Now in its lucky 13th year, the Austin City Limits Festival — an eight-stage, six-day musical extravaganza — kicked off with a scorching hot (literally and figuratively) weekend in the Texas capital city's majestic Zilker Park. Rock gods Pearl Jam and rap icons Eminem and Outkast were the event's big headliners, but country, Americana and folk acts were far from lone stars. Here's who we'd go back to see all over again next weekend, along with our tip of the ten gallon to some crafty concertgoers.
Jenny Lewis' late-night performance at Stubb's on Friday night was an intimate blue-lit show where the legendary indie artist and Rilo Kiley member performed key tracks from her newest album, Head Underwater. "One of the Guys" and "Late Bloomer" went off without a hitch, as did her anecdote about Hawaiian meth that ended with her confessing, "I got the fuck out of there," before launching into "This Is the End." Old favorite "Acid Tongue" led to lighters being raised on the acoustic finale, during which all of Lewis' band, joined by openers the Belle Brigade, sang in harmony. Her Sunday afternoon performance was just as intimate, despite having a crowd at least five times larger. The band opened with two oldies — a Texas-style take on "Silver Lining," and the Watson Twins' tune "Rise Up With Fists." Ambient beach sounds introduced "Head Underwater," and "Money Maker" was an instant crowd favorite that left one girl whining, "My feet are burning now," because she was dancing so much. She was probably the only one who couldn't handle the heat, and presumably melted after hearing what came next: the most righteous rendition of "Next Messiah" the guitar gods could ever bestow. The four-section song was practically made for outrunning the law in a 10-minute desert car chase, nuanced with some insane shredding by guitarist Megan McCormick, who joined the other six members in tight harmonic tandem on the fourth section, belting "next messiah" repeatedly until every last soul in the audience was surely saved by the gospel of Jenny Lewis in a truly (musically) religious experience.
When 4:00 p.m. rolled around Sunday, that was most certainly the time to cool down in the shade of the large pecan trees clustered in front of the tiny BMI stage, where A Thousand Horses played to hundreds of weary travelers. The Republic Nashville five-piece surrendered their country renegade disposition briefly with an easy cover of the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers," reminiscent of the way Rod Stewart approached "Maggie May." Then things took a polarizing turn with a fiddle freakout, signaling the start of a series of booze-fueled Southern rock anthems like "Drunk Dial," whose singalong chorus prepped the crowd for greasy crowd-pleaser "Trailer Trashed." The unmistakable "We Will Rock You" drum intro would have typically been the cue to get the hell out of there and ideally catch Jamestown Revival performing "California (Cast Iron Soul)," but when the phasered gritty guitars kicked in with a nod to Lynyrd Skynyrd, things cranked up one more notch and it was pretty clear A Thousand Horses was the standout up-and-comer of the weekend. The freshmen five had an undeniable energy and stage presence to their live performance, as well as the three boho-chic backup singers whose head-turning gospel-style vocals added so much righteous padding to frontman Michael Hobby's gritty voice, it felt like a roaring drunk revival of roots rock on Sunday morning in the Mother Church. Set closer "First Time" was a high-energy hybrid of classic rock and bluesy country with enough soul flavor to resurrect the sound of American greats like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Texas roots music aficionado Delbert McClinton, or outlaw country contemporaries the Cadillac Three.
"This is the most punk rock banjo playing I've ever seen," drawled an intrigued youngster at the Avett Brothers' Saturday show, referring to Scott Avett during the thrashing bluegrass number, "Satan Pulls the Strings." Things mellowed out when the opening ukulele strums of "Live and Die" floated across the field, (as they often tend to do any time the uke comes into play), at which point a girl nearby was hit in the head with, ironically, a Mellow Yellow frisbee by a middle-aged oaf wearing a Longhorns t-shirt. (This was one of the many dangers of venturing too closely to the massive Texas football tent, where the sound of "Hook 'em!" battle cries could be heard at all times, accompanied by the affiliated hook 'em hand signalexchanged between impassioned UT fans no less than 30,000 times over three days.) "Laundry Room" channeled Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," ending in an instrumental hoedown that showed off the interplay between cellist Joe Kwon and Tania Elizabeth on violin. A heavy layer of string tremolo had a similar relaxing effect as "Down With the Shine's" drunken 6/8 waltz intro, which ultimately grew into the brothers speak-singing and screaming the lyrics to bring things around full circle to their previous punk comparison.
