When you think about Austin (the live music capital of the world) and festivals, one of the first events to come to mind is probably the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Starting 11 years ago, the first two day festival didn’t draw huge names but instead brought in acts that fit within the TV show’s tradition of Americana and Alt-Country. Ticket prices were low, and the focus was solely on the music. In 2004 I attended the festival and caught a more indie line-up of acts like Cat Power, Modest Mouse, and The Pixies. But it seems with the recent release of the festival’s 2013 line-up and its avarice plans to have two separate three day weekends that ACL has lost its way. Only a week prior to the line-up release I attended Psych Fest in Austin, and as I basked in the warmth of the psychedelic sounds from the stage, I had a realization – ACL is no longer the best festival in Austin: in my opinion, it ranks 5th.
I know with lists like this you want to go high to low, but in this case I’m going to work backwards, building toward an understanding of how others have created festivals that are fueled by the grassroots excitement that once could be found in the now corporate ACL production. Here they are, from first to worst.
1. South By Southwest
Not only is South By Southwest the best music festival in Austin, it is questionably the best music festival in the United States (I say this as a caveat considering there are A LOT of festivals I’ve never attended). SXSW is so different from any other concert experience. For four days you wander the streets of Austin ingesting street tacos and free beer while taking in dozens of bands a day. The shows are more intimate with most of them taking place in small bars, and the bands range from the most obscure Norwegian black metal band to the likes of Dave Grohl and Prince. Your options are limitless and the freedom to explore makes each day of the festival an adventure.
Deerhunter, up close and personal at a SXSW day show:
2. Austin Psych Fest
This year was my first year at Austin Psych Fest, and if I had attended it in years past my opinion may be different. But this year, the planners of the festival upped the ante having it take place at a ranch near the airport, southwest of Austin. While I’m not a huge fan of the outdoor-fest experience, they were somehow able to give the weekend a relaxed, friendly feel. One stage sat on the banks of the Colorado River while the other two were spread out across the Carson Ranch sprawl. The food offered was from local vendors and for drinks you could opt for the locally distilled Tito’s vodka (cucumber infused – yum!). Pysch Fest even offered a campground for attendees, allowing people the freedom to enjoy themselves without commuting home and back again (like you have to for ACL). The fest was also great because of its focus on Psych rock, bringing in all variations of the form and even pulling in legends like The Moving Sidewalks and Kaleidoscope.
Where else will you get to see legends like Kaleidoscope in such an intimate setting?!:
3. Chaos in Tejas
Chaos in Tejas is definitely the most barebones, hardcore fest to take place within the Austin zip code. Taking place in three punk rock bars, the festival offers a wrist band option, but also allows you the freedom to just pay as you go. Another bonus is that many of the bands performing at the fest will play several days worth of shows, giving the opportunity to see all the bands you want without having to pick and choose. The small venues allow for a much more raucous crowd than what you’d find at the music industry focused SXSW. It’s rough. It’s rowdy. It’s fantastic.
Trading sweat with Fucked Up at a Chaos in Tejas show:
4. Fun Fun Fun Fest
Fun Fun Fun Fest takes place at the Auditorium Shores, a park nestled on the edge of the city. As a result, the outdoor festival is surrounded by the Austin skyline, a nice backdrop to a weekend of indie music. Fun Fun Fun Fest is one of the more creative festivals you’ll ever attend with its combination of strange food, weird art, skateboarding, and even a pro wrestling ring. It’s a bit more organized and rigid than Psych Fest (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but features the same independent spirit. Acts are a mixture of punk, hip hop, and metal, the type of fare you’d find on a skateboarder’s i-Pod. Fun Fun Fun Fest is just that – good fun in the waning days of fall.
Wavves at Fun Fun Fest playing in front of the Austin skyline:
5. Austin City Limits Music Festival
That of course leads us to ACL. My point of going through these other festivals is to show you what ACL has lost over the years. It once offered a focused line-up aimed at a specific genre, much like Psych Fest or Chaos in Tejas. This year’s line-up features Kendrick Lamer (my thoughts on him here), Lionel Richie (yes, this guy), and The Cure. Instead of coming up with a festival that aims to please a community of fans, ACL has become an Old Country Buffet of festivals, attempting to appease all of the masses in the name of the almighty dollar. This smorgasbord of genres results in an audience that is spread so thin that festival highlights like The National, Tame Impala, and Phosphorescent are likely to go under the radar. Hip hop fans mingle with tie-dye flag waving hippies and belt buckle wearing cowboys mingle with yuppies pushing strollers (seriously, you’ll find no other festival with as many kids running amuck).
ACL also features the most disconnected music experience of any Austin festival. The stages are massive and the crowds match in excessiveness. I saw Fleet Foxes at ACL two years ago, and the closest I could get to the stage was around 200 feet. The experience paled in comparison to when I saw the same band at SXSW in a little venue called Emo’s. For most sets at ACL you are forced to watch the gigantic video screens in order to actually witness the performance (I swear the screens are borrowed from Texas Stadium for the weekend). And even when you do focus on the stage your attention is often interrupted by the constantly swooping camera cranes capturing each moment in HD quality (gotta sell those DVDs!).
In 2013, things have only gotten worse for the one time little festival that could. As mentioned earlier, there will be two weekends now offered, featuring the exact same bands. Unlike other festivals where you can buy a one day pass or even go to the venue of your choosing like Chaos in Tejas, ACL is now requiring everyone to purchase the three day pass. (“Can’t make it Friday? Tough cookie! Hand over that dough sir!”) ACL still tries to put up an independent front with a scattering of local food trucks, but one look at the signage and its easy to see that it has become a corporate cash cow with the likes of Budweiser and Honda footing the bill. If ACL truly wanted to think locally they would offer a handful of beers from the dozen local Austin breweries, but of course, that wouldn’t fit within Big Brother Bud’s plan for world dominance.
This anger filled rant is not aimed at completely dismantling ACL; it’s more a statement of how I’ve seen the festival fall to the wayside. Nine years ago I attended my first ACL, and I still look back with fondness at seeing bands like Broken Social Scene and Spoon. But upon witnessing the recent changes to ACL in the name of good ol cash-ola, and the combination of horrific headliners (Muse, Kings of Leon, and Eric Church) and the 1980s reunion tours (The Cure, Depeche Mode, and Lionel Richie) it’s obvious that in 2013, ACL has lost its way.
If you disagree, fine. Enjoy your corporate shindig. I’ll take a Chaos in Tejas mosh pit over an insincere Kings of Leon show any day (although I have to admit that watching the Austin bats shit on the band would be worth the $225 price of admission).
Ah…what a great view of MGMT!: