Austin City Limits 2012: What We Learned
Iggy Pop

Iggy Pop photo by Mary Rehak for MTV Hive.

Festival Season 2012 is nearing its end. When we look back at the various fests we’ve experienced during the spring and summer, we’ve thought a lot about the highlights we enjoyed and the drugs we took, but not as much about the lessons that we’ve learned. With Austin City Limits 2012 in the books, it’s time to consider what we know now about music, about festivals, and about our feelings toward Ryan Gosling that we didn’t know before the weekend.

1.       LP is destined for big things.

LP looks like Bob Dylan circa the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, an association that she’s seemingly embraced enough to comfortably don a black velvet blazer even when she’s playing a mid-afternoon set in the full Texas sun on a day when the temperature clocks in somewhere in the low-90′s. She doesn’t sing like him, though; she’s a belter, with a strident voice prone to the upper register that’s got more in common with, say, Florence Welch. Her band, meanwhile, is the sort of epic, arena-ready folk that’s somehow in vogue now, which makes her stage name — which suggests, like, a crate-digging DJ more than a band that sounds like Mumford & Sons — somewhat misleading.

But the crowd at ACL is plenty folky, so the people at the Austin Ventures Stage — that’s a relatively tiny stage tucked away from the main festival action, staring out at all of the food carts — were psyched when she emerged with a ukulele in tow. She gave them hits, too — the sign-you-up-for-a-credit-card smash “Into The Wild,” and some that will probably end up on the radio or in commercials next year, when her debut album finally drops. LP’s main gig is as a songwriter for pop stars; she’s offered hits for Rihanna, the Backstreet Boys, ETC, ETC, so it’s fair to assume that there’s going to be a lot of interest in the hit potential of what she’ll be releasing. Still, the biggest, most arena-ready number she offered wasn’t even one of her own — that would be a full-band rendition of Beyonce‘s “Halo” that shows that her appreciation for sugary pop songwriting goes both ways. Odds are there’s a lot of LP in our future.

2.       ACL needs a dance stage.

Imagine you’re a nineteen-year-old University of Texas student who ditched Friday classes to eat some pills and get lost in a throbbing mass of young bodies at Austin City Limits. Your options are somewhat limited, but they’re out there: You can jump from Lance Herbstrong at the Zilker Stage to A-Trak at the Honda Stage to AVICII at the AMD Stage, sure, but you’ll waste valuable pill-eating and body-mass-rutting time as you rush from stage to stage.

Meanwhile, if you’re determined to be right up front for the moment AVICII emerges from a cloud of steam, or lasers, or whatever he does, you’ve got to stake out a claim from mid-afternoon. Not only do you miss everybody else you want to see, but your consolation prize is sitting through sets by 90′s alt-rock heroes like the Afghan Whigs and Weezer. You, as the theoretical nineteen year old in this arrangement, do not want to watch the Afghan Whigs or Weezer. The world, truly, has turned and left you here.

So you make do. When Greg Dulli emerges at the beginning of the Afghan Whigs’ set, you go apeshit. You and your homegirl scream like you’re about to descend down the first peak of the Texas Giant at Six Flags, arms around each other and some vaguely ironic twist on actual enthusiasm on your face. The band gives you the occasional song you can dance to. The touring drummer stomps out a dance-like beat during 1999’s “Somethin’ Hot,” and you convince yourself that this is good enough. But then the old people all around you mouth along every word; women in their 30′s in black dresses and fishnet tights near you stare up at the stage like the 47-year-old man singing “I want you so bad/ After tonight, I’ll never walk the same” is actually the rock god Jim Morrison in 1969. You are reminded that your weird aunt has a sex drive, and your mellow is officially harshed.

ACL, add a dance stage next year.

Michael Fassbender

Michael Fassbender enjoys some Iggy Pop. Photo by Mary Rehak for MTV Hive.

3.       People are pretty much over Ryan Gosling.

At last year’s ACL Festival, the appearance of Christian Bale — shooting a scene from the untitled Terrence Malick movie that has had the auteur popping in at various music fests — was a big deal, but it was nothing compared to the excitement two months later, when Ryan Gosling’s presence at Fun Fun Fun Fest, as part of the same shoot, launched thousands of tweets, new Facebook profile photos, and the indispensible “Ryan Gosling at Fun Fun Fun Fest” Tumblr.

