Make no mistake about it: the Austin City Limits lineup definitely skews country this year. Whether it's the timeles yawp and holler of Asleep at the Wheel or the new heartbreak delivered by Sara Watkins and the Avett Brothers, the bands playing ACL are a twangy bunch. Even headliners Kings of Leon hail from the school of Southern Rock. But that doesn't mean that the bill lacks in variety. Frenchman Phoenix bring clean, precise dance-pop, the Walkmen traffic in barely restrained chaos and !!! are one nonstop hyperactive dance party. Country may be the weekend's choice flavor, but ACL's organizers know full well that man cannot live on steer and beer alone. What follows are our picks for a well-rounded weekend:
Plus, get ready for this year's big fest by flipping through photos from Austin City Limits 2008.
12:30 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.: School of Seven Bells
Don't take our word for it — The Edge recently endorsed this Brooklyn band as one of his latest faves. It's not hard to see why: the group's pulsing rhythms and odd atmospherics have a kind of slow, sly appeal, and their songs feel like low-wattage-anthems. The twin vocals of Alejandra and Claudia Deheza are quietly triumphant, and they float like morning mist over strange, hazy beds of guitar.
1:20 p.m. - 2 p.m.: Sara Watkins
The indefinite hiatus of Watkins' band Nickel Creek has afforded the California singer plenty of time to grow on her own. She's taking advantage of the respite: her self-titled solo debut is full of warm, winning country songs that showcase Watkins' aching alto. Expect Watkins' set to showcase this splendid solo material, bluegrass-inflected breakup ballads built for slow-swaying and lighter-waving.
2:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.: Avett Brothers
The latest group to benefit from the genius of Rick Rubin, the Avett Brothers cast long shadows across their plaintive country songs, allowing darkness to seep in to every corner. Though the Brothers will probably concentrate on their just-released I And Love And You, there should still be plenty of room for their rich, oaky older material, the kind of country songs built for bare hearts and big tears.
3:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.: The Walkmen
On record the Walkmen can seem studied and controlled, but live they are a sustained, agonized yelp. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser is riveting, and his holler is huge. He heaves the notes from his body, sending them over top a bevy of blurry guitars. They're the aural equivalent of a panic attack, the kind where every second is serious, and no amount of energy is ever enough to combat the inevitable end.
4:30 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.: Phoenix
This year's breakout sweethearts, French band Phoenix has been building to their big moment for nearly 10 years now. The result is an airtight live show that showcases the clean lines and big beats in Phoenix's music. There's no denying that the group's music is built for dancing — witness the crazy rhythms of "Lisztomania" for just one example — but they also have all the edge and energy of rock.
5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.: Raphael Saadiq
Saadiq may have gotten his start as a part of pop-n-b trio Tony! Toni! Tone!, but his recent work owes more to Smokey Robinson than, say, Boyz II Men. Last year's splendid (and unjustly overlooked) The Way I See It is a fine tonic for anyone longing for the dusky sound of classic soul. Saadiq's voice is smooth and silky, and, like all great R&B vocalists, he manages to sell his songs without oversinging. He's also a crack showman, too, and his ACL set is sure to be one of the festival's highlights.
6:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.: John Legend
Speaking of R&B ... Legend may not be quite the throwback Saadiq is, but his compositions are still informed by decades of classic soul. Legend is a poised, engaging performer, as confident seated behind his grand piano as he is standing behind the microphone. His songs have a slow-burn passion that's hard to fake, and when he brings his voice down to that cool, controlled whisper, it will be impossible to fight the goosebumps.
7:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.: Them Crooked Vultures
Dave Grohl, Josh Homme and John Paul Jones haven't played too many Stateside shows as supergroup Them Crooked Vultures yet, so grab the opportunity to have your face melted by their epic, spacey hard rock here.
8:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Kings of Leon/Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Finishing off a long summer of headlining stints, Kings of Leon and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have the unfortunate privilege of going head-to-head at the close of ACL's first day. The good news is that, no matter which you pick, you can't miss: the Kings have at long last evolved into the rock & roll saviors everyone wanted them to become and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs remain one of the best live bands in the business, driven by Karen O's bottomless charisma and magnetic stage presence. If at all possible, split the difference — go watch the first half of the YYY's (because Karen O's entrance is always one of the best parts of the set), and book it over for the end of the Kings' set, when they'll undoubtedly bust out "Use Somebody" — or, as it's also known, one of the year's best rock singles.
