Live Review: Austin City Limits 2013, Friday

Live Reviews
Jacob Webb
all photos by Sally Gray Mahon

Although it might shift to include Sasquatch and Governor’s Ball next year, there are essentially four music festivals that form the festival season narrative in 2013. Typically, Coachella sets the bar for the rest of the year in April, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza try and outdo it through sheer size and spectacle, respectively, and then Austin City Limits takes the best bits from the other three and adds a few surprises of their own to cap off the year. But this year was different. Now embraced by youth culture at large, festivals are popping up left and right. Even Delaware, hardly a state known for its music culture, boasts a moderately big fest now. Festivals are no longer just for music enthusiasts or people who want to see grumpy English men reunite onstage for a paycheck to play 20 year-old songs. They’re for everyone. So how do festival curators attempt to make a lineup that appeals to that many people?

They probably could’ve scored a oneoff reunion or threw a ton of money at a safe bet like Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones, but Austin City Limits took a different route: they just stacked the hell out of their lineup. Ostensibly, there are six headliners here, but there are at least six more who are almost at that level. Additionally, being located in a city that (very arguably) claims to be the "Live Music Capital Of the World", there are a ton of hometown heroes, as well as a fair amount of overseas imports, and in a move that absolutely no one saw coming, Lionel Richie is in attendance too*. The music goes from about 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (unless someone decides to break his curfew, again), and there’s a ton of local Austin eateries in lieu of the typical stock festival fare. In short, Austin City Limits is prepped to send off Festival Season 2013 with a bang, and it’s armed with a laser pyramid, two of the eighties’ most influential bands, Thom Yorke’s more visceral half, a slew of indie heavyweights, the hardest working man in hip-hop, and Lionel Richie. It’s going to be a hell of a weekend.

*It should be noted that if R. Kelly’s surprise triumphs at Bonnaroo and Pitchfork Music Festival proved anything, it’s that a seemingly strange booking can be a highlight of the weekend. I fully expect to be throwing down to “All Night Long” after Atoms For Peace’s set ends.

Wild Nothing - 11:15 a.m.

Weekend 1 of ACL was warm and sunny all three days. Weekend 2 started with rain. A bad omen for some, but the light drizzle was surprisingly suitable for Wild Nothing. 11:15 a.m. isn't an enviable slot time at any festival, much less on a massive main stage, but Jack Tatum and co. ran with it, filling the space with their reverb-heavy sounds. The setlist was fairly equally split between all of the band's releases (the recent Empty Estate EP was just as represented as the band's two full lengths), so the locked-in band - especially Tatum and drummer Jeremiah Johnson - did a good job running through the set as if it was one long introduction for Austinites who may not have seen them before. Focused, mostly devoid of banter, and set against a gray Austin backdrop, Wild Nothing succeeded in both making a great first impression and properly opening a festival where so many other bands have failed.

Savages - 1:00 p.m.

Those who've seen Savages' KEXP in-studio from earlier this year are well aware that singer Jehnny Beth - one of the most entrancing singers to emerge in the last 12 months - is more than a little intimidating. On Friday afternoon though, she almost seemed amiable to the medium-sized crowd who gathered to watch Savages' blistering afternoon set. "She Will" was dedicated "to the ladies", she thanked and greeted the crowd a few times, and those who were paying attention may have even seen her smile, if only for a moment. That doesn't mean Savages were conciliatory in their unrelenting assault though. Even against the backdrop of the Austin afternoon sun, the band's debut Silence Yourself is a stunning, challenging manifesto; the twin attack of guitarist Gemma Thompson and bassist Ayse Hassan was as thunderous as ever, and when Beth ventured into the crowd, standing on the audience barricade to close the set with "Fuckers", she politely but firmly requested that the "army of cell phones" be put away. Tellingly, the crowd obeyed.

Pinback - 3:30 p.m.

If anyone had their work cut out for them at ACL on Friday, it was Pinback. Their set began right after Jimmy Eat World (who drew the day's biggest crowd at that point) had finished their set at an adjacent stage, so Rob Crow and Zach Smith were tasked with drawing festgoers from that mass exodus in favor of heading over to get lunch. So when they hit the stage at 3:30 on the dot, the trio (including drummer Chris Prescott) ran through song after song, barely stopping to acknowledge the crowd. Last year's Information Retrieved made up the vast majority of the set, but they threw in a few catalog cuts for the Pinback faithful (a small but dedicated group that had been camped out at the stage for some time). Near the end of the set, Crow eventually loosened up, and transitioned from making sarcastic jokes ("ten punk points to whoever pops that balloon in the crowd") into jumping into the crowd and traveling as far as his mic cable would go. The end result was a decent-sized crowd that stuck around long after chart-toppers Fun started playing across the park. Not bad for a cult band that went away for five years.

Okkervil River - 5:00 p.m.

