Okay here we go. We’ll start with the city…
Michael. Everything you said about Austin is true, and then some. What a lovely city. The first thing you notice is how clean it is. And as much as they may not want to admit it, it has a lot of California in it. They have signs that say, “Keep Austin Weird” (I thought we were the weird ones?). People jog there. Lots of people jog there. There is as much music there as L.A. Replace the beach with the lake/river and you’re half way there. Everyone we met was very friendly. Even the wasted kids (sorry, young almost adults) who knew every word Ryan Adams sang, were friendly. We walked back to our hotel at 3am from 6th St. (the main music area) on Thursday night without a worry in the world.
Somehow we picked the perfect hotel. Yes, I know the Driskill is a beautiful hotel, and right in the middle of 6th St. But, the Hyatt Regency is along the street where the festival was held (I believe it turned out to be the closest hotel to the festival), it has great fajitas, and if you see a picture of the Austin skyline at night, chances are it was taken from that hotel (I bought a magnet that had the exact same view our hotel room did… uhmmm, we had the view and a couch, but Deb got the coffee maker in her room… minus the view and the couch). Oh, and next time your order a margarita, ask them to throw a little cranberry juice in. It was real good.
6th St., how do I describe 6th St? The music never ends. It is wall to wall bars with music, most of it live, blaring out at you as you walk by. And when you come up for air and need to eat, you can wander over to places like Stubbs; that not only serves good food, but has a club downstairs and an amphitheatre in their backyard (Better than Ezra was playing Friday night as we walked by).
After checking out the bats (very cool thing you must do when in Austin) we went downtown for some food before the private show by Bob Schneider. We were planning to go to Iron Works but they closed at 9pm (in a town that parties till 2 or 3am, and this place is closed at 9pm… go figure). No problem. We walked up the street to Stubbs and had some excellent sausages and some okay BBQ Beef. Then we wandered through 6th St. then cross town to Momo’s. Momo’s is a very cool club that sits on top of a deli (I’ve been told not to eat there). Upstairs, there is a small room with an even smaller stage. At the back of the room, well, there is no back actually. The back wall was replaced with a large outdoor patio with a speaker system, so you can hear the band play. We kicked back on the patio, drank some beer and tequila and watched Bob’s bass player, Bruce do a solo acoustic set. I enjoyed the music (although I couldn’t really hear the lyrics). It was as good as most opening acts you’re gonna hear in Hollywood. About midnight, Bob and his band show up. We found a nice spot about 20 feet from the stage. Before going on, I should explain that this crowd (most of whom are in their 20s) was exclusively members of the lonelyland Yahoo group and their guests. These were diehard fans that have seen Bob dozens, maybe hundreds of times. What they wanted, and what they got, was a set of rare classics. Could you image seeing a Springsteen show where he only played songs you rarely ever heard him perform? That’s what this was like. 1 song from his Lonelyland CD, Tarantula (because an out-of-towner requested it) and then lots of Scab’s songs (one of Bob’s other bands… they generally play funky material), and Ugly American songs (an old band of his that I believe is no longer), plus new material that hasn’t been released yet. It was a pretty amazing set; one that I’ll never see the likes of again. The crowd… hmmm… well, we had a $12 minimum for drinks to cover costs. They had no problem covering it. One of the guys who video taped it, spent half the evening throwing up in the trash can next to us. So, the crowd had a lot of fun. The group leader, Brian, even ended up on stage singing his favorite song, “Big Sunshine” with the band. Bob played till 2:30 in the morning then hung around signing autographs (somehow I didn’t notice until after I walked away from the CD table). Many of the people ended up wandering out of there about 4 or 5 am. Did I mention it was a Thursday night?
We skipped breakfast (didn’t seem right at noon when we woke up), and headed downtown again (all of this on foot by the way). After some good Tex-Mex food, we walked to Waterloo Records, THE CD store in Austin. I had lots of fun trying out the CDs they recommended and ended up with a Joe Bonamassa CD, the new Paul Thorn, and a hard to find Don Ellis CD, along with more Scabs and Ugly American CDs. Hmmm, have I mentioned that the “we” is me and my girlfriend Beth? Okay, so where was I? Oh yes. Next up was a pilgrimage to the Stevie Ray Vaughn statue. He had really big feet. Or maybe it was just larger than life. Just before dinner we met up with Deb. Linda, who was supposed to join us, had been sick the previous week and had to back out at the last minute. The three of us had our last drinks before the festival, saw the bats, and then made it to the Iron Works this time (real good ribs). We wandered around 6th Street again, but in a rare moment of clarity, we decided to get to bed at a decent hour so that we weren’t too worn out for the next day.
Okay, I need to take a break. Next up will be the ACL festival.
And the story continues…
ACL Festival Day 1 (Saturday)
After an early breakfast, Beth, Deb and I walked the mile and a half to the front gate where a few hundred people were gathered waiting for the gates to open. We had an hour to kill before the music started, so we checked out t-shirts at the Waterloo Records store inside the festival and then did some shopping on their re-creation of Congress Ave. Beth, who was determined to pace herself, sat under a tree behind the Heritage Stage, while Deb and I went front and center to watch Grupo Fantasma.
