Best of the Tiny Fonts is a recurring feature in which contributing writer Jeremy Zerbe handpicks the must-see smaller acts at all the major festivals.
Initially created to celebrate the music of Texas, the famed Austin City Limits PBS television program was founded in 1976. In 2002, the show gave its name to a weekend music festival that expanded to two consecutive weekends in 2013. Now, encompassing acts from all genres of music (though still with a keen eye for up-and-coming country, folk, and rock acts), the Austin City Limits Music Festival returns this Friday for its third year as an early fall two-weekend celebration of music.
While major acts hit the stage both weekends, many of the Tiny Fonts of Austin City Limits are relegated to one or the other. So while you might be able to catch the Foo Fighters two Fridays in a row, many of the great smaller acts are now or never. Make sure you plan accordingly and check out some of these Tiny Fonts during your time in the Live Music Capital of the World.
Weekend One: Friday, 1:30 p.m. & Saturday, 4:00 p.m., Austin Kiddie Limits
While writing about this year’s Lollapalooza, I was surprised to find a stage sponsored by Kefir makers Lifeway and dedicated entirely to children’s artists — many of whom could hold their own against their “adult” brethren taking the stage elsewhere at the festival. Lifeway hosts a stage at Austin City Limits as well, and one of the best featured acts is actually made up of kids, not just geared toward them.
Locally-sourced trio Residual Kid is a ripping, grungey garage rock band of the highest order, and its members (all brothers) are only teenagers, making me feel absolutely horrible about my own high school rock band exploits. Residual Kid performs twice during the festival’s first weekend, and fans of Ty Segall and JEFF the Brotherhood will want to pry themselves from the bigger stages to be wowed by these mini-rockers during one of their sets. It’s honestly kind of a shame that they aren’t being featured on one of those bigger stages — though with their rollicking fuzzed-out sound, it can only be another year and a growth spurt away.
Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors
Weekend One: Friday, 3:00 p.m., Austin Ventures
Folk singer Drew Holcomb’s sound, I believe, can be summed up well in his choice of hat. You can tell a lot about a guy by the kind of hat he wears, after all. For example, I can tell with a single look that a guy wearing a backwards white baseball cap with a frayed brim will know exactly where you can buy Coors Light in a five-mile radius.
Holcomb’s hat (which he is rarely seen without) is an unpretentious, understated number that speaks to the singer’s quiet country twang. Because though his croon is straight out of his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, he is not a ten-gallon man or some honky-tonk cowboy. Holcomb’s tender fingerpicking is reminiscent of Nick Drake or John Fahey, men more informed by the traditions of traditional folk and blues. A proper fedora would express more of a jazz influence, but with his wide, upturned brim, Holcomb and his band give us rootsy country with a touch of gentlemanly class for a Friday late afternoon.
Weekend One: Saturday, 12:45 p.m., BMI
As a harpist and singer, Mikaela Davis surely weathers her fair share of comparisons to Joanna Newsom. But where Newsom’s voice is strident (and, at times, a little bit exhausting), Davis’ is gentle and comfortable, closer to the indie twee of Regina Spektor. Gaining initial notoriety online with beautifully plucked solo covers of songs like Sufjan Stevens’ “Casimir Pulaski Day” and Elliott Smith’s “Twilight”, Davis has since grown into her own with a series of releases over the past three years that show off her prowess as a harpist, while giving her the room to explore her sound further with a backing band that dabbles in twinkling xylophone and droning sitar. Many times, tiny font acts feel at odds with their placement in the festival lineup, getting shoved in too early in the day to fill out the schedule, but Mikaela Davis is a perfect complement to a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Weekend One: Sunday, 12:00 p.m., Homeaway
As you might expect out of a festival set in the heart of Texas, many of the smaller acts at Austin City Limits lean in the direction of folk, country, or heartland rock. One of the best and most creative bands falling into that family of genres is Wisconsin’s Boom Forest. The project of crooner John Paul Roney, Boom Forest is an airy, emotional kind of Americana that doesn’t shy away from grit and truth. On their excellent single “Baby Teeth”, Roney wails over booming drums and searing, noise-laden guitars about his stepfather shooting the family dog in the yard. Rural life. Ouch. If you’ve been at any other festivals this year, you’ve likely caught fellow Tiny Font band Strand of Oaks (they’ll be here too) — fans of theirs will find Boom Forest much to their liking as well.
