Day 3 is always the do-or-die day for music festivals. It's either the big finish or the anti-climax that will determine whether or not the 400 dollars you spent on tickets, parking, beer, food, merch, beer, and vitamin water was all worth it.
For me, ACL tends to wear out its welcome after two full days. The third morning of ACL weekend I'm always a little slower to get out of bed, and a little more eager to call it quits early. (Hey, some of us have work in the morning!) That's when the Sunday lineup really makes the difference. As a whole, I wasn't blown away by Sunday's bill, with the exception of a few solid standouts (and an appearance by one of my current favorite bands). I didn't get around to as many stages as I did on the previous two days, opting to stay at a few more shows and relax a bit. I also dropped by the press alcove for a drink and a comfy chair, and Blues Traveler was back there. The funny thing was that I didn't recognize the slimmed-down John Popper, but I did recognize his distinctive hat.
And now: ACL 2008 Day Three, in words and pictures.
Stars are from Montreal, Canada, and judging by Amy Millan's tortured pose, they don't like the Texas heat too much. (For the record, Sunday was a little cooler than Saturday.) But the audience loved Stars' brand of romantic indie-rock, singing along with Millan and singer/keyboardist/trumpeter Torquil Campbell.
I'm not too familiar with Stars, other than when I saw them at ACL in 2006 and that Millan is a member of Broken Social Scene, who I saw in Lollapalooza. (Have to admit I was disappointed that neither Feist nor Emily Haines played Lolla — no disrespect to Millan.) Seeing Stars again I was struck by how dramatic they were, but never urgent or really energetic. Their music is a little too light and frothy to convey any real passion — it just sort of glides by without much impact. Not necessarily bad, but as someone who never really listened to them, this set didn't make me want to go buy my weight in Stars records.
Neko Case's set was mellow, pretty, and easy-going, sort of like Case herself. The AMD stage was a little too big for her mostly acoustic sound, but the size was necessary judging by the huge crowd that clamored for a glimpse of the ginger siren (I wonder if this had anything to do with it?). I am mostly familiar with Case's work in the indie-rock band New Pornographers, but I know someone who can lend me their Neko Case CDs in a week or two so I can catch up on what I'm missing.
OK, I know you're sick of me going on and on about Okkervil River. But here's the thing: These guys are one of my absolute favorite groups right now. I totally love this band, and it's the best, rarest kind of love — the kind that only gets deeper as you go into their back catalogue and to discover that even their old stuff is good. While Black Sheep Boy was more of a grower for me, The Stage Names asserted itself as one of my favorite records almost immediately (I knew after "Unless It's Kicks" that this was a hell of an album), and their follow-up The Stand Ins is almost as good.
Okkervil (say: "Aw-ker-ville") is great on disc, but seeing them live will totally blow you away if you're not prepared for it. I saw them at Lollapalooza this year and my jaw was left open. I suddenly understood the kids that crowded the stage as the band tore down after their set, cheering as the group members unplugged their gear and rolled amps away.
One of the keys to Okkervil's amazing stage show is the manic, energetic performance of frontman Will Sheff. As if possessed, Sheff belts out his vivid, literary lyrics with sincere conviction, and his band push him further as they plow through the set with joyful abandon. It is the same energy and certainty of purpose of a band like Arcade Fire, and something that Stars didn't have.
I was particularly proud of those last five shots: Having seen them in concert before, I knew that when guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo launched into the solo on "Singer Songwriter," Sheff would run up and play right in her face. He did, I was in the perfect spot to capture it, and those five shots make up about five seconds. Sheff's enthusiasm for live performance is infectious, and it's interesting to see this brainy, literate band rock out with such looseness and fun. But make no mistake, Sheff is intense — especially when barking at the crowd to clap their hands, yelling "I want to see all hands clapping! Everybody clap!" and encouraging the audience to sing along at the top of their lungs. Seeing an Okkervil show isn't really a passive event — it's something you have to feel to get anything out of it.
I saw Gnarls Barkley at ACL 2006, back when they were at the height of their fame. It was an early Friday set, but still really packed due to the craze started by "Crazy." in '06 they had what I remember was something like a 15-piece band, but this year seemed like a smaller show even though it was one of the closing sets of the festival.
Their new material, while perhaps technically superior, failed to excite the crowd as much as cuts from their debut album, St. Elsewhere. I wonder whether or not the whole Gnarls Barkley thing will keep going, or whether or not Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo move on to other projects (of which there is no shortage, I'm sure.)
They closed their set with a pair of covers: A really hip version of Radiohead's "Reckoner," and Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," which is now officially the best way to close any show, whether it's a concert, DJ set, or mafia cable show.
Regrettably, I wasn't allowed into the Foo Fighters pit even after I had been originally approved (they said it was too full), but after three days worth of heat, alcohol, dust and dirt, I was ready to call it quits anyway. With Foo Fighters being the only act performing at 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, all the foot traffic of Zilker Park accumulated in front of the dusty AT&T stage, creating thick, hazy clouds of dust that was getting to be unbearable (I'm still coughing over 24 hours later).
Near the photo pit, another photog looked up at the stage and said, "What is that, a smoke machine?" "No," I replied, "that's just ... dust!" Photographic evidence below.
I trudged back to meet my group so we could leave Zilker Park behind us for another year, as Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters kicked off their set with "One By One." Walking to the car, a friend said, "You see? This is the way to leave ACL — with the Foo Fighters playing you out."
I couldn't have said it any better myself.