ACL 2007: including M.I.A., Queens of the Stone Age, Bjork, Cold War Kids, St. Vincent, Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire, Bloc Party, The Decembrists
Austin City Limits 2007 Festival Coverage
Manchester OrchestraThe recent switch in tour mates (from Brand New to Annuals) should seem to be a telling illustration of the trajectory in which Manchester Orchestra aim to take their music. But while their aesthetic is more varied than Brand New or even The Format, and their MySpace page promises that they are ‘indie-rock’, it was evident a few moments into their set that these boys are only a few ex-girlfriends removed from their days of full-blown emo sentimentality and sideways-swooped hair. In a festival setting, though, this isn’t entirely a bad thing. A small crowd of mostly under-20’s were indeed captivated by a tremendously impressive vocal performance from singer Andy Hull that insisted upon the audience’s full attention (read: emotional involvement). And as his chilling scream soared over the crowd during the standout single “Where Have You Been?”, there was no doubt that it was working. Playing on the picturesque Austin Ventures stage, Manchester Orchestra appeared at first to be quiet and a little inhibited—an understandable state of affairs, given that this was likely one of the biggest shows of their upcoming career. However, an immediate composure and intensity possessed the band moments after tearing into the first song, dispelling fears that their performance may have been tarnished by the nerves associated with a big-time festival setting, and suggesting that this is a band comfortable and confident inside the music they are writing, whatever direction they may choose to take it in the future.
M.I.A.With twitches of tribal rhythm and nostalgic dance moves—British/Sri Lankan artist Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam (better known as M.I.A.) was the ruler of the fiery Friday afternoon. Her fashion sense is hodgepodge (a hybrid of TLC’s T-Boz with Carmela Soprano) as she bounced onstage with bleach-white trainers and a matching hot pink sweat suit. She immediately opened with material from her new record Kala with the confident “Bamboo Banga”. She is intense and conscientious, but flirtatious, coyly warning the audience, “I’m knocking on the doors of your hummer”.
As the set progressed, so did the performers’ temperatures. “Sunshowers” seemed to nearly kill M.I.A.’s fantastic backup singer/dancer Cherry (who oddly resembled an extra from the African palace dance scenes in Coming to America). Noticeably worn out, the women doused themselves in water, yet remained on task, doing a perfectly choreographed Running Man to samples ranging from Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” to The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”.
“We need to sit down for the rest of these songs,” the winded M.I.A. jested as she went into her “censored on David Letterman” story. Before anyone could take proper cover, they were being ambushed by a Casio firing squad as she let loose with synthetic shotgun sounds used for “Paper Planes”—an act apparently not allowed on CBS. Set highlight “Boyz” rejuvenated M.I.A. so much that she decided to invite everyone onstage for set closer “Galang”, eventually overwhelming the track but inspiring the masses.
Queens of the Stone AgeThe very notion that a group of esteemed musicians that make up the collective Queens of the Stone Age were scheduled to open for Las Vegas hacks The Killers is unnerving—but I digress. The band was in typical form, singer/guitarist Josh Homme’s pasty white biceps glowing in the sun as his greaser physique led the ever-changing Queens… lineup, which has taken quite a hit the last few years. To be honest, the absence of longtime bassist, collaborator, and resident screamer Nick Oliveri and gritty vocalist Mark Lanegan was certainly evident. Set opener “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar but I Feel Like a Millionaire” from their pinnacle album Songs for the Deaf wasn’t the same without Oliveri’s penitentiary riot howls, and “Burn the Witch” from 2005’s Lullabies to Paralyze was lacking without Lanegan’s Tom Waits tones.
The most noticeable thing about Queens…’ set (aside from the fact they were playing under “rock chandeliers”) was the terrible, muddy sound that plagued the AMD Stage all weekend. If there is only one, infallible strength this band has ,it’s their loud, unabashed, polished noise…and it simply was not there on Friday. This is not to say that the set was a wash—for a group of musicians this seasoned, such a statement would be impossible. New bassist Michael Shuman (formerly of Wires On Fire) and guitarist Dean Fertita (The Raconteurs) tore through tracks like “Sick, Sick, Sick” and “3’s & 7’s” off new album Era Vulgaris with ease, and Paralyze’s “Little Sister” demonstrated, no matter how high, Homme can always nail that tricky end solo. Though the audience was soon invaded by pre-teen Killers groupies, Homme and co. proved they could kick Brandon Flowers’ ass with the power of their rocking—no fuss about it.
