Alt-J rocking out at ACL 2015
Eight and a half years ago, I flew to California to attend Coachella with my friend Sushmita. I was 23. It was my first major music festival. I still held aspirations of being a journalist…god forbid, even a music critic. I wanted to say semi-profound things about culture. In effect, I was kind of like a walking Pitchfork album review.
This past week, I went to Austin City Limits, a similar three day festival, as a 31 year-old with several festivals under my belt and those writer dreams long put to rest. I went from being one of the excited young kids jumping into each other up by the stage to one of the oldies sitting two miles back, listening to the country singer in deck chairs, making small talk about ‘kids and their rap music’.
The festival was good, if not groundbreaking. Florence was majestic, Drake was self-absorbed, Dave Grohl kicked his non-broken leg a few times. There was tons of great music, including getting introduced to lots of talented rising musicians. But I’m not in a hurry to go again.
Why not? How about less tolerance for captive price inflation? My friend and I railed—along with everyone else—against the long list of controlled items: no outside food or non-water liquids, 2 factory sealed bottles of water, and a requirement that you spend at least $100 at their over-priced concession stands…per day (the last one’s not true, but it’s semi-implied). Also, 10 hours in the heat is exhausting. Also, crazy dust allergies.
The line-up was solid, and almost all the acts I saw delivered fine sets. My favorite was Sturgill Simpson, an incredibly talented, authentic, no-nonsense country rocker who just epitomizes everything I love about the country tradition. Dwight Yoakam, who is way more famous, did the same, but with a sweeter, almost Chris Isaak-like voice. Alt-J’s set contained all the delicate layers of melody, rhythm and quirkiness one would hope, and Disclosure’s minimalist house-R&B had me grooving out with the kids on the first evening.
There were a number of discoveries. Con Brio is the most James Brown-like performer (think D’Angelo as a break dancer) I’ve ever seen, and though he doesn’t quite have the tunes, he certainly has the moves and charisma to bring that kind of manic, crowd-pumping MJ-dance excitement back to the mainstream. San Fermin’s deep baritone/female dual vocals and choppy song structures stood out amongst the more traditionalist majority of indie rock tunes, and Charlotte OC won over converts with her intensity and power. She seems to come from this wonderful crew of British female singers writing dark songs for epic voices, such as Florence, Adele and Hannah Reid. Of the Scandinavian Americana bands (it’s a thing!), I enjoyed Iceland’s Kaleo and their energetic embrace of blues rock.
Marcus King, a 19 year-old who has been playing guitar for four years, is the next Stevie Ray Vaughan, at least according to the dude next to me who yelled it in my ear. Judging by his gorgeous solos and impressively mature voice, I wouldn’t disagree. If you closed your eyes, he was Stevie. When you opened them, he was a chubby teen with pimples. The contrast was trippy.
Marcus King, 19-year-old blues guitar prodigy
What drew me to Coachella was the rare opportunity to see Rage Against the Machine, the band that turned me into an angry teen leftist. They’re an exceptionally political band, but by comparison, ACL was spotlessly non-controversial. There was the de facto recycling, but no big social causes. Just a bunch of mostly middle-class young people wearing their special festival outfits and strategizing gig choices, lining up for Uber and Samsung schwag. I liked the section for kids (Austin Kiddie Limits!), and it was great to see the number of young families and folks outside the age range of 18-35. But I guess part of me wanted to see some statement-making more profound than Drake saying: “I know this is such a Drake thing to say, but…’how are my ladies doing tonight?’” We live in tumultuous times. Gay marriage, Black Lives Matter, the attack on Planned Parenthood…I know this isn’t Woodstock, but it would’ve been cool to see Kendrick Lamar, Big Freedia, or someone talking about important issues beyond, you know, romantic love. But as my friend suggested, maybe that’s because our generation is less certain we know the answers to big issues?
In anti-Vice fashion, I’m not going to hate on festival fashion. My regular life is surrounded by biz-casual. The biz-casual of festival fashion is way more fun than corporate biz-casual. ACL fashion, circa-2015, felt like an extension of Coachella, tracing back to Woodstock, and—if you count the two kids rocking Native headdress—white colonialism (I don’t think they were actually Native American, not sure if that makes it better). There were lots of man-buns, side shaves, colorful left pockets, flowers-in-hair, gold stencil tattoos, booty shorts, 90s crop tops, and at least 30% of the ladies were wearing those wide-brimmed hats. I rocked a “This is what an Australian feminist looks like” shirt one day and a White Men Can’t Jump shirt the next, and got an appropriate amount of props from fellow attendees.
One sweet Aussie thing: I saw a bunch of Aussies, but most of them weren’t white. I saw a group including featuring one bloke rocking a bush cork hat and his friend wrapped in the flag, and started a conversation. Four mates, traveling America, doing ACL. One guy’s going to SF to try and launch his app. I met an Indian-Australian med student who’s been living in the US almost as long as I have, sitting on an Aussie flag towel. I shouted “Aussie Aussie Aussie” a few times towards her and was utterly ignored, so went over and sat with her anyway. Also, I went to primary school with local blues hero Gary Clark Jr’s girlfriend, supermodel Nicole Trunfio, and got the brief idea of trying to use that random connection to go backstage. I didn’t act on it, but part of me imagines she might just have let a guy who was in her brother’s class at podunk, bush country Leschenault Catholic Primary School hang out with the cool people.
Good friends, good times