AUSTIN CITY (Austin City Music
Festival) - Not one act out of 68 truly triumphed at the debut Austin City Limits Music
Festival Saturday (Sept. 28) and Sunday (Sept. 29). Rather, consistency and quality seemed to be the bywords for most of the performances at this roots music-focused event at Austin, Texas' Zilker Park.
Americana was a major accent in the bookings, yet some of the movement's leading lights failed to fully connect. On Saturday, Wilco's set began with Yankee Foxtrot Hotel-style obliqueness and finally lifted with rockers like "End of the Century" and "Casino Queen." But since losing guitarist Jay Bennett and drummer Ken Coomer, the band now sounds like a merely good Jeff Tweedy Group rather than the mesmerizing, organic, and genuinely great band of yore.
Similarly, alt-country poster boy Ryan Adams went for the big rock moves. However, the impact of his songs was blunted by his band's sloppy excess, while his between song patter -- at one point he joked about being on acid -- came off as arch and silly. The Jayhawks, though, earned a blue ribbon with a late afternoon show that offered a perfect sunset vibe with spot-on harmonies and gentle, yet seductive grooves.
Sunday saw Austin's the Gourds win the day's most rousing response with their catchy bohemian hoedowns, while James McMurtry rocked surprisingly hard for a singer-songwriter, and Robert Earl Keen and his band made a warmly received surprise appearance.
In a lineup heavy with country-rock and folk-rock estrogen, Emmylou Harris was a genuine highlight with an exquisitely elegant Sunday performance augmented by a guest harmony turn from Patty Griffin and a song by band members Buddy and Julie Miller.
Other highlights included the following: Caitlin Cary exhibited a deft confidence that marked her as Americana's counterpart to folk-rock goddess Linda Thompson. Allison Moorer suffused her smart country with soulful richness, and Kelly Willis charmed with a stately grace. Gillian Welch and the alluring Griffin both imbued their sparse acoustic sounds with big stage impact. The highly touted Tift Merritt's sharp country-rock voice and songs never quite ignited, while a solo Shawn Colvin was so subdued she barely seemed present. Jack Ingram nailed down a tight, sharp, and potent performance that invited favorable comparisons with his obvious hero and onetime producer, Steve Earle. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama - with guest guitar stars John Hammond, David Lindley, and blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite - delivered their gospel funk and harmonies with such soul and spirit, despite an ailing member, even an atheist would feel saved. The ever-reliable Los Lobos served up their smart and mesmerizing Mexicali rock with rhythmic panache.
But, it was Saturday evening's performance of the String Cheese Incident that drew the biggest crowd of the weekend. One gaggle danced and twirled throughout the delightful jam and noodling. The event wrapped up Sunday night with a reunion of hometown faves the Arc Angels playing the hot guitar blues-rock that's an Austin trademark. But, both the band and the style sounded just a bit rusty.
The fest was Austin's initial bid to stage a Texan equivalent to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, as well as a stab at brand expansion by the long running Austin City Limits PBS concert show. Billed as "15 acres of music" (with very little shade from the blazing Texas sun), and drawing an estimated 40,000 people, it proved itself a contender thanks to top-notch sound and staging in an auspicious maiden voyage.