Austin City Limits Music Festival
Third Time’s A Swarm!
September 17th - 19th , 2004 Austin, Texas
By Bill Vordenbaum

This year's Austin City Limits Music Festival was unique in many ways. First of all, this year marks the 30th Anniversary of the Austin City Limits television program on PBS. This is also the third annual ACL Music Festival to be held at Zilker Park in Austin, TX. One of the things that made this one unique, was Sheryl Crow headlining Friday evening on the SBC Stage opposite Los Lonely Boys on the Cingular Stage. I have written three articles recently about artists who have played ACL over the past three years. Jane Bond, Terri Hendrix, and Mindy Smith have all played the Festival. It is refreshing to see that ACL has finally filled one of the headlining spots with a female artist! Despite the problems with pedestrian traffic congestion at the conclusion of the two shows, it was a bold move that I applaud!

An issue that needs to be addressed is the excruciating heat at this year's Festival. I grew up in this area, and I realize that mid-September is still sweltering-summertime in central Texas. If only future ACL Festivals could be postponed until the first weekend in October, there would be a substantially reduced risk of people suffering from heat exhaustion -- or far worse, heat stroke. This would pose a scheduling conflict with the University of Texas football team. They usually have a bye week in the middle of September, allowing the ACL Festival to proceed uncontested. If UT could only move their bye week to the first weekend in October, or at least play a road game against a remote opponent, ACL could move from a typical London broil, to more of a subtle central Texas sauna.

The burgeoning crowd at this year's Festival is another issue which begs for our attention. Saturday, for the first time in the history of ACL, the event completely sold out. The city allowed 75,000 people inside Zilker Park for the Festival, and then started turning them away. I was preparing to see Ray Lamontange at the Heineken Stage when Kevin Connor (morning show co-host of KGSR-FM 107.1) made this announcement. I didn't really notice how crowded the park was until I tried to leave during the Pixies' performance Saturday night. I felt as if I were making my way through an obstacle course of portable chairs and refuse, almost resembling a war-zone. Personally, I would be willing to pay more for a three-day pass if only 60,000 people were admitted into the Festival. Another possibility would be to open up an area west of the Festival Grounds, perhaps another stage and more concessions. If the crowd were allowed to expand over more acreage, there would be more breathing room. Depending on the amount of area opened, perhaps the city would allow 80,000 people inside Zilker Park. Just a thought!

Friday, September 17th, I arrived in time to see The Killers on the Cingular Stage. These young alternative rockers exuded an energetic sound which mixed guitars, keyboards, and powerful vocals. I decided to see Dale Watson on the Austin Ventures Stage next. His sound is reminiscent of early Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. If you choose to see him perform, be sure you can walk "The Streets of Bakersfield." After his show, I quickly headed to the SBC Stage to catch Rosanne Cash perform. She was understandably absent from last year's ACL following her father's death. She led off her show with "I Still Miss Someone." While she never mentioned Johnny's name, it was clear that this song was meant as a tribute to him. She sang many of her favorites, including "Runaway Train" and "Seven Year Ache." She waxed nostalgic with a country classic, Don Gibson's "Sea Of Heartbreak." She closed with "Tennessee Flat Top Box," originally written and sung by her father (John R. Cash).

As I was heading back towards the Cingular Stage, I caught some of Terri Hendrix' show, and a few songs from Neko Case's show. Then, I got as close as I could to see Patti Griffin. I have seen her perform three times now, and each time she continues to improve. This is one artist who is well worth seeing, if you get the chance. After a break for a bite to eat, I wandered back to the SBC Stage to see Ryan Adams. He hit the nail on the head when he spoke candidly about the ACL Festival. I am paraphrasing, but the gist of his statement was, "Austin, you know you've got the sstt!!!. These are all local sponsors, there's no ffffing Starbucks here!!!" Wow! I hated to leave his show, but I had to catch Joe Ely and his band at the Austin Ventures Stage.

The first time I saw Joe Ely perform, was probably at Liberty Lunch in the mid-to-late 80's. I felt as if I were having a musical flashback as he played some of his favorites such as "Me And Billy The Kid," "All Just To Get To You," "Cool Rockin' Loretta," and "Honky Tonk Masquerade." His signature song, "Dallas," was the focal point of the band's performance. My favorite was their version of Butch Hancock's "Boxcars." Lloyd Maines plays the pedal steel like no other musician I have ever heard! In one day, I had seen enough talent to last for three days; yet, there were two days remaining!

