Everyone who did ACL this past weekend is probably nursing their sore calves, thighs and feet right now. It’s one of the best things about this city, but there’s no doubting that ACL can be an exhausting experience to go through. Heck, it’s even difficult to get to the festival because of the hideous traffic situation that forms around Zilker Park. But once inside, the often-haphazard paths followed to the Festival’s entrance are well worth it.
The following is simply a rundown of the acts I saw over the three days, accompanied by observations on the festival as a whole. This was the most time I’ve ever spent at ACL. I know there are a few hardcore souls who arrive at opening bell, but my 21 cumulative hours over the three days represented a new high.
After the regrettable events at SXSW 2011, it seemed like ACL made an especially concerted effort to make the festival as accommodating and smooth as possible. The refillable water stations were a life saver in the mid-afternoon heat, and port-o-let access was the most plentiful yet. Those volunteers manning the booths really earned their stripes; the lines were huge as always at the food stations and bars, but I really think they moved faster. Also, that 160z Kirin Ichiban at the Craft Beer station was totally worth the $7.
The first act to catch my ear was Los Angeles’ Fool’s Gold. I always expect blues rock at the early afternoon shows, especially on a Friday, but Fool’s Gold takes their music in a surprising direction. African poly-rhythms and world music-inflected melodies made the show a spicy, surprising event. Heavy hints of Talking Heads influence were obvious but not derivative. The band has released a record this year, called Leave No Trace. That’s probably worth looking into.
From that surprising success to the festival’s first disappointment, we wandered to James Blake at Honda Stage after Fool’s Gold. Much has been made of Blake this year, and while I still hadn’t caught on I wanted to check the hoopla for him on Friday. Sadly, Blake’s monochromatic electronica/dub-step – which often holds on one chord for an entire song – fell flat in the afternoon stupor of ACL’s first-day visitors. The applause was appreciative, but Blake barely mustered any momentum during the stretch I was at his stage.
Then it was back to Austin Ventures for Electric Touch, who are really cool guys in person and thus piqued my interest to see in a stage setting. They look like old pros up there, they mold the roomy platform to their specifics. I expect their soon-to-be-released major label release will be similarly poised. Again, though, the artist in question was forced to yield to the low-energy afternoon masses. Electric Touch’s music is fast-paced and dynamic in a way that it needs a nighttime position to best showcase it. On Friday, Christopher Leigh’s guitar licks and Shane Lawlor’s front man belting existed in the vacuum of the stage. It wasn’t the band’s fault; the crowd wasn’t ready to get up for what Electric Touch was serving.
At 4:30 we saw the first great concert of ACL, at least for me. Big Boi, of OutKast fame, came out white-hot and totally swayed the crowd to his point of view by peppering his set list with both old OutKast classics and even more ferocious takes on tracks from 2010′s acclaimed Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. Big Boi’s full-band approach was unexpected if you are used to seeing hip-hop artists who use a turn table and computer (more on that later), but the real-time R&B backbeat – especially from the bassist and drummer – pushed the performance to another level. I really need to buy this guy’s records.
Later, it was a little bit of this (Kurt Vile and the Violators were bluesy and raw), a little bit of that (Cold War Kids had a fantastic closing 20 minutes) and overhearing the kinetic guitar work emanating from Foster the People while we grasped for drinks and food. Bright Eyes was a lot less maudlin than expected. I think I like Connor Oberst’s voice more now than I did in high school. And during Santigold we gave our haunches a break and sat down while the electro-R&B chanteuse put on one of Friday’s most energetic shows. It was two hours where we tried to get a glimpse of as many people as possible, but we still missed Nas and Damian Marley, Pretty Lights and Sara Bareilles. Phew.
While in line, we were lucky enough to overhear Mavis Staples at the Vista Equity stage. Formerly of the iconic Staple Singers, Mavis hasn’t lost her fire in her later years. This fact was best attested to during “This is My Country,” where Staples went on a lengthy, politically-motivated sermon. “I’m seeing too many children walk around with no shoes on their feet. I’m seeing too many children walk around without a whole family to raise them. I’m seeing too many people walking around disrespecting our president. Saying he’s not a real president. Shameful. There are people going around trying to piss in a cup and call it tea!” The crowd roared.
Of course the main draw at that point was Kanye West. One of modern music’s last remaining superstars, West wore his reputation well on Friday night. His elaborate light show, with synchronized dancers, distracted the audience’s view until West began his opening number – “Dark Fantasy” – from a rapidly-rising metal platform. West lorded over the crowd amassed at the Bud Light stage, rapping from 50 feet up in the middle of the maw. Honestly, the complexity of the setup seemed to get the best of ACL’s sound team at first. Kanye’s microphone dropped out of earshot once or twice during “Dark Fantasy,” but West was right on beat for the entirety. When the sound came back he hadn’t missed a line.
After, Kanye came back to Earth and walked down the center aisle to the stage. He was slapping fans’ hands as he progressed. What followed was a one-man, onstage wrecking ball. Other than his two loop/turntable men, West held the entire space himself. Oh, and there were ballerinas, too. There was another mic short-out, which cause me to worry that we’d seriously have patches where Kanye’s rapping couldn’t be heard. It didn’t happen after the second number, though.
The concert was split into three “acts” and seemed elaborate and monumental despite the attention being squarely focused on West. He reminded me of The Joker in The Dark Knight - a larger-than-life figure who implements a huge event basically all by himself. Kanye was more magnanimous than The Joker ever would be, though, as he took a significant amount of time to thank his crew, his fans and the ACL team.
But it’s hard to watch Kanye perform and not get the indelible sense that this music goes beyond a career for him. You see the force with which he attacks modern tracks like “Power” and “Lost in the World” and past classics like “All Falls Down” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and it’s obvious he’s working through something personal up there. He has moments of levity, like when he broke into the opening line off a track from this year’s Jay-Z collaboration Watch the Throne, only to drop it and say “wait for the next tour on that one, folks.” But overall this is a serious artist at work here. “Runaway,” which was pushed past the 10-minute mark while West freestyled his autotune and a single ballerina improvised, was the break-off point. If you were willing to follow Kanye’s brooding, schizoid-spiritual path, you loved it. Others, though, were surely alienated by the lengthy outburst.
Whatever your opinion on that section, everyone walked away from Kanye’s show (which ran past 10, and West thanked ACL for “letting me go past my time”) having had an experience impressed upon them. Coldplay is a strong, successful band that deserves its accolades. I’m sure they put on a great show for their fans. But I feel that even the folks who chose Chris Martin thought to themselves “I bet Kanye put on a pretty great show.” Of course he did. But I’ll go farther than that. Other than Radiohead, Kanye West is today’s most important recording artist. Friday night convinced me.