Sunday, October 5, 2014

Austin City Limits Festival, Weekend One, Saturday

Posted By on Sun, Oct 5, 2014 at 5:13 PM

The crowds are thicker. The flags that dot the fields reach their heights earlier in the day. A cool front has spread through the region, chilling the afternoon's high temperature to around 83°, but the Texas sun at the top of the sky in the middle of a field is still the Texas sun at the top of the sky in the middle of a field. Saturday is the thick of ACL and there's no shortage of interesting sights and sounds in it.

 

tUnE-yArDs - RetailMeNow Stage - 3:30pm

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Merrill Garbus, the lead of her band tUnE-yArDs, starting off with anything other than her brilliantly-crafted looping vocals and claps would be uncivilised. tUnE-yArDs is Garbus, the rest of her band, great as they are together, are all extensions of Garbus' brilliance. It's in her looping sound where this woman eats.

 

tUnE-yArDs' thumping Afrobeat never disappoints, rewarding just as strongly in her new material, Nikki Nack, as on her last album, 2011's w h o k i l l. She's proving herself to have consistency in her well-established sound.

 

Garbus has mastered how to craft her songs with such complexity while maintaining crowd control. The crowd murmur lives as murmur does but the sophistication in what she has built her career doing cannot be denied throughout this set. This isn't some simple pop music. It's able to connect to the crowd in flashes even in the midst of songs so complex, one can overhear the occasional "Does this even have a chorus?" from the crowd. That this music can still connect to people is the feat.

 

I never noticed "Gangsta" knocks in a crowd setting like this. When it's on headphones throughout the day or playing in the car or in the kitchen making tacos, it's clearly a fun song, but it really is a song that's perfect for music festivals. Such is the brilliance of tUnE-yArDs-- as weird and complicated as these songs may be, they're built on being catchy nonetheless. The singles still sound like singles. Folks will go crazy for "Water Fountain" and will whee-ha, whee-ha on cue. Not only does Garbus own this sound she has tailored it into something so immensely functional that she creates a real appeal.

 

Seeing this band construct these dense waves of sound in front of us is the most shocking part about the act of experiencing them live. The music alone is a marvel, but the moving parts are so startlingly bare. All she needs is a quartet, like any other band really would, but she seems to do so much more with it. She works the drums as though she were cooking in the kitchen, much as one would feel most comfortable listening to her music while likely making tacos (the real test of any music). That she's doing this on a Saturday afternoon makes it seem all the more appropriate. She makes loops and parts for songs with the same pleasure as when putting them together. She owns these arrangements that completely, almost relishing in the muscle memory.

 

Interpol - Honda Stage - 4:30pm

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photo by Jaime Monzon

I can barely understand Paul Banks' vocals. The guitar strumming rings. The beat drops at clever moments. Yep, the cloying pleasure of Interpol is back before me. It's such a joy to listen to hits again, gems from Turn Off the Bright Lights and Antics, a reminder not necessarily of the era (okay, maybe a little bit of a reminder of the era, nostalgia can creep up quick), but of what made these songs work in the first place. These songs are brilliant in their simplicity. 4/4 time, a good bass line, keeping steady on the kick drum. The performance is an indication that the band remembered what works. They certainly got folks moving, which is why it may have been hard to tell what from the set came from their latest album, El Pintor, and album I, admittedly haven't yet had the chance to delve into but have on cursory listens recognized these basic elements that had been missing on the sloggier Our Love to Admire or their almost negligible self-titled release of 2007 and 2010 respectively.

 

However, there was a pretty steady stream of traffic, migrating through the crowd was less a fight than at other points of the festival. The deeper in I walked, the bro-ier it got. All the cute girls who were at tUnE-yArDs earlier and likely heading to see The Head and The Heart or My Brightest Diamond probably just aren't the main demographic for appreciating the resurgence of the ongoing career (or realization of crucial elements of said career) of Interpol.

 

Though there wasn't much banter, not much variation. Metronomic as expected. In interpol finally finding what works in the songs in their starkness, they essentially put on a show without paying much mind to the crowd. It's cool, it was still super fun hearing Interpol play this music again.

 

The Avett Brothers - Honda Stage - 7:05pm

The Avett Brothers have mastered that corner of country music that's really rock music. In an era of lamentation about rock losing its way and cultural capital to EDM the kids are listening to these days (like Skrillex later tonight), the rock sound has been thriving, masquerading as pop country.

 

The genre's tools are well-executed here and reach their audience -- the guitars wail, the solos long, the vocals rich -- but they instead incense purist country fans, those who know something is rotten in the state of Texas. This isn't to say these guys aren't good. They earned their spot. They drew their crowd.They brought forth their cheers that belted throughout the Saturday gloaming. Depending on who you are, this is either an extremely effective crossover act, the kind that ACL excels at finding, or a band of masquerade artists, using the cloak of earnestness to claw their way into people's hearts, minds, and ears to charm them into submissiveness. They're far too talented musicians for the trick not to work.

