It was when we got the text from a friend as we were riding in a cab bound for our hotel last night that we got that first sinking feeling of missing out on something great. But we’ll get back to that later.
Officially, here are the shows we didn’t see on Day 1 of ACL:
Two Tons of Steel
The School of Rock All Stars
Asleep at the Wheel
JJ Grey & Mofro
Wesley Bray & The Disciples of Joy
The Soft Pack
The Verve Pipe
The Mountain Goats
Okee Dokee Brothers
Kings Go Forth
Angus & Julia Stone
The Band of Heathens
Nortec Collective Presents: Bostich + Fussible
Robert Randolph & The Family Band
“But,” you cry, “how could you miss The Strokes?!” “Sonic Youth is legendary!” We know. You’ve simply got to miss some to see others. But this seems like an awfully glass-half-empty kind of way to look at the day. So let’s focus on the bands we did see, shall we?
We arrived at Zilker Park at around 1:30, just as the temperatures were climbing to near 90 degrees. Standing in a crowd of thousands with nary a breeze to offer relief, people were trying to stay hydrated (I’d be lying if I said it was entirely with water) and fanning themselves with whatever stiff paper object they could find. It wasn’t always enough, as at least one person near us fainted and needed medical attention. (He was OK.)
But if the bands were feeling that heat, it was impossible to tell based on their performances. Blues Traveler’s John Popper wailed on his signature harmonicas, tossing a few out to audience members throughout the set and making a point to get one in the hands of a girl who was celebrating her birthday. (He even sang her happy birthday, though it was a shockingly off-key rendition for someone who makes his living singing.) The high point of the set came when Popper brought fiddle sensation Ruby Jane Smith on stage to perform with them. The two squared off at center stage for a full five minutes, sometimes taking solo turns and other times playing together, but all eyes seemed to be squarely on Smith, who tirelessly and masterfully sawed at her instrument. At the end of the song, as Smith exited the stage, Popper informed the crowd that she was 15 years old. We were floored. But lest you think she’s a novice, this is Smith’s third ACL performance. Her fourth will happen Sunday, when she gets her own solo set.
American-Swedish hybrid group Miike Snow (no, not a solo artist, as many people incorrectly believe) was up next. As is their wont, the trio came on stage wearing masks, which they eventually shed. Like Blues Traveler, their set got a boost from a special guest appearance, this time Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, who joined the group to play a electronically enhanced version of his band’s hit, “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance.” The group’s highly produced, intricate beats sometimes sounded muddled from our station at the back of the crowd, but we shrugged it off. We knew something not everyone else in the crowd knew: that the group would be playing an intimate aftershow at The Belmont downtown. We’d catch them on the flip side.
So we turned our attentions away from the Miikes and focused instead on inching closer to the AMD Stage, which The Black Keys soon turned into their own private rock playground. Drummer Patrick Carney played his drums as though he were mad at them, working up a sweat as he pounded furiously. Singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach had complete control of the crowd, whipping them into a frenzy at the conclusion of each song, and rendering them silent when he stopped for a drink of water. Though the duo started and ended their set alone, they got help for the middle third from some backing musicians for the songs they played off of <I>Brothers, their latest (incredible) album. At the first notes of “Everlasting Light,” one fan behind us said (read: yelled) to his friend, “I think it’s impossible to not like this song.” We had to agree.
After the hard rocking sounds and heavy guitar riffs of the Black Keys, the trancelike mood that Beach House set with their tone was a welcome change. The sea of sweaty bodies opened up as we got closer to the Honda Stage and we finally felt a small (yet still refreshing, given the circumstances) breeze. The mellow, stripped-down sound of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally could have run the risk of being overpowered by the likes of a festival such as ACL with its grand size, and, after seeing them at Dallas' Granada Theater over the summer (one of the best shows we've caught in a while) we were worried the bar might have been set too high. Luckily, we were wrong. Granted, it's like comparing apples to oranges to compare a venue like the Granada (small, intimate) to a giant outdoor stage in 90-degree weather with thousands of people milling to and fro, but Legrand’s strong vocals soared out over the crowd and made all our worries melt away, until it was just us and Beach House. They naturally held onto the best for one of their last, waiting to play "Zebra" until almost three fourths of the way through their set, and wrapping with another of our favorites, "Used to Be" — but both were worth the dreamy wait.
Amos Lee was predictably solid, playing, among others, his most recognizable hit, “Sweet Pea,” to an appreciative crowd. But the sounds we were most concerned with at that point were the rumbling of our stomachs, which were quickly silenced thanks to the number of food outlets on site. Austin’s own Spoon was up next, who sounded great, but ominously announced that this would be their last performance for a “very, very long time.” They quickly added, “…while we work on some new stuff,” but it was hard to shake the finality of the statement. Near the end of their hour-long set, a surge of people began migrating across the park towards the Budweiser and ZYNC Card stages, which would house some of the festival’s final acts.
As we came over the hill and approached the bowl where the stages were being set up, the sheer number of people milling about below stopped us in our tracks. (See photo, above.) While it was a sight to behold from our safe perch above, it was hellish to walk through, as we struggled to find a good spot from which to watch preppy Ivy Leaguers Vampire Weekend, who had fans dancing giddily and singing along with every upbeat, Paul Simon–influenced number — more so than any other show we’d attended all day. These fans loved their band, and the band loved them right back, playing 10 minutes longer than anticipated and throwing in a good mix of old and new numbers. What was left of the sunlight finally faded during their set.
We intended to leave the festival grounds early, in an effort to beat the rush and get to The Belmont in time to be one of the first 500 people in line (all that were purportedly allowed in) for Miike Snow’s after-show. But swinging by the Budweiser stage on our way out, we got caught up — rather unexpectedly — by the sounds of legendary jam band Phish, well, jamming. Though we’re not ordinarily Phish fans, we stayed for nearly half the show, enjoying songs like “Down With Disease,” “Cities” and “Possum.”
We walked downtown and arrived at The Belmont to find a line of people wrapped around the block and a wait that lasted more than an hour. Word began to get around that the club had experienced a power outage, which led to several groups of discouraged fans abandoning their spots in line. Eventually, when our aching feet felt as though they couldn’t possibly support our weight for one more minute, we reluctantly followed suit. We weren’t getting in any time soon. We left some fiercely determined friends who decided to wait it out, and hopped in a cab bound for home (which, this weekend, is the Wyndham Garden Hotel). As our taxi exited the highway and turned into the parking lot, we got word from our friends who’d stayed: The line was filing inside and Miike Snow would be playing shortly. Later, they kindly sent photographic proof of the killer show they were witnessing. Heartbreak.
That’s just the way the proverbial cookie sometimes crumbles on ACL weekend. Today, we’ll miss four bands for every one we see. But while we’ll inevitably miss a few great shows, the hope is it’s to see a few better ones instead. On to Day 2.