Austin City Limits Music Festival, October 2-4, 2009

The eighth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival was apparently unlike any that preceded it, due to the dates being pushed back from September to early October. This meant that temperatures were not sweltering into triple digits. The lawn at Zilker Park had also received a fresh facelift of “golf course”-quality grass, to help cut down on dust complaints. This made for an idyllic first day of the festival, when the high temperature was just above 80 degrees. But persistent rain on the second day brought a new obstacle to deal with – mud, and lots of it. Much of the park was a mucky mess by the third day, even after the rain had stopped, although without the new grass the park probably would have been one giant mud pit. No one was really complaining about the rain though, since Texas has been suffering through its worst drought in 50 years. Neither rain nor mud nor fatigue would deter 70,000 music fans from getting their fill – this is, after all, the “live music capital of the world,” due to the fact that Austin hosts more music venues per capita than any other city.

The festival featured an incredibly diverse line-up, covering just about every genre under the sun. Those with the stamina and inclination could also check out after-show parties, featuring a number of festival bands playing late night shows at clubs around town. And in one of the greatest festival amenities of all time, ACL even had a football tent that made it possible, at certain times, to watch football and music at the same time! With eight stages (if you included the Austin Kiddie Limits stage), it was a weekend of tough choices – Ghostland Observatory vs. the Dave Matthews Band, Coheed and Cambria vs. Phoenix, Medeski Martin and Wood vs. the Avett Brothers, the Decemberists vs. Sound Tribe Sector 9, Ben Harper & Relentless7 vs. Dead Weather, etc. But having too many options is all part of the fun.

Friday, October 2
School of Seven Bells, Livestrong Stage
The combo of twins Ally and Claudia Deheza with former Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis makes for a trio that puts out a big sound despite taking the stage with just two guitars and a synthesizer. The Deheza sisters deliver dreamy harmonies that resonate in majestic fashion when mixed with a variety of synthesizers, mostly up-tempo beats and lots of echo and reverb. Their voices were occasionally in danger of getting obscured in the wet sound mix, but the overall effect was impressive in the way the sisters’ voices approximated an angelic choir.

Blitzen Trapper, Dell Stage
The Portland-based sextet has been building a strong buzz over the past couple years and this drew a big crowd to check out the band’s rootsy but still rocking sound. Some of the tunes were more acoustic-flavored, while others had an Americana blues rock flavor that recalled Ryan Adams & the Cardinals or Conor Oberst. The band’s melodic hooks and soulful vocals were a hit, with “Big Black Bird” making a particular impression as electric guitar, harmonica and melodic vocals combined for one of the set’s catchiest tunes.

The Avett Brothers, AMD Stage
This was the second biggest stage and while the Avett Brothers’ unique brand of Americana, melodic pop and punk energy has made them a rising buzz band, their sound didn’t seem to translate so well to such a large venue. Playing to tens of thousands of people with just banjo, upright bass and acoustic guitar is definitely a challenge. I would have ventured closer to the North Carolina band to see if that made any difference, but I couldn’t help but feel pulled away to the Livestrong Stage.

Medeski, Martin and Wood, Livestrong Stage
The New York avant-acid jazz trio will never sell a huge amount of albums, but the band’s improvisational prowess and in-the-pocket grooves have made them a favorite amongst the jam crowd for almost two decades now. John Medeski’s powerful organ sound drove the band here, as the keyboard wiz led the way with all manner of funky and psychedelic sounds. The rhythm section of Chris Wood on bass and Billy Martin on drums took the the weekend’s prize for being tightest yet still loose at the same time. The crowd wasn’t as large as the one watching the Avett Brothers, but these folks seemed to be having more fun, dancing and getting into the groove on this beautiful sunny afternoon, particularly on one jam that recalled Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”

Poi Dog Pondering, The Wildflower Center
I was leaning toward seeing Dr. Dog but a friend suggested checking out Poi Dog Pondering, who went on 15 minutes earlier in the Wildflower Center, the one stage that was covered by a tent and had some chairs. The tent was packed and it didn’t take long to see why, as Poi Dog turned out to be the surprise treat of the day. Now based in Chicago but formerly from Austin, the band’s upbeat and eclectic sound turned the Wildflower into a mid-afternoon dance party. With a large lineup that included a horn section, backing vocalists and a female violin/fiddle player, bandleader Frank Orrall had a good thing going. There were 11 or 12 people onstage and the infectious energy they put out was returned by the crowd for a highlight set that had nary a dull moment.