Gotan ProjectAs Gotan Project walked onto the twilit Dell Stage, they looked like they were playing at the Gates of Heaven: men dressed in immaculate white tuxedos with matching red ties and handkerchiefs, women wearing white silk dresses flowing like the wine in the crowd. There was a general sense amongst the huge (and hugely diverse) audience that, in the context of the festival that evening, they had ended up at the right place at the right time. The weather cooled, moods brightened, and Gotan Project’s tango rhythms got every still-sexy forty-year-old couple dancing and everyone else at ACL wishing they weren’t too American to join in. Although their music obviously derives from a South American tradition of tango (“Gotan” is a syllable-reversing play upon the word “tango”), the electronic beats and use of samples show that Gotan Project’s take on world dance music can easily traverse generational tensions and form bridges that would otherwise seem incongruous. As darkness fell upon Zilker Park, the performance became more laid back—think Air with an Argentinean flavor. Everyone settled into lawn chairs (or just the lawn), and looked into their lover’s eyes, looked into the moon, looked into their lover’s eyes…
BjörkAs neon green laser beams lit up the iconic Austin night skyline and an army of technicolored backing musicians with fluorescent face paint filed onto the stage, everyone at Austin City Limits knew that the Queen of WTF was about to address her adoring kingdom.
The biggest crowd of the festival thus far welcomed the Icelandic songstress with a rapturous applause followed by an immense silence, as her unearthly voice twirled and eddied above the park, sending shivers down the spines of everyone in attendance. An early climax was Post’s transcendent “Hyper-Ballad”, during which I pledged myself to any/every cult or religious movement of which Björk is curator. But there were more highlights to follow, with the epic “Hunter” and Volta’s intense single “Declare Independence” being played to a frenzied reception. Never overly talkative, Björk spurted a quick “thank-you” between most songs, and at one instance, apparently unfazed after setting an amp on fire, she paused for only a moment to say, “We don’t mind,” before getting on with the next song. And from here she only worked the show further into the mystical allure of her weirdness. No one thought about how tired they were or how hot the day had been. No one thought about sneaking out early to beat the masses at the exit gates. No one thought about much of anything from the real world, in fact.
Cold War KidsAfter seeing Cold War Kids’ Saturday performance, no one would have believed that these guys are relative newcomers to the kingdom of indie rock. Like a God-fearing (and therefore a little less boozed up) White Stripes, Cold War Kids belted through a set of classic rock and American blues-nodding tunes with a showmanship and self-assurance rarely found amongst bands with only one (decently well-received) debut album under their belts. Lead singer Nathan Willett’s voice soared across Zilker Park in a way that bigger, louder bands struggled to do (The Killers, for instance), at times even pulling off a Jeff Buckley-worthy air of vocal control and flamboyancy that caught me flat-footed. Equally as striking was the inspired rendition of Robbers & Cowards’ opener “We Used to Vacation”, in which I was more or less forced to believe Willett when he wailed, “I’ll never touch a drink again.” Battling the extreme midday heat, Willett’s charismatic performance was one that ought to earn the Cold War Kids a smattering of newly initiated fans, as well as maybe just a few comparisons to some modestly-cited artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Tom Waits to The Velvet Underground—even if his Christian tinged lyrical musings have about as little to do with Lou Reed’s rock ‘n’ roll legacy as is humanly possible.