Weekend One: Sunday, 4:30 p.m., BMI
Many-multiple-omni-piece soul band The Suffers don’t have too far to drive to Austin from their hometown of Houston, Texas, which is lucky because hauling a dozen people and all their gear around has got to be a headache and a half. What they’ll bring with them on their three-hour drive in from the coast is some bubbling, sexy soul music taken straight out of Curtis Mayfield’s playbook. And while many who dabble in soul take themselves uber-seriously, The Suffers (contrary to what their name might suggest) have an excellent sense of fun. The video for their EP title track, “Make Some Room”, is as adorable as it is catchy, and their recent Letterman performance is a stamp of approval on their convivial live show, perfect for a Sunday late afternoon.
Weekend Two: Friday, 3:00 p.m., Austin Ventures
As a guy whose collection of flannel shirts has an entire drawer to itself, I’m always looking for the next thing that can take me on a rocket ship ride back to the ’90s. Earlier this festival season, I fell in love with Bully, but this time around, it’s Wolf Alice that has me lacing up my high-top Chucks and banging my head.
They might have begun their life as a folk group, but with the release of their new full-length album, My Love Is Cool, the North London quartet have become a fully-fledged post-grunge powerhouse – -albeit with a soft spot in their hearts for understated, pleasantly plucked melodies. But that pop sensibility is the band’s secret weapon, making the heavy tracks hit hard while still retaining their unrepentant catchiness. As Wolf Alice takes the stage on Sunday afternoon, somewhere in New York City, Courtney Love will shed a single tear and not know why. But you do. You do.
Weekend Two: Sunday, 11:45 a.m., Austin Ventures
It always happens. While many of the bands of Austin City Limits’ Tiny Font ilk are steeped in the traditions of folk, country, or pop, making them perfectly suited to take the stage in mid-afternoon, there’s always one or two great, small bands that will stick out like a sore thumb in the midst of sun-drenched Zilker Park. Unfortunately for Austin’s own Knifight, the moody dark wave band is stuck with a strange Sunday morning set during the festival’s second weekend. But with their heavy synths, gritty guitars, and driving beats, the quintet will be making the most of their time in the sun. While other festivalgoers are lazily waking up and wandering off to hear plinking mandolins, make your way to the Austin Ventures stage for vocalist John Gable’s stunning Dave Gahan impersonation. Just make sure you wear sunglasses. And eyeliner.
Both Weekends: Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Miller Light
Born out of songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s background in composition (which he studied at Yale), Brooklyn-based San Fermin tackles chamber pop with a decidedly classical sense of style. While still in college, Ludwig-Leone worked with composer Nico Muhly, whose rap sheet includes Sufjan Stevens and Grizzly Bear, and the influences of his mentor are apparent in San Fermin’s sound. Comparisons naturally fall to Stevens or The Polyphonic Spree, but Ludwig-Leone’s tendency to operate from the background, letting collaborators like vocalists Allen Tate, Charlene Kaye, and Rae Cassidy (who made economist Paul Krugman a fan) take the forefront, makes him more of an architect of the sound than a true frontman. It’s what I’d imagine a classical composer like Franz Schubert experimenting with if he was presented with today’s wealth of technology and soaring pop singers at his disposal.
Both Weekends: Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Miller Light
Indie-folk band Daughter may be from across the pond, but the sound that they’re channeling is straight out of Omaha, circa 2005. Signed to taste-making label Glassnote (Phoenix, Mumford & Sons), Daughter would have felt right at home on Saddle Creek Records with like-minded acts Azure Ray and Art in Manila. Vocalist Elena Tonra has the whisper-soft, heartbreaking harmonized delivery of Maria Taylor, while her bandmates back her up with the kind of delicate, atmospheric orchestration that set The Omaha Sound apart. The music Daughter makes is, in a word, gorgeous. The production is at the same time lush and somehow stark, with Tonra’s vocals pushed precariously forward to give the band the urgency of a confessional singer-songwriter but the structure of a chamber pop group. Though they’d be a better fit at twilight with fireflies lazily hovering overhead, you’ll have to catch the UK trio on Sunday afternoon.