While festivals are made of many moving parts, the Austin City Limits Festival’s focus is always on its musical offerings. This year, we were struck by a number of bands that were either getting their first big exposure or were poised at the edge of breaking out.
Gary Clark Jr. wears the banner as Austin’s next big musical hope, following in the same blues vein as that other well-known native son, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Clark’s rising star was well illustrated by the ACL Fest’s booking, as he performed last year on a small stage and was promoted up to the big, AMD stage this year. In between these festivals, Clark performed at the White House along with B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy, and made guest appearances at concerts with Alecia Keys and the Dave Matthews Band. Clark’s ACL appearance this year came just before the release of his new CD, Blak and Blu. The ACL crowd welcomed Clark with open adoration as he opened his set with “When My Train Pulls In” and then boogied into “Don’t Owe You a Thing.” Ultimately Clark’s set felt like the epic performance of a star that is ready to break out nationally.
Willis Earl Beal headlined the BMI stage on the final day of the Festival. Beal is a Chicago-born singer-songwriter whose self-recorded album Acousmatic Sorcery was discovered by independent record label XL. While Beal wanted to rerecord his demos, XL preferred the raw power of the originals and released the CD as it was. Beal is also a double threat as a musician and an artist, a fact he uses to great effect in his video, “Evening’s Kiss.” Beal was a surprising performer at ACL as he pranced back and forth across the stage wearing sunglasses, a black t-shirt that reads “NOBODY,” and was accompanied only by two mute, female mannequins and his own deep soulful voice. The audience’s great response added to Beal’s growing legend.
Kishi Bashi‘s set came as a surprise. Although we had seen the young performer as a member of of Montreal and of Regina Spektor’s touring band, his afternoon show was a plush mix of beat boxing with violin and Japanese vocal loops. Kishi Bashi, whose real name is K (Kaoru) Ishibashi, has just released his first full-length record, 151a, on Joyful Noise Recordings and funded partly through Kickstarter. The record’s title 151a is a reference to the Japanese saying, “live every day as though it were your last”. Kishi Bashi put this principle in action as he was joined by banjo player Mike Savino and their enthusiastic set was very well received by the ACL audience, indicating that this would probably not be the last opportunity to see this rising star.
Patterson Hood is no stranger to the ACL Festival as he has brought his well-known, alternative country band, the Drive-By Truckers to the Fest’s big stages on four previous occasions and also once performed here as a solo artist. Hood’s set at ACL included DBT hits and material from his recent solo recording, “Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance.” At ACL Hood’s band included instruments such as saw and cello, and one highlight of the performance was the song, “After the Damage.”
Lera Lynn is an up-and-coming young star with impressive credentials. In 2011, this Athens Georgia singer songwriter won the Songwriting Competition at Merlefest – an honor she shares with other great musicians including Gillian Welch & Tift Merrit. Also in 2011, Lynn’s record company released her solo CD whose title poses the question, Have You Met Lera Lynn? Our introduction came during her stage set when we were struck by her haunting voice and upbeat yet quirky performance which included a TV on the Radio cover.
Wild Belle is a brother-sister duo of Natalie and Elliot Bergman – Elliot plays saxophone and keyboards and Natalie sings. Unsurprisingly, the duo cites Bob Marley, James Brown and Sam Cooke as their biggest influences. Hailed by some in the crowd at ACL as the Fest’s next break-out stars, Wild Belle’s music did prove to be hauntingly infectious. The highlight of the siblings’ set was their song, “Backslider.”