If there’s an alternate universe where Will Sheff is poet laureate and Okkervil River is a stadium act, that reality existed for one hour on Friday evening at ACL. In addition to having a home field advantage, the Austin sextet was armed with The Silver Gymnasium, the band’s most accessible and wide-reaching album to date, as well as a couple tunes that serve as unofficial Austin anthems. All of the band was in fine form, but Sheff in particular stood out; his Cockerian stage presence and stronger-than-ever voice were key to selling those songs to a large audience, and by the time they hit perpetual set highlight "Lost Coastlines", Sheff had long ditched his jacket and kept his guitar slung behind his back so that he could use his hands to reel in the notably large and rambunctious audience. No disrespect to the Black Angels, but Okkervil River reigned as ACL’s local heroes Friday night, and it’s not too hard to imagine such a triumphant performance becoming a nightly occurrence for the band.

Vampire Weekend - 6:00 p.m.

At every festival, there’s one band that’s just too big for their stage and timeslot who draw a staggeringly large, park-bottlenecking crowd, and just like they were at every other festival they’ve played this year, that band was Vampire Weekend at ACL. It makes sense though. Even when they emerged in early 2008 as indie rock’s most polarizing band, their reputation as a live act has always been solid, and even as they’ve become a more studio-intensive band, they’ve also adapted to playing bigger and bigger audiences. Ezra Koenig is an accessible, charming frontman, Rostam Batmanglij is a versatile multi-instrumentalist, and their secret weapon, the agile, jovial rhythm section of Chris Baio and Chris Tomson is livelier than ever. They didn't pull out any songs from Modern Vampires of the City - a clear frontrunner for album of the year - until four songs into the set, but they probably didn't need to: the catalog material was just as well, if not better, received than the new songs, which made the set play like a future greatest hits primer, which is no small feat for a band with only three albums under their belt. (Sadly, there was no reprise of Ezra's green jumpsuit from Weekend 1.)

Arctic Monkeys - 6:30 p.m.

It took approximately half a song for Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner's slicked-back hair to come undone. Two songs later, he paused in between songs to cheekily take out a comb and re-arrange it, and the video screens surrounding the stage showed girls in the front row crying hysterically. And that was just the first time that happened. Turner's evolution from cynical, mop-haired urban poet to elegantly wasted desert troubadour is perhaps the most fascinating element of the Artics' career progression, and Turner knows it. He's a rock star through and through, and save for Dave Gahan, no one shook his hips harder all day. Likewise, his well-dressed bandmates - guitarist Jamie Cook, bassist Nick O'Malley, and drummer Matt Helders - are just as apt in their new positions as suit-wearing superstars, so when they brought out Josh Homme to sing on "Knee Socks", a highlight from the band's great fifth album AM, the move seemed less like social media bait and more of a natural move for them to simply bring out one of their rock star friends to join in on the grooving rocker. They inherited Oasis' mantle as the biggest English band in Europe a few years ago, but if there's one band who's ready for primetime for Festival Season 2014 in America, it's these guys.

Queens of the Stone Age - 7:30 p.m.

In recent years, it's been a pretty reliable move for bands in a creative rut to simply go away for a few years and come back and play their old material to a newly-hungry audience. But if there's one band who decided to come back hungrier and fiercer this year, it's Queens of the Stone Age, who have spent the summer reestablishing themselves as one of music's most vital bands by releasing an album that ranks among their best work and putting on a must-see live show. Rain had been threatening to return all day, and when it started pouring during the start of "No One Knows", it felt like a validation of their hard work from Mother Nature herself. ("We cracked open the sky, Austin," said leader Josh Homme during the song's bridge. "It was meant to be.") The rain only lasted another 10 minutes, but by the time the band reached usual face-melter set-closer "A Song For The Dead", the audience was wet not from rain, but from sweat, just as Homme intended.

Depeche Mode - 8:00

If Alex Turner made women from the ages of 17-25 cry, Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan was making women (and a few men) above that age bracket weep. Depeche Mode's music is rooted in early electronic music, but Dave Gahan is a classically-minded frontman. He struts across the stage, hams it up for the camera, dramatically leans on co-leader Martin Gore to pose for photographers, and spend almost as much time waggling his ass as he does singing. So even when the English legends aren't trotting out one of their many hits - which, surprisingly, they did relatively sparingly - it's impossible to look away. Delta Machine, their thirteenth and latest album, is rough and minimalist compared to most of their work, and they've used that approach for all of the songs in the set. "Walking In My Shoes" is now a drum-heavy rocker, "World in My Eyes" is extra percussive, the grinding "I Feel You" sounds better than ever, and an extended, audience-teasing "Personal Jesus" will certainly rank among the highlights of the weekend. Depeche Mode have been a consistently thrilling arena-filler for nearly two decades now, and their Friday night performance showed a band that remains visceral and restless in their quest to enrapture the masses.

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