Austin, TX or Athens, GA?
Austin City Limits Music Festival 2003
September 19-21, 2003
Austin, Texas
By Bill Vordenbaum

Well, of course the Austin City Limits Music Festival is in Texas! Although this year, with bands like R.E.M. headlining and newer bands such as Drive by Truckers performing, there was a slight hint of a Georgia Bulldog's pep rally in Zilker Park. If I closed my eyes during their performances, I could pretend I was at a Stone Mountain concert. Only which band would headline? Would it be a double bill? Who would have the better stage or fireworks show?

Obviously, R.E.M. is the bigger draw. Last year the Arc Angels closed ACL, this year, the ubiquitous college band of the late eighties and early nineties closed the festival. They played a string of hits as well as some more obscure stuff. They still put on a great show and draw a big crowd. They are energetic and enthusiastic and Michael Stipe is---well, Michael Stipe.

The first time I saw R.E.M. was the fall of 1988 at the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio, TX. They had just released "Green" and were gaining popular(after already garnering critical) support. Michael Stipe wore a skirt---not a kilt, as the San Antonio Express-News reported. It was probably the best show I had seen at the time. I was college age and thought R.E.M. would possibly rival the Beatles or at least U2. Then they released "Shiny, Happy People". The air quickly went out of the next Beatles balloon. "Everybody Hurts" really hurt, worse than anything U2 ever released(in my opinion). About the same time, "Losing My Religion" appeared. It was a huge commercial success and probably the last relavent song they released. Later efforts such as "Man on the Moon" seemed self-plagiaristic, this song in particular reminded me of their earlier song "Cuyahoga" from "Life's Rich Pageant" circa 1986. The Beatles remain the quintessential pop-rock band of the 20th. century. U2 continually reinvented themselves with great success. R.E.M. is a great band---legendary, I think not!

If ACL wanted to close the festival in legendary status, why not hold a tribute to Johnny Cash? Here is someone who is in BOTH the Country as well as the Rock and Roll halls of fame. Many of the performers did an impromptu tribute to Johnny on Saturday afternoon. Rosanne Cash cancelled her performance due to her father's death. This provided an hour for the other artists to honor the "Man in Black". Johnny's clear, distinctive baritone voice was quickly recognizable and second to none. His empathy for common people, prisoners, and minorities made him a Folk hero. His addiction to amphetamines and subsequent struggle to quit showed his human weakness and resolve to persevere. His deep, personal religious faith and opposition to the Vietnam War showed he was not only a free thinker, but also that he was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in and to speak out against injustice.

The most poignant part of the tribute was seeing and hearing three generations of fans sing along to such old favorites as "I Walk the Line", "Folsom Prison Blues", "Ring of Fire" , and even Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down". Johnny Cash was, is, and will continue to be relavent. I seriously doubt that R.E.M. will ever reach that status. Anyway, it's time for me to get off my soapbox and talk about the other bands I saw!

Friday night I arrived in time to see Steve Winwood. He showed his versatility as a musician by playing guitar, mandolin, keyboards(organ), and of course singing on everything from his late-sixties smash "Gimme Some Lovin'"(with the Spencer Davis Group) to "Back in the Highlife Again" to material from his new album. The teenage "wunderkind" from Birmingham, England has survived four decades and continues to wow Eager audiences. The Reverend Al Green followed with his gospel-like Barry White/Marvin Gaye style performance. Dwight Yoakum played opposite Al Green on the Cingular Stage. He performed many of his country/rockabilly favorites as well as one of Waylon Jennings early hits as a tribute.

Saturday, the first artist I saw was Jane Bond. She was still just as bluesy as ever, perhaps a bit leaner and more stripped down of a performance than last year. Terri Hendrix(from the San Marcos area) followed. I had never seen her play, even though I lived and worked in the San Marcos area most of the 1990's. Lloyd Maines(whose outspoken daughter Natalie is a member of the Dixie Chicks) accompanied her on the slide guitar. The combination of Terri and Lloyd really worked well. Terri's performance was quite spirited. She expressed her disgust with the homogenous TV and radio stations across the nation(thanks to the FCC and national media consultants) in one of her more memorable songs. I know from travelling around this great nation, those of us living in the Austin area are fortunate to have such stations as KGSR-FM(107.1), and to some extent KLBJ-FM(93.7), KVET-FM(98.1) and other nonprofit stations(below 92.0 FM) which are willing to take chances on new artists and not just toe the predictable corporate radio line.

Tift Merritt delivered another powerful performance. Don't let her diminutive size fool you, she can really put out a great sound. She covered one of Johnny Cash's songs at his tribute Saturday afternoon. She showed how improvised the tribute was by covering Rosannne Cash's "Seven Year Ache" only to mix up the lyrics. Anyway, she showed a lot of heart! Then there were the Drive By Truckers. Sometimes their songs seemed to be a tribute to and at other times they seemed to be a mockery of southern rock. Their story behind "Eighteen Wheels of Love" is worth hearing. This song in particular was probably the best new original song I heard all weekend. These guys are really worth seeing in my opinion! Patti Griffin showcased her beautiful voice and superior songwriting ability with an inspiring set. Nickel Creek mixed traditional Irish/Celtic styles of music with classical American bluegrass for one of the finest overall musical performances I have ever heard. Nickel Creek mixes instrumental as well as vocal performances from both traditional and progressive folk music. I guarantee you'll never here these guys on corporate radio---yet they sell records and draw large crowds!

On Sunday, my friend Ken Dannelley drove in from Houston to see a few bands. We saw the Shins(a power pop group from Albuquerque, New Mexico). They had some catchy melodies and played well to a crowd of mainly thirty and under. They reminded me of the Alarm or maybe They Might Be Giants in their musical style. As the rain began to fall, we wandered over to the Heineken Stage to catch Jack Ingram. He knows how to entertain an audience and showed the same enthusiasm he did last year. We went over to the Cingular Stage to see Lucinda Williams. It was then I realized how crowded this year's festival was. There were easily 50,000 people roaming Zilker Park thanks mainly to unseasonably cool, cloudy weather.

The strangest band I saw was Yo La Tengo. This eclectic group from Hoboken, New Jersey was all over the place musically. At first, they seemed to have an energetic Velvet Underground sound, then a way too serene almost heroin-induced slow set of songs. They closed their set with a total frenzy of noise through non-conventional to abusive methods of "playing" their instruments. Their front man acted like a badly misbehaving child in a toy store throwing things down and knocking things over while yelling obscenities. If this is musical art, I guess I just don't get it.

I met up with some of my other friends for Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. Their fusion of funk and rock was extraordinary. As they Were playing I caught a beathtaking shot of the sunset. This second festival was nearing its conclusion. The bus shuttle service from central Austin ran smoothly. If only there were a shuttle from both north and south Austin to help alleviate traffic congestion. The food court was expanded from five to over forty booths and the Soco(South Congress) Market was full of uniquely local vendors. All things considered, the second ACL festival was an unqualified success. I hope next year's festival will continue to be as successful as the last two. Both festivals have helped keep Austin weird---or dare I say "unique".