Finally, a long delayed look back at the 2007 Austin City Limits Festival.
Laura and I were new to outdoor music festivals. Her sister, Kathryn, had been to ACL several years ago (she said Ryan Adams was that year’s best act), and remarked how this year’s festival seemed much better organized than the last she attended. Indeed, we all thought the Riverfest folks could learn alot from ACL, starting with abandoning those ridiculous Riverbucks. At ACL, a dollar’s a dollar, from the art stands to the t-shirt shops to the lines for food and beer. In our book, that’s the only way to go.
We drove into town a little late to make Friday’s shows, so we missed Bjork, Queens of the Stone Age, The Killers, a reconstituted Crowded House and M.I.A., whose potent mix of punk and global hip-hop apparently started a near-riot, with fans making their way onstage to groove with the Sri Lankan pop star. And, of course, there was the now infamous trailer fire that melted a few porta-potties, sent four folks to the hospital and briefly interrupted glum-rocker Pete Yorn’s set. We watched a dark plume of tire-fire black smoke arise from the park on the local TV news that night.
But everything was back in operation for day two, a Saturday. We drove the 20 minutes from our condo at the Lost Parrot, just west of town, and arrived at the free shuttle pick-up site in downtown Austin near the Warehouse District. The festival encouraged visitors to take the free shuttle because there was little to no parking near the festival site at Zilker Park. Plus, it got thousands of visitors into downtown Austin, where you could spend lots of money at local bars, restaurants and the farmer’s market.
The shuttles ran quickly and smoothly, and we didn’t have to stand in line long. It took about 10 minutes to get to Zilker, and the bag search and check-in was a breeze. In fact, on day three, a festival official barely checked our bag — convenient, but discomforting once you thought about all the stuff you could have smuggled into a well populated festival post-9/11.
Zilker Park is huge. It has a great expanse of open space well suited for events like these. The festival’s main stages were spread out well too, although there we still some areas where two shows could bleed into one another. But staggered showtimes alleviated a lot of that.
The first real show we caught that day was St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark), who’s done time with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens and has just struck out on her own. She was a one-woman band with a guitar, some programmable loops and a backing vocal track. Her songs are dark and earnest. Her voice reminds me a little of Kate Bush, but warmer. Despite releasing her first record only a few months ago, she attracted a decent crowd who clearly knew who she was and liked her stuff. Her 45 minute set included “Now. Now,” “Paris Is Burning” and “Jesus Saves, I Spend.”
After that, we met Laura’s sister and her husband for the final minutes of Stephen Marley, just before Damien Rice took the stage. The best part about Rice’s show was listening to the couple sitting next to us. The dude obviously didn’t know who Rice was, and was asking what songs he sang. The girl explained that he’d surely recognize some songs, which have been prominently featured on TV shows like “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” “So his talent is … marketing?” the guy asked. I thought that was pretty funny.
In spite of all that, Rice did deliver. I didn’t think the mopey Scot would rock out much, but he delivered “Volcano” written as a ragged rocker, with lots of pissed-off attitude carried over from his angry opener, “9 Crimes.” The crowd ate it up. We split after four songs or so.
Saturday’s centerpiece was The Arcade Fire show, set to go opposite the White Stripes before Meg got tired and canceled. The only other option that night was Muse. I thought the choice that night would be pretty clear, but many folks seemed genuinely torn about which show to attend.
We knew Arcade Fire would be good, but I think we were surprised at how hard these guys play. And they played ACL like the End Was Near. Every song is an anthem: urgent, earnest, big and fit for thousands to sing along. The set was front-loaded with “Neon Bible” stuff, opening with “Black Mirror” and the Springsteen rocker “Keep the Car Running.” But they rightfully returned to “Funeral” for the closing section, ripping through much of the “Neighborhood” suite, “Haiti,” “Rebellion” and closing out with “Wake Up.” It’s something to watch these seven (eight? nine? 15?) musicians on stage, and none is more engrossing than Regine Chassagne, an impish vocalist who plays every instrument imaginable (accordion, guitar, pipe organ, piano, drums — even something with a crank). And when she’s not doing any of that, she functions as a sort of indie rock hype-man (a rock n roll Flava Flav to hubby and lead singer Win Butler’s Chuck D), dancing across the stage and playing to the crowd. It’s something to behold.
The Arcade Fire was the best show we saw and a great way to end Day Two. Day Three saw a higher concentration of high-profile acts and, as a result, a bigger, denser crowd. 65,000 folks crammed into Zilker Park, and by mid-afternoon was just about sick of it all.
Consider our quest to see Regina Spektor. We rolled up to her show with about 10 minutes to spare, and you could not get anywhere close to the stage. We finally settled here, but the crush of the crowd was too much. We left barely two songs in.
It was then we realized that we would have to arrive at shows much, much earlier to get a good vantage point. So we punted on Regina Spektor and Wilco in order to catch The Decemberists. We arrived at that stage about an hour before start, and were rewarded for our planning, with a pretty good spot here.
A clip of the show taken by someone who was there
If you get a chance to see The Decemberists, you should totally go. This is bookish rock written by English majors, with lyrically ornate fables spun out over dulcimers, Wurlitzers, organs and an art-rock staple, the Moog. And it’s great. Much of their hour set include stuff from their excellent “Crane Wife” album, including the beautiful title suite, “O Valencia!” and “The Perfect Crime,” which is like fitting sequel to an old Genesis classic, “Robbery, Assault and Battery.” Colin Meloy, who looks like an art-school cool Dwight Schrute in black frame glasses, proved a charming front man with skilled backers. It was our second-best show of the weekend.
As for the weekend’s closer, Bob Dylan — well, we can tell our grandkids we were once in the same zip code as Zimmy, but that’s about it. Dylan’s show was the final act, with no competing bands. In fact, people began setting up at Dylan’s stage early that morning, enduring other acts they might not have wanted to see, just to get close to the front. And with thirty minutes to go before he was set to begin, the rest of the 65,000 in Zilker Park rushed to the venue like some strange mass evacuation. We were too tired to fight the crowd. So with Bob’s creaky voice echoing eerily across the darkened fields, we headed to the shuttle queue for an early escape.