By Lynne Margolis
When Lone Star Music recruited me to cover the Austin City Limits Festival’s 15th anniversary weekends, I said “sure,” not realizing exactly how closely they rode on the heels of AmericanaFest in Nashville. Not only did that weeklong immersion provide several chances to hear rising star Margo Price and a few other ACL Fest artists, it also left a souvenir: sinus-lung crud that scotched weekend one (Sept. 30-Oct. 2), and darned near did the same for weekend two (Oct. 7-9).
But another incredible event helped save the music, so to speak. Other Voices, an Irish TV show, had taken over Austin’s venerable Arlyn Studios to tape performances by several artists in a new partnership that eventually could spread the show worldwide. Like Austin City Limits, the 42-year-old PBS series that launched ACL Fest, it taped several festival acts over the weekend. And Freddy Fletcher, who runs Arlyn with his former wife, Lisa Rainey Fletcher, is Willie Nelson’s nephew; Willie not only put Austin City Limits on the map, he played weekend two of the festival. So it all felt synergistic.
It somehow made sense to split time between Zilker Park, where Mumford & Sons again headlined Sunday night, and the Academy Drive studio where they played what felt like a cozy house concert for maybe 40 people sitting in seven small church pews (plus more viewers behind the control-room glass).
ACL Fest veteran Shakey Graves, who had journeyed to the tiny town of Dingle in County Kerry, Ireland, to play Other Voices, said Thursday that he’d first heard of the show when he viewed an episode during a plane flight. He wondered then how it had escaped his attention.
“Leave it to the Irish to focus on the kind of music that, in Austin, Texas, we kind of take for granted,” said Graves, aka Alejandro Rose-Garcia. “When you’re saturated in a creative environment like Austin, it often takes a mirror to be held up in front of you to realize what your town is steeped in or what you build music festivals out of.”
Speaking of Austin …
Both the Austin City Limits festival and TV show, meanwhile, have shifted far afield from their roles as showcases for area musicians, though a few artists with Austin ties played one or both weekends. Most prominent among them, of course, was Willie, who drew a crowd so huge, it was hard not to feel sorry for Amanda Shires, Gregory Porter and even Miike Snow, all of whom played the same Sunday time slot.
Before her ACL Fest debut with her own band (she played it previously with Billy Joe Shaver), singer and fiddler Shires chatted briefly about juggling marriage, motherhood and touring schedules with husband Jason Isbell. “Gratitude. That’s how you do it,” she explained, adding, “We have a nanny that helps out, because roadies aren’t the best at caring for a baby. They do a good job, but it’s better if a trained professional helps. You worry less.”
Because 1-year-olds can’t do long stretches in a van, Shires said, Isbell was caring for their daughter, Mercy Rose. But Shires was counting the days — nine, at that point — till she’d see them again. “He’s an excellent model of a co-parent,” she noted, though leaving fills her with guilt. “We’re hoping that I can eventually work my way up into a bus so I could take her with me.”
The Texas native, raised in Lubbock and Mineral Wells, added, “It feels good to be back in Texas and I’m the most luckiest person in the world to get to do what I do.”
Then she took to the BMI stage to perform tracks from her just released album, My Piece of Land, and favorites such as “When You Need a Train It Never Comes,” which placed fifth on American Songwriter magazine’s 2011 top 50 songs list.
Unlike Shires, whose Americana sound is country-informed (she even did a stint in Western swing band the Texas Playboys), singer and fiddler-turned-guitarist Margaret Glaspy’s sound draws from folk, rock and pop — but doesn’t fall squarely into any of those idioms. Her unusual, Joni Mitchell-influenced guitar style further sets her apart; during her Friday Other Voices set, she played a retro-styled Danocaster electric with an appealing lo-fi quality, enhanced by a vintage amp and her simple trio format. With a voice that hangs in the alto range but can switch from a growl to a high trill, and a polished assurance that belies her 27 years, Glaspy sings lyrics filled with streaks of defiance and sometimes even anger. She released her debut album, Emotions and Math, in June, and appeared Saturday on the BMI stage.
Though she was raised in Northern California, Glaspy loves living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, identifying with New Yorkers’ “no-bullshit attitude” — a trait that comes through in her songs. But after her Arlyn set, she discussed spending time in Austin; she’s made a half-dozen trips this year alone, including playing South By Southwest. “I’m a big Terry Black’s barbecue fan. I like Barton Springs a lot,” she reported. Collings Guitars is another frequent hangout.
BMI’s stage, the tiniest — and coolest — one at ACL Fest, also featured Irishman (and Other Voices vet) Foy Vance on Friday. Exuding a low-key charm, he sang in a voice that shares a kinship with Okie Parker Millsap.