If 103.1 had been replaced by Spanish language music like Grupo Fantasma, I might have hung around to listen. True to the Austin sprit, they were a combination of several sounds, starting with a Latin rhythm, they ventured off into funk, rap, and rock sometimes all within the same song. Their horn section was hot, and you just couldn’t help tapping your feet and grooving to the tunes. Although the lead singer obviously spoke perfect English, they had no desire to sing in English, with the exception of one song where suddenly the whole band yelled “Oh my God”. It was the perfect opening act for us.
After a quick meal of BBQ and sausages, we had our first tough choice to make: Los Lobos or Gillian Welch. Since Los Lobos tours a lot, we opted for Gillian. Accompanied only by her musical partner (sorry, I can’t remember his name), Gillian gave us a beautiful hour of music. Her music is so real, and her voice so sincere. My understanding is that her set was very much like what you would get if you saw her in a club. Being up near the stage (although way to the side), that was just fine with us. It may have been too mellow, at least for the local reviewer, though, if you were way back on the lawn. And, I mean way back. There were easily a couple of thousand people spread out on the lawn to watch her. It was then that we realized that we had more hard choices to make. If we wanted to be close to the stage, we were going to have to miss other shows we wanted to see and get to the stage we wanted early. We quickly figured out that if we headed for the front of the stage, just as another act was ending, we could get right up front for the act we came to see. Unfortunately, that meant sitting for an hour in the sun waiting. We opted for quality over quantity, and as soon as Gillian finished, we slipped past the outgoing crowd and ended up at the front of the barrier to the stage, at almost center, and waited for Patty Griffin.
Again, another tough choice: Patty or Wilco. All of us just love Patty too much to miss this opportunity, so, Patty it was. Patty came out just as the sun was starting to set behind her. Her red hair appeared to almost be on fire as the sun bounced off of it. This site was followed up by the magic of her voice and, of course, her music. Doing a set that was very typical of her current tour, she touched on each of her CDs, including the unreleased, “Silver Bell”, but focusing mainly on her current CD, “1000 Kisses”. Again, perfect for the festival, she finished her 1 hour show with the title track from “1000 Kisses”, which is sung in Spanish.
Okay, how am I doing so far? Too long winded for you guys? Do you want me to continue?
Oops, I missed an act. After Grupo Fantasma we headed over to see The Blind Boys of Alabama (maybe the only people at the show older than us J ). They were amazing, except for their hack band, “Spirit of the Century”, who included a guitar player named John Hammond, a harmonica player named Charlie Musclewhite, and the slide player David Lindley. Yes, I’m just kidding about the “hack” comment. The highlight of the show had to be a “Twist and Shout” styled version of “If I had a Hammer”, during which the lead singer kept repeating to the crowd, “I can’t see you, I need to hear you”, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. I’m almost ready to convert. They were that good. It was after that we eat and then saw Gillian.
ACL Festival Day 1 Continued…
After watching Patty Griffin perform, we split up. Deb went to see the Jayhawks (Deb, you’ll need to fill in everyone on that show) and Beth and I went for Patty’s autograph. This led to one of my favorite moments of the weekend. I handed Patty a replica of the CD cover for Silver Bell, her unreleased CD from 2000. I was a little nervous because I wasn’t sure if she was going to sign it since it was a bootleg. She started to sign it, then suddenly realized what she was signing and moved her hands away to get a better look. “Oh wow!” she said, smiled and signed it.
We caught the end of the Jayhawks show from behind the stage under the big oak tree (it was almost 7 o’clock and I figured I was due for some shade… uhmm and actually I have no idea what kind of tree it was). As the show ended we slipped right up to the front; dead center. There was no barrier at this stage, so we were actually leaning against the stage while we waited for our second chance to see Bob Schneider (it was Deb’s first ever and she loved him) that weekend. Bob was only scheduled to do 45 minutes (I have no clue how that happened, but it was one of the bigger mistakes of the weekend) and he actually barely did 40 minutes. I noticed a clock on stage that was about 5 minutes fast. That may have had something to do with it. Anyway, Bob ripped through about half a dozen songs from his Lonelyland CD. The highlight for me was that he had his horn section from the Scabs there to back him up on a few of the songs. That was the first time I’ve seen him with horns. He closed his show with Tarantula, his big sing-along song. It was great hearing a few thousand people screaming “Tarantula” at the top of their lungs. During the final instrumental passage, Bob went to the back of the stage where hundreds of people were watching and started pulling women up on stage. Then he went to the front of the stage and started pulling women up on the stage. Then women started jumping on to the stage. When they finally started in on the last chorus, the entire stage was completely filled with people. And we were all singing “Tarantula” and we were all going crazy.
