The logic is impossible to comprehend: Just around the point at which tolerable weather seems right around the corner, the outdoor-music-festival season draws to a close. At least the Austin City Music Festival, which in its second year (Sept. 19-21) is shaping up like a baby Jazz & Heritage festival, isn't planted in the middle of July.
For the better part of a year, rumor-mongers have been titillated by the news that the inimitable Reverend Al Green would make a rare appearance at this year's fest, and that R.E.M. would be the year's superstar catch. But it's surprising how many big names will be playing in the park - from such twangy voices as Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, and Robert Earl Keen to neo-hippie magnets like Ben Harper and the String Cheese Incident. Along with Rev. Al, Mavis Staples is a soulful surprise booking (especially for those who caught her wonderful show at the Carver a few years back). Bright regional lights Spoon, Patty Griffin, and the Derailers will be there alongside hipster darlings Ween, Yo La Tengo, and the Polyphonic Spree. Richard Buckner, Beth Orton, the newly reformed Mavericks - the list goes on, with plenty of marquee names I can't even fit here. (See www.aclfestival.com for a complete list.)
But if it takes stars to justify the trip, the roster contains enough new discoveries to justify the sunstroke. Among the lesser-known artists, Mexico's Café Tacuba is a real standout. The most exciting contemporary band I've heard making music in Spanish, Café Tacuba are too eclectic to fit comfortably under the rock en español banner. Their new Cuatro Caminos (MCA) is a fine, body-pounding introduction to the band's densely layered, imaginative and usually rocking soundscapes. Alternative Press compared the album to Radiohead's Kid A, and while I think that disc was a bore, the comparison between the two bands is apt; at their best, Radiohead has packed this kind of surprise into their work. Cuatro Caminos has all sorts of backward-played, multi-looped, glitchy studio tricks woven into it, but it's more interested in moving you than making you scratch your chin - an impression solidified by the voice of singer Élfego Buendía, whose nasal whine always sounds like it's smirking mischievously.
Austin City Limits the television show has made a concerted (and kind of baffling) move away from its roots-music, um, roots in recent years, but newcomer Tim Easton is the kind of storytelling rocker who would fit into the old format as well as he does the new one. Bits of Americana via John Prine and Tom Petty stew with Elliott Smith-ish introspection here, but Easton doesn't have a lot of patience for the clichés associated with singer-songwriters. On the opening track of his new Break Your Mother's Heart (New West), he tells an aspiring Los Angeles troubadour, "a pack of dull monkeys could write circles around that fourth grade, mumbly slang, stream-of-consciousness jive that you call a song," then goes on to prove that humans can do it as well.
Down in the fine print of the festival's lineup is the unfamiliar name Kaki King, a 23-year old whose debut Everybody Loves You was released by Velour Recordings. Chances are, the only readers who will know who she is are subscribers to guitar magazines or frequent visitors to New York, where King enjoyed a two-month residency at Manhattan's famous showcase for on-the-edge jazz and pop, the Knitting Factory. Everybody is an all-acoustic album of guitar solos that are both beautiful and more invigorating than this sort of thing usually is. Using funky tunings, percussive slaps to the guitar body, and techniques like two-handed tapping, King gets a lot of sounds out of her six-string. It's hard to picture a solo instrumental performer competing with a crowd of thousands on a hot September afternoon, but King may be up to it. •