Live Review: ACL Music Fest @ Zilker Park, Austin 9/16-9/18

photos and review by Jim Bennett

I was walking with some friends from the car, parked on the north side of Town Lake, towards the park. I was stressed.

“I need to take off. I’ll meet you guys down there.”

I was concerned about being late to shoot The Head And The Heart from on the stage -- a bigger stage, the Google Plus one -- and didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

It was only about 12:30pm on Sunday, but it was already close to 90 degrees, and kind of humid from the light, occasional rain over the past couple days. I trotted through a parking lot, both exhausted and excited, thinking about the past couple days.

Saturday night, I’d shot the same band at Antone’s, along with The Moondoggies, who opened. Antone’s is an Austin classic, a venue associated with Stevie Ray Vaughan and too many other Austin luminaries to count. When I’d gone there for the first time five or six years ago, Pinetop Perkins, Muddy Waters’ piano player, was hanging around selling his CDs next to the boot shine station. During their show Saturday night, The Head And The Heart were inspired by watching Arcade Fire do a taping for the Austin City Limits TV show earlier in the day, and brought a whole new level of passion to their show at Antone’s. The crowd responded in kind singing along with all the choruses, clapping, and nearly blowing the roof off when the band did a version of Jimmie Rodger’s classic “Blue Yodel #1″ with the opening line “T is for Texas”.

Leading up to that late night show Saturday, the prior 2 days had been a whirlwind of great music. Stevie Wonder played one of the two main stages on Saturday night and tore it up, keytar, daishiki and all; Chromeo pumped the crowd into a chanting, dancing froth; Cut Copy had too many plants to count and kind of weaved between them, guitars swinging... it’s a great festival because of the proximity of the stages and the quality of the acts. Sometimes the stages are a little close and you can hear rhythms from one stage bleeding into another; smaller stages with smaller sound systems tend to suffer the most. But when you can jump from Aloe Blacc, to the gospel punch of Endurance, to Phosphorescent, to Alexander (Edward Sharpe’s latest band), the afternoon whiles away really easily.

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The festival was 10 years old this year, held once again in Zilker Park on the south side of the city, and for the 10th year Asleep At The Wheel opened one of the main stages. Hearing “Miles And Miles Of Texas” from these folks, with the cymbal on the drum kit shaped like the state itself and lead singer Ray Benson making longhorn symbols with his hands, a festival smell in the air and lots of bizarre costumes already in attendance, it’s just a uniquely Austin experience and all the better for it.

Highlights for me included the seeing Charles Bradley singing and crying and loving the crowd, immediately followed by Gary Clark Jr.’s cool electric blues searing an already hot crowd on Friday; seeing Federico Aubele’s downtempo flamenco and Michael Lerner (a.k.a. Telekinesis)’s straight ahead vocal rock pop on Saturday; and the most conflicted hour of the weekend on Sunday, when I managed to run like a maniac and grab shots of Empire of the Sun, Randy Newman, and Hayes Carll between 7 & 8pm.

Charles Bradley

Federico Aubele

Telekinesis

Now. At 12:30pm on Sunday, the crowds are just starting to arrive, but I’ve got to hoof it a good 15-20 minutes, and there are definitely folks rummaging about the path I need to navigate. I trek across the grounds, find the band manager, and wait backstage. I’m cleared to shoot the first 3 songs from the stage, and negotiate about 25 minutes in the pit after that. Then one of my 2 cameras stops working.

This is, to me, stressful.

And, at the same time, it was a peak moment, so I just had to roll with it.

I’m standing about 20′ from where the band will play to, maybe 3-5,000 people. They’re in the final seconds of psyching up. My camera’s dialog reads “ERR”. Maybe it’s the heat, maybe humidity, maybe the jackass who spilled beer on my camera Friday night at a show at Stubb’s (Lance Herbstrong and Manu Chao).

Whatever the case, I decide instantly to set my gear on the stage and just switch out lenses -- a normal thing, but usually photographers have a bag to keep them in when switching. I have lots of folks in the wings to watch the show standing next to me, and need to just set them on the stage and cross my fingers.

The band came out to tumultuous applause and proceeded to play a knockout set. I got to shoot as planned with a lot of switching of lenses... being creative about where to rest the one I wasn’t using.

The Head And The Heart

In the end, my experience shooting that set encapsulates all that I think of as being ACL Fest -- tons going on, rare opportunities to catch unique performers and performances, and a weekend where there’s always some kind of snafu but always an answer for it and usually a new experience on the other side.

Asleep at the Wheel

Alexander

Fitz & the Tantrums

Endurance

Kurt Vile

Foster the People

Chromeo

The Tent

Bomba Estereo

Bomba Estereo

Manu Chao

Elbow

fans

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2 Comments

  1. Ryan Bort
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Awesome, Jim! Wish I could have gone this year.

  2. Marianne
    Posted October 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Great work, Jim! ERR be damned! Thanks!

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