Anyone looking to dance in the 90 degree heat on Sunday afternoon seemed to have flocked to the Samsung Galaxy stage, cattle called by the peculiar style of alt-rock and Kwaito that Kongos was serving up. Stumbling across the tail-end of the Phoenix-based band's set was a fortunate accident, as the four Kongos brothers were knee-deep in their clippety-clopping pop tune "It's a Good Life," whose summery Afro-Pop sound and polyrhythmic cadence was positioned somewhere in-between Van Morrison and "Mansard Roof"-era Vampire Weekend. The South African brothers' origins rang true throughout their set, while interestingly exhibiting the sounds of the bayou through heavy use of Dylan Kongos' lap slide guitar licks and Johnny Kongos' accordion. The latter uniquely morphed from Cajun-hinting heehaw to a wah-wah-ing accordion-turned-vocoder sound effect on the chorus of "Come With Me Now." Deep bass lines, a thick Texas guitar tone and an arena-ready groove gave the audience a familiar taste of Muse or the Black Keys, but paired with the bayou-blasting accordion woven throughout made for a satisfyingly cool sound.
Soulful super trio Spanish Gold really let the good times roll during their late show Friday night at Stubbs, dishing out the highlights from their glittery full-length debut album South of Nowhere. My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan's laid-back groove on set opener "One Track Mind" loosened everyone up before taking off into shimmery blues stomper "Movin On." Dante Schwebel's smooth airstream vocals flew like a Steve Miller Band eagle atop the Spanish Flamenco feel of the album's title track, ultimately landing on a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Mercy Mercy" and closing with a rousing rendition of "Poison" by Bell Biv Devoe — arguably the most fun cover of the weekend.
It's all good and well that wayward country darling Nikki Lane has earned comparisons to classic starlets like Wanda Jackson, Tammy Wynette and Nancy Sinatra. Admittedly, her lush arrangements and pop-rock hooks on tracks like "Gone Gone Gone" and her surf-rock take to "Walk of Shame" were throwbacks to those mid-century icons, but after witnessing her bewitching performance early Sunday afternoon, it's clear she's got a few more tricks up her sleeve than just sad songs lamenting man troubles. Set to a solid backbeat and a relentless semi-funk riff echoing Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Under Foot," the singer had everyone dancing to "Right Time" as she sang, "Any day or night time, it's always the right time to do the wrong thing." The manifestation of Lane's inner troublemaker was alive and realized when she offered the lyrical anecdote, "Old Willie's bus is puttin' out some smoke, I knock on his door and ask 'em for a toke, just because, hell, we're both outlaws. Well he'll tell ya the same, 'Honey, it's always the right time to do the wrong thing.'" The only wrong thing in this scenario was her disappointingly short set length — grounds for anyone who missed her performance to do their own walk of shame.
Scores of flags erected by festival goers were scattered across the ACL grounds in front of every stage — not to signify every Texan's inherent desire to secede from the United States, but rather as one of many ingenious schemes savvy music fans employed to enhance their Weekend 1 experience. Serving as a landmark for lost fans who wandered away from their posses, the level of creative genius that went into some of these flags was staggering. DIY wind chimes were constructed by some dudes using an empty six-pack; one group of teens proudly flew a giant pair of women's underwear flanked on both sides by colorful leis. Multiple yellow "don't tread on me" flags may have posed a problem for some, but the group who brought a fully sprouted bamboo stalk or a rainbow trout flag to majestically blow in the breeze ran zero risk of confusing their party with another. Perhaps the best pro tips given were by a woman who, after receiving a free tarot reading in the media lounge area, got her free drank on and dropped some knowledge on anyone sitting in a 15-foot vicinity: "Shake and bake baby! That's the name of the game!" she shrieked, before informing everyone "not from Texas" that touching an armadillo's skin "will give you leprosy."