Austin City Limits 2004: Quite a Successful Festival

Although there is no denying that multi-day music festivals can be exhausting, the singular experience of the Austin City Limits Festival is well worth it.  Zilker Park, located in the city dubbed the "live music capital of the world," was the site of up to 70,000 music fans - per day - over the weekend of September 17-19.  With a solid lineup and a good-natured crowd - after all, it's easy to be good-natured in a land of Southern hospitality - the ACL Fest rocked for three stimulating days.

The vast crowd under the Austin sky.

Friday afternoon featured current buzz-worthy group The Killers with their hard-edged rock, classic gospel artists Blind Boys of Alabama, and the group [who proclaim "Western swing ain't dead.  It's…"] Asleep at the Wheel, who have won nine Grammy Awards for their fusion of country, swing, jazz, boogie and plain old Western honky tonk.  The nighttime featured Sheryl Crow's effusively warm performance, including her new Cat Stevens cover "The First Cut is the Deepest" and closing with "Every Day is a Winding Road."  Local favorite Los Lonely Boys, a most talented trio of brothers from San Angelo, distinguished their set with extended Santana-reminiscent jams and closed with the hit single "Heaven."

The sold-out Saturday was certainly the busiest day, with overwhelming numbers of people.  While it was tough to maneuver anywhere near the popular stages, everyone seemed to keep their cool despite the intense heat, and somehow food, beverage and bathroom lines were very manageable waits.  This day featured Modest Mouse as well as G. Love, who had been slated to play at the same time but due to the large number of mutual fans, G. Love switched to a later slot.  The ever-innovative Modest Mouse put on a well-appreciated show, as did G. Love, but the latter must have suffered sound problems as the volume of his hip-hop/funky acoustic blues performance was considerably lower than others.  However this did not daunt the college radio favorite's audience, singing along to laid-back, simple tracks such as the popular "Baby's Got Sauce."

The SBC stage, home of many great acts.

Trey Anastasio from Phish carried the sonic atmosphere through the evening with his repertoire of original songs.  As a veteran of just one Phish show, that left quite an impression, I couldn't help secretly hoping for a rendition of "Possum," but I was easily contented with the familiar sounds of Trey's characteristic feel-good jams.  As the striking brass of his band filled the air and the sun sank toward the horizon, balloons, bubbles and flags danced in the air above the sizeable crowd, invoking a few memories of the flamboyant festivities Trey inspired with Phish!  The Pixies ended the night with an invigorating performance, thrilling their longtime fans who enjoyed seeing them reunited.

As you progress into the second or third day, you may feel as though you've gained a better grasp on your surroundings, or you may just be exhausted.  It can be tough navigating through so many people.  One idea that may improve things in the future would be to make a designated area for chairs, as trying to maneuver through people is one thing, but these stationary items can serve as roadblocks! 

If you're up to the challenge, it's always fun to try and get as close as you can to the stage.  I recommend attacking from an extreme side angle.  If you're not feeling so aggressive, the large teleprompters allow you to sit far back from the crowd, enjoying breathing room, comparing the teleprompter to the tiny figure of the artist atop the coveted stage.  This latter option seemed to be used by more and more people as the festival went on.


A view from the shade.

Sunday afternoon featured a slightly lesser crowd and the popular hip-hop group, lyrical and musical visionaries the Roots.  The evening boasted the increasingly experimental Wilco electrifying the SBC stage.  The last act of the ACL Fest, the renowned Ben Harper, was introduced by bicyclist extraordinaire Lance Armstrong, who shared an amusing anecdote from the previous day about the both of them diving into a swimming hole on Armstrong's ranch outside of Austin.  Ben Harper proceeded to lavish the crowd with his soulful grooves, including his classic "Steal My Kisses" and crowd-pleaser "Burn One Down," as well as songs from his new gospel album on which he collaborated with the Blind Boys of Alabama.  It was the gospel songs to which Ben gave his most impassioned performances, and indeed, his powerful range and depth of feeling infused into every song provided the perfect conclusion to such an extraordinary weekend, engrossing the audience for one last time.

An added benefit to ACL is that they allow you to bring in your own water bottles, of any size, providing they're sealed.  This keeps costs down, and the food choices, catered from local restaurants, are vast in variety and reasonably priced.  I found this refreshing as at many festivals, the cost of sustenance is a weighty consideration.  As an Angelino I have repeatedly attended the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, held over a spring weekend in Indio (lest that sound too exotic, Indio is a desert town near Palm Springs).  This is a festival that similarly boasts big names in music, but frequently with a more electronic slant overall.  However Coachella is much more restrictive with what you are allowed to bring in - no chairs, no water.  At ACL you can prepare yourself for the heat by bringing your own cold water.

More bikes than I'd ever seen before!

The fun of a multi-day festival are the surprises - stumbling upon bands you didn't know, or didn't know you knew, sets that perfectly fit your mood… The ACL Fest was a generous buffet of sounds and sights for my ears and eyes to feast on.  The variety of people, from teenagers to sexagenarians and even families with dancing little ones in tow, provided plenty of eye candy.  All sorts of styles were displayed, including more Texas college sports team t-shirts than I've noticed at Coachella!  I was happy to be reminded I was in Texas; the Austin skyline formed a stellar backdrop above the crowds and the stages.  There's a certain feeling of authenticity to watching so many bands in such a well-respected music city that made this year's larger-than-ever ACL Fest a matchless experience.

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