Phoenix, AMD Stage
I wasn’t so familiar with these synth-pop-rockers from France, but my friends had them circled on their schedule and so did a lot of other people – there was a massive crowd gathered for what may have been the breakout set of the festival. Trying to creep up to a decent spot was difficult, as it seemed that all the Austin hipsters in town were on on hand for what was a very high-energy scene from the moment the band hit the stage. Their cheery melodic vibe was perfect for such a sunny afternoon and they owned the crowd, which singer Thomas Mars acknowledged was the largest they’d ever played for. I wished they hadn’t been on at the same time as Coheed and Cambria though, because I was immediately impressed and would liked to have caught the whole set. However, as a fan of guitar-driven prog rock, Coheed was calling…

ACL Phoenix

Coheed and Cambria, Livestrong Stage
There wasn’t quite the same throng here as with Phoenix, which made it pleasantly easy to move up to a good spot. But there was still a sizeable gathering to check out the New York band’s powerful and unique sound – Rush meets Iron Maiden meets Incubus, maybe? Guitarists Claudio Sanchez and Travis Stevor were laying down some jaw-dropping twin guitar parts that melted face as the band put on an impressive display of musical prowess. For fans of guitar heroics, this was definitely the place to be. Sanchez’ long-bushy hair obscured his entire face at times, making him seem like some kind of hairy alien when he was singing the band’s sci-fi conceptual tunes. They also threw down a metal-ized cover of The Church’s “Under the Milky Way,” re-arranging the tune to make it their own.

Austin Eats Food Court
ACL lost a couple points on overall festival scoring here. While there was great variety of local eateries vending their tasty goods, it was hard to believe that a festival in its eighth year would put all of the food offerings in just one location, which led to massive lines as dinner time approached. The day was saved thanks to Torchy’s Damn Good Tacos, an aptly named booth. They had their act together so that their line moved very quickly and I lived off their green chili pork tacos all weekend.

Bassnectar, Dell Stage
I actually took in Bassnectar from the Barton Springs Beer Garden, which wasn’t far from the stage, providing a chance to listen while also providing an opportunity to sit down for a bit in the tree-shaded beer garden with picnic tables and bales of hay to sit on. When you’re seeing 10-12 hours of music in a day, there’s got to be a timeout to chill at some point, and my body was telling me this was it. Bassnectar – aka Lorin Ashton – has a highly danceable, trip-hop sound that works better at night when his psychedelic light show is at full effect, but the San Francisco-based DJ was spinning up a big sound that included clever mash-ups such as a sample of White Zombie’s super heavy “More Human Than Human” into the melodic pop of the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.” The local Twitter-sphere was later abuzz on Saturday night with reports on Bassnectar’s packed and apparently off-the-hook after show party at La Zona Rosa on Fourth Street.

Thievery Corporation, Livestrong Stage
What started as a two-man DJ collaboration between Rob Garza and Eric Hilton has morphed into one of the grooviest, most eclectic and subversive bands in popular music. It’s a formula that’s growing increasingly popular – last year they packed the Berkeley Greek Theater for a Summer Solstice show and here they drew a huge crowd in the evening’s pre-headlining slot. There was big funky bass, a sitar player, conga players, sultry female vocalists, politically-minded male vocalists… all of which had the crowd consistently moving to one tribal groove after another. One tune was introduced “as a 411 on the USA’s financial situation,” but the vehemence was Bob Marley reggae-groove style, as opposed to a Rage Against the Machine rant. The song urged listeners to “check out your mind” and “take back the power.” A big drum jam gave the rest of the band a break before another conscious tune, “for the bankers… don’t believe politicians and thieves.” It wouldn’t be surprising to see the band’s growing appeal land them a festival headliner slot in the future.

