Among more than 150 acts at the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival – held for the 12th consecutive year at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas – it’s exceedingly hard to narrow down the talent to a scant Top 10. One can’t catch everything, but now that the event has expanded to two weekends, at least there’s the option to try by go ing twice and creating two completely different experiences. Check out our Top 10 and photo highlights from Weekend 1 (Oct. 4-6) below:
10. Muse – In all brutal honesty, Muse’s ACL, weekend 1 performance on Friday was not outstanding. But that wasn’t the band’s fault in the slightest. The British rockers were victims of not one but two sound malfunctions caused by a defective power generator, which occurred uncannily during the first and last songs – “Supremacy” and “Survival,” respectively – and significantly killed their mojo despite attempts to recapture it with their highest-octane hits. The only reason Muse beat out others for the No. 10 slot is simply because … well it’s Muse, one of the mightiest outfits in contemporary rock. Plus, that one-song encore of “Knights of Cydonia” was a helluva way to go out swinging.
9. Dawes – Here’s one of those rare L.A. bands that sounds like they could be from Austin (let’s be real: it’s usually the other way around). Dawes delivered a solid hour of honest-to-goodness contemporary classic rock Sunday afternoon that harped off some of the best – Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young – without meandering into rip-off territory. Singer/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith was best during his most unsuspecting songs. Take, for example, “Most People,” which began as a sweetly picked folk tune, then erupted into one of Goldsmith’s searing solos that visibly sucked in a steady stream of casual passersby from clear across the field.
8. Shovels & Rope – This South Carolina-based husband-wife duo – composed of singer/guitarist Cary Ann Hearst and multi-instrumentalist Michael Trent – is the Little Band That Could. They began to buzz last summer with the release of their debut album, O’ Be Joyful, and landed a spot opening for the Lumineers at their ACL television taping in April. Friday’s early afternoon performance at the fest, then, was a sort of triumphant return to a much more expansive audience. The couple was all smiles as they warmed hearts and inspired some to put on their dancing shoes, despite the heat, with some of the weekend’s most downhome, honky-tonk tunes.
7. Arctic Monkeys – Pulling largely from their recently released disc, AM, British quartet the Arctic Monkeys set out to prove Friday evening that sheer volume can make all the difference. Even on new slow-burners like the suave set-opener “Do I Wanna Know?” and the saucy “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High,” the boom of the kick drum was preposterously loud. They were liable to blow a few eardrums out during the Black Sabbath-influenced “Arabella,” which paid direct homage to that group by inserting a few measures of “War Pigs,” the song’s obvious inspiration. That was all for the better, though, as the wall of sound appeared to possess frontman Alex Turner, prompting him to bust a few more high-kicks and accompanying sneers than usual.
6. Queens of the Stone Age – Easily the loudest rock group on the field, Queens of the Stone Age conquered their early evening set on Friday with the grooviest selections off new album, … Like Clockwork (“I Sat By the Ocean,” “If I Had a Tail”) and a career-spanning array of other cuts that ran the gamut of trippy to utterly explosive (“Better Living Through Chemistry,” “A Song For the Dead”). It was one of those performances that pointed to all signs of this group eventually being named one the great classic rock bands of this era. But for now, a title so mature wasn’t preferable to acting out sleezy adolescent antics amidst some the raunchiest riffs and lyrics out there. “Austin … we came to give a night you’ll never remember, man,” said frontman Josh Homme after blazing through the opening drug-rock homage, “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.”
5. Silversun Pickups – Silversun Pickups embodied the idea of a fantastic festival band with their Saturday afternoon show. Their song selections – mostly hits with one oldie, “Well Thought Out Twinkles” – were loud and driving enough that one could hone in and dance to them, and melodically complex enough that one could easily veg out in the grass and just soak up the sounds instead. As they’re a treat to watch, the former was preferable. Bassist Nikki Monninger was on hand for her first appearance back since giving birth to twin girls, so her performance – full of jumps and mile-wide grins – was far more exuberant than usual. Bonus points for a great speech from frontman Brian Aubert: “This is how we measure our band: every time we put out a record, we tour for a year and a half and end at Austin City Limits. So if we make it this far, we figure we’re doing OK. This is our third record and our third time here, so …”
4. Wilco – If Silversun ranks as a “fantastic” fest band, Wilco ranks as perfect. In so many ways, they’ve developed into a Radiohead-esque entity, which they proved Saturday evening with genre-hopping tunes like “Art of Almost” and “Impossible Germany,” both marked by the wildly experimental guitar stylings of Nels Cline. Yet what really makes Wilco so solid is frontman Jeff Tweedy’s penchant for penning timeless tunes. Simple, moving lyrics on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Born Alone” rang out crisply and clearly thanks to a reverently attentive audience, their silence broken only when Tweedy gave them the go-ahead nod to belt out the catchy choruses.
3. Haim – At this point, it’s probably cliché and tiresome to focus on Haim’s rare structure: three sisters – two guitarists and one bassist – that rock harder most of their male counterparts with double the experience and age. Perhaps it was the fact that their Saturday performance felt so youthful and genuinely exuberant – the twenty-somethings couldn’t contain their elated grins while certifiably shredding on selections from their just-released studio debut, Days Are Gone – that made it such a winner. Or maybe it was just that blazing cover of “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac, their most frequent comparison, that did the trick – insane riffs.
2. Reignwolf – Speaking of insane riffs, anyone who arrived early enough on Saturday got a healthy dose if they happened to stop in for a too-quick 45-minute set from Seattle’s Reignwolf. The musician born Jordan Cook was a madman on stage, sneering as he thrashed around with his guitar as if overcome by an epileptic fit. Just watching him – sometimes relying solely on one-handed hammer-ons while he grasped a loose mic in the other hand – it was often remarkable that he even hit the notes. But hit them he did with the exciting, bluesy erraticism of Jack White’s gnarliest White Stripes material and the miraculous precision of U2’s the Edge. And when he was joined by an extra guitarist and drummer, the music took on an even more visceral tone, perfectly complimented by his Chris Cornell-inspired wail.
1. Atoms for Peace – A fest-closing, Sunday evening set from this group – formed in 2009 by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke to perform material from his 2006 solo album, The Eraser – had the potential to bomb. That disc and its follow-up, Amok (released in February), were so off-kilter – overarchingly glitchy, vocally distorted to the point of annoyance and generally sonically asymmetrical – that a live incarnation threatened to be the perfect picture of pretentious electro monotony. But Yorke’s live band personnel – Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea and touring percussionist Mauro Refosco and drummer Joey Waronker – have ensured the opposite result. The musicians recreated the tunes on stage – in fact breathing new life into those Eraser-era tracks – in a way that highlighted their deep love of classic rock, trip-hop, funk and electronica. Flea in particular was a focal point of energy. His unencumberd dancing was the perfect complement to Yorke’s eccentric moves, the two men melding into a whirlwind of limbs and riffage at the climax of each composition that kept the audience captivated until the fest’s final moments.