The AME crew found a significantly better route to Zilker Park on Saturday, which meant that we were in much better mental and physical shape to take in what ACL had to offer. As always, there were acts that I regrettably missed. Two of Austin’s hot risers, the sun-washed electro group Fresh Millions and eccentric hippie crooners Cowboy and Indian, and Los Angeles’s The Belle Brigade had early shows and played before my group arrived. The Belle Brigade’s self-titled 2011 release might be one of this year’s best records, so that one particularly hurt. But I have a feeling all three of these groups will be playing in the city again soon, so it was important to forward on.
As we entered the park we were able to hear the last 20 minutes of Young the Giant’s concert. It was totally context-free and hard to get a track on the music because of the late entry onto the grounds, but the band sounded muscular and dynamic. I’m sure the first forty minutes would’ve been fun. The first full act I was able to take in was Alexander at the Google+ stage. Alex Ebert is front man for Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, but his serene, accomplished solo material shows off the less exuberant side of his musicality. The album is also one of the year’s strongest releases. Ebert, in his floppy, wide-brimmed hat and loose shirt, overcame the mid-day doldrums that sunk Friday’s afternoon acts and pulled the crowd into his spiritual, folkie sound. A few members of the Magnetic Zeroes served as Alexander’s backing group, but the solo act is a totally different animal from his commune/other band. This was proven when the group launched into an impromptu, totally re-arranged version of “Carries On,” one of the highlight track from 2009′s Up From Below.
It was a wonderfully ramshackle, off-the-wing performance that rested on Alexander’s steady-eyed, memorable compositions. “Awake My Body” and “In the Twilight” stirred the pot, but Ebert’s stage banter helped to warm the crowd up. One song was pulled out despite Alexander’s warning that “we haven’t rehearsed this.” This led to a great, halting performance that featured Ebert instructing the stalwart Stewart Cole to “go ahead, pick up your horn, you know, da da da da da da.” Cole responded by throwing out a few melody lines that mirrored Ebert’s lyrics. The effect and song were charming. “A Million Years” closed the show on an appropriate sing-a-long. I’m thinking this Alexander Ebert is a pretty major talent. Both times I have seen him live (my first time was with his band last year at La Zona Rosa) he’s excelled. Some people in the audience didn’t even know he was involved with the Magnetic Zeroes – they must’ve been waiting for Skrillex – but their attention was rapt.
The plan was unclear after that, but our choice was made for us by the fact that we had lost our group in the ACL crowd and now needed to re-locate them. This is a common occurrence that every festival-goer has to tread through, so there was a dutiful trek through Alison Krauss & Union Station’s adoring crowd at the Bud Light stage. In the time it took to find our compatriots (which we finally did) we heard Krauss and her astounding Union Station swoon and tear through many of the roots siren’s most revered tunes. The track that got everyone excited was, of course, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” Eleven years ago, Krauss’s rendition of the traditional tune jump-started the 21st century folk revival. Arguably, one of modern music’s biggest upheaval’s can be traced to Alison and The Coen Brothers.
Back at Google+, we checked out the reason for that huge crowd push forward following Alexander’s set. Black-haired, black-suited, bespectacled DJ Skrillex took no time driving his ravenous crowd into a frenzy. His whizzing samples and looped beats didn’t let up at any point during his set, and Sonny Moore (his real name) looked like he was having a blast. He was dancing at his station as hard as his fans in the crowd. According to The AV Club, some people consider Skrillex the “Nickelback of dance music,” whatever that means, but those people sounds like jerks. “Wahh, people are having fun! This must be bad.” The crowd was loving this set, and even though it’s not my preferred genre I appreciated the energy and effect. A memorable part of Skrillex’s set was an onstage dance by a young boy who had been fully decked-out in punk rock attire by Austin Kiddie Limits. At one point, Skrillex picked the kid up and had him shout out to the crowd over the microphone. Then he put the kid back down – he went back to dancing – and Skrillex hit another knob without missing a beat.
After that it was kill-time until TV on the Radio. We got some food and drinks and heard a bit of Cut Copy. AME received a Cut Copy EP about a year ago, but it didn’t make much of an impression. Wow, was I wrong on my assumptions about this band. They were more lively and less down-in-the-mouth than I ever would’ve expected. We should probably give them a second chance.
But when 7 PM rolled around it was about one thing: TV on the Radio at Google+. I’ve been talking several times in this article about some artists’ 2011 releases being among the best I’ve heard all year. Well, Nine Types of Light, TV on the Radio’s latest, might be the best of the year. It was a ferocious, knock-you-back-on-your-ass performance. The Brooklyn band more than lived up to their critical darling status. Watching the galvanizing opener “Halfway Home,” or the beautiful rendition of “Will Do,” or the pummeling “Blues from Down Here,” there’s no way this isn’t one of the top music acts performing at the moment. Also, an “I’m old” alert: several high school girls walked in front of me during the performance singing along perfectly to “Staring at the Sun,” one of TV on the Radio’s earliest popular songs. I don’t even know those words. Yikes. It was a shame to realize Gerard Smith couldn’t be with them, but TV on the Radio may have given the best show at ACL 2011.
Additionally, multiple reports place Christian Bale backstage during TV on the Radio’s set, recording the show on his iPhone. I didn’t see him, so he must’ve been visible from the opposite angle of where I was. Still, that’s pretty cool to have Batman at ACL.
8 PM marked the huge movement of humanity back to the Bud Light stage to see the legend, Stevie Wonder. One of the genuine geniuses of music, Wonder represents a huge coup for ACL. Too bad Bud Light’s sound problems – which were apparent at Kanye West’s show the previous night – were even worse Saturday. Why had Alison Krauss sounded so great earlier that day? When one of the de-facto greatest musicians in American history graces the ACL stage, the people should make sure we can at least hear his voice. An opening cover of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” heralded Wonder’s appearance. He was wearing a gold and red-striped dashiki and playing a keytar. The intro went on and on and on, and I looked forward to a set dominated by Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life approach. That means that each tune is about seven or eight minutes long. Length is not a problem when it’s Stevie Wonder, and the man himself seemed extremely into it onstage.
I bet the people up close had a great show. But the further back you were the more you had to strain to hear “Higher Ground,” “Sir Duke” and a note-for-note rendition of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Wonder hit all of the jams – “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” and the inevitable finale “Superstition.” His voice sounds exactly the same as it did 40 years ago. Even with the sound problems he was special in person. I can only imagine how transcendent the experience would’ve been if the speakers were up to their full ability.