Slow Night, So Long
“I had a great night and it’s about to get even better.”
2100 Barton Springs Road, Zilker Park, Austin, Texas, October 2-4, 2009:
We are officially heading into the end of 2019’s festival season with Austin City Limits kicking off this afternoon. Aside from local gems like the Mad Love Festival, ACL historically closes out the North American scene each year, going out with a bang – in a city that bleeds music.
Inspired by the KLRU/PBS series by the same name, ACL is now in its 18th season – serving as one of America’s premium and longest running festivals (Lollapalooza took a break from 1997 – 2003, took a year off in 2004, then started in Chicago in 2005).
Yesterday I happened to trip across some old photos that I had printed at a Walgreens and stuffed into an Air Jordan sneaker box in my garage. I dusted off this collection of 10 prints… all of which looked MySpace worthy, and was taken back to the exact place and time of each snap. ACL – 2009, my very first music festival experience, ten years ago this weekend. The last photo in my bunch was cropped and featured a guitar neck, ACL logo and the phrase, “Hear life to the fullest.” Perfect.
My sister and brother-in-law lived in Austin and my wife and I went to visit for a long weekend. How convenient that my favorite band, Pearl Jam, would be headlining ACL and closing out the three-day event. I was well-aware of the European festival frenzy and just how popular the circuit was there, and had an infatuation with such a style concert given the likes of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Jane’s Addiction, Rage Against the Machine and so many others had legendary shows in early 90’s on the Lollapalooza tours – often crediting this style gig as a catapult to their career. But having never attended a concert earlier than maybe 6pm, I really had no idea what I was in-store for. How could John Legend share a bill with Coheed and Cambria and Mutemath share the stage with Ghostland Observatory and then wait, Michael Franti is going to play at the same time as Arctic Monkeys?
Our orange cab drives over Congress Ave’s bat bridge and finally rolls into what really just looked like a small hiking park (sans hills) from the entrance line. Giddy, we skip through the cowboy marquee entrance, peep into the VIP area where we so gratefully got to hang, and then ascended into a galaxy of musical nirvana. I recall stopping dead (weather) in my tracks. The grass that would soon turn to every shade of mud brown was the brightest green I’d ever seen. There was a stage to left, a stage in front of me and then about three football fields around the corner to my right there was the main stage – that would host Kings of Leon, Dave Matthews Band and Pearl Jam.
The likeminded folks who arrived early were all smiling – both on the inside and out. Barefoot, people played hacky sack in circles while others bopped their heads to the BMI up-and-comers. Shaking out of my numbness, we drank tallboy Lone Stars and ate frito bags that had homemade chili dumped inside them, eventually making our way to catch Phoenix, the first full act we’d see from start to finish.
As I listened to Thomas Mars vocally soar, I watched the crowd in awe. There were flags from everywhere (and blow-up dolls) waving loud and proud amongst the sea of people. You mean, we weren’t the only ones who traveled from far away to attend? People from Mexico, Canada, France and as far as Germany came to what I thought was a small city where my sister lived, deep in the heart of Texas just to see some music?
It was the most celebratory live music atmosphere I had ever been in and we were only two hours deep into what would be a 72-hour experience. Soon after, fans and artists rushed and I mean … a bulls on parade style stampede – towards the center stage for Them Crooked Vultures, this brand new supergroup consisting of Dave Grohl, Josh Homme, John Paul Jones and Alain Johannes. They were a raucous sonic explosion of every color worthy of such intrigue. Speaking of Nirvana, I was totally mesmerized by seeing Grohl on drums and often caught myself thinking –you mean to tell me Grohl and Eddie Vedder are both here at the same time?
But were they? This was day one and Pearl Jam was set to close the entire festival weekend on Sunday/day three. They were in the midst of a tour in support of a two-week old record, Backspacer, so chances are they would come in Sunday morning, play their set Sunday night, and then take off again.
