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ACL 2009 Festival Highlights: Them Crooked Vultures, Dirty Projectors, Bon Iver, Pearl Jam and More

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Austin, Texas, three days, 130 bands, 8 stages and the ever popular Hot & Crunchy Chicken Cone. Downpours and all, there was no shortage of enjoyed spectacle and divine sounds over the weekend at the Austin City Limits Festival. Yes, it rained in Austin for one of the few times since May, but ACL Fest had a roster chock full of musical talent that couldn't be derailed even when Mother Nature gave it the finger.

The $2.5 million Zilker Park grass renovation
, however, did not fare as well: Saturday showers turned the grounds into a muddy marshland and the billions of footprints were a death sentence for those poor little blades. Smart folks with rubber boots had minimal wardrobe problems; I unfortunately was not one of them. But among the 25 shows I saw over the weekend there were several performances that made it all worthwhile.

The festivities kicked-off for me last Wednesday night at the holiest of holies: an Austin City Limits TV show taping of Them Crooked Vultures, a rock supergroup comprised of music legends John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), drummer Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana), and vocalist/guitarist Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age). Not only is the ACL studio the hands down most enjoyable and sought after place to see music in Austin, but this was a performance of bone fide rock stars in one of their first stateside concerts--plus there is always free beer. Needless to say, it was quite a privilege. Even before the taping began, the anticipation and energy radiating through the 300 person venue was palpable. As the Vultures came out and began to play, it became impossible to look away from Grohl on the drums, maniacally pounding them with the force of a champion boxer and fluid motion of a sea creature. Seventy minutes of face-meltingly hard rock, unreleased songs, and supernova musical talent on stage left people around room staring at each other in awe when the lights came up.

The highlights continued on Friday, the first official day of ACL, with The Avett Brothers: a three man band of two brothers and a friend (with a Cellist that joins them sometimes on tour), who brought much of their new album "I and Love and You" to the Austin stage. Fresh from a Letterman Show taping, after watching them live it's easy to understand why the buzz surrounding the Brothers is so strong. With their inspired folk head bang, theatrical flailing, rhythmic bounce, emotionally charged lyrics, deliberate banjo strum and darling demeanor it's near impossible not to love them.

Later in the day was Todd Snider, one of the best dry humored, hippied-out, quick witted, politically conscious, singer-songwriter live acts maybe ever. His new album "The Excitement Plan" has been met with much acclaim but the real fun is in his honest character and barely believable, improvised musings about his own life. At the beginning of his show, in typical deadpan fashion he warned the audience, "I'm going to share a lot of opinions with you today. Not because I think they're smart or because I think you need to know them. But because they rhyme," and proceeded to tell an entertaining 10 minute story about football, Jesus, and LSD.

That night I made my way over to a DeVotchKa, whom I had not heard of before ACL. This Indie band from Denver, who created the score for Little Miss Sunshine, played a a fast-paced, intricate mix of guitar, bouzouki, piano, violin, accordion, sousaphone and double bass, percussion and trumpet. The invigorating instrumentals sounded like they came straight from Eastern Europe, resulting in some questionably executed, made-up Russian dance moves attempted while the band toasted the audience and swigged red wine straight from the bottle.

Saturday, I spent most of the day at the Dell stage for the Indie up-and-comers lineup of Deer Tick, Felice Brothers, Grizzly Bear and Bon Iver, who was playing one of his last shows before the band goes on hiatus. The performance delivered soul-squeezing renditions crowd favorites "Skinny Love" and "Blood Bank" and towards the end, Bon Iver lead the audience in a sing-a-long to the second half of "The Wolves (Acts I & 2)." As the rain poured its heaviest all day, the band played background guitar and harmonies for the the crescendo of crowd voices singing "What might have been lost" on repeat; it was one of those synergistic festival moments that you remember for a while and makes you love all three days in an instant.

Saturday evening, while Dave Matthews was the popular headliner, I chose to see Ghostland Observatory; their major laser lightshow came from the West and drew me in like the mother ship. Ghostland put on an absolutely killer display, complete with the trademark Electro/Pop/ Punk beats that leave you helpless against the desire to shake your ass. Their act is just plain fun and this Austin born group reached new heights that night when the UT marching band joined them onstage.

After the party on the field was an after show at Emo's indoors with the one of my favorites, the Felice Brothers. Throughout the show, the heavy accordion, violin, washboard, raspy vocals, standing-atop-the-drum set antics and raucous, unyielding energy came to life even more so than in the daytime. "This is a morally ambiguous tale about getting drunk and shooting people," said James Felice before leading into barn dance jam "Whisky in My Whisky." "I am falling in love with these guys," said the straight man standing next to me, who had never seen them live before. I don't think he was alone.

The next day around 5pm the Dirty Projectors, my favorite act of the festival, played the Dell stage and unleashed their quirky melodies, remarkable range of vocals and what could aptly be described as beautiful robots sounds. Their incredible harmonizing and synch of single notes, not words, read like a melodic hipster beat box, especially for songs like "Remade Horizon"; their set also made it abundantly clear why the Projectors have ended up on tracks with artists like David Byrne and Bjork.

Finally, after three days of festival, 25 shows, a few downpours, one sacrificed pair of leather boots and more cups of beer than I care to count, Pearl Jam was waiting at the finish line. The crowd was in good spirits despite the mucky conditions and Pearl Jam brought revival for fading fans and exhausted bodies. Eddie Vedder was extremely grateful for the many thousands of festival goers that came to watch and seemed a kinder, gentler version of his former self. The band crushd it with old stand-bys like "Even Flow" and drew emotional, resounding voices from the sea of people with "Alive". During the 90 minute show, Vedder also brought out Ben Harper and Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction to share the stage, followed by plenty of writhing and whaling on the mic making it official: the boys can still rock.

The weekend was full of other incredible moments: Watching the Dead Weather, Jack White's new project with Alison Mosshart of the Kills, create a dark Rock n' Roll spectacle and make you wonder if they ever drink each other's blood; Andrew Bird playing musical scientist as usual and bringing "Non-Animal" and "Fake Palindromes" to life; the Heartless Bastards' Erica Wennerstrom belting out her powerhouse, sultry, bluesy, rock vocals; seeing Phoenix front man Thomas Mars get visibly choked up when looking at the huge crowd in front of him, right before spontaneously hopping the fence to enjoy the moment with the masses. I also keep thinking about the bands I didn't get to see, like Ben Harper and Daniel Johnston to name a couple and keep wishing I could have been in two places at once.

Now that ACL fest 2009 has come to a close, the countdown to next year begins for many fans; I'm exhausted just thinking about it at this point but by Oct 2010 I'll be ready for sure. Between now and then, there will be plenty of time to recharge, relive the high points of 2009, download all the great music I saw this year and purchase my own pair of emergency wellies.

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