Another year, another Austin City Limits Music Festival, but this year’s ACL Fest was probably my favorite. A large part of that was the weather, which was October gorgeous. Warm, but mild days with cool nights. Fall is one of the reasons I live here. The ragweed was a problem for me, but that was far better than the year of dust, the year of extreme heat, or the year of mud. For once, the festival didn’t require any real feats of endurance and that made for a great weekend.
We arrived in the afternoon on Friday and saw a little bit each of Beach House and Spoon, but the next two bands were, for me anyway, the highlight of the festival: Sonic Youth and Phish.
Sonic Youth is my favorite band. I’ve seen them a number of times and Daydream Nation is my favorite album. Needless to say, I was thrilled to see them on such a glorious day. Their set was largely material from their recent album The Eternal, which hadn’t really grabbed me until I heard them play from it on Friday. I kept thinking, my god, this is good stuff, so I’ll certainly be giving that record a more careful listen. The highlight of the set was the two closing numbers, both from Daydream Nation: “The Sprawl” and “’Cross the Breeze,” the latter being my favorite SY tune.
Sonic Youth is one of those bands whose music requires careful attention, especially when they tear away from what most folks call music and venture into those dissonant soundscapes where chaos sounds so savagely beautiful and fearsome. These are moments when time can stop and the music truly transports me. Then the noise begins to coalesce and it seems as if I’m waking up inside a song, the one we left, but different now. Changed the way maps look different after you’ve explored the ground they represent. Listening to Sonic Youth is to remember that anything is possible and worth risking when it comes to art. It is freedom and energy and life played loud.
As if Sonic Youth wasn’t enough, just as their set ended Phish was getting started over on the other side of the park. We hustled over and were treated to the kind of show where it’s impossible not to dance. We used to see Phish every time they came through Austin back in the ‘90s, but it’s been at least ten years since they’ve been here, and I’d almost forgotten just how much fun a Phish show is. The played some of their classics (“Chalkdust Torture” and “You Enjoy Myself”) , “Backwards Down the Number Line” from Joy and some crowd-pleasing covers of Talking Heads and Velvet Underground tunes as well as a wonderfully funky “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” also known as the 2001 theme. After Phish, we called it a day.
Saturday we went down late as my allergies were really doing a number on me. The highlights for us were Silversun Pickups, a band we caught back in 2008. I really liked them then and they were even better this time out, especially since I’ve gotten to know their music over the past few years. After Silversun Pickups, we heard a little bit of The XX and then LCD Sound System came on and played an electrifying set as night settled over the park. We went home shortly after that, having decided that this was already the best ACL Fest ever (and I’ve been to all but the first one).
We went down late again on Sunday, which was for our group the least interesting day. The only must-see for us was The Flaming Lips. This was the first time I’ve seen them play, and it was a fun show, the band reveling in its weirdness, perhaps at the expense of the music, but it was still fun. Singer Wayne Coyne came out and rolled over the audience inside a giant beach ball during the intro. He sang one song while sitting on the shoulders of a guy in a bear suit. There were sing-a-longs and audience participation. The highlight, though, was the closer, a wonderful rendition of their song “Do You Realize” which opened the song up, expanding it and letting it fly, making it all the more moving and celebratory. As the song says, “happiness makes you cry,” and I’d say it could have possibly moved me to tears it was so good except the ragweed had already done that.
After the Lips finished, we turned our chairs to the Honda Stage to watch The National. They didn’t play the one song of theirs that I know (“Lemonworld”) but I enjoyed their set anyway. When they finished, we could hear The Eagles on the big stage across the park. I was torn about this. Our friends had an early flight back to St Louis, R and I had to work in the morning, and my allergies were shutting down my nose again. But it’s the Eagles. So we listened to a few tunes. “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Hotel California,” “Witchy Woman.” They sounded great and as a festival closer, they were a good choice, though I still say, Austin City Limits needs to get ZZ Top in here one year to close this thing down.
This was my eighth ACL Fest and it was probably my favorite. The weather was the best it has ever been, and Sonic Youth, Phish, Silversun Pickups and LCD Sound System were all phenomenal. Did I say the weather was amazing? It’s a shame they scheduled it for September next year. Oh, well, I’ll be there. It’s too good a weekend to pass up.