The Austin City Limits Music Festival, named after the long-running PBS live concert TV broadcast (since 1974), is an outstanding festival among festivals. Especially when I went, several times in the mid-to-late Oughts, which a lot of ACL vets feel were the golden years.
Held now over two successive long weekends in October but formerly on one weekend in August, when the temps in central Texas burst thermometers and there is but one large tree, one tree, in all of huge Zilker Park, 350 acres. They sell a lakeful of Lone Star and planeloads of cold water bottles; you might drink it, but only after you rub the plastic bottle all over your sweating body, for momentary relief. Did I mention it gets hot?
They have eight stages, and I managed, through very carefully planned logistics, to catch more than 50 bands each year I went. Now that’s heaven, even if the temperature is pure hell. I would stay with my sister- and brother-in-law in Wimberley, in the river country about an hour southwest of Austin. That meant leaving by 8 a.m. to then park and walk to the park, juggling my map and annotated list of performers-times-stages, and soldier on until past the scheduled end time of 10 p.m., staggering out with those hundreds of thousands of other sated music fans, driving back to Wimberley by after midnight — if I didn’t go to the Continental Club for some must-see after-festival show, till 2 a.m. — to finally set an alarm for 8 and start all over again. Didn’t have to do it that way. But then, you wouldn’t get to see and hear what I did.
THE BEST FEST?
One day I decided to avoid an hour-long search for non-existent parking to opt for a lot with shuttle buses. Ah, much smarter, I congratulated myself, as everything went pretty smoothly. But that night, the line to get on a bus looked like the exit crowd for Woodstock. It took me almost three hours to get out of there. But dawn breaking over Wimberley is such a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Unless you have to get up in two hours.
I passed a bit of that time in line chatting with two young guys just in front of me, Americans but not from TX, and they both enthusiastically agreed ACL was the best festival of them all. Sorry, Coachella. They had gone to Coachella, every year, and — everywhere else. They started naming off festivals, from Australia’s Splendour in the Grass to Tennessee’s Bonaroo to Glastonbury; it sounded like these hard-core festival fanatics had hit them all. Thanks for doing the research, guys.
ACL ALWAYS SELLS OUT
Long before the line-ups are announced. Cheap tickets now cost 280 bucks for one weekend. My most memorable year, 2007, was only the fifth ACL, a lot cheaper, and the reason I went was because I saw the line-ups. Headliners were Bob Dylan, the White Stripes (no show), Björk, Amy Winehouse (no show), the Killers, Muse, Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys, depends on your opinion as to who the headliners are. (Also, all outstanding: Kaiser Chiefs, Joss Stone, Lucinda Williams, Spoon, a great set in front of a crowd of 20,000 by a shocked Regina Spektor, used to playing small NY clubs, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Steve Earle, Ziggy Marley — on the kids’ stage, too charming — Zap Mama, Del McCoury Band, Asleep At the Wheel, Beau Soleil, Grace Potter, Charlie Musselwhite, Billie Joe Shaver, the Gospel Silvertones and a local duo called Ghostland Observatory who put on one of the best sets of the festival, much of the time with only one instrument and a whole lotta charisma.
As I headed toward the stage for Dylan, I could overhear excited conversations from others, really looking forward to it, many their first time to see the legend. Yikes, I thought, having been underwhelmed the last time I saw him a couple of years before that, and by recent albums where his voice seemed to have diminished to a croak. Also, I knew even then he usually wasn’t playing guitar, various reasons given.
Sure enough, he was pretty awful. Barely said a word the whole time. The band was boring. I left halfway through, because I had seen him a few times when he was electrifying, and — there were still other acts to catch. But I felt sorry for those who were so looking forward to it, and wondered what they thought. Was it still a thrill? That performance in 2007 convinced me: Dylan was done. No sense ever seeing him live again. Maybe he still had some good songs left in him, but that voice was so far buried in croakdom, I was skeptical of that too.
DON’T EVER COUNT HIM OUT
I don’t know about Dylan live, but no one has come back from long fallow recording periods to surprise everyone with something shockingly good, like he has. And no one hits the creative payload 60 years after their first recording. But Friday sees the release of his 39th studio album, the new “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” a double album, 10 songs, his first release of new originals in eight years.
Top critics everywhere are falling all over themselves. I’ve heard three cuts and they are fascinating, and really good. He had to cancel summer festival concerts and a tour of Japan, he’s released another of his Bootleg Series (#15), always outstanding, this one 47 previously unreleased recordings, 1967-69, including never-before-heard Nashville sessions with Johnny Cash. There’s the recent Rolling Thunder Revue doc by Scorsese, he’s got new books including his Nobel Laureate dinner speech, still painting and selling his art (he’s good), a line of whiskeys in really cool designer bottles, and, for pete’s sakes, a line of clothing. I’d be surprised if any of it isn’t top shelf. The man is 79. Don’t ever count him out.
CATHODE CINEMA — is an online film series run through the Los Angeles Coaxial Arts Foundation, showcasing contemporary and archival experimental film, animation and television. This past week has been nothing short of outstanding and would be impossible to condense into one small paragraph. On the docket have been films and documentaries centering around the black experience; films about jazz, afrofuturism, blues, soul (I was lucky to tune in for “Wattstax” (1973), the documentary about the Afro-American Woodstock concert commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots, with interpolating scenes from the concert, interviews with local Watts residents about the black experience, and clips from an intimate Richard Pryor stand-up performance); films not explicitly about music but featuring great music, like “Cooley High” (1975), the list goes on and on. Curators Jesus Antonio Rivera, Christopher Reid Martin, and Jonnie Prey post the evening’s schedule on their Instagram (@cathodecinema) the day of, which you can tune into via their twitch stream: www.twitch.tv/cathodetv (Warning: some of these are for mature audiences only)
Charles Andrews has listened to a lot of music of all kinds, including more than 2,000 live shows. He has lived in Santa Monica for 34 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. Send love and/or rebuke to him at firstname.lastname@example.org