Them Crooked Vultures, Xbox 360 Stage
ACL veterans said this stage adjacent to the AMD Stage has the best sound, and so it was a great blessing that Them Crooked Vultures would play in this location. The new supergroup features Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on bass, Nirvana/Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl on drums and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme on guitar and vocals. Anticipation was high and for good reason – the rhythm section of Grohl and Jones was simply awe-inspiring. Grohl was the star of the show and it was easy to see that he and Jones were in rock ‘n’ roll heaven. And regardless of whether you were a big fan of Queens of the Stone Age, it was plain to see that Homme fit right in with them. QOTSA guitarist Alain Johannes was also on hand on guitar and bass when Jones would switch to keys or slide guitar. The quartet electrified the crowd with a monsters of rock sound that paid homage to the classic hard rock riffage of the early ’70s, yet had a powerful alternative edge that felt fresh. The energy just kept building, as each song seemed more powerful than the last. Grohl’s drumming on one early tune recalled Matt Cameron’s furious work in Soundgarden before shifting to a simpler beat that recalled Queen and Nirvana. Grohl later teased the beat to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” before leading the band into the sonic fury of ”Mind Eraser.”

ACL 2009 Them Crooked Vultures

Homme and Jones layed down fat, heavy unison riffs on“Scumbag Blues,” and then approached Grohl for a power trio jam that was deep in the groove. “Daffodil” rocked still harder, based around a Hendrix vibe with riffs recalling “Foxy Lady” and “Purple Haze.” No mere vanity project, you could see in the musicians’ eyes that they knew they were on to something special and the crowd reveled in what was arguably the set of the day.

Official ACL after show party – Sound Tribe Sector 9 @ Stubbs BBQ
I skipped out on Kings of Leon (where no less than Eddie Vedder sat in with the band) to bike across town for the after show party with STS9. Stubbs is ground zero during the SXSW Conference in the spring and was also the main venue for after show action here at ACL, with Them Crooked Vultures having played on Thursday, and Thievery Corporation and Ghostland Observatory playing on the following nights. STS9 was returning to the scene of their triumphant 2008 Halloween show and the venue was jammed with folks looking for another big night from the jam-tronica quintet. The vibe wasn’t quite as raging as on Halloween, but drummer Zach Velmer and company still brought plenty of groovy energy in this one-set affair. Bassist David Murphy and guitarist Hunter Brown may have spent a little too much time on their synths for some, but the ecstatic tunes kept the crowd moving and grooving. The band finished with a big encore, throwing down a rocking trio of “Tap In, Arigato, Aimlessly” to make sure the crowd left fully blissed out.

Saturday, October 3
Gray skies and a steady drizzle were present in the morning and through most of the day, causing many to perhaps arrive a little later than they otherwise might have. But the wet conditions would provide for several unique moments.

MuteMath, Livestrong Stage
The rain actually stopped during MuteMath’s set, and the New Orleans electro-rock quartet threw down an impressive set based around their strong instrumental skills and diverse sound. Drummer/programmer Darren King kept a tight and mostly up-tempo beat, while others dabbled on keytar and retro-futuristic looking instruments. The quartet mixed electronic, ambient and pop sounds that were somewhat similar to what Phoenix brought the day before, but with an added alternative rock edge that pushed MuteMath into unique territory. There were sonic flavors of Radiohead and U2 mixing together in an intriguing way. Singer/keyboardist Paul Meany was doing handstands and cartwheels, clearly reveling in the band’s big set.

The Airborne Toxic Event, Xbox 360 Stage
Singer/guitarist Mikel Jollett seemed surprised at the large crowd that turned out for his band’s set, wondering aloud how so many knew about the Los Angeles band. Perhaps the heavy touring has fogged his memory from remembering the band’s stellar set here in Austin at SXSW this past March. The band continued to bring the positive energy, with Jollett saying it was their goal to ward off the rain. Mother Nature didn’t cooperate, as the rains started again midway through the set, but it didn’t put a damper on the good vibes. “Sometime Around Midnight” was a big winner, as the emotive troubador sang about the pains of a difficult breakup, but in melodically delicious fashion, while the staccato chords of “Gasoline” had the crowd dancing in the rain to the upbeat vibe. Jollett’s singing has an early Bowie-esque vibe and keyboardist/violinist Anna Bulbrook is a bundle of contagious energy, which makes for a compelling combination. There was also an earnest vibe that many bands lack, with Jollett thanking the crowd for coming out, “since no one in the group really has anything else going for them besides the band.” He introduced “This is Nowhere” as a song about his struggle to get his life and the band together and the heartfelt rocker was one of the festival’s shining moments.

