Reviews: ACL Fest 2011 Friday - Kanye West, Bright Eyes, Kurt Vile, Smith Westerns, Delta Spirit, Wild Beasts
Words by Andy Pareti
Photos by Gary Miller and Randy Cremean
Austin City Limits got off to a more than solid start thanks to the haunting melodies and otherworldly vocals of England’s Wild Beasts. The Beasts’ set was notable for its striking similarity to the band’s studio cuts, which probably seems like a rather hollow observation if you don’t know the foursome’s music. All three of their studio albums, especially the sophomore effort Two Dancers, drips of an ethereal quality that owes itself to the masterful, layered production and fantastic vocal contrast of Hayden Thorpe’s Antony Hegarty-like falsetto and the thick-as-honey deepness of Tom Fleming’s voice. All of these elements were perfectly represented live on standout cuts like “All the King’s Men” and “Hooting & Howling”.
I had high hopes for Delta Spirit after their raucous Emo’s performance last year, and while they did their best to fill the open air at the too-large-for-their-sound Bud Light stage, their impact ended up falling flat as one of the less memorable sets of the weekend. It seems that the band just wasn’t an appropriate fit for such a massive crowd, despite their obvious enthusiasm. Much in the same way that Fleet Foxes somehow, in a rather inappropriate way, have become a festival band, Delta Spirit have been thrust into a situation that clearly does not suit them. When I think of “Trashcan”, I want the stink of cigarette smoke and the rumble of the walls around me, not the sucking abyss of the open sky.
This is a band that perplexes me. Their sophomore album, Dye It Blonde, is one of the best of the year, and their SXSW performance demonstrated that they have the chops for big audiences. But this is the second time I’ve witnessed the Smith Westerns coming off sounding neutered, which is simply unacceptable for a guitar band that takes an obvious cue from Thin Lizzy. While “Weekend” and “Imagine, Pt. 3” will always sound good even in the worst conditions, the band looked largely uninterested, and the music left my mind as quickly as it entered.
Kurt Vile & the Violators:
On the other hand, relative newcomer Kurt Vile provided possibly the breakout performance of the entire festival. With a voice built for the open road (a Bob Dylan rasp combined with a Tom Petty inflection), Vile is blessed with a certain ability for dirt-blasted heartland rock and takes full advantage of this heavenly gift – on record and in concert. With Robert Plant-ian hair that dangled over a face affixed downward at his guitar, Vile cut through slice after thick slice of his beautiful Smoke Ring for My Halo album, most notably “Runner Ups” and “Peeping Tomboy”, the latter of which possessed a flabbergasting romance of loneliness and warmth.
The indie veteran Connor Oberst has evolved greatly in the last decade, from folk prodigy to country crooner to synth-pop experimenter, and at least on stage, that has proven to be a great advantage. Oberst has all but abandoned his singer-songwriter roots for a band-full of genre-bending sound explorers, and even his older songs have been brightened with a new, full-bodied sheen. The band’s success isn’t necessarily in their newfound heaviness, but in their ability to strike a common balance when songs like “Four Winds”, “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now”, “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” and “Beginner’s Mind” share the same set. On Friday, Oberst’s entire career blended into one, satisfying story.
I have to admit, I was not looking forward to this. I’m the first person to try to set aside an artist’s personality when judging his music, but West makes that very, very hard every time he opens his mouth. More importantly, I never found his music, as a whole, entirely interesting. West’s set, though, made me realize that it really doesn’t matter what name is slapped on top of the lunchbox, what logo is displayed on the cover. Are you enjoying it? Are you having fun? I’m not going to get very far trying to guess who was actually most responsible for West’s set. (Was it the sound guy for playing his studio track in the background? The half-naked ballerina dancers? The guy who pressed the button to lift West fifty feet in the air? West himself?) The fact is, the show was pretty damn fun. The setlist was perfectly balanced, opening with “Dark Fantasy”, segueing fluidly into “Power” and exploding next with the exclamation point, “Jesus Walks.” But the moment that hooked me for good? “Flashing Lights”, with its unapologetic hook, gaudy light show and West’s direct access to the adrenal gland. Just like West himself, I suppose.