Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) is historically one of the most inconsistent live performers in indie music. There have been rumors of sets cut tragically short by the singer wandering off the stage, never to return. Others claim the mysterious chanteuse curls up on the floor of the stage and mumbles her songs, or conducts entire performances with her back to the audience. But despite all her weirdness, no one has ever doubted her chops as both a socially astute and introspective songwriter and the possessor of a soulful, unusual voice.
Her latest effort, The Greatest, is a huge departure from the previous records, and finds Cat Power experimenting with a big soul sound straight out of Memphis. As much as the album is a shift in gears for Cat Power, so are her live shows in support of The Greatest. This time around, the rumors are about how good Marshall is live. Focused. Sincere. Present.
Cat Power became my most anticipated act of ACL Festival. Would she be on her good behavior this time? Could she successfully project the intimacy of her songs out to a crowd of thousands? Yes and yes. Her voice, for one, was phenomenal, clear and strong, and she seemed to thoroughly enjoy being onstage with her Memphis band. If Marshall actually had a stage fright problem in the past, she’s all but forgotten it these days. As she sang, she hopped, danced, played with her hair, and made up little hand gestures as if she were singing in her bedroom rather than at a huge outdoor festival. During a brief break, she gave a shout out to big-name festival predecessors Gnarls Barkley, and did an impromptu cover of their hit single “Crazy.” As Marshall got ready for her surprisingly lively version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” she practiced her Mick Jagger impression, strutting and posing for the cameras. The older Cat Power songs that she chose for her set were nicely adapted to make the best of her backing band's great talents. The songs off The Greatest were expertly realized. All in all, it was a wonderful surprise, which I hope heralds a new era in the bizarre musical life of Cat Power.
- Callie Enlow
TV on the Radio
Watching TV on the Radio perform live is like watching a geyser erupt. The band is T-shirt and jeans, bass and guitar, just a few unassuming guys looking like they sort of forgot what they were supposed to be doing onstage. But then, frontman Tunde Adebimpe howls his first distinctive vocals, guitarist Kyp Malone comes in with the almost-too-much falsetto, founding member David Sitek performs exorcisms on the guitar, and the rhythm section goes completely insane. The sudden explosion of energy is absolutely riveting and also totally sustained for the duration of the performance.
Tribal drum beats propel equally powerful vocals, while the experimental side of TVOTR comes out to play with chimes hung off guitar necks, multiple percussions, and some serious whistle solos. The band burned through older songs off of their groundbreaking EP Young Liars, and treated the audience to several songs from their much-anticipated recent release, Return to Cookie Mountain. And this is only their one-hour set, in the middle of the day, at an outdoor festival. This is the preview trailer of the next great art-house movie, out of focus and screened on the side of a building. Seeing them perform on their own terms, as I hope many ACL Festival goers did at the Emo’s after party on the last night of the festival, is even more jaw-dropping.
Many of the band members have backgrounds in visual arts; they usually try to match the visual and sonic experiences. But the type of set necessary for playing a festival such as ACL can afford few visual luxuries, so what the audience gets are the bare essentials of the musicians' performance. I think this fact helps a band like TVOTR, who, by virtue of their hipster Brooklyn beginnings and artistic backgrounds, are often pegged as avant-garde art-rock and associated with high-concept, low-substance musicianship. Saturday afternoon’s minimalist set proved that artists can be rockers and vice versa.
- Callie Enlow
Lucky for The Stills, the bone-drenching rain that was pounding the ACL Festival grounds let up just before they were scheduled to begin their set. Lucky for those who got up early and braved the soggy forecast, there were far fewer people at The Stills than normal due to the precipitation. And although I sincerely wish the quintet all the exposure they deserve, it was pretty nice to be in the front row with a relatively small audience chock-full of die-hard fans. Maybe the proximity is what made the set seem so great to me; I’m sure it certainly helped. But I was also surprised at their sound, like many critics who are just listening to Without Feathers, the band’s recently-released sophomore effort. The Montreal-based group’s first release was a sort of run-of-the-mill 1980s throwback, back when being influenced by New Wave was what all the cool kids were claiming. After that one, the young group had a pretty major revising period, and surprisingly came back with a damned solid indie rock album, free of pretension or plagiarism.
Their ACL Festival set was liberated of those elements as well. The band opened with “It Takes Time” and took a minute to warm up to the crowd. Complimenting Austin in between tunes, actually introducing their songs and even explaining them a bit, the band eased into a great arc of songs, peaking with “Oh Shoplifter” and “In the Beginning,” both off the latest record. They ended with some crowd favorites from their earlier album, Logic Will Break Your Heart, notably “Still in Love Song,” which momentarily made me forget my distaste for all things influenced by Echo and the Bunnymen. Tim Fletcher and Dave Hamelin share both lead vocals and guitars, and both proved their talents on guitar; their vocals were equally strong, and they bravely tried to “pull a Stevie Ray Vaughan” to thank Austin during the closer “Love and Death”.
- Callie Enlow
Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
As soon as I got to the festival on Friday and hit the misting area, I immediately went to the Heineken stage to check out Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, the only show worth seeing at this beginning point of the festival. Having seen him at Emo’s in Austin right after the release of Shake the Sheets, I thought I knew what I was in for, but nothing could have prepared me for this set - except maybe a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart from John Travolta.
