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AUSTIN CITY LIMITS FESTIVAL 2009

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ACL 2009 was epic! Three days, eight stages, 130 bands. So many stories to tell… There was more than sex on fire at the Kings of Leon show; why Caleb was burning on much more. Also, the making of a musician through mushrooms, the tastiness of a chicken fried fiddle and the sheer beauty of skinny love. Plus, how Ben Harper and Eddie Vedder thought they’d solved the world’s problems in Austin, only to have the messages get lost in translation. And, how nostalgia almost got me arrested, oh and an unforgettable 70,000 person mud bath. Let’s go!!!

ACL promoters spent $2.5 million leveling the lawn and planting sod at Zilker Park, and no one was allowed to walk on the grass for several months leading up to the event. The festival dates were even pushed back from the scorching heat of September to early October. And on Friday, the first day of ACL, all the planning worked perfectly. The temperature was in the 80s, a few puffy clouds floated by and the grass felt like a putting green on bare feet. Of course, the reason the festival was completely sold out was because of the incredible line-up of musicians. With an 18 ounce Lone Star beer in one hand (when in Texas) and my camera in the other, I dominated the park, vowing to see as much music as humanly possible. This was my third year at ACL and it equaled love – as you can see by this picture! (Go ahead and say it: Goober!)

Todd Snider was my first stop on Friday. He is as much comedian as he is a musician. His dad wanted him to be a high school football star in Colorado, and Todd tried to make him proud. He pushed that sled for a few years during two-a-day practices in the mountain air. But Snider’s first experience with hallucinogenic drugs turned the goal posts into gigantic candles, and turned him from a jock into a guitar player. Thank God from shrooms! Without them Todd would have spent his time on the sidelines, then would have grown up, burped babies and prayed for them to become Steelers, too.  Instead, Snider saw things. Weird things. And now, he sings about them. The highlight of Snider’s performance in Austin was a track off his new album called “America’s Favorite Pastime.” It chronicles one of the greatest moments in sports history: the day Pittsburgh Pirates’ ace Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while tripping on LSD. Hilarious!

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After I stopped laughing, I made my way over to the AMD stage for one of my favorite sets of the weekend. Phoenix’s latest album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, has gotten them a commercial gig with Cadillac, movie credits for “New York, I Love You” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” plus the respect they deserve. The Frenchmen have such a unique sound from the voice of lead singer Thomas Mars to the guitar duo of Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz to the bass and keyboard of Deck D’Arcy. The group also has an incredible drummer, and together, they brought it in Austin, producing a memorable set that included Mars appreciative jaunt into the audience. The sea of people stretched as far as the eye could see towards the downtown skyline, and he gave high fives to as many as he could. “This is the biggest crowd we’ve ever played in front of, so thank you,” Mars said humbly. If you love great new sounds and creative lyrics, songs like “Lisztomania,” “1901” and “Girlfriend” have to be heard live.

Because I was brought up in the ’90’s, I had to check out former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman Raphael Saadiq. I became a fan of his solo show at Outside Lands in San Francisco earlier this year. The kid from Oakland has quite an uplifting story about how playing gospel music at his church kept him out of trouble. While many of his peers took the wrong path, Saadiq found inspiration through the strings of his guitar. The man has since traveled the world sharing his gift and has developed quite a following, especially in places like Paris. On this hot afternoon in Texas, the boy was not afraid to get sweaty with his back-up singers and brass band. They danced the day away singing songs about faith, love and positivity.

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Up next for me in this music sanctuary, the slick pipes of John Legend. I waited patiently for his performance from the photo pit, but as he began to serenade the audience to Bob Marley’sRedemption Song,” the stage remained empty. A mad dash of cameramen ensued because there in the middle of the tens of thousands of fans that had come to hear him sing was Mr. Legend. It was, dare I say, a legendary way to begin his set. He tugged at his heart as he channeled the lyrics from the reggae master. After finishing the a cappella rendition, he hopped on stage and belted out his own classics like “Ordinary People,” “Get Lifted” and “Save Room,” while mixing in covers of Michael Jackson and The Beatles along the way. John Legend’s voice, delivery and style were, in a word, flawless, and so were the pinks, reds and oranges that blossomed from the famous sinking of the Austin, Texas, sun.