St. VincentIf you are one of the many ACL attendees who didn’t catch St. Vincent’s Saturday set (fair enough: she wasn’t even on the little schedules that were handed out at the gate), I have only one thing to say and only the next 200 or so words to explain it: you missed out on the single most memorable show of the entire festival. St. Vincent is Annie Clark: multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, heart stealer. And, touring in support of her recent LP Marry Me, which easily ranks among the best this year, these three aspects of her St. Vincent persona were emphatically put on display. Cutting a diminutive lone figure in the middle of the huge festival stage, Clark whacked electronic drum kits, stamped pedals, and looped samples while taking care of her tremendously complicated guitar and vocal arrangements with an air of virtuosity that bordered on the absurd. But it was her delicate and nuanced charm that ultimately overshadowed the technical bravado of her performance. Struggling to hide her nervousness after being thrust upon such a huge arena, Annie Clark was immediately knowable, earnest in her intimacy and refreshingly sophisticated in her wandering introspections.
The eccentric waltz of “Jesus Saves, I Spend” lured the crowd away from the midday heat and into the world of Clark’s intoxicating appeal; the effect was as if she initiated a one-on-one connection with everyone in the crowd. “Your Lips are Red” mesmerized and transfixed, Beatles cover “Dig a Pony” awed, and the set closing “Paris is Burning” really just paraded St. Vincent’s idiosyncratic magnetism to the point of the obscene. Meanwhile, I (and probably many others like me) fell just a little bit in love.
Andrew BirdChicago native Andrew Bird is not exactly known for his ability to entertain several thousand balmy youths during peak sunshine hours at festivals. He is best displaying his myriad of musical skills in a small, smoky club in a cosmopolitan structure. However, Bird’s Saturday set proved that chest hair and rotating phonographic sound amplifiers were all he would need to woo his adoring following. Fanning themselves like old Southern Baptists in the midst of a sermon, Bird’s onlookers hooted and hollered as he strummed his guitar with a personal fan for “Fiery Crash” from his latest album Armchair Apocrypha. Bird is a man of many abilities—from violin, guitar, vocals, and various percussion to his trademark Theremin-esque whistling. Having actual knowledge and execution of a musical instrument is a rare thing in pop music today, and Bird nails it all in a live setting like he was born with it in his blood. His voice synchs perfectly with his violin solo in “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” from 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Touring percussionist, loop artist and Armchair collaborator Martin Dosh rolled out a lengthy drum solo for another new track, “Plasticities”, and Bird, with his usual deadpan audience comments, asked, “Are we not having fun?” Dosh taunted Bird with a mélange of percussion trinkets, waving finger cymbals his way for show-stopper “Simple X” (a Dosh original formerly called “Simple Exercises” with lyrics added by Bird). After a typical version of “Fake Palindromes”, Bird demonstrated a string learning course ditty that samples the many ways to strum a guitar. Closing with crown pleasers “Skin Is, My” and “Darkmatter”, his loose and tattered bowstrings matched his exhausted countenance.
Arctic MonkeysWith the fastest selling debut album in UK music history, a subsequent win in the 2006 Mercury Music Prize, and an über-successful sophomore album under their belts, Arctic Monkeys have reason to be as confident as Saturday night’s performance suggests they have become. These British youngsters lived up to their ‘Biggest Thing Since Oasis’ tagline with a display of no-frills Britrock that the huge audience found to be as danceable as it was fast paced. Quickly dispelling suspicions that the inner-belly of the crowd was just Arcade Fire devotees trying to shuffle their way to the front, Arctic Monkeys played a set tailor-made for this kind of environment—even lead singer Alex Turner’s swaggering vocals and Yorkshire accent seemed perfectly suited to ACL’s Texas-sized atmosphere. And it all came together as Turner sang, “Get on your dancing shoes/There’s one thing on your mind” on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’s “Dancing Shoes”, before solidifying the body-moving call to arms with the hit single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”.
Arctic Monkeys may not have done anything astonishingly groundbreaking in their solid performance on Saturday night, but neither have their two albums—and, as proven by their staggering success and tangible live appeal, they really don’t need to.
Arcade FireNever ones to shy away from a little of the epic grandeur, Arcade Fire’s headlining set on Saturday left few in attendance with the energy to mumble anything more than, “Shit— Jesus— Awesome—Shit…” after Win Butler and co. struck the final chord of their encore-worthy encore performance. They performed with the intensity and ability of a band deserving of their colossal reputation.