Immediately after opening with “Little Dawn,” Leo moves straight to “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”, the staggering ode to The Specials and the sound that they pioneered back in the day. Whenever I think of Ted Leo, I can’t help but be reminded of the instantaneous catchiness of Elvis Costello and the politically-minded fervor of Billy Bragg. This couldn’t be more evident than when he played both “Counting Down the Hours” and “Me and Mia” side-by-side with a greater intensity than his albums can provide.
The true high point for me came when Leo belted out both “Biomusicology” and “Timorous Me,” which are two of the best songs that he has ever put to tape. They are exquisite on record and even more captivating with the man who crafted these masterworks playing them just for you (and the thousands of other people surrounding you). Towards the end of the set, Leo dropped his guitar and took the mic with him off the front of the stage and thundered furiously through “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” while pounding his skull to the point of bloodshed without flinching once; neither did I, but I didn’t have blood dripping from my forehead.
- Tyler Aune
Let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning. Wolf Parade played the best show of the entire festival, hands down. There is no need for discussion or debate. To put their brilliance in perspective, keyboardist/vocalist Spencer Krug tickled the ivories for the audience up until the end of the soundcheck. Once the set started, Wolf Parade burned through nearly all of the glorious tracks on last year's Apologies to the Queen Mary.
There were so many highlights, such as the medley of “You Are a Runner, and I Am My Father's Son” and “Fancy Claps,” that would have caused me to spontaneously combust had it not been for the water I was drinking at the time. While “Modern World” and “Grounds for Divorce” proved to be just as compelling live as they are in my headphones, nothing could have made me happier than to just stand there in amazement as “Dinner Bells” came crashing through the speakers. I could have died at that moment and that would have been alright. Don’t take that literally though. I hope that I have a long life ahead of me.
This was the kind of set that you look back on 10 or 20 years down the line. Being a relatively new band, it is my guess that this is only the beginning for Wolf Parade. The only disappointment that I can imagine is that no set they play from this point forward will match what we witnessed that hot September afternoon.
- Tyler Aune
Iron and Wine
Saturday had its fill of great sets, from the infectious intelligence of The Shins to the grizzly blues of The Raconteurs to the bizarrely theatrical set that can only be expected from The Flaming Lips. No one would have guessed, however, that the high point of the day would come from a shaggy-bearded man with an acoustic guitar, a man characterized by his soft-spoken delivery and humbly-picked, acoustic playing. Iron and Wine consists of Sam Beam mainly, with his sister providing backup vocals and a wonderfully constructed band to provide support whenever the song called for their healing touch.
Even though I didn’t take a single note during the entire set, each song is burned into my subconscious. Some of my personal favorites include the sunnier, quicker-paced take on “On Your Wings” and “Naked As We Came,” in its purest, most stripped-down version that captivated my heart immediately. Throughout the night, the light that shined down on Beam was like an angelic aura that bathed the set with a warmness that could not have been captured had this been an afternoon set.
Nothing could have prepared me for what came at the very end. I was expecting “Love and Some Verses” or even “Lion’s Mane,” which would have both been perfect ways to end the hour. Instead, Beam stood there with one spotlight hanging over him and played the nearly 10-minute rarity “The Trapeze Swinger.” Right before the song had started I was having a pretty involved conversation with one of my friends, but as soon as the first string was plucked from that well-tuned guitar, I stood still in my tracks. With my eyes fixated only on the stage, I couldn’t turn away the entire time. My body was covered with goose bumps until the very end. That’s all that I needed for the rest of the night. Thank you, Sam Beam; thank you very much.
As Broken Social Scene brought the perfect close to Lollapalooza for Soundcheck just six weeks prior, Muse left its audience with a similar feeling of completeness. The band rocked their fans into a parallel universe where we could think and feel as though we could truly set our world in the right direction. Maybe we can. Their strong emotional set inspired all to dance without inhibition and sing at the top of their lungs about what is wrong with the planet Earth and our rights to fight for what we believe.
Muse is different than other rock bands making their mark in the music world. They are extremely passionate about their work, and they create music that forces a reaction. Since its release this summer, I have enjoyed their latest, Black Holes and Revelations, on a daily basis, and was thrilled with their uncanny ability to keep the live sound so close to their recorded work, making it easy for the fans to get into it very quickly. They boldly opened with “Knights of Cydonia,” setting the tone for the set; they came to Austin with a mission to get the audience off their asses. Mission accomplished! From “Starlight” to “Supermassive Black Hole”, everybody was jumping and singing every single word.
Following their performance, I looked around and witnessed a variety of expressions from their devoted fans. Some looked excited and enlightened while others seemed frustrated and didn’t know what to do with an unmanageable level of hyperactivity. It was quite a jolt to get a full-strength dose of political introspection in a pill as easy to swallow as Muse. We walked directly to our car after their performance, which was marked by some of the best ACL Festival weather in history. As soon as the last car door was shut, rain began to fall heavily and the lightning struck all around. A consensus was reached in our camp: We had just witnessed a truly remarkable ending to a great music festival. Next came the hard part: how could any of us sleep with so much energy?
- Michael Marshall