Instead of trying to catch Grohl’s drumstick or getting a better glimpse of real live Led Zeppelin wave goodbye, we ran to the mainstage to get situated properly for Kings of Leon – my sister and bro-in-law’s favorite band, who had this unspoken connection with Austin. A stack of Lone Star beers came with us and we had our perfect carve-out stationed about ten rows back, and nudged in-between where bassist Jared Followill would groove and singer Caleb Followill would rock.
I remember the lights the most. For what it’s worth coming from a Jersey boy who only knew Austin via the best show ever, Friday Night Lights, it was a perfect Friday evening. Whatever the air does there at dusk, it was doing. And then a paint brush caressed above the blue sky turning it a quick shade of red, then pitch black. The house music turned off, and these Come Around Sundown pickup truck style lights blasted upon the stage. One-by-one the three brothers and a cousin strut out. Drummer Nathan Followill, starts kicking the KoL tape logo bass drum, with the OU mini helmet shaking above his snare. Caleb glides a few power chords and away we go into “Crawl” off their mega-record, Only By The Night.
Only By The Night … perfect. I knew “Black Thumbnail” usually closes a KOL show and yet after they played it around song #19, they did not leave the stage, nor did they put their instruments down. Hmm. “Alright, I hope you guys had a great night tonight,” says Caleb. He pauses, then – “I had a great night and it’s about to get even better.” No…. no way, even better? Eddie Vedder? “Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Eddie Vedder!”
Vedder launches out from behind stage right with two tambourines shaking to extremes. He’s sporting a T-Shirt that appropriately read Fear More Beer, and most importantly he is totally exuberant. Together, they close day one with the most celebratory version of “Slow Night, So Long” jumping up and down, hugging and tossing said tambourines into what Vedder would later call the ocean of people. Graciously, they share their high and smiles with each and every person watching, leaving us all going home enthralled and eager for the next two days. We’d hit Homeslice pizza (every night) on the way back to my sister’s apartment so happy that we’d order massive quantities out of sheer joy instead of hunger.
The next two days provided more unique experiences that I can only hold as keepsakes from my first festival. There was torrential rain all day Saturday, yet Dave Matthews, was like one of those ants marching, and did not miss a beat. Returning for the big finale of day three, we saw Clutch, Ben Harper, The B-52’s and Jack White with the Dead Weather to name a few. In-between I’d head to the center grounds where they were playing the NFL games with extra-large Bud Light drafts. Eventually we returned to the main stage for Pearl Jam. That evergreen grass was now -ever-sloppy from the rain the day before- so much so, many either disregarded their shoes or got them swallowed whole. I drew a big “PJ” on the front of my T-Shirt with mud so thick it permantly tattoed the shirt (and I still have it).
PJ then takes the stage for the last two hours and immediately breaks into “Why Go” off Ten, where the chorus loops a “Why go home” lyric. Good question. During the show closer, “Rockin’ in the Free World”, Vedder hops into the crowd and slip n’ slides down a mud path back to the stage.
We concluded our trip with a glass of cheap red wine (at Homeslice) and then drove our rented Toyota Yaris to San Antonio to fly home. I have the Austin City Limits 2009 concert silkscreen poster framed and hanging in my house. Every day I stare at it. Sometimes it’s with a “Oh, wow, I didn’t realize this band was on the bill, too,” feeling enamored by the amount of great acts that made up the 2009 lineup. But mostly, like the dusted off photos, I have the memories and moments. That was my first experience seeing so many genres, so many walks of life, so many different people together to simply enjoy music and each other…because that’s what the power of the arts does.
Since 2013, Austin City Limits is now a two-weekend occurrence. That’s six days and about 140 hours for people to sing and dance together. Guns N’ Roses, Childish Gambino, Mumford and Sons, The Cure, Billie Eilish and Tame Impala will all bring their magic to Austin this year. And whether it’s ACL, or some of the newer guys that have participated in the American festival boom, inspired by what happens in Austin, you never forget how you felt at your very first. It’s like being inside a Jukebox with group of your favorite people – where you can push play on so many different songs, hearing life to the fullest.
All photos featured taken on my 2-megapixel iphone 1.