Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Austin City Limits 2011 - Zilker Park - Day 1

There are two schools of thought regarding musical festivals. On one side it is said festivals are a celebration of music and a chance to release inhibitions and share a communal experience that is often lost in a self-centered modern society. The other side of the coin is that they are overpriced corporate money-hoovering exercises populated by a stinking morass of intoxicated wasters pissing about in a field.

Living and breathing music as I do I had to correct the fact that I had never been to a proper three day festival before. This might have had something to do with the fact that I am a lightweight and value a decent nights sleep and a shower above pretty much anything else.

So a compromise was reached at Austin City Limits as the beauty of this festival is that it is located in a huge park on the outskirts of the wierdly wonderful city of Austin(think of it as a hotter version of Brighton) and is within a pedicab (contrary to the rest of Texas, Austin is a cyclist's paradise) from numerous hotels in the centre. Music, sleep and showers. Result.

Austin City Limits celebrated its 10 year anniversary this year and it was bigger (70000+ attendees) and hotter then ever. Texas is currently going through the hottest and driest summer in its history so we were in for a scorcher.

We start off with Futurebirds and indie band from Athens, Georgia who do a nice line in Byrdsian southern rock with some Midlakesque harmonies. They are not going to blow the world apart but are pleasant enough to listen to in the blazing sunshine. Oh, an the guitarist as the most impressive beard since ZZ Top.

We head off to the Honda Stage to see the Mercury nominated Wild Beasts from the Lake District. Benifitting a band from England as soon as they start their set the first rain for three months starts to fall on the crowd. Their metronomic new wave is oddly hypnotic and they remind me a bit of Talking Heads but ultimately they are a little one-paced for our tastes and we buzz off.

For me The Secret Sisters are one of the finds of the festival. Their rootsy country-tinged ballads seem to come straight out of a 50's time capsule. Real life sisters Laura and Lydia Robers offer up flawless harmonies and innocent lyrics that transport you back to time before Kanye West, iPhones and Twitter. They pop up later to provide backing vocals for Ray LaMontagne so they are obviously on their way up. They won't be covering "99 Problems" any time soon. They are a perfect anitdote to the growing crowds and heat.

Next up Delta Spirit on the main Bud Light stage. Charismatic singer Matt Vazquez disdainfully comments on the fact that ACL's bill has moved away from the traditional drums and guitar based music to incorporate more hip-hop

"We're the only rock n roll act on the bill. We're happy with that."

They sound like a cross between Kings of Leon and the Doors. Not enough great songs to put them in suck exhalted territory though and soon we get hot and hungry.

Next up is a guy I've actually come to see: Ray LaMontagne. He comes on dressed like a gold prospector in a Once Upon a Time in the West with his flat crowned hat and waistcoat. I am a massive fan of his world weary soul but I don't know whether it is the heat or his usual lack of audience interaction (he used to be so shy on stage he had to play with the lights down) but his set fails to set ignite the crowd. I don't think Ray's intimate style suits these huge festival stages and his confessional songs work best with just an acoustic guitar and his whiskey-soaked voice. To give him his due he has gone for a more dynamic upbeat vibe on latest album God Willing and the Creek Don't Rise and songs like Repo Man and Henry Nearly Killed Me work better in this setting. Of course it was always nice to hear favourites Shelter, Jolene and Trouble get an airing

We needed a pick me up so we headed back down the hill to Nas & Damian (Jnr Gong) Marley and were rewarded with a performance that revived our flagging spirits ( TOP TIP: Do not go out on the lash the night before a music festival. You will not last the course.) Contrary to the reputation of rap/reggae acts performing half-arsed sets their show was full of energy and "throw your hands in the air" audience participation that kept the crowd from a weed haze stupor. Reprising the collaboration between the two on last years album Distant Relatives both performed select cuts from their back catalogue like the classics Welcome To Jamrock and If I Ruled The World.

The elephant in the room with Damian Marley is that he will never surpass his father's musical legacy. For lesser guys it could be their ruin (hello Julian Lennon) but Marley does the decent thing and finishes off with an uplifting cover of Could You Be Loved. Jah, Rastafari indeed.

For the gran finale we have Coldplay. Famously derided by Oasis manager Alan McGee as "music for bedwetters" Chris Martin may alienate many for being the nicest man in rock but you can't fault his song writing ability. It is a problem that Martin readily acknowledges after a new opening song MX

"Thanks for choosing us even though your boyfriend wanted to watch Kanye"

I guess all the cool people where down the other end of the park watching Kanye West (who was scheduled to play the same time) whose bass could be heard rumbling from down the hill during Coldplay's quieter songs.

Having seen Coldplay's performance at Glastonbury I had high expectations and the band pretty much delivered on every front with some good banter and and strong singing on Martin's part. Whisper it, but at times they actually rocked. They resisted the urge to sing too much off of new album Mylo Xyloto (my highlight was the acoustic Us Against The World).

They guys have a solid back catalogue and know how to put on a show together. There was plenty for the crowd sing their heart out to (The Scientist, God Put A Smile On My Face and Fix You all got the crowd on backing vocals treatment). There is something spine tingling when bands have the confidence to break things down and include the crowd in the performance. There were plenty of stagecraft on show with some great lighting, inflatable balloons released into the crowd and Martin running into the audience and climbing the scaffolding on the sound desk.

For the encore we got a cover of Amy Winehouse's Rehab segued into Fix You which was the dictionary defintion of "lighters aloft".

Proof if proof were needed that its not always the coolest people that have the most fun.

Coldplay setlist:

MX/Hurts Like Heaven
In My Place
Major Minus
The Scientist
Violet Hill
God Put A Smile Upon Your Face
Everything's Not Lost
Us Against The World
Viva la Vida
Charlie Brown
Rehab (Amy Winehouse tribute)
Fix You
Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall

Day 2 to follow shortly....

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