ACL Fest 2008 - Day Two: Beck, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Fleet Foxes, The Black Keys, CSS, Man Man, Conor Oberst. The Fratellis
12:30 @ AMD Stage
Review by Elliot Cole & Photo by Randy Cremean
“I don’t know if we’re suited for the large festival thing,” murmured Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold. Pecknold is half right: the band’s intimate, folk-laden style isn’t perfectly geared for the wide-open setting of an ACL main stage. However, Pecknold has overlooked another element of his Seattle-based quintet. Fleet Foxes is, after all, reminiscent of 1960s and 1970s tinged bands that made names for themselves at festivals of the time, peace and love affairs that molded the large-scale festival environment with wispy vocals and soft acoustic guitars. In a way, Fleet Foxes is more of a festival band than even they realize, right down to Pecknold’s fierce, unruly beard.
Though the crowd was sparse (a few Saturday morning hangovers surely had a hand in it), the fans that made it out were treated to one of the most interpersonal bands of ACL. Between songs, Pecknold and drummer Josh Tillman cleverly bantered about everything from Austin vegan restaurant Casa de Luz to bargaining shoe swaps with the crowd to the J.P. Morgan VIP contingent on the side of the stage (which, considering the Wamu presence at ACL, was particularly entertaining). “Thanks to the Foo Fighters for letting us open for them,” Pecknold slyly announced later in the set.
The music, however, is still rightfully the entrancing focal point for the group. The perfectly harmonizing vocals of “White Winter Hymnal” brought the crowd’s chatter to a pause, while the jangling guitars of the group’s more uptempo songs like “Ragged Wood” and “Your Protector” led to swaying fans.
“This should be interesting,” said Pecknold as he lined up for a solo acoustic number under the roar of the Old 97’s from across the park. Despite the sound bleeding over, Pecknold’s solo effort was a gorgeously poignant affair, both affecting and personal. It was as if Pecknold was in his own world for about three minutes. In a way, it makes sense: Fleet Foxes always knows how to be in two places – or eras – at once, allowing for a set that felt nostalgic…even for those of us that never made it to the festivals of yesteryear.
1:30 @ AT&T Blue Room Stage
Review by Callie Enlow & Photo by Randy Cremean
O.K., o.k. Fratellis, we get it. You hate being roused from your quaint Scottish hangover to play a scorched-earth park while the sun sears your nose an even deeper shade of red.
Did you ever think that the thousands of fans here to see you are probably in similar states of misery at 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon? And the only reason they are standing around mopping sweat off their faces is for you?
The Fratellis, faux-bros from Glasgow who clawed onto the coattails of Arctic Monkeys with their debut Costello Music in 2006, gave an unrepentantly half-assed performance in the “wee” hours of the festival. Appropriately, the group began by muddling through “Shameless” off their 2008 album Here We Stand, before singer Jon Fratelli grumbled, “who the fook plays at 1:30 in the moornin’?”
If only they did play right after midnight, perhaps the audience would have seen the bratty punks in all their pub rock glory. Instead, the alka-seltzer didn’t hit The Fratellis until they started playing the poppy “Mistress Mabel” halfway through their set.
After that the lads seemed to sober up and realize they were playing an actual show. “Sorry, we are a fooking shambling mess,” said newly humble Jon Fratelli. And then they started to actually play.
“Flathead,” their single from Costello Music, revealed clever lyrics, a surf guitar sensibility and no-fail chorus (“buh duh buh buh buh buh, buh duh buh buh”) and burly “Baby Fratelli” incited a pit of ambitious, heat-immune youngsters.
By the end of the show, the sheepish Fratellis admitted, “thank you very much. Sorry we couldn’t have been better,” before sliding into the sweet, piano-driven “Milk and Money”. Jon Fratelli’s dreamy rhymes about the end of a party floated on top of Elton John pianos as the formerly spastic pit kids swayed together. The band walked off as the lyric “it’s no surprise/when the last guy dies” hovered in the air. It was almost great. Almost.
3:30 @ AT&T Blue Room Stage
Review by Elliot Cole & Photo by Victor YiuThe Blue Room setup was adorned with multi-colored balloons and a giant banner that had an electrified font of the band’s acronym, making CSS’s flair for showmanship apparent before the Brazilian group even hit the stage. A be-bop intro played the crowd onto the stage as frontwoman Lovefoxxx slinked out in a boa and blue onesie, looking every bit the baby-Bjork (which, considering the band’s style, seemed somehow appropriate).
CSS led off with tracks from the recently released Donkey, including the excitable “Jager Yoga”. “We didn’t come into the world to run around/we came here to knock you out!” sang (or, more accurately, shouted) Lovefoxxx, making for a fitting introduction to the synth-heavy sass of the group. The electro-pop-fueled eccentric flair segued nicely into “Give Up” and “Meeting Paris Hilton”, amongst other tracks on a set list that was Donkey-heavy.
