Sunday, October 5, 2014

Austin City Limits Festival 2014, Weekend 1, Day 1

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2014, Weekend 1, Day 1
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 3 October 2014

Introduction: After having such a good time at ACL last year, even with the rainout, I really wanted to go again this year. However, when I saw the lineup, I was really turned off. I was sickened to see Eminem given top billing, I am less than excited about Skrillex or Calvin Harris, and even Pearl Jam isn't really a draw for me. But I was curious about Beck and there were several second- and third-tier acts that I was interested in. Thankfully, the schedule worked out such that the Friday lineup was by far the most appealing to me. Since ACL decided to sell single-day passes again this year, it was an easy decision to just go on Friday.

Learning from past experience, I showed up quite early to make the most of the day. My back hurt by the end of it from all the standing, but it was well worth it. I took pictures when I could, but I didn't always get good opportunities.

So, arriving about 12:30pm, I walked in and decided to see James Bay, a British singer-songwriter who was sometimes accompanied by a keyboardist/percussionist. I caught about half of his set. Although he had some decent skills and charm, he didn't offer much to keep my attention. All of his lyrics were simply about relationships with women and there was nothing notable or clever to be had. If he'd sing about something else he might get more interesting.

As Bay was wrapping up, I moved over to see Moats, a British band with some post-punk vibes and some spacey psych undertones. I originally was planning on seeing Temples, but since I'd seen them once before, I decided at the last minute to give a band I'd never heard of a chance instead. Their lead guitarist continually let out spidery, twisting lines with loads of reverb and other effects. It was a cool sound, but borrowed straight from the post-punk canon. The singer was mediocre and probably the weakest element. He barely played his guitar and did not sing well. The real star was the bassist, who managed to play really funky riffs under everything else. He might be able to keep the band above water on his own.

[Moats.]

I got bored with Moats fairly fast, so halfway through I decided to check out Temples again after all. I saw them earlier this year at Austin Psych Fest, but I think they may have put on a better show here. That's something of a feat considering the last time they had a presumably more sympathetic audience and played at dusk (when a lightshow is actually visible), whereas this time they played early and faced into the sun. Their love of 60s music was amply evident; there was more of a psychedelic feel on this occasion, but there were still hints of the heavy side. The melodies and harmonies shone even more, and the guitars were very spacey. The whole package sounded just a little better and grooved more.

[Temples.]

The next choice was obvious: Jimmy Cliff, one of the original kings of reggae. I knew parts of his setlist, but the almost whole thing is already online:

01. Bongo Man → Rivers of Babylon
02. King of Kings
03. Miss Jamaica
04. Wild World (Cat Stevens cover)
05. Under the Sun, Moon and Stars
06. Rebel Rebel
07. Vietnam (Afghanistan)
08. Treat the Youths
09. [Unknown]
10. Many Rivers to Cross
11. Wonderful World, Beautiful People
12. The Harder They Come
13. I Can See Clearly Now (Johnny Nash cover)
14. You Can Get It If You Really Want

[Jimmy Cliff and co. performing the "Bongo Man" / "Rivers of Babylon" medley.]

I immediately knew I was in for a good time when Cliff came out dressed in a gold suit and a red headband. His backing band (except for a woman singer) all wore orange shirts with a screenprinted image of King Tut. Cliff was immediately dancing around the stage, still quite active despite his age. The first song was performed with just vocals and percussion, but most of the songs involved lots of extra vocal and percussion parts, along with the standard string, brass, and keyboard parts. The energy was always high, Cliff kept moving, and the band was always groovy. Cliff's stage presence was hard not to like, and his tunes were solid. I appreciated his classics (which are perhaps most popular from their appearance in The Harder They Come and Cool Runnings) and especially that he transformed his old protest song "Vietnam" into a song about Afghanistan.

[Jimmy Cliff and the band in regular raggae format.]

I took a break to get something to eat and listened to most of a set by Lake Street Dive in the process. They were a jazzy, soulful quartet with a hint of rock. Most of their set was vocals, guitar, double bass, and drums, but for the crowd-pleasing cover of "I Want You Back", the guitarist switched to a trumpet, which made for a creative minimalist take. I didn't find the music particularly engaging or compelling, but the vocals were strong and the obvious center of attention.

