It’s easy to criticize Austin City Limits for losing its identity. At face value, the festival isn’t nearly what it used to be, and this year appeared to be the death knell for greying veterans hoping the name might revisit its rustic Texas roots. However, that dream disintegrated into a pile of neon ash on Saturday night the minute The Avett Brothers set down their instruments at 7:30 p.m., leaving the night solely to headliners Eminem and Skrillex.
Walking out during Slim Shady’s phoned-in set was actually a little haunting: the BMI stage hid from the moonlight in the shadows of its accompanying trees, the Miller Lite stage loomed in the distance as a hollow vacuum, and the Austin Ventures stage appeared to be turning its shoulder to everyone else. Few had the courage to walk near the Sculptures tent. Too many just wanted to leave; others simply wanted to escape.
Photo by Randy Cremean
That C3 Presents… opted for more EDM isn’t a surprise. Skrillex, Calvin Harris, Major Lazer, and The Glitch Mob are all guarantees in drawing crowds, a not-so-secret method the company’s learned over the years with Chicago’s music festival metropolis, Lollapalooza. The problem is that EDM doesn’t factor into the vision of the Austin festival at all. For instance, which season of Austin City Limits do you think Calvin Harris will perform on?
Of course, the PBS program itself has certainly outgrown its own restrictions over the years. What used to celebrate solely the music of Texas has since expanded into the likes of alternative, jazz, and hard rock. However, the likes of electronic and even hip-hop have yet to truly cross over in that medium. That’s not to say the festival needs to follow its counterpart, but a little time would suffice. After all, it’s still part of the same brand.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Outside of those grievances, the 2014 installment of Austin City Limits turned out swell. The Southern weather held up its end of the bargain, even if it did get a little toasty, and the drama was kept to a minimum. A few acts canceled last minute, and the run-off between the Honda and Miller Lite stages proved rather grating, but everyone was mostly smiling and enjoying themselves. As Eddie Vedder said of the positive feels: “Really, when everyone walked in, security could have gone home.”
Naturally, a number of the festival’s blue-chip names offered up shiny memories for festivalgoers. Sam Smith unlocked In the Lonely Hour again, OutKast brought the hits again, Jenny Lewis became The Voyager again, and St. Vincent did her whole excellent stage show again. That’s not what we were interested in over the weekend. Instead, we sought out the uniques and many differences that gave this year’s festival its true identity.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
What we learned was simple: Austin City Limits might have changed face, but its soul still remains. Whereas Lollapalooza has lost its edge to Pitchfork Music Festival over the years, ACL still reigns supreme in the hopeful eyes of any rootsy singer-songwriter. That idea is crucial and something, I hope, this festival never suffocates. Yee-haw.
Essential ACL Act
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Benjamin Booker was born to be a mainstay of Austin City Limits. While Americana garage punk works just fine in describing his sound, Wikipedia labels this New Orleans export as the following: “rock, blues, boogie, and soul.” He’s certainly all four, but that would dismiss how loud and reckless he can be on stage and why he might cite The Gun Club as an influence and why he was able to wake everyone up within a thousand feet of the Austin Ventures stage. Early Saturday morning, his banshee screams, echoing Dylan Baldi at times, tussled through his recent self-titled debut, while his fingers wrangled his six-string guitar. Punchy rock ‘n’ roll runners like “Wicked Waters” and “Violent Shiver” were major highlights for a day filled with ill-placed headliners and excessive EDM. “This is our last song,” Booker said in his startling baby voice, eliciting a wave of boos. “We’ll do other songs another time?” Not a question, a statement, and a true one at that. –Michael Roffman
Most Effortless Swagger
Photo by David Brendan Hall
These British psych-rock breakouts weren’t always so brazenly badass. During their last visit to the Live Music Capital of the World, back in May at Austin Psych Fest, the quartet sounded spellbindingly intense; I’d intended to catch a snippet and see another band, but I couldn’t walk away from the flawlessly executed compositions. So I was dead set on settling in for the entirety of Temples’ return on Friday at ACL, which delivered a similar sort of sonic splendor borne of wonderfully serene vocal harmonies, soaring psychedelic keyboards, groovy beats, and crushing riffs that evoked a sort of tripped-out mind-march through a heavily distorted Magical Mystery Tour.
Yet this time, there was extra oomph in the performance itself. Their postures were notably bolder, an aspect bolstered by brave forays into non-album songs (not on February’s full-length debut Sun Structures) like the Middle Eastern-esque “Prisms” and the more whimsical “Ankh” (I swear the key line is lifted from The Goonies). The confidence boost was most noticeable in the attitude of bushy-haired frontman James Edward Bagshaw, who whipped his mane as he launched each hearty riff with the haughty abandon of a musician destined for greatness. –David Brendan Hall