This year, Malick was back at the festival, along with Gosling, Michael Fassbender, and Rooney Mara, filming scenes and hanging out on the side stages (Mara even plugged in to jam with the Black Lips on Friday). But people were over it. The tweets from Friday from the astonished and excited numbered in the low dozens; people spent more time buzzing about a weird, totally unfounded rumor that Jack White might be canceling his set; nobody Tumbl’d shit, and he’d have had to take his shirt off during Saturday’s late-afternoon rainstorm to get anyone circulating blurry, faraway pictures around on Instagram. It was last year’s meme at this year’s festival. Hey girl, you can only blow the minds of an entire city’s music lovers with your very presence once, it seems.

4.       Outside of a particular indie rock niche, people are still pretty into Weezer.

If you never had your life changed by Pinkerton, you never had your heart broken by Raditude. The extremely vocal contingent of people who will never forgive Rivers Cuomo for focusing on his interest in catchy-as-fuck, featherweight power pop over further in-depth explorations of his sexual neuroses may continue to dominate the discussion of the band and its legacy in the blog chatter, but head out into the real world, and nobody gives a shit about the fact that he’s not writing songs like “Tired Of Sex” anymore. Get on the happy bus — we’re going to the beach!

Because the truth of Weezer? Weezer are really fun to sing along to. They write songs that are instantly knowable without being boring. They’re a perfect early-evening festival act. It’s amazing that they’re not at every one of these, every year, because there’s almost nobody in a crowd of 70,000 people who paid a couple hundred dollars to spend the weekend at a festival who is going to be anything other than delighted to see them. The songs were either radio hits or they sound like they should have been; even if you’ve never really explored the breadth of the band’s back-catalog, it’s easy to know the words by the time the second chorus comes around. They’re probably just “Ho-whoa!”  or “Ooh, ooh,” anyway.

Which is why there were so many voices joining in when Cuomo exhorted the crowd to take over his hooks. “Like a soccer stadium!” he implored us, and what the hell? A bunch of bummed out late-90′s-emo adherents who wanted him to sing atonally about his weird racial fetishes and post-stardom alienation can’t compete with a fucking soccer stadium worth of people screaming “Beverly Hills! Beverly Hills!”

And that’s really the whole point to Weezer, anyway, as the band has grown into this second phase to its career. They’re a festival band all the time, even on their albums, even when they’re delighting their early-days faithful with a tour celebrating The Blue Album and Pinkerton, even when they’re hosting a cruise ship, even when they’re putting out record after record that isn’t going to end up on anybody’s top-ten list. No, the people singing “Oh, oh, and you’re Mary Tyler Moore!” or “I got my hash pipe” may not feel like Rivers Cuomo personally understands them, but what are the odds that he’d have been able to pull that trick off for people 18 years into his career anyway?

“This is a band that knows how to do it,” Steve, a fifty-something-year-old guy in a polo shirt, declared to me as the band started playing “Say It Ain’t So.” “They just go from one right into the next. Hit after hit!” Thousands of fists pumped along with the guitar, with each syllable of the chorus.

By the time the band was wrapping up — closing with “The Sweater Song,” a neat full-circling of the band’s career — a person could walk away from the stage and see people, some in “Weezer Cruise Alumni 2012″ t-shirts, some well past their prime rock years, some enthusiastic teenagers, some happy bros, some Alt-Nation holdovers who were there despite themselves, standing on their blankets, swaying with the loping bass line, and mouthing the words, stretching on for a quarter mile.

5.       It’s weird that Michael Kiwanuka isn’t a bigger deal in America.

In his native England, he’s a much-watched rising star. He’s showered with accolades and awards. His debut album, Home Again, is a strong “album of the year” contender. The rich tones of his voice, which seems almost impossible to justify coming from an enthusiastic 24-year-old, are an important part of the musical landscape of 2012. He’s on the Mercury Prize shortlist, which is apparently something people in the UK care about? He’s going places, in other words, that Michael Kiwanuka.

But here? Not much going on. Interscope released Home Again in the US like they were trying to keep a secret, even though what Kiwanuka is doing — throwback, soulful folk that sounds like 70’s AM radio filtered through an indie-rock mentality — is fairly tailor-made for American ears in 2012. Which was proven, once more, during his modestly-attended, surprisingly rainy, ACL set on Saturday.

The appetite for music like Kiwanuka’s — folky, soulful, mellow, laid-back, dare-I-say chill — is especially high at ACL, where those last three adjectives describe a state of being that’s the platonic ideal of living in Austin. And he tossed out some of what that crowd lives for, too. In addition to his Home Again material, he offered a cover of “May This Be Love” by Jimi Hendrix, playing it lovely and stripped-down, like the Buddha hadtaught us all that true virtuosity is found only in restraint…

Kiwanuka is a special artist. He’s the sort that a lot of people go to festivals having never heard of before, unless maybe a local college radio station added the single to the rotation after the lineup was announced, but come away remembering. Maybe it’s going to be a slow-burn for Kiwanuka on these shores, as he builds his fanbase festival-by-festival, but he deserves to have his British success replicated here.

