Sunday, October 11, 2015

Austin City Limits Festival 2015, Weekend 2, Day 1

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2015, Weekend 2, Day 1
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 9 October 2015

Introduction: Yet again, I couldn't resist going to ACL even though I was entirely unexcited by all the headliners. In fact, this time, there weren't even many second- or third-tier acts that I was interested in. Still, after the good time I had last year, I figured it would be worth picking one day and making the most if it. Of course, the day I decided upon was Friday, which is annoying in that I had to take off work to go. Nonetheless, I went for it.

I am unashamed to admit that the main draw for me was Tame Impala, even though I just saw them earlier this year at Levitation. I was also excited to see Songhoy Blues again, whom I had caught earlier this year at SXSW. However, a few weeks before the event, I noticed that they were no longer on the schedule. I can't find any information about their disappearance except for this similarly disappointed Reddit thread.

I started my day off with The London Souls. On record, this guitar-and-drums duo sounded like straight classic rock throwbacks with a giant debt owed to Led Zeppelin and maybe The Beatles. On stage, they came off much rawer and even tighter. They were unexpectedly almost punky, but they held their act together far better than most could. Both musicians are incredibly expressive with their instruments. They just kept throwing in little surprises and clever riffs, so the music was always groovy yet captivating in its detail. All the extra touches really held my attention, but one could also opt to just lean back and enjoy the instruments in lock step. The downside is that their lyrics are completely devoid of originality. These are great players, and they both have good voices, but the main draw is the rock, not the words.

[The London Souls.]

Next up was Wolf Alice, an exclusive to Weekend 2. I was attracted by a slight psychedelic edge to their music, which manifested live as fitting in somewhere between dream pop and The Sisters of Mercy, but seemingly without the deliberate campiness. The heavy reverb and delayed space guitars worked in their favor, but a tendency for bland songwriting and awkward vocals did not. They occasionally attained great moments but mostly settled for a standard issue poppy metal/heavy rock vibe. There were some good riffs and sounds, but something was missing to take it to the next level. It didn't help that Cherub's crappy electronic beats wafted over from the Miller Light stage to distract from the experience. The setlist is available here.

[Wolf Alice.]

I was then caught at a crossroads between two bands I was interested in, so I split the difference and saw some of both. First I saw most of Billy Idol's set. The full setlist has been posted online:

01. Postcards from the Past
02. Dancing with Myself [originally performed with Generation X]
03. Can't Break Me Down
04. Flesh for Fantasy
05. Eyes Without a Face
06. Ready Steady Go [originally performed with Generation X]
07. Blue Highway
08. Rebel Yell
09. White Wedding
10. Mony Mony [Tommy James & the Shondells cover]

I've never been a great Idol fan; I find his music catchy and likable but not especially meaningful or especially attractive. I do, however, appreciate that his music has a touch of deliberately over-the-top excess. His performance is absurd and yet the audience is complicit. He's something of a punk, but he makes few excuses about his music really being just good time rock 'n' roll, only slightly heavier, dirtier, and weirder. (This of course is discounting his awful but visionary
Cyberpunk album from 1993.) On stage he just played to expectations. Guitarist Steve Stevens was less of a showboat than some, but the band did everything else they could to live up to a rock 'n' roll fantasy. I almost started cracking up when Idol took his shirt off.

I trekked across the entire park grounds to get to the other side to see the last few songs from Leon Bridges. Hailing from Fort Worth, this guy seemed to come out of nowhere and instantly start rising. He is very rooted in old school traditions of soul, R&B, and gospel. His strong voice is well suited to his retro style. The band's performance was tight, consistent, groovy, and solid, but his lyrics were fairly basic. It was easy to forgive, but it would help if he played a bit less by the numbers.

While enjoying some amazing Korean BBQ Tofu Tacos from Chi'lantro, I caught a few songs from Moon Taxi on the nearby Austin Ventures stage, but it was so generic that I can't remember anything of note from what I saw and heard. It was some type of indie or emo thing, but it didn't do anything for me.

I then camped out for Tame Impala, holding my spot despite unceasing surges and rushes of the crowd. I've never seen so many people try to squeeze in where there was obviously no room for them. This was also the only time during the day that I saw people smoking despite the ban. Anyway, here's the setlist:

01. Intro Jam
02. Let It Happen
03. Mind Mischief
04. Why Won't They Talk to Me?
05. The Moment
06. Elephant
07. The Less I Know the Better
08. 'Cause I'm a Man
09. Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind?
10. Unknown Jam
11. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
12. Apocalypse Dreams

I thought Tame Impala's 80-minute headlining, show-closing set at Levitation earlier this year was incredible. I gave it a rare A+. It was everything I could have wanted and more: it rocked, it was psychedelic, they jammed all over the place, they threw in curveballs and surprises, the visuals were good, and they debuted a fairly good new song. I wished it had gone on longer, but that's just the nature of festival appearances.

