The dark clouds hung low and ominously last Sunday, like a stalled spaceship over Johannesburg.
The menacing grey mass loitered above Zilker Park threatening rain that never materialized, but that doesn’t mean that the final day of the Austin City Limits festival was a pleasant place to be. The brand new carpet of grass was planted using a filler material made from sewage by-products, so the entire place smelled like a combination between a bus station bathroom and an abandoned petting zoo.
Luckily, the day’s concert lineup was solid enough to keep me from worrying about what kinds of parasites were clinging to the cuffs of my pants.
“She’s, like, 97,” a kid in a backwards Texas Longhorns hat said when Kate Pierson and her radioactive-looking orange hair took the stage with new-wave pioneers The B-52’s. He was only off by 36 years but Pierson--the oldest of the Georgia foursome--was the most well-preserved especially compared to a paler-than-usual Fred Schneider, who looked like he may have just eaten a bad plate of--ahem--rock lobster.
The somewhat-listless crowd was unmoved by their newer material and didn’t stir until they played back-to-back karaoke favorites “Roam” and “Love Shack”, with Schneider barking out his trademark over-enunciated spoken parts. Twenty years after those songs were released, I’ve started to worry that the Love Shack--what with its rusted tin roof and faded sign--has probably been torn down and replaced with a Starbucks.
The B-52s were one of two revival acts attempting to flog new albums that no one wanted to hear, the other being grunge holdovers Toadies, best known for “Possum Kingdom” and...um...”Possum Kingdom”. I’m not gonna lie, during the fall of ’94 that song was catchier than mono and harder to escape than Doc Martens and Winona Ryder movies. Of course that means they saved it until the very end of their set.
Next, I clomped through three hundred yards of nastiness to catch West London’s White Lies. Their moody Editors meets Echo & the Bunnymen atmospherics would be a perfect match for the thick cloudcove--wait, what? Almost immediately after they walked onstage--dressed in matching all-black ensembles like an Olive Garden waitstaff--the sun came out, cooking the necks of everyone facing the XBox Stage.
The brightened conditions didn’t dull the impact of songs like “E.S.T.” or “To Lose My Life”, Harry McVeigh growling lines like “Let’s grow old together/And die at the same time” while Jack Lawrence-Brown’s drums provided just the right amount of bombast.
If you did a shot every time they referenced death, you’d still be facedown in the muck but--moping aside--White Lies were one of the surprises of the festival. I dug their sound and their songs and left understanding why they snagged this year’s MOJO Breakthrough Award.
From there it was back across the sludge to the AMD Stage for Arctic Monkeys. Main Monkey Alex Turner walked out wearing a blue shirt with the Led Zeppelin II cover on the back, fitting since his unruly tangle of curls was borrowed from Robert Plant, circa 1969. Their set was split evenly between their newest release Humbug and its predecessor Favorite Worst Nightmare and while the Humbug tracks definitely mark a leap in their musicianship and lyrical stylings, it was Nightmare’s songs that got the crowd moving.
The Monkeys have become formidable musicians, riffing their way through a driving version of “Crying Lightning” which was largely propelled by Matt Helder’s percussion.
Other highlights were an understated “Cornerstone” and a snarling “Pretty Visitors” which boasts the undeniably awesome line “Which came first/The chicken or the dickhead?”
Of course they did their breakout single “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor”, a song that even the kids in the embroidered fishing shirts knew the words to, though my personal favorite was their cover of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” which captured all of the swaggering menace of the original.
After digging the David Byrne-protégés The Dirty Projectors, I snagged a prime spot in front of the stage for The Dead Weather. Unfortunately, it was right behind the arm for the pneumatic camera, so my view of the stage was completely obscured by a massive hunk of metal. I had to look up and to the left to see their performance on the mega-screen above my head, which was still barely big enough to contain the outsized attitude of lead singer Alison Mosshart.
She stalked the stage, posturing almost as well as she played guitar. This was her show and as she belted lines like “I had a pony/Her name was Lucifer”, everyone forgot about the White Stripe behind the drum kit.
Jack White--who has started to look eerily like Sigourney Weaver--was content to stay behind the kit, providing a vicious backbeat for songs from their debut Horehound. He did take the mic for a cover of Them’s “You Just Can’t Win”, while Mosshart coyly smoked a cigarette in front of the bass drum.
The weekend came to a close with Pearl Jam’s headlining set. Backspacer, their hard-driving new album, made them sound like a band who still had something to prove and, for two hours in the humid Texas air, they did.
They kicked off their taut, ferocious set with “Why Go Home”, the entire audience pumping their fists and enthusiastically shouting along, somehow getting the pauses just right between “She’s been diagnosed” and “By some STUPID FUCK!”. From there, they had a brief stop in Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” before hard-hitting versions of “Corduroy” and Backspacer’s “Got Some”.
“We’ve been here for three days and in those three days we’ve received many, many gifts. So we’re going to do our best to return the favor,” Eddie Vedder said to thunderous applause as the guy beside me used my right shoulder to try to catapult himself onstage. “Personally, I’m not leaving until I’m covered in dirt,” Vedder finished, poetically enough, just as my neighbor landed facedown with a sickly splash.
Their set included cuts from all of their albums--save for Riot Act--and when they moved from “World Wide Suicide” into “Even Flow”, the twelve year old version of me would’ve had a spontaneous orgasm, if she’d known what that meant. Same for the twenty-five year old version.
“When something’s bored,” Vedder sings during “The Fixer,” Backspacer’s electrifying first single, “I wanna put a little exciting on it.” There were seventy thousand people there on Sunday night who can confirm that he did.