Live Review: Mars Volta, Vampire Weekend, and More from Austin City Limits

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Cedric Bixler of the Mars Volta / Photo by Chad Wadsworth
WRITTEN BY
Greta Salpeter

Austin City Limits hit the Lone Star State with a vengeance this weekend, and SPIN.com tapped the Hush Sound's Greta Salpeter to act as our eyes and ears on the festival grounds. Here, read Salpeter's take on sets from day one artists like Vampire Weekend, Stars, Mars Volta, and more, and check back to SPIN.com for her blogs from the rest of the event!

Vampire Weekend: As one of the first bands to kick off the festival, these Ivy League preppies delivered an enthusiastic and impressive live show with frontman Ezra Koenig's voice taking on a greater playfulness and wider emotional spectrum than on record. Many bands who explode at the 'speed of buzz' often fail to live up to expectations for a second record, but if Vampire Weekend's new song "White Sky" offers any hint of the material to come, we can look forward to a solid record with well-crafted songs, clever lyrics, and feel-good melodies.

Mars Volta: With their wandering solos and bursts of unfocused intensity, it seems that Mars Volta were aiming only to entertain themselves. They succeeded.

Delta Spirit: This SoCal quintet delivered their rambunctious, southern-tinged rock music to a few thousand mildly drunk, dehydrated, and slightly sunburned listeners, which would explain why it took a few songs before the crowd really got involved. When the band kicked into their third song, "People C'mon," singer Matthew Vasquez shook everyone awake with his near-scream vocals, shouting, "All you soul-searching people, c'mon!" The crowd rose from their sun-induced sleepiness and began clapping, dancing, and crying out with him. Throughout the rest of the show, Vasquez's vocals were delivered with such conviction and intensity that I wouldn't be surprised if he was spitting up blood for a few hours after leaving the stage.

Stars: Unfortunately, these Arts&Crafts songsters failed to deliver the same chemistry heard on their lush, eloquent records. The gigantic stage paired with an afternoon setting and an overwhelming crowd can take bands completely out of their element, but singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan can't blame those challenges for their lack of interaction throughout the set. Though their songs are well crafted, melodic, and refreshing, the same energy didn't transfer in the festival setting. Their hour-long set had beautiful moments, most notably on the songs in which Amy Millan's voice was given the spotlight. Unfortunately, though, her sweet crescendos tended to be drowned out by distorted synthesizer lines.

Neko Case: If you frequent Starbucks, you've probably seen a Neko Case quote printed on the back of your coffee cup. The quote reads, "Playing in an independent rock band will eventually make you equal parts truck driver, gladiator, and mule. Glamour is for kids with trust funds." Despite Case's exquisitely beautiful surface, her voice carries the strength and darkness hinting at all of those things. Case and her band have been touring on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood for two and a half years and their Austin City Limits set proved to be an amazing final show -- the band was playing tighter than ever and Case's vocals were gloriously highlighted, particularly in "Margaret vs. Pauline," "Hold On, Hold On," and "Maybe Sparrow."

Read about Swell Season, Jenny Lewis and Okkervil River on page 2.

The Swell Season: This endearing duo featuring Glen Hansard (the Frames) and Czeck singer/pianist Marketa Irglova garnered well deserved attention after the cult success of their movie, Once (2007). The pair sold out an ACL aftershow at the Paramount Theater and delivered a two-hour performance that was gorgeous, spontaneous, and full of humor and wit.

The sentimental songs written by the Swell Season could easily make for a show that is extravagantly emotional, but it was Hansard's charm that offered enough comedic relief between songs to keep the audience mesmerized. Hansard and Irglova's voices rose into swooping, harmonized crescendos and each note was perfectly dynamic and well executed. At times, the crowd chimed in and sang like angelic choir children. In between songs, however, the crowd was boisterous and energized, shouting opinions on the November election or asking Irglova to be their girlfriend.

M. Ward, Jenny Lewis, Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band: Hundreds of musicians at ACL seem to be reaching out to touch the hem of the garments of Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and many of the other country greats. Channeling this classic work into their own and delivering country-tinged songs with a new passion and inspired lyrical content, M. Ward, Jenny Lewis, and Conor Oberst are clearly the best and the brightest of the old-school worshippers.

M. Ward opened the show with an acoustic set. And with his smokey voice and multi-faceted guitar style, he delivered porch-side lullabies that eased everyone into a calm trance. Lewis followed, opening with the crowd rouser "Jack Killed Mom" and shaking things up with songs from her new record Acid Tongue. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band delivered what many fans within earshot called his "most memorable show ever," with songs almost solely off his new record, including "Souled Out" and "I Don't Want To Die (In The Hospital)." Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band performed with such sincerity and gratitude that each listener walked away feeling as if each song had been a private serenade.

Okkervil River: When Austin natives Okkervil River took the stage, they immediately engaged the crowd with their energetic, indie folk rock tunes. Singer Will Sheff delivered his inspired tales and even offered an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B" to the pleased crowd. Okkervil River is on the verge of mainstream success and if this show was any indication, they'll reach that destination soon.

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