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September 20, 2007
We knew there would be tension involved, festering below the surface. And it made its way out in the form of a running joke: this weekend was either going to be Austin Shitty Limits or Awesome City Limits. Stupid, I know, but between the photographer and I we managed to experience both sides of the coin, which made it that much more amusing.

After all, any weekend that boasts an artist line-up that includes Bob Dylan, Muse, Arcade Fire, Björk, Lucinda Williams, The Killers, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Arctic Monkeys, Damien Rice, Bloc Party, Queens of the Stone Age and The Decemberists - and dozens of others - certainly possesses the makings of the ultimate music experience. Of course anyone who has experienced the weather in Texas during a month without the suffix "uary" knows that the sheer heat can overwhelm even the best of said experiences, so as we headed down to the Lone Star capital it was anyone's guess as to Austin Shitty Limits or Awesome City Limits.



The view from the back.

Day One
One thing that should be made clear right off is that Austin City Limits is not for the impatient. The daily ACL procedure consisted of trying to find a parking spot that didn't cost at least $20, walking several blocks to take up position at the end of a long line of people waiting for the coach buses running to Zilker Park, and getting dropped at the gates to spend another half hour plus in security lines waiting to enter the festival. The total time from clicking the car alarm through the front gates was approximately two hours each day.

Friday came with an especially weird entrance as a plume of smoke rose over the location of the festival, leaving everyone wondering what the hell had happened. It turned out that there was an explosion in an RV associated with the vending area, injuring four people who had to be rushed to the hospital. Festivalgoers in turn had to wait quite a bit of time before they could enter the festival while emergency vehicles made their way in, but safety comes first even at the summer's premiere music festival.

The inconvenience of entering aside, when the lineup is as stacked as ACL 2007 was all the common peripheral festival worries like exploding vehicles, oppressive heat and long lines quickly fade away, and Friday's musical menu screamed bon appétit. Some of the acts not worth writing about? Pete Yorn, Joseph Arthur, Crowded House, The Killers, Kaiser Chiefs. That should tell you all you need to know about the rest of the show.


John Ralston.

Perhaps the surprise of the day was John Ralston, whose new album, Sorry Vampire, was just released. Playing the smallest BMI-sponsored stage, Ralston drew a small but dedicated crowd of fans as soon as he plugged in, but scores of those who were merely walking by were drawn in by his incredible hooks and ended up hanging around for a few songs. Songs like "I Don't Believe in Ghosts" certainly entertained, but Needle Bed's "It's Not Your Fault" brought the sitting crowd to their feet.

Austin natives Spoon were certainly one of the weekend's highlights, taking the stage to exuberant praise from a legions of fans who were soon singing along with each and every word. "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case" sounded especially good and "Don't Make Me A Target" kept the set lively, but it wasn't until Britt Daniel shouted "Let's get the horns" that it was truly time to party. The rest of the band channeled a late 70s Elton John vibe on some tracks and, as the show went on, Daniels, clad in all black, finally started to come alive and move around as much as the crowd below his feet.


Spoon.

Sri Lankan sound blender and media darling M.I.A. put on a fairly entertaining set, although the energy level of her performance didn't quite live up to its reputation. Still, hats off to ACL for making dance and hip-hop artists part of a festival full of fans that clearly loved whitebread indie rock more than anything else.


LCD Soundsystem. (photo: ACL)

LCD Soundsystem won the crowd from the beginning simply by speaking truth: "We know we're in the shade and you're in the sun. It's fucking brutal. You're working harder than us, so we appreciate it." After giving the sea of sweaty bodies props for sticking it out in the blazing heat, James Murphy and company proceeded to reel off cries, screams and howls in all the right places as the band exploded into the most impressive musical set of the night.

Joss Stone, whose sultry delivery and tiny sundress was the only thing hotter than the Texas temperature, showcased her wares with a mostly slow, jazzy set, the pace of which wasn't in keeping with the reaction she apparently expected. Stone spent minutes trying to work the crowd up by giving pep talks, encouraging her listeners to "rise above their circumstances" and other such banter, apparently in reference to the heat. It was a clear miss to a festival crowd who couldn't even hear the drivel.


Joss Stone.

Day Two
After fighting the early throngs on Friday we arrived a bit later on Saturday, but still managed to catch some impressive music. The festival's second day was clearly hotter than the previous, given that Friday had included intermittent rains that kept the dust down and the heat tolerable. Every person through the gates received a cardboard fan, which could be seen waving frantically across the crowd early on before slowly disappearing as they became unusable as the day wore on and they wore out.

