Dallas Morning News Review: Austin unlimited

More inclusive attitude evident at city's new festival


By THOR CHRISTENSEN / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Austinites always used to fret about their town and their beloved music scene getting too crowded. To quote the late Doug Sahm onstage at South by Southwest a few years ago, "Thanks for coming ... but whatever you do, don't move here."

There was a totally different sentiment in the air at the first Austin City Limits Music Festival, which drew 75,000 fans – many of them out-of-towners – to spacious Zilker Park on Saturday and Sunday. Everywhere you turned, some Austin artist was waving the hometown flag and wondering why nobody had thrown a huge open party like this before.

"This is so amazing," singer Abra Moore said during her set Saturday night. "It's about time."

Funny how a bad economy can make the locals more hospitable. Still, it was hard to argue with their enthusiasm: Even with long concession lines and some clashing sound systems from the six different stages, ACL instantly put itself on the map of the country's best outdoor music festivals.

Like the PBS show it was named after, the festival bypassed big-name pop-rock bands in favor of subtler American roots-music acts from Austin and beyond. Emmylou Harris was the belle of the ball Sunday: With gorgeous harmonies from Buddy and Julie Miller, she waltzed from her own "Red Dirt Girl" to older gems by George Jones and the late Gram Parsons, her early '70s singing partner.

She dedicated the Parsons cover to alt-country rocker Ryan Adams, who was kicking up dirt at the other end of the sprawling park at the very same time she was playing. Mr. Adams ran roughshod through the Stones' "Brown Sugar" and collapsed onto the stage at the end of "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)." But he was more impressive when he turned the volume down and reinvented his 2001 song "New York, New York" as a country-soul ballad.

Blues bands – a staple at most big music fests – were in short supply. But one glorious exception was Dallas-raised, Austin-based guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, who teamed with singer Lou Ann Barton (little brother Stevie's old bandmate) on such swaggering, '50s-style tunes as "Power of Love" and "In the Middle of the Night."

"Sacred steel" guitarist Robert Randolph technically falls into the gospel camp, but he was also living on blues power Sunday as he uncorked long, climactic Duane Allman-style solos. The festival did book some traditional gospel acts into the tent-covered American Original Stage, but the best act Sunday was New Orleans' 10-man Rebirth Brass Band, who turned "It's All Over Now" into a daredevil 10-minute funk-bebop workout.

There was a surprising number of jam bands at the festival, from such techno-influenced acts as Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Particle to the rubbery, neo-Deadish String Cheese Incident, which drew one of the biggest crowds of the weekend.

Such acts might be good for diversity, but their presence suggests that like Austin itself, the festival may one day face the problem of how to grow without losing its original laid-back charm.