Wednesday, December 13, 2006

99 Degrees And Loving It: Steve Goes to the ACL Festival

In the 11 years I’ve had my current job (yes, 11, I know, I know, I must be insane) I’ve covered all types of music festivals throughout the country—The HFStival in Washington, Farm Aid outside Chicago, Ozzfest in lovely (cough, cough) West Palm Beach, Florida, The Furthur Festival in Atlanta, the H.O.R.D.E. Festival in Somerset, Wisconsin and the Fleadh Festival on Randall’s Island here in New York. Overall, I’ve reported on over 20 festivals—and they all pretty much sucked. There was no easier path to crankiness than a couple of days wandering around in the summer heat with a heavy DAT machine trying to get backstage to interview someone who would turn out to be an insufferable prick. Ugh. Even when I went to festivals as just a fan (starting with the 1992 edition of Lollapalooza) I would be really excited at the beginning of the day. By the time the last act rolled around, I usually wanted to lie down and go to sleep. I would wear myself out too quickly by rocking out and jumping around, and even when I was a kid I never had the stamina to do that for hours at a time. So when we cut back a bit on festival coverage, no one was happier than me.

Over the past five years a new type of festival has sprung up across the country—a multi day event in one central location, with an eye on having spaces where fans can rest or cool off in between bands. I started to hear so many good things about festivals like Coachella in California and Bonnaroo in Tennessee with great diverse lineups. I started thinking that I might even be able to make it through a few days as long as I was able to get some downtime between bands—and I didn’t have to lug around recording equipment and spend most of my time trying to track down publicists.

Enter my friend Stacy who lives in Austin, Texas. For the past couple of years she kept saying I should come down and cover the Austin City Limits Festival in Zilker Park. “You have a place to stay for free,” she kept telling me. I kept brushing it off until one day in May when I got an email announcing this year’s lineup. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers? Willie Nelson? Nada Surf? The Raconteurs? Gnarls Barkley? Son Volt? Guster—and 95 other bands? That sounds pretty damn good to me. I’m not sure what overcame me (I don’t even think I was hungover, so I can’t use that readily available excuse), but armed with a bank account that had a tiny bit of extra money in it I did my most impulsive deed in years and bought a pair of three day passes to ACL and emailed Stacy that I hoped her offer of a place to crash was still good, because I was coming to Austin.

Since I’m that kind of guy who likes to ramble on about his adventures, I figured keeping copious notes about my reentry to the world of rock festivals would be a good move. So join me as I attempt to transcribe my sweaty notes about rocking out in Texas from September 14th through the 18th, where I quickly found out the summer heat doesn’t end until late October.
September 14th: The Best Type of Ribs? The Free Ones.
When I walked out of the gate into the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, I could smell them. Ribs. LOTS of juicy, succulent ribs. My previous time in Austin in 2001 I was told I had to go to one place to get ribs—The Salt Lick. The 25 minute drive outside town was totally worth it, as the ribs just melted down my gullet. It was food perfection. Before this trip I decided not to have ribs or barbeque for three months, so I was literally drooling when I got off the plane and smelled the ribs available at the airport Salt Lick outpost. It took a lot of willpower to not just head to their stand and skip getting my suitcase altogether. But I knew I had a great reward awaiting me—Stacy’s boyfriend Donnie was one of the managers of the new Salt Lick branch in Austin proper, called The Salt Lick 360. I was pretty sure that would give me the inside track on the best ribs they had to offer. So after making pit stops to pick up our three day pass wrist bands (more on this later) and a tasty margarita at the Hula Hut overlooking Lake Austin, we went to the Salt Lick 360.

As we stepped in, the food smell almost brought me to tears. I had thought—no, I had obsessed about eating these ribs for three months, and now I was going to finally sink my teeth into them. Stacy and I sat down at the bar just across from where Donnie (who is one fluid jazz guitarist) and his friend/keyboardist Papi were playing some of the best dinner music I’d heard in ages. A couple of Stacy’s friends were supposed to be joining us for dinner, so I kept my rib hunger in check by ordering some beef brisket queso and a cheap draft beer.

Oh my.

It was so good. I’d never sampled such a divine mix of cheese and beef ever. (And yes, it tasted better than any hamburger I’ve ever had, trust me.) I’m pretty sure the very cool guy behind the bar must have been a bit scared when let out a low growl of “mmmmmm” when I took my first bite of a queso covered chip. Yet that didn’t deter him from suggesting that in addition to the regular ribs I wanted to order, I get some babyback ribs as well. And he totally got a kick out of me taking a picture of the ribs when they showed up. He said, “We need to get a shot of you eating those.” (I particularly love the animalistic way I’m ripping the meat off the bone—and my obviously sweat-styled hair.) And our friendly bartender was so right about adding the babyback ribs to my order. It was a sticky slice of meat heaven. Everything that I had remembered about their ribs was spot on—they were very moist, the meat came off the bones very easily and the barbeque taste was second to none.

