Tuesday, September 20, 2011

2011 Austin City Limits Music Festival | Day One Recap + Interviews with An Horse, Francisca Valenzuela, and Gary Clark Jr.

Photo by Jason Gonulsen

In 2002, I went to my first music festival -- the inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival -- and I'll fully admit it: I had no idea what I was doing, who I really wanted to see, or how to navigate such an immense offering of art before my eyes. Really, I just wanted to eat and drink with my cousins, and see Wilco and Ryan Adams. I was 23.

Now, I'm 32, and while I did go back to ACL in 2004, I've missed a whole lot in those years when a music festival really wasn't on my radar. That's a long story, one that would take many words and posts, and possibly some therapy (ha), so let's just stay in the present: These days, I'm in love with music festivals.

I know many who aren't. I've heard the complaints -- it's too hot, the sound is spotty, too many awesome bands play at the same time, you have to walk a lot, you're too old. The one way I've learned to apprecaite something like ACL, or any big music festival, is to slow down. I'm no longer freaking out because I'm missing this set or that set; I'm simply happy to be where I'm at and just enjoy the moment. Sure, there are times that I try to cram a few things in, but it's not the norm. If it were, I wouldn't be writing this -- I would have stayed home and complained that music festivals aren't worth the hassle.

So, yeah, here I am at 32, and music festivals have my full attention. I never thought I'd be covering something so awesome such as ACL for my own blog, yet, again, here I am. And here's what I experienced -- the first of three posts recapping ACL 2011.

Day One

The first thing you notice is the tree, not the people or the sounds. It's that beautiful tree, just off to your right when you enter the festival grounds at Zilker Park, near the BMI stage. It's lit up at night (such a sight!), and if you're going to find a spot underneath its beauty, you better get there early.

But that's not the only beautiful spot in the park. I'm not one that has to have shade, even when the sun's beating down on your neck and sweat's dripping down your back. I like the heat. And An Horse, a duo from Australia, the first band I caught, brought some added heat to the Austin Ventures stage.

Duos are an interesting act at a festival, but when they're as loud as An Horse, they work perfectly. I caught up with Kate Cooper and Damon Cox after their early set for a quick chat.

An Horse

On playing a big festival:

Kate: I think you just have to think about it differently. Just keep in mind that it's not a club show and people may have never heard of you. I think we're pretty loud. There's always going to be spill from other stages, so it's no big deal.

On their knowledge of ACL, and the energy they create on stage:

Kate: I actually hadn't heard of it. We're from pretty far away. But, it's cool, and we're lucky to be a part of it. Today, to be honest, I didn't feel that energized, but I'm glad you thought I looked energized! (laughs) It was pretty quiet, and it was early, but it was cool. I don't know -- the energy just kind of oozes out. (laughs)

Do you enjoy playing festivals?

Damon: Yeah, for sure, especially festivals like this. It's great. We're gonna change up the set a little bit, because we just came off of a six-week break, going into a new tour now. But, it's good to have songs to choose from now, because for the longest time we would just play all the songs we had -- because we didn't have enough songs. Not very difficult, we would just play. Nothing crazy.

On American audiences:

Kate: I think different cities have different audiences, but they're all good. It all depends on what event we're playing, but overall, we've been pretty lucky. If they're at the show, they should want to be there. If they're there and they don't, well, fuck them! They paid to get in -- suckers!


Reptar, a dance/electro/pop band from Athens, Georgia, followed An Horse -- and that's sort of how music festivals like ACL go: you venture from one genre to the next. It rained a bit early in their set, but I learned quickly: people at ACL don't mind the rain, they just embrace it. If anything, it provides a nice cool front for a few minutes. And hey, who doesn't like to dance in a cool front? Reptar's set was well-received, so much that you didn't notice many leaving their set.

Except for me, beacuse I wanted to get ready for Brandi Carlile, Delta Spirit, and Francisca Valenzuela. This is when the walking sets in -- Carlile and Delta Spirit were at opposite ends of the park, the longest walk you'll make at ACL. And Valenzuela was somewhere in between. Awesome.

Carlile and her band, as they always are, were a fireball of afternoon energy, incorporating country, rock, and pop into their set. As she always does, the singer from Washington led the massive crowd into a three-part harmony sing-a-long when it was time for the grand finish to "Turpentine," one of her best songs. She also played a few new songs, which will be released on a new album next year, and they sounded wonderful -- lyrically interesting and engaging. Can't wait to hear the finished product.

Right before her set finished, I power walked to see Delta Spirit, who were effectively melting faces and slaying everything in sight at the Bud Light stage. Good Lord. If you haven't seen this band live, clear your schedule -- they were made for a huge outdoor festival, and they delivered, even if they could have played another ten to fifteen minutes. Whatever, though -- I'll take a solid forty-five minutes of extreme rock over something that is stalling and lacking substance. Definitely a highlight of the day (and year) for me.

