All Ears (09-13-06)

Man, oh man, do I feel like a dope. After a couple of years suffering ridiculous heat, spotty sound, and an insane crush of people I didn’t want to be squashed up against, last year I declared the Austin City Limits festival Dead To Me. (Apologies to Stephen Colbert.) You couldn’t pay me to go, and I mean that literally: I turned down the free pass and small paycheck that would have come from covering ACL 2005.

Now that I’ve made plans to be at the Toronto Film Festival this time around, the fine folks at ACL are making me eat my words with a lineup so jam-packed-smokin’ that, were I around, I’d actually pay to go stand in the sun all day just to see it. (If you could see my pasty complexion, you’d understand how much it takes to get me into the sun.)

My one consolation is that I can see most of these artists at other times. But then there’s Van #@$%ing Morrison, the crabby genius who has never been much inclined to tour in our neck of the woods, unless your neck stretches as far as Jazzfest in New Orleans. Since he covered honky-tonk tunes on his latest disc, a Texas-themed set would make sense, but bet dollars to donuts there’ll be a Moondance or two amid the two-stepping. It only rubs salt in the wound that Morrison follows the “It” group of the summer, Gnarls Barkley. (What kind of crazy pop-culture costumes will Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo don for the Austin heat?)

The regional favorites appearing this year are, as usual, too numerous to list, but Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Okkervil River get Friday off to a good start, Willie Nelson anchors Saturday evening, and the Austin Ventures stage plays host on Saturday to the city’s most extravagantly named bands: I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, What Made Milwaukee Famous, and Explosions in the Sky. Where’s a Trail of Dead when you need it?

Aside from musicians who make the town their home, the fest is well-stocked with purveyors of musics often heard on its namesake TV show: songwriter’s songwriter Guy Clark; roots-rock heavyweights Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and alt-country trailblazers Son Volt; Louisiana neighbors Buckwheat Zydeco; and the group who has reliably given some of ACL’s most captivating performances, Calexico. (Given Calexico’s proximity on the schedule to Iron & Wine, fans may hope for an unannounced reprise of their recent team-up.)

But some of the biggest names, even those who’ve played the fest in the past, aren’t ACL’s bread and butter, stylistically. The densely atmospheric trip-hop of Massive Attack will have a chance to prove it isn’t an artifact of the ’90s; Los Amigos Invisibles will be disco-sleazy enough that English-only speakers won’t need a translator; Thievery Corporation will do whatever it is they do. Two groups, Ween and The Flaming Lips, are the kind of destination acts (to usurp a shopping/TV programming term) that would justify a ticket purchase all by themselves. Is it possible that the Lips, who have staged parking-lot car-stereo symphonies and released the world’s first (?) octophonic CD, have it in them to create another innovation in live-music performance?

Wedged in among the curiosities and old standbys is a lot of plain-old great music. White Stripes spinoff The Raconteurs play Saturday evening, right after The Shins and Texas indie heroes Centro-matic. The New Pornographers have a Sunday mid-evening slot, though the absence of any local Neko Case or Destroyer gigs may stoke fears that Case and Dan Bejar aren’t fulfilling their supergroup duties this month. Aimee Mann has the unenviable job of playing opposite Calexico on Saturday, but putting them in the same sentence begs a question: What would a Jon Brion-produced Calexico record sound like? (So cool the world would implode, is my guess.)

As of the moment I write these words, three-day passes and single-day Saturday tickets are already gone. (Check for current status.) Scalpers and last-minute openings aside, disappointed would-be festivalgoers can buy into a number of official after-parties. Check local club listings, but La Zona Rosa will host sets by G. Love and Gomez; Cat Power and the Shins will visit Stubb’s; Sparklehorse is due at Emo’s; and Los Lobos will return to Antone’s, which has seen some memorable gigs from them in recent years.

Enjoy it all, you jerks. I’ll be sitting in air-conditioned comfort, watching my 30th or 40th movie of the week.
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