By Patrick Beach
Sept. 22, 2003
There was so much there it was easy to miss what wasn't there.
No all-seeing blimp overhead in homage to almighty Bud. No depressingly common food like you can get at any strip mall in America. And, most surprisingly, few if any strenuously ostentatious displays about how we're keeping Austin weird, man.
The sophomore edition of the Austin City Limits Music Festival was alarmingly chill, polite if not genteel. From Friday through Sunday, an estimated 65,000 people behaved much, much better than they typically do during afternoon crawl on Interstate 35.
"I think the concert reflects the best of Austin," Austin Park Police Sgt. Mike Hargett said Sunday night. "It's amazing how peaceful everybody has been."
Hargett reported one arrest Sunday for a traffic-related offense on the periphery of Zilker Park. Two people were reported arrested Friday, suspected of attempting to pass counterfeit tickets and a $20 bill. Hargett said local fixture Leslie Cochran was not arrested Saturday, as had been previously reported, but voluntarily accepted the offer of a ride away from the festival.
Hargett estimated the crowd at 45,000 to 55,000 daily; organizers said 60,000 people attended Sunday.
Music fans came from Iowa, New York and Japan to see 130 acts and eat foods offered by nearly four dozen vendors. Beatle Bob, the Zelig of pop music, validated the worth of the event with his presence. Johnny Cash, that icon of American music, was mourned on the stage of what was to have been his daughter's set.
We walked and walked and walked. And stood and stood and stood. Got just a little wet in a light drizzle now and then on the latter two days. Bought a cowboy hat we looked stupid wearing but didn't care. Danced when we felt like it. Ate the jalapeño sausage with grilled onions; went back for another one. Celebrated ACL Fest II for what it wasn't, therefore tacitly validating our own taste and bottomless reservoir of cool, knowing that this was something that would have come together quite differently in any place other than here.
Mostly what ACL Fest isn't is South By Southwest. SXSW is a capitulation. We greet those industry folks all Texas-friendly-like and tell them how to get to Las Manitas, but deep down we're as pleased as Parisians watching German soldiers marching down the Champs-Elysées. Then there's the aggressive scenemaking, the keeping of score by watching who's getting invited to what private parties.
Instead, ACL Fest is where we happy inhabitants of the Greatest City Ever (trademark pending) go hang with our fellow Whovillians to listen to music we collectively agree is good.
This year, there was more and better everything: shuttle buses, although there was a wait, in fact an unpleasantly long one Friday night. Bands. Days. A substantial and most welcome upgrade in food quality. (You try asking for roasted squash at Ozzfest.) Los Lonely Boys nearly taking the roof off the gospel shed. Tift Merritt ruling Saturday afternoon, including making the inspired choice of Rosanne Cash's "Seven Year Ache" at the Johnny Cash tribute minutes after finishing her own set. The singer for the Dandy Warhols telling the crowd he was desperate to replace his ropers and the crowd yelling, "What size? What size?" Lucinda Williams throwing a fit, because something would have been missing if she hadn't. Al Green screaming, "Tex-as." A lot. The Gourds closing with the Stones' "Miss You." A set by Robert Randolph and the Family Band that will be talked about for years. G. Love & Special Sauce closing with a song titled a word we can't use that way in the paper. And the band that basically broke alt-rock into the mainstream as a closer. Absolutely everything, not just the choir robes, about The Polyphonic Spree. A sand pit turned into a beach for kids to dig around, with face painting, balloon animals and the chance to make Arthur glasses nearby. A visit from Clifford the Big Red Dog, and no, that's not the beer talking.
Glitches remained. Organizers agreed the roughly 20 different kinds of security passes for staff, media and talent are confusing and out of hand. Some people had as many as six or seven passes on their lanyards and had to keep showing the guards the passes until they found one that worked. It was like back when you had to try your Diners Club card because the place didn't take Visa.
And we needed still more portable bathrooms.
Here's what passed for ugly at this relaxed gathering, an exchange Saturday between American-Statesman writer Brad Buchholz and a 50-ish guy wearing earplugs:
Earplug guy to Brad: "Who is that playing guitar up there?"
Brad: "That's Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter from Steely Dan." (And also the Doobie Brothers, he might have added.)
Brad: "That's Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter from Steely Dan!"
And so on. After the set:
Guy: "I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you. Who did you say that was playing guitar up there?"
Brad: "I don't know. Couldn't tell you."
But the prevailing sentiment was that of Mark Edwards, who got laid off from his Dell job, now works as an artist in Cedar Park and was selling his wares. He gave one of his hand-painted Texas flag cowboy hats to man-about-town Cochran on Sunday afternoon, wondered if that was the kind of advertising he might come to regret and then, speaking of both business and the scene, summed it up.
"I'm really happy," he said. "And it's not over yet."