“I think this is the hottest show ever!” proclaimed Lovefoxxx between sporadic yells and yelps. It was unclear if she was talking about the weather or the performance, but she gave a few clues when she sprinkled water on herself and panted like a dog under the sweltering heat. When performing, veins popped from her forehead as she yelped out her songs (looking, as one fan oddly put it, “like Wilma from the Flintstones”).
Despite the group’s obvious showmanship skills and memorable performance, you couldn’t help but want a little more from CSS. Once a group establishes an outlandish, party atmosphere on stage, they have to capitalize on it with as many props, stage dives, and oddities as possible. The songs seemed to blur after awhile, and the sun sapped the crowd. Nonetheless, CSS deserves applause for being one of the more lively acts of the day, even if that vigor was, at times, wasted.
3:30 @ Dell Stage
Review by Callie Enlow & Photo by Randy Cremean
See Man Man. Throw out all their albums. They are now only relevant in reminding one how great the band is live.
You can’t put face paint on your CD or attach feathers to your vinyl’s hair. Your ipod won’t jump onto a drum stool and spin around awkwardly. Not even your boombox can strut the floorboards like a maniacal Sonny Bono look-alike pretending to patrol the walls of his make-believe castle.
This review, like a Man Man album, is only a hazy facsimile of this band of absurdists. To get the full circus/insane asylum/dance party effect, there can be absolutely no substitute for catching these guys live. Even during the middle of the day on one of the smaller stages, the five men of Man Man convinced those remaining in the audience to shake their freaky tail feathers.
I say "remaining" because Man Man is not for everyone. Several dazed faces snaked their way back from the front row as the face-painted, white-wearing group of irregular Joes from Philly screamed, smashed things, brandished a mannequin head, spat, strutted, stomped, fell over and, oh yes, played songs.
Man Man’s music is propelled less by lyrics and more by a sense of unrestricted self-indulgence. Slide whistles trill while as many as five percussionists beat at once. Pots get played as well as keyboards, guitars, bass, horns and god-knows-what-else. The band spontaneously breaks into “la la la” chants and screams, and the closest they come to a cover is “Fe Fi Fo Fum.” Despite their cover choice, the band never sounds silly, although their antics may be. In fact, their music lies in between Eastern European folk and cartoon soundtrack.
Appropriately, singer Honus Honus, he of the robust Sonny Bono likeness, is childishly quixotic. Sometimes growling, sometimes blathering nonsense as on “The Ballad of Butter Beans”, sometimes quite clearly singing incisive, veritie-style lyrics, Honus’ two main influences seem to be Tom Waits and peyote buttons.
For some people, the above combination may sound like a ticket to aural Armageddon, but for others it means a chance to regress to the kind of unadulterated energy most bands can only dream of accomplishing.
6:30 @ AT&T Stage
Review by Elliot Cole & Photo by Randy CremeanWith his quivering vocals bridging the gap between a personal meltdown and an affecting snarl, Conor Oberst took the stage with a suit and tie, looking a bit unlike the Bright Eyes kid of old and more like the matured, savvy collaborator that he has become. (This makes sense: Oberst dropped the Bright Eyes moniker for his most recent album, the self-titled Conor Oberst). Along with the Mystic Valley Band, the group played to a surprisingly small crowd: the entire festival still seemingly caught in a horrid bottleneck during MGMT’s set on the other side of Zilker Park.
But while there was no “Bowl of Oranges” to be heard by longtime fans; Oberst’s performance was still one of the highlights of the festival. The alt-country/Americana tinge of “Danny Callahan” and “Moab” would make M. Ward jealous. The tracks were balanced affairs that offered just enough of the raw (Oberst’s scratchy, vulnerable sneer) along with the polished (near perfect sound and great chemistry with the Mystical Valley Band). “NYC – Gone, Gone” and the raucous “I Don’t Want to Die (in a hospital)” offered the distant rock star persona of Oberst, while other tracks like “Eagle on a Pole” – dedicated to Spoon frontman Brit Daniel - offered the animated storytelling Oberst we know and love.
The group rounded out the set with a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Kodachrome”. “We didn’t write this song, but we sing it every day on the bus,” claimed Oberst, who, with his dark, shaggy hair looked like the younger brother of Elliott Smith.
Whether the isolated days of an emotive Bright Eyes are gone or not, the replacement is more than serviceable, and, at least on this day, even better. Now 28, Oberst is gradually developing into one of the most gifted collaborators in the indie scene, with the potential to genre-hop while bringing along a lyrical wittiness that few can match.
The Black Keys
7:30 @ AT&T Blue Room Stage
Review by Callie Enlow & Photo by Victor Yiu
Just by walking on stage, the Black Keys seemed to darken the twilight sky. The two black-clothed Ohio natives’ set never lightened up, but instead plunged the audience into inky blues and sooty vocals.
One of the most amazing aspects of the Black Keys’ live performances is how it only takes the pair of them to captivate thousands of people spread out over a massive area. By the time Dan Auerbach launched into “Set You Free” from their 2003 album Thickfreakness, the crowd was hooked. Bands with twice as many members struggled throughout the festival to keep it together, but the partnership formed by Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney six years ago is both watertight and comfortable.
