With fat dark clouds lurking overhead, there was a sense at the beginning of Day Three of the Austin City Limits Festival that, if it rains again, we're all doomed. It didn't rain. But we were all doomed. By mid-afternoon, when the clouds had cleared for good the festival grounds metastasized into a fetid swamp, with a layer of mud on top of the mud, and a layer of lost or abandoned flip-flops on top of that.
And yet, somehow, we survived, muddier, of course, but no worse for the wear. Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears had plenty to do with that. The first set of the afternoon found Lewis, an R&B showman of the old school, blending grizzled blues riffs with Motown horn blasts for a set that at its best recalled Otis Redding or the old Stax Revues.
The B-52s' Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson emerged in matching teal dresses, which clashed nicely with Pierson's supernaturally orange hair. They stuck to a series of low-impact sock-hop dance moves, looking like twin Martian queens out of some old '50s sci-fi movie. Fred Schneider mostly kept behind the microphone — he delivered his lines sternly, like an angry schoolmaster barking directions. Keith Strickland's riffs (many of them obviously by late original guitarist Ricky Wilson) are still nasty, and on the best numbers — like "Mesopotamia" — they're still the weirdest band around. Best line: Schneider introduced a totally fine version of "Love Shack" by saying, "And this is a song I learned at karaoke."
The B-52s might be the weirdest, but apart from Them Crooked Vultures, Clutch was the heaviest band on the entire bill at this year's festival. Singer Neil Fallon has a threatening drawl, the same kind Glenn Danzig had until he got out of shape, and he uses it to great effect on songs like "Devil & Me" making everyone feel just a little less badass in his presence.
Immediately following Clutch's set, Heartless Bastards had the same gameplan. Their records may have softened lately, but live they're still snarling. Erika Hennerstrom kicked out 200-ton blues riffs, and every song felt monstrous and massive. Her voice is worn a bit from all the touring, but that only made the songs sound that much more desperate.
Passion Pit vocalist Michael Angelakos' voice is strained, too, but the huge crowd was proof of how this band has grown. Where most dance music prizes a steady, insistent beat, Passion Pit are stingy with the big payoffs, letting the verses simmer and then kicking in with the chorus. They're songs where the promise of payoff is more rewarding than the payoff itself. "Little Secret" was an early highlight, a sea of hands going into the air as the pre-recorded children's choir chanted "higher and higher and higher!" The set ignited with "Sleepyhead" — cheers and massive, massive movement up front, the whole audience suddenly came to life.
You forget how snide and nasty half of the Arctic Monkeys' songs are until you hear them live. After a long summer of touring, the Monkeys have finally figured out a way to seamlessly integrate the darker, edgier songs from Humbug with their more direct older material. "You all look like you could use some Arctic Monkeys," Turner said early in the set and then launched into a convulsing version of "Crying Lightning," working that see-saw riff for all it was worth. "The View From the Afternoon" was more frantic, guitars going bananas behind Turner's wry delivery. They've built little changes into the songs — they strung out the break at the end of "Flourescent Adolescent" so that when the chorus kicked back in at last it felt more triumphant. "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" still kills, even in a matter-of-fact version, even if no one looked good on this dancefloor, and the dancefloor looked worse.
Ben Harper and the Relentless7 delivered a hard-charging set where even the slower songs were driving, big thanks to drummer Jordan Richardson. "Relentless" is actually the best word, with a reenergized Harper, not that he necessarily was a prime candidate for revitalization, urged on by his younger Texan bandmates as they played songs off their debut, White Lies for Dark Times.
Speaking of, people keep calling the Dead Weather "Jack White's new band," but they should really be calling it Allison Mossheart's new band. She owns this outfit, prowling the stage with her jet-black hair, gray shirt, and blood-red lips. This was non-commercial music that allowed no compromise, a tangle of gnarled, steaming blues riffs as jagged as cut sheet metal. They deconstruct the blues even more than the White Stripes, stripping it back not just to its basic chords, but its basic fee — there's a danger and a darkness and a primacy to this music. Mossheart was electric on stage, flinging her skinny body around, draping herself over the mike stand, walking to the front of the stage to testify straight at the audience. They opened with "60 Feet Tall," Mossheart hissing, "You've got the kind of loving/I need constantly."
White took vocals for "You Just Can't Win" and he delivered it all worked up, sounding like a man on the brink. But the best moments were when he and Mossheart sang together, as on "Horehound." The two of them bring out the worst in each other, in the best possible way — he the panicked, accusatory victim; she the icy vampiress. (Check out some killer footage of headliners Pearl Jam)
And then there was Girl Talk's de facto headlining set (no one was scheduled against Pearl Jam) a few hundred yards away. It may have said "NOT A DJ" on the screen as Gregg Gillis and his plastic-wrapped laptop kicked off with a sped-up swatch of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," but it's semantics: while he doesn't play other people's songs so much as he makes new songs out of them, live that distinction is as easily lost as the hundreds of flip-flops left behind in the mud. With his usual crowd of fans onstage, Gillis and his chop shop of samples manipulated the giant throng in front of the stage expertly, constantly making lefts turns and right choices. What he does is efficient, if not brilliant, taking the best parts of songs and shit-canning the rest.
The best match was Dorrough's "Ice Cream Paint Job" backed by the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" (someone needs to commission that official remix immediately), barely beating the G-Spot Boyz's "Do Da Stanky Legg" laid on top of "Sweet Child O' Mine." As he took the stage, the sun went down and the temperature cooled, as if knowing what Gillis had in store; perhaps he was manipulating that, too. "This feels good — we all right?" he said early on. Finally, yes.
More Austin City Limits:
• Pearl Jam Rule Austin City Limits With Ferocious Closing Set Featuring Ben Harper, Perry Farrell
• Dave Matthews Band Mix Whiskey With Jams
• Levon Helm, Zac Brown Band, Deer Tick and More Battle the Mud at Austin City Limits Day Two
• Kings of Leon, Yeah Yeah Yeahs Wrap Austin City Limits Day One
• Them Crooked Vultures Jolt Austin City Limits, Plus Phoenix, Avett Brothers Rock Day One
Look back at the best of Rolling Stone's summer festival coverage