After years of study, I’ve developed something I’ll call, for lack of a pithier term, the Margolis Music Festival Axiom, which is: They’re always hit or miss. Not only who you hit or miss, that is, but whether the artists you do catch manage to connect with their audience or fail to light a fire.
If conditions are right, you might have a transcendent experience. If they’re not – if there’s too much bleed from other stages during a solo set by, say, Joseph Arthur, or it’s just too damned hot or someone next to you won’t shut up or you’re too far away and the sound sucks, you might not.
At the 10th annual Austin City Limits Festival, I saw artists who left me bored and unmoved (Coldplay), artists who sounded better than expected (Mavis Staples) and an artist who delivered one of the best sets I’ve ever seen in nine years of attending this shindig (Stevie Wonder). Lots of other people complained because they couldn’t hear his hit-filled show – apparently, the midfield speaker banks had cut out earlier in the day and weren’t repaired in time – but I staked out a spot near the sound board far in advance and waited, wisely, it turned out. I tried the same maneuver the next night for fest-closers Arcade Fire, but they didn’t ignite me like Wonder did.
Maybe it was the thrill of seeing (yes, actually seeing, thanks to a collapsible stool I now carry to remedy my 5-foot, 1-inch height challenge) a legend who so clearly is still at the top of his considerable game. Maybe it was the delight of dancing to his incredible string of classics, surrounded by so many others of varying ages who were also clearly diggin’ it. The fact that it finally rained in Austin earlier that day, so the air was cooler and breezy by the time Stevie came on, certainly helped. I’ll get back to him in a bit.
In Coldplay’s defense, I had seen their Austin City Limits taping the night before, as well as the one they’d done in 2005, so I didn’t try hard to get close enough for a more immersive experience. But others I spoke with also said they didn’t feel sparks during the band’s Friday-night set. And with Kanye West across the park, anyone in the middle got caught in the war for volume supremacy – another festival hazard that poses particular difficulty for those who, like Arthur, wind up on the Austin Ventures stage in the middle of the park. ACL Fest planners did a good job of staggering the acts on the back-to-back BMI and Google + stages and semi-close AMD and Honda stages, but even spread out over 46 acres, some acts fare better than others. The only other staging issue was that some of the Google acts needed to be on one of the larger stages; Foster the People and Skrillex drew such huge crowds, the overlap with Bud Light Stage fans made it nearly impossible to maneuver around them. The flip side of that is seeing a young band become stars right before your eyes; when Ghostland Observatory played that very stage in 2006, everyone watching knew they were witnessing that supernova moment.
Herewith are some ACL 2011 highlights (and dimmer moments):
Ray LaMontagne, who apparently doesn’t know how to dress for Texas weather (dark brown velour? Seriously?), sounded fine, if unengaging, Friday afternoon. As he performed “Trouble,” all I could think of was a shaggy dog looking for a safe place to hide his bone in that oh-so-clever insurance commercial.
From a distance, Foster the People sounded great. Wish I could have gotten close enough to appreciate their set.
Austin-based blues up-and-comer Gary Clark Jr. drew a giant-sized crowd to the tiny BMI stage, the coolest one in the park. And he ripped it up, weaving Hendrixian influences and the occasional Chuck Berry-style riff into soulful blues. He also pulled out a beautiful, Miracles/“Ooh Baby Baby”-worthy falsetto on “Please Come Home.” Warner Bros. seems to have big plans for the 27-year-old. Watching him truly come into his own as a performer, the Austin music community couldn’t be prouder.
After spending most of her life onstage, Mavis Staples is still kicking butt and taking names. Though her voice was shredded during a South By Southwest appearance a few years back, she’s since rebounded – and works that low alto to fine effect. She does let her band do a good deal of the heavy lifting, but she’s certainly earned that right. And she’s still letting out the kinds of screams that make vocal coaches cringe and audiences go wild. When she sings, “I’ll Take You There,” she still really, really means it.
Here’s one thing we can say about Kanye West: He turned a whole new generation on to King Crimson. His song, “Power,” leans heavily on the deep, grinding notes of “21st Century Schizoid Man.” And despite his insistence on drenching his vocals with AutoTune, he actually can sing; “Good Life,” with its “P.Y.T” homage to Michael Jackson, was proof.
Ah, rain. Not torrential, and no mud flats resulted, fortunately. Rain coming during the festival as Texas experiences its hottest – and just about driest – year on record was like an ironic little prank from Mother Nature; would have been nicer a couple of weeks earlier, when thousands became homeless and countless animals (and two people) died from fast-moving wildfires. Still, it was cause for celebration in this parched region. The park clearly had special watering privileges throughout the summer; its thick green grass was an anomaly in an area where watering has been restricted for months and yellow-beige is now the dominant landscape color. That grass may have been un-PC, but saved the festival from another dustbowl year (two of those were enough).
Most people came prepared – or over-prepared (tents? Really?) – and the sog level wasn’t intolerable anyway. Acts like Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub helped make the dampness an afterthought. Lanois, who might have taught the Edge a thing or two, was in fine form, and Trixie Whitley, daughter of the late Chris Whitley, displayed some incredible vocal prowess.
Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine set was surprisingly heavy on extended, horn-driven instrumental jams during songs like “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)” and “Walking Far From Home.” As they played, actor Christian Bale caused quite a stir as he and director Terrence Malick strolled into an unused, fenced-in VIP viewing area to the left of the sound board, trailing a film crew. Bale more or less watched the show as willowy actress Haley Bennett danced around him, using her black shawl like an Arabian Nights temptress. No word yet on the exact nature of the project, though speculation is rife.