Papa Mali, Austin Ventures Stage
I was headed to Rock Island Hideaway (aka the football tent) mainly just to try and get out of the rain for a bit. But a fortuitous text message from a friend said there was some kind of Grateful Dead action happening with at the Austin Ventures Stage, where swamp rock/psychedelic/funk guitarist Papa Mali was playing. The dreadlocked guitarist and his band did indeed seem to be deep into a jam on the Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie.” I then did a double take on how the gray-haired drummer looked awfully familiar. Upon closer inspection, it was none other than Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann laying down the beat! A couple songs later, with the rain still coming down, the band returned to the Dead’s catalogue to close out their set with a timely rendition of “Bertha,” featuring the stanza of “Ran into a rain storm / Ducked back into a bar door / It was all night pouring / But not a drop on me.” There were more than a few hippies shaking their bones, perhaps having a triumphant flashback to the Dead’s July 29, 1994 performance that featured the same tune in a torrential downpour at the Buckeye Lake Music Center in central Ohio. Here the band jammed out the classic fan favorite in one of those unique festival moments spontaneously born from circumstance.

Henry Butler, The Wildflower Center
This was the place to be circa 4:20 p.m., not only because there was shelter from the storm but also because New Orleans-based keyboardist Henry Butler was bringing the serious bayou funk to the stage. Butler, a blind piano man who looks like a cross between Ray Charles and Jay-Z, and his band were jamming out on the classic “Iko Iko” when I arrived and the crowd was in high spirits. Most were dancing up a storm, despite chairs being available. “Henry’s Boogie” continued the funky party with Butler’s drummer, bassist and guitarist all gelling on the old school sound that blended jazz and blues flavors with the funk. “Will It Go Round in Circles” closed the set with a huge jam that featured some great bass soloing and the guitarist ripping up his Stratocaster while the crowd kept dancing until the final note.

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead, Xbox 360 Stage
I was ready for a little R&R at this mid-point in the day, but figured I should check out a little of these guys since they’re an Austin-based band. The rain now seemed to be putting a bit of a damper on things, although the prog-rock/indie/emo band seemed like they were doing their best to bring as much energy as they could. I wanted to get a little rest before the Levon Helm Band’s set, though, so I fought my way into the football tent, which seemed way more crowded than it would have been if it hadn’t been raining.

A huge crowd of LSU fans were cheering on their Tigers at the end of a close win over Georgia, which then saw much of the crowd disperse. This was a great setup though – two huge screens were showing games, there was a bar, and even a waitress who would take orders from the seats.

The Levon Helm Band, Livestrong Stage
Another huge crowd was gathered to see rock legend Levon Helm, drummer for the Band, and Mother Nature cooperated with a respite from the rain. Helm was unable to sing on this evening, under doctor’s orders due to throat problems. But he played drums, mandolin and even danced up a storm during “Deep Elem.” Ace bandleader Larry Campbell (former guitarist with both Bob Dylan and Phil Lesh) helped guide the band through a superb set where he, wife Teresa Williams and Helm’s daughter Amy shared the vocal duties. “Deep Elem” featured some great horn lines and Levon on mandolin. Campbell sang on the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” while also playing some tasty slide guitar. The ladies traded verses on a gorgeous rendition of “It Makes No Difference,” which also featured the crispest of drumming from Helm. The closer of “Chest Fever” rocked the park with a grand conclusion.

Sound Tribe Sector 9, the Xbox 360 Stage
The band was 15 minutes late coming on as the rain was coming down steadily once again and there seemed to perhaps be some technical difficulties to work out. But the jam-tronica rockers lit a fuse by opening with “Atlas,” the single from their upcoming album, Ad Explorata. Guitarist Hunter Brown and bassist David Murphy featured the best of their synth work on this tune, bringing an epic science fiction type of sound along with keyboardist David Phipps over drummer Zach Velmer’s big beat. With the rain coming down and the lights swirling, the vibe was intense. “Hidden Hand Hidden Fist” kept the dark, psychedelic energy pumping before the band shifted into the more melodically danceable “Rent.” “Economic Hit Man” featured a massive groove with percussionist Jeffree Lerner adding some tight synthesized cowbell. The band really brought the heat on classic closer “Inspire Strikes Back,” another epic tune that featured guitarist Brown burning up his fretboard while leading the band through a rollercoaster of dynamic changes for one of the weekend’s hottest jams.

