The sun returned from its two-day vacation on Sunday, marking by far the hottest early afternoon of ACL’s three days. AME made sure to arrive before 2:30 on this day so we could see The Walkmen’s set at the AMD stage. But it always takes longer to walk than you think it will, so the reedy overtones of Hamilton Leithauser’s voice greeted us as we pushed in over the dry, outlying Zilker grounds.
Thankfully, we’re fast walkers and only got inside the crowd ten minutes late. I only know The Walkmen from their 2010 album, Lisbon. But that instant classic is enough to make a fan, so they were a must-see. The expectation for the weather to be wetter and cooler had extended beyond the crowd; the quintet were dressed much the same way they are in the picture above. “If I had known it was going to be this hot, I’ve would’ve worn my short-shorts,” Leithauser cracked halfway through the performance. Dude, historic, terrifying drought or no, it’s gonna be sweltering in Austin at 2:30 in September. But Hamilton is a great front man, holding down the center of the stage in his smart suit and grooving with Paul Maroon’s instantly-recognizable, reverb-drenched arpeggios. He kinda reminded me of David Byrne.
Lisbon masterpieces like “Blue as Your Blood,” “Juveniles” and “Woe is Me” blended with older Walkmen standbys, like “The Rat.” They even played a likeable tune Leithauser claimed “they had just written.” While I wasn’t familiar with at least half the songs played, it’s clear that The Walkmen are a great band who are getting better with each release. I should explore the back catalog.
After the show we became aware that until Fleet Foxes at 6:30 that we had no “must-see” choices. Because I’ve been hearing about how awesome Broken Social Scene is for years we chose their 4:30 set at the Bud Light stage. They’re really good! It was a bit of a shock to see a stage with four guitar players going at once – where are all the parts for them to play? – but the band’s sound was rawboned and strong, and watching additional songs made it clear everyone had something to do. I didn’t know any of the songs they played, of course, but obviously the years of buildup were on to something. This is the great thing about ACL: if you pick the right stage you can discover awesome music you never knew you were a fan of.
At least four of the people in this picture are professional guitar players
The same sentiment rang true for the following band. Manchester’s Elbow, holding court at the Google+ stage, gave one of the highlight sets of the entire festival. First of all, I think Google+ had the best overall sound performance of the three days. Elbow’s concert was another feather in its cap. But to focus on the band, Guy Garvey is one of the top lead singers in music now. An unconventional rock star, Garvey looks like a cooler version of Ricky Gervais and sings with a broadsword baritone that recalls Morrissey, but with a kinder heart in its chest.
Between songs Garvey slayed the crowd with his frequently humorous stage banter. He embraced the darkening clouds in the sky, pleading to the heavens for rain because he “heard you could use some rain in Texas.” Eventually the rain briefly returned, but it looked as if the clouds really unloaded once they got past the Park. When the ACL powers-that-be were forced to lower the Google+ banner from the stage rafters because of wind risks, Garvey implemented a back-and-forth crowd chant and crouched amusingly on the stage below the descending banner.
Elbow’s music alternates between tidal wave-sweeping big ballads and ball-beating rockers. Each phase of their sound promotes the big-hearted humanity emanating from the band’s front man. After their ACL set, I’m thinking they picked up a lot of new fans.
Fleet Foxes then showed up at the Bud Light stage, but the AME crowd didn’t want to get in the nitty gritty of the crowd. Many people were already sticking their places for the upcoming Arcade Fire closing set, so it would’ve been too difficult to be worth it. But the band’s folk-tinged, Beach Boys harmonies sounded wonderful in the early evening air. Thank God Bud Light figured out its sound issues. Tracks from the group’s latest record, Helplessness Blues, sounded the best to my ears. This was also when we were enjoying those Kirin Ichiban draft beers that were available near ACL’s big-screen football tent. It was a nice breather section, which is what Fleet Foxes’s music is perfect for.
The group wanted to head back to Google+ for Empire of the Sun. I had never heard of the group (an Australian psychedelic-electro duo), so I had literally no idea what to expect. It was an overwhelming, surreal experience. Empire of the Sun puts on one of the craziest, most mind-bending live sets you’ve ever seen. Leader Luke Steele wears robin’s egg-blue, star-shaped headgear while wailing on his heavily processed guitar and keyboard lines. The guy is an incredible shredder, and the live experience is more elaborate and gaudy than a Billy Corgan-Lady Gaga mash-up. Odd, synchronized dancers who were made up like creatures from the Silent Hill video games pushed the effect even further. The pummeling, ceaselessly kinetic music didn’t move me as much as Elbow’s previous set, but it was impossible to not be impressed by this.
And all of a sudden ACL 2011 was winding to a close. Arcade Fire started immediately at 8:30, which sucked for people who wanted to see the end of Empire of the Sun. Their should be at least a five minute passing period between performances to get into the crowd. We were still waiting in line for the bathroom when “Ready to Start” kicked in.
But once in place – we somehow managed to get close enough to see Win, Regine, Will, Richard and the rest – it was the amazing Arcade Fire concert that you always expect. This is a live act in the same realm as Springsteen or the Stones, meaning every time you see them it’s going to be one of the most memorable concerts you’ve ever been to. Win Butler introduced the classic “Intervention” by saying “when we wrote this song there was another Texas governor trying to be president.”
There was also the Haiti aid message that Arcade Fire has been pushing for a decade now. It’s good to see them holding to their political roots, even if it turns off some people in the crowd. I noticed that there was only one song – the David Byrne collaboration “Speaking in Tongues” – on the ACL set list that was different from the group’s Backyard concert-of-the-year several months ago. However, it was a different track order so the show was sufficiently different to be a new experience. “Wake Up” usually has a reliable encore spot, but it was brought out much earlier than expected.
The group still performs with the intensity of a hungry band onstage for the first time. This, despite the fact that Arcade Fire are now the most respected and acclaimed modern rock group. You could tell the audience had gone through something special once the finale “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” rippled out. “We won’t be back for a while, so thank you!” was Butler’s farewell. It takes Arcade Fire three years to make a record, but if they keep up this level of quality in their music and performance I’ll look forward to their next visit to Texas in 2014. While I still say the Backyard concert was a bit better, only the cynical would be disappointed with Sunday’s final concert.
Final ACL thoughts
. It really does take a lot out of you to spend significant time at the festival on all three days. As a friend said, “I don’t have to worry about what I eat here because there’s so much walking.”
. You can tell who are the newbies and who are festival veterans. The lanky-armed, shirtless guy named JJ sitting Indian-style with a blanket? He’s done this before. Not so much the late-50′s couple who are incredibly angry that people are smoking cigarettes around the lawn chairs at the Stevie Wonder stage.
. This year was amazingly efficient in terms of fan relations. The lines moved fast everywhere, and if you used the bus service leaving from Republic Square Park you were treated to an extremely comfortable, free bus ride to the grounds.
. If you didn’t use the bus, the best way to get to the Zilker: Barton Skyway.
. Dream picks for ACL 2012: it used to be R.E.M., based on their awesome 2003 headliner show (my first ACL ever), but with the sad news earlier this week it’s obvious that won’t happen. However, Thom Yorke has said that Radiohead will tour in 2012 and rumor has it The Rolling Stones will mark their 50th anniversary by doing the same. Could you imagine a Radiohead Friday headlining gig and a Sunday close-out with the Stones? It’s too good to be true, probably, but that’s why it’s a “dream pick.”
Anyway, whatever the final picks, we’ll be sure to be there in some form next year. ACL 2011 was a wonderful, and exhausting, three days. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Where are you in this crowd?