- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
What better way to kick-off my fourth trip to the Austin City Limits Festival than a bona fide private party for friends and press the night before the three-day event. It’s always great to be back in my home state (and Austin in particular), so to be invited to BMI Records’ shindig at YETI world headquarters had me feeling back home in no time. The gracious folks at BMI lined up two ACL acts, Mt. Joy and Nicole Atkins, for the cozy crowd.
Mt. Joy gave a short but inspired set before running off to another late night gig at the legendary, but relocated, Antone’s. Highlights from their self-titled debut included the groove filled ‘Astrovan’ and an extra soulful version of ‘Sheep’.
I’ve seen the irrepressible Nicole Atkins before and of course, she did not disappoint. With the crowd hanging back from the stage, Atkins made a beeline straight for me and pulled me forward by the elbow and let us all know “you’re gonna have to get out of your comfort zone”, as the crowd moved in closer. New Jersey-based, she felt right at home in the Lone Star state and quipped about shoveling in queso before the set. She and her crack band launched right into the funk-fueled ‘Brokedown Luck’ from last year’s excellent Goodnight Rhonda Lee. Of course, she played the title song as well on the one song she picked up her guitar for. Otherwise, Atkins was more at home prowling the stage whether showing her range belting out ‘A Little Crazy’ or at her sultriest Amy Winehouse purr on ‘Sleepwalking’. Her duet and slow dance with Midlake’s Eric Pulido was a nice touch as well.
Probably appropriate that the next day started with a quick view of Atkins, who overnight seemed to pick up two horn players and a vocalist to round out her sound. Her take on ‘A Little Crazy’ scaled even higher heights than the night before. First new to me act up were locals Duncan Fellows. Named for the Austin street where they formed, the lively quintet had a revved up crowd in tow before the first note in the one covered stage at the fest. Led by Colin Harman and Cullen Trevino, the band pulled heavily from last year’s excellent spaced out pop album Both Sides of the Ceiling. Harman warmed things up on ‘Kerosene’, with its quieter passages really just a rewinding of the spring to the next pouncing forth. Trevino’s lead turn on ‘Sleeper’ is one of my favorites of the album and didn’t disappoint here. I had to move along, but if they didn’t play the bouncy ‘Fresh Squeezed’ later on they would have lost a large clutch of local fans who were on hand. I understand they are working on new music and these guys should be getting more attention as they go.
One band that’s been high on my list to see for years, I was finally able to tick the box on seeing Big Thief (pictured Gig Review main page). A band that is clearly serious about their art and how their vignettes are pieced together, they still maintain what feels like an unrehearsed looseness. Leader Adrianne Lenker was picking scraps of paper from her pocket with song titles on them to build the setlist. As she pulled and read titles like ‘Paul’ and ‘Masterpiece’ a smile would shoot across her face like she was reading off names of her children. Both of those songs were early set highlights, but the simmer became a boil on unreleased track ‘Not’. Guitarist Buck Meek and bass player, Max Oleartchik, flanked and faced drummer, James Krivchenia, as Lenker left to her own on the right of the stage fell to her knees for as tortured and emotive a solo as you are likely to hear. During the extended workout here, Krivchenia went to some other plane and you feel almost an intruder observing Lenker in ritual with her guitar. Meek took vocal lead on ‘Joe By the Book’ from his recent solo album and gave Lenker an able assist on ‘Mary’, my favorite track from Capacity. Would love to see this band in smaller club confines, but they made a statement here for those that sought them out.
Today’s line-up had a heavy overlap with some of the best bands from this year’s Shaky Knees festival (Alvvays and Manchester Orchestra I skipped here), but I couldn’t miss seeing David Byrne’s current free-flowing drum line inspired set a second time. It translated well to one of ACL’s main stages and was just as awe-inspiring for the larger audience. There were a few variations from the prior time, particularly where Byrne had each of his dozen or so musicians come in one at a time on an inspired ‘Born Under Punches’ to prove that they were playing live. Who knew a hand drum could be amplified so well! With members playing a Rube Goldberg panoply of ever-changing instruments, Byrne’s inspired “bip, bip, bip” conducting on ‘Slippery People’ had even the youngest in the crowd smiling ear to ear. Even though I had seen the set before, his opening solo material like ‘Lazy’ blended in well with the made for this set-up of ‘I Zimba’ where Byrne shouldered a guitar to sound out the song’s telltale opening pings. Byrne never fails to entertain and here to a massive field of captivated listeners.
Likewise having seen The National (above with CHVRCHES Lauren Mayberry) at Shaky Knees as closer, here they played the set prior to Paul McCartney’s on the same stage Byrne had graced the hour before. Matt Berninger and company put on a solid set, highlighted by CHVRCHES lead singer, Lauren Mayberry, dueting with him on ‘Guilty Party’. Berninger definitely gets into it with all manner of contorted gyrations as he goes along. For a band that always screams nighttime to me they gamely played a twilight set, but on the opening strains of ‘I Need My Girl’ you could feel the evening coming in for good. ‘Day I Die’ had Berninger down in the crowd, face to face with fans sharing his mic on the chorus. If the song has meaning for him, those upfront seemed to be right there with him. The band is certainly headliner worthy, but over a short set, they were able to put on a particularly impactful set.
Though I connected most with Father John Misty’s first two albums, there is no doubt he continues to progress as a live performer. Maybe a little more staid than the last time I saw him, even his newer songs show more heft accompanied with a large string/horn section. He opened with ‘Funtimes in Babylon’, but the full effect of the expanded format came to bear on an all outtake of ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’. Apparently Misty brings out the smoker crowd, and I mean of all types of things that can be lit. The guy next to me must have sucked down a half pack of Marlboro unfiltered before I moved spots. Of the newer songs, ‘Disappointing Diamonds Are The Rarest of Them All’ sounded incredible with the added strings. The Beatlesesque melody was also a perfect lead-in for the night’s closer. ‘Chateau Lobby #4’ was another crowd favorite. Misty played things straight for the most part and as crowded as the stage was he was afforded a large arc from his band which accentuated the staging and left him room for some of his lithe foot tracings, but even that was kept to a minimum. Duly impressed.
It’s not often you get to see a true legend appearing at a large scale festival, so scoring Paul McCartney as the night’s closer was certainly a coup for the ACL folks. Judging by the number of Beatles t-shirts throughout the day, it wasn’t surprising that 50,000 plus crowded the massive field in front of the festival’s largest stage. McCartney was in great spirits and was aging more gracefully than most of his younger band members. Over more than two hours McCartney told stories as he has earned the right to do and played a wide array of solo, Beatles, and Wings songs. Of the earlier songs, ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ stood out as a great live song and showed the depth of the catalog. The most affecting song was ‘Blackbird’ where McCartney told of its Civil Rights origin and told the story of playing in Little Rock not so long ago where he got to meet the individuals that dared to cross race lines to attend Little Rock High. It was a true lump in the throat moment as he played the song acoustically alone on the cavernous stage to a hushed crowd. Playing ‘Something’ for his friend George Harrison was also a great moment, but when McCartney hit his stride at the end it was something to behold. The trio of ‘Let It Be’, ‘Live and Let Die’ (complete with large-scale pyrotechnics and fireworks), and ‘Hey Jude’ with McCartney on the piano were devastating. He returned for a multi-song encore including ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Carry That Weight’. If this ends up being my only chance to see Sir Paul it was a great setting to catch him in and well into his seventies or not he put on a great show. An exhausting but loaded first day of music came to a perfect close.
All photos: Christa Joyner Moody