Ghostland Observatory, AMD Stage
The Austin electro-punk duo made for a great act to follow STS9, as they share some similarities with their electronic-groove based sound. But singer/guitarist Aaron Behrens brings a unique vibe to the table with synth/beat man Thomas Turner. Behrens mixes it up by melding vibes from diverse influences such as James Brown, Jim Morrison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis and Prince into something that’s become such a local institution that the band can play a headlining slot here opposite the Dave Matthews Band and draw a huge crowd. The duo’s spectacular laser light show only enhanced the big-time festival vibe, making for quite the spectacle, as tens of thousands shook their booties under the psychedelia (plus the rain stopped too.) And if you were interested in checking out the evening’s ongoing college football action, you could at this point stand atop the bleacher at the edge of the football tent and be able to see both the football screens and the Ghostland show at the same time! This was pure Nirvana for more than a few…

ACL 2009 Ghostland

Dave Matthews Band, Livestrong Stage
I slogged over through the mud to catch the end of DMB’s set, hoping that the band was getting ready for a big finish like they threw down at the Outside Lands Festival in August, when Robert Randolph joined them for a huge encore of “All Along the Watchtower/Thank You Fo Letting Me Be Mice Elf Agin.” But no such luck here as there were no special guests and the band had to end their set promptly at 10 p.m., due to local noise ordinances. It seemed like an anti-climactic end for ACL’s Saturday night, although there’d been nothing anti-climactic about Ghostland Observatory’s big set.

Sunday, October 4

The Gospel Silvertones, Hippy Church
After two days of festival activity, it felt more important to get a proper start to the final day than to get to the park as soon as possible. So I met some friends for “Hippy Church” at Maria’s Taco Xpress, an Austin institution on South Lamar Street, which features live music on their patio every Sunday along with breakfast tacos and drinks. It turned out to be an ACL extra treat as the Gospel Silvertones, who had played ACL’s Wildflower Center on Friday, were delivering the musical sermon. The band’s uplifting gospel-tinged tunes were in as much service to blues and funk as they were to the Lord, a sound that had a good portion of the patio crowd up and dancing, while others savored margaritas, mimosas or beers. A forecast of more rain held off all day thankfully, but festival-goers would find Zilker Park an absolute mess due to Saturday’s rains, with all the most traveled areas having become mushy mud zones. But spirits amongst the crowd remained relatively high, despite logistical hassles.

Jypsi, BMI Stage
I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going at first when a pleasing sound from the tiny BMI stage caught my ear. As I approached, I saw two gals on fiddles and a third on mandolin, with guys on acoustic guitar, bass and drums. Jypsi, a Nashville-by-way-of-Illinois group, were rocking the stage with an infectious sound and rich vocal harmonies that brought to mind a jammier version of the Dixie Chicks. The band is a family affair, with the three ladies being sisters and the guitarist their brother. A cover of the Beatles’ “I Will” was well played, but the highlight was the band’s new single, “Mr. Officer.” The melodic pop-rocker about trying to get out of a speeding ticket was belted out in compelling fashion by lead singer Lillie Mae Risch, with sisters Amber-Dawn and Scarlett lighting up the afternoon with their harmonies.

Heartless Bastards, Dell Stage
The Dell Stage was the worst mess of all, being that it’s on the way from the main entrance to the main stage, the Livestrong. But it didn’t deter a sizable crowd from gathering to hear Erika Wennerstrom and company, and the ground conditions seem to match up with the band’s dirty blues sound. “The Mountain,” the title track from the band’s latest album, is once again the highlight of the band’s set, featuring a big wave of Zepp-ish chords and ethereal pedal steel guitar that powers both the song and Wennerstrom’s voice to a higher level. Wennerstrom has a compelling old-soul voice, but having caught the band several times now this year, it’s starting to feel like the rest of the repertoire lacks the depth of this epic tune. It would be great to see the band bring in a full-time pedal steel player so the effect could be brought on more than just one or two songs.

Arctic Monkeys, AMD Stage
The sun is out and the Brit post-punk alt rockers are doing their best to rock the stage, but a case of the Sunday afternoon/third-day festival blahs seems to be setting in. Most of the large crowd is chilling in their lawn chairs, content to take in the set from a chillaxed position. It’s understandable at this point. After two full days of rocking and with Pearl Jam still coming up to close out the festival, it seems that many have decided to place a priority on rest & relaxation. One can’t help but suspect that the band’s set would have been much better received on Friday.