Since The White Stripes had cancelled their Austin performance - along with every other remaining show in 2007 - due to "health issues," the powers-that-be wound up switching much of Saturday's original schedule around. Acts like Augustana and Damien Rice were moved to later in the night and Muse was made the headlining act on Saturday.

During the day news of Friday's fire brought updates of positive prognoses of the victims, information that seemed to calm a crowd that surprisingly talked of the tragedy a great deal. Throughout both Friday and Saturday numerous conversations could be overheard focusing on the fire and how people were holding out hope for those affected.

Still, in the face of explosions, cancellations, and boiling temperatures, the music went on. Butch Walker, complete with his band The Let's Go Out Tonites, was decked out in a full suit of all things, but his smothering attire didn't keep him from giving one of the best full-vocal performances of the festival with his great, raspy delivery.


Andrew Bird.

Andrew Bird was, without a doubt, the most impressive of act on Saturday. The Chicago multi-instrumentalist's alpine whistling and incredible musicianship were in full effect, leaving the sweaty crowd silenced in awe. Bird played the audience quite well, keeping things lively and interesting with songs like "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left" and "Imitosis," the latter of which being from his latest album, Armchair Apocrypha. Layering his own violin plucking and playing atop the bass and drum accompaniment proved an entertaining mix and as the day wore on Bird was the talk of the festival.

Starting with "Knights of Cydonia" and closing with "Stockholm Syndrome," headliners Muse were not to be outdone. Assigned with replacing the White Stripes and closing things out on day two, the band was more than ready for the task. Matthew Bellamy proved himself one of the most impressive frontmen today with soaring vocals and charisma that oozes, and even though they were competing with the Arcade Fire the crowd for Muse was revved and expansive.


Day Three
[Insert requisite comment about appalling heat]

The biggest buzz all day Sunday was all about Bob Dylan, even in the midst of other fantastic acts like The Decemberists, Wilco and Regina Spektor. The first highlight of the day could be found in the softer stylings of Irish singer/songwriter Fionn Regan, who had no problem translating his songs to the festival atmosphere. As anyone in Austin on Sunday can tell you, if you haven't heard Regan, you're truly missing out.

Ryan Shaw showcased the best Stevie Wonder impersonation of the weekend and proved himself as arguably the next big soulful star. The Atlanta native kept the focus on his band and shared the stage quite well, but ended up stealing the spotlight with songs like "I'm Your Man."

Resurgent Chicago artist Common kept the hip-hop vibe moving, delivering a fluid and smooth performance for a grooving crowd. Another notable hip-hop set came courtesy of Philadelphian Amos Lee, whose performance was perhaps a little dragging in light of the weather conditions, but such is to be expected.


The Decemberists. (photo: ACL)

Of the acts on Sunday, the Decemberists, whose set drew heavily from their major label debut, The Crane Wife, took the cake. Specifically "The Crane Wife #3," "The Island" and "16 Military Wives" were just fantastic. Colin Meloy seemed right at home in front of such a large crowd and the literary rockers weren't too intelligent for the ACL audience. In fact, the band seemed to rock out quite a bit more than their melancholy acoustics would have one expect.

After three long, hot, exciting and potentially dangerous days, it finally came time for the biggest performance of what could arguably be called the biggest music festival of the year: Bob Dylan and his band. Unfortunately the weekend ended with a fizzle rather than a bang. No cameras were allowed up close, meaning that the video screens weren't showing the typical up-close feeds, and on top of that Dylan's voice sounded completely shot. Aside from those near the stage, most of the crowd seemed resigned to simply talking during the set, frustrated at being able to neither see nor here. As can often be the case when musical dinosaurs perform at such a large venue, it seemed people were just happy to say they saw Bob Dylan yet weren't overly impressed by his performance.

Organizing and executing an event like Austin City Limits is always a process full of ups and downs, and last weekend certainly had its share of good and bad moments. The best of the musical acts were certainly impressive, and those who brought their A-game to Texas showed that the current state of music is a good one. There was a lot to be excited about in Austin and despite the heat, fire, cancellations, and, well, Bob Dylan, ACL 2007 was a thoroughly impressive event.


Fans a dancin'.

SEE ALSO: www.aclfestival.com

--
Matt Conner
A contributing writer, Matt Conner lives in Anderson, Indiana.

See other articles by Matt Conner.

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