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.

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The Disco Biscuits @ Stubbs BBQ – Austin TX 9/19/09

It’s a triumphant return to Stubbs for the Disco Biscuits on this Saturday night, as the trance-fusion stalwarts had been opening for Gov’t Mule at the same outdoor venue in a co-headlining show this past February. The Biscuits still may not be packing the place, but the fact that the #2-ranked Texas Longhorns hosted a prime-time match-up against rival Texas Tech just a couple miles away at the same time may have had something to do with that.

But Stubbs seeks to let fans have their cake and eat it too by installing large flatscreen TVs at the two main bars so that music fans can also check in on the game, where the Longhorns seek to avenge their only loss of the 2008 season. Bassist Marc Brownstein acknowledges the conflict by thanking the crowd for coming out and wishing the Longhorns well.

The Planet Anthem Tour finds the band breaking out some new songs in anticipation of Planet Anthem, their first album since 2002. The Biscuits are trying an innovative strategy in which they intend to release the album in three EP clusters that will include singles, remixes and videos. The new “Konkrete” opens the show and draws in the crowd with a tale about a strange dream where “myself is out of control.” Brownstein lays down a heavy groove while guitarist Jon “the Barber” Gutwillig turns up the delay on his spacey solo.

“Little Betty Boop” is jamming along with Brownstein and Barber, pushing each other higher when the jam veers into a new direction with “Voices Insane,” where keyboard wizard Aron Magner ups his psychedelic contribution. Drummer Allen Aucoin lays down a tight groove as the guitar, bass and keyboard melodies all mingle to create an ascending wave that gets the crowd moving. The jam later segues back into “Boop,” concluding with another big peak. It’s such skillful interweaving of musical parts that has made the Biscuits a mainstay on the psychedelic jam circuit for the past decade.

But it’s in the huge second set where the band really heats up and shows they could still be growing toward even bigger things. The opening “Rivers” finds Magner setting a cosmic tone, followed by Aucoin’s tight beat. Brownstein and Barber start in tentative, as the band builds the vibe slowly but surely. The group’s singing is never going to win huge praise, but they’ve worked on developing their skills and the vocal melody has a catchy vibe, somewhat reminiscent of the classic “Safety Dance” from Men Without Hats. The jam is in a bluesy minor key direction vaguely recalling the String Cheese Incident’s “Rivertrance,” and there’s a compelling groove that makes the song highly danceable. Magner’s keys bring a very psychedelic vibe while the guitar and bass ascend, bringing the crowd into a collective trance groove.

The band then makes a sharp swerve into the anthemic new “Mirrors” for an instant highlight. The song, just debuted in March, already has the vibe of being one of the band’s all-time classics. The melodic intro grabs the ear with an instantly infectious summertime sound and the vocals have an uplifting, romantic quality – “There’s a future / Life with you and me / I don’t want to give it all away / But it seems I’m here to stay” sings Brownstein. Barber’s melodic lines drive the tune higher, but don’t take it over. The sound and tempo somewhat recall the band’s classic “Home Again,” but in a fresh, forward-thinking way. What was a seven-minute song in March now grows to 14 minutes of pure trance-dance bliss.

How does such a band top such a peak moment? By segueing into a 28-minute monster version of “Basis for the Day,” where the band takes the energy and just rides it. Barber shifts the sound with some auto-wah funk and then the band takes off into a rocking jam. Then there’s a change into an even funkier section where all the members take little solos before exploding into another composed section. It’s the type of extended instrumental jamming that a mainstream pop crowd could never handle, but it’s pure manna to this audience.

The Biscuits tend to bring out a fun crowd that really likes to party, and this evening is no exception. One young gentleman is even triple-fisting with three drinks, as if that is the norm. Upon being complimented on his dedication to intoxication, the smiling fellow manages to juggle all three drinks into one arm so as to be able to exchange a high five and elbow bump, an impressive display of agility to say the least. He later forms a mini-dance pit with his fashionable friends that causes some to step away to safety as if from a mosh pit – one fellow wears a Cookie Monster hat that brings smiles throughout the night, while his female companion demonstrates hippie cool with a fashionable dress, backwards retro Milwaukee Brewers hat, and great dance moves. Unlike some other musical genres where hipster standoffish-cool pervades, there’s a sense here that everyone is amongst friends.

Before the encore, Brownstein thanks the crowd for skipping the football game to spend the night with the band, but congratulates the Longhorns on their 34-24 win and announces that “Texas is my new team… I found my Big 12 team.” It’s hard not to like a team from a town that loves music as much as Austin. The band then delivers an encore, by request notes Brownstein, of “Therapy,” which provides another melodic dose of just that for those who view music as their spiritual sustenance.


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