Ben Sollee, Wildflower Center
Lacking a chair of my own, I decided to head over to the Wildflower Center to grab some sit time before the Rebirth Brass Band came on. I was lucky to catch the end of Ben Sollee’s set, though. The cello-playing Kentuckian had a trio including fiddle and drums that was putting out a sound that seemed perfect for the relaxed Sunday mood many were feeling at this point. A cover of Cat Steven’s “Wild World” had a sublime effect, with the cello and fiddle complementing each other in melodic goodness. Sollee’s soulful voice made an impression too, earning a long applause at the end of the tune.

Rebirth Brass Brand, Wildflower Center
The Sunday blahs were over the moment these old school New Orleans R&B/funk masters hit the stage, immediately bringing the crowd out of their seats to dance up a storm to the band’s festive Mardis Gras-style sound. The tuba player covered the bass lines, while a three-piece horn frontline hit the melodies, propelled by both drums and a second percussionist. The band went into a big instrumental jam on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which saw the crowd really getting down. There was also some sort of hype team that took turns busting freaky dance moves on stage, which fired up the crowd even more. With New Orleans being only a day’s drive away, it felt appropriate to have the Crescent City so well represented at ACL.

Ben Harper and Relentless7, AMD Stage
Back at the larger AMD Stage, many folks were still chilling in their lawn chairs. Harper and his new Austin-based band brought heat to the stage though, dishing out tunes from their smoking debut album White Lies for Dark Times. Harper could have gotten a bigger reaction if he’d been playing his hits with the Innocent Criminals, but you’ve got to take your hat off to the guy for exploring new ground instead of resting on his laurels. He still brought his patented slide guitar skills and soulful voice to the mix, while guitarist Jason Mozerski wailed too. The brand new “Rock and Roll is Free (If You Want It)” had a soulful rocking flavor that demanded I move closer in order to hear better. “Number with No Name” scored with a dirty, bluesy jam that featured Harper tearing up his slide with a Zepp-ish flavor recalling tunes from Physical Graffiti. Harper paused to give props to independent record stores like local institution Waterloo Records, which had a tent on site where many artists did CD signings. Harper encouraged everyone to go buy music at Waterloo, and then launched the band into the sizzling “Shimmer and Shine” for one of the day’s most rocking moments. “Bring me the music for the revolution / It puts my mind at ease, to know / We’re the problem, we’re the solution,” sang Harper before laying down another burning solo.

Michael Franti & Spearhead, Dell Stage
ACL was in the homestretch now and the crowd was in an extremely festive mood here for the upbeat yet socially conscious funk/rock/reggae/hip-hop sounds of a band that has become a San Francisco institution in the 21st century (their free annual Power to the Peaceful Festival in Golden Gate Park draws upwards of 50,000 every September.) “East to the West” got the crowd going early, as they clapped and sang along with Franti on lines like “Love is too big for just one nation / And God is too big for just one religion.” There was a big Texas state flag waving back and forth in the video shot of the stage and it was heartwarming to see Texas giving such a warm reception to the San Francisco vibe. Franti said he loved coming to Austin because it’s a town that loves music, which led into a bumping rendition of “Everyone Deserves Music,” an up-tempo rocker that got the crowd literally jumping. The positive energy was flowing freely and then peaked during the incendiary “Yell Fire,” an anthemic barnburner about a peaceful revolution that bites some riffs from Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” This tune never fails to drive a big crowd into a dance frenzy. I then departed a few minutes early to try to get into a prime position for Pearl Jam’s festival closing set.

Pearl Jam, Livestrong Stage
Big festivals don’t always have the most climactic conclusions, such as when Jack Johnson was the Sunday headliner at Outside Lands last year. But that wasn’t the case here. Everyone from longtime die-hards to those seeing the band for the first time were in seemingly unanimous agreement afterward that Pearl Jam absolutely owned it. The band did a superb job of covering bases from throughout their entire career in the epic two-hour set. They brought high energy from the start with the opening combo of “Why Go / Corduroy,” setting a charged tone for the rest of the night. Drummer Matt Cameron was an absolute force to be reckoned with, giving Them Crooked Vultures’ Dave Grohl a run for his money as hardest rocking drummer of the weekend. The new “Got Some” was well received but it was the hard-hitting “Not For You” that really got the crowd going. Rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard seemed like he’d drunk from the fountain of youth, sporting long hair for the first time in years and even delivering a deeply bluesy guitar solo, normally the turf of Mike McCready. Many were singing along to the hard rocking number, and if you’ve been following this band since the early ’90s, it just warmed the soul to hear tens of thousands of fans singing along to the alt-rock classics, despite the fact that the band has rarely released singles or made videos.

