Music Sandbox
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Austin City Limits Festival — a Texas institution almost on par with South by Southwest — kicked off its second year as a two-week music bonanza with three days of almost cloudless skies at picturesque Zilker Park. Onstage, veteran rockers Pearl Jam played to their top headlining spot and Eminem nearly stole the entire weekend. The EDM trifecta of Skrillex, Zedd and Major Lazer moved the crowd, alongside the Dirty South goodness of Outkast‘s ongoing reunion and the kitchen-sink eclecticism of Beck. With the first half of the 2014 edition now in the books, there is one thing everyone can agree on: Next weekend, we need to get Iggy Azalea a bigger stage.

Best of the Fest: Pearl Jam

pearl jam
Chad Wadsworth

Pearl Jam are now well into the phase of their career where they can do nearly anything onstage – like play a festival-closing set that doesn’t include career-defining hit “Jeremy.” Or open with a somber tune like “The Long Road” and shift immediately into the almost-hardcore punk of “Go” without losing the audience in the process. In between songs Vedder was often at his wine-buzzed, extemporaneous best, sophomorically chiding a crowd member carrying a flag for the size its pole, urging the audience to register to vote in the November mid-term elections and inviting the crowd to a keg party at a crew member’s Austin home. While a healthy dose of fine but largely unfamiliar material from last year’s “Lightning Bolt” caused a bit of a lull, a return to the band’s early-Nineties classics delivered the expected cheers before a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” closed the show. That song has been in the band’s repertoire for more than two decades now, to the point that they almost co-own it with Young – appropriate in that both acts are constantly taking creative chances and trust that their crowds will be willing to follow along.

Best Spectacle: Eminem

Barry Brecheisen/WireImage

Fans of Eminem began assembling hours before his Saturday night set, and by the time the Detroit rapper took the stage, the crowd rivaled that of any headliner in the festival’s history. This speaks volumes about both Eminem’s continued drawing power and the transformation of the festival, which began as a mostly roots rock and country endeavor but has eagerly embraced rap stars like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Either way, Em took the stage like a top prize fighter, hitting the speedbag through dense verses and power-punching the hooks. Cuts from his opening trio of records worked best – the bounce of “The Real Slim Shady” and “Without Me” was an easy highlight – and the set built toward those quasi-motivational anthems “Not Afraid” and “Lose Yourself,” rapped as fireworks exploded for a knockout blow. Still, a few songs earlier, one had to engage in an impressive suspension of disbelief – or at least note the irony – when Eminem said he’d been remiss in not addressing all the ladies in the crowd, as if they’d not been a party to the hour-long tapestry misogyny he’d crafted.

Best Reunion, Reagan/Bush I-Era Edition: The Replacements

the replacements
Chad Wadsworth

Now a little more than a year into a well-received reunion of their own (read our feature here), founding Replacements Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson were in full wise-ass mode from the drop, with Stinson sneering “I smell me a hippy” before even playing a note. A chaotic run through “Takin’ a Ride” and “I’m in Trouble,” followed by a wobbly “I’ll Be You,” raised some concern about how the rest of the hour would play out, but an extra snotty “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” confirmed that the punk legends knew what they were doing. By the time they settled into the closing run of “Bastards of Young,” “Left of the Dial” and “Alex Chilton,” the sound was melodic and muscular in all the right places. Were they playing us for fools with the shaky start? Impossible to say, but that’s probably what they’d have us believe.

Best Reunion, Clinton/Bush II-Era Edition: Outkast

Chad Wadsworth

By this point in their festival reunion tour, it was well known that Outkast would open their set with the funk hurricane of “B.O.B.” Of course, this made the performance no less thrilling, and the duo proceeded to follow it with a few tracks from 1998′s Aquemini. Nodding toward their later creative rift, André 3000 simply stated, “I’m a go see a man about a horse” and left the stage, allowing his counterpart to showcase Speakerboxxx cuts like “The Way You Move,” Sleepy Brown’s silky accompaniment becoming an unlikely highlight. André 3000′s follow-up solo suite was uneven by comparison – he’s always had the higher ceiling and lower floor – but the sheer ecstasy of “Hey Ya!” was enough to forgive a meandering misfire like “Prototype.” Even without new material, this reunion felt organic and loose, with the long-time friends finding their groove, trading flows and cracking wise throughout the night.