There wasn’t much stage banter save for a few perfunctory “thank you”s from Auerbach as he and Carney seamlessly transitioned from songs from the way back (“Busted” complete with sick R.L. Burnside licks and “Run Me Down”) to cuts off 2008’s Danger Mouse-produced Attack and Release.
Whether Auerbach can play two guitar parts and one bass line on one guitar at the same time or whether he just rocks so hard anything that but a drumbeat would seem superfluous is still to be determined. Either way, it’s damned impressive. Yet for all his bluesy swagger, Auerbach was totally comfortable ceding the stage lights to Carney, sometimes setting up a wall of feedback for his rhythmic friend and sometimes simply standing back and watching Carney hammer away at a solo. Without Carney’s garage-hollow beats and furious cymbals, the Keys would be another great blues band, but it’s his drums that insist the listener pay attention.
Even as the duo spun out into a psychedelic Captain Beefheart song, thousands of pairs of eyes and ears focused on the Black Keys; just two men, two instruments and a big black sky returned their interest in full.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
8:15 @ AMD
Review by Callie Enlow & Photo by Victor Yiu
No matter how hokey it seems to have an aging rock star and a soccer mom songstress team up, when T. Bone Burnett signs on to a project, it’s worth a listen.
When the rock god is Robert Plant, it’s worth even more. When the soccer mom songstress is also a phenomenal bluegrass fiddler, it’s a guaranteed to sell out. And that is why seeing Robert Plant and Alison Krauss is the best value, if not the biggest draw, of this year’s Austin City Limits festival.
The sophisticated duo and their swing-based quintet backing band (including Burnett on guitar and prolific country guitarist Buddy Miller) played on oriental rugs and wore tailored clothes, looking a million miles away from the independent-label honky tonk queen and heavy metal singer they started out as.
Together, the unlikely partners worked hard to create a balance between Krauss’s sweetheart vocals and Plant’s heavy-petting croon.
Krauss, with a pink flower in her poufy blonde hair, looked alternately stiff and dumbstruck. That is, until she: a) sang a solo or b) played her fiddle. If she seemed a little nervous trying to harmonize with the legendary Plant, fiddling and singing with her own bluegrass slant restored the multi-Grammy-winning artist’s confidence.
Plant, meanwhile, prowled the stage like a panther in a flowing silk shirt and tailored pants. Where Krauss seemed too formal at times, Plant treated the stage like his own bedroom, inviting all his many fans in--probably not a great stretch of his imagination.
Their set started off with sultry dual vocals, but Krauss and Plant soon parted ways. Krauss many times wandered from the microphone to jam with the upright bassist and mandolin player. Looking like the Bad Sandy from Grease, Krauss sang solo renditions on Appalachian classics, Carter family tunes and her own previous collaborations with Burnett. Plant preferred to shake maracas and add his signature toe-curling wail to hypnotic original songs off of he and Krauss’s excellent Burnett-produced album Raising Sand.
The standout performances, besides simply seeing these two wildly different pop music giants on the same stage, included a slowed-down duet version of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” and a punched-up take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothing.”
Ending the set by delivering their original “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)” to a spent and satisfied audience, Krauss and Plant proved that even “mainstream” can be pretty wild.
8:30 @ AT&T Stage
Review by Elliot Cole & Photo by Randy Cremean
Beck has always been a bit of an enigma. His detached persona presents him as a vague, distant musician, and, with his hat tipped over his eyes, Saturday night was no exception. But while Beck’s stage presence may not indicate an overt identity, it becomes apparent that Beck’s individuality is entrenched in his eclectic, genre-hopping sound. In a word, Beck is a sponge. His identity is forged in his eclectic absorption, and he put it on full display in his headlining performance.
For an artist with such a broad (and far-reaching) discography, it makes sense that Beck’s set read like a “greatest hits” record of his career. The audience roared when the hazy, opening notes of “Loser” fuzzed through the speakers, a welcome and ambitious opener that immediately captured the crowd. (With his long blond hair and plaid shirt, Beck didn’t look all that far removed from the mid-1990s “Loser” days.) By the high-energy “Nausea”, the rush to the stage had already begun, leaving trails of smashed beer cans and folding chairs.
Beck and his surrounding band set aside their normal instruments for a while, instead going quasi-rap on “Hell Yes” and “Black Tambourine”. Fan favorites and past singles like “Devil’s Haircut”, “Where It’s At”, and “Timebomb” were represented, and tracks off of 2008’s Modern Guilt – including the title track and “Gamma Ray” – fit in naturally with his older material. The set bounced from funk to hip-hop to pop to rock with ease, with each genre transition flowing smoothly.
While Beck was unquestionably entertaining, he was, still, just Beck. No memorable “You had to have been there!” moments made their way into the 21-song set, and Beck will never be accused of being chatty and engaging with the crowd. Even while playing a cover of Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, Beck set didn’t come off as anything overly special, but simply a terrific cross section of a spongy musician’s career.