AUSTIN, Texas — It was a weekend of epic beginnings and endings at the 10th annual Austin City Limits Festival, among them: Kanye West shut the lid on the operatic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tour , Coldplay played one of the final American festival dates in the run-up to the release next month of Mylo Xyloto and perhaps most importantly for locals, Texans danced in ecstasy as the worst drought in Lone Star history got a brief reprieve thanks to some intermittent showers.
Yes, there were three days of amazing music, ranging from folk to house, blues, rock, soul and hip-hop, but along with crowd-pleasing headline sets from such legends as Stevie Wonder and rockers My Morning Jacket and festival-closers Arcade Fire, what a lot of people will remember is the blessed rain.
The weekend got kicked off in style on Friday with electro rapper Theophilus London, who charmed the early afternoon crowd with the rolling pop of “Why Even Try,” the hard-spitting “Last Name London” and a brand-new trunk-rattler, “Big Spender.”
Most fans show up to a festival like ACL looking to rock, but fey British ambient/dubstep king James Blake made them take a chill pill, sitting at his electric piano and keyboards and crooning wordless sounds amid droney synth washes and minimal, machine beats.
Just after parched, wildfire-licked Austin got its first taste of rain in as long as anyone can remember, the Smith Westerns played some mellow humidity rock, with just enough energy to make you sway and bounce so a trickle of perspiration drips down your back during tunes like “End of the Night.”
Outkast’s Big Boi had no such problem, fronting a 10-piece ATL soul rap revue that got asses shaking to “Rosa Parks,” a Parliament-Funkadelic-thick “Ms. Jackson,” and the triple-time sprints of “Ghetto Musick” and “B.O.B.”
A short time later, dynamic duo Nas and Damian Marley wound up their main-stage set with a dancehall-spiced take on papa Bob’s iconic “Could You Be Loved,” which spread some loving vibes as the sun finally began to set. And with a psychedelic, pulsing cityscape backdrop, DJ Pretty Lights dropped some gut-shaking deep bass samples, mixing in stoned reggae beats and looped blues wailing for a soul-soothing set of head-bobbing “dance” music you didn’t have to sweat to.
Kanye didn’t disappoint either, holding down the stage during all three parts of his relationship power-play ballet. He commanded the dramatically lit stage for 90 minutes, tearing through a roster of hits including “Runaway,” “Power,” “Jesus Walks,” “Monster,” Flashing Lights” and “Good Life,” occasionally joined by a troupe of ballet dancers, but mostly stalking the boards alone.
Day two dawned hazy and new wave with New York band Twin Shadow’s guitar-heavy New Romantic psychedelia. VMA performers Young the Giant got an extra dose of energy from above when the skies opened up for a brief, torrential sun storm, making the most of it by pumping out their radio-friendly, impassioned rockers “Guns Out” and “Cough Syrup” to the soaked audience’s delight.
Los Angeles’ Fitz and the Tantrums kept the sweaty audience raindancing during such Motown-esque jams as “Rich Girls” and “Don’t Gotta Work It Out,” and the gut-quaking bass of wildly popular DJ Skrillex sounded like thunder across the way, as he shouted along to the party-pumping refrain of his signature tune, “My Name Is Skrillex,” while mixing in bits of Robyn and Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock.
Cee Lo Green, known for his outrageous stage costumes, kept it tame, dressing down in a black Adidas track suit with red piping while his all-female band modeled skintight red jumpsuits and minidresses. He didn’t dial down the funk, though, blasting through “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Freak” as the setting sun blazed away on the main stage. He also did some gender reassignment with the Pussycat Dolls’ signature hit “Don’t Cha,” dedicated “Satisfied” to the victims of the recent Texas wildfires and played a slow, beat- and turntable-heavy version of the Gnarls Barkley hit “Crazy.”
Elastic talkbox freak funkers Chromeo dedicated “I Am Somebody” to their recently passed collaborator, DJ Mehdi . And with a large portion of the sold-out crowd down at the other end for a rare festival set from soul icon Wonder, My Morning Jacket cranked their energy up a notch, blasting off with the slowly building “Victory Dance,” then segueing into the fierce reggae rock jam “Off the Record” and the majestic interstellar overdrive anthem “Gideon.”
As usual, lead singer Jim James was in fine falsetto wailing voice, working the whole stage as he shook his mound of neon-lit curly hair. The fierce Southern gospel rock set included such favorites as “Wordless Chorus” and ended with a three-song mini-set featuring former tourmates New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
One of the givens at ACL is that you will get a chance to see a legend (or two), and this year’s Hall of Famer was Wonder, who soothed an exhausted crowd’s mind with a velvety lounge take on “Ribbon in the Sky” and a slow-dance grand piano stroll through “Overjoyed.” Then he picked it up like nobody can, pivoting into the sing-along “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and the rubbery disco groove of “Sir Duke,” his keening vocals seemingly unchanged after half a century.
They boogied hard to “Do I Do” and “My Cherie Amour” and lost their minds when he busted out the harmonica during “For Once in My Life.”
Graffiti6 had the unenviable task of opening the final day, trying to draw a crowd with their Maroon 5-meets-Crosby, Stills and Nash blue-eyed acoustic pop soul, while downtown punkers-turned-rancheros Mariachi El Bronx cooked up some authentic really down South jams on tunes like “Cellmates.” But with their embroidered black suits, they won the race for the weekend’s most weather-unfriendly stage wear. Festival vets the Airborne Toxic Event pumped out muscular arena rock, including fiddle-assisted covers of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law.”
Philly’s Chiddy Bang proved their freestyle skills once again, as rapper Chidera “Chiddy” Anamege took requests from the audience and strung together verses about Texas, “Saved by the Bell” and, shockingly, weed.
Canadian collective Broken Social Scene just had to play their syncopated rocker “Texico Bitches,” but the weekend’s most intense visual spectacle was courtesy of Australia’s Empire of the Sun. Lead singer Luke Temple emerged in a blue glittery tunic and towering feathered headdress, along with four dancers in pink catsuits and frilled masks accented by oversize light-up cardboard guitars. Pounding new-wave dance rock tunes like “Standing on the Shore” amid multiple increasingly outrageous costume changes, the set felt like the sexy psychedelic space musical Duran Duran never mounted.
Like a lot of bands, Canada’s Arcade Fire said Austin is their second home, and they were welcomed to the festival’s closing spot like favorite sons and daughters by a massive crowd that seemed to spread to the horizon. Their cinematic tour through the stations of teenage rebellion — complete with movie theater marquee showing black-and-white flicks — included stops at such ravers as “Ready to Start,” “No Cars Go,” the widescreen shout-along rouser “Wake Up!” and the live rarity, “Speaking in Tongues.”
They were not going to send them home gently into that good night, though, instead charging through “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” as a goodbye memento worth keeping more than that wicked farmer’s tan and nasty heat headache.
Beginnings, endings and one hell of a middle, ACL had plenty of all three.