Across the park at the Tito’s Handmade Vodka stage (the tent), Corrine Bailey Rae mesmerized one of the largest, most sprawling crowds this 14-year ACL Fest-goer can recall at that stage. The beguiling soul-jazz of “Stop Where You Are” (from her new album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers), “Do You Ever Think of Me,” on which she engaged in a sublime round with vocalist-guitarist John McCallum, who could give Stevie Wonder a high-harmony run, and of course, her gently grooving hit, “Put Your Records On,” inspired lots of hip-swaying and singing along.
A huge crowd at the Miller Lite stage, coupled with underwhelming audio, inspired a gallop away from Band of Horses. But M83, on the Cirrus Logic stage, provided a perfect antidote. Their LED-laden backdrop delivered a starry effect as the sun set, enhancing the mood created by their ethereal jazz-pop and EDM. They also proved a nice warm-up to Radiohead.
Unfortunately, the masses who wanted to see and hear Thom Yorke and Co. were out of luck unless they hugged the Samsung stage from early afternoon or were extraordinarily tall. The band opted to use the side screens for artful visual effects rather than larger depictions of what seemed, from a distance, like tiny cartoon figures (judging from a few momentary glimpses — all I could get despite using a 9-inch stool and binoculars). The light show looked pretty and the trancey soundscapes they created on “My Iron Lung,” “All I Need,” “Pyramid Song” (with airy piano and e-bowed guitar) and the burbling “Bloom” were lovely, but the frustration of trying to connect with a band that felt like it was on another planet left much to be desired.
As I headed for the exit to the strains of “Identikit,” I passed a semi-circle of Adirondack chairs facing a TV screen on which actual images of Radiohead could be viewed in real time. “Yeah, that makes sense,” I thought. “Come to a festival and watch it on TV.” Which is what those stage-side images would’ve amounted to anyway.
That thought also made it easier to opt for Saturday’s Mumford & Sons Other Voices taping, which far outdid even their 2011 Austin City Limits segment. [See sidebar.]
Back … and forth
On Sunday, Americana it girl Margo Price, who’d appeared Friday at Arlyn, got an onstage ACL visit from her July Fourth picnic host: Willie Nelson. She later returned the favor, along with nearly every artist who wasn’t performing on another stage. But before that giant group hug, a few other moments stood out.
They included a massive BMI stage crowd for rockers Atlas Genius, the retro soul of the James Hunter Six (whose ever-adorable frontman possesses criminally under-appreciated guitar chops) and the similarly Stax-influenced retro soul of Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats (whose self-titled 2015 album was released on that Concord-revived label).
“What a humbling thing to do, playing music for all of you,” former missionary Rateliff said from the Samsung stage. “Thanks for coming out here, and thanks for giving a shit. We really appreciate it.”
As security staffers distributed bottles of water and even sprayed fans with it, the bearded, black-clothed Rateliff beseeched, “Next time, can we do it in the shade? I don’t like bein’ called fat, but it’s hot for a big guy!” Then he mentioned Barton Springs pool and fantasized about how the band and fans could hang out there together “and be friends,” before heading into another swamp jazz groove. Even a pole-hanging T. Rex, suspended high in the air, bopped along in approval.
While Hunter, soul revivalists St. Paul & the Broken Bones and dreamweavers Oh Wonder competed with cheering football fans in the Miller Lite bar area, yet another soul revivalist, Gregory Porter, prepared to take the Tito’s stage. The day before, he’d done an Other Voices segment that Freddy Fletcher had touted as one of the most transforming musical moments he’d had in ages.
He wasn’t lying. The winner of 2014’s Best Jazz Album Grammy (for Liquid Spirit) knocked out dancing listeners with “On My Way to Harlem,” which charmingly references Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye and Langston Hughes. Former football player Porter used his beautiful baritone, augmented with concert grand piano, double bass, drums and sax, to conduct a musical journey through time and space. Visiting Montreux via double-bass strains of “Smoke on the Water” and Motown via hints of “Papa was a Rolling Stone,” among other classics, he melded gospel, blues, soul, jazz and even bits of reggae while invoking James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Earth, Wind & Fire and Bill Withers (a major influence) during “Musical Genocide.” His pledge of allegiance (“I will not commit nor will I submit to/musical genocide”), coupled with messages of love and tolerance, were incredibly powerful.
But Willie was the afternoon’s main attraction. It seemed nearly every one of what had to be 100,000 festivalgoers — despite C3 spokesman Patrick Dentler’s insistence that the number was only 75,000 (paid, maybe, but not actual) — converged on the Samsung stage for outlaw country’s benevolent elder statesman. Earlier, one group of eager young adults had expressed their anticipation by standing in a circle, mid-park, and chanting “Willie! Willie!”
