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Austin City Limits Music Festival, Austin, TX- 9/28&29

Punch Broke, Heat Stroke: Two Days at 94 Degrees in Austin’s Zilker Park

Scorching heat. Not that anyone already at the park early really cared, with one hand holding a beer and the other a bottle of suntan lotion.

However those who decided to arrive later in the day, waiting for hours at a time simply to reach the park, had more critical remarks replete with frustration. In the media tent, topics concerning the festival’s logistics, the enormous number walkup ticket purchasers, the number of heat stroke cases reported and the bleeding sound from the six stages, ruled the local airwaves and papers. Local media interrogated Terry Lickona, the producer of Austin City Limits for the last twenty-five years, analyzing every plausible, visible problem. At which point Lickona responded for those in attendance, "This is our first year, but those here seem to be enjoying themselves, and that really matters the most."

"Can I get anyone from this crowd who can speak about the Lord?"

Sundays are usually the designated gospel day at most festivals. However, one might believe the festival organizers wanted to get off on a good foot in as many ways as possible, and with the Sabbath being a state of mind more than a day of the week, Saturday would simply have to become the day of the lord.

Commencing with the Faithful Gospel Singers, a mixture of biblical inspiration and Temptations’ soul and harmony, they set out to christen the two day event with the support of God. The Faithful Gospel Singers’ lead singer ensured spectators that he would "bring god down to be in our midst, to make sure this festival works. For anything with god around will be alright."

The religiosity continued with the Blind Boys of Alabama, bulwarked by David Lindley, John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite. The group moved slowly through various, blues and gospel standards, mining the world of despair and rediscovered hope. With a wavering mix, the imploring to the lord never ended, even when listeners could rarely hear David Lindley’s or John Hammond’s melodic counterpoints to the quartets prayers.

Screaming like a congregation, and fanning themselves with paper fans, the Blind Boys recreated a depression era church scene with some 10,000 fans. Most of which were more than willing to respond to the query for a witness.

"Hey, so you guys are the bats right? I mean I hear this area has some bats, which has absolutely nothing to do with an outdoor festival at all."—-Jeff Tweedy

As ebullient as the crowd seemed for the various acts, enormous anticipation surrounded one act in particular: Wilco. For this festival, and maybe for America in general, Wilco is important with a capital I. Musically they cross any generation gaps, and lyrically satisfy any listener, from the philosopher to the oblivious bystander.

The hype likely increased when rumors about Wilco’s performance the night before at the Mercury in Downtown Austin circulated. In a 500-seat club, Wilco had ventured through a robust set of music, amazing the crowd with a sound at times better and less inhibited than their recordings, all despite Tweedy’s flu-like symptoms.

Opening the show with a recording of Gene Wilder singing about Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory resulted in a varied response. Half the crowd responded with some chuckles. The other half decided to consider the ponderous qualities of Wilder singing "come with me into a world of pure imagination."

With the cerebral qualities inherent in "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," Tweedy has begun to realize the power of playing with the imagination, and the role of the listener in processing obscure metaphors; which could be the most patent response to the playing of "Pure Imagination." Either that or he has begun to raid his child’s record collection, which might add further to the legend of Wilco.

One quarter of the park moved to hear Wilco. Most left feeling as though they had seen the festival’s highlight. Compared to the sets which proceeded, such as Nickel Creek and String Cheese Incident, they were probably right.

"Don’t try to compartmentalize it."

Sunday’s festivities began with the Alabama born and raised Allison Moorer. She lives by the motto of "grab it and growl." With an extremely early set, Moorer tore through the largely dehydrated, exhausted crowd with Neil Young’s "Don’t Cry." For Moorer, her idol Neil Young showed her "to just go for it and flip the bird at anyone who has a problem with it," and despite the time slot, and the crowd, she refused to mollify her set. She sang about cocaine and whiskey, and later exclaimed to the crowd, "So have I woken you up yet?"

All of which seemed in stark contrast to Moorer’s early Horse Whisperer days, where she wooed the Nashville crowd with her wholesome looks and distinctive twang. While studying Young’s music has taught her some sense of defiance, it likely can explain her renewed desire to avoid the industry’s egregious labeling. "I want to chase my own dreams, without anyone else telling me what to do."

Falling into the same category, Tift Merritt’s set created a large buzz amongst the industry and socialites at the festival. Her performance had the quality of an early Emmylou Harris set, much like "Quarter Moon in Ten Cent City" which she emulated in her youth. Various pieces were nods to Harris, with none more obvious than Delbert McClinton’s "Two More Bottles of Wine," which had been a feature of Harris’ set during her first performance on Austin City Limits more than twenty years ago.

"The Grateful Dead is punk as fuck."

Tift Merritt likely knows a few things about Ryan Adams. She hails from the same area of Raleigh, NC and has a similar voracious appetite for assimilating a variety of musical styles. Here the two take entirely divergent paths as Adams’ inebriated, humor infused set made somewhat obvious. Adams commenced his set with a new track from "Demolition." Then, in every abeyance, Adams appeared content to tell the crowd more than they wanted to know. A brief sample:

"This is a song about fucking, in a succession of songs about fucking."

"I see some serious untapped sexual energy out there. Alright Austin, I love Austin, I mean you eat barbecue, drink some beers, start tripping like I am, and then think about fucking."

None created more of a stir then his promulgation of the Grateful Dead as punk. He had begun his discourse by playing a remarkably accurate version of "Wharf Rat," which segued into and from his original composition "Answering Bell" from 2001’s Gold. Adams band recreated the Dead circa 1971, including some rambling space and twin guitar improvisations. Whatever Adams desired by quoting the Dead remains uncertain, and possibly proof of his bacchanalian state, but his references and playing all had a quirky nature which became at times distracting but equally charming. From the Dead we heard Replacements style punk and then Otis Redding inspired soul.

An amazingly eclectic set, but nonetheless one of the days best.

The Lord may have been in the midst of the 50,000 at the festival. Robert Randolph’s closing set made one feel as though the Faithful Gospel Singers had fulfilled their responsibility. Call it religion, pixilation or euphoria, everyone went home sated. For a festival twenty-eight years in the making, more than the show’s producers could have hoped.

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