(I’m sorry; I need to go get a napkin because I’m drooling on the keyboard right now. That’s better.)

After the meal was done I got the best news of the day—my meal was free. It indeed pays to know a manager’s girlfriend. So Stacy and I said goodbye to the incredibly friendly staff (I predict I will say friendly a whole lot in the next couple of pages), picked up some beer at local gas station and went back to the very quaint home she shares with Donnie. As I sipped a Rolling Rock I thought, “This trip has been a success already, and we haven’t even heard a note.”

September 15th: So Where Are You Two Going?

My other food goal of my trip was to chow down on some top-notch Tex-Mex. Stacy asked me if I was in the mood for breakfast tacos, which is kind of like asking a junkie if they’re in the mood for another fix. Papi the keyboardist also ran a little taco stand about a 10 minute walk from where Donnie and Stacy lived and she said that these tacos were (I’m paraphrasing here) “amazing.” And damned if she wasn’t right. The mix of eggs, chorizo, cheese and pico were all in the exact right balance. And it could be eaten in the way breakfast is meant to be had—with your hands. No forks necessary.

We hopped in Stacy’s car for the drive downtown to catch the shuttle bus to Zilker Park. Now this is where I thought the whole festival layout would hit a snag. How many people out of the 65-thousand attending everyday would be parking downtown? Half that? More? I expected to be riding around all day looking for a spot. Yet we drove around for just five minutes, found a parking garage that was free, walked six blocks to the bus pick up point and immediately got on board. 15 minutes later we got off the bus, walked through the back gate and were immediately immersed in music. The ease of it all left me dumbfounded. Everything up to this point was almost too simple. Something bad had to happen, right? Right?

Since the first band I really wanted to see—Guster—wasn’t on for an hour, we walked over the grounds to get the lay of the land. From the get go I could tell that these folks knew what worked on this site. The stages were set apart far enough so there wasn’t that much competition sound-wise. The screens were big enough that if you were really far back you could at least catch some of the action. There were places to buy water (which was only 2 bucks, much cheaper than any concert I had been to lately) everywhere, and finding the free water fountains took very little time as well. The merch area was well designed and was big enough to accommodate a huge amount of people, as was the food court. And what food it was. (Yes, I did eat a lot on this trip.) The Salt Lick had a booth with beef and pork sandwiches (both of which were great), while this fancy restaurant called Hudson’s on the Bend served up these chicken wraps that they made only for the festival. They were so good I wanted to start a franchise here in New York just to sell those wraps. And there was the Sweet Tea booth, which sold the best iced tea I’ve ever had that I didn’t make myself.

Let me speak for a moment about something else all the food and beverage booths had in common—all of these folks were exceedingly nice. It’s almost 100 degrees, there’s tens of thousands of people wanting water or beer or food, these lines are moving quick to serve all these folks, and I never once heard someone have an attitude or be condescending to a dumbass that deserved a beatdown. This friendly attitude was evident in every single person I saw working at ACL. People working at rock festivals are supposed to have a general disdain for the fans in attendance. Honestly, this great vibe kind of freaked me out for a while. I kept waiting for someone to peg somebody else with a beer bottle or yell about the food not coming fast enough or call a security guard a moron. Nope. Nothing. I couldn’t help but get swept up in the friendly vibe the entire weekend.

After all of the great non-music parts of ACL, I’ve almost forgotten to mention the music we saw on that first day. We scoped out some space next to the soundboard to watch Guster’s set that leaned heavy on their two recent great albums, Ganging Up on the Sun and Keep It Together. From our vantage point we were doing okay in the heat until the last two songs when the sun decide to burrow directly through my hat and into my spinal column. Stacy beat me to the punch by saying, “I think I need to get out of the sun.” So we walked a short way down the hill to the Rock Island Hideaway, a huge tented area sponsored by a local wine company. I grabbed up a bunch of waters and iced teas (the very nice cashier called me “darlin’” twice) and miraculously a couple of seats opened up. After some rest, we decided to give Gnarls Barkley a shot, and wow, were we glad we did. They hit the stage all dressed in medical uniforms, frontman Cee-Lo announced that they were called John Nash and the Beautiful Minds and the broke into a verse of “She Blinded Me With Science.” Right then I had a good feeling that our streak of luck was going to continue. Cee-Lo has such a powerful stage presence that you couldn’t help but watch him the entire show, even with the extremely attractive string section dressed in glasses and short skirts. It was such a good time I even started doing a bit of moving and bobbing my head, completely forgetting the oppressive heat.

