ACL fest has a few limits, but lots of music

By Michael Corcoran and Joe Gross


Monday, September 30, 2002

"Limits" was the key word during the early hours of the first Austin City Limits Music Festival. Organizers were overwhelmed by a crush of concertgoers and shuttle buses and underwhelmed by food booths and ticket counters, which were in short supply.

But "music" eventually won out.

The Faithful Gospel Singers officially got the ball rolling at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, but it was local ensemble Grupo Fantasma, at 12:15 p.m., that drew the first substantial crowd of the day. After their high energy set ended, the vast majority of folks wandered off toward the siren sounds of God's voice, or at least the Blind Boys of Alabama's approximation thereof. Songs such as "Run on for a Long Time" and "Soldier in the Army of the Lord" provided a powerful call to spiritual arms.

Gillian Welch, playing on the Texas Stage at 3 p.m., faced a massive crowd. Acoustic folk always suffers in the transition from the coffehouse to the festival stage, but Welch's time with T Bone Burnett's "Down From the Mountain" tour has added some gravitas to her farmgirl shtick. She and partner David Rawlings made beautiful music out of almost nothing.

Across the green at the same time, Los Lobos played a set that was heavy on songs off the new album, though the crowd saved its greatest enthusiasm for "Anselma," a song from their 1983 debut. The Los Angeles group had barely ended when fans of alt-country stars Wilco began gathering at the foot of the Feature Stage, even though there was an hour between acts. Coming off of what was described by many as a triumphant set at the Mercury the night before, Wilco took the stage to the screaming of thousands of fans. Opening with the aching ballad "Misunderstood," the band drew on material from all over their career, including "War on War," "Kamera" and "Jesus, etc." from this year's alterna-hit "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Frontman Jeff Tweedy's attempt to get the crowd to sing along with "California Stars" probably sounded amazing if you were one of the faithful near the stage, but it didn't really carry to those who were farther back.

Getting the audience going was the task of the Jam Stage, which didn't always draw the biggest crowd, but often drew the most energetic fans. An already overheated audience was more than willing to dance to the "live progressive breakbeat house" of Toronto's the New Deal at 4 p.m. Two hours later, on the same stage, Sound Tribe Sector 9 played a more amorphous brand of electronic jamming. But the band's intergalactic sandal funk achieved a mild sort of beauty by the end of their set. Or maybe it was just the sun going down around 7. It was a little tough to tell.

National acts such as Los Lobos and Wilco may have brought out more than 40,000 folks a day, but local bands benefited from the throngs. The Weary Boys' sped-up hoedowns and Bob Schneider's world-beatnik posturing got back as much energy from the masses as they put out. Unfortunately, a wonderfully poignant set from Abra Moore was smothered by the rowdy guitar rock of Joe Bonamassa on the American Original Stage about 100 yards away.

For sheer surreality, however, you couldn't top the experience of standing in the midpoint of Saturday night's closing sets by the fest's biggest draws, Pat Green and the very different String Cheese Incident. Green's fiddler Brendon Anthony seemed to jam with Cheesehead Michael Kang's mandolin runs for a sound that really wasn't any worse than either group by itself.

Sunday, the fest's logistics improved, and the locals continued to win over new fans. Jane Bond's punky-tonk truths sounded a tad out of place at 12:15 p.m., but the crowd was more than ready for them, and she looked thrilled to be in front of hundreds of people, many of whom were likely seeing her for the first time. Fellow Austinite Kelly Willis, playing at almost the same time on the Texas Stage, drew the largest early crowd, though local country kicker Jack Ingram, who shares a fan base, if not a sound, with Willis, was playing at the Feature Stage.

At 2:30, Austinite Shawn Colvin looked mighty tiny on the Texas Stage all by herself. As with Welch, it was hard to imagine that her set was any different than the one she offers at an intimate club gig. But those looking for something more rousing could groove to College Station gospel/folk singer Ruthie Foster on the American Original Stage. Foster induced chills in the midafternoon swelter when she opened with "Woke Up This Morning," and had the packed audience on its feet by set's end.

Local troublemakers the Gourds played to their biggest crowd ever Sunday, as upwards of 10,000 went delirious as the band pulled out its rarely used secret weapon: a bluegrass cover of Snoop Dogg's gangsta-rap track, "Gin & Juice." "Hey, Terry," singer Kevin Russell said, referring to "Austin City Limits" producer Lickona. "How 'bout booking us for the show?"

The American Original Stage, which may have suffered from being set back from much of the main traffic stream, contained some of the festival's most dynamic music, focusing on gospel and soul. (It was also tented, which certainly seemed like a blessing from the Almighty.) The Durden Family Singers, complete with five-part gospel harmony, performed a brilliant reimagining of the Police's "Every Breath You Take," changing the central figure from a stalker to Jesus.

Later in the afternoon at the same stage, Beto y los Fairlanes, decades-old vets of the Austin scene, tried to move the crowd with powerful, detailed salsa. But by that time the heat was beginning to take a serious toll, and there were few dancers who could answer the beat's call.

But the energy picked up again for Ryan Adams at 6:30 p.m. While Emmylou Harris held court at the Texas Stage with a folk trio, Adams took the Feature Stage in full rock band mode for much of his set, even banging out a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar." He also provided what might as well be the fest's epigraph with his very first line: "This is where the summer ends," he sang on "Nuclear," the first song from his brand-new album, "Demolition."

And indeed, the festival had a sweet, end-of-summer feel to it. None of the music was too heavy, too abrasive, or -- thanks to the massive amount of space the planners had to work with -- too loud. If you wanted to devote yourself to Caitlin Cary's heart-tugging alt-country or worship Patty Griffin's fiercely etched songs of heartbreak, you could do that. But if you just wanted to sit in one of roughly 8 billion folding chairs, throw a football or grab a $4 beer and talk to friends, you could do that, too.

Leaving the fest Sunday evening, as sacred steel player Robert Randolph all but levitated the Heritage Stage crowd with covers of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child" and Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," Gretchen Wagner, 28, was exhausted, but "it's a good kind of exhausted." She was waiting for a friend near the exit; they were about to get on a bus to go back to their car. Wagner is new to Austin -- she's been here less than a month -- but thanks to the ACL fest, "I have a much better idea of what (local bands) I want to see." She was a little too tired to flip through her mental Rolodex for names -- "I'm keeping the schedule" -- but she remembered that she loved Foster. "I'm definitely coming back next year," said the recent Minnesota transplant.

In this maiden year, ACL's glitches ranged from the exasperating (90-minute waits for transportation and food) to the irritating (the screeching heavy metal played over the PA Saturday at the American Original tent between gospel sets). But by any account, the weekend was an unqualified success. At about 5 p.m. Saturday, with the crush contained, stage announcers were calling this, with some authority, "The First Annual" ACL Fest. It was an idea whose time had come. And even if, at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, it seemed as if everyone decided to come at the same time, the end result was worth the wait -- whether you'd been waiting an hour and a half or your entire life to get in.