Review: ACL artists put on a good show despite large crowds, little shade

September 18, 2004

By THOR CHRISTENSEN / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – It's not as wild as Jazzfest or as hip as Coachella, but the 3-year-old Austin City Limits Music Festival has quickly grown into one of the country's biggest rock festivals.

But is that really such a good thing?

More than 70,000 festivalgoers flocked to Zilker Park on Friday and the head count is likely to pass 200,000 by the time ACL ends Sunday. With temperatures in the upper-90s and precious few shady spots to be found, it felt more like an endurance test than a festive day in the park.

Yet for hardy souls who didn't mind fighting crowds and sweating gallons, there was a dazzling array of music to be heard.

Soul legend Solomon Burke was the day's most stunning vocalist as well as its most bizarre-looking. A suave, bald, 300-pound man dressed neck-to-toe in sparkling purple, he performed the whole show while seated in a gold and green-velvet throne. Dozens of his loyal subjects climbed onstage and danced as he ripped through "Everybody Needs Somebody" and a medley of Little Richard hits.

As he sang at one end of the 15-acre park, Patty Griffin serenaded fans on the other – or at least she tried to. Folk ballads like "Top of the World" got bludgeoned by the electric bass drifting over from Mr. Burke's show, but the Austin singer fared better on rocking tunes like "Love Throws a Line," a new number about hope in a war-torn world.

Toots & the Maytals turned in the day's most unpredictable set, zigzagging from glorious reggae to ska at the drop of a drumstick and leading fans in a gospel-style call and response.

As the Maytals played, Ryan Adams was busy trying to summon the spirit of Jerry Garcia. "I got real high and I don't care ... we're gonna jam!" he said. And jam he did, turning "New York, New York" into a loose, bluesy free-for-all with help from Austin slide guitarist Cindy Cashdollar.

Particle jammed, too, but with a techno edge that speaks to club kids as well as Jerry's Kids. Intoxicating at first, Particle grew old in a hurry.

Much better was Broken Social Scene, a 10-piece band that ran the gamut from arty horn-driven rock to power pop that, at times, was too powerful: The group's bassist got so worked up he snapped a string and had to borrow an instrument from Franz Ferdinand to finish the set.

Another high point was Gomez, the English outfit that blends blues, Brit pop and psychedelia. Too bad the group had to perform while an ACL video screen showed ads for Cingular and SBC in full view of the audience.

Corporate sponsorship is one thing. But disrupting a concert to shill your brand name is ridiculous.