This year's Austin City Limits Music Festival will be known for the one that got away. Three days before showtime, Meg White's "acute anxiety" forced the White Stripes to cancel their Saturday headlining gig. The biggest dilemma of the weekend -- whether to see Arcade Fire or the Stripes -- became a no-brainer. Still up in the air, though, was which competing dance-party revolution to join as fest opened on Friday.
Option A: the intoxicating global hip-hop of Sri Lankan Londonite Maya Arulpragasam, otherwise known as M.I.A. Option B: the techno rock of LCD Soundsystem, a six-piece band fronted by smart aleck producer James Murphy. M.I.A. took the stage to synthetic gunfire and riled up the crowd with political raps like "Paper Planes" and "20 Dollar" to the point that a mob bum-rushed the stage. Murphy, who pleased with "North American Scum" and "Get Innocuous," was more hands-off in his approach: "Write a letter to your senator, 'cause my time's up."
The sun set on Queens of the Stone Age, who brought to their throng of fans one of the many swarms of dragonflies patrolling Zilker Park. While the band pounded out tracks at an intense volume, a stage-side interpreter signed the words to "You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire" and "Go With the Flow" from their album Songs for the Deaf. Chances are there were no communication breakdowns when frontman Josh Homme encouraged everyone to "grab a partner and try to get laid tonight."
The Killers and Bjok closed out the night in dueling displays of pageantry. Killers ringleader Brandon Flowers wore an electric-silver cocktail jacket and kicks to match, while Bjork sported a gold-colored bean bag of sorts, her make-up styled after Gwyneth Paltrow in the ads benefiting Africa. Likewise, the Killers had Christmas lights galore draped over their instruments and Bjork had green lasers bisecting the night sky. What ultimately set the acts apart were their deliveries. The Killers stuck to the hits, among them "When You Were Young," "Somebody Told Me" and "Mr. Brightside," but Bjork got lost in the enchanted forest that is her new album, Volta.
Despite the mid-ninety-degree heat oppressing the 65,000 in attendance on Saturday, there weren't many musicians sacrificing fashion for potential heat stroke. Take Stephen Marley, who must have burned up in jeans and a denim shirt at the afternoon's hottest hour. But burning is what the Rastafari is all about and, judging by the aroma, so was the crowd during renditions of his pop's "Duppy Conquerer," "No Woman No Cry" and "Buffalo Soldier."
The rest of the day was a rock & roll variety pack. The efficient call-and-response guitars and whip-smart lyricism of "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "Fake Tales of San Francisco" was the Arctic Monkeys' contribution. Black and red beach balls bounced off base-camp flags hoisted above the legion of folks engulfing the young lads' stage, as Alex Turner beckoned, "Get on your dancing shoes / You sexy little swine."
Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah had the same idea, but he needed a little inspiration from down below. "Satan ... Satan ... Satan ... Satan ..." he invoked on "Satan Said Dance." And, on cue, the crowd responded with glee: "Said dance!" Unlike his hipster counterparts wearing too-tight T-shirts and fedoras, Ounsworth opted for the troubadour look, with his busker cap and harmonica neck rack.
DIY new wave gave way to orchestral goth when Arcade Fire assumed the pulpit. The menacing black and red lights and neon bibles aglow behind the collective might have made it seem like a Third Reich pep rally to the casual observer, but Win Butler's better sermons, "Keep the Car Running" and "Intervention," were about good prevailing over evil. Meanwhile, Muse, the prog-heavy fill-in for the White Stripes, tried admirably to fill the void at the other end of the park.
The final day of the fest was a shootout at the singer-songwriter saloon. Each participant -- Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, and Bob Dylan of, well, Bob Dylan & His Band -- brought backup. The songs that did the most damage: James' "Golden," Tweedy's "Jesus, Etc.," Meloy's "O Valencia!" and Dylan's "Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35" -- and mainly for its "everybody must get stoned" mantra.
Of course, Dylan packs serious artillery so, naturally, he was the last man standing. This was made less obvious by shoddy JumboTron shots reducing the figure introduced as "the poet laureate of rock" to a mere apparition. Dylan's sixty-six-year-old voice found a cadence it liked on "The Levee's Gonna Break," leaving it primed for takes at "Tangled Up in Blue," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Like a Rolling Stone" as fans who'd lined up at his stage all day nabbed a close-up look at the legend outfitted in a black suit with a broad white hat.
And at the end of the three days of music, anyone left justifiably pining for Jack and Meg still had time to score a White Stripes tee -- they were still on sale in the merch tent for $30.