Austin City Limits Music Festival

Review Date September 16-18, 2011

Review By Brian T. Atkinson

Location Zilker Park, Austin, TX

“I was making my set list this morning and thought: “Let’s start this thing the right way,’ Brandi Carlile announced early Friday afternoon. She did. The current Seattle resident’s fiery originals (Closer To You, Dreams) and furious covers (the Johnny Cash medley Jackson/Ring of Fire) provided the tenth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival’s earliest highlights. Carlile’s heart (the brand-new hill country clap-along Keep Your Heart Young) and hunger (the rambunctious Raise Hell) positively elevated the AMD stage, exponentially growing her crowd by the minute. New fans down front gleefully celebrated their discovery. Established enthusiasts grinned openly. The 30-year-old singer-songwriter’s outsize personality and rapidly expanding audience deftly mirrored this festival itself. After all, ACL sold out again this year before the line-up-a beefy all-genres collective ultimately stronger than most years-was even announced. Key recent addition: Additional nighttime gigs by select bands at downtown Austin venues. That wise approach augments the gathering without further crowding the grounds. “They could have a bigger festival if they had a bigger venue, but I think part of [the charm] is that it’s all there within 10 steps,” Asleep at the Wheel front man Ray Benson told me before Carlile’s set. “[Promoter] C3 has been really generous in allowing after shows without paranoia most have about them cannibalising their festival.” For the tenth straight year, Benson’s band (an outfit that turned 40 last year) launched the weekend with buoyant western swing. “You’ve got to have some sort of tradition,” Benson said, laughing. “We’ve created a really cool following [even though] we’re not the kind of band that they book on this festival, period. It’s mostly headline acts and alternative stuff. They do very little country music, so it’s really an honour for Asleep at the Wheel.” The Wheel and Carlile might’ve been country music’s beginning and end on Friday, but scattershot sets throughout the weekend scored high points across the board and proved ACL’s best country music line-up in years. Saturday, effectively ladies day with stunning sets by Alison Krauss and Union Station, Gillian Welch and the Court Yard Hounds, was worth ticket price alone. Sunday, which included excellent turns by Oscar-winning songwriters Ryan Bingham and Randy Newman, doubled down immediately. Only problematic scheduling stifled this from being ACL’s overall best showing: Krauss was pitted against the compelling Abigail Washburn, Newman played alongside skyrocketing local Hayes Carll, headliner Stevie Wonder drew significantly from My Morning Jacket’s crowd. Several attendees passionately voiced disapproval at like-minded acts competing for attention. No matter. Jack Ingram delivered good news Sunday afternoon. “I’m Jack Ingram and I play country music!’ the 40-year-old mainstream hit-maker proclaimed with decided joy inside the gospel tent. Ingram’s equal measures past (Biloxi, the Todd Snider co-write Barbie Doll) and present (Keep On Keepin’ On, a brand-new song probably titled Religiously) marked the weekend’s purest honky-tonk moment. Ingram drove home the point as he introduced Jonesin’ for Haggard: “Do you want to hear a country song? This is about drinking, cheating, George Jones, Merle Haggard and my hero, Willie Nelson.’ Meanwhile, Carll, whose seamless newest album KMAG YOYO shows his peak form, undeniably offered ACL’s most diverse set, effortlessly matching country (Chances Are, Bottle In My Hand) with folk (the Guy Clark co-write Rivertown) and rock (KMAG YOYO, Trouble in Mind). Now, talk about growth: Seven years ago, Carll was playing a sleepy afternoon set during this festival-at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels (nearly an hour south). This year he closed out the Austin Ventures stage with thousands frantically cheering every lyric. Perhaps Carll’s ascent reflects the festival’s arc even better than Carlile does. Either way, as Benson noted: “they’re doing something right.”

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