Austin City Limits Music Festival

Zilker Park - Austin, Texas

Day One: September 15, 2006

First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2006, Volume 13, #10

Written by Christopher J. Emge

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The Austin City Limits Music Festival returned to the 351-acre Zilker Park, where, over the course of three days in mid-September, more than 130 acts performed before the assembled crowds of approximately 65,000 people per day. What separates this event from other endeavors is not only the amazing diversity of its music, but also the streamlined organization as well as the minimized corporate presence that has plagued other large-scale gatherings, such as Lollapalooza. No other festival can boast of having short beer lines, $4 glasses of Heineken, and an affordable, $120 weekend-long admission fee.

Unlike last year, the weather held up remarkably well. There were no severe heat waves or uncomfortable dust storms with which to contend. Nevertheless, the organizers took the precautionary steps of instituting more shade areas, adding misting booths, and maintaining the grounds.

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Asleep at the Wheel landed an early slot, but after a night spent with alt-country and bluegrass locals Mother Truckers and the South Austin Jug Band, this was a questionable choice. While it was noble to pay tribute to legends like Bob Wills (Take Me Back to Tulsa) and Bobby Troup (Route 66), the less-than-heartfelt result was akin to country dinner theater. Asleep at the Microphone would have been a more adept description of the group. Its performance did not benefit from the addition of a new female vocalist who seemed to be more of a guest than an fully integrated member of the ensemble It’s readily apparent that Asleep at the Wheel is struggling to rediscover its identity.

Fortunately, Texas’ own Greyhounds was performing on the BMI stage, thus providing an excuse to escape the tediously dull nature of Asleep at the Wheel’s set. The Greyhounds funked it up with a sort of New Orleans, blues-rock stew that was capped off by the impassioned lead vocals of keyboardist Anthony Ferrell and guitarist Andrew Trube. Containing hints of Dr. John and Solomon Burke, Ferrell’s vocals, in particular, stood out. The only qualm about the performance was the unnecessarily extended band intros, which seemed misplaced during a 45-minute set.

Over on the nicely shaded Washington Mutual stage was the reggae performer Mishka. Visually he came across as a Rastafarian version of Matthew McConaughey. Appropriately enough, McConaughey was the person who introduced Mishka by recalling a recent vacation to Hawaii, during which he spent time with Mishka and his family. Mishka opened with the solo acoustic Mountains Meet the Ocean before his three-piece band slowly crept into the mix. While his warm and positive lyrical sentiment could be described as inspiring, it took until the third song for his guitarist to give the material some much needed bite.

Guster’s laid-back music provided the perfect contrast, and despite a strong, rock-oriented ethos, it was able to win over the festival crowd with its versatility and earnestness. Adding instruments like trumpet, banjo, and bongos made for a terrific set of dance-friendly tunes. The band nicely fused material from its recent effort Ganging Up on the Sun with concert staples, such as Barrel of Gun and Write You a Letter.

The first truly difficult decision that faced festival-goers at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival was whether to see the eclectically inclined bluegrass outfit Nickel Creek or the soundalike namesake of a Basketball Hall of Fame player  (Gnarls Barkley), which recently scored the song of the summer with Crazy. Current pop culture proved to be no match for the transfixing vocals of Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, who freshly interpreted Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow is a Long Time on the band’s latest outing Why Should the Fire Die?.

Nickel Creek did not disappoint. The band’s telepathy is remarkable, and it was a magical thing to watch as the group’s members formed a circle and virtually anticipated one another’s notes. In addition, mandolin, banjo, and bouzouki player Chris Thile has an uncanny ability to charm his audience (in a pre-nanny, Jude Law sort of way), and he joked about having been nominated for a Grammy Award for penning the most effeminate tune about a fiddle ever to be written by a man (Ode to a Butterfly). In tackling Britney Spears’ Toxic, the ensemble truly showcased its ability not just to reinterpret, but also to transform a song into something of its own. The set also included guitarist Sean Watkins’ Somebody More Like You as well as an amazingly heartfelt rendition of The Band’s The Weight on which Nickel Creek’s guitar tech delivered a terrific tribute to Rick Danko by taking the "Crazy Chester" verse.

Seeing Gomez unfortunately meant missing Cat Power & the Memphis Rhythm Section, which came highly recommended. Nevertheless, Gomez delivered a moving, high-energy performance that featured many highlights from its criminally underrated outing How We Operate. Beginning as an acoustic ditty before mutating into a sonic assault on the senses, Hamoa Beach, the second song of its set, provided a perfect indication of how diverse the band’s music can be. With three capable singers and songwriters, the ensemble is able produce a variety of textures that run the gamut from hard guitar jams (Nothing Is Wrong) to harmony-laden, audience sing-alongs (Whippin’ Piccadilly). Unfortunately, the early evening audience that had assembled was lackluster in that it not only showed little enthusiasm for the group but also had thinned considerably by the end of its show.

Its longevity notwithstanding, Canada’s The Tragically Hip is not an easy group to embrace. The band’s performance was centered upon front man Gordon Downie’s very theatrical stage presence, which undeniably is an acquired taste. His vocals varied from singing with the band to talking (or yelling) over it. Despite the crowd’s enthusiasm, an early exit was required.

Rumors have been circulating (again) that the voice of headlining act Van Morrison is shot and his interest on stage is fleeting, at best. It, therefore, is a pleasure to report that he delivered the goods. His pipes were in fine form, and in playing both saxophone and harmonica, he demonstrated considerable musicianship, which is far more than he generally is credited. Sure, one could quibble with the Vegas-style band as well as his irksome backing vocalists, which took more than a few verses on classics such as Moondance. Yet, Morrison was able to transcend it all.

Dressed in a full, pinstriped suit and donning a white fedora hat, he appeared completely at ease and utterly cool. Considering that he was supporting his latest release Pay the Devil, it’s not surprising that his set embraced a country-oriented ambience. Even older material was rearranged to fit the new format, which was well suited to both Bright Side of the Road and Real Gone. Naturally, Morrison closed his set with a rousing version of Them’s Gloria.

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Austin City Limits Festival: Day Two

Austin City Limits Festival: Day Three

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Christopher J. Emge currently is the head of Artist Relations at Creamy Radio, a commercial-free, internet-based radio station.  For more than 3 years, Creamy Radio's playlist has boasted an eclectic mix of music that runs the gamut from mainstream fare to material from local and independent acts. 

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Copyright © 2006 The Music Box