The biggest sing-along came next during “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” where it seemed the entire crowd was harmonizing with Vedder when he sang “I just wanna scream hello!” The trio of “Given to Fly,” “World Wide Suicide” and “Even Flow” continued the show with a sustained energy level that was simply smashing. Later, the band dipped deep into the well for “State of Love and Trust” from the “Singles” soundtrack of 1992, with McCready shredding once again as he had all night. New single “The Fixer” followed and seemed destined to become another Pearl Jam classic. Electrifying rocker “Go” closed the first portion of the set, with bassist Jeff Ament and Cameron laying down a furious rhythm.

I was hoping for a historic collaboration between Eddie Vedder and Michael Franti during the encore, what with them being arguably the two most socially conscious singers in rock, and since Spearhead had just played before Pearl Jam. This was not meant to be, however, there were some special surprises in store. An extra amp was being set up for someone, during which Vedder suggested the band do a little “Jazz Oddyssey,” which led to a playful yet tasty jazzy jam. Ben Harper then came out to join the band, with Vedder saying that he’d missed the B-52s earlier in the day and blaming Harper for making him stay up all night. Harper shook his head and pointed back to Vedder, implying that it was his fault they stayed up so late, with Vedder responding “Fuck you,” and laughs all around. Vedder said he’d only intended to have one beer, after the band’s taping of the ACL TV show the previous evening, but then alluded to the involvement of tequila. Harper then contributed his smoldering slide guitar to “Red Mosquito,” which featured a spectacular lead guitar dual between Harper and McCready. Vedder went on to talk of how he and Harper had come up with solutions to all the world’s problems last night, except that when they tried to read what they wrote in the morning it was all scribble. This led into a raging performance of “Do the Evolution,” Vedder’s 1998 screed against the short-sighted ways that threaten humanity’s very existence. The band just kept topping itself, throwing down a blistering cover of The Who’s “The Real Me,” and following that with their breakthrough classic “Alive.”

ACL Pearl Jam 2

Then came the biggest surprise of the weekend as Vedder introduced a man he said had influenced everyone in alternative rock, and they wanted to bring him out, put him in the Pearl Jam driver’s seat, and let him take the band for a ride. Out came none other than Jane’s Addiction vocalist Perry Farrell, who led the band through a thrilling version of Jane’s “Mountain Song” that just destroyed. Vedder’s mic didn’t seem to work so well as he attempted to harmonize, but McCready absolutely slayed the guitar solo. Farrell departed to massive applause and the band then wrapped it up with a monumental reading of Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World,” which featured an extended jam and Vedder going down onto the field and taking a slide in the mud. Witnessing Vedder and the boys putting out the same kind of energy in their 40s as they did in their 20s was truly something special to behold. It makes Gen-Xers feel like they can grow up without necessarily growing old. This is perhaps the greatest service that a rock band can give their fans and it assures Pearl Jam’s place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame come 2016. There was nothing but smiles and praise as the crowd trudged out into the night afterward.

Pearl Jam – 10/04/09 – Set List: Why Go, (Interstellar Overdrive)/Corduroy, Got Some, Not For You/(Modern Girl by Sleater Kinney), Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, Given To Fly, World Wide Suicide, Even Flow, Unthought Known, Daughter/(WMA), Hail Hail, Insignificance, Present Tense, State Of Love And Trust, The Fixer, Go

Encore: Jazz Odyssey, Red Mosquito w/Ben Harper, Do The Evolution, The Real Me, Alive, Mountain Song w/Perry Farrell, Rockin’ In The Free World

Eat Sleep Drink Music, Greg Schwartz, ACL Recap, Austin City Limits concert recap, ACL concert recap, Pearl Jam, Ben Harper, Perry Farrell, Thievery Corporation, Rebirth Brass Band, Arctic Monkeys, Airborne Toxic Event, Jypsi, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Ghostland Observatory, Heartless Bastards, Soundtribe Sector 9, Dave Matthews Band, Levon Helm, Poi Dog Pondering, Papa Mali, Henry Butler, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, MuteMath, Them Crooked Vultures, Coheed and Cambria, Phoenix, Medeski Martin & Wood, Blitzen Trapper


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