Imagine spending an entire year planning a party for close to 200,000 guests, and coming this close to having the damned thing crashed by an act of nature. That was the nightmare -- or, putting things in proper perspective -- colossal headache facing the organizers of the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival, which this year happened to fall on the same weekend that Hurricane Rita slammed into the Texas coast.
On Wednesday -- some forty-eight hours before show time -- the forecast was grim. While the landlocked city of Austin would have been spared a direct hit, Rita was still expected to pack enough punch deep into the heart of Texas to necessitate the cancellation of at least part of the festival, which in four short years has eclipsed even the venerable South by Southwest as the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World's most anticipated throw-down. In the aftermath of Katrina, nobody would have dared called a little rain on ACL's parade a tragedy. But fearing the worst, everyone was braced for a bummer.
And then Rita shifted ever so slightly to the east. Festival promoters Capital Sports and Entertainment officially announced that all three days were a go Thursday evening, and from the first fiddle lick by Friday opener Asleep at the Wheel to Sunday closer Coldplay's final piano note, not a single drop of rain splashed down on the festival ground's fifteen acres of Zilker Park. "The Lord works in mysterious ways," observed an exuberant Buddy Guy during his Saturday afternoon set, flashing an ear-to-ear grin and unleashing a celebratory storm of his own that was fat Chicago blues in form but unadulterated zippity-do-dah in spirit. A few acts, including Americana hype magnet Kathleen Edwards, R&B diva Betty Lavette and Columbian rock en espanol outfit Aterciopelados, had to cancel due to Rita-induced travel hassles. And in lieu of rain, festival-goers (65,000 a day) were pounded with brutal heat -- 101 degrees Friday and Saturday and a record-high of 108 on Sunday. But all things considered, ACL '05 went off without a hitch.
Or, to quote singer Liam Gallagher's sign-off at the end of Oasis' Saturday night set: "Nice one."
Coming at the tail end of the summer concert season, the ACL Festival has yet to achieve the same level of national press attention as such similarly sized fetes as Bonnaroo and Coachella. But for sheer stylistic range, no other fest comes close. Following the eclectic model of the thirty-one-year-old PBS music series from which it takes its name, ACL's 2005 lineup offered hot-off-the-buzz-list indie rockers Death Cab for Cutie, the Arcade Fire and Franz Ferdinand; Southern rock and jam stalwarts the Allman Brothers Band and Widespread Panic; and alt-country A-listers Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett and John Prine. Throw in a stage devoted almost exclusively to gospel music (and New Orleans refugees like trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band), a heaping helping of local and regional favorites (from frat-friendly Texas country singer Cory Morrow to Austin rockers the Real Heroes), the "Austin Kiddie Limits" stage for the little folks, and at least one super-sized mega act for the masses (Coldplay this year, following the likes of R.E.M. and Sheryl Crow in years past), and ACL succeeds mightily as a festival capable of pleasing almost everyone without succumbing to bland mediocrity. The food and ticket prices aren't too shabby, either.
Of course, like any festival of this magnitude, the too-much-of-a-good-thing factor does take its toll. On paper, a three-day weekend packed with 130 different acts -- many of whom would command a $20-$40 ticket on their own -- sounds too good to be true. It is. Trudge from stage to stage (eight in all) in triple-digit heat to catch some or all of your favorites, and the ultimate live music experience becomes a marathon endurance test. The schedule runs like clockwork, which sometimes entails missing the better half of a Franz Ferdinand or Lovett show to trek a quarter mile across the park to catch part of Wilco or the Black Crowes. A genuine, historic rock & roll event, like the first official, full-band performance by the legendary psychedelic rocker Roky Erickson (of 13th Floor Elevators fame) in two freakin' decades, ends up getting pummeled by the incongruous, sub-Franz racket being made by Britpop hype-of-the-week Bloc Party one stage over. Enthuse to friends about the greatest Spoon show you've ever seen, and they won't shut up about the by-all-accounts equally good Thievery Corporation performance they opted for instead. And by weekend's end, unless your name is Flash, the list of bands you wanted to see but didn't (say, Drive-By Truckers, Rilo Kiley, the Black Keys . . . hell, even Blues Traveler) can be as depressing as the list of ones you did (ranging from many of the aforementioned household names and buzz acts to new favorites like Ireland's terrific Frames) is impressive.
But all that -- like the quibbles about the heat throughout a three-day party that coulda been rained out -- is nitpicking. It's like fussing that all of the songs Franz Ferdinand previewed from their forthcoming second album sounded just like the songs on their first album, when they're all still catchy as hell. It's like scratching your head at the appeal of Death Cab, while thousands of blissed-out Cutie fans might have even less use for a Guy like Buddy. It's like bemoaning that Erickson maybe didn't sound as larger-than-life as you imagine he must have thirty years ago, or that Liam, for this particular performance, sounded like only the second best singing Gallagher brother in Oasis (or, less charitably, that he sounded like shit). Erickson still delivered the goosebump goods on "You're Gonna Miss Me" and "Starry Eyes," and Oasis still came off like the biggest fookin' band on the planet ten years after the fact. Coldplay, by comparison, played out like little more than a pretty light show. But it did make for lovely exit music -- the perfect, pillowy nightcap to an exhausting but ultimately bummer-free weekend. Nice one, indeed.