Size of Austin music fest signals time for change

Friday, September 24, 2004

By THOR CHRISTENSEN / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Wilco's Jeff Tweedy looked out at the sea of sweaty bodies last weekend at the Austin City Limits Music Festival and couldn't believe his eyes.

"You look really young out there ... You probably weren't even born when this song came out."

He was exaggerating (the song, "Kingpin," came out 8 years ago). But his comment underscored how much the phrase "Austin City Limits" has changed.

Before, it referred to the twangy PBS concert series taped in a small Austin studio since 1974. Today, "ACL" means an overcrowded rock festival for all the kids of the old Austin City Limits viewers.

A record-breaking 215,000 people packed Zilker Park Sept. 17-19 for the third annual ACL fest – up from 155,000 in 2003 and 75,000 in 2002. That's sweet music for the Austin economy, as well as for ACL officials who want all those young festgoers to become new viewers of the television show.

Yet the festival's rapid growth raises serious red flags. New Orleans' Jazz & Heritage Festival and Seattle's Bumbershoot grew slowly for decades before becoming giant national festivals. ACL got huge in just three years, and the growing pains are obvious.

Last Saturday, when the attendance passed 75,000, ACL felt like rush hour in a subway station with people walking in all directions, cellphones pressed to their ears, oblivious to the music. Granted, the atmosphere was a mellow one – police reported no arrests during the weekend – but there was no ignoring the constant blur of people.

Multiple hassles

Maybe the hustle and bustle would have been less distracting if you could focus on the performers. But getting within a city block of the bands was tricky, especially at the big stages, which quickly became mob scenes after the fest opened at 11:30 a.m.

Video screens helped at some stages, but they were beset by glitches, blackouts and worse. One screen showed ads for a telephone company in the middle of Gomez's show.

And then there was that old music-fest bugaboo, cruddy sound. Unless you were directly in front of the speakers, the acoustics could be atrocious. A mild breeze wreaked havoc with the sound during Elvis Costello's set, and, inexplicably, the two biggest stages faced each other, creating unintentional mash-ups. Other shows were marred by the noise of helicopters buzzing across the park to film the crowds.

If the choppers recalled a scene out of Apocalypse Now, then the line for shuttle buses and taxis felt like The Longest Yard: When the fest closed at 10 p.m., two-hour waits weren't uncommon, and some frustrated festgoers decided to walk miles in the dark to their cars or hotels.

Of course, you expect hassles at a big music festival, and the younger the ticket buyers, the more willing they may be to put up with them.

But at ACL, the extreme heat made the problems all the more annoying. As the mercury hit the upper 90s, more than 300 festgoers were treated for heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Countless others shuffled around in a dehydrated daze.

Anyone who's sweated through Ozzfest or a Warped Tour at Smirnoff Music Center knows how draining a day in the sun can be. Doing it for three days at ACL felt like boot camp in the Sahara.

Scheduling challenges

Promoters say festgoers will just have to deal with the heat. Holding ACL Fest in the spring would conflict with South by Southwest, and putting it in the fall might conflict with the University of Texas' home football games.

So why not pick an October weekend when the Longhorns are out of town? Or offer relief from the sun with more tented stages such as those used at New Orleans' Jazzfest?

There's no such thing as a perfect outdoor music festival. Jazzfest (which started in '70) and Bumbershoot ('73) continue to struggle with crowding. The 3-year-old Bonnaroo in rural Tennessee is fine if you like sleeping in a tent.

The best of the lot is the 6-year-old Coachella festival, held in April on a scenic polo grounds near Palm Springs, Calif. Coachella has two things going for it that ACL doesn't: Ample parking and low humidity.

But, more important, promoters refuse to let it become a sardine can. Ticket sales are stopped at 50,000 each day, making it easy to navigate the grounds and get fairly close to the stages.

It's an example ACL promoters need to follow. Monstrous crowds may generate excitement and boost the local economy, but they can just as easily turn a festival into one big drag.



Last weekend's Austin City Limits Music Festival was lacking in shade and elbowroom, but not in great music. Here are 10 high points:

Elvis Costello and the Imposters: Rampant sound problems couldn't dampen Elvis' furious mix of oldies and new tunes from The Delivery Man. "Monkey to Man" may be the new "Pump it Up."

My Morning Jacket: Trancelike Southern rock from guys who also know how to dance a mean jig.

The Pixies: A massive crowd hung on Frank Black's every shriek and howl. Not bad for a hit-less band that hadn't toured in 12 years.

Ollabelle: T Bone Burnett-produced sextet sounded like a coed version of the Band – and Blind Willie Johnson's "The Soul of a Man" never sounded so haunting.

Broken Social Scene: Glorious big band power pop from Toronto.

Wilco: Some bands stick to the hits at festivals, but Jeff Tweedy challenged the crowd with weird epics such as "Spiders (Kidsmoke)."

North Mississippi Allstars: Until Dickey Betts rejoins the Allman Brothers, the Allstars are the kings of slide-guitar boogie.

Toots and the Maytals: Reggae at its most soulful. The Clash used to play "Pressure Drop," but not nearly as well as Toots can.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band: With each passing year the Dirty Dozen gets closer to morphing into P-Funk.

Solomon Burke: The R&B legend never left his chair, but with a voice as animated as his, he didn't have to.