In case you've never listened to a lot of excellent bands in the most ridiculously sloppy and swamp-like conditions imaginable, the experience at this year's Austin City Limits Festival provides a good hint as to what you've missed. With a lineup headlined by Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Kings of Leon, John Legend, the Dead Weather, the B-52s, and Flogging Molly, this year's ACL was a success, despite the mud stew that became Austin's city-central Zilker Park.
Here are our picks of the festival's best and worst moments:
BEST SNEAK ATTACK THE WALKMEN
The Walkmen are easy to take for granted-they've been around for a while, they're always steady, they've wandered along the edge of a mainstream breakthrough but have never quite gotten there...all that stuff makes it easy not to recognize that, in fact, they're better than ever.Led by the ferocious Hamilton Leithauser, whose full effort vocals justify his well-documented bulging neck vein, the band is a bounty of mature talent and workmanlike execution-for skill and songcraft, this was a win. For this particular show, they played some in-progress tunes, favorites from their past, and a slew from last year's acclaimed You & Me, including an intense version of "Canadian Girl."But, really, it was the one-two punch of "The Rat" and "In the New Year" that truly stood out. To wit: About six hours after it was over, a man exiting the festival was singing, at the top of his lungs, the chorus from "The Rat."
BEST '60S REDUX DR. DOG
Donning their Beatles influence without a bit of apology, this Philly outfit's retro harmonies, plinking keys, raw-voiced vocals, and occasional power chord don't make you think much, but they do keep everyone in a good mood. Nothing new under the sun, but for this pop-hungry crowd looking for a feel-good set, that didn't matter.
THE ROKY ERIKSON AWARD FOR BELOVED, DISTURBED LOCAL HERO CURRENTLY IN A GOOD PLACE DANIEL JOHNSTON
It was odd to see so many college students cheering on a pot-bellied gray-hair mumbling stage banter and singing odd ditties from as far back as his 1981 debut. But all those students were duly rewarded, as Johnston's lovably off-kilter love songs ranged from super-spare to full band, and, really, something just felt right about the whole thing.
BEST JUSTIFICATION FOR WINNING AN ARMFUL OF GRAMMYS JOHN LEGEND
Legend got the crowd revved up with a stunning, touching early-set rendition of "Redemption Song." Effortlessly connecting with the audience, the dynamic and engaging Legend made use of his slick band, horn section included, to rattle off a collection of his best-loved tunes. A highlight was his utterly amazing backup singers, whose three-deep vocals and silky, Supremes-inspired dance moves kept everyone in the flow. The only downside: The sun was not quite down, and this was a show made for the dark.
BEST GRADUATION INTO FULL-BLOWN SUPERSTARDOM KINGS OF LEON
Many in the crowd remembered Kings of Leon's last ACL performance a couple years ago -- it was actually possible to walk up during their show and find a nice place to stand. My, how things have changed. Now there is no doubt that Kings of Leon have grown into full-fledged rock superheroes, and have the toys to prove it. Using multiple projection screens to showcase their made-for-arena sound, Kings of Leon played all the favorites, from "Molly's Chambers" and "Taper Jean Girl" to "Crawl" and "Sex on Fire.In the end, even those who hadn't yet been won over had to respect their improved chops, as they made it clear the Kings are one of a dying breed: true-to-life rock stars unafraid of embracing the brazenness of the role.
BEST OF THE NEW BANDS ALBERTA CROSS
Unafraid to use good old-fashioned guitar solos and thundering bass to fuel their songs, the band did well with their crowd- after all, one of their featured new tunes is called "ATX," a nod to the city where they recorded their debut album, Broken Side of Time. But the undeniable highlight was a gospel-tinged clap-along, "Rise From the Shadows," in which Stakee's reverbed wails rang through the sky. Although much of the crowd seemed to have just rolled out of bed, there was a sense of potential in the air, as if this band is at the beginning of something big.
BEST ANTIDOTE TO CRAPPY WEATHER - !!!
Saturday's dreary constant drizzle never erupted into the fuck-it-all downpour that tends to galvanize festival crowds-goofy dance-rockers !!!, led by sweat-soaked Nic Offer, proved the perfect mood-lifter. Showing off a wide variety of instruments -- dueling tambourines, a saxophone with echo effects -- and a hyperkinetic stage presence, Offer announced that !!!'s music is usually "moody nightclub music," and that we should all close our eyes to imagine that. That's how you distract a crowd from shitty weather convince them they're indoors.
