Austin City Limits only sold out one day entirely this year, and that was Saturday, September 27th. With headliners like Beck and Robert Plant, along with buzz acts like MGMT and Fleet Foxes, which secured some of the biggest crowds of the festival, it was truly a fight to get through any of the crowds at the four big stages. But with great local acts on the smaller Austin Ventures stage all day, the main fare wasn’t the only choice.
Mugison, who came all the way from Iceland for his first U.S. tour, woke up early to perform on the AT&T Blueroom Stage at 11:45 AM. Usually a solo performer, Mugison brought a second member along with him to help perform their intriguing psych-rock for an evergrowing crowd. Serving as preparation for their late night aftershow later at Stubb’s, Mugison sure made a lot of new fans who would later see similar eccentric artists such as Man Man, MGMT, and Beck during the day.
Following the Mugiboogie, the AMD Stage hosted the harmonizing Fleet Foxes, a late addition following the cancellation of Ingrid Michaelson. The attendees didn’t seem to notice, as the field swelled for one of the largest early crowds of the entire weekend. Vocalist Robin Pecknold was humbled, and humanized the band with the stage banter, which included several comments about the WaMu bank crisis (jokingly proposed renaming it to WaMu Memorial). The band played mostly music from its outstanding self-titled release, and the middle-set back-to-back beauty of singalongs “White Water Hymnal” and “Ragged Wood” was probably my favorite of the weekend. The two led into each other beautifully.
The soft sounds of Jose Gonzalez soothed the crowd over at the Dell Stage. A repeat performer from two years ago, Gonzalez serenaded everyone with a haunting rendition of “In Our Nature”, and as the performance progressed, the crowd grew larger and larger. Each song gained a deeper meaning and respect, and he ended the set with a beautiful cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”.
Over on the Austin Ventures Stage, Bavu Blakes and the Extra Plairs got the crowd jumping and waving their arms wildly as they ripped through tracks from the fantastic 2003 self-release Create & Hustle, including a passionate performance of “Overnight”. Highly-respected in the Austin hip hop scene, Blakes was gracious and humble as he integrated the crowd and brought out guests such as Austin blues musician Gary Clark, Jr. and the energetic multi-talented Dallas rapper Pikahsso.
The strangest conflict of the weekend, in my eyes, was Drive-By Truckers, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and the young blues musicians from the Isle of Man. I chose Back Door Slam, who delivered a solid set, if not forgettable, on the Ventures Stage. Playing the usual cuts from its debut album, as well as covers like “Riding With the King”, the group should probably start doing something a little different. Its show is getting rather monotonous.
Another big conflict was for two eccentric indie buzz bands, Man Man and CSS. Despite complaining about the heat, the Brazilian outfit did deliver a raucous, wild, and energetic set under the blistering sun. Wearing a purple-and-blue printed jumpsuit, vocalist Lovefoxxx was all over the stage, which was decorated with balloons. You couldn’t help but smile.
And over on Dell, Philadelphia’s Man Man put on a percussion-driven quirky math rock set that at one point was reminiscent of a New Orleans funeral procession. The music hit from all styles, focusing on precision timing for each of its oddball moments. The band themselves looked as if they were ready for war with electro-tribal face paint and white outfits that seemed more fitting for a black light show than an outdoor event.
Austin’s Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears were up next, bringing its groovy garage soul music to the Austin Ventures stage. A newly-assembled eight-piece band led by the charismatic Joe Lewis excited the crowd, and fans took in the overpowering sounds of different instruments. Lewis’ James Brown-esque voice and movements proved that he is a star-powered frontman capable of making dancers out of anyone.
But the soul music truly wasn’t done for the day. Eccentric Dallas R&B singer Erykah Badu took the AT&T stage and, backed by identically-dressed background singers, delivered her silk and enriched voice over groovy beats with tracks from her latest release New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). However, the true fan-favorite was Grammy-winning single “On and On/… & On”. She then introduced her amazing new single “Soldier,” prefaced with heartfelt banter about the current election. After shouting out My Morning Jacket, she led a crowd sing-a-long for “Tyrone” and closed off with “Honey”, before exiting to the soundbite of Lil’ Wayne’s “A Milli”. Erykah is a star, and she left everyone with a smile on their face.
One of the more anticipated performances of the weekend, MGMT played to an overwhelmingly large crowd and started things off slow with “Pieces of What”, but built the late afternoon up into an electro pop frenzy by the time “Electric Feel” was played. The addition of a second guitarist added depth to the songs as improvised solos were welcomed on favorites such as “Kids”. A frenzy of electro beats and glitter is a good way to describe the hour long set. It seems that the road has done this group some good as its stage presence was more confident, and experimentation began to make its way into the songs which could have otherwise been just carbon copies off their records.
Over on other end of Zilker Park, fans of Beck were speckled in with the devout fans of Bright Eyes as Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley took the stage and jumped right into a fist-pumping rendition of “Sausalito”. Oberst didn’t stray too much from the recently released self-titled album, but he did perform a new one called “Ten Women” and covered Paul Simon for a great version of “KodaChrome”. Never failing to please his fans as one of the more emotionally-driven performers in the business, the Omaha native also went intimate with songs like the closer “Milk Thistle”, which seemingly stole the show. The rest of the set was heavy-hitting and countrified, and he was bound to make new fans as well as please those who didn’t know who he was and why he had such a prime set time.
Over on AT&T Blueroom, the Black Keys were up next. The duo from Akron brought the dirty blues to Austin with a rousing set that did not hold back. Starting with tracks from its latest album Attack & Release, such as “Psychotic Girl”, the Keys were quick to dive into its strong back catalogue with cuts such as “Stack Shot Billy” and “10 a.m. Automatic”, both from Rubber Factory. With the sun now set, the addition of simple lighting turned Carney and Auerbach into the rock stars they were destined to become. The Black Keys made it look easy as they were with out a doubt one of the top highlights from the weekend.
“It’s freakin’ Robert Plant, man,” I heard someone say. And I’m sure that was a sentiment expressed by most attendees who chose this set over it’s opposition. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss were the first headliner of the night, and they began with the beautiful “Rich Woman”. Plant didn’t hold anything back as the two ripped into the Zeppelin tune “Black Dog”, but that’s about when they began to get overpowered by the sound on the opposite park. Krauss sounded wonderful on the exceptional “Wildwood Flower”, and special guest T-Bone Burnett sat in for a song mid-set. While sound problems marred some people’s first and only experience with Robert Plant, it was still overwhelming to see him on stage with one of country’s biggest stars.
The crowd seemed to be evenly split on this evening as Beck opened up the night with “Loser”. This set the pace and tone as a bit heavier than he has been before. Each of the tracks played from Odelay, including “Devil’s Hair Cut” and “Where It’s At”, had a distorted edge to them while later selections from Modern Guilt conveyed a folksier side to him. At one point the conventional instruments were ditched for handheld drum machines and synthesizers, including an iPod touch that had been converted to a turntable for selections form Guiro and The Information. “Hell Yes” was the first of the songs that saw Beck go from distant folk hero to nerdy emcee. It only proved Beck to be one of the many reluctant musical heroes born out of Generation-X. His performance solidified his longevity and his influence on most of the bands today, many of which were at the festival this past weekend.
Saturday of ACL 2008 was one of the most stacked days in history. But even though it was tough day to get through, it was off to Sunset Rubdown’s late night aftershow.