All weekend, Austin City Limits had been about choices – Kanye or Coldplay, Stevie Wonder or My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes or Manu Chao – until Sunday night, when Arcade Fire played up against no one but themselves. The set they performed is a familiar one to anyone who's seen them in the past year or so, and at first, even frontman Win Butler seemed a little tired of it: "The heat has been getting to me," he admitted.
It wasn't just Arcade Fire's set that was repetitive. This summer's festival lineups practically could be turned into an LSAT question: "If Arcade Fire and Kanye West play Coachella and Austin City Limits, but Arcade Fire also plays Bonnaroo and Outside Lands and a bunch of festivals in Europe, and then there's My Morning Jacket and Fleet Foxes and Death From Above 1979, and let's not forget Bright Eyes, they played a ton of festivals this summer too – oh, and what about Girl Talk, he's at practically everything – then who is sitting at table eight next to Mrs. Mahoney, and who is Win Butler going to ask to dance next?"
Festivals used to be Events, spectacles that offered surprises, reunions, old-timers taken out of mothballs for one last spectacular set. This summer, though, everyone got Kanye and his ballerinas, Arcade Fire and their home movies, Fleet Foxes and their flannels, all bundled together in one RFID-tagged package. Maybe it's organizers wanting to play it safe, knowing that they have to sell a certain number of expensive three-day passes to recoup their costs and that the number of people who will go to multiple big festivals – the Coachellas and Bonnaroos and Lollapaloozas of the world – is probably low; or maybe it's that bands like Arcade Fire figure they can make a bunch of cash playing festivals for a few months.
As one of the last festivals of the summer, Austin City Limits did, however, feel like a fitting coda to the season. Kanye retired this version of his show as he preps to launch the Watch the Throne tour with Jay-Z; Butler ended Arcade Fire's set last night by telling the crowd, "We're not gonna see you for a couple years." The festival also brought about the end of the oppressive heat and drought that's been gripping much of Texas all summer, as it rained briefly on each day of the festival for the first time in months. (One tiny upside to the devastating two-week-old wildfire that has burned over 34,000 acres in nearby Bastrop County: Friday Night Lights star and Austin resident Kyle Chandler's public service announcements broadcast on repeat at the Red Cross's booth in the bicycle parking lot.)
There were certainly highlights: despite the muffled sound, Stevie Wonder played a joyful set of classics on Saturday night. Yesterday, Fleet Foxes channeled Crosby, Stills and Nash with their killer harmonies, while enormously talented band member Morgan Henderson alternated among playing the upright bass, guitar, mandolin, saxophone, violin and tambourine. On Friday afternoon, Kurt Vile and the Violators played a powerful set of songs of love and betrayal that belied Vile's laconic demeanor; with his long hair, near-expressionless face and Orangina T-shirt, he could've been a member of any high school drama club stage crew, but his performance – particularly on "Smoke Ring for My Halo," the title track from his excellent March release – was emotional and deeply engaged. TV on the Radio performed a set that spanned from their 2003 EP Young Liars (the euphoric, set-ending "Staring at the Sun") to some of the best tracks on their latest, Nine Types of Light, including "Caffeineited Consciousness" and "Will Do." And although they mostly played songs off new album Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes instead of classics like "Story of My Life," Social Distortion's set was remarkable in large part due to its sheer generation-spanning nature, perhaps best represented by a baby girl on her father's shoulders wearing big pink headphones and waving glow sticks.
And in the end, even the weary members of Arcade Fire redeemed themselves. Just as they seemed committed to playing a perfectly respectable, if a bit tame, performance (which was also plagued by the same problems as Wonder's set the night before), they launched into a searing rendition of "Month of May," the track off The Suburbs they performed as an encore after winning their Grammy for Album of the Year. Then it was a barrage of high-energy, dance-worthy moments for the rest of the show: "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"; the deceptively dark "We Used to Wait"; "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)," which was accompanied, appropriately enough, by a light show; and "Rebellion (Lies)," during which drummer Jeremy Gara played a wild set out from behind his kit, with one of his drums in hand around the stage. On their last song, "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," Régine Chassagne danced around the stage, waving ribbons like a rhythmic gymnast. Everyone in sight was dancing too.