After Gnarls we went and watched the second half of Okervill River, who were also surprisingly good. After a look at the schedule, we realized we did not want to sit through Ray LaMontagne or John Mayer to get to Van Morrison, so we beat a retreat to the exit. And once again, it took no time at all to get on a nice A/C filled bus and get back to downtown, Then Stacy helped to fulfill my dream of a Tex-Mex doubleheader with a great meal at a well-known joint called Maudie’s Café. With it being a Friday and all, we somehow mustered up the energy to hit a couple of my favorite types of places—dive bars with cheap beer. Our first stop was the Horseshoe Lounge. I wanted to take a picture inside of this joint, because the bar itself was horseshoe shaped. But they had a sign up as you walked in stating, “ABSOLUTELY NO PHOTOGRAPHS ALLOWED.” I wondered why there was such a stern warning about cameras. I slowly figured it out as our bartender kept complaining about going out back to smoke—they had recently gotten busted for allowing patrons to smoke in the bar by a local undercover TV reporter. The bartender’s bitterness about the whole incident stopped me from asking where he had gotten such a great shirt—it read, “I F’in Heart Texas.” (We later spent a good deal of time on the internet looking for that exact shirt, to no avail.) And after Stacy played Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” on the jukebox, we figured we might not be welcome in there for too much longer.

After the Horseshoe we hit Deep Eddie, which had their own little run in with the smoking ban. They were raising funds for “the Deep Eddie Six”—six bartenders and patrons who got fined for flaunting the smoking ban. I enjoyed our time there, until this weird dude decided he wanted to buy beers for both of us. I wasn’t sure if he was a) trying to pick me up; b) pick Stacy up; c) pick us both up; d) hit us up for a ride home or e) tell us about the amazing products Amway has to offer. We were pretty sure it was choice d), but fortunately he stumbled out first and left us to drink the beer he bought for us in peace.

September 16th: Turn It Up Willie!

Once again the efficiency gods were with us, as we left Stacy’s house at 11:10 and got to the grounds just in time to hear Marah hit the stage at 11:45. Now rock music before noon can’t be anyone’s idea of fun, yet the guys in Marah played as if their careers depended upon it. Guitarist Serge Bielanko made a great crack about the abundant sunshine (which then went behind clouds for most of the day, cooling us all) by looking up at the rock show lights above them spinning around like it was pitch black out. “I took 8000 dollars of my savings and spent it on this light show—hope ya enjoy it.” By the time both Serge and his brother had climbed into the crowd during their last song we were totally won over.

The next band we heard, Ghostland Observatory, drew the complete opposite reaction. We were sitting in the food court area, but we could hear their horrible dance-inflected rock and see the big screen—and both sight and sound scarred me. I don’t think I’ve ever said the phrase, “They even dance pretentiously,” and I hope to never again. (Postscript to this set—I later discovered that the lead singer was actually a man. I was convinced—CONVINCED—that we were watching a female cavort on stage. Damn. Look at that pic to the left!)

Ben Kweller was scheduled after Ghostland Observatory on the stage directly opposite them. Up until that point that stages ran like a smoothly oiled machine—one band ended, the stage opposite them started music started immediately. Yet we had to wait 10 minutes until Kweller came on stage. He explained that he had a doctor looking at his nose, since the dry weather had given him a “double nostril nose bleed.” It took only one song for nose to open up again. Blood went everywhere—on his guitar, on his hand, his shirt. It was disgusting. Finally at one point he yelled, “Does anyone have a tampon.” And it was as if dozens of women knew exactly what he was going to ask, as the air in front of the stage suddenly became blur of flying tampons. He shoved a couple in his nose, declared “We’ve gotta rock out now,” and then led his band into a raucous version of “This Is War.” And I tell you, it looked like he’d been in a war when he pulled out one tampon during the song and blood went flying. He attempted one more song at the piano, but you could hear portions of the audience go “eeeeeew” when the camera focused in his face and you could see blooding running down his lip onto the microphone. Kweller had to quit after that, but not before leaving the most lasting impression of the festival.

