There was a tie for Most Significant Special Effect on Day Two of the Austin City Limits Festival. The first contender was Austin's own Ghostland Observatory, whose agitated dance music took a back seat to a breathtaking light show. The stage shot sharp, endless beams of green light over the heads of festivalgoers, occasionally filling in the spaces between the eerie beacons with cloudlike LED patterns. The stage itself was almost entirely obscured by smoke and bathed in neon purple lights, frontman Aaron Behrens (in a cowboy hat, hair in pigtails) and instrumentalist Thomas Turner (in a lit-up vampire cape) often hidden completely. The group sent up multicolored cubes and triangles, and endless series of neon-brite colors that made Zilker Park feel like the inside of a nightclub in the early '90s. It was like if Tool suddenly cheered up and went day-glo while simultaneously discovering Daft Punk records. (Watch footage from their set above).
The second contender for showstopping spectacle, unfortunately, was Mother Nature. Saturday was plagued by insistent, often torrential downpours, which rendered much of the day a muddy and, occasionally, miserable mess.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bands that played before the rain were the most successful. Sarah Jaffe's early afternoon set found the Denton, Texas singer/songwriter working her way through a set of gentle, slowly building country songs marked by a sense of determination. "I never look down and I never let go," she sang during one song, and the music's steady build and slow simmer served as the perfect complement.
Deer Tick's approach was more laconic. The group's grizzled country rock were well suited to the afternoon haze. Vocalist John McCauley has a rough and ragged voice, one he drags along the bottom of songs that grind and wheeze like a busted pickup. They even had time for a few covers — a sizzling version of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Shotgun Blues," Townes Van Zandt's plaintive "White Freight Liner" and, inexplicably, "La Bamba."
The Raveonettes dropped out of the festival at the last minute due to visa problems but, arguably, they couldn't have outdone the band that replaced them: Austin's Neon Indian. With their high-wire guitar leads, icicle keys, lockstep rhythms and singer Alan Palomo's intentionally glitchy croon, the group came off like a chopped-and-screwed version of New Order. Playing songs off its coming-soon debut, Psychic Chasms, Neon Indian had a effervescence that masked a hazy undercurrent of sleaze.
Once the rain arrived, bands could either choose to confront it or be shouted down. Bon Iver, unfortunately, suffered the latter fate. His loping folk songs are lovely, but he was often drowned out by the weather. It was only by confronting the din that one could survive, and the act that did it most successfully was !!! (pronounced "chk-chk-chk"). Nic Offer has grown into an endlessly watchable frontman. He opened his leather jacket to tease the crowd with his gangly frame, and spent more of the show in the audience than with his band. At one point, he snagged a festivalgoer's purple umbrella, twirling it above his head as he worked his way through the crowd.
The Airborne Toxic Event chose defiance as well. Their moody, gothy rock songs were well-suited to the day's grim weather. "How do all of you people know who the fuck we are?" asked frontman Mikel Jollett early in the show. That they managed to draw one of the afternoon's biggest crowds indicates Jollett may be asking that question for some time to come.
Levon Helm was introduced before his set as "a hero of American music." The former Band member probably qualifies, if, for nothing else, returning to the stage not long after surgery to remove a benign lesion on his vocal chords. His set, more than any other on Saturday, felt like a three-dimensional version of an old episode of Austin City Limits, his 12-piece band delivering a rollicking blast of bluesy R&B, soulful rock, country blues and other iterations of roots music. Helm was clearly delighted to be back onstage, even leaving his drum kit to play mandolin and (sort of) sing on a version of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Deep Ellum Blues," grinning like a kid and doing an odd-but-endearing rump-shaking dance during the horn break. "It'll be a short little while and he'll be singing his ass off," guitarist Larry Campbell said, before introducing "Tennessee Jed" (which, he added, Helm normally"sings the crap" out of) from the Helm's recent Dirt Farmer. No doubt.
If Helm was all unbridled joy, The Decemberists were severe and focused. As they have been doing for some time, the group played their circuitous prog-folk album The Hazards of Love from start-to-finish, coming off more as theater than rock & roll.
There was also a late-day miracle: the Zac Brown Band, who are currently at the peak of their popularity owing to both the chart dominance of their singles "Toes" and "Chicken Fried" and the ongoing juggernaut sales of their album The Foundation, were scheduled to take the stage just as the rain was at its worst. But the instant the band struck its first chord, the rain abated and a bit of sun worked its way through the clouds. This is well-suited to the group's music: good-time, simple-pleasure country music.
That the group is on the ascent was obvious: the audience happily sang along to opening number "Whatever it Is," and greeted the appearance of both singles with raised hands and loud cheers. And since the band are the good-natured, accommodating sort, they even threw their audience a few covers — Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic." And then, as soon as they were done, the heavens opened again, and the rain resumed until evening.
More Austin City Limits:
• Dave Matthews Band Mix "Whiskey" With Jams at Austin City Limits on 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
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies