2011 in Austin music: The best touring shows of the year
There’s plenty to say about Austin’s homegrown talent, but we’re also fortunate to be one of the country’s prime touring destinations. Nationally touring acts put on signature performances in Austin every year — even discounting the gluttonous, all-you-can-eat buffet of amazing live shows that is SXSW. We left off events like the near riot-inducing set that Death From Above 1979 played in March, and kept the focus on shows that occurred in Austin the rest of the year.
5. Young Maths at The Mohawk, November 10th
Any “best of the year” list is subjective by its very nature, but it’d be unfair to talk about the best roadshows that took place in Austin in 2011 and limit it just to the biggest events that took place at the biggest venues. One of the best aspects of Austin as a live music city is the fact that, on any given night, you can walk into any club on Red River and see something you never knew existed that blows your mind. It’s impossible to cover those types of shows comprehensively, of course — so if you weren’t among the dozens who saw this frenetic, high-intensity dance-punk set from McAllen’s Young Maths in November, which saw the band tear through the its breakout album ERRORRS on its victory lap of a winter tour, you can probably fill this spot in with whatever tiny, unexpectedly outstanding show you actually did catch.
4. Craig Finn at Frank, December 10th
This one-off performance by the erstwhile Hold Steady frontman at our favorite hot dog joint felt like an “only in Austin” sort of night from the beginning — Finn debuted his new solo album, Clear Hearts Full Eyes, in its entirety to a packed, tiny venue. Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson sat in on background vocals, because of course he did. It was a sneak peek at one of the new year’s most anticipated albums — at least by dudes with thinning hair who wear a lot of plaid shirts, and there are a whole bunch of us out there — and a tight performance that seemed an awful lot like being three months ahead of the rest of the country. Odds are good that Finn will be all over Austin again during SXSW (though nothing’s been announced yet), and the couple hundred people who were there earlier this month will surely tell you just how much you should be anticipating that.
3. Explosions In The Sky at ACL Live, June 17th
New music venues open in Austin all the time, but very few of them do so with the fanfare that the Moody Theater at ACL Live did — and for good reason, because none of them sound as incredible as that space does. That’s not a dig at the rest of Austin’s rooms; fact is, you’d be hard-pressed to find three venues in the entire world as acoustically-perfect as ACL Live. And that’s something that only gets highlighted when the band is as musically rich as Explosions In The Sky. If there was a stray note that night in June, nobody in the venue heard it, and the band — fresh off an ever-increasing set of 2011 triumphs that saw them headline Radio City Music Hall and debut in the top twenty on Billboard — seemed to be as thrilled to be playing their hometown’s new signature venue as the audience was to hear it.
2. The Railroad Revival Tour featuring Old Crow Medicine Show, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Mumford and Sons, April 26th
Tickets sold out in no time, but it didn’t really matter — the empty lot on E. 4th St. was obscured by fences, but enterprising fans who staked out spots across the street from the concert caught just about the whole show for free. And what a show it was. While the high-concept was gimmicky — a trio of bands with banjo fetishes traveled from California to New Orleans via boxcar, like olde-fashioned hobos — the sets, especially the headlining performance from London epic bluegrass-tinged indie rockers (and how awesome is it to get to put those words in that order to describe a band?) Mumford and Sons, were anything but a novelty. A little bit of artifice can go a long way when it comes to delivering a special night to fans who are willing to buy in on the gimmick, and the Railroad Revival Tour turned out as one of the year’s best concerts.
1. Kanye West at the Austin City Limits Festival, September 16th
Despite the griping (and the homemade “Fuck Kanye” t-shirts in vogue at Zilker Park), Kanye West lived up to his massive hype at the Austin City Limits Festival . The set was the final performance of the three-act “Runaway” performance that he debuted earlier in the year at Coachella, and it was a fitting send-off: West was focused and intense, eschewing his usual off-the-cuff monologues for an airtight performance that featured backup from contemporary dancers, a pair of DJs and no other performers. It was a singular performance by one of the most singular artists alive, and a sign that Austin’s emerging as a city to reckon with in genres besides indie and roots rock. The set ran from the operatic excesses of his Watch The Throne single “H.A.M.” to the stark minimalism of “Love Lockdown” and the pure hip hop joy of “Gold Digger” and “Stronger,” and affirmed that Austin was lucky to get Kanye as a headliner, controversy be damned. No one man should have all that power, indeed.