Austin City Limits Festival - Day 1 - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

Austin City Limits Festival - Day 1

by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date:
Austin City Limits Festival - Day 1
Austin City Limits Festival - Day 1

This is my third year in a row attending the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which ironically enough takes place in Austin, Texas, every late September/early October.  It spans over two weekends, with essentially the same bands but there are always a few bands that only perform one weekend.  This year they moved the whole event back a week so the second weekend landed in the middle of October and that’s the weekend we attended.  If the push back was to maybe get cooler weather, well that didn’t work.  It peaked out Friday and Saturday at around 90 degrees, no clouds - survival relied on the craft beer tent.  This was the first year my entire family of five attended, so forgive me if they creep into this a bit.  Music typically starts around 11:30 each day, but normally we show up around 1-2:00 depending on who’s on the list that day.  They also expanded the space this year - still at Zilker Park south of downtown, but they pushed out the borders of the festival and added a sixth stage (not including the kid’s stage)!  It’s definitely a laid back event with people moving from stage to stage and generally being nice to each other.  I haven’t attended other multi-day major festivals, but these folks have things down almost 20 years into it.  All purchases are off of a chip in your wristband, so food, beer, tshirts, etc. all with a swipe and a pin number - for the five of us it adds up quick.  Anyway, on to the music:

(Sandy) Alex G

Playing fairly early, my son and I were on the rail with six other people about 15 minutes before show time.  It did fill in a bit within the 15 minutes and there were probably a few hundred people there over the course of the hour.  Alex is a fairly unassuming guy, as was his band.  All in t-shirts, no guitar changes, just a straight set of tunes.  There were a couple of concert firsts for me here:  Alex sings almost entirely through clenched teeth, which though it didn’t seem to affect his vocals was a different look.  Also, since there weren’t guitar changes and a bunch of techs running around, whenever Alex and the lead guitarist had to tune between songs, he would turn on a skittering drum loop to keep the crowd engaged - so polite rather than have dead space.  If you’ve listened to his albums you know they cover a wide range of styles and are mainly homemade, so having bass, lead guitar and drums in tow fleshed things out and they were all crack musicians.  

Songs ranged from mid-tempo rockers (maybe sounding a bit like Dinosaur Jr.), to country shuffles, jazz inflected tunes, trippy/spacey jams, borderline metal and back and forth.  The second song was ‘Proud’ off of Rocket, which sounded great with the long loping chorus and a sweet guitar solo from the lead.  ‘Poison Root’ had an explosive drum part and banjo tuning on the guitar.  Of the slower songs, ‘Bobby’ also stood out as emotionally raw.  Alex took a turn at the keyboard for a near metal song with some raging vocals, again through clenched teeth making him look particularly intense.  The final song of the set consisted of a fairly straightforward melody, but with Alex bursting out a cathartic scream about four times which was followed by an almost sheepish sideways smile to the guitar player as if asking if that was an okay thing to do.  Being the very polite greeter on the first day, Alex wished us all a great festival at the end.    

They were a very tight, explorative band with lots of different ideas.  I’ll look forward to whatever he puts out next.  It was a great way to kick-off the festival and though there aren’t many true indie bands as it gets later in the day, I wish they could bring in more acts like this.

Rating:  B+

Valerie June

I had seen Valerie June a few years back opening for the late (and sorely missed) soul singer, Sharon Jones at a small club.  June definitely knows how to work a room and her mix of swampy blues/soul music along with a Victoria Williams-ish warble (though not as warbly), works well.  The festival has one smaller tented viewing stage and this is where she was performing.  It was honestly hotter and muggier under the tent than out in the open air and it was packed for her early in the day performance.  Unfortunately, being inside a big tent didn’t leave room for the rhythm heavy sound and swampy guitar to open up, so their sound was pretty cool but murky given the setting.  Really a bit of a travesty that they weren’t playing outside in one of the bigger spots.  June held her hands in prayer while the band cranked up and she put forth a lively, positive set.  ‘Love You Once Made’ off of this year’s excellent The Order of Time stood out, as did ‘Somebody to Love’ from her earlier album.  On the latter she played what must have been the world’s tiniest banjo (banjolele?).  We left after the first four or five songs given the sound.  Also this year with the extra stages there was not as much staggering of set times, so if you wanted to get close for the next act you had to give yourself some time.  