Meanwhile, over on the BMI stage, Nashville-based electro-hip-hopper Chancellor Warhol had a serious party going on, with a great band pumping up his high-energy set.
Over at the Vista Equity stage, banjo-playing songbird Abigail Washburn talked about how much she loves China and sang one of her Mandarin songs.
The festival also brought out some of Austin’s reality-show celebs. Patrice Pike, a contestant on Rock Star Supernova, headlined Saturday’s BMI stage with a set that started out a little too sedately. She brought on a pair of too-cute little girls to help her sing “God’s Children,” but the crowd was light – most likely because her competition included The Voice judge Cee Lo, who not only brought an all-female band dressed in red catsuits (and gold lame for his DJ), he also featured Voice talent Nakia.
Once again, Austinites got to feel like proud parents as the teddy-bearish Southern soul sweetheart strutted onto the big Bud Light stage, red Chuck Taylors accenting his black jeans and jacket, for what Cee Lo called “the song that made the both of us famous”: “Fuck You.” As the audience gleefully sang along, the pair totally rocked it. Nakia looked like he owned that stage, and his longtime career boosters continue to hope he’ll be an ACL fest headliner one of these years. But even before Nakia’s appearance, Cee Lo commanded the crowd with “Don’t Cha,” the Pussycat Dolls hit he co-wrote, and “Satisfied,” a song he dedicated to the fire and drought survivors. In “Crazy,” he sampled Moby’s “Natural Blues” sample of Vera Hall Ward’s “Trouble So Hard,” then raised a glass of tequila “by your own Paul Mitchell.” Assuming most in the audience didn’t know Austin-based hair care scion John Paul DeJoria also owns the Patron Spirits Co. (and other alcohol brands), he added, “Austin, learn your shit.” Yessir.
The wait for Stevie Wonder was supposed to be only an hour, but he was 20 minutes late. Once he and his massive band (including his daughter on backing vocals) arrived, however, no one noticed the time. Playing “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” on a keytar as he strolled out, unassisted, Wonder then slipped into “My Eyes Don’t Cry.” Fingers flying, he dropped to one knee, then laid on his back, then started doing, shall we say, vigorous hip lifts as he continued playing … who knew he still had that in him at 61?
He had plenty more, too, including a still perfect voice and lots to say as well as sing. He said he’s tired of the media dissing the president, then, as the lights turned Pan-African shades of red, green and yellow, he moved to his keyboards for the reggaefied “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and a Michael Jackson homage, “The Way You Make Me Feel,” followed by “Higher Ground.” As cool and funky as ever in his cornrows, dark glasses and a red shirt with metallic gold embroidery draping his large (but supposedly shrinking) girth, Wonder preached against execution and easy access to guns, adding, “Am I expressin’ too much of myself tonight?” As the audience roared encouragement, he responded, “I know I’m not.” By the time he got halfway through “Livin’ for the City,” I wanted to put him in the White House. “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” was followed by a gorgeous solo version of “When I Fall In Love” on a Yamaha grand piano. Despite sound issues in the distance, from where I was, it sounded coffee-house crisp as he scaled effortlessly through “Ribbon in the Sky” and “Overjoyed,” delivering chills – and on “Signed Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours),” “Sir Duke” and “I Wish,” thrills.
But he wasn’t done yet. Wonder jumped up on his piano stool for “Do I Do,” before finally pulling out his chromatic harp – and that singular sound that comes only from his lips – to do “For Once in My Life.” “My Cherie Amore” became a sing-along; “Superstition” brought that priceless look of joy he wears as he rocks his head back and forth, consumed by the music. We were wearing it in the audience, too, especially when he said he wanted to return next year to take care of some “unfinished business” – like keeping kids out of prison and rebalancing the ratio of prisons to schools (he says we have more of the former than latter). Ending his 115-minute set with one of his greatest jazz-funk masterpieces, “As,” and more words about peace and a cause close to his heart, equal access for everyone, he left an indelible festival memory. For those who had “see Stevie Wonder” on their bucket lists and stuck around for the whole set, there’s no question they left satisfied.
By day three of this festival, most people are dragging; Sunday’s heat and humidity did not help. I stuck to smaller stages for the most part, finding it tough to get fully absorbed.
But the Lee Boys’ sacred-steel-fueled hip-hop and funk might draw me back under different circumstances. The Pernikoff Brothers also held my interest for a while, particularly with a semi-acoustic version of “Black Dog” (wonder if they knew Austin’s latest celebrity resident, Patty Griffin squeeze Robert Plant, might have been in hearing range, as he was on Saturday).
Joseph Arthur painted a self-portrait during his solo set, during which he augmented himself with beats and doubled vocals. His ethereal voice and poetry were no match for Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses or Death from Above 1979, unfortunately. He might have fared better with a band, but it was not to be. As rain started to fall, he ended his set with “In the Sun,” a usually transfixing song. It couldn’t transcend, but it was still nice to hear.
Elbow and We Are Augustines also caught my attention, but I wanted to catch some of Fleet Foxes, who sounded gorgeous. Though the lighting was too low for their dusk set, their vocals were entrancing, especially their a cappella singing on “Helplessness Blues.” Just lovely.
I stayed put and waited for Arcade Fire, but just couldn’t feel it. Yes, they’re a cooler version of Polyphonic Spree, but for some reason, it all sounded alike that night, despite Regine Chassagne’s almost ADD switching from drums to accordion to some windup contraption to a performance of the Swan Lake dying swan scene. After about a half-dozen songs, I had to wave goodbye to her, the Butler brothers and company and call it a wrap.