Correspondence from Austin City Limits: Day 1

photo by Jim Bennett

Make no mistake about it, even in October, it’s hot in Austin. It was clear and only in the mid-to-high 80s the entire weekend, but amidst thousands of densely-packed, sweating, and likely un-showered festival-goers, and with the unimpeded sun beating down on our faces like a relentless fucking asshole, it might as well have been pushing 100 degrees. But of course, despite the sun nearly burning my face off, sunscreen constantly running into my eyes, and the nagging desire to blow the festival off, sprint to bridge we crossed to enter Zilker Park, and hurl myself into the dirty olive-colored waters of Lady Bird Lake, every weather-centered conversation I got into with anyone from Austin centered around how delighted they were that it had finally cooled down. I guess when you live in Texas, the heat is just a way of life. All I know is that as soon as we got fitted for wristbands, all I could think of was getting my hands on some Sweet Leaf Tea, or better yet, a few of the ice cold Heineken tall boys I knew they’d be selling inside.

It was in the beer line, which was more like a faintly organized string of people in the middle of an overwhelming Friday afternoon mob of eager music fans, where we saw most of Miike Snow’s set (it was a long line). Miike Snow are known for their live performances, like their thriller at Sasquatch! this year, but at ACL, with thousands hotly packed in front of the Honda Stage, I wasn’t particularly blown away. It was almost a joke how little movement there was in the crowd, even up front, as from where we were standing, albeit fairly far away, it seemed like Miike Snow’s slow-paced electro pop was almost getting scorched away by the heat before anybody could really get into it. I think they’re just one of those bands that are at their best when they’re either in a club, or playing at night.

Mission Accomplished!

After making our way through the line, it was time to move across the slope to try to get as close as possible for The Black Keys, who would be starting a few minutes later at the AMD stage, which was adjacent to where Miike Snow were finishing off their set. Good position was, not surprisingly, hard to come by, and after settling in we turned around to take in the end of Miike Snow’s set. One of the last songs they played was “Animal” and it was like a breath of fresh air. It sounded incredible, and there were even a few hands flying and heads bouncing down in front.

Soon after Miike Snow finished up, The Black Keys came on to raucous applause. They really are the perfect band for ACL and the AMD Stage was predictably packed. They played a good mix of songs from Brothers and older favorites, such as “I Got Mine” from Attack and Release, which sounded better than anything else they played, just as it did when I saw them a week earlier at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. For the songs off Brothers, the ‘Keys brought out a bassist and keyboardist, which were nice additions. The keyboard especially sounded great on a fantastic unreleased song they played that sounded like it was called “Child of Shame” and featured lyrics such as “Girl from New Orleans / A simple girl of similes.” The Black Keys are definitely not done making good music, and despite the fact that I’ll always be partial to their raw, bluesy, two-man stuff, it’s hard to deny that the new direction they’re going, with more prominently-featured keyboard and bass, sounds pretty damn good as well.

The Black Keys + the sun

From the Black Keys, we should have gone back down the slope to the Honda Stage for Beach House, but I have no recollection of seeing them or doing anything for the next hour before Spoon came on. It’s possible that I had passed out somewhere. We may or may not have had access to an open bar earlier in the day (...we did), and free booze + searing heat + a crowd of thousands can equal bad news.

Regardless of what took place over that lost hour, we found ourselves in pretty good position to see Austin-natives Spoon, who were playing on the AMD Stage as well. They basically killed it and played pretty much everything we could have wanted to hear. I was excited to hear “Got Nuffin’” off Transference, early in the set, and they went on to play a good deal of older favorites as well, including “Don’t You Evah” and my personal favorite “I Turn My Camera On”. They also brought out Elanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces for a song, who sported a shirt that read “Texas Has It All.” Nicely done Spoon.

After Spoon we were faced with our first difficult decision of the day. Vampire Weekend, Sonic Youth, and Robert Randolph were all playing at the same time. I say it was a hard decision because Vampire Weekend is amazing live and Sonic Youth is Sonic Youth, but I knew the whole time I was heading to the festival’s only tent-covered stage to see Robert Randolph & The Family Band. One of my friends who is an ACL veteran (absent this year though), always tells a story of how one year Robert Randolph and Ben Harper had a heated lap-steel duel off that ended with Ben Harper conceding by getting up and putting his hat on Robert Randolph’s head as he was still ripping away. Combine this lore with the fact that I love Robert Randolph and had never seen him, and the decision was already made.

Robert Randolph & The Family Band

It was fitting that he was playing under the tent as well. He plays his pedal steel with the same vigor as some kind of traveling tent preacher, furiously instilling the tenets of the blues into the obliging souls of the audience. The entire band was rocking the whole set, and played to the crowd like pros. The highlights were whenever the band was already engaged in a heated jam, the crowd going crazy, and Robert Randolph would then take it up into another gear that we didn’t even know was there, and just absolutely tear apart his pedal steel, sometimes to the point where he couldn’t even stay in his chair. The crowd went borderline insane during these moments.

We left Robert Randolph a few minutes early to go get barbecue. Austin is one of the best food cities in the country, known for all the Tex-Mex you can eat, barbecue, and fried avocados (delicious!). The “Austin Eats” food section of the festival was a perfect representation of the city’s food culture, featuring all local vendors, and nothing generic. It can be dangerous to hang around this area too long, though. One day I nearly convinced myself to buy a $30 bucket of fried chicken.

Delicious!

We moved from barbecue back to the AMD Stage to see The Strokes, who would close out our first day. We were content to hang around the outskirts of the crowd, and even from a considerable distance they sounded pretty damn good. Despite being obsessed with Is This It? for a good amount of time, I hadn’t even really listened to much of their other material, so any time they played any of their post 2001 songs, it basically sounded like Strokes elevator music, and we either turned to talk to each other, or stared blankly ahead and waited for the doors to open onto another classic from Is This It?. Favorites like “Last Night”, “Someday”, and “Take It Or Leave It” all sounded great, especially considering the fact that I was half expecting them to be drunken, slathering, and removed. Julian Casablancas carried on a good deal of rambling conversation with the crowd as well. We initially scoffed at the fact that he was wearing sunglasses at night, but he vindicating himself by commenting on how lovely the crowd and festival were but that “I can’t see shit because I’m wearing sunglasses like an asshole.” Good stuff. The Strokes were a pleasant surprise.

Phish was actually the headlining act for Day 1, but thankfully they were on the other side of the festival and we didn’t hear or see any evidence of them even playing. It was a perfect first day!

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2 Comments

  1. Andy
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    That seemed, nice... Just have to add, Room On Fire (the second album) was the strokes best. If you treated “reptilia”, “what ever happened”, and “you only live once” as “elevator music”, that’s your loss.

  2. Ryan Bort
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    Extremely valid point. Still feel like “Is This It?” is better top to bottom, but discounting “Reptilia” especially is an oversight on my part.

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