks from his 2006 release “These Streets,” Nutini managed to keep the crowd engaged even though most of them were waiting to hear his hit “New Shoes” which had garnered a lot of radio airplay in recent months. The 20-year-old has an interesting performance style, leaning over at a 90-degree angle while he’s without his guitar. None the less, the crowd moved along to his performance. Overall, his set was a successful endeavor.
British alt-rockers the Arctic Monkeys took to the stage at 6:30 p.m., just as the sun was setting and the day was starting to cool down. After all the hype surrounding both their albums and stage persona, the Arctics left a bit to be desired. Like a lot of British bands that have found success on that side of the pond rather easily, they seemed frustrated that the audience wasn’t responding the same way as the crowds at U.K. festivals. While a good portion of the crowd was really familiar with their set list, the Arctic Monkeys appeared to get annoyed at chants for them to play their U.S. hit “I Bet That You Look Good on the Dance Floor.” All in all, the Arctic Monkeys didn’t exactly live up to expectations.
After taking over the spot in the lineup left by The White Stripes, British electro-rockers Muse had a lot to live up to. Starting the show with an intense lighting display during its song “Knights of Cydonia,” the band’s set continued in a dream-like pattern – think David Bowie in the ’70s mixed with U2. While some of their more mellow tracks had some looking to beat the traffic on the way out, its track “Starlight” reenergized the crowd. Muse’s performance was an exciting surprise after several big-name cancellations. While many were skeptical about the set, Muse found a new fan base at ACL.
Day 3: Sunday, Sept. 16
As the festival began to wind down, the third day of performances saw the big-name artists spaced out a bit more than the previous days.
Common’s performance again proved that hip hop really does have a place at ACL. At times sounding a bit like fellow Chicago-native Kanye West, he held his own on a stage that had been home to folk-rock bands Wilco and the Indigo Girls. Common addressed discrimination in all forms in his song “Black Maybe,” even addressing sexual orientation. Later, his set lightened up a bit more with “Drivin’ Me Wild” featuring British singer Lily Allen. His performance is bound to open up more doors for hip hop and rap at future festivals.
Next up came Bloc Party in one of the most engaging and energetic performances out of the entire weekend. Opening with “Hunting for Witches,” a commentary of the British reaction to the 2005 London bombings, lead singer Kele Okereke’s enthusiasm never dwindled, even as he ran through the middle of the jam-packed audience.
After cruising through tracks from its critically acclaimed 2004 album “Silent Alarm” as well as its more recent release “A Weekend in the City,” the band solidified its position as one of the highlights of this year’s ACL. Ending its set with a chant of “Keep Austin Weird,” the unofficial motto of the city, Bloc Party instantly became a fan favorite.
Following The Decemberists’ incredibly mellow performance, the majority of the festival-goers packed in toward the main stage where Bob Dylan & His Band were the closing act. In sharp contrast with his early years as an artist, this Bob Dylan was not incredibly articulate although he seemed to be in good health.
After he warbled through his first few songs, a good portion of the crowd headed for the exits, though many of the die hard Dylan fans remained. While Dylan is an incredibly influential artist, his performance would have been better suited for a smaller, indoor venue – not the mile long field where the main stage was situated.
As always, Austin City Limits is full of hits and misses, but this year’s festival had some surprise favorites. Hip hop found its place in a typically folk-rock venue, and the home grown acts were definitely overshadowed by some foreign competition. The eclectic mix of artists makes the festival unique to its hometown – only in Austin would J.Crew-wearing high-schoolers, emo kids, aspiring hippies, aging hipsters and an odd abundance of Villanovans be able to co-exist in such extreme weather with such inspiring bands.