After Bob’s show, we dragged ourselves over to the food area for a quick bite and then we walked over to where String Cheese Incident was playing. We didn’t have to walk far, because the field was packed. So, way back, miles from the stage, we set up our little portable chairs and listened. After about 30 minutes we came to a few conclusions: 1) There must have been a 5 song minimum for acts performing because SCI was scheduled to play for 2 and a half hours and in our half hour they had only performed 2 songs, 2) They reminded us very much of The Dead, without Jerry Garcia, and 3) We were tired and without Jerry, it just wasn’t worth it. We got up and walked back to the hotel.
ACL Festival Day 2 (Sunday)
We started the day, tired, sore, but wiser. We walked all the way to the front door of the hotel and then hailed a cab. J Once we got to the festival, we split up. Deb wanted to see Kelly Willis (that’s your queue Deb) and Beth and I decided to watch Allison Moorer. You may not know who Allison is, but you do know her sister; Shelby Lynne. Both are beautiful, inside and out. Allison, strumming an electric guitar for most of the show, performed very enjoyable country/country rock music. It was a nice way to start the afternoon.
Beth and I then crossed the park and caught the end of Kelly’s show. The heat was already pounding on us and Beth decided that she was going to find shade and listen to Shawn Colvin from a distance. Once again Deb and I were right up front. While we waited and chatted with the people around us, the sun beat down on us. Beth, the smart one was still in the shade when Shawn came out. Because she did not have a band, your really needed to get up close to enjoy the show. Luckily, about the time Shawn hit the stage, the sun went behind the canopy that covered the stage. Beth ended up about 10 feet away from us for most of the show. As for Shawn, it was a typical performance: A couple of stories, a nice selection of songs, her daughter and niece got up on stage and danced to one of her songs (okay that isn’t that typical), and then it was over. Or was it? They had set up for a band and we were all excited because Shawn hasn’t performed with a band in years. Instead of saying goodbye, Shawn introduced Robert Earl Keen. Keen, for those who don’t know, is a Texas legend, and the crowd went crazy when he came on stage. Shawn sang with him and his band for one song and then left the stage for his country rockin’ music.
We hung around to watch most of Keen’s show, but Shawn was signing autographs and, one of us just had to have one. Okay, all of us wanted to meet her, but my understanding is that if something happens to Beth’s picture of Shawn and Deb, we’re in deep trouble.
The good thing about eating lunch at 4:30 is that the lines are only 10 minutes long. If you’re ever in Austin, you must try Amy’s ice cream. Very creamy and very good: Especially when it’s in the mid 90’s and there is no relief in sight. Up next, the act Beth had been waiting for all weekend.
In order to get anywhere near the stage for Ryan Adams, we had to endure G-Love & Special Sauce: A rap/funk/rock outfit with an emphasis on rap. They weren’t our cup of tea, and so, I’ll just leave it at that. After G finished we were able to move up, but only to the side of the stage, just short of the barrier. This was the feature stage and the crowd was already packing in around us. So, for the next hour we had to endure the sun, a tight crowd, young kids (okay, maybe not kids, college students maybe) smoking all around us, and rap music pounding out of the speakers right next to us. It was all worth it as Ryan Adams proved that he knew how to play to a big crowd. Sticking mainly to music from his Gold CD, Ryan rocked hard throughout most of his 1 hour set. It was only fitting that near the end of the set he covered the Stones, “Brown Sugar”. What amazed us about the show wasn’t Ryan as much as it was the crowd. These youngsters were singing along with all of the songs. Beth found it impressive that they all knew the lyrics to “Brown Sugar” too.
That was enough for Beth, who walked, yes walked, back to the hotel. Deb and I hung around to see the Arc Angels. Again, for those of you who don’t know, here is a bit of history from artistdirect.com:
The tragedy was the August 1990 helicopter crash that killed the great blues rocker Vaughan, for whom drummer Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon were the highly-respected veteran rhythm section of his band, Double Trouble. The miracle is Arc Angels, a revved-up roadhouse rock outfit featuring two young guns -- co-lead singers, co-lead guitarists and co-songwriters Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton, a pair of 23-year-olds whose musical reputations are already renowned -- plus Layton and Shannon.
This was their second reunion since breaking up. Deb and I had never heard their music, so we had no idea what we were in for. What we got was hard rocking, but very accessible music. It was a fine way to close the festival. Oh, and for you bike fans, Lance Armstrong introduced the band (will this start another thread, like the bats?). He said, “Their name may be Angels, but they sure aren’t”.
So, Deb and I caught a cab back to the hotel, and the three of us had a big plate of “world famous” fajitas. In the morning, the dream was over, and it was time to go home.
I can’t even begin to express to you how much fun I had in Austin. It may have been one of my best vacations ever. And still, there was so much I missed. With all of the great performances we saw, there were nearly as many that we missed, including: Los Lobos, Wilco, Joe Bonamassa, Caitlin Cary, Emmylou Harris, Luna, Monte Montgomery, James McMurtry and The Gourds. And then there were all the bars we never got into. And I missed seeing the Scabs by a week. And…