Sunday, October 13, 2013

Austin City Limits Festival 2013, Weekend 2, Day 2

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2013, Weekend 2, Day 2
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 12 October 2013

Introduction: Day Two! I got to the festival a little earlier and this time I saw the complete sets of four bands, part of another, and a glimpse of two others. It was fairly hot and very humid and of course it rained for the last half hour of the Cure's set.

Junip: I'd heard of José González through my former bandmates, but I didn't know he was also in a band until last week. Perhaps it goes without saying that if I liked his solo work I'd like his band as well, but it is certainly worth noting that the two are quite different. Solo, González is a singer-songwriter rooted in folk music with a good dash of indie rock. As a band, Junip is an indie rock outfit with a dash of folk music. They are more atmospheric than your average indie band, using three keyboardists in concert to make quite a mesh of high-end spacey sounds. It's quite pleasant, and González's solid melodies keep it anchored. He strummed an acoustic guitar the whole time, but it was mixed fairly low. The sound was great, even if I couldn't understand the lyrics, although that probably has more to do with annunciation and accent than anything else. I liked them enough to buy their album.

Silversun Pickups: I saw these guys last year and I have their first full-length. The internet has kindly provided me their setlist:

01. Skin Graph
02. The Royal We
03. Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)
04. Substitution
05. Future Foe Scenarios
06. Kissing Families
07. The Pit
08. Panic Switch
09. Dots and Dashes (Enough Already)
10. Lazy Eye

For the most part, the Pickups followed the same tracks they'd laid when I saw them last year. Only three songs were performed this go around that weren't done at that show: "Substitution", "Future Foe Scenarios", and "Kissing Families". They claimed they hadn't performed "Future Foe" in over a year; the audience was quite appreciative. And just like last time, when they closed with "Lazy Eye", the audience went into a frenzy. Clearly, that song is a hit.

The thing is, while I like "Lazy Eye" quite a bit, it does reveal something to me about the band. The song builds and builds and builds, but in the end, the payoff is brief and not quite as grand as one might hope for. The song is rather long (about six minutes) and in the end it just sort of peters out. And to some extent, that's how I feel about the band. They clearly put some work into their music, and it isn't vapid or hollow, but it does feel like the end result isn't quite what I was hoping for. I like it, but I almost feel guilty for liking it, because it seems like there is some sort of higher essence that they come so close to but never actually attain.

Anyway, to come off my high horse, they did perform well. While I can't help but find Brian Aubert's vocals just a bit annoying, he does sing well. It also helped that bassist Nikki Monninger has returned to the stage after birthing twins, as I found her to be a much better performer than her replacement was (hardly a surprise, I suppose). Her vocals were great but too often buried in the mix. Joe Lester's keyboard work was also hidden a little more than I might've liked, but in contrast, drummer Chris Guanlao was perhaps even more energetic and impressive than ever.

I can't deny they played well. The audience seemed pleased, and for the most part I was too, but I just couldn't help feel like I wanted just a little more out of them. I don't mean in terms of time; they filled their hour-long slot well (even if I would have appreciated a slightly longer appearance). What I mean is that they seem to offer something but they never get around to revealing it in full. You are left wanting more, but I don't think they're ever going to deliver on it.

While walking from one side of the park to the other, I caught a few notes from The Joy Formidable. I was intrigued but didn't catch enough to make an honest judgment.

Little Green Cars: This was another new one for me, but I was seriously impressed by the couple tracks I'd heard in advance, so I made it a priority to book it to their stage after Silversun Pickups to catch the end of their set. It was well worth it, and I almost think I should have left the Pickups early to see more of these guys. They are a new act out of Ireland boasting an indie rock background with incredible harmonies. I only caught about ten minutes of them, including their closer "The John Wayne", which is quite an infectious bit of pop. There were six people on stage, of which five were singing. I couldn't believe how good the vocals were. I was left with a good enough impression that I bought their album.

Wilco: Thanks again to the internet for this setlist:

01. Misunderstood
02. Give Back the Key to My Heart (Doug Sahm cover)
03. Forget the Flowers
04. California Stars
05. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
06. Art of Almost
07. Hummingbird
08. Dawned on Me
09. Via Chicago
10. Impossible Germany
11. Heavy Metal Drummer
12. I'm the Man Who Loves You
13. A Shot in the Arm

I was surprised that Wilco was only given a second-tier billing with just an hour's allotment. I suppose their heyday may have been ten years ago, but I also suppose that their popularity has never quite matched their critical appraisal. To be fair, although I've listened to them via my father and several friends, I've never gotten in to them as much as I've wanted to. Even though I like their music, I don't know much about it. I'll do my best to write something intelligent nonetheless, but I probably can't dig in as deep as I'd truly like to.