Kweller’s quick set gave us enough time to get back for all of Nada Surf, who once again were great. The Texas two-step they got the crowd to do during “Inside of Love” must have looked great from above. And the having the two trumpet players from Calexico blast out the riff to “Blankest Year” was a stroke of genius. Nada Surf’s set started a run where we went from stage to stage to stage with no break. When they were done, we went up the hill to watch most of Los Lobos, and then skipped their last two songs to catch the unusually funny Aimee Mann. (She introduced “Save Me” by declaring, “You may remember this song lost out on the Oscar to Phil Collins’ ‘Young Man Monkey Love’ tune.”) When she was done, we turned around and bam—The Raconteurs were playing. As good as their debut album is their set proved that this band has only gotten better the longer they’ve played together. As they finished, I thought of how good their next album would be—and how good a sandwich from the Salt Lick would taste.

After waiting through the sandwich line that moved surprisingly fast, we attempted to get a place on the hill to see Willie Nelson. I say attempted because this was easily the most crowded spot of the entire festival. We had seen a lot of folks who brought sets of chairs and would set them up and mark their spot with a flag so their friends could find them. Well, I think every folding chair in the greater Austin area was on the grass in front of the stage waiting for Willie to come on. When Stacy said to me on Friday, “Texans are used to tailgating, and can sit around for hours,” she wasn’t kidding. We finally found a place to stand and a huge roar came up when Willie walked on stage. Then another roar of people yelling “Turn it up” started coming from behind us. And these folks were right. The sound at every other stage was perfect, but Willie and the family sounded like they were playing in Fort Worth. I was afraid to say a single word for fear of drowning out “Crazy.” We finally gave up after an hour and headed for the bus. This time the bus line was as long as I expected—when 30-thousand folks are leaving via one mode of transport, it’s going to take a while to get there. But I must say it was the quickest 30 minutes I’ve ever spent in a line for transportation. They line never stopped moving forward because they obviously had brought more than enough buses to keep the shuttle going non-stop. And once again, every single person working on the line was so nice, apologizing for the lengthy delay. And I might have been a bit tired by then, but I believed every word they said.

September 17th: Mary Jane’s First Rain

The last day of festival we knew we were going to stay to the end of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers set, so we decided to skip a good chunk of the afternoon rock and plan our entrance to right before Son Volt’s set. Stacy and I are both huge fans of the band, so we kind of wanted to get close. But damn, we had no idea we would get so close. When we walked up to the stage, most people had just cleared out after country singer Jack Ingram’s set. So we walked right up to the barrier and set up shop. I knew that the sound was going to be loud, but I had no idea how powerful the low end would be when Jay Farrar and company started playing. At one point I thought the rumbling had stopped my heart, and then restarted it again on a totally different beat. At one gap between songs Stacy leaned over to me and said, “My uterus is contracting.” Thank goodness nothing horrible medical-wise happened to us (and I was able to get some nice up close shots).

We slowly made our way towards The Flaming Lips when they started, and I have to say they were the most disappointing set I saw out of the 20 bands I watched over the three days. It seemed like they were trying too hard to make their set seem like the biggest thing ever with the dozens of dancing girls and people in Santa Claus costumes jumping around at the back of the stage. It had the air of a forced celebration about it, as if everyone was required to party when the Lips came to town. I found myself wishing they would end soon some of the crowd would clear out.

Finally the Lips did end, allowing us to stake out some space for Petty. Alas, some thunderstorms also staked out some space over Zilker Park. During Petty’s set the clouds put on a free light show to accompany “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Saving Grace.” During the latter song the clouds opened up and started drenching us, sending thousands of folks scrambling for the nearest exit. Petty then came on mic and said they had to stop until the storm passed. We weren’t that confident they were going to be able to come back, so we took our seven song mini set and hiked for the bus line, which yet again didn’t seem that long even though we were wet. When we got back to Stacy’s house, we had a ceremonial cutting of the three day wristbands, which felt great. I never wear any jewelry, so every time I rolled over in my sleep during those two nights I would feel the piece of plastic on my arm and try to rip it off. Fortunately I would wake up in time before I threw 130 bucks down the drain.

September 18th: A Windfall Breakfast
Before I left town, I had to have a little bit more Tex-Mex, so on the suggestion of my friend Paula we ate at Los Manitas in downtown Austin. While we were chowing down yet another amazing breakfast we saw two members of Son Volt sit down to eat. I wanted to go up to them and say, “I’ll be sending you my dentist’s bill for the teeth I have to have replaced,” but I didn’t want to ruin their meal.

When I finally boarded the plane back to Newark, I was sure of four things:
1) I would gain a ton of weight if I lived in Austin full time;
2) The Austin City Limits Festival was the best run rock event I’ve ever been to;
3) I had just finished what might have been my best vacation ever;
4) And I was definitely going to come back again.

I’ve already marked off September 14th through the 16th on my 2007 calendar—and I plan on not eating any ribs until then.

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