Best Attempt to Keep ACL Weird: St. Vincent

St Vincent
Chad Wadsworth

Working blistering solos into avant-garde compositions plucked straight from the David Byrne and Laurie Anderson-taught art rock master class, Clark got weird, provocative, punishing and even pop, all in the same set. The many hundreds of people jamming out to “Digital Witness” and “Birth in Reverse” surely appreciated this, and one wonders if the Austin Chamber of Commerce –the group who made “Keep Austin Weird” their official slogan – felt the same way.

Best Bass Rumble: Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”

Iggy Azalea
Chad Wadsworth

With eight stages in a mid-sized municipal park, ACL Fest crowds occasionally end up traffic-jammed in front of a stage that’s far too small for the artist playing on it. Such was the case with Iggy Azalea‘s Saturday slot, when it looked and felt like every one of the 75,000 or so people in attendance was trying to get close to the Australian phenom. Eventually, 20 minutes of squeezing between people packed like sardines earned you the chance to hear bass rumble for “Fancy” but little else.

Best New Voice: Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive

Lake Street Dive
Chad Wadsworth

When Rachael Price opens her mouth and lets loose with her cool cannon blast of a voice, you sort of forget to breathe for a few seconds. Price’s talent was on display from the opening notes of “Stop Your Crying” on Friday afternoon, and the group around her casually placed these vocals over breezy instrumentals like “What About Me” and “Bad Self Portraits.” Normally, you’d expect to her a voice like this singing country, but Lake Street Dive aim closer to Dusty Springfield or Peggy Lee. Based on their ACL response, that seems like a wise move.

Best Purist Provocation: Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey
Chad Wadsworth

Opening her set with “Cola” Lana Del Rey wasted no time journeying into a mid-crowd aisle to take pictures, sign autographs and collect at least one gift bag from a fan. By the time she stepped back onstage and into the soaring “Body Electric,” one wondered if the bank of vocal effects processors and backing tracks in her setup deserved at least equal billing. Of course, whatever she was doing worked, and the massive crowd sang along passionately to tracks like “Born to Die” and “Summertime Sadness.”

Best Music-Weather Juxtaposition: AFI

Chad Wadsworth

“We used to play hardcore. It sounded like this.” Those words came from AFI singer Davey Havok as his band launched into the two-minutes-or-so maelstrom of “A Single Second,” midway through a set that displayed the many creative turns punk bands can take as they grow older. For most of an hour the guys moved from the screaming pop-punk of their early day to the grandiose anthems like “Love Like Winter” that have defined their more recent work. While the Warped Tour alumni have stylistically shifted gears over the years, Havok’s lyrical imagery has stayed rooted in the macabre – an odd juxtaposition their sunny, mid-day surroundings. With 20-plus years under their belts, though, the heat never caused AFI’s energy or spirit to flag, and the singer carried on like the living embodiment of what might’ve happened if a young Edgar Allan Poe had ever fronted a punk band.

Best Combination: Spanish Gold and Benjamin Booker

Benjamin Booker
Chad Wadsworth

Nothing beats when early afternoon stage-hopping leads to catching a pair of acts that sound surprisingly complementary. Take Saturday, when a quick visit to groove rockers Spanish Gold led perfectly into Benjamin Booker’s set of dirty rock & soul halfway across the park. Spanish Gold are the new project of My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan, versatile Austin guitarist Adrian Quesada and Hacienda singer Dante Schwebel, and the still-new combo were relaxed but steady as they showed off material from this year’s debut album, South of Nowhere.

The young upstart Booker, meanwhile, was several notches more aggressive and ferocious, but the mutual appreciation of basic, muscular rock provided an obvious link. Set highlight “Old Hearts” was a punky summation of what Booker does best, with the smoldering “Happy Homes” dialing back the beats per minute and letting his lyrics linger over the thick crowd. That crowd got a genuine curveball thrown at them when the young guitarist played a pair of Celtic-themed tunes – including a reworked cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Mean Jumper Blues.”

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