11:45 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.: Deer Tick
Deer Tick write filthy, grease-under-the-nails, grit-in-the-teeth rock songs. Vocalist John McCauley has a voice like a bucket of gravel, and they manage to write songs that tread that uninhabited middle ground between the Replacements and the Allman Brothers. They're also the kind of ground-down rock songs that sound great in the heat, and their opening Saturday set is the prime pick to get your day started on the right foot.
12:30 p.m. - 1:15 p.m.: Alberta Cross
Like the Kings of Leon, only spacier, Alberta Cross infuse their Gothic Appalachia with a healthy dose of atmospherics. The group's ascent has been rapid, but live shows prove them to be well worthy of the attention. They balance their more measured numbers with barnstormers like "ATX," which grinds and groans like prime Jane's Addiction.
1:15 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.: The Felice Brothers
Think Freewheelin'-era Dylan: the Felice Brothers top a dry strum with James Felice's craggy croak. There's a rambling, shambling quality to their songs, and even delicate ballads like "Buried in Ice" sound like they're held together with a bit of spit and rubberbands. This is bleary barroom folk music, lovable for how imperfect it is. The perfect early afternoon cool-down.
2:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.: !!!
Forget how hot it is, forget how tired you are, forget that you're not a very good dancer — !!! (pronounced "chk chk chk") will spur you to motion. They've been honing their live chops for years, and have finally emerged as the indie party band du jour. Their songs are driven by rubbery bass lines and relentless percussion, Nic Offer's hiccuping vocals serving more as calls-to-motion than straight-ahead lyrics. Their sets are simply one long groove.
3:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.: The Airborne Toxic Event
Because every sunny day is improved by a few well-placed clouds. No matter their theatrics on record make no mistake: the Airborne Toxic Event are a goth band, and a goth band of the best kind. Their set is all high drama: they band dresses entirely in black (take that, Austin heat!) and Mikel Jollet's croon is as bleak and ominous as Peter Murphy's. That their crescendo-loaded songs are just as stark and dramatic as their appearance is sure to make them one of the day's more gripping performances.
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.: Trail of Dead
Still crazy after all these years, Trail of Dead's anarchic, take-no-prisoners live set hasn't mellowed or matured, no matter how stately their music has become. Though they've evolved into a complex, neo-prog outfit, with grandiose songs loaded with rolling piano lines and complicated tempo-changes, they remain punk rock at heart.
5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.: Eek A Mouse
A reggae legend, Eek-A-Mouse got his start a full 30 years ago. His songs fall somewhere between roots and dancehall, but what separates him from his contemporaries is his singular, rapid-fire flow, made up as much of nonsense sounds as actual words. He's also a man of a million octaves, pitching his voice up to a high, winning wine and then dropping it down for a guttural growl. Live reggae can be a hit-or-miss proposition sometimes, but Eek-A-Mouse brings with him the kind of panache and professionalism only a rich history can provide.
6:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.: Mos Def
It's been a long time, but Mos Def has finally released an album worthy of his multifold talents. The Ecstatic is a bracing return-to-form, Mos spitting limber rhymes over classic-sounding rhythms, the kind of record that makes "throwback rap" sound like a compliment. His ACL date comes near the end of a long nationwide tour, which means he'll be sharper and stronger than ever.
7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.: Decemberists
These days, the Decemberists' live set has become more of a theater piece than a concert. The group performs their latest record, The Hazards of Love, from start-to-finish, each member of the band carrying out an assigned role and inhabiting that part completely. Their music has become more theatric, too, steadily evolving from simple folk-based indie pop to long, labyrinthine songs that channel art rock and prog.
8:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.: Dave Matthews Band
Really, is there any question? Since their inception nearly 20 years ago, the Dave Matthews Band have been the kind of touring band other touring bands strive to emulate — venerated for their sterling live show and peerless musicianship. And though the shadow of deceased saxophonist LeRoi Moore still looms large over the group, they have chosen to celebrate his legacy rather than mourn his departure. Their latest record, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, finds the band slimming their songs down, delivering lean, muscular pop and rock with minimal accoutrement.