[Lake Street Dive.]

When I had left the so-called Honda stage area after Jimmy Cliff, I noticed that hoards of young women were heading the opposite way. It wasn't until I headed back that way myself that I realized they were rushing there early to get a good spot for Chvrches, and my decision to do something else between the sets meant I forfeited any chance of a good viewing location. There was no other band that I saw this day with as big of a crowd; I simply could not get anywhere close to the stage.

The band had a very simple stage setup: two synth racks and some space in the middle for singer Lauren Mayberry. Iain Cook picked up a bass and a guitar for a couple parts, but he and Martin Doherty mostly stayed put. Mayberry is extremely charming, and her bandmates moderately so as well, but there was a certain lack of stage presence nonetheless. It didn't help that their sound didn't come across well. It may have been my poor position in the crowd, but their music sounded somewhat simple and monotonic. I am a longtime fan of old-school synthpop, but I couldn't help feeling like something was missing. I might like some of the sounds, and the singing is good, but the dynamics and the energy weren't very engaging.

Next up for me was St. Vincent, who my regular source JDP turned me on to a few months back. I'm really glad I bought her latest album and sought out her performance, because it was delightful and weird. Delightfully weird, one could say. Annie Clark came out in a black dress adorned with sequin eyes and mouths, her hair dyed in her characteristic white with dark roots. Everything about her performance seemed carefully choreographed, including the movements and look directions of her keyboard players. At one point, Clark broke the guise for just a moment to address the crowd and stated that she was there for some reason we were: because we wanted something different, the world didn't seem right to us, and we hadn't given up faith that there was another way. I appreciated her confidence that we shared her worldview, but her mad smile made it hard to disagree.

[St. Vincent on top of her stage mount.]

The strange part about St. Vincent's music is that it sounds completely synthesized, yet Clark wields a guitar. When she plays, it takes a moment to realize that the sound you hear is related to the movements she makes with her instrument. I have no idea what combination of distortion, noise gates, and other effects she uses, but it is strange and wonderful. She's a modern virtuoso on the instrument, yet she obscures the face value of her talent by using an otherworldly set of tones. Her guitar skills are matched by her lyrics, which reveal deep imagination and subtle anger at the rigidity of the modern world.

Near the end of her set, she jumped down to the edge of the stage barrier and hovered with the help of some of the crowd. She passed her guitar to audience member and implored them to play the guitar while she interacted with other members. At one point, she took someone's phone, took a picture with it, and politely handed it back.

I took another break to eat more food but decided to try to see some of a set by Foster the People. I happened to come up while the singer was repeating the same line: "It feels like a coming of age". Combined with the terrible pseudo-indie pop sound, it was a mess of cliché. I tried to sit through it, but I couldn't take the co-opting of indie aesthetics by a derivative mainstream pop act for long. I realized that my time was better spent trying to get a good spot for the next band. (For what it's worth, their setlist can be found here, but I'm not going to bother reprinting it myself.)

I was glad I got to Belle & Sebastian early, because I got a good spot and it started to get crowded. I got the whole setlist on my own, except for Stuart's new song. The internet suggests it may be named "Allie".

01. The Fox in the Snow (string quintet tease)
02. Expectations
03. Another Sunny Day
04. The Stars of Track and Field
05. Funny Little Frog
06. Sukie in the Graveyard
07. Piazza, New York Catcher
08. Allie
09. Perfect Couples
10. I Didn't See It Coming
11. The Boy with the Arab Strap
12. Legal Man

Amazingly, the overlap in the setlist the last time I saw them (last year in Austin) is only three songs. Although festival appearances usually mean reduced set lengths, they still played an amazing set of career highlights and hidden treasures and also fit in two new songs. As far as I can tell, these songs have only been played a couple times before. Stuart Murdoch sang lead on one that went unnamed [Edit 2014.10.20: "Allie"], but Stevie Jackson's lead vocal piece was announced as "Perfect Couples". Other notable songs were a brief tease of "The Fox in the Snow" by the touring strings players while the band walked on stage; a full-band, low-key arrangement of "Piazza, New York Catcher" (previously only done solo acoustic); and Stuart jumping in the audience to bring a bunch of audience members up to the stage to dance for the last two numbers. Also: apparently, trumpeter Mick Cooke has officially (amicably) left the band, but I'm still just a bit confused about the extra touring guitarist/bassist.