Neil Young

Neil Young photo by Mary Rehak for MTV Hive.

6.       Neil Young still does not give a fuck what you want him to be.

It was probably clear after he opened his headlining set on Saturday with a 17-minute take on “Love And Only Love” from his 1990 album Ragged Glory that Neil Young was not interested in giving the people the hits that they tend to desire at big music festivals where Jack White is playing in the same park. But if it wasn’t, then he found other ways to express it.

Like, for instance, playing the same atonal note along with Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampredo for a solid five-plus minutes, in a weird, Sonic Youth-style freakout. (“This isn’t a young punk show!” implored Alicia, a 36-year-old realtor from Dallas who ended up standing next to me for the set, speaking for most of the people around us.) Or not singing a word for the first six minutes he was onstage. Or basically ignoring the majority of the hits in his catalog in favor of seemingly random tracks culled from albums both old and new. He utterly ignored his four-month old album with Crazy Horse, Americana, but tossed out songs like the ten-year-old “She’s A Healer” from the largely-forgotten Are You Passionate?

In all, the two-hour set from Neil Young & Crazy Horse consisted of a grand total of 12 songs. Of those, three were ever released as singles anywhere in the world — “Cinammon Girl,” “Hey Hey, My My,” and “The Needle and the Damage Done” — while the rest were either live staples, deep cuts, or unreleased songs  from his forthcoming album with Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill. The grousing from the crowd during the show, and around the  festival afterward, was loud and passionate.

But Neil Young is 66 years old. He has seen and done all of the things a person can do in rock and roll. He is the Greatest Living Canadian by a wide margin, and — standing in sharp relief to walking corpses like the Rolling Stones, or The Eagles, or Bob Dylan — he appears to still really love being onstage and making music. As a guy who got really weird every time the mainstream threatened to actually like him, why would anyone expect anything other than a two-hour performance seemingly designed to please only himself? If he spent the flight to the show thinking about his back-catalog and was all, “You know, that song ‘She’s a Healer’ that I wrote like ten years ago is really pretty good!” then at least he’s thinking about his music in interesting ways; compare that to the dead-eyed crowd-pleasing of most of Young’s contemporaries and alienating a huge part of the festival audience at Austin City Limits is actually the most rock and roll thing you can do.

7.       Gotye sounds even more like Sting from far away.

If you sat out Gotye’s set on Saturday night to ensure that you got a good spot for Neil Young, you could still hear a little bit of the “Somebody That I Used To Know” dude’s set drift over from the next-nearest stage, a couple hundred yards away. But if you thought that maybe they’d accidentally booked Sting, you are probably just responding to the reverb and echo that’s so prominent in his voice that should otherwise make you want to send an S.O.S. to the world requesting that his short tenure as a famous musician end quickly, please.

8.       Iggy Pop doesn’t look a day over a hundred.

Of all of the rock stars who are currently eligible for Social Security, Iggy Pop has aged the least over the past twenty years. But that’s not really worth much, because the dude looked like his skin was made out of leather and beef jerky since he was 45, so he was really just an early achiever. In any case, The Stooges played at ACL, and it was not a set full of early achievements. The band opened with a listless rendition of “Raw Power,” and didn’t seem to find the joy in “Search And Destroy” for the follow-up.

A few songs later, though, Iggy really sprang to life. The band had just finished up “Gimme Danger,” which is at least kind of a dance-y number, when he determined that he needed to shake things up. “We’re the fucking Stooges!” he called, and insisted that the crowd join the band onstage. Which about thirty of them did, climbing up and shouting their “Woooo”s to the watching world.

And then it was time for “Shake Appeal,” which Iggy sang while accompanied by thirty-some attractive, dancing young people. It was like a Gap commercial, with the young people ­­advertising the Iggy-wash skinny jeans on the 1969 label (“another pair for me and you / another pair with nothing to do!”) while the sexagenarian singing the song finally found some new life. It was like Iggy Pop was some bizarre psychic vampire, calling his devotees to the stage in order to rob them of their youth and vitality, boosting his own energy levels and keeping his abs washboard tight at their expense.

Or maybe not, but the guy moved like he was on strings for the rest of the hour. The band kept the focus of the material largely on the three classic Stooges albums (nothing from The Weirdness, thank goodness) and some of the live staples like “Cock In My Pocket” and “Louie Louie,” rounded out with a couple Iggy solo hits. For a guy who started out his set giving off the impression that he’d been left in the sun too long, that ain’t bad.

9.       The Weeknd got sick, but if you just plug a DJ in and let him play songs that everybody likes, you will delight a festival crowd anyway.

DJ Mel, an Austin local who, it can only be assumed, did not really expect to be playing on a major ACL stage at 5:15 on Sunday night when he woke up that morning, came through like a pro. He played “N*ggas In Paris,” “Bombs Over Baghdad,” “Whoop That Trick” from the movie Hustle And Flow, some Beastie Boys, whatever he seemed to have handy, and since everybody who would have gone to see The Weeknd probably likes all of those songs, it was an entirely satisfying hour of music. People were probably happier with DJ Mel’s set than they were with Neil Young’s, honestly. There may be a lesson there for everybody, but let’s pretend not to know what is, because it will eventually just lead to everybody staying home and buying really nice speaker systems.

10.   All music festivals are not created equal.

At 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, while Gary Clark Jr. was in the midst of his set — a bluesy, oft-rocking, occasionally soulful collection of songs that will end up in commercials, TV shows, and scenes in movies that take place in bars for years to come, there were huge outbursts of cheers. From people who had their backs to the stage, maybe a hundred yards away, tucked inside the football tent. The Cowboys were on the verge of a 4th quarter comeback over the Ravens.

You can question the wisdom of spending $200 on a festival ticket, only to spend three hours glued to a Jumbotron in a tent showing a football game (“I wish they set this up every Sunday,” Ethan, a young dude in a Patriots snapback, lamented), but this is Texas. Friday Night Lights was set there, and filmed in Austin, for a reason. They don’t have a dedicated area of the festival showing sports all day at Lollapalooza, but for a not-insignificant portion of the ACL demographic, the chance to watch the Cowboys play on a big screen while Gary Clark Jr. rips through a great set a hundred yards a way is a fair description of utopia.

Florence and the Machine

Florence and the Machine photo by Mary Rehak for MTV Hive.

That’s not the only thing that separates ACL from Lollapalooza, or Outside Lands, or Coachella, or Bonnaroo, or any of the other music festivals that dot the map every year. Yeah, they all share many of the same headliners — you could shuffle up Jack White, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Black Keys, Florence and the Machine, AVICCI, and Neil Young, and assign them to festivals at random, and you’d end up with bills similar to what 2012 presented. And there’s room for cynicism about the flattened landscape of our monoculture, where the Internet has eliminated regional differences to the point that everybody speaks with the same TV-weatherman accent, loves the same type of music, and wears the same absurd fashions. But that’s only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that Austin City Limits — even looking beyond the football tent — is as sure a reflection of the city and region in which it takes place as Lollapalooza is of Chicago, or Outside Lands is of the Bay Area, or Coachella is of Southern California. At Lollapalooza, every YOLO’d-out teenager from the Midwest seems to have convinced their parents to drive them to Chicago so they can dance and writhe at Perry’s Stage; at Coachella, the LA proximity means that Snoop and Dre are going to show up with a Tupac hologram in-tow, because they know they need to play “California Love,” and surprise guests — many in actual corporeal form — pop up in for unexpected appearances because they’re around anyway, so what the hell?

At Austin City Limits, meanwhile, the crowd is diverse in ways that would be utterly bizarre at, say, Bonnaroo. There are old people at ACL, y’all. Like, a lot of them. This is the one weekend a year where a whole lot of people from all over Texas — men and women in their forties, fifties, sixties, beyond — get out and see some music. They bring folding chairs and blankets, they don’t give much of a shit who’s going to be on which stage, they stake out a spot a good fifty yards away from the front, they drink beer all day long, and they have a damn fine time. There are parents with little kids, there are pill-swallowing teenagers, there are the seemingly-endless parade of 20-somethings who have made Austin one of America’s fastest growing cities, there are faces that are many different colors staring up at the stages — it’s a reflection of the city, and Austin is distinct from Chicago, from LA, from everywhere else that has a giant music festival that attracts thousands and thousands of people, which is pretty much everywhere these days.

Which isn’t to say that it’s some enlightened utopia. People puke all over, people ignore smoking ordinances that are designed to keep the festival from being engulfed in flames, they charge you three fucking dollars for a pair of Advil, the portapotties smell like fetid death, and the oldsters and the young people complain about each other constantly. People spend an entire day in the park watching football instead of listening to music, even though they’re at a music festival. It’s still, at times, strange and too hot and full of people you would wish back to their homes if you found a genie. But it’s all of those things in ways that are unique, and we rarely take the time to celebrate those things.

Check out photos from all three days of the festival, from Hive photographer Mary Rehak:

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