"God bless Texas and this lovely weather," yelled Delta Spirit frontman Matt Vasquez early yesterday afternoon as the soul-inspired rockers took the stage on the first day of the 10th annual Austin City Limits Festival – by which he meant the rain that had fallen briefly just before their set and the clouds that still hung over Zilker Park. And it was, indeed, lovely: It was the first rain in Austin, Texas since May, and the possibility that the drought was ending seemed to have both the band and the crowd in a good mood. The apocalyptic vision that the weather had foretold – in addition to the heat (over 80 days of 100-degree weather) and devastating drought, which resisted even Texas Governor Rick Perry's attempt at divine intervention, a still-raging wildfire in nearby Bastrop County has burned over 45 square miles – had been deferred, at least for the weekend.
"You guys think it's gonna rain some more this week?" Vasquez asked the crowd after opening with "White Table," off last year's History From Below. "I sure hope so. This song goes out to anyone from Bastrop County – we're from California, so we know about fires," he said, launching into "People C'mon": "I got no place of my own/ I got nothing to give/ I got nothing to show."
But by the time folk singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne went on a couple hours later, across the park on the Festival's biggest stage, the Texas sun was shining down on a crowd of thousands. LaMontagne, in a fedora, white collared shirt, and the vest and pants of a three-piece suit, looked like he'd walked off the set of There Will Be Blood, and he and his band – mostly also bearded and dressed like oil men – helped him deliver a soulful, mellow set. LaMontagne played an acoustic guitar, his trademark raspy voice calling to mind cheatin' women, lyin' men and too many late-night shots of whiskey in a smoky bar: "Seems like every time I get back on my feet, she come around," he sang on "Trouble," his 2004 hit from the album of the same name; for the Merle Haggard cover "Mama Tried," he brought up his friends, the country-duo the Secret Sisters, Muscle Shoals, Alabama real-life sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers.
This year's festival has eight stages, and today, buzzy acts like Reptar and James Blake performed on the Austin Ventures and Honda stages; big draws, like Coldplay, Big Boi and Kanye West, were on the AMD and Bud Light stages; and a thoughtful mix of everything from summer favorites Foster the People and gospel stalwart Mavis Staples to bluesy rocker Gary Clark Jr. peppered the rest of the park.
But if anything, this year ACL seems to be all about new beginnings – weather- and otherwise. West closed out the night with the hour-and-40-minute, three-act-and-costume-changes, introspective set that he's been performing since he debuted it at Coachella in April, which opens with him on a platform crane above the audience for "Higher" and ends with an extended version of "Lost in the World," with a few of his trademark rants ("They got all this fake ass media mind control. You don't believe that shit") tossed off in between a hits-heavy performance (including "All of the Lights," "Heartless," "Jesus Walks," "Golddigger" and "Run This Town"). He was accompanied by the same troupe of dancers who have come along with him as he traveled the festival circuit all summer, who also co-star in his "Runaway" video. But as summer ends next week, so does this version of West's show: he'll soon embark on the Watch the Throne tour with Jay-Z, and he announced, "This is the last time you see 'Runaway' performed in this way" – West on a platform, wearing a red jacket and red jeans, with a solo dancer performing in front of him. After finishing with an extended version of "Lost in the World," he announced, graciously, "Thank you, Austin, for letting me go over my time," and when the dancers and his crew came on stage at the end of his set for a theater-like curtain call, he seemed ready, perhaps, to leave both this show and this version of himself behind.
Watch Kanye West, Big Boi, Delta Spirit and Ray LaMontagne perform at ACL day one: