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ACL 2014 at Zilker Park

Moshing for Beck

I’m going to get back to work on the novel. Really I am. As soon as I can take a breath.

Austin, you’re a beautiful distraction. But I really need to get back to work now, I have this book I’m trying to … what’s that? ACL? In the park, with highs in the mid-80s? Well … just for a few days.

Of course I was going to Austin City Limits. I’ve gone for 13 straight years, through the highest highs (more transcendent performances than I can count, from Arcade Fire to Café Tacuba to Los Lonely Boys in the gospel tent) and the lowest lows (the Year of Dust, the Year of Mud, the skin-melting 100-degree days, and we won’t speak of the night that Bob Dylan sent 10,000 people rushing for the exits after three songs). It’s an Austin ritual, an orgy of sun and bodies and sweat and flags fluttering above the writhing masses. And it kicks my ass every year.

It’s about more than seeing the bands and hitting the food tents (which are always good. Thai fried chicken at a festival?). For the last eight or nine years, it’s been an excuse for my core group of friends – guys I went to college with that have stayed close ever since – to get together for four nights of musical brotherhood.

Everyone stays at my house (which becomes a sort of middle-aged dorm all weekend).  Thursday night we party like it’s 1989: the kitchen counter fills with bottles, the fridge fills with beer, everyone makes a drink and catches up a little, then Jerry, my freshman year roommate and the group’s Minister of Music, plays cuts from a couple dozen obscure bands so the rest of us can figure out who we want to see. Most years we segue into a trip down musical memory lane, playing road trip anthems from long-defunct Austin bands, maybe breaking out some bad ’80s hair bands or old Sabbath.

We drink. We swap stories about jobs and kids and marriages, we talk about favorite shows from past ACLs, and at some point Buck – the group’s Minister of Jokes – starts throwing down some of his best material until some guys are laugh-crying. This year the festivities went until 4 a.m. (I was out by 1:30, for the record) before everyone flopped onto whatever bed, sofa or air mattress they’d claimed.

Walking past the Stevie Ray Vaugan statue to Zilker
Walking past Stevie Ray’s statue

Then, suitably sleep-deprived and hung over, we lather on sunscreen and walk all day in the heat and the sun – starting with our ritual mile-and-a-half hike along the lake from the American-Statesman parking lot to Zilker Park.

ACL always shrinks the city for me. My friend Dan, who I met at the UT student newspaper 25 years ago this summer (happy anniversary, brother), is always there with his neighborhood crew. I bump into co-workers, old friends, former students. It’s like going to a small-town July 4 parade, everyone you know is probably somewhere in the crowd.

Dan and Dave, ACL 2014
Dan and Dave, ACL 2014

It never fails to test my stamina. Every year the sun seems a little hotter, the crowds a little denser, the evening walk back to the car a little longer. And I know it’s just me getting older. This year, all of that was magnified by the shift from mountain to city. Going from the cabin’s solitude to a milling mass of 70,000 people was kind of dizzying the first day. Then Jimmy Cliff, decked out in gold and grinning like it was his first time on stage, started playing and everything was good.

This year gave us the best ACL weather ever, thanks to a perfectly-timed Thursday night cold front, but musically it didn’t have as many highlights for me – there wasn’t that early-in-the-day band each day that blew my mind.

Jimmy Cliff
Jimmy Cliff

But there were enough: Jimmy Cliff, Spoon, Ozomatli, Lana del Rey – I even got into Eminem’s show a lot more than I’d expected. And then there was Beck. A few of us moved up close to the stage for this one, which was only possible because Outkast had siphoned off most of the crowd to the other side of the park. Beck, who’s two years younger than me and still looks like a video store clerk, delivered a great big rock and roll show that made me glad I made it 13 in a row this year.

Now where did I leave that novel I was working on?


Pearl Jam on the big stage
Pearl Jam on the big stage