WORDS: Q Manning

Day Three started with a wish: please, keep the rain away. The Alamo Drafthouse had just hosted the best film festival ever, its annual Fantastic Fest, and Paul, like many of the attendees, had been struck by the dreaded “fantasticFlu.” This left me as the sole photographer. The forecast dictated a 94% chance of rain and cloudy all day.

Nevertheless, I grabbed my cowboy hat, threw on a funny t-shirt and got on the shuttle. There was some mix-up at the festival that morning and the lines to enter reached past the entrance, into the main road as staffers tried to check everyone’s bags. All of this is funny when you consider that no matter what band or what stage your at, it’s usually no more than 10 minutes before the smell of marijuana comes wafting toward you. Staffers seemed more worried about recording equipment and having a drink from outside the grounds than illegal substances or weapons.

Once inside, the havoc from the day before is evident. The grass is there, but smelly, creamy mud is oozing off every blade. Temporary rivers of stagnant water separated the stage areas and the Parks Foundation had done their best to create walkways to protect us all. As the day wore on, it was clear there was no stopping the mud-storm that was approaching.

I made my way over to the XBOX360 stage to see Suckers live. A few fans were already lined up against the metal fence, umbrellas overhead, texting and tweeting their little heart outs while they could. At ACL, you learn pretty quick your 3Gs and cell connections will be useless once the crowd hits.

I asked a few of the people there if they were fans of the band, most weren’t, they just loved the name or had heard a song or two during their rudimentary ACL research. Lucky for me, at this time of morning, getting to the front was no problem and I hoped it would bode well for the rest of the day.

Pan, the bassist and co-vocalist, was the first member of the band to appear on stage, sporting red-framed sunglasses. The now-impressive crowd cheered as they launched into their unique style of music – a mixture of Depeche Mode, They Might Be Giants and the Pixies, though the band doesn’t cite any of these as their influences. The guys, Brian Aiken on drums, Austin Fisher on keyboard and guitar and Quinn Walker on guitar, took ACL by storm and seemed to convert the crowd into followers.

After Suckers was the band The DoDos all the way on the “other side of the world” at the Livestrong Stage. As I crossed, it was apparent the park wouldn’t survive the day. The small mounts of mud beneath the surface had bubbled up and now there was a huge, sticky sea of smelly, pure-brown slosh. Apparently this was a mixture of sewage, fertilizer and mud, which made it all the more amusing to see people purposefully writing words, drawing symbols, or even rolling around in it.

By the end of the night, even Eddie Vedder would be covered.

The DoDos’ stage was packed. As I mentioned the other day, if you don’t have a PHOTO wristband, you’re forced to fight the crowd to see your favorite band. So this means pushing through thousands of people. Not just into the group, but to try and get up front, against the fence. Say what you want about Southern hospitality, but folks don’t want you coming in or out of these groups. But you take a deep breath and rock it.

The DoDos were great, though, and made my travails all worth it. With few exceptions, most bands simply rocked out sonically, but kept the stage antics subdued. DoDos’ frontman Meric Long, had energy to spare. The DoDos play a great brand of indie music that’s original but still catchy as hell. These guys know how to put a song together. When they launched into “Fools,” with it’s drum/guitar call & response, the crowd was bobbing and swaying with every tribal beat of this non-stop percussion. I’m one of thousands of new fans The DoDos made that day.

Then it was across the world once more for The B-52s.

By this time, just getting from one stage to another was dangerous. The mud was so slick and slimy that each step felt like walking on ice. I apologize to the many people I grabbed onto as I made my way across. Without them, I’d have face-planted countless times.

What to say about The B-52s? These guys have been going since the year I was born – 1976 – and that’s a long time to be rocking the world with over-the-top pop-rock. Hell, by this point, their music is novelty-rock, but enjoyable. Like any Christmas song or anthem you hear at a sporting event, the songs are always entertaining, always fun, and everyone loves them. Do the B-52s look their age? Absolutely. Only Kate Pierson looks younger than she should, but Cindy Wilson and Fred Schneider are feeling time.

During the classic “Rock Lobster,” only a short time into the set, Fred was already panting and taking deep breaths so he could move through the group’s well known dance moves. Yet, while their faces may be losing the battle with time, their voices and enthusiasm isn’t. The B-52s sounded as good as they ever have and even in the humid Austin heat, they kept up their dancing and moving. When my favorite B-52s song, “Roam” started, I got goosebumps. What more could you want?

And back through the mud, the muck, the people to the media area where I was set to interview The DoDo’s. After hearing that set, I couldn’t wait to talk to them, get to know more about the band on a personal basis, but unfortunately, the schedule had gotten messed up and our interview had to be canceled. I just took it as a sign to take a nice respite with some back support and looked through my photos.

