AUSTIN, Texas — Three days of inspired music from an eclectic lineup notwithstanding, two things are guaranteed at the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival: crowds and heat. And while organizers heard the pleas from the cramped attendees of years past and sold 10,000 fewer tickets this time, Mother Nature didn't entirely comply.
Luckily, the Texas capital dodged the bullet of Hurricane Rita, which threatened to postpone the festival. But in place of torrential rains and high winds, Zilker Park baked under temperatures that soared well into the hundreds. (Ironic that a weekend marked by such unbearable heat would be highlighted by a band called Coldplay.)
Singer Chris Martin, complete with taped fingers, a "=" on the back of his hand and wife Gwyneth Paltrow in the front row, traveled deep into the heart of Texas with his bandmates to headline this year's festival. And despite the earsplitting screams from female fans every time the lithe and dapper frontman did so much as breathe, it was hard to tell who was happier to be here.
Throughout Coldplay's 90-minute nighttime set, Martin repeatedly thanked the crowd for enduring Sunday's record-breaking 108-degree temperature and extolled the virtues of Austin, its annual South by Southwest music conference and the terrific ACL lineup — the Arcade Fire in particular. The multi-instrumental Montreal collective, who played an energized round earlier Sunday afternoon, garnered no less than five shout-outs from Martin, who even credited them for inspiring him to push the boundaries on Coldplay's latest album, X&Y.
"When we heard [the Arcade Fire's Funeral], we were all prepared to get day jobs. But instead of giving up, we just tried harder," Martin admitted before launching into "Everything's Not Lost" from Coldplay's 2000 debut Parachutes.
If Coldplay had set equally lofty goals for their live show, they certainly met them Sunday night. With the other seven stages left vacant for the headliners, the sold-out crowd of 65,000 watched the band tear through its catalog of hits. The giant video screen, which for most bands only amplified the stage scene for the folks way in the back, bolstered Coldplay's on-point performance with dizzyingly fast camera changes, odd angles and an array of special effects.
But Coldplay didn't need all that flashy technology to impress: Near the end of the set, Martin vacated the stage and ventured into the crowd to scale the scaffolding on the soundboard. There, perched 40 feet high, with just a microphone and thousands of voices singing along to support him, he delivered a poignant "In My Place" laden with the symbolism of him being among his fans.
As if he needed it, Martin further endeared himself to the Texas crowd with a cover of Johnny Cash's classic "Ring of Fire" — rather strange when sung with a British accent — and even threw in verse from Cash's "Five Feet High and Rising" for good measure. "Yellow," delivered surprisingly early in the set, came to summarize the evening: With the sun gone and a cool breeze finally refreshing the weary crowd, Martin directed the crowd to gaze upward as he appreciatively sang, "Look at the stars, see how they shine for you." And just then, a flurry of yellow balloons seemingly descended from the heavens. Sure, it may have been slightly sappy and a bit cheesy, but Coldplay have a knack for making that work.
While Coldplay and another British band, Oasis, capped off Sunday and Saturday night (respectively), the ACL Festival was by no means an anglophile affair. Mirroring the eclectic tastes of the long-running public television show that inspired the four-year-old festival, this year's lineup also included Widespread Panic, Franz Ferdinand, Death Cab for Cutie, the Black Crowes, Jet, Bloc Party, Spoon, Jason Mraz, the Allman Brothers and Lyle Lovett. And nearly all artists made mention of their love for Austin and its diverse musical community, though the subject of the insufferable heat was nearly requisite stage banter.
Like their fans Coldplay, the Arcade Fire must have regretted donning black suits for their afternoon set. Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, in a wide-brimmed straw sun hat and oversized Jackie-O shades that offset her tarty cheerleader get-up, seemed well-suited for the relentless sunshine — though guitarist Blake Sennet explained that he now knows not to use that peppermint conditioner in his hair if he's going to be sweating like a pig. The torch song "Does He Love You?" offered a temporary reprieve from the heat as the band forwent its low-fi honky-tonk sound for a chillier tone, and Lewis stalked the stage forlornly.
"Oh my God, I can't believe it / I've never been this far away from home," sang Kaiser Chiefs mainman Ricky Wilson while delivering "Oh My God," from atop the lighting rig on the side of the stage. Given that the band is from the U.K., where, as Chris Martin put it, "It never gets hotter than ... Maine," it's a wonder that Wilson or the rest of his mates didn't faint when serving up rave-ups like "I Predict a Riot" and "Modern Way," from Employment.
At around 3:30 p.m. each day, misery set in: The mercury was at its peak and Zilker Park became a giant dust bowl from thousands of shuffling feet. Many in the crowd wore bandanas or surgical masks over their faces to avoid inhaling the dust, drawing images of Wild West bandits and what would happen if "The O.C." met "E.R." ("Get me to Death Cab, stat!").
The forces of nature (or strategic stage planning), however, blessed the more aged attendees as the sun was just beginning to set. While the young hipsters, who were infants at best when Hüsker Dü released their first album, were off fetching a burrito, the thirtysomethings gathered for the Bob Mould Band on Sunday were treated to the first signs of shade all day. Mould can still wield as heavy a guitar as artists half his age, bringing nostalgia at the cost of split eardrums with new material as well as songs from his Husker Du ("Between a Wall of Clouds," "I Apologize") and Sugar ("Hoover Dam") catalogs.
With their throwback dance rock, Franz Ferdinand invigorated the crowd and actually prompted the already sweat-soaked crowd to bounce around and sweat some more. Between energetic blasts of "Michael" and "Take Me Out," and guitar solos that bordered on wanky, Alex Kapranos turned over the reins to drummer Paul Johnson for "Walk Away," one of a few new tunes played from their forthcoming second album, You Could Have It So Much Better.
To ask Jeff Tweedy, Wilco fans could have used some of the energy that Franz fans across the field were exhibiting so freely. The singer/guitarist actually pleaded with the crowd to show some enthusiasm for his band's set. "I know you've been out in the sun all day, but you could help out more," Tweedy said.
All they needed, apparently, was a little encouragement, because the uplifting "A Shot in the Arm," off 1999's Summerteeth, resuscitated the crowd right quick. "I like this groveling thing," Tweedy explained afterward. "[Groveling] is the new cockiness."
Perhaps the crowd wasn't so much bored and tired as they were awestruck by the mighty psychedelic freakouts that marked nearly all Wilco's selections. "Handshake Drugs" sputtered on spastically for nearly an extra minute before careening to a screeching halt like an overturned tractor-trailer. The beginning of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" was almost wholly blurred by excessive feedback dalliances, and "War on War" ended with what sounded like a tornado ripping through a symphony.
Wilco played like Jeff Tweedy looked: Unshaven and rough, and ready to rumble. Tweedy's vocals were strained — albeit beautifully — the piano clanked a bit too loudly, and the guitars sounded powerfully distorted and layered like a barbarian army. Perhaps he was a bit put off by the fact that Wilco had the misfortune to be playing at the same time as Franz Ferdinand, so the band kept banging it out 15 or 20 minutes past its scheduled stop time.
Anyone who mistakenly deems Wilco an alt-country band needs to update their database. By structuring hooky rock riffs around unconventional arrangements and playing like rock gods without the tight pants, Wilco has filled the void left when, three albums ago, Radiohead went more machine than man (and you thought that was going to be Coldplay?). Even though Coldplay earned the festival's biggest laurels with their mix of song and spectacle, Wilco did their damnedest to steal the spotlight from both the headliners and the heat.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.