[Belle & Sebastian, although Sarah Martin is obstructed from view.]

Last on the bill for me was Beck. I knew most of the setlist, but I owe it to the internet for filling in the blanks for me.

01. Devil's Haircut
02. Loser
03. Black Tambourine
04. Hell Yes
05. Think I'm in Love → I Feel Love (Donna Summer cover tease)
06. Soul of a Man
07. Gamma Ray
08. Blue Moon
09. Lost Cause
10. Wave
11. Waking Light
12. Girl
13. Timebomb
14. E-Pro

Encore:
15. Sexx Laws
16. Debra
17. Strawberry Fields Forever (The Beatles cover tease) → Where It's At

Beck's latest album was the acoustic, orchestrated, folky
Morning Phase, which led me to expect that his set was going to focus on his sparser, folkier, more melodic and "serious" side. I was wrong. He blasted out with the heavy "Devil's Haircut" and then ran through the stoner anthem "Loser" like it was still the early 90s. He jumped all around his career, but actually played more songs from Geuro (2005) than the new album. The weirdest part was that he went from all these technically proficient, dancey, showy, groovy hipster tunes into a brief foray of acoustic folk ballads with barely a pause. I appreciate Beck's wide variety of interests and outputs, but the transition was jarring. Equally incongruous was the shift right back into the hip postmodern jams à la Geuro.

Especially strange was the encore, which started with two tracks from
the weirdo funk-rock pastiche Midnite Vultures (1999). "Sexx Laws" might have been a single, and it might have a clever hook ("I want to defy the logic of all sex laws"), but "Debra" is a straight-up bizarre song. Parading as a trashy, sleazy, clichéd slow jam, the lyrics poke fun of typical male machismo songwriting: "I wanna get with you, only you, girl / And your sister / I think her name was Debra". Live, Beck took it even further, extemporizing lyrics and dropping references to Austin. His band has become a top-notch set of players, running with whatever changes take over Beck's mood. Maybe it's all pre-rehearsed, but they make it feel natural, in the moment, and totally slick. It's parody and mockery of the highest order. Much like my feelings about Devo, I just hope the audience is on the same page.

The closer was an extremely extended take on the Odelay classic "Where It's At". At some point in the performance, I think Beck uttered all the words heard in the studio version, but he also ad-libbed entire extra verses and stopped the performance several times to introduce the band and allow them to inject portions of other music. Each time, though, instead of sounding like an excuse for the musician to show off a dumb macho riff, the player in question would start into a riff, and the rest of the band would jump in like they all knew right where to be. And then at just the right moment, they'd switch right back into "Where It's At". It was either extremely well-rehearsed or the band is just that tight. It was absurd, yet oddly impressive.

Beck was supposed to be done at 9:30, but his protracted take on "Where It's At" ran an extra fifteen minutes. I'm sure there weren't many complaints. Outkast was scheduled until 10pm, but I opted to find my bike and get home.

Scores:
James Bay: C-
Moats: C+
Temples: B+
Jimmy Cliff: A-
Chvrches: B-
St. Vincent: A
Foster the People: D
Belle & Sebastian: A
Beck: B+

[Edit 2014.10.06:] P.S. Chvrches' setlist has been uploaded:
01. We Sink
02. Lies
03. Lungs
04. Gun
05. Night Sky
06. Strong Hand
07. By the Throat
08. Science/Visions
09. Recover
10. Tether
11. Under the Tide
12. The Mother We Share

[Edit 2014.10.16:] P.P.S. St. Vincent's setlist has been uploaded:
01. Rattlesnake
02. Digital Witness
03. Cruel
04. Marrow
05. Surgeon
06. Cheerleader
07. Birth in Reverse
08. Huey Newton
09. Bring Me Your Loves
10. Krokodil
11. Your Lips Are Red

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