The Austin City Limits Festival, held in Austin's Zilker Park and currently in its seventh year, boasts a bill that roams the stylistic spectrum, but its first day proved a fine opportunity to get a good, long look at the changing face of country.
Cool breezes won out against the blazing sun on Friday, which was the perfect complement to the afternoon's more tranquil music, like fiddler Sara Watkins, late of Nickel Creek, who played an early afternoon set as long on charm and good manners as it was on winsome, airy country. She sounded positively bereft singing "I didn't lie, but I withheld the truth," on the quietly aching "Same Mistakes." This wasn't music for singing along — it was music for sighing along.
If Watkins was reserved and traditional, the Avett Brothers were a thrilling study in contrasts, pitting spare and simple instrumentation — acoustic guitar, banjo — against brothers Scott and Seth's hoarse, violent hollering. Their aggression wasn't just vocal: the band pogo'd like young punks during "Paranoia in Bb Major" while "Salina" built to a panicky conclusion. If Scott is the sturdy frontman, Seth is the jack-of-all-trades. He moved effortlessly from guitar to piano to drums, and attacked his vocals on "Distraction #74" with an actor's intensity, miming out the lyrics with his hands.
Oregon's Blitzen Trapper mostly tended toward the traditional. Their oaky folk songs were as loaded with literary allusions as they were musical accoutrements: harmonica, tambourine and melodica filled in the spaces between Eric Early's clean strumming and hoarse, wheezing vocals. At the other end of the park, the Walkmen were aiming for expansion. The group significantly toned down their typically echo-drenched assault, opting instead for tiny pinpricks of sound, leaving big empty spaces for Hamilton Leithauser's barreling baritone. They brought out a small horn section for "Canadian Girl," turning a tiny rock song into full-blown mariachi.
Friday was rife with other stylistic pleasures: The Knux — who have gradually emerged as one of the more thrilling live hip-hop acts around — turned out an electric early afternoon performance, Krispy Kreme repeatedly ordering the crowd to "get crazy." If the Knux were wild and ragged, Phoenix took the opposite tack. Their songs were built from clean lines and precise rhythms — every piece exactly in place — but that didn't stop them from delivering one of the afternoon's more propulsive sets. Opening with the tidy thrum of "Lisztomania," the group delivered an envigorating set of dance music for people with good manners.
Raphael Saadiq delivered a new spin on the classic sound of R&B. He turned out tight, punchy guitar chords and slick, slippery vocals while his band — in three-piece suits — punctuated every phrase with a bright blast of brass. Later in the evening, John Legend delivered a more polished version of the same. His songs are more mannered and polite than Saadiq's, and he delivers them with the suave assurance of an experienced Casanova. By the time he got to "Green Light," he'd stripped down to a black tank top and leapt off the stage to sing directly into the front row.
But the afternoon belonged to Them Crooked Vultures, who took the stage as the sun was beginning to set in early evening. For anyone who hasn't seen one of their handful of live shows, they're still essentially the stuff of legend: Dave Grohl on drums, Josh Homme on guitar and vocals and John Paul Jones on bass. What's most surprising about the live experience is just how nasty the songs are. Far from boilerplate modern rock, the music instead coils and snaps like a rattlesnake, a mile-high stack of filthy riffs powered by Grohl's whipcrack percussion.
"We'd like to play Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' right now," Homme announced early in the set, "but we're not going to." Instead, they played "Mind Eraser," a hard-charging thunderclap of a song constructed from a squall of guitar. "Scumbag Blues" opened with a whine and then plummeted suddenly into a fit of grinding riffs, Homme adopting an eerie, unsettling falsetto.
The Vultures' set didn't end so much as unravel, petering out in a weird, wonky and slightly aimless jazz odyssey that found Jones working a single walking bassline while Homme noodled over top. That kind of heady jamming is clearly not their strong suit, but it conveys the group's single guiding ethos: In this operation, we do what we want.