This is about the annual festival in Austin, Texas, which carries the name of the TV show. It began in 2002 and has grown into one humongous clusterfuck full of delusional wannabee hippies, kids whose parents should know better than to let them out loose at something like this, middle-aged fat fucks with folding chairs (like me), Greenpeace activists who are just this season's Jehovah's Witnesses with their clipboards and recycle signs replacing the black backpacks and Bibles, and assorted other annoying people who probably drive the folks who have to live in Austin absolutely to the point of bungee jumping without the rope off of the Wells Fargo building.
Unless they own a business in Austin, in which case they probably can't wait until the beginning of fall each year.
My wife and I take turns planning a "family vacation" each year. When our daughter was little, a lot of those plans centered around Disneyworld and other things kids would enjoy. Now that she's out of the house, we've been taking more Old Folks' trips, like cruises to Alaska or Bermuda or trips to places we've always wanted to explore, like Southern California or Arizona. This year it was my turn, and I happened to see that Vampire Weekend was playing at ACL (the common acronym for this festival), so I booked a hotel suite downtown and bought tickets for the three of us for Friday and Sunday. It would have been just as cheap, within a few bucks, to buy 3-day tickets, but apparently they sell out before they go on sale. And now that we're back home, I know why that is. If you went to the festival this year, you're offered a cut-rate of 3-day tickets for next year if you buy them very early. Which, apparently, a whole lot of folks do.
This is the one and probably only time I've been to this festival, mostly because (frankly) I'm getting too old for this shit. Not that I physically can't do it, but just that it's more trouble than it's worth. i.e., the pleasure derived from hearing great bands play live is outranked by the annoyance of traffic jams, huge lines of cattle/people, kids giving you that look of "what are you doing here, old man?" and bad sound engineers. One kid did have on a t-shirt that I really wanted. It just said, "I disapprove." I think if I were a superhero, I'd be The Disapprover. My sidekick would be Sneer Boy.
Here are the things that happened at ACL which registered on my Approve / Disapprove listing. I'll start with the annoying shit and work my way to some sort of happy place.
Strongly Disapprove: The Flaming Lips. (Sunday evening before sunset.) I am a big fan of some of the work from this band, and I even spent some time watching a film about their ordeals over the years. But when I was waiting for The National to begin playing, they were right next door and my daughter was up there watching them. She sent me a text that said, "This is bullshit." I could not have agreed more. And she even likes that song "Do You Realize," which I always thought was pretentious claptrap. I like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots much better. There are half a dozen stages at Zilker Park and they are arranged so that hopefully you can have three or four bands playing at the same time without bleedover. This requires perfect timing and almost everyone was great about starting right on the hour and playing around 50 minutes. One exception? The dickhead who runs The Flaming Lips. He wasted his breath and everyone's time by ranting on about some meaningless bullshit and then ran overtime, causing The National to run late and then throwing everything off.
Strongly Disapprove: The sound engineer for The National. (Sunday evening around sunset.) I don't know if you've heard a song called "Bloodbuzz Ohio" or not, but based on that one song alone, I really wanted to check this band out. They have a lower-register lead singer who has a provocative voice and what should have sounded like a good rhythm section. All of this was ruined by a sound crew who didn't know shit about how to mix a band. They made very expensive guitars sound like the cheapest crap Sears ever produced. The high end on every instrument was overdone and it blended into a whine that made me want to cut a bitch.
Strongly Disapprove: The Mountain Goats. (Early Friday afternoon.) My daughter knew this group from some TV show soundtrack. It was a very hot day and the lead singer had on a suit. I should have known. It started out OK but then he kept playing song after song that sounded exactly the same. Do you ever feel as if the pop song genre is exhausted? Well, if you listened to this bastard for an hour, you'd be convinced. He even apologized at one point for starting a song with two chords that sounded like some other song. I was thinking, "I noticed that half an hour ago. On all of them."
Somewhat Disapprove: The Beach House. (Friday afternoon.) We wound up in front of this stage just after The Black Keys had finished on the stage next door. There were thousands of folks jammed into this end of the park where these two stages were set up. I don't know who they all came to see, but this heroin music from The Beach House bored us to the point of escape. Every song sounded more lethargic than the last. I could imagine the drummer saying, "Whoa, dudes. Slow it down. I'm getting dizzy." Since we had neither clean needles or any product, we decided to book. Which apparently was what everyone was thinking because we wound up in a human crush zone which had no visible end. You know those stories like in Germany where folks are crushed when some weird stuff happens while you have folks in a crush zone like that? I don't like it. Especially when I can't see where it opens out. Some idiot does something crazy like fire a gun and all hell breaks loose. And we stayed in this human traffic jam for fifteen minutes or so. It seemed like hours.
Somewhat Disapprove: The jacked-up prices surrounding this festival. Seriously, I love to see a guy make a buck. And I would expect things to be more expensive when you're selling close to 100,000 tickets for some big event. But $7 for a tall beer? $350 a night for a hotel room that usually sells for $150? $85 a day for tickets? And I saw more cops giving speeding tickets between Dallas and Austin, both on our way there and on our way back, than I have ever seen in any one stretch of highway. The speed limit is constantly changing from 65 to 70 for no apparent reason and it makes for great speed traps. Yet, even with all that revenue, the roads are awful. At least compared to the ones in Arkansas.
Somewhat Disapprove: The Texas Chili Parlor at 1409 Lavaca Street downtown. This was right next door to our hotel and everyone said it was a "must eat" place. I went in there late one night and can tell you that Texas chili is not what I'm used to, but it's interesting. And it was interesting for the next 24 hours, too. I broke wind in the bedroom the next morning when the family was downstairs and I almost jumped off the balcony trying to escape the foulness of the event. This place is a dive bar with questionable food, but I'd have to say "try it once."
Somewhat Approve: Austin, Texas. It seems like a nice enough place. Sort of like a hot Seattle, but maybe a bit more dangerous to be cruising around at night. I just don't care that much for Texas, as a whole. It is what I'd call "scrub country." I need more lushness and less dust.
Somewhat Approve: The Eagles. (Sunday evening.) Sure, they play the same old crap and it sounds just like it always did, but they sure do a good job of it. We left about 2/3 of the way through their 2-hour set in order to avoid the crowd crush, and I didn't get to hear "New Kid in Town," which was the one song I really did want to hear. More on that later.
Probably Approve: The Strokes. (Friday evening.) We didn't actually see them since they were playing as we were leaving. But that "Last Night" song sounded damn good walking away from it, and I imagine they were a quality act up close.
Probably Approve: Norah Jones. My wife said she was great, so I'll take her word for it. She was playing before The Eagles at the end of the park far away from where I was ready to kill the sound engineer for The National on Sunday evening.
Strongly Approve: Starbucks. I know it's hard to believe, but I'd never been in a Starbucks before. There was one a block from the hotel and I used it every morning for coffee and wireless. Those folks who worked there seemed awful damn happy for folks who were working for a heartless evil megacompany. And the coffee was delicious.
Strongly Approve: Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill at 303 Red River Street downtown. Excellent food. Excellent service. Great atmosphere.
Strongly Approve: The logistics and the information packages. There are large shuttle busses which run constantly from 4th and Guadalupe and back and they are free. You may have to wait in line for a while, but it beats parking and walking for miles upon end, as a lot of folks were doing. As for information, our little CD-sized handbook had reviews of each band (poorly written by some overemoting English major with a tin ear and a tendency to gush, but helpful nonetheless), a fold-out removable map and schedule of each day, as well as a card which gave you 30 free songs on iTunes from bands playing at the festival. Out of those 30 songs, I found seven that I really like.
- "Bright Eyes" by Vonnegutt.
- "Bright Side of Life" by Rebelution.
- "Listen to the Darkside" by Charlie Mars.
- "45" by Ozomatli.
- "Wide Eyes" by Local Natives.
- "Saw You First" by the Givers.
- "The Royal We" by "Silversun Pickups."
The last band is the only one I've ever heard of, and I saw none of these folks at ACL. My favorite song by Silversun Pickups is "Substitution." I could listen to that song a lot. And have.
Strongly Approve: Vampire Weekend. (Friday evening around sunset.) I believe they played every song off of their first album except one or two. Plus, they played my two favorite songs from their new album, "Horchata" and "Giving Up the Gun." They didn't have the string section with them, but Rostam Batmanglij did a fairly good job of recreating the fills on his keyboards. The sound was excellent, the pace was great and Ezra Koenig said it would be the last time they'd be touring for quite some time, so I felt as if I might have never gotten to see them play live music if I hadn't seen them this time. He said they'd be taking time to work on a new album, but the way he said it implied that they might be taking an even longer break for some unsaid reason. But both my daughter and I enjoyed this show enough to make the whole trip worthwhile.
Strongly Approve: Martin Sexton. (Sunday late afternoon.) I really didn't know who this was, but I had a psychic feeling that I wanted to see him. Even though he drifted into the typical hipster bullshit of "we're all one, man," his voice moved me more than any other singer I heard. You really should see him play live if you ever get the chance. His song "Found" did that thing to me where I just close my eyes and shiver. That feeling means a lot to me.
Ah, all these singer/songwriter types huddled together in one place. It does create a vibe. Back when I was going around to the original pop festivals, there was only one stage, and that is just not very efficient if you want to showcase a whole lot of music. Of course, the atmosphere back then was so illegal that it does not surprise me that those sorts of things are no longer tolerated. Still, it was shocking to me to see so many middle and upper middle-class kids acting so . . . soberly. It was kind of depressing, actually. They just weren't having the sort of fun we used to have. Perhaps it's because we didn't have laptops and iPhones and Game Boys to go back home to, so we acted out more. We didn't have stuff that could be taken away from us for bad behavior. Ah, well, I didn't really want to talk about that. I wanted to talk about the creative process and artists who write and produce and sing their own songs. It often drives them crazy. I think of Cat Stevens back when he was trying to handle the orchestra arrangements for his early work. He wound up in the nuthouse for a while. I think of Lindsey Buckingham and how carefully arranged those Fleetwood Mac songs are and how he had been hearing those songs in his heads back when he and Stevie Nicks had their own band. He ain't quite right. I could give tons of other examples, but those are just two that I listen to a lot and think about their madness when I do. I think it must be like this for a lot of those folks:
You know how you get a song stuck in your head sometimes? They even have a name for it. So you know how annoying it is when this song just keeps running through your head, sometimes for days? Well, imagine that it's your own song. One you wrote. And you know exactly how each part of the song should sound. What each instrument would be playing and how the time signature would change and how the harmonies would go. You hear this song in your head over and over, day after day, until you get it down on paper and then teach everyone their parts and then get it recorded. And can you imagine how tortuous all of this is to the one with the song in their head, seemingly forever, until they can get it finished? Then you finally have it done and you play it for someone, and they say, "Yeah, that's pretty good." And then you want to blow up the whole building they live in because no one could ever understand your genius and the torture you went through and you'd think the entire world was coming down on your head and that no one would ever understand you and you'd die penniless and alone.
Vincent sees a nighttime sky back before a billion street lights blurred them out. He has this image in his head for weeks and finally gets it down on paper in order to show you what he sees. He's willing to let you have it, and you don't even offer him a decent price for the work? I guess I've made my point, if I ever had one.
So let me end with a story about what happened while we were watching The Eagles. We had set up camp pretty far away from the stage since it was the last group on the last night, and we didn't want crowd crush again trying to leave. They did a two-hour set, which is how Phish closed Friday and Muse closed Saturday (neither of which we saw). So we're listening and chatting and there's this 30ish couple sitting next to us. He's quite overweight and drinking lots of $7 beers and smoking a joint which he doesn't offer to share with us. My wife and I are talking about the songs we like and dislike by the Eagles and I tell her and my daughter that I really want to hear "New Kid in Town." The overweight dude turns around and says, "I'm waiting on 'Dirty Laundry'!" When whatever song was playing ends, he gets up to go get another beer and I ask him, "What is it about that song you like? Is it the way it sounds or the lyrics or what?" I'm asking because I hate that fucking song and I'm actually curious. He gets all animated and says, "Don't you know the story? Henley got in all sorts of trouble for messing around with a 14-year old girl and it turned out none of it was true and the tabloids . . ." yadda yadda yadda. I waited until he finished and said, "So, you are interested in this because . . ." and I looked at my daughter who was furiously giving me the index finger over the lips signal to shut my mouth. So I followed her directions and laughed and patted him on the back. After he walked away, she said, "You really don't need to be out in public." She knew exactly what I was about to say.
Family vacations. You either survive 'em or you don't.