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And then, the grand finale. The most talked about band in the world over the past year – Kings of Leon. Caleb Followill and his brothers, Nathan (drums), Jared (bass), and cousin, Matthew (guitar) have Hollywood’s ear, and their music has found a resting spot right next to the hearts of women everywhere. Just a tip for all the guys out there, a few roses and a KOL concert, and you’ve got a date that simply can’t be beaten. The boys sound European, which explains their initial British success. But they are actually good ole southern boys from Tennessee and Oklahoma. That fight came through in Caleb’s comments mid-set: “If you don’t like us now, you’d better learn to love us, cause we’re not going anywhere!” A critic must have rubbed him the wrong way before he took the stage. As a result, he ripped his guitar into a beautiful submission. The harmony between instruments and Caleb’s voice is so totally original and poetic in songs like “Cold Desert,” “Revelry” and the monstrously popular “Use Somebody.” When the band grooved the first few licks to “Sex on Fire,” every pelvis in the Lone Star State began thrusting, and the temperature rose three degrees. The heat from their set had all dogs barking on the Zilker Park lawn, but then jaws dropped as the clock neared 10:00, and a bearded Eddie Vedder strolled on stage. Eddie and Caleb teased the crowd with their genius on “Slow Night, So Long,” as the masses tried to figure out if they’d ever seen such a powerful combination. The answer to the equation in retrospect: rarely, if ever.

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Bon Iver 1

Mother Nature got real sad for day two. She cried like nobody’s business, and the once pristine landscape of the park morphed into slop with each footstep. Despite the cold, gray rain, the show did go on. And it rocked. My first stop was Bon Iver on the Dell stage. Lead singer Justin Vernon played musical chairs with his plethora of guitars. Each had a unique sound as it shaped the song around his crafty vocals. The 6’3 Wisconsin native is known for his unkempt beard and woodsman appearance. Vernon holed himself in a hunting cabin for four snowy months to write the band’s album, For Emma, Forever Ago. The disc echoes that remoteness, anchored by the hauntingly beautiful “Skinny Love.” It’s a track about the pain that plagues a heart after sweet love goes our. With a grainy falsetto he sings – Come on skinny love just last the year. Pour a little salt, we were never here. My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my. Staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer. Hearing this gem live in the rain is something my insides will never forget. Just a few weeks after the band’s set in Austin, Bon Iver announced it is taking an indefinite hiatus, but promised to come back someday with “at least three new songs.” Your fans will be starving in the meantime.

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By 6:00 in the evening, Zilker Park looked more like a moat that could protect nothing. The new kings of country seemed cool with that, inviting all to cross into their castle of country fried music. I saw Zac Brown Band perform in San Diego in February in front of a few hundred people. They were just getting big then, and have since had a couple number one singles and won a Grammy for “Best New Artist,” as well as an ACM for “Best New Group.”  Tonight, Zac Brown Band was playing in front of thousands of hard-earned supporters. While the boys have added a little more spit-polish to their routine, they have that same gritty edge as though they are still playing for food. Brown grimaced on his guitar as he ripped rifts to Toes and Jimmy De Martini’s fiddle nearly combusted during a cover of Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” During a sensational version of Free, the band even faded in and out of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.” And all the drenched folks were delighted as ZBB closed with “Chicken Fried.” The anthem seemed to warm everyone up, as every single person seemed to know every single word, shouting out each one at the top of their lungs like some sort of rainy day salvation.

