Here are two ACL stories.
On Saturday night, the Afghan Whigs played a two-hour set at Antone’s after a mid-afternoon set the day before at the festival. It was the first time the Afghan Whigs had played a club date in Austin since the 1998 show at the Liberty Lunch that ended with frontman Greg Dulli in a coma after getting attacked by a bouncer.
The band broke up shortly after the Liberty Lunch incident and never recorded another album. Dulli proceeded to invest himself in his semi-solo project, the Twilight Singers (he used a rotating cast of musicians) and the other Afghan Whigs took to raising families. The band decided to reunite for a handful of shows, which became a fairly extensive tour, earlier this year.
This is worth mentioning because there’s a good chance that the Afghan Whigs wouldn’t have ever played in Austin again if not for the Austin City Limits Festival. The band inspired intense devotion in a small group of loyalists who had dreamed of a reunion for over a decade, but never achieved the sort of mythic cult status that made their return one that was guaranteed to touch every corner of the country.
But the idea, for me, that I could just walk across Zilker Park and then down to Antone’s and actually see the Afghan Whigs, after all that time, bordered on the absurd. Your mileage may vary, but the fact is: ACL brings incredible opportunities to Austin music fans.
Maybe it’s the chance to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse, who otherwise don’t really have a proper venue to play here, or to take a bunch of pills and get lost in a mass of tens of thousands while listening to AVICII, or to be introduced to next year’s crop of up-and-comers in one weekend without having to track down late-night babysitters a dozen different times.
No matter where you are in life, if you’re the sort of person who gravitates to ACL, there’s something that it offers you that is unique and significant. For me, it was the Afghan Whigs.
For Wild Child, it was the chance to actually play the festival
Wild Child’s rise has been more than a little impressive. The band is less than two years old, but they’ve already been invited to play ACL, local hero Ben Kweller is producing their new album, and they’ve recently landed nice gigs like an opening slot for Bob Schneider at Gruene Hall, a spot at UtopiaFest, headlining the 101X ACL pre-party and more. Right now, they’re in New York as part of the CMJ Festival.
It’s been a good year, and it’s barely begun for them. That new, Kweller-produced album is sure to raise their profile even more. So what does ACL do for a band like Wild Child?
“It legitimizes the band a little bit more,” the band’s frontman, Alexander Beggins, told me on Sunday at ACL. “You work your way up, and you finally get your Stubb’s show, then you get this. It helps legitimize that we’re doing the right thing, that we’re on the right path. And it’s good for our resume. It’s like doing a year-long internship in one weekend.”
The resume effects are probably legitimate. Even though the band’s noon set on Saturday wasn’t the best-attended set of the festival (“literally dozens of people!” keyboardist Evan Magers said of the crowd), it can only make booking easier going forward. And artists, who by temperament tend to require some external validation, can use the legitimacy of being told that they’re good enough to be on the same festival as, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“Even though we’re playing at noon on one of the small stages, we’re still on the same bill as Jack White and Neil Young. You look at the show bill, we’re obviously down on the bottom, but every single band on every line of that bill, I’m still like, ‘Wow. I have your album, and I fucking like that album.’ Just being in that company legitimizes it in a really cool way.”
It’s good news for Wild Child, and for the other locals who received similar validation this year — like Aaron Ivey, The Eastern Sea and the Wheeler Brothers — but for that validation to mean anything, there also have to be bands who don’t get it.
The haves and the have-nots
There are two schools of thought about the effect that something like ACL has on local bands. On the one hand, it validates the handful who get the call; it helps cement Austin’s identity as a music city, and people who aren’t playing are still allowed to buy a ticket to see great music.
On the other, it tends to filter out bands that don’t play indie rock or Americana music and it serves to emphasize the haves/have-nots divide in ways that are unfortunate for the have-nots who probably can’t afford a wristband (struggling musicians don’t tend to have much disposable cash).
That’s not a failing of the festival. You can’t expect it to be free or to invite every band in town. But it also helps explain some of the resentment that ACL inspires among Austin musicians who aren’t included (it’s more than just the traffic). Ditch the Fest Fest just experienced its third year, and as much as ACL tends to dominate the conversation for a solid week every year, it’s important to recognize that Austin music also exists independently of the festival, even in mid-October.
ACL brings Austin music people — the fans who can afford tickets, the bands who get tapped to play, even the venues who host the aftershows — some really unique and amazing opportunities. I’m 32 years old, and I’ve been going to concerts since I was 13 (Nine Inch Nails, Hole and Marilyn Manson at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, thanks), and I didn’t really expect to see one of the best shows of my life this October.
ACL gave me that opportunity, and I’m grateful. Wild Child got the chance to see their name alongside Neil Young’s on a poster, and regardless of what happens with the band in the future, that’s a unique thrill.
But there’s an experience of Austin music that same weekend that has nothing to do with ACL. It’s important not to lose sight of that, either.