Review: Austin City Limits Music Festival 2011

This year’s ACL Festival was a banner one in many ways.  After 10 years, marked by explosive growth and popularity, the 10th anniversary Fest needed to be memorable.  I’ve been attending ACL for the past six years and some have been better than others.  There have been times when I’ve sworn off attending ever again, we were there for the torrential rain Dillo dirt mess, and yet, there were other times when I was completely blown away by the sets, Austin’s weather, or the beauty of Zilker.  All in all, the good always outweighs the bad, and I love attending the fest.  Without reservation, this year was one of the best of the past six.

When C3 announced last year that they were moving the festival back to September (essentially so that people would be too hot to stay all day), I groused pretty well about it, especially after the gorgeous weather October brought.  Still, I bought our 3-day wristbands, realizing that we just couldn’t miss out on the 10th anniversary year.  That was a wise decision.  This year’s crowds were much less jam-packed (hey, the plan worked!), the food choices were some of the best in recent memory, and the weather held out.  It was almost like God didn’t want to scorch us off the earth for a few days.  Also, the park looked fantastic – the grass was well-maintained and there were cool 10th anniversary things like the Willie statue keeping a keen eye on things, the booths where you could re-live fests past, and the spotlights surrounding the park at night shining up into the thick cloud cover.

Additionally, in my opinion this was the best lineup the festival has had since I’ve been going.  We totally lucked out in that the lineup included a whole bunch of our favorite bands along with ones that we were just getting into.  This was the first time EVER that every single show we saw was great – not just good or okay, but some really amazing performances all three days.  Here’s a review of what we saw:

Friday, September 16th

Best Band to Hear and Not See: Kurt Vile and the Violators

Image courtesy SSG Music

If you haven’t heard Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, you really should get on that.  It’s an album filled with surprising depth, beautiful lyrics, and Vile’s captivating vocal style – almost a pained groan.  We’d just arrived at the Fest after some pretty exciting things went down and Vile and the Violators set was perfect in terms of timing.  With small bands, you never know how they’re going to sound live, but these guys did not disappoint.  Their set was solid and they had plenty of fans in the crowd.  We laid in the grass and absorbed it.

Coolest Performance of the Day: Nas and Damian Marley

If you’re new here, you’ll need to know that I am a huge Damian Marley fan.  I’ve written about him many times and I always enjoy his performances.  When he’s with Nas, the swagger reaches all new levels.  I’m not entirely sure that Damian Marley and Nas have perfected the art of integrating their musical sounds together, but what they do is bold and fresh and it’s certainly a ton of fun.  The best thing about seeing them together live is hearing them do their things individually.  Their set at ACL was cool and laid back, punctuated with their socially conscious tracks.

Best Show of the Day: Coldplay

Coldplay are in their element at festivals and they thrive off the energy of huge crowds.  This crowd was definitely loving every second of their show.  It was also probably one of the happiest crowds I’ve ever been in – there was jumping up and down, bopping, swaying, crying, kissing, proposals (seriously!)…and some of the most epic sing-alongs ever.  The band put on a phenomenal, energetic set including many songs from their upcoming album, and where I was standing, there was never a dull moment.  They were in great form.

Saturday, September 17th

Most Beautiful Set: Iron and Wine

Saturday started out with rain storms – the first at-length rain we had received after months of searing heat, drought and devastating wildfires.  I don’t think a single person cared that the fest was getting rained on.  We were just grateful to see it.

If you’re ever standing outside in the rain, and it’s the first rain you’ve experienced in a long, painfully hot summer, make sure you’re seeing Iron and Wine.  Sam Beam and co delivered a gorgeous set which was both emotional and quietly confident.  With Beam utilizing the electric guitar and standing with a troupe of super-talented horn players and background singers, Iron and Wine made the start of Saturday feel as magical as it was.  It was one of the best Iron and Wine sets I’ve seen.  Plus, Christian Bale added in a weird dose of crazy, distracting some of the crowd with his antics.  What could be better?

