In its third year, the ACL Music Festival continues to adjust to its massive popularity
In this era of misbegotten musical festivals, the rare successes seem to offer a clear message: Isolate a narrow, impassioned demographic and give them exactly what they want. It's a strategy that's worked with the Vans Warped Tour and Ozzfest, two summer traveling festivals that generate little hype but steady turnout, year after year.
The Austin City Limits Music Festival, however, goes out of its way to defy that logic. The 130 acts booked for this year's three-day Zilker Park blowout (September 17-19) wander all over the stylistic map. You get everything from the world-beat jams of Brooklyn's Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra to the contemporary jazz of the Earl Harvin Trio to the Latino cabaret of Calexico to the live-band hip-hop of the Roots to the Southern underground rock of My Morning Jacket. And that's just for starters.
What unites these seemingly incompatible acts is the aesthetic of Austin City Limits, the Austin-based televison series which is now entering its 30th season. Though the show built its reputation as a haven for the kind of maverick country artists who gravitated to Austin in the '70s (Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Martin Murphey, Asleep at the Wheel), it gradually grew into an all-encompassing celebration of live music. It's a measure of the show's current breadth that every act on the bill for the ACL festival has either performed on the TV show, or could easily be imagined doing so.
"When we build the concert, we definitely look for bands that would reflect the same idea that we see at the TV show," says Lindsey Tishgart, a festival spokeswoman. "We listen to the fans and respond to what they want, but almost every band that would play the festival you could visualize on the stage of that TV show."
The ACL festival began two years ago as a two-day event that drew an estimated 30,000 people per day. It expanded to three days last year, averaging slightly more than 50,000 fans each day. This year, festival organizers are expecting a sellout, translating to a turnout of more than 200,000 for the weekend (one-day tickets are $35, and three-day tickets are $80).
"The name of Austin City Limits was great to get it going in the beginning, because the show's attracted fans of all ages," Tishgart says. "Moving from there, a diverse lineup is definitely a key piece. It's kind of rare to be able to see all these musicians in the same park, performing together. I think we've also got a great ticket price for the value: 130 bands for what it would cost to see one concert."
The immediate success of the festival in 2002 came with a price, as logistical snafus suggested that organizers were not thoroughly prepared for the ramifications of a large-scale turnout. Shuttle buses couldn't keep up with demand, forcing many people to wait a couple of hours before they could catch a ride to the festival; will-call and ticket-purchasing lines merged into one sweltering herd; and mass starvation broke out at the overwhelmed food courts. While the festival addressed these problems last year, their new challenge is to adjust to crowds considerably larger than what they've seen up to this point.
But what ultimately keeps loyalists coming back is the well-chosen musical menu. This year's standouts are numerous, but here's a quick rundown of some must-sees. On Friday: Americana chanteuse Neko Case (4 p.m., Bank of America stage), soul heavyweight Solomon Burke (5 p.m., SBC), and Scottish dance-punks Franz Ferdinand (8 p.m., Bank of America ). On Saturday: jittery art songstress Cat Power (1 p.m., Cingular), gospel masters the Holmes Brothers (4:30 p.m., Capital Metro), ascendant indie-rock veterans Modest Mouse (5 p.m., Cingular) and, the festival's most anticipated performance, from the reunited Pixies (8:45 p.m., Cingular). On Sunday: country-gone-pop singer Shelby Lynne (2:30 p.m., Cingular), exuberant troubadour Ben Kweller (3:30 p.m., Bank of America), New Wave godfather Elvis Costello (4:30 p.m., Cingular), and avant-garde pop titans, Wilco (6:30 p.m., SBC).
"It's funny," Tishgart says, "even with 10 hours of music every day, our fans are definitely hungry for more. We have a few additional ones these year 'cause we've worked with some of the local music venues to give some of these bands extra time to play to their core fan groups."
It's enough to make you suspect that Austin may be the live music capital of the world after all. •