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AUSTIN CITY LIMITS FESTIVAL – 2006

Tonight’s sunset in Austin is amazing – red, orange and yellow zig-zagging across the sky. It turns pink and purple and then fades away to navy and black. As the stars come out and the humidity dips, the air is suddenly breathable, the beer tastes better and it’s time to get my dance on. It’s 8:15 on the nose, and the announcer grabs the mic. A huge Lonestar flag provides his backdrop, as he shouts, “Austin, Texas, give it up for the king of country, Willie Nelson!”

The crowd goes wild. The hootin’ and hollarin’ continues. It’s still going. But there’s no Willie. People look at their watches. Confusion sets in and the crowd grows quiet. Where is he? “Get off the pipe, Willie!” someone blurts out. Everyone laughs, and then right on cue, Nelson’s gray pony-tailed, cowboy hat wearin’, country ass giddey-ups on stage. He opens with “Whiskey River” and then keeps the drinkin’ songs going with “Beer for My Horses.” Apparently the party never stopped for Willie this weekend. Two days later, when he and the boys were “On the Road Again” in Louisiana they were arrested. Seems cops found a pound-and-a-half of weed and mushrooms in their bus. Ain’t music cool?

Woodstock is the catalyst for concerts like Austin City Limits. It’s the festival’s fifth year, a spin-off of the highly successful public television series. While the show is intimate and acoustic, the festival is massive and loud. Eleven hours each day and night over a three day weekend in September. Big named artists, 130 of them on eight stages, all in one place. The coolest part – they are as excited to perform in a setting like Zilker Park, as we are to watch.

There are less drugs and group sex than at Woodstock, but that free-spirited nostalgia pervades. Some people still wear tie-die, wave flags with big peace signs on them and smoke dope. There’s the dude with the blow-up doll, the girl with the long hair and frilly dress that dances like she’s on acid, the guy that twirls two tennis balls on a string to the rhythm of the music. But this modern festival is more like a concert carnival complete with art booths, food and beer tents, a fake beach, a record store and cell phone charging station. It truly has something for everyone, and most people are simply here to soak it all in.

The tens of thousands of people on hand also soak up the sweat in the 90+ degree Texas heat and humidity. And as we squeeze through the slow moving lines to see The Shins, one guy moos. It isn’t a rally cry for his beloved Longhorns, it is simply a jackass implying the obvious and I laugh. At one point, the band’s lead singer said, “I wish I could talk to the heavens and make frozen Kool-Aid rain down on you.” It was a nice thought, but hearing “New Slang” live is all I need to get by.

65,000 people singing “Free Fallin'” in unison. There are some pitch problems out there, but we’re all going for it. “She’s a good girl. Loves her mama…” some people hold their hearts as they sing. Then, right in the middle of that long “…and I’m Free” part, the heavens open up and the rain does the fallin’. The storm forces the only man with the mic off the stage.

Thirty minutes later, Tom Petty comes back out and surveys the muddy mess before him. “Hello, how are you?” Petty smirks. “You look good out there!” Then he tries to sneak in the familiar rifts from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” But we’re on to you, Tom Petty. The sweet talk and fastballs fool no one. You just want to see a bunch of wet, white folks act like buffoons in a big field of pig slop. And well, we let it happen! We want to entertain you! All of us swaying in unison, belting out every last word. “Mary Jane” ends and something even more interesting happens – we all keep singing. In fact, we never stop. “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Listen to Her Heart;” is there any Tom Petty song we don’t know, I think to myself? Has this guy ever put out a bad song? One hit after another, and his answer becomes clear: “Don’t Do Me Like That!” Then Petty starts rubbing it in with a fat ole “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” That one hurt a little. But you’re right Tom, not a single rain-soaked one of us will ever know what it’s like to be a rock god. Only Tom Petty knows “It’s Good to Be King.” You can have your throne back, sir!