The first four songs felt like a decided statement of alt-country mastery. The songs were a touch mellow but retained an edge, as if there was energy in the band waiting for be released. I recognized "California Stars", which originates from the great Mermaid Avenue project, in which Wilco and Billy Bragg wrote and performed music to accompany unheard lyrics by Woody Guthrie. The musicianship on these songs was quite good but not particularly unexpected, with two exceptions. First was Nels Cline, who ripped up several country/bluegrass guitar solos and occasionally unleashed some abstract noise. Second was fiddle player Richard Bowden, who joined the band for these four songs and took solos in each, which of course only pushed the band further in the country direction.

There was a bit of an abrupt change in atmosphere when Bowden left the stage and the band started into a bit of an odd jam that revealed itself to be "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart". That's the song that first drew me to the band, and this performance was no disappointment. The band revealed their rock side, but Nels's warped guitar work and Glenn Kotche's wild drumming mixed with some sort of electric bells played practically simultaneously showed the experimental and progressive side of the band even clearer. To say the least, that song's performance was amazing.

The rest of the set stayed more on the rock side of things, but traces of country and hints of deeper experimentation were still to be found. "Via Chicago" featured occasional thrash drumming as a counterpoint to the soft flow of the rest of the instrumentation. Several songs featured bits of noise and abstraction that didn't seem abrasive or disruptive but rather right in line with their mood and flow.

Another standout for me was "Heavy Metal Drummer", in which singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy makes fun of the awful metal bands that play in the touristy Laclede's Landing area in St. Louis, the second hometown of both Wilco and myself. It's nice to feel like someone else out there understands your background and perspective.

The star of the show was probably Nels Cline, who kept blowing away my expectations. Practically every single song saw him mastering some sort of guitar technique that I can only dream of. After the bluegrassery of the first songs, a few later songs saw him wielding some sort of presumably magnetic metal bar to generate a noise collage. "Impossible Germany" featured a rather long guitar solo that somehow never got boring or clichéd (although it helped that Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone were also playing cool riffs). For "Dawned on Me", Nels brought out a double-neck guitar (apparently 12-string and baritone). Never overly showy, he somehow managed to be consistently highly impressive and inventive.

Their performance served as yet another reminder that I really should be paying attention to this band. They put on a great show and I wished it could've gone on much longer. (One can, however, view a 90-minute set with a similar but longer setlist from Bonnaroo here. The version of "I Am Trying..." from that concert is good, but the one I saw was even better.)

I had an hour after Wilco before the Cure hit the stage, but wanting a good spot, I moved as fast as I could across the park. I made two brief detours. First, I stopped to hear a few minutes of Bright Light Social Hour. They are a local Austin band, and I was fairly intrigued by what I'd heard before. The little I heard was darkly toned, yet with a big sound that actually ended up being rather pretty. I wish I'd caught more. Second, I stopped at the Waterloo Records tent. I came away with CDs from Junip, Little Green Cars, and Hundred Waters, an electronic/indie/folk band that I didn't get to see but was quite curious about. So far, I like all three albums.

The Cure: I wrote down this setlist myself, even after it started raining. Of course, you have no reason to believe me, since the someone beat me to posting it online.

01. Open
02. A Night Like This
03. The End of the World
04. Lovesong
05. Just Like Heaven
06. From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea
07. Fascination Street
08. Pictures of You
09. Lullaby
10. High
11. The Lovecats
12. Close to Me
13. Hot Hot Hot!!!
14. The Caterpillar
15. The Walk
16. Stop Dead
17. Push
18. Inbetween Days
19. Friday I'm in Love
20. Doing the Unstuck
21. Want
22. The Hungry Ghost
23. Wrong Number
24. One Hundred Years
25. Give Me It
26. End
27. Boys Don't Cry

When I saw the Cure five years ago in Kansas City, Robert Smith was sick and could hardly sing. The band played a slightly abbreviated set, they were touring without a keyboardist (!), and the mix was horrible. I was really excited about the chance to see them again, hopeful that they would make amends for a thoroughly disappointing show from the last time around.