I took a deep breath and went back across the sea of muck and crud to finally see modern-classic band, The Toadies, rock ACL. You know you’re going to wait forever to hear that one song every band seems to be built on. Such was the case with The Toadies and I knew I wouldn’t get the chance to hear “Possum Kingdom.” I later found out it played second to last on the set. Yet, I’ll say the Toadies did everyone a favor and started with the fantastic “I Come from the Water.” As soon as the first notes hit the air, the audience erupted and everyone was singing along. My place in the crowd was decent enough, but I’d made the tactical error of choosing Stage Left to set up shop. This is where the massive jib-arm had been set up and though I was close enough to get some decent shots of frontman Todd Lewis, most photos have an impressive huge mechanical arm in them.

Passion Pit was next on the docket. Passion Pit did something that hasn’t happened since The Postal Service – made me like electronic music. These 5 guys from Cambridge play electronica like most bands play rock & roll. If you haven’t heard them, it’s hard to explain. You can check them out on the web and fall in love with them within minutes. As I looked around the crowd around me, I realized two things: first, I wasn’t going to get any photos with this dancing and jumping and second, the vast majority of passion pit fans seem to be either at the end of high school or just starting college. I’d seen teenagers at all of the other stages, but most of this crowd was under 20 years of age.

I decided it was time to make sure I got some great photos of the band and so I headed over to see Dan Auerbach early. When I got there, Raul Malo and his stellar band were knocking out the salsa-riffic beats, much to the enjoyment of the many crowd members dancing around in the mud. Like a great salsa club on a Friday night, all ages were dancing with each other, twisting, turning, spinning each other around and completely disregarding the muck beneath them. Smiles were everywhere and it was the most unadulterated fun I had during the festival.

While I waited for Dan to come on stage (he was the first late started I’d seen at ACL), Girl Talk was mashing up the hits. There were what seemed like hundreds of people on the XBOX360 stage, dancing as he toyed with the great Guns n’ Roses song “Sweet Child of Mine” and others. Everyone waiting for Auerbach bobbed and swayed to Girl Talk’s fantastic DJing, but once Dan hit the stage, all eyes and ears were focused on hearing some down and dirty southern rock let loose. The fans there knew what they wanted to hear and Dan delivered a downpour.

Then it was time for Pearl Jam. I’ve never seem Pearl Jam live, though they’re absolutely one of “my” bands that I grew up with. It’s hard to believe these guys have been making music as long as they have, how they’ve become the American version of U2, and most importantly, how someone that’s been doing it for this long without a huge commercial hit can have the number one record in the country.

Since Eddie Vedder and company were the only band playing that night, this meant everyone was going to be there. Good for Pearl Jam, not so good for getting great photographs. I pushed my way through the crowd but as the sun went down and the full-moon came up, I had no choice but to stop. The bloke in front of me was kind enough to let me put my bag in his chair and I settled in for a great show, halfway to the stage.

Never had I been more thankful for ACL Fest’s huge LCD panels on both sides of the stage and this time around, the director of this show was ready to class it up. The screens showed only a nice, contrasty black and white image of the stage and as everything started, I was reminded of the classic Alice in Chains Facelift concert video from the 90s. The black and white added a rawness to the entire thing, playing perfectly into Pearl Jam’s sound.

Eddie made note of having note been back in Austin since 1995 and promising it wouldn’t take so long again. He commented on the mud and promised the audience by the end of the night, he’d be covered as well.

The gang played favorite songs, new songs, and a few I never expected to hear. I’m sure that when you’ve been touring as long as they have, you learn to love all your music but never did I expect them to start with “Why Go?” right out of the gate. Stone Gossard was in rare form, just destroying the guitar licks in songs like “Alive” and “Evenflow,” playing the solo on the latter totally behind his head and vamping it up for the crowd.

During “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” Vedder forgot the lyrics and laughed as the audience helped him get back on track. “The Fixer,” the break-out single from their new album, fit in perfectly and was pure arena rock with everyone chanting along with the chorus. Best thing was when Pearl Jam launched into my absolute favorite song of theirs – “State of Love and Trust” from the film Singles where most Seattle rock bands, with the exception of Nirvana, made an appearance.

Big surprise guests of the night were Ben Harper during the first encore, playing “Red Mosquito” and Perry Farrell to help the band cover “Mountain Song.” Farrell seemed overjoyed to be there, running and bounding around the stage.

Finally, the band closed with “Rockin’ in the Free World,” with Eddie commenting on the 10:00pm curfew that was imposed on them. As the band went into jam mode toward the end of the song, Eddie jumped off the stage and ran up and down, shaking hands with the crowd and finally sliding through the mud, all to the chagrin of the security guards and handlers who were trying to get the band to finish their set on time. Eddie climbed back on stage, covered in the mud and filth, happy as could be, and thanked what he called an “ocean of people” for coming out to see them.

And then we all made our pilgrimage out of the park, ACL Fest 2009 finally over. Lots of people left trash and their portable chairs behind. We all talked about the set we’d seen, the mud beneath our feet, and the craziness of the three days we’d all witnessed. I was glad to finally sit on the bus and reflect. I can’t wait for next year.