Like a fine, red wine and vintage, hand-rolled cigar, Van Morrison opens his set with “Back on Top.” The title couldn’t be more accurate. His sound is timeless and sophisticated. Van looks like a character in The Godfather wearing a navy suit coat, tinted glasses and pale fedora. The shadow never leaves his eyes. There’s a mystery to this Irish man that’s macho and romantic. He snaps his fingers and nods his head in approval as he turns to look at his band. Morrison is not interested in flashy lights or doing the jig; it’s clear he only cares about the music.

The sound is bluesy, jazzy and a lot country this night. The longing whine of the steel guitar on “I Can’t Stop Loving You” makes me think of all things innocent. The organist quickly ruins that thought as he gyrates his instrument to “Bright Side of the Road.” The back-up singers bring lovely back as they harmonize on a cover of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” But it’s Mr. Morrison and his talents that blow me away. Instead of letting words get in the way, Van’s staccato mumblings make the sweetest melody on “Moondance” and “Days Like This.” He drops octaves and growls like Joe Cocker as the lyrics heighten in importance. Van changes the arrangement on his biggest hits like “Real Real Gone”, “Wild Nights” and “Precious Time,” because he’s that damn good. The roar from the crowd upon hearing the first couple bars to “Brown-Eyed Girl” makes me shiver. After taking his bow, he sends us home with a ten-minute balls-out rendition of “Gloria.” We stream out of Zilker Park, tens of thousands of us broken into small groups chanting, “G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!” In the movie Beautiful Girls Uma Thurman says her idea of a perfect day is “a cup of coffee, the Sunday paper and Van Morrison.” I just had mine in Austin.

Austin’s most famous resident, Lance Armstrong, is here, too. His appearance is not listed in the brochure. He’s here to introduce Ben Harper, and it’s a total surprise. But those are the kinds of things that happen in Austin all the time. And there he is, the seven time Tour de France champion, just feet from me. He’s speaking, but I have no idea what he’s saying. He’s rocked out and looks much bigger than he did during his competitive racing days. He’s in shades, a slick outfit and is the definition of solid. It’s such a surreal moment; a sports icon handing the mic to a musical genius.

Harper immediately launches into a stirring rendition of “Voodoo Child,” dedicating it to Stevie Ray Vaughn. The crowd goes wild for the late, great Texan, who not only wrote the song, but is credited with reviving blues in the 1980’s. Harper seems possessed as he kills a solo on his Weissenborn guitar. It’s a hollow-neck Hawaiian lap slide guitar, and watching Ben rip its chords in concert is like watching Tiger Woods rip a two iron in a major. Harper’s guitar ranges from sweetly melodic to boldly resonant. His unique voice varies from uplifting to aggressive and spiritual to affectionate in the flick of a falsetto. The familiar beat box on “Steal My Kisses” begins and G. Love shuffles in from the side. When your name is G. you’ve got to be smooth, and he most certainly is. He raps and then plays the harmonica. None of it is over-polished, it’s just cool. Harper later dedicates “Better Way” to former Texas governor, Ann Richards, who is lying in state during the show. He calls her a “forward thinker” and then belts out lyrics that Richards lived by.

Take your face out of your hands

And clear your eyes

You have a right to your dreams

And don’t be denied

I believe in a Better Way.

Ben Harper in concert is a living out-of-body experience.

“I’m having so much fun,” Paolo Nutini tells the crowd. Most of us have never heard of him, but everyone leaves talking about him. The 19-year old Scottish sensation wows us with his gravely voice, smart sound and playful performance. After each song he reaches down for a beer with a big smile on his face. Someone in the front row yells out, “Hey, you’re underage.” With a noticeable accent, he replies, “I know. Oooh, it makes it taste so much better.”

His road to stardom has been paved by several other contemporary Scottish songwriters like KT Tunstall, who brought her “Black Horse and Cherry Tree” to Austin. She’s articulate, sassy and original, looping her guitar beats and “Woo Hoos” to create a backing band. “A girl with technology,” she says. “Look out!”