 

Broken Bells - Miller Lite Stage - 7:30pm

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photo by Jaime Monzon

Broken Bells, for those who may not know, is made up of The Shins' James Mercer and artist-producer Danger Mouse, who has had a hand in many various works that feel somehow connected to spaghetti western scores in all the best possible ways. They've released two albums together since 2009, the latest being After the Disco from earlier this year. When these two get together, it's surprising how easily their songs get to you.

 

You know what you're getting from the moment you see the stylized podiums fresh from J.J. Abrams' depiction of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. One can tell the investment in a side project by its staging. Sure, Danger Mouse and The Shins' James Mercer don't do this full time, but look at this staging! Check out these projections! There's no choreography, but we're the ones who are supposed to dance.

 

Even with equal standing, one only needs to pay attention to Danger Mouse by his 'fro. He's always been an interesting figure, though never ostentatious. This is part of his charm. However on the songs in which Danger Mouse takes to the drums, I'm not fully certain what he's adding specifically to the mix. As a director, as a visionary, as a guide of tone, as a producer foremost, he makes the most sense, but it's not like he's ?uestlove.

 

Yet it is, perhaps, through Broken Bells that Mercer can express this dancier aspect of his music. It's not even as though this music is detached from Mercer's sensibility or persona; there's just some other energy that Danger Mouse brings to these songs that make them resound at a different frequency. This is poppier than The Shins, the vibe of this crowd is feeling it in the kind of way one should at a festival, warm and happy and ready to vibe out and dance, or even to feel tezao, Portuguese for horny, as some newfound single-serving festival friends regaled to me over snuck in 18-year-old Glenfiddich. This band has hits and they're fun to listen to, and they're especially fun to listen to at a festival. It's good these guys' side project is still a thing.

 

Eminem - Samsung Galaxy Stage - 8:30pm

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photo by Jaime Monzon

Eminem knows the place setting of his music. It must beckon from the display, from the DJ, from its propulsion from the stage. It's a hip-hop show-- lots of prowling, some dependence on the backing track for the choruses and the hype man, and his already dense, impressive lyricism. This is not to say this isn't a good hip-hop show, but it's a good hip-hop show. Its dependence on old tricks is what keeps the performance so squarely in the pocket.

 

However, Eminem can reach back. He, too, is a legacy act for this festival, a good and proper Saturday headliner. The acknowledgement of this fact with a more somber tune from TheMarshall Mathers LP 2 caused an exodus of the unenthused with the true stans remaining like any other legacy act. Hip hop has grown up and Eminem, as a premier emcee, along with it.

 

The appeal is irresistible, though. As I strolled over to Skrillex out of some obligation to curiosity to Eminem performing "Fast Lane" as my background music, cutting through the crown, striding uphill through the park, I got it. I really got it.

 

At the end of the evening, when he performed songs from early in his career-- "My Name Is

" and "Without Me" and others from that time, it was hard not to get some memories back to youth, when these songs were part of the landscape. He defined an era.

 

Early in the set, Em commented on the last time he played Austin. "It's been like three years and shit, but it feels like twenty." To say his career hasn't been tumultuous while sprawling would be a glaring oversight. Yet, Eminem's craftwork has maintained consistency and this crowd of very dedicated fans, many unashamedly breaking that concert faux pas of wearing the artist's shirt to the artist's show, appreciated this show with a rapt attention seemingly more sincere than any other set of the weekend seen so far.

 

Skrillex - Honda Stage - 9:15pm

The things about Skrillex is that he's an overall experience. Strolling up #faded is optional, though should always be done responsibly

The laser lights are flailing about, the strobes are flashing, everything is louder than usual. This can only work at night, you see. Take note-- the need for these particular conditions do not detract from what a Skrillex show is. All this spectacle encased in some giant sculpture on the stage in the shape akin to Nolan's Batman's Tumbler adorn with smiling aliens is as much an ingredient of making this show as eggs, and milk, and flour are part of baking a cake. In this medium, he is very good at what he does-- getting people to lose their shit. The lights are part of it. The night is part of it. The screens are part of it. The snippets of songs you've heard before, songs you haven't, and a constant expectation of the next beat to drop is part of it. Despite one's better sensibilities, it may be hard to understand how someone can get swept up in it without that total immersion. Believe me, it can happen, if only for a moment.

 

His meshing of music of disparate genres (including, comically enough, "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" for a brief cut) note an artist who has the pulse of his demographic. He knows how to throw a party. You can't blame the man for that, or his shrill voice ringing out in the middle of his equally shrill treatments. (Well, maybe for that last one-- the treatments, not the voice. It's his voice, what's he supposed to do about that, y'know?)

He can definitely pull all the glowing objects of all sorts (lighters, cell phones, glow sticks, etc.) from pockets on beck and call and get folks singing in the opening lines of a ballad (at least as far as a ballad goes for Skrillex, before the beat drops once more) at the tail end of the night. He knows what he's doing, even in saving a surprise appearance from Diplo for the very end. Seriously, one can't say that enough. Skrillex knows what he's doing.

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