Saturday, I slept in and arrived in time to see Ray Lamontagne perform. With only his acoustic guitar in hand, he delivered a powerful performance. His first single "Trouble," is a fine representation of his singer/songwriter repertoire. This Maine native was obviously not dressed for a hot Texas day, yet he really did an awesome job. He reminds me of Dan Hill ("Sometimes When We Touch" -- 1978), with more emotion, and a more hearty vocal projection. I moved over to the BMI stage to see Trish Murphy. This Houston native has performed with many Austin musicians. Today, she showed a harder edge to promote her new CD "Girls Get In Free." My favorite on her CD is the mischievous "The Trouble With Trouble." "Thelma and Louise" has the same feel, while "Eternal Dream" and "St. Christopher" show her softer (sometimes spiritual) side. "Cowboy Man" is a Lyle Lovett song she sings with Bob Schneider -- this is one disc I really enjoy listening to! Her sassy, yet powerfully focused vocals set her apart from many local female artists. Trish, Patrice Pike, and Ginger Leigh returned recently from a tour of Italy. I saw them perform an acoustic set at "Love," an eclectic clothing store on south First in Austin. These three fine female artists have definitely made a positive impact on the Austin music scene.

After Trish's show, I wandered over to the Austin Ventures Stage to catch Bruce Robison. Bruce hails from Bandera, TX and has written several popular songs which have been recorded by other artists. Most notably, he co-wrote "Traveling Soldier" (with Farrah Braniff) which became a smash hit for the Dixie Chicks. He also penned "Desperately" for George Strait. My favorite of his is "What Would Willie Do?," Gary Allan had the most popular version of this tongue-in-cheek effort. Can't you just imagine Willie Nelson taking a deep breath, then another deep breath, etc…? Kelly Willis (Bruce's wife) joined him onstage for a couple of songs, along with their oldest son. Then, I decided to totally shift gears and head to the SBC Stage to see the Wailers. They put on an awesome show, closing with "Get Up, Stand Up," which should be a global anthem in my opinion. I went back to the Ventures Stage to listen to "long, tall" Marcia Ball. This blues singing/piano playing artist from the Orange, TX/Vinton, LA area had performed for free earlier in the summer at the Blues On The Green festival at the same spot. Just another event that helps keep Austin weird/unique! As I left the park, I was now fully cognizant of how Zilker Park was seething with spectators.

Sunday, I arrived in time to see Kelly Willis perform on the Cingular Stage. I didn't stay for the entire show, as I wanted to get a good spot for Mindy Smith at the Heineken Stage. Mindy showed how vivacious and improvised her performance was with a full band. She had played "Shady Grove" earlier this year for the "Unplugged at the Grove" concert series (every Thursday evening from April to September -- free of charge, sponsored by KGSR-FM). I caught the final few songs of Patrice Pike's show, after getting my Mindy Smith "One Moment More" CD signed by her at the Waterloo Records Festival Store. After Patrice closed with "Dragonfly," I realized that I needed a break from the heat. I found a spot in the shade, and relaxed for a while. Then, I set my sights on the Cingular Stage and Elvis Costello.

This was the show I had been looking forward to since the ACL schedule was announced. I had seen Elvis and the Attractions play some fifteen years ago at Liberty Lunch. Here is someone who cannot be easily classified or pigeonholed by today's music standards; yet, droves of fans fill his shows. During the encore, some Event Staff people pushed past me to someone who was recording the show (illegally) with a DAT recorder and a boom microphone held above the crowd. It only took a few minutes for Security to find him and confiscate his equipment -- busted!!!

I could have stayed for Wilco and Ben Harper, but I was done! If music is truly "food for the soul" as the late Ray Charles said, I was completely full! This Festival was a veritable smorgasbord of musical variety -- eclectic as hell, with an emphasis on raw talent. While commercial radio and the corporate music world may continue to dictate radio airplay to the masses, I am proud to live in a city which recognizes true talent. Ultimately, I believe that raw talent will prevail against corporate greed. I may be a bit idealistic in my assertions; however, I believe that the best musical talent is not "produced," it is "created" by musical craftsmen (and women). While the corporate interests of major record companies may disagree, they are merely trying to manipulate the music industry. In my opinion, if you allow the true artists to create -- and not just force production of music -- we all win! Then again, that may be a concept far too weird or unique for the corporate music world.