My fourth year at the Austin City Limits Festival started out inauspiciously, nearly depressingly. I couldn’t blame the weather. Now in its seventh year, the three days of bands, beer and blazing sun began a week later than usual, a move the wisdom of which is written in the predicted temperatures: Highs of 92 and lows in the 60s. What the hell? I never thought I’d worry about which sweater to jam in my backpack.
No, I was in a funk because of Dan Dyer. Under blue skies and on the dewy grass of Zilker Park, I sat with my Flipnotics coffee and cigarettes giving Dyer a chance with his early slot, but he just pissed me off. He has a voice, but word to his publicists and the MSM: He’s not a blue-eyed soul singer, mostly because he doesn’t sing soul, which is more demanding than the semi-groove, semi-jam, semi-reggae, semi-self-important brother-keeperisms he lays down. A few turns on the electric piano nearly made me believe he aspired to more than the artistic heights of Donavan Frankenreiter, but if you can’t even get the hippie kids to dance, a dozen fretless bass riffs later, it’s time for a career makeover.
Day one didn’t improve much with Autamata, an Irish electro-dance rock band at the Austin Ventures stage (good to see a few investment banks still rocking), who churned up the club rock fuzz with some glitch and glitz, and a final cover of “A Forest” by the Cure, which just made me wonder what kind of damage they could do with just a few real songs.
Jakob Dylan was the first marquee act on my schedule, and with a small, tight combo of electric guitar, bass and drums, he kept to his Martin dreadnought guitar for a rich and wide set, focusing on his somewhat overly understated new album Seeing Things, but also including a gorgeous version of a good single “Here Comes Now.” As dour and introspective as Dylan’s songs can be, I was cheered by the fact that he held a good crowd’s attention and didn’t even have to play “One Headlight.”
My traveling partner (and photographer) and I headed over to another bank-sponsored stage, WaMu, usually home to the gospel and blues bands, but this year accommodating back to back sets from M Ward and Jenny Lewis. We crammed in as close as we could, and then I headed out to catch part of Delta Spirit’s set across the park.
The San Diego band has been through St. Louis a few times, and I’ve missed each show, even though Ode to Sunshine was one of last year’s best indie rock surprises (and recently re-released by Rounder). The three songs I caught were superb: joyous, loose and alive, with Matthew Vasquez, cigarette pack tight in his T-shirt sleeve, singing the hell out of every line. A few years from now, they’ll be on a bigger stage with a much bigger crowd.
Back at WaMu, M Ward was having sound check issues, but finally started with two solo acoustic numbers, driven by his hunched-over, wickedly fluid fingerstyle guitar work. He was then joined by two drummers and then a full band that opened out the windows to some of his best songs (including “Sad, Sad Song” and “Chinese Translation”) and lead straight up to a great final cover of “To Go Home” by, in Ward’s words, “the patron saint of Austin,” Daniel Johnston.
Jenny Lewis should have had a hard time following Ward, but reinvented as a fuzzed-out steel-guitar-charged ‘70s southern rocker (or almost), she prowled around the stage and sang like it was the biggest show of her career. Her notorious hotness isn’t easy to get past, but her voice, wild and free and unfailing, is well-suited to the greasier, chunkier new material from Acid Tongue.
Night one ended with a somewhat chaotic (ACL is a machine, but sound problems are inevitable) but still moving set from the Swell Season. And though I should have stuck it out for at least one of the headliners, Mars Volta and Manu Chao, I was satisfied with a full day of music and (I never thought I’d say it) cool breezes, and dinner at Kerby Lane was calling.