ACL 2009 Day Two: Aftermath
Was it something we said or did? Aftermath openly gushed about how great the weather was on Friday and how it seemed that maybe, just maybe, we were going to finally attend an Austin City Limits (ACL) that didn't consist of heat and dust. Well, it seems that the powers-the-be misunderstood what our words of thankfulness and decided to perpetuate the lack of oppressive heat and dust by having it rain all day long. As in, Aftermath arrived at Zilker Park just after noon on Saturday and we can't remember a time all day and night long where the grounds were without any sort of active rainfall for more than ten minutes. We promise that we managed to find some good music throughout the day, but there were times when the conditions did put a damper on our mood (though we're not going to complain too much about the decreased crowd size).
Photo by Mark C. Austin
To kick off our day, we made our way over to the Dell Stage for The Virgins. Having never heard the music of this NYC-based quintet before, we find ourselves enjoying the band's glammy, funky brand of Brit rock. Coming across as a crunchier version of The Wombats or funk-loving baby brother of Arctic Monkeys, The Virgins weren't creating anything truly new or special, these guys did feel like a more authentic version of the sort of corporate pop-punky alt-rock created by groups like All American Rejects. Aftermath will always support the sort of music that serves as a "gateway" for teenage music fans, by encouraging them to expand their musical horizons, so The Virgins, featuring a lead singer with a soulful, strident croon, receive a vote of confidence from us.
Unfortunately, one of the bands we were stoked to see today, The Raveonettes, were unable to perform due to visa issues that prevented the group from traveling from its native Denmark. ACL, in its infinite wisdom, brought in the up-and-coming Denton-based act Neon Indian to fill the time slot at the Xbox 360 Stage, and we were more than pleased with the results. Powered by a rock-solid drummer and heaps of psychedelic guitar lines, this vibrant outfit performed thirty minutes of spaced-out, lo-fi, indie-approved electro-pop that showcased the lead singer's propensity for first creating a pulsating sample and then gleefully subverting it through an Akai mixer. Some might castigate the band for being dirty hipsters (the guitarist was sporting a pair of neon teal jeans tucked into a pair of oversized cowboy boots), these hungry youngsters delighted Aftermath by working in thick layers of pop-flavored prog textures into the set early and often.
Photo by Groovehouse Neon Indian
Though we've already seen the band a few times in the past, Aftermath was excited to watch Mute Math perform at the Livestrong Stage. Paul Meany and his cohorts tend to be rather engaging, over-the-top showmen who love to recreate the electro-aping alt-rock of the late '90s and do so with a strong theatrical edge. Most people tend to remember the sweaty, syncopated mess that is the band's drummer (whose energy could power a small subdivision), but we personally are fans of Meany as he dances and shimmies with abandon, bouncing between a Keytar, Rhodes, Korg, and the middle of the stage, all while providing direction to the other three musicians. While the band's studio records tend to receive average reviews at best, Mute Math is best appreciated live when it lets its wings soar to their fullest extent and allow its tendency for light electro-psych freak-out jams to rule the stage. Some people, quite rightly, might criticize the group's tendency to be a bit over-indulgent when it comes to vamping about and tweaking the samples and synthesizers just to create a few more minutes on stage. We simply don't listen to those folks very closely.
Photos by Mark C. Austin Mute Math
As the rain continued to fall, we strolled over to the Dell Stage to finally take in a live set from Grizzly Bear. Fronted by Ed Droste and Chris Taylor and their two friends, this Brooklyn quartet concocted a rich, heady sort of intellectual orchestral pop that calls to mind the obvious Pet Sounds references, alongside an arty male take on the Phil Spector girl groups from the '60s. At any given point, all four men were singing in near perfect harmony while building intricate chord structures on top of highly precise arrangements. Sure, Aftermath might admit that the music of Grizzly Bear lacks that immediate punch in the gut that people often look for in their rock music, but with top 2009 release Veckatimest standing as proof (complete with "Two Weeks" and "Cheerleader"), this band served as the poster child for highly intellectual pop that challenged and excited my brain. Moreover, the group might be considered (and derided) in certain circles as hipster chic, but it was definitely able to affect an excellent intensity in its life set on this rainy afternoon.
Returning to the Dell Stage, Aftermath was forced to contend with a now-driving rainstorm in order to listen to the moody, introspective folk songs of Bon Iver. Now, we're all for a singer-songwriter revisiting his or her material so as to work up fresh version of the classics and re-interpret them live, but we don't feel that Justin Vernon's admirable efforts were working in his favor. For about half of the songs, a full band appeared on stage to assist Vernon in re-imagining his melancholy folk tracks, which, to us, only served to mask the power of his thin, piercing falsetto. Hearing a track like "Blood Bank" run through some distortion pedals and subverted into becoming a gregarious indie rock anthem was highly distracting and off-putting. Maybe our expectations for this set were misplaced, but we were all ready to find Vernon up there alone on a stage, accompanied only with a guitar, voice, and forlorn lyrics. Only then might he have been a direct complement to the rain that fell steadily fell around us for a solid hour.
Slogging our way through the ever-growing pools of mud, we arrived at the AMD Stage to see Mos Def put on one of the more confusing performances we've seen in awhile. After the scheduled 6 p.m. start time turned into a 6:25 p.m. start time, Mos Def spent the rest of his time on stage leading a collection of funk rock musicians (and a DJ) in a fun-loving jam session. This isn't to say that the music was enjoyable, but we fully expected Mos Def to jump out onto the stage and immediately take ownership of the crowd with his skillful wordplay, sociopolitical commentary, and creative beats. We don't want to place blame or create controversy, but the nearly half-hour of silence before the music actually began struck us as curiously frustrating and left us with a disappointed taste in our mouths regarding what music there was left to hear.
A confusing (and confused-looking) Mos Def
Despite the fact that Colin Meloy has become both the whipping boy and poster child for the downside of allowing one's intellectualism to get the best of you, there's a distinct part of Aftermath's psyche that really appreciates and "gets" the music of The Decemberists. We enjoy the fact that a collection of over-educated, bookish nerds are seemingly able to take the script from some ancient folk tales (or a role-playing-game, whichever sounds dorkier at any given moment) and craft rather dense folk-rock records. On this night, The Decemberists took the Dell Stage to perform the vast majority of The Hazards Of Love, the band's 2009 release. Featuring a guest appearance from Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) to sing the parts she recorded for the album, the group was as sharp and composed as ever, despite the fact that more rain was falling around us than came down during the Bon Iver set. Yeah, we wish we could have heard cuts from The Crane Wife and Picaresque worked into the mix, but the throngs of soaked fans who were right up against the stage, complete with their hands lifted into the air and singing along to every word of every song, seemed more than happy with the concert they were experiencing.
So, maybe the rain will subside for tomorrow's conclusion to ACL, but maybe it won't. We do know that the mud will surely stick around, making certain key points of travel rather treacherous to traverse. All of that aside, we're in it to the end tomorrow night - enjoying a soggy Pearl Jam is better than no Pearl Jam at all.