SECOND-BEST ANTIDOTE TO CRAPPY WEATHER FLOGGING MOLLY
Flogging Molly did what Flogging Molly does best: super high energy Irish-infused punk rock. While there were more than a few skeptics in the crowd wondering whether a niche-based act more than a decade into their career could still bring it, the mosh pit that started near the stage was ample proof that they could. Dave King and crew played a mix of hits from their increasingly thick back catalog, as well as a handful of tunes from their newest album, Float, which reached as high as #4 on the Billboard chart. While the weather at this point was drizzly at best and utterly terrible at worst, Flogging Molly was the perfect elixir to get through it-something completely impossible to frown about.
WORST ANTIDOTE TO CRAPPY WEATHER MOS DEF
After being rained on for hours, a massive audience was buzzing with anticipation for Mos Def, and then they waited...and waited...and waited. When he took the stage, 23 minutes late for a one hour time slot, the crowd was tense and ready to be angry-at that point, it didn't even matter that the tardiness due to the rain, not the artist. So when Mos Def started his set very slow, with him pounding on the drums and using only occasional vocals, the exodus in the crowd began. That the performance picked up impressively after this slow start, turned out to have been beside the point.
BEST CIRCUS ACT DEVOTCHKA
Not only are DeVotchKa four skilled instrumentalists -- everything from tuba to accordion to trumpet to theremin gets a try -- they also have a knack for playing to the crowd. In this hourlong set on the tent stage (a bonus, considering the rain), the Denver quartet wowed an eager audience into clapping and dancing, and shocked everyone when they brought out a pint-sized, scantily clad acrobat to perform feats of derring-do on curtains 15 feet above the stage.
WORST JOB SELLING THE NEW TUNES - DAVE MATTHEWS BAND
It's hard not to like Dave Matthews -- he's always stayed true to the composition of his band, commercial prospects of violin solos be damned, he's survived the tragic loss of beloved founding member LeRoi Moore, and has some great songs to boot. But despite his charm and grace and stoner-friendly light show, he couldn't get the crowd to show as much interest in new hits like "Why I Am" as in moldy oldies like "Crash Into Me."
BEST SOUL EXPLOSION BLACK JOE LEWIS AND THE HONEYBEARS
Playing all their best loved tunes and investing the early-afternoon set with nighttime-level passion, local fave Lewis shouted and wailed his way, like a certain James Brown before him, into the hearts of his crowd. If there was any doubt he was a fine choice to get the Sunday vibe going in the right direction, see the foot-stomping madness of the performance, and the coordinated horn choreography of his talented band.
BEST GRADUATION FROM BEDROOMS TO FESTIVAL STAGE HERE WE GO MAGIC
Here We Go Magic continued their evolution from the looped bedroom psychedelia of founding member Luke Temple to multi-faceted full-fledged band.The good news is that their new songs are more suited to a festival show-more bombast, more rocking out, less repetition-while the bad news is that much of the tenderness that made their album a minor sensation gets a bit lost.
BEST YOUTH TONIC THE B-52S
In the wake of the Athens new-wave legends' Sunday afternoon hit parade, the consensus opinion seemed to be that that they sounded great and were in good humor. Introducing "Love Shack" saying, "We learned this at karaoke," the song triggered a mass cross-generational singalong. Less ubiquitous tunes were interspersed with instantly recognizable classics such as "My Own Private Idaho" and the Family Guy-approved "Rock Lobster."
BEST SURE-LET'S-CALL-IT-A-COMEBACK PEARL JAM
Forget all the whispers that Pearl Jam had gotten stale, that Eddie Vedder didn't have it anymore, that they couldn't keep up with the U2s and Coldplays of the world. Using the rousing Backspacer tunes as a jumping-off point, abetted by a string of hits ranging from "Daughter" to "Given to Fly"-the two hour set was a career-spanning sprawl of energetic astonishment. Every time the engaging Vedder said something to the crowd, they burst into appreciation, and every time the crowd went mad, his band flexed their muscles further. The near-end of the show itself was a particular stunner, as Perry Farrell joined Vedder and crew on stage for a knockout version of Jane Addiction's "Mountain Song," followed by their well-worn cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."And really, what better way to end an amazing three days?