This time around, they didn't even play a full hour, and there were no surprises at all. The only curious part was a brief jam near the end. In fact, excluding the songs from the new album, Currents, every other song was also played at Levitation in the same order! Sure, these are great songs that I've come to love over the past couple years, but it just seemed like they weren't really trying. The new songs were a mixed bag; "Let It Happen" is fairly good, and the bassline to "The Less I Know the Better" is enough to sell me on the song right there, but "The Moment" didn't quite work, and "'Cause I'm a Man" fared even worse. The only reason I can tolerate that song at all is the subtle lyrical shift near the end to "I'm a human", but a subtlety like that was entirely lost in the shuffle of the live performance.

The keyboards and bass were right on the mark, but the guitars, apart from being more subdued in general considering the material, were not up to par, and nor were Kevin's vocals. The psychedelia was mostly absent in favor of a more lightweight electronic dance vibe. It was still good, but not magical. It felt short, like I was waiting for the big moment, but it never came. It didn't help that the crowd was pushy and rowdy and that someone was drunkenly singing along off-key whenever they could half-remember the words.

[Tame Impala.]

After that slight disappointment, I went to see George Ezra, a singer-songwriter somewhere between soul, folk, and light blues. He has an incredible voice with a theatrical level of expression. His music was pleasant but unsophisticated. It was clean cut and smoothed of any uneven edges. It came off just a bit fragile and lifeless, which was only exacerbated by the awful electronic beats coming from Flosstradmus' set at the nearby Miller Light stage. I knew it was my cue to leave when he started into "Girl from the North Country". He sounded quite a bit more straight pop than I had been expecting.

I bailed and headed over to catch most of Gary Clark Jr.'s set. His setlist has been posted online:

01. When My Train Pulls In
02. Bright Lights
03. Stay
04. Hold On
05. Cold Blooded
06. Our Love
07. Grinder
08. Ain't Messin' 'Round
09. Travis County
10. Church
11. The Healing

Clark plays a bluesy rock with a bit of groove and funk. His lyrics were unimaginative,
but the vocals were clearly secondary to his guitar, anyway. I know he's from Austin and I'm supposed to like him, but I just didn't find his performance very special. Most of his set featured Hard Proof, or at least their horns players (including my former landlord!), which was definitely a highlight. During "Travis County", Clark handed his guitar to a friend to finish out the closing guitar solo, and he brought out his sisters to sing along for "Church", although they unfortunately didn't add much. Clark was a good performer and played decent tunes, but the set just didn't take off like I might have hoped.

[Gary Clark Jr. with members of Hard Proof.]

The closing headliners of the night were Foo Fighters and Disclosure, neither of which held any appeal for me. I sat around for a few songs by Foo Fighters – enough to see Dave Grohl in his bizarre throne – but I just couldn't get interested. The setlist is available here. On my way out, I caught a few minutes of Disclosure's uninspired electronic beats. I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to like in their performance and so I left early.

The London Souls: B+
Wolf Alice: B-
Billy Idol: C
Leon Bridges: B
Moon Taxi: D
Tame Impala: B-
George Ezra: C-
Gary Clark Jr.: C+

Final Thoughts: This was probably the most middling festival experience I've had yet. The band I was most excited about didn't deliver like I was hoping, the band I was second-most excited about was canceled, and no other band was truly exceptional. I saw several acts that put on a good performance, but left little under the surface. The one actual blast from the past, Billy Idol, was fine, but not really up my alley. I had a good enough time, but now I'm wondering if I had picked the wrong day solely because I was drawn so strongly by Tame Impala.

Another issue was sound bleeding over from one stage to another. Twice when I saw bands at the Austin Ventures stage (Wolf Alice and Goerge Ezra), it seemed like the volume was lower than whatever electronic garbage was coming from the nearby Miller Light stage. In both cases, their lower-key moments and nuances were lost to the incessant synthetic bass drum. It overpowered their sound and their spirit. I know that volume levels at major events on public grounds in Austin have recently come under new ordinances, but it seemed like there was still some work to do about managing and balancing the levels between stages.

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