11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.: Alela Diane
California folkie Alela Diane plays it small and quiet, unspooling small, tender folk songs that are both graceful and unassuming. There are subtle traces of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell in Diane's work, but mostly her voice is her own. And after two days in the blazing sun, is there any better way to ease into a Sunday morning than with hushed, pastoral folk?
12:30 p.m. - 1:15 p.m.: Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
A sizzling blend of blues, rock and R&B, Austin natives Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears write grizzled, jumping songs powered by bleary horns and Lewis' ragged howl. This is the day's first big "Wake Up!" shout, big, bright jubilant music brought forth with the sass of Stax and the passion of a pentecostal sermon.
1:15 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.: Rodriguez
He coulda been Dylan, but instead he went down the rock legend rabbit hole, releasing two records of weird, engaging psych-folk before dropping off the face of the earth. But the dogged preservationists at Seattle label Light in the Attic tracked Rodriguez down and reissued his sterling late-'60s masterpice Cold Fact last year. It's no wonder they were so relentless in their pursuit: Cold Fact is full of the kind of hooky folk gems that would give Donavan pause, and Rodriguez's ace live show proves that decades anonymity does not excuse a person from a compelling performance.
2:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.: The B-52's
The B-52s are an airtight live act, one with serious stage chops despite their willfully goofy songs. They're also unlikely elder statesmen — their fierce basslines are a clear inspiration for !!! and their herky-jerk rhythms could give Passion Pit a run for their money. And let's not forget just how odd and scary and ominous a song "Rock Lobster" is, or how "Private Idaho" is really a punk song masquerading as a camp anthem.
3:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.: Heartless Bastards
Erika Wennerstrom's powerful pipes are a force to be reckoned with. With their blend of raw blues ache and ragged rock bluster, the Heartless Bastards have spent the summer winning new fans from one festival to another. There's no reason Austin City Limits should be any different. This is tough, demanding music, and everyone should leave a festival raving to a friend, "You've got to check out this band I heard today."
4:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.: Arctic Monkeys
Hot on the heels of their dark, doomy and partly Josh Homme-produced Humbug, the Monkeys have been perfecting the art of making an afternoon rock show feel like an approaching thunderstorm. There's a shadow at the center of even their happiest songs, and that they can now balance full-on-ragers like "I'll Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" with pessimistic pouters like "Crying Lightning" gives their always-excellent set that much more nuance and depth.
5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.: Passion Pit
If Lollapalooza is any indication, this the show you want to clear your schedule for. In less than a year Passion Pit has transformed from an awkward one-man-alone solo outing to the kind of dance band capable of moving crowds within seconds. These songs are built for frantic motion, driving dance-pop that pull equally from New Order and LCD Soundsystem. As day gradually gives way to evening, this is the kind of shot-to-the-heart you're looking for.
6:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.: The Dead Weather
Jack White is the right strain of perfectionist — the kind that demands excellence but also knows that sometimes nothing is more perfect than loose and sloppy. The Dead Weather, which features the harrowing vocals of the Kills' Alison Mossheart, is White at his stormiest, and the groups minimalist blooz should sound marvelous in the blazing Texas heat.
7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.: Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Because, if given the chance to see a legendary institution, you should always see a legendary institution. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has served as the house act for New Orlean's legendary jazz club, and though its cast has turned over multiple times during the course of its 40-plus year existence, what hasn't changed is the group's dedication to quality and determination to preserve the timeless legacy of New Orleans jazz.
8:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.: Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam have two things going for them this year. First, they're playing on back of one of their strongest releases in years, the taut, punky Backspacer; second, there's a Democrat in office, which should spare Eddie Vedder the need to don a rubber Bush mask or chastise the audience from the stage into voting responsibly. Which leaves plenty of room instead for the songs, which is where the group has always excelled. Seventeen years on the road has turned Pearl Jam into a match-to-flint live act, and watching them ignite for two hours straight should be the perfect way to close out the weekend — nothing but heat and sound and fury, the perfect Sunday night adrenaline rush.