After opening with a bizarre video clip of a ranting evangelical, the five circular displays faded into the now iconic image of their flapping Neon Bible and Arcade Fire delivered a captivating take of album opener “Black Mirror” which collapsed into a biblically proportioned roar from the massive crowd. This was followed by “Keep the Car Running”, one of the strongest and most inspiring tracks from the new album: by now the festival was in near hysterics. And while Neon Bible hits like “No Cars Go” and “Intervention” (as well as a shout-out to his ‘real’ home state of Texas) had the crowd in the palm of Butler’s hand, it was the first three tracks of the ‘Neighborhood’ series from their debut Funeral that really brought the house down. Each one in succession seemed conclusively to steal the honors of “song of the night”, but, in the spirit of a true festival headlining act, Arcade Fire saved the best for last and came back out to the one-song encore of “Wake Up”, after which truly nothing could be added.
The NationalI somehow doubt that a huge number of ACL goers will be heading home after the festival’s close telling their friends that The National stole the show in a whirlwind of blog-worthy buzz. Somehow, though, that suits these Brooklyn natives just fine. They’ll leave the screaming throngs to the more digestible bands – to the Arctic Monkeys, to Bloc Party. The National’s driving rock n’ roll, led by Matt Berninger’s distinctive baritone vocals was, for me, the unquestionable highlight of Sunday’s program. Regret, melancholy and urban anxiety – these are hardly the thematic flavor-du-jour when it comes to a “fun in the sun” style music festival, but for The National and their ever-dedicated fan base, these two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive. “Squalor Victoria” opened to an almost shockingly vocal audience approval, and led into a string of utterly memorable songs from their recent Boxer (buy it now if you don’t have it) and 2005’s Alligator. Rocking out at the right times and stopping to think about it when appropriate, The National put together a set that, in a perfectly just world, would have seen them headlining any major festival across the world.
Bloc PartyWarming up the stage for Bob Dylan is no easy task; playing a show to a crowd half composed of grizzled Americana elitists impatiently waiting to see their Messiah in the flesh is even harder. But this was the reality for Bloc Party’s Sunday evening performance, and, ultimately, one that they bravely surmounted.
At first, the UK group’s spiky guitar riffs pushed the treble-over-everything aesthetic even further than on any of Bloc Party’s recordings, and came across as thin and somewhat fragile. So too, some of the tracks from their latest album A Weekend in the City struggled to find their feet and ignite the crowd that had just the night before treated fellow Brits Arctic Monkeys to such a warm reception. However, in the end, lead singer Kele Okereke’s dynamic vocal performance combined with the band’s ferocious rhythm section to get the festival grounds moving and prove to all of the flannel shirt-wearing nay-sayers that angular guitar rock is still very much alive. The massively energetic “Like Eating Glass” stood out from the set and was, in turn, treated to a great response from the crowd. In conclusion, the set was strong without being inspiring.
The DecemberistsDressed in a classic white collared shirt, tie, spectacles and suspenders, The Decemberists’ lead singer Colin Meloy sure looked the part of the hyper-literate indie-folk savior of hipster intelligentsia. Before a surprisingly huge crowd (when did that happen??) and in one of the final performances of the festival, The Decemberists were at first hampered by sound problems that obscured Meloy’s vocals during the “The Crane Wife 3”, but were treated to one of the loudest cheers of the day after things were set right. In return, Meloy professed his sincere gratitude for being invited to play at the festival and talked at length about his affection for the city of Austin—an attitude that established a tight connection between band and fans, defying the magnitude of the audience. Amongst the favorite tracks were “The Crane Wife 1 & 2”, “O Valencia!” and the irresistibly catchy “16 Military Wives”, which had an impressive majority of the crowd singing along. Perhaps it was this kind of situation that Meloy and friends foresaw when engineering the trajectory of their sound away from lo-fi folk rock and towards the almost stadium-worthy prog-rock that filled the airspace of greater Austin this weekend.