This year’s ACL Festival, I’m told, is sold out. That’s 60,000 watching 130 bands in perfect weather conditions. That’s 461 fans per band. That’s a good ratio, until you watch Manchester Orchestra play in front of an entire hillside full of people (probably 25,000+ people). Here’s our observations and thoughts after one and a half day’s worth of performances.
Robert Randolph & the Family Band
This guy is one of the best things to happen in rock music in the last decade. For those not in the know, a movement in the Pentecostal House of God church called “Sacred Steel” produced this guy and his talent. Fans of jam bands, Hendrix guitar wailing, Southern rock, blues and all things rock have gravitated towards this guy’s custom-built 13-string pedal steel guitar playing. He runs a rectangular piece of aluminum across those strings like a madman, kicking over his bench and dancing around the stage full of life. The guy always brings down the house and wows newcomers with his passionate delivery. Once again his Family band tore down the house.
They’re obviously not much of a rock and roll secret anymore. There was a packed tent (imagine the Encore One tent at Cornerstone, a big-top circus tent full of people) and there were at least another 3 tents full of people on the outskirts of that thing. Fortunately, there were not awnings dangling down on all three sides, which gave a nice view to those several feet away from the stage and outside of the tent. They roared through tunes like “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That” and “Dry Bones” to the delight of the crowd.
At one point late in the set Robert Randolph switched places with his cousin, bassist and part-time vocalist Danyel Morgan, and RR did a great job on the bass, too. Cousin Danyel ripped it up on the pedal steel guitar. Both guys are quite the showmen. The band earned an encore from the energetic crowd, most of which (at least the female persuasion) were swaying and dancin’ during the one-hour set.
This still-exploding alt-rock band played a rousing set. Four songs in they played a new one. The keyboard player, Chris Freeman, with his Apple notebook atop his keyboard and various and sundry percussion instruments, really gets into his performance, often sharing vocals and shaking noise-makers. The drummer really gets into his craft, too. The bassist, Jonathan Corley, and guitarist Robert McDowell share stage right and stay actively involved in the set, very much in the pocket, carrying the groove along with the drummer. McDowell often chimes in with a giant sleighbell-type shaker.
How do you like watching a big video screen at a massive outdoor show? When there’s tens of thousands sharing several acres of land at this massive park, it allows one to relax from a distance outside the crowd. Tons of people bring lawn chairs and umbrellas to shad themselves from the sunlight.It’s interesting how beautiful, panoramic shots of the artist in front of the crowd includes rows of porta-potties on the horizon. They’re uniform, but hardly beautiful.
Overheard at the festival: “We spent $120 on beer yesterday!”
Back to Manchester. Lots of staccato vocals as Andy Hull cries, “Have you seen my baby girl?” Then he sang about having “friends in all the right places” and about “finding your note in my grandfather’s coat.” Later he cried, “My God, my god, where have you been? …cuz I’ve killed myself to raise the dead … and only ended up joining them.” For the last song Hull crooned, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.
As was common in his sets dating back to Pedro the Lion, Bazan asked the crowd, “Anyone have any questions?” He answered some about not performing with mewithoutYou on their summer date and he laughingly explained how their setlist was carefully chosen by the band and encouraged us that we’d all enjoy their selection of songs. Their set of mellow but uptempo songs entertained the attentive crowd for 40 minutes.
This band of creative, secular artists are still growing their audience worldwide with each new release, exploring new territory in the arena, techno rock area akin to U2 and Coldplay, with recent grandiose nods to Queen. They found their identity after a couple albums that caught on in Europe (captured on the Hullaboo live DVD), then refined it with Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations (culminated on the incredible never-have-to-buy-another-DVD Haarp) and have since tried expanding it with The Resistance. The band knows how to put on a great live show – with lots of stunning well-edited video, some fun and quirky stage outfits and props (guitars with computer screens and a neon-lit keytar) and a dynamic setlist with plenty of peaks and well-timed valleys.
This 90-minute set closed out Saturday night’s festivities (opposite the British hip-hop stylings of M.I.A.) at the large Budweiser-sponsored stage at the East end of the park, flanked by trees. The crowd was dense for several hundred feet back, who could hear and see everything clearly thanks to a quality and massive sound system and two giant video screens. Matthew Bellamy busted out with a double-neck guitar for some jamming. At one point he segued out of a song into several measures of the old classic “House of the Rising Sun.” Other oddball riffs paid tribute to their British classic blues rock roots. After about 80 minutes they left the stage and the crowd brought them back for an encore that started with a nice melodic harmonica intro not too unlike Supertramp’s “Long Way Home.” The band busted into “Knights of Cydonia” and closed out the night with a huge burst of energy.
Ashley Cleveland & Kenny Greenberg
This wife & husband led team entertained a capacity crowd inside the Clear G4 Tent, which is about the sturdiest and well-put-together tents I’ve seen. “Most of my songs have a similar theme runnin’ through them,” Cleveland explains. “The first verse is usually about despair. Hopefully, by the end I get to hope,” she laughs and goes on to talk about being broken down and freedom. “I’ve come to the place in my life where I’m a little familiar with both.”
Later on she told a story about Blind Willie Johnson, explaining in unflinching detail about the raw and rough upbringing and life he had. “His life was very short, but he left a treasure of his music.” Without ever once seeming to bore the audience with too much talking, she charmed the audience with lots of background information on songs. The band’s driver explained how Austin had American Idol in town at the same time, so it was really happening now. She laughed about the popular talent show had touched their lives personally. One of the finalists (Nadia) had performed one of their songs. When her family was watching the show with that performance, “My kids looked at me, then back at the tv, then back at me, then back at the tv. It was one of those moments, where a light came on and they realized, ‘Mom has something going on … other than the laundry!’
They rocked things up a bit with the tune “Power of Love.” Her husband, Kenny Greenberg, stole several minutes of the show away from his wife with his hotdog and splendid lead guitar playing. Another touching story introduced a song they performed that was written by Thomas Dorsey. “Not to be confused with (trumpet player) Tommy Dorsey,” she added, “he developed what was known as the ‘Dorsey Bounce.'” She explained that he felt called to give up his career and write only Gospel songs. “He wrote a canon of Gospel songs. Martin Luther King Jr was a big fan and, whenever he would speak somewhere, he would insist that this song of Dorsey’s be played. Dorsey lost his wife and child during childbirth – effectively losing his entire family in an instant. This put him in a dark hole for a long time and finally one day he sat down at the piano, which had been a place of solace and refuge for him. There was no song inside of him at this moment, though, so he hung his head on the keys and wept. Then God gave him this song (“Precious Lord”). It lifted him up. My friends, that is the power of music and that, I believe, is also the power of God.” She sang the words of a song that became a centerpiece of the Civil Rights movement: Precious Lord, take my hand Lean me on…” They played another cover, written by Earl King, “which was immortalized by Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland” (Come On, Let the Good Times Roll”). They played yet another cover (a song written by singer/songwriter named John Hiatt, who she mentioned was an employer of hers) about “…ain’t no strings riding with the king…” and she added some spoken-over-the-subtle-beat words during a bridge. “I needed a king to bind up this broken heart… I need a king to play me a song I ain’t never heard before and then teach me how to sing it.” It was another great performance by this rock and roll and blues veteran. It satisfied those familiar with her skills and voice and was enough to win over a “newbie” that’d never heard her craft before.
[more review and photos in this post]
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