As a three day music festival situated in the city most famous for its thriving live music scene, Austin City Limits is a fantastically huge event. With a stellar line-up, a crowd of 80,000 and eight stages spread across a park that looks onto the Austin city skyline, the event has done nothing by halves, and has certainly worked hard to make it worth our while to make the trip over to Austin. Held at Zilker Park, Austin, rather than being spread all over the city as done during the famous SXSW, the event called for a huge three days of running between stages, sampling the delicious selection of local foods on offer, and continually re-applying sun cream due to the intense Texan heat.
Day one kicked off impressively, offering a varied line-up of great live acts. After eventually finding the media tent, I made my way to catch the tail end of Patrick Watson’s set. As a Montreal based singer songwriter with an astoundingly creative and exciting talent for making interesting music, Watson did not disappoint for this show. Incorporating a range of instruments including strings, xylophone and a beautiful piano, Watson’s ensemble played a dynamic set of swirling pop music. Closing with the number “Where The Wild Things Are”, a strings and piano based song that is inspired by the book of the same title, it was easy to see how Watson has come to earn himself a spot at ACL. Clearly a musician who is constantly looking to experiment with new sounds, I very much look forward to seeing the direction that his music takes for his next album.
Next up, I caught the huge, powerful music of The War On Drugs. Performing to an enthusiastic crowd, this four piece evoke an old American feel as their music is tinged with folk, country and rock influences. Bringing the likes of Dylan and Springsteen to mind, War On Drugs have a rich, unified sound that rides upon lead singer Adam Granduciel’s the impressive vocals. Playing material from their albums Wagonweel Blues (2008) and Slave Ambient (2011), it was easy to see that these guys have built up a strong, and varied, set list of material over the years.
Performing with her band, Esperanza Spalding proved herself to have an awe-inspiring presence up on stage. Demanding the crowd’s full attention with her jazzy crooning, Spalding’s sensual vocals have a way of evoking a range of emotions. Following Spalding’s set, the crowd grew significantly for the much-loved and Athens, Alabama based act, Alabama Shakes. Blending together soul, blues and rock, these guys have made a huge splash in the international music scene in the past year and seeing them perform on Friday, it was easy to see how such hype has come about. Lead singer Brittany Howard was blessed with a voice that is dripping with soul and experience, whether she is delivering a gentle ballad or a dramatic, punchy chorus. Delivering one hit after another from their debut album Boys & Girls, “You Ain’t Alone” was perhaps the most spine tingling of them all. Looking around at the masses of fans mesmerised by Alabama Shakes’ music, I certainly felt lucky to be present for such a set.
Continuing the theme of seeing bands with powerful lead vocalists, was the lovely British act Florence and The Machine. By this time in the night, the festival had well and truly filled up with punters who were flocking to catch he large-scale, epic live show that Florence and The Machine so famously puts on. Indeed, their music and presence never fails to evoke drama and excitement, creating a wonderful atmosphere of delight across the crowd. “Cosmic Love” was one of their best tracks of the night, building up intensity with tribal drumming, Florence Welch’s enchantingly strong vocals and glorious harp melodies. “Sacrifice” also stood as a crowd favourite, as was “Spectum”, a “europhoric” performance as Florence herself articulated so well once the song had finished. Ending with “Dog Days” to the crowd’s absolute excitement, it would be very hard to believe that anybody left the set disappointed.
After listening to a few songs by Patterson Hood, an artist who delivers a fantastic blend of rock, country and folk, I made my way to see The Black Keys. It has been fantastic to see this American two piece rise so steadily as they have continually produced quality albums over the years. With their deep guitar riffs and catchy, bluesy tunes, The Black Keys have drawn in a vast array of followers, with many of these present on Friday night. Performing at a stage that stood in front of a stunning view of the city of Austin, “Next Girl” was a definite favourite, “I’m Not The One” and “Lonely Boy”, amongst a long list of other hit tracks. Performing both with a band and just as a duo for a short period of the set, these guys reinforced their standing as a truly talented blues rock act.
Considering that I didn’t even get time to check out other huge acts including Weezer (Larry will fill you in on that set a little bit later...), M83 and M Ward, it was clear that Austin City Limits have made it their goal to include as many quality bands as possible. As a hot, long day packed with a whole lot of live music, Austin City Limits did not disappoint on its first day.
Alabama Shakes Photo Credit: Johnny Au for the AU Review.