Damian Marley brought peace, love and reggae to Austin. With his Jamaican roots, that makes sense. With Matisyahu’s family lineage, on the other hand, a reggae and rap rendezvous is the last thing you’d expect. But this Hassidic Jew dressed in a long black coat, prayer shall, yarmulke, long beard and payess, sounds like a mix between Sean Paul and Run D-M-C. All that garb just makes his performance hotter. He bounces around the stage in his Adidas sneakers asking the Lord for redemption. And his message of peace has its affect on the cult-like-crowd as they jump with a hand in the air.

If a mandolin was a gun, be very, very afraid of Nickel Creek. No one has ever plucked and pulled that thing like Chris Thile. Thankfully, he’s harmless. The skinny, bearded musical magician and his two bluegrass buddies, Sean and Sara Watkins, are as good as it gets. They used to jam to handfuls of people in San Diego coffee shops. Today they’re armed with a Grammy and have played Lollapalooza, Bonaroo and now Austin City Limits. Their blend of mandolin, guitar, violin and vocals is a harmonious ho-down that’ll keep your toes tapping till the cows come home. The way Nickel Creek covers the song “Toxic,” makes Britney Spears seem like Beethoven. They close with their hit “The Fox” and weave in The Band’s classic “The Weight.” Thousands scream “Take a load off Fanny.” I call my wife and let it play on her voice mail. We all forget about the heat.

Not everything at ACL is quite that cool. Case in point – the San Francisco based band Street to Nowhere. The only reason I checked them out in the first place was because they had cool shirts for sale in the ACL store. The shirt lead singer Dave Smallen is wearing on stage reads “Can You Hear Me?” And unfortunately, I can. His upper register sounds like a fight at a nursery. A woman next to me grimaces as he tries to hit a high note on a song smartly titled “Tipsy.” She gets up a short time later after Smallen used the “F word” for the twentieth time. “Did anyone get wasted last night?” he asks. That’s when I get up to get my first beer.

I thought I’d had one too many by the time Gnarles Barkley hit the stage. They come out in full-length, white lab coats in the blazing sun. Thankfully, the funky hip hop vibe quickly reminds me that they are the ones who are “Crazy.” Jack White and the Raconteurs mix of chunky head-banging metal and hard-core blues is time well spent. John Mayer put out one of the best albums of the year and put on quite a show in Austin – a bluesy jam session that proves he’s not in his own sappy wonderland and that he actually has balls. Iron and Wine is poetic perfection. Lead singer Sam Beam sings in a crisp whisper. His words are both elegant and dark and take you deep into your own spirituality. Ray LaMontagne has that same power. He may sing about “Trouble,” but his moving voice has the power to sooth.

Then there’s Tristan Prettyman, a sweet, Southern California girl whose first love is surfing. She’s the female Jack Johnson dressed in flip flops and very chill on the acoustic guitar. Absorbing her lyrics reminds me of exactly what love feels like.

The music never stops in Austin. The downtown is as unique as it gets. In fact, “Keep Austin Weird” is the city’s slogan. People who live here are proud of it. It’s a liberal, music-loving oasis in the middle of Bush country. Austin’s open mind impresses me as I walk through town. It’s got this unique character and classy confidence: a city where cab drivers collect college degrees, beautiful Lake Austin is really a river and barbeque ribs are served on Wonder bread. They’re as sloppy as they are delicious and Stubbs makes ’em best. The restaurant also has a theatre-size outdoor music venue that hosts killer concerts. Waterloo Records is the must-see music store in town, where big-named artists frequently perform and visitors are served free beer. Another Austin favorite is the Texas Margatini, a margarita martini with a two drink minimum at most places. And a trip to Austin isn’t complete without a walk or stumble up 6th Street. It’s lined with bars and clubs, where music can be heard blasting out every door.

I’ve been to Nashville, and it’s a treat, too. But Austin is more diverse, more intense and more cutting-edge. It truly is the music capitol of America, and ACL has become its crowning jewel. Van, Willie and Tom Petty won’t be around forever, and I thank God for their music. Three hot and humid Austin City Limits nights, three living legends, and three unforgettable exclamation points on the perfect musical weekend!!!

Written by: Ben Bamsey

October 2006

www.aclfestival.com

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