The glowing afternoon light reflected off the skyscrapers of downtown Austin on Friday, October 8th. Day one of Austin City Limits was perfect festival weather, and the crowd was mellow and friendly. Five minutes in and some random stranger handed me a button that said “Austinite” on it. Given that I’d only moved there a couple weeks ago, it seemed like a perfect welcome from the music scene.

Austin City Limits was held in Zilker Park, a green space with gently rolling hills just on the Colorado River. The stage layout was one of the most efficient I’ve seen. The big acts were on two pairs of stages at either end of the festival grounds. While a band was playing one of each pair, the other was setting up for the very next band. This led to nearly constant live music, which had the nice side effect of never having to listen to whatever crappy music some sound guy decided to play. Truly lazy festival goers set up chairs halfway between two of the stages, and did a 180 every hour. Three smaller stages in the middle were where smaller acts got a chance to show their stuff.

During my roam to get the lay of the land, I happened to come across The Sword. I’m not normally all that into metal, but these guys caught my attention. Great musicianship without being show-offs, crashing metal without being noisy, and an incorporation of unusual elements like acoustic guitar made them really stand out. I only caught the tail end of their set, but their audience loved them and they seem well worth checking out in the future.

The first band on my agenda was Spoon, a local favorite. I’ve gotta say that I was left a little disappointed. Some of the crowd were eating it up, but it seemed to me like they were just phoning it in. It’s a rare case where I’d say that a band sounds more energetic on an album than in person, but that’s what seemed to be happening here.

Sonic Youth was next up and quickly reminded me of why I was at a show in the first place. They brought forth a relentless sonic assault, soaking the audience with wave after wave of intense fuzzy noise. Fleeting ambient guitar bits bridged all the songs together, and they played with ferocious intensity. I’ve seen much longer sets of Sonic Youth where they’ve had a chance to to noodle around and I was concerned that that might not translate to a short festival set, but I was far from disappointed.

The Strokes were one of the big closing acts for day one so I went to check them out. The crowd was electric and excited. The band came on and was tight and together. The lights were great; during one song there was a hilarious montage of classic arcade games with Pac Man, Tetris, and Space Invaders in the background. Despite all of the coolness, something was way off with Julian Casablancas’ vocals. Either the sound was messed up, or he was trashed. Given that he kept having to ask the band what song they were doing next and occasionally exclaimed things like “I like your boobs!” to people in the audience I’m going to guess the latter. After putting up with a few songs of this, I decided to wander off and break my “only watch bands that start with the letter ‘S’ rule” and investigate the other day one closer: Phish.

I’ve barely listened to any Phish and had never seen them before, so I was interested to see what all the fuss was since I hear they’re the band hippies follow around these days. Speaking of which, there was a rather different crowd over on that side of the festival grounds. The trek was a strange progression from the “disaffected hipster” zone into the “cheerful hippies” zone. There were more glo-sticks, then blinky lights, lit up hula hoops, ecstatic dancing, and a certain scent in the air. Phish was all over the place genre-wise. One song was a blues rock jam full of sharp strings accompanied by jazz organ, another was a classic rock jam using the theme to 2001 as its centerpiece, the next one was hypnotic a capella, then another was deep crunchy throbbing dub. All of these were woven together seamlessly. Some of it was better than others, but every time I decided to call it a night and leave early, the next song made me stop and turn around and listen more. Their lights were some of the best I saw all weekend, intense and going along with the music perfectly. All in all, they were epic, engaging, and I did figure out what all the fuss was about.

Words and Photos: Scott Boone

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