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Bob Schneider 3

As the light faded, the Texas skies got as dark as the mud below. By now, each step in flip flops made a slurp and there was no guarantee that the shoe would follow. But that didn’t stop my giddy-up to a special performance by The Scabs. The group knows how to throw a party, Texas style, and I was all in. The lead singer is Bob Schneider, and when you think of Austin’s music scene – he is the first person that comes to mind. And that’s saying a lot. For the last decade, Schneider has played a gig each Monday night at the Saxon Pub. It’s the hottest ticket in town, and it’s Bob at his intimate, soulful best. He also fronts three bands in Austin – The Scabs are the most raucous. They only perform a few times a year, and here I was with a backstage pass at ACL. Schneider is more than cool on the microphone and totally in control of any groove that the guitars and horns throw his way. There is no set list – Bob just calls out the songs he’s feeling. His spirit is truly set free in front of the thousands before him. Rain drips onto the stage from leaks in the tent above, and Bob adds to the slipperiness by hocking loogies and letting them go. The crowd is also soaked to the bone, but their butts are shaking for a different reason. In addition to the solid tunes, it turns out Bob is a giver in many ways.
3979007788_fe86224c9cHe steals a pack of cigarettes from his guitar player and throws them out one at a time to outstretched arms in the audience. Later, he grabs swimming pool floaties (the long, lounge kind) and chucks them into the crowd, too. The band jams to the mamba-style “Tarantula,” and the frenzied fans help Bob belt out the chorus. The Scabs easily created the best energy of the festival with a raunchy and fun set that ended with a song about partying in a local supermarket called “H-E-B.” Afterward, I got to hang out with Bob in the green room. He’s a good-looking, bearded guy wearing a nice suit with comfortable shoes. He used to date Sandra Bullock, and has a reputation for getting around in Texas towns. But the real life Bob is not even close to the musical magician that dominates live shows. Instead, he’s a proud papa and a visual artist who goes to bed each night trying to solve the New York Times crossword puzzle. His life is very much like a puzzle with no easy solutions. To read my profile piece on Bob Schneider click here.

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Saturday came to a close with my 17th Dave Matthews show. The band helped me get through college and has always made a beer taste better. DMB also headlined Outside Lands earlier this year, and they jammed with the Black Eyed Peas in a set that would have made Jerry Garcia proud. In Austin, Dave and the boys weaved in solid renditions of new material, including “Funny the Way it Is” and “Why I Am” with classics like “Jimi Thing” and “Ants Marching” as well as a Talking Heads cover. Since the loss of LeRoi Moore and the release of the band’s first CD without him, it seems as though Dave has found even more passion as a lead singer. He spills his guts out all over the stage through his one-of-a-kind voice that weaves in and out of deep growls and into tender falsettos. It’s been 15 years of Dave shows for me, and Boyd Tinsley’s violin has never ceased to amaze me. Drenched and dirty I left Zilker Park that night to a laser light show coming from the other main stage opposite DMB. Fans were decked out in glow sticks around their necks and wrists as the electro, rock, funk group Ghostland Observatory lit up the night. The Austin-based duo even brought out the entire University of Texas marching band to bring day two to an unreal close.

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Partly-sunny skies greeted our Sunday at ACL. I showed up extra early to interview Austin singer/songwriter David Garza. We sat in the media tent talking about the genius of Tom Waits and the incredible combination of Dave Grohl on drums and former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones in the new band Them Crooked Vultures – who played ACL Friday night. Garza also draws and sketches using art as a muse for constant creativity. Much of his work focuses on the human face. Often he’ll incorporate barbed lines that zigzag across the cheeks, the lips rarely show any emotion and what appear to be Breathe Right strips are attached to the nose. I ask him if they signify struggle within the realm of the human condition, and he looks at me like I’m crazy. The truth is that he has trouble drawing noses, smiles are tough, too, and those lines are simply ways to divide facial features. I give him a high five for his honesty and for being the bomb. He talks about the drugs that are so prevalent within his industry, and how many turn to meth or coke because it’s impossible to drain the juices that constantly flow from a musical mind. Art keeps Garza out of trouble.

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In fact, he’s got a show throughout the month of November at the Continental Club that will blend live concerts with his artwork. After our talk, I ventured out into the park for his ACL set that included hula hoops and an insane version of “Love You Out Loud.”