Francisca Valenzuela, a Chilean songwriter who performed with U2 in Chile earlier this year, was next for me, and she certainly did not lack stage presence. The ACL crowd seemed like no big deal for the 24-year-old artist who sang in Spanish, and I had the chance to speak with her after her surprising set.

Francisca Valenzuela

On her overall confidence on stage:

It's a transformation, it's a character! No, it's because it's fun. I love watching where artists are having fun on stage. It feels spontaneous -- I don't think about it too much. These festivals are always a challenge, it's always just "get on, do whatever, and you have zero time to check and make sure everything is in place." We did SXSW in March, but this was the first real show with the band at a festival in the States. We've played festivals in Argentina and Brazil and Chile and Mexico.

On singing mostly in Spanish:

I sing in English as well -- today we actually had some songs in English, but we had no time. I think it's a challenge, because lyrics are very important, and my songs in Spanish -- they have a message, whether it's political, or social, or fun, or serious or whatever, and I think -- I started in Chile -- and it was important to sing and speak in something that people would understand. Especially being excited about lyricists that I love, whether it's Bowie or Dylan or whatever. In general, I feel that if you have an autherntic show, U.S. audiences are very receptive in general to good music, and I think that's a great virtue of U.S. audiences. In Latin America, they are very enthusiastic, but they have to love you -- you can't conquer them for the first time! But once they do, Latin American fans are amazing.

On the city of Austin and ACL:

I knew it had a great music school -- I did a couple of music classes, and everyone wants to come to Austin to study. I just think it's a cultural oasis in Texas, in general. I feel it's been very mellow, very fun, very pedestrian. It's been fun!


At a music festival, you must remember to eat, and ACL has plenty of food. The lines get long around 4:00 PM, which is of course the time I decided to try some of Lucy's Fried Chicken, which I had seen people eating everywhere. And let me tell you -- there is nothing like eating fried chicken while listening to Ray LaMontagne, especially when he belts out "Trouble."

I also must admit, though, my mind was wandering a little bit. I had chatted with Gary Clark Jr. earlier in the day, and I was extremely focused on his upcoming 6:30 set at the BMI stage, which proved to be another highlight of the weekend. I will say this right now: Gary Clark Jr. will be an absolute star. Just give him time. Here's what we talked about before his ACL performance.

 Gary Clark Jr.

On playing music festivals:

You got to let go of the fact that you might get nasty and dirty and funky and just soak it up. Be prepared to be overwhelemd, just sensory overload and let go and you'll be fine. I was here the first two years. It's good to be back. I'm always hoping that it goes really well. I'm ready, I'm just ready. So excited to be here.

On what makes a good show, and his studio sound vs. live sound:

A good show is people laughing and smiling, keep their heads bopping', dancing. That's all you can hope for, to connect in a way that's positive.

It's two different things, but what I try to do when I record is to capture that live energy. I tell the guys, "Do whatever you have to do to let that go. Don't hold back. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain and all that kid of stuff."

On his song, "Don't Owe You a Thang":

Sorry, ladies, I don't really mean it. It was a moment that I wasn't feeling so great about a situation, and that's what happened. (laughing) Please don't throw stuff at me now! (laughs)

On other artists he's excited to see at ACL:

Unfortunately, we're going on the same time as Nas and Damian Marley, so that would have been cool! (laughs) But I'm also stoked to see Stevie Wonder, he's like my hero. Just checking out everything, so I'm just going to wonder and float just like everyone else. It means everything being here, I grew up in Austin, checking out shows since before I was able to hang out and catch shows.

On his overall sound being hard to describe:

I think that's good, because I don't know how to answer that necessarily either. I grew up...my foundation is solid in blues. But being around here, it's hard not to soak up things and put 'em out.


As night fell, I got a decent spot to catch some of Coldplay, a band that obviously needs no introduction, but also a band that I've never seen live. I only caught the beginning of their set, but I got to hear two gems -- "Yellow" and "In My Place," songs that had the audience singing in unison. I could have stayed, but the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that this would probably be my only time to see what Kanye West was all about. And yes, he was amazing.

Let me explain. I know very little about rap or hip hop, but I respect the hell out of it, and what West brought to the Bud Light stage was nothing short of unique. He opened with two songs from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy -- "Dark Fantasy" and "Power" -- and the guy just doesn't know how to slow down. I mean that in a great way, as he was all over the stage, showing emotion, and not going through the motions. This was his night, and he knew it; I never knew I would be affected so much by a rapper named Kanye West.

His best moment came when he stood on a white box performing "Runaway," a song that went on for a good twelve or so minutes. He told the crowd it would be the "last time he would perform it this way," which featured an extended vocal segment where he repeated lines such as "Yeah, I always find, always find something wrong" and "If you love someone tonight, hold on to them so tight." That description does not give the moment justice, I promise you. It was as moving as anything I had seen all day, and I am glad I stuck around to see it.

A perfect ending to an extraordinary day, but there would be lots more. Come back tomorrow for a recap of Day Two, a party that featured Stevie Wonder, My Morning Jacket, The Antlers, The Kingston Springs, and Cut Copy.

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