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Published: 2004/09/30
by Chris Gardner

Austin City Limits Music Festival: 2003 Collection – various artists

New West Records 6059

The Austin City Limits brand has always carried credibility. The nationally syndicated show, which may well be the best thing on Public Television, built its reputation on solid and authentic live music. Translating the brand to a multi-day festival was one of those, "Why didn't this happen years ago?" ideas, and if the first three years are any indication, the festival should
develop the same quality longevity the show has.

With all that in mind then, this disc, which carries on the brand and tries to live up to the festival starts out in a hole. The ACL Fest sprawls: fifteen acres, six stages one hundred plus performers over three days. The wonderfully packaged audio souvenir of the event? One disc. Thirteen songs. Frankly, it's ridiculous, and it makes one question the intent of such a release. It can't possibly capture the breadth of performances (it represents roughly ten percent of the performances), so that's out, and it doesn't deliver the diversity of performances either. The bill for 2003 covered all the ground between Yo La Tengo and Nickel Creek, but the disc sticks closer to the rootsy vibe of the show. The disc does reflect ACL's dedication to local musicians both on and off the small screen with Austinites Jack Ingram and Abra Moore represented, but it captures little else accurately.

So with the odds stacked against it, this compilation doesn't exactly rise to the challenge. To its credit, the sound quality across the board is excellent, and the crowd noise that serves as a segue between tracks is a cool touch. It's the performances that fail to impress. The festival takes place at the end of a Texas summer. (Translation: It's not for the faint of heart.) This year's festival was stupid hot (seriously – stupid hot), and the year represented here was a drizzly, murky affair. The prime seat every year? Under a tree. Many folks simply loiter and wait for the sounds from one stage to draw them out into the rain or the heat.

Robert Randolph did it in 2002, and repeated in 2003 from the big stage, practically jerking crowds out of their lethargy, and "The March," which finds him flanked by the Dickinson brothers of North Mississippi All-Stars shows exactly how and why. This version, the clear standout of the disc, damn near convinces you that Randolph might just conquer the world with love. Whatever one might think of Nickel Creek, "Smoothie Song" impresses, and Bright Eyes twitches with jittery energy. Beyond that, there's not much to lure you out from under the canopy here. What else do you get? Names
mostly (R.E.M., Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Steve Winwood, Steve Earle…) all of whom offer credible, low impact performances. One of the strengths of the festival and the show is the willingness to introduce comparatively unknown performers. Kings of Leon and Drive-By Truckers are represented, but the performances, like the disc as a whole, are somewhat underwhelming.

So I find myself in a paradoxical position, wanting more of something that isn't all that great. These are hardly the best performances from the weekend, and at this length it does little more than invite the listener to complain about what's missing (Ween, Cheese, Yo La Tengo, Keller, Karl Denson, Beta Band, Polyphonic Spree, Spoon, Los Lobos, Particle, take your pick). The disc has a nearly insurmountable task and predictably fails. All that said, when the ACL folks do get it together and drop a disc worthy of the brand and the festival, twist the knob and tune in.

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