Even those who have heard him countless times can’t help but be charmed by his unassuming stage presence — not to mention his still-fluid singing and ever-impressive, jazz-inflected strumming on the iconic Trigger. Just days earlier, Rose-Garcia talked of holding that endlessly patched Martin acoustic, etched with signatures of musical titans from Kris Kristofferson to Johnny Cash — and now, his, too. Asked to interview Willie for Other Voices earlier that week, he found himself invited to strum country music’s holy grail. Then he found himself invited to sign it. With a ballpoint pen provided by Austin American-Statesman writer Peter Blackstock, Rose-Garcia nervously scratched his name in the shellacked wood.
After that experience, he joked Thursday, “My life is like, ruined. I have no idea what to do with myself.”
The answer, clearly, would be “just sing along.” That’s what many fans did Sunday when Willie warbled “Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “You Were Always on My Mind,” framed by what might be the biggest Lone Star flag in the history of stage backdrops (which begs the question, does he have one in every size?).
Watching local drummer Mike Meadows on the drumkit behind him was a special kick, as was listening to “Sister Bobbie” deliver a sweet honky-tonk piano break on “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” two days after hugging her at Arlyn.
Rose-Garcia couldn’t be spotted among the artists who’d trotted onstage by then to join in. But in addition to Price, there were Mumfords, Night Sweats (including Rateliff), Broken Bones (including St. Paul) Local Natives, Matthew McConaughey, who’d handled Willie’s intro, plus his kids, and according to Meadows, previous Samsung stage player Anderson East and his fiancée, Miranda Lambert. Joyfully singing and clapping along, they led the audience through a medley of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light.”
The audience kept clapping right up until Mickey Raphael’s final harmonica notes faded, and most of them — including Austinite Chris Allard, proudly sporting a “Willie for president” T-shirt — apparently stayed planted for Mumford & Sons.
And finally …
Those who turned toward the Home Away stage, however, were treated to Haim (pronounced hy’em, like the Hebrew word chaim), fronted by the trio of badass sisters who’ve been rocking together since childhood.
“We’ve got a whole fuck-ton of songs to play for you,” singer-bassist Este Haim promised, “and I think we’re gonna fuckin’ play forever.” She may have said one or two sentences not containing that expletive, but their rock ‘n’ roll attitude was actually a welcome element. So was their cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U.”
The eldest Haim sister also explained why Austin holds a special place in their hearts. As L.A. Valley girls, they grew up dreaming of “this mythical, magical place called Texas,” and of playing South By Southwest. Finally, they applied in 2012 — and got rejected.
“We said, ‘Fuck it; we’re going anyway,’” she added. Este, lead singer-guitarist Danielle and singer-rhythm guitarist Alana hopped on friends’ showcases, and by their fifth one, they had a record deal. Yes, it still happens here in the live music capital, folks.
SXSW and Austin City Limits helped boost Mumford & Sons’ stateside presence, too. They were unknown here when they played SXSW in 2009; in 2012, a year after rolling through on the Big Easy Express with Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes and Old Crow Medicine Show, they world-premiered the same-named documentary at SXSW with a performance that drew a massive audience.
It was miniscule, however, compared to the sea of people comprising Sunday night’s jubilant crowd — every one of whom appeared to know the words to each song.
“This might be my favorite festival in the world,” Marcus Mumford announced. Though that line undoubtedly had been uttered elsewhere, he added, “And it’s our last show of the year, so we’re gonna leave it all here with you. And you’re gonna fuckin’ dance!”
As if anyone needed prodding — especially once the crystalline acoustic-guitar strumming and banjo-laced harmonies of “Little Lion Man” rippled through the crowd. On “Lover of the Light,” Mumford hopped on drums. Before the encore, he would also hop through the audience. After a set that earned ecstatic approval even for songs from 2015’s more rock-oriented Wilder Mind, the band brought out Haim and Gregory Porter for “With a Little Help from My Friends.” With wit, energy and the assurance of stadium-rockers, the U.K. natives reveled in sharing the joyous power of music.
On the Honda stage, meanwhile, thumping rhythms and keyboard runs helped carry the reunited LCD Soundsystem’s ironic “You Wanted a Hit” into the night. Recorded in 2010, before the band played its alleged “last show ever” in 2011, it contained the line, “You wanted it real but can you tell me what’s real?”
“There’s lights and sounds and stories, music’s just a part,” frontman James Murphy sang. “Yeah, you wanted the truth and then you said you want proof/I guess you’re used to liars saying what they want.”
It almost sounded like a commentary about a certain candidate debate happening at the same moment. But it was only rock ‘n’ roll.
At ACL Fest, whether it was electronica, Americana, folk, country, rap, gospel or soul, it was all glorious rock ‘n’ roll. And at Arlyn, where an a cappella lament sung in Irish by former Afro Celt Sound System member Iarla Ó Lionáird nearly brought listeners to tears Thursday, it was even more — a spiritual charge, relayed through the unifying power of the one language we all understand.
Related: ACL Fest 2016 Weekend 1 recap