Breakout Performance: Fitz and the Tantrums

Image courtesy

Fitz and the Tantrums’ album Pickin’ Up the Pieces is one that I’ve spent the summer getting to know.  This band is so good, with their retro, soul-influenced vocals and insanely catchy songs that I sort of just found that I had memorized them without even trying to.  I was really looking forward to their set at the Fest.  They were very impressive.  It can be tough for small bands to get festival crowds moving in the middle of the day, but Fitz (Michael Fitzpatrick) and Noelle Scaggs worked to spread their boundless energy to the audience, who was completely won over by the end.  Their show is tight, professional and their songs translate really well live.  It was a ton of fun to watch.  I always enjoy watching bands appreciate their success, and Fitz and co definitely transmit that vibe.  They’re a band to keep an eye on.

Most Mindblowing Set: TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio have been one of my favorites for a while now, yet I’ve only seen them live at the Festival.  Turns out, that made for a nice comparison in their progress as a band.  Their latest album, Nine Types of Light, is incredible, and likewise, their live show is mindblowingly good.  Absolutely brilliant in fact.  The first time I saw them live, they were playing the equivalent of the Austin Ventures stage and their sound was squashed and sharp.  This Saturday, they were on the Google+ stage rocking out the audience with perfect pitch and their signature mash of instruments and synths.  It was one of the best sets of the whole Fest, an absolutely triumphant showing for a band who’s been through so much tragedy recently.

Best Show of the Day: My Morning Jacket

Yet another of my favorite bands who I’ve written about often is My Morning Jacket.  I really wanted to see them this year, but they were playing opposite Stevie Wonder.  I mean, Stevie Wonder, man!  You can’t miss that, right?

Well, we tried.  Unfortunately the drunkness of the enormous crowd got to us.  After the incident where some awesome chick tore down a Confederate flag being toted around by a group of teenagers, and then the people around us proceeded to chant angrily for the flag’s RETURN, we figured we were in the wrong crowd.  We wandered on over to the AMD stage instead and found a much more mellow and less pushy group of My Morning Jacket fans.  It proved to be a great call.  MMJ are always amazing live – always.  It was a short set (for them) in a weird time slot, but they completely nailed it.  Jim James has so much vocal ability and his bellows and cries (not to mention his karate kicks, stage antics, and genuine love for the crowd) are just a scene to behold live.  The undisputed highlight of the show was when they brought out the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for their latest single, “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” from Circuital.

Sunday, September 18th

Most Unplanned Set: Broken Social Scene

Image courtesy

I kind of have a weird relationship with Broken Social Scene.  Basically, I have to be in the right mood to listen to them, or else I notice how inconsistent they are as a band.  I guess Sunday was a good day for us, because I really liked their set.  It felt very off-the-cuff and casual…probably because it was.  They ran out of songs to play with more than 10 minutes to go.  That’s not so hot for a band that’s been around as long as them, but they handled it well, with charm and the skills to improvise.  All told, it was a pretty solid indie rock set.

Strangest Crowd Draw: Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes are making some of the most interesting indie folk music right now, unafraid of creating spiralling, sprawling pieces that evoke the past.  Their newest album, Helplessness Blues, is a fascinating listen – it’s meticulously crafted and at times, irresistibly beautiful.  I guess they’re starting to get a hipster reputation or something because they drew a huge, weird crowd at the Fest on Sunday.  People were shoving their way to the front to get a view of Robin Pecknold, but only for a few minutes at a time before ditching out to see another band.  Too bad, because Fleet Foxes were great live.  Their hardcore fans were in there somewhere, but I’d really like to see them again at a different venue.

Breakthrough Performance: Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire have had quite a year.  After winning Album of Year at the Grammys for The Suburbs, they’re now closing headliners for a major festival.  I’m not one of those people who started disliking Arcade Fire the second they became popular either – The Suburbs is a brilliant album that hits close to the bone on many levels and the band are at top form right now.  Any doubters should have experienced their set at ACL (and the one earlier this year at The Backyard for that matter).  When 90% of your music is played at lightning speed, it’s a seriously impressive feat to move people to tears on multiple occasions.  Arcade Fire did just that.  They never fail to infuse each song with passion and furious energy.  It was a great close to the Festival and a breakthrough for this formerly-indie band now solidly on the path to stardom.

That’s all she wrote, kids.  What did you think of the festival?  Was it one of the best?  Who was your favorite and who did I miss out on?  Leave your comments below.

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