Oddly, the Cure do not have a new release to promote. They haven't released a new studio album since 2008. However, their lineup has changed a few times since then, which I suppose is par for the course for them. Thankfully, keyboardist Roger O'Donnell is back in the fold, but I was disappointed that long-time on-again, off-again lead guitarist Porl Thompson has departed, recently replaced by Reeves Gabrels. Gabrels is a bit of a surprise, even if he had once guested on the Cure's non-album 1997 single "Wrong Number". I know him best as David Bowie's guitarist through the 90s, most notably on the wonderful and strange Outside album. He seems like a bit of an odd choice for the Cure, since the band is known far more for mood and texture than instrumental virtuosity. I almost fear that Gabrel's talents are not being used to the best of his abilities – but who am I to judge how he spends his time?

Most of the Cure's set matched expectations. They mostly stuck to their favorite singles and their standard favorite album cuts ("Open", "A Night Like This", "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea", "Push", "One Hundred Years", etc.), but thankfully they took a few unexpected turns. The most interesting choice was "Stop Dead", the 12" extra b-side to "Close to Me". It was a good performance, and beforehand, Smith oddly remarked, "Right, I still think this was a single". I also appreciated the two weird pop singles once collected on Japanese Whispers ("The Lovecats", "The Walk") and two cuts from the highly strange The Top ("The Caterpillar", "Give Me It").

Of the many singles the band did perform, some were certainly better than others. I've always found "Hot Hot Hot!!!" (despite the infectious funk riffs), "Wrong Number", "Doing the Unstuck", and the latter-day "The End of the World" to be fairly uninspired, and the live performances of these songs offer little improvement. "The Hungry Ghost" was the only offering from their most recent album, 4:13 Dream, and it fares better live than on record, but I blame much of that on bad production. "Just Like Heaven" and "Friday I'm in Love", much as I love them, are fairly cheesy and their live performances are nothing special, no matter how much the audience eats it up.

On the other hand, every song from the stadium-size Disintegration album ("Lovesong", "Fascination Street", "Pictures of You" in particular, "Lullaby") is always a treat. I don't what it is with that album and those songs, but they truly shine and glow with something special when performed live. I know it's a cliché, but I still think that album is the band's pinnacle, the album they were born to make, even if they've made plenty of other great music.

"Boys Don't Cry" was of course a great closer, although it did sharply reveal the Cure's greatest flaw in the 21st century: Robert's voice just ain't what it used to be. It's not bad, but he's lost some of his grace and range, and as a result he relies on amelodic yelps and artificial inflections more than ever. (See my recent review of The Glove's Blue Sunshine reissue for more complaints in that vein.) Instrumentally, though, the band is still sharp. Robert plays a mean 6-string bass (and I was close enough to notice that he uses it as a lead instrument on far more songs than I'd previously guessed), and Simon Gallup remains the most active member of the band, dancing enthusiastically while playing his excellent trademark bass riffs. Drummer Jason Cooper might not do anything particularly special, but he holds things down well enough. And while Gabrels is clearly talented, he was usually mixed too low and I could hardly make sense of his lead guitar work.

The one sad part of the show was that it started to rain fairly heavily for the last half-hour. A few people left, but most stayed for the long haul – I certainly did. The Cure were supposed to finish at 10pm, and after "Boys Don't Cry" extended just a couple minutes past that, their sound suddenly got cut from the main speakers, leaving only the amplifiers on stage to finish out the song. I suspect the concert promoters wanted to force things to a close due to the weather, but it was rather unceremonious for the Cure, who couldn't even properly thank the audience or say anything whatsoever into their microphones for a closing word.

Junip: B+
Silversun Pickups: B-
Little Green Cars: A-
Wilco: A
The Cure: B+
Overall: A

Final Thoughts: I did not see enough of The Joy Formidable or Bright Light Social Club to be able to score them; I think that would be unfair. Honestly, my judgment of Little Green Cars may be similarly unwarranted, but I think I saw just enough to make an evaluation, and anyway I was quite impressed by the little I did see.

For the bands I did see, I was generally impressed and pleased all around. Only Silversun Pickups left me somewhat dissatisfied, but I can't even try to complain that they didn't perform well. I was also generally very impressed by the sound: almost every band I saw (on both days) had a really good, clear mix.

And lastly, a note on day three of the festival: as you may have heard, it has been canceled due to inclement weather (i.e. thunderstorming and flooding). I'm quite disappointed but that's just how it goes. My plan was to see Franz Ferdinand, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, The National, Tame Impala, and Atoms for Peace. I may need to buy a few of their records to make up for it. I was originally also curious about Foxygen, but they'd already canceled their appearance this weekend after acting completely insane last weekend, so I'm kind of over them already. But regarding the rest, if only I'd gone the first weekend instead...

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