Rating:  B (exclusively on the sound quality - she deserves a better stage here)

Hamilton Leithauser

Disclaimer - The Walkmen were one of my favorite bands during their existence and seeing them live is still way up on my concert experiences, so I was strongly biased going in.  I miss The Walkmen, but respect artists need to move on and I’m totally fine with his more refined approach.  

Leithauser took the stage with a four piece band and as always he was well dressed in long sleeved dress shirt and slacks with mirrored shades, but in a nod to the heat did have his sleeves rolled up.  He has a voice that can go from quiet to a near on shout, but it never sounds like he is shouting.  He has one of those distinctive voices that I don’t think he could break if he tried.  He accompanied himself with an undersized acoustic guitar most of the time, starting with ‘Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)’ and tearing into the choruses sounding more menacing than the recorded version.  Leithauser is totally focused on what he is doing - as the band is tuning up between songs he moves to the side of the stage and looks like a prize fighter in the corner looking to pounce into the next round.  On ‘Sick as a Dog’ all of the band shouts out ‘I use the same voice’ towards the end of the song bringing a lot of power.  

Though not playing songs from his prior band, he did cover a lot of ground over his two LPs with other highlights being a rousing ‘A 1000 Times’, ‘In a Black Out’, ‘Alexandra’ and ‘1959’.  He goes effortlessly from crooner to shouter within the same song and his band is solid.  He did debut a new song ‘Wild Hunger’ that is recorded as a duet with Angel Olsen (who was at the festival, but unfortunately not on stage for this).  Leithauser is kicking off a US tour soon, so would highly recommend whether a fan of The Walkmen or his newer material.

Rating:  A

Ryan Adams

I have never seen Adams live before and have always been a bit mixed on his output and attitude.  He’s always struck me as pretentious and arrogant though he does write some great songs from time to time.  I was not aware until the show that he suffers from Menieres disease and can’t have bright lights in his eyes including camera flashes.  They make an announcement about this at the front of the show.  Not to make light of his condition, but it definitely made for an unusual set to not see the lead singers face lit for an hour.  A guy next to me in the crowd told me that last week he had bitched a guy out in the audience the prior week for using a flash on his phone and sure enough several songs in he stopped and did the same thing this week.

We were up pretty close for the set so maybe that affected the sound, but on the louder songs all I could hear was the bass drum pounding and the songs mainly blurred together without particular highlights.  A few of the slower songs sounded better, standing out from the bombast of the rest - ‘Stars Turn Blue’ and ‘Come Pick Me Up’ were better than most.  Of the faster tunes, ‘To Be Young’ from his first solo album stood out and his choice of covering Tom Petty’s ‘Even the Losers’ was a great move.  Overall though, I wasn’t that impressed with the music or the performance.  One to check off the list.

Rating:  C         

There were a few other bands we basically did walk-by’s on. The Crystal Castles performance looked pretty amusing - as I’m not sure 90 degree temps and goth really go together that well.  The lead singer looked like she was melting on the big video screen.  Also, I did catch a little bit of Eagles of Death Metal.  In the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting and given they were the band playing at the Bataclan theatre in Paris during that mass shooting in 2015 it seemed appropriate to stop by the stage.  Not really my thing it turned out - many of the songs sounded like variations on Ted Nugent’s ‘Stranglehold’.  Leaving there my daughter lost her wallet somewhere on the way to find food.  So we walked back and forth from the food area back to the EODM stage - didn’t find the wallet but EODM were playing Bowie’s ‘Teenage Daydream’ when we got back over there, which sounded letter perfect.  Very cool and fitting for this festival that some kind soul turned in my daughter’s wallet intact and we picked up at Lost and Found on the way out for the night.  Did not stay for either of the dueling closers (it’s nice you get to pick which closer to listen to, but this year’s mix was pretty weak):  Jay Z or the XX. 

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