Charles Bradley is James Brown reincarnated. I knew this going into this year’s Austin City Limits Festival. I also knew that Charles and his backup band, The Menahan Street Band, were number one on my must-see list and that I, and anyone else lucky enough to see him, would be blown away.
In an unfortunate (and fortunate!) turn of events, however, I ended up working as a production and camera assistant for KLRU’s Austin City Limits taping of The Head and the Heart on Friday and had to miss Charles’ performance. Though I was pretty heartbroken about not seeing Charles, it was relayed to me that Charles was the highlight of Friday’s lineup and I’m elated that my boyfriend and some of my closest friends were, in fact, blown away. For now, I’ll just cross my fingers in hopes that Charles will one day grace an Austin City Limits taping with his presence and move onward to tell you about my Austin City Limits 2011 experience, because Charles or no Charles, this year’s ACL was a hit.
First off, let me set the Austin scene for you. For the past three months, our city has been absolutely scorched with high, high heats. We had unprecedented 80-something days of non-stop 100+ degree heat and an extremely severe drought. Living in these conditions and the thought of attending an outdoor music festival in September was pretty much cringe-worthy. However, in an amazing twist of fate, the first day of ACL saw the first drizzle of rain in Austin in a very, VERY long time. Not only that, but the whole city was shrouded in clouds almost all day long, which probably equaled about a million collective sighs of relief. Since I missed out on this great weather on Friday, I had my fingers crossed (I do that a lot…) that Saturday would be equally as pleasant. After all, I would be in Zilker Park (the home of the festival) from 11 am all the way until nighttime. During my first set of the day – a band from Chicago called Telekinesis – the sun was beating down on all of us. "Please, Mother Nature, give us a break," pounded through my head, until, aha!, the sprinkles, welcomed by applause, started to pelt us. Both the crowds and bands rejoiced – a first in festivals vs. the weather history.
You’re probably thinking, "guh, why is this chick still talking about the weather and not the music?!" Well, hold your horses, I’m getting to that, but it’s mostly because the weather was a HUGE factor in the success of ACL this year. It really affected everyone’s mood and lifted a lot of people’s spirits. In most cases, rain is the last thing that people would want at an outdoor festival, but this was definitely a different year with a lot of different mentalities. The optimism that poured out of people’s mouths, as the rain poured down on us was uplifting. "You know, if we didn’t need rain so bad, I’d probably be miserable right now, but I welcome this and hope this lasts for five days!," exclaimed my friend, Matt Rabatin.
With the mood set for the day, we carried on to enjoy what we came to the festival for: bands, bands and more bands. Saturday’s Aloe Blacc performance was really exceptional. I’d heard his song, "I Need a Dollar," on TV, but that was pretty much the extent of my Aloe Blacc knowledge. He was great! He touched on a bunch of different genres – soul, R&B, reggae, jazz, you name it. I love discovering new bands like his at ACL. After all, that’s a lot of what this festival is about: finding new bands, but also seeing old favorites in a way that you’ve (probably) never seen them before.
Speaking of discovering new bands, one of my favorite ACL moments of years past (this was the tenth anniversary of the festival, so reminiscing was promoted this year) was once upon a time in 2007 when I found myself without phone reception, separated from friends and in a bit of a tither. All of a sudden I heard a really beautiful violin solo, stopped and from atop a grassy knoll, listened to Andrew Bird for the very first time. I was mesmerized. This year’s mesmerizing performances included Empire of the Sun and Bomba Estereo. Empire of the Sun wowed the crowd with not only their music, but the lighting, dancers and costumes that filled the stage with what I can only call ‘magic’. Old favorites that still had the power to mesmerize me included the Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire. I’ve seen Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire in both small and large venues, and they never cease to impress with the way they capture attention in any setting. Their music is far too beautiful to ignore.
It’s bands like all of the ones I’ve mentioned, both big and small (literally and figuratively), that makes ACL such a worthwhile festival for attendees of all ages. Indie teenagers, dads wearing Tommy Bahama shirts and college coeds all came together in a sort of convivencia to enjoy the food, crowds, music, and (did I mention?) the rain.