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Saturday’s soggy weather had left behind a mess that was barely suitable for pigs to play in. Patches of grass looked like lily pads that were few and far between in a sea of dark brown soup. Plus, things didn’t smell quite right. While most found this set of facts to be disgusting, others turned it into Woodstock 2009, as many a music fan did a little slop-sliding, covering themselves from head to toe. I’m a decade out of college, so making a spectacle of myself was not in the cards, and my THANK GOD moment came as I opened the newspaper Monday morning to a caption that read: “The mud seemed to be mostly Dillo Dirt, a compost made from yard trimmings and treated sewage sludge, which was used in recent lawn improvements.” Gross is the first word that comes to mind. Nasty is second.

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But for the 70,000+ who packed ACL, the conditions were just a sensational element of the story they’d share with others about the day the saw the B-52s in concert. That’s right nostalgia slapped us all in the face Sunday afternoon when the whitest man in music graced the Austin stage. Fred Schneider (zero relation to Bob) sang, I mean spoke, and danced, I mean convulsed, to classics like “Roam” and “Rock Lobster.”

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Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson were brighter than the most gigantic primary color wheel you’ve ever seen. Yet together, they all still sound really, really good. With not a single sappy love song in their repertoire, they just dropped energy bombs on the most trippy 80’s flashback I’ve ever experienced. Incredibly, every girl before me suddenly grew wild bangs and I looked down to find my jeans tight-rolled. Then, as soon as the familiar first chords to “Love Shack” began, all of Austin joined in in one heinous display of grooving. It was a sing-a-long that should have led to prison sentences for at least 80% of the crowd – me included. Go ahead and cuff me, it was so damn worth it!

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Instead of bars and solitude, however, I was granted one last amazing evening of musical freedom beginning with my one my all time favorites, Ben Harper. It was my sixth Ben show, and the beauty about his performances is that they’re never the same. His musical compass points in all directions, and he has as much talent as anyone in the game these days. At ACL he brought the local guys from Relentless7 with him, along with his wife, Laura Dern, and friend Meg Ryan, who sat comfortably in the VIP section. “Let’s get one thing straight!” Harper shouted during a break from killing his lap steel guitar, “Austin, Texas, is the music capitol of the world!” With that the frenzied crowd jumped up and down flashing hook ’em horns signs as far back as the eye could see. Harper also gave shout-outs to Austin staples Waterloo Records and Lance Armstrong – who introduced him at ACL a few years ago. Harper and Relentless7 rocked hard through nearly every track on their new album, White Lies For Dark Times. “I’m the only Californian in the band,” Harper exclaimed, “and it’s a true honor to be onstage with these guys kicking my ass every night.”

Then, the ultimate conclusion to a 72 hour party… the one and only Pearl Jam. Opening with “Why Go” seemed so appropriate, because going home was the last thing I wanted to do. The band mixed new, explosive cuts from its new album, Backspacer, with incredible renditions of classics like “Daughter,” “State of Love and Trust” and “Alive.” Eddie Vedder’s raspy growls sounds even better with age, Stone Gossard’s rythym is still Pearl Jam’s signature and Mike McCready is blazing like never before – tearing apart his guitar solo behind his head on “Even Flow.”

Vedder took a second to dish dirt on Ben Harper admitting that the two singers had been up until 8:30 that morning drinking, smoking and, as Eddie put it, “figuring out all the answers to all the world’s problems.” But after further, more sober review, the pages of notes seemed more like an illegible mess.  Harper later joined Pearl Jam on stage for an encore performance of “Red Mosquito.” Then, Vedder delighted the 70,000+ fans by introducing former Jane’s Addiction singer, Perry Farrell, for a simply crazy duet of “Mountain Song.” Pearl Jam closed the festival with the Neil Young anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and Eddie couldn’t help himself. After scowling the first few verses, Vedder jumped off the stage and did a face-first slide on the rain-slicked field. He left Austin the muddiest man in Texas. Which was the perfect exclamation point to an absolutely unbeatable ACL 2009.Because, as true fans know, music makes the world go around – and for some reason it just seems to spin best in Austin.

Written by: Ben Bamsey

October 2009

www.aclfestival.com

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