It's 8 p.m. on the Saturday of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. I'm standing in the Artists' Village, happy that I've been able to take off my poncho and lower my umbrella for the first time in hours. Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, appears at my right shoulder wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap and a scraggly beard that's reminiscent of the one I grow periodically when I decide that my pale face needs color. I like him immediately.
We search for a place to sit. His PR rep, who will later instruct me to leave her out of any tales I tell, is appalled when I suggest that we alight on one of the benches in the Village. We spy an abandoned tent, one that had likely been used all day as a massage parlor or snack bar. Gillis and I perch half-heartedly on a table inside this tent and I launch into my conversation-starter. Like me, Gillis has a background in engineering. Unlike me, he actually worked as an engineer before leaving to pursue life as his semi-experimental, semi-saccharine alter ego Girl Talk.
Gillis tells me that, yes, he finds society's emphasis on specialization annoying and that he thinks it silly that anyone should be forced to choose what he wants to do when he's 18. This is of particular interest to me because, like Gillis, I selected a major in engineering on specious grounds; I didn't know what else to do and was encouraged to pick engineering because it was a safe degree.
And then, we are interrupted. The day at ACL is already eight or nine hours old, so it should come as no surprise that people are fading, from both an energy and a sobriety standpoint. A test case wanders into our tent. She tells us that she can't find her friends and that she has no idea where she is. We ask, jokingly, about the scale of her confusion: She doesn't know where she is within the context of the festival? Or she doesn't know where she is on the planet? We quickly learn that our flippancy has been inappropriate. The girl is truly scared. She doesn't know how she's managed to end up in the Artists' Village.
With apologies to the Girl Talk's PR rep …
Because I am a habitual solver, I begin to pepper the girl with questions. Does she have her phone? (No, it's dead.) Does she know a friend's number? (No, of course not. No one knows phone numbers anymore.) Does she know where her friends might be? (It wouldn't matter if she did -- around 60,000 people are on the grounds.)
PR has the same instinct -- she asks similar, fact-finding questions.
We keep this up for a few minutes before Gillis interrupts. His approach is a different one. He tells the girl to think about her good fortune for a few seconds. She's somehow wandered into the festival's version of Shangri-La: There is free booze a few paces away, the ground is mostly dry, there are places to sit. Why not take advantage?
Gillis delivers his manifesto on the girl's non-predicament in a calm, friendly voice. He doesn't speak down to her; he doesn't patronize. Within seconds, the girl's entire demeanor has changed. She's been drawn in by Gillis' calm -- something about him has put her at ease, even though what he's proposing is, technically, a terrible idea, from a survival standpoint. He is, in effect, telling a drunken girl to get drunker and not to worry about how she's going to get home.
The girl leaves, and we see nothing more of her for the remainder of our time in the tent. Undoubtedly, she survived. And equally undoubtedly, she had more fun than she would have had if she had listened to me.
And thus, the magic of Girl Talk. One night later, during his performance near the close of the festival, I would witness it again.
We'll get there. First, though, everything else. And for that, we have to go back a day.
It's 11 a.m. Friday. I'm dry, hopeful, and -- while not full of energy after two weeks spent in Los Angeles and New York -- vaguely excited about the bands I'll get to see.
I'm dropped at Zilker Park in Austin by my host for the weekend, a friend I met this summer at a Jason Isbell concert. Fitting, considering the countrified festival I'm about to witness.
I make my first bad decision, following the crowd to a dead end that provides no entry to the festival's gates. Finally, Samaritans tell us where we need to go and I march purposefully toward the festival's entrance. I seek out the media entrance -- ESPN.com has radioed ahead and, for the first time, I'll be watching an event as a member of the press.
I hustle inside, accompanied, I think, by the band Phoenix. I am clued in on the identity of the mop-haired youths by the French they are speaking. I feel very smart. My media wristband proves valid and I am whisked inside the park. I marvel at the expanse of green. The same expanse will be mud-filled and will smell of a barnyard by festival's end, but I do not yet know that. Today, it is sunny and my cancer-free future is thankful that my friend allowed me to steal some sunscreen before I left.
I hike down the first hill I see and watch Prescott Curlywolf perform two songs. I am drawn, as most fans of the band must be, by the group's name. P. Curlywolf is entertaining. Their rock sensibilities are mellowed significantly by a country flavor and I am reminded that I am at a music festival in Texas where, after all, country is king. It won't be the last time that I have that revelation.
I move to a smaller stage to watch The Low Anthem. Much like Prescott Curlywolf, the band's name calls to me. This time, though, it's because The Low Anthem sounds cool. Unfortunately, The Low Anthem is not cool, or at least, they are not fun, something I probably could have predicted when I saw the clarinet onstage. I am left to endure their mournful dirges while Prescott Curlywolf, still at it a few hundred yards away, launches into a cover of Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher."
It will not be my first disappointment. Many bands on the ACL bill fit into the Bon Iver Phenomenon that I defined in my coverage of Lollapalooza: Certain bands are meant for outdoor festivals, other bands are not. In order to minimize insults, I resolve to label Bon Iver Phenomenon (BIP) bands as such in my notebook. (And will do so here.)
To clarify, I don't dislike all BIP bands. I'm sure that many of them are fine performers, in the right context. I even have some of their records. However, just because a group is good for dinner accompaniment does not mean it is appropriate for a sunny (or rainy) outdoor festival.
The one benefit from my dalliance with The Low Anthem: I am told what will have to suffice as the day's juicy rumor. According to my source, Eddie Vedder will perform a song with Kings of Leon later Friday night. This information, combined with my realization that I'm in Texas, changes my evening plans. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are out, and the Kings of Leon are back in. (Not that the Kings are from Texas. But they are more Texas than the YYYs.)
While walking to Asleep at the Wheel, I establish the weekend's pocket rotation, satisfying my ever-present OCD. This may sound unimportant but, because I am carrying enough supplies for a small family, it is vital in a festival atmosphere. I'm wearing frat-tastic khaki cargo shorts (I learned at Lollapalooza that, despite their appearance, they are the most effective panting option.) Front left pocket: wallet. Front right pocket: keys, phone, ChapStick. Back left pocket: ACL schedule. Back right pocket: gum, Kleenex. Low left pocket: umbrella, poncho. Low right pocket: camera, notebook, one-liter bottle of formerly factory-sealed water.
In the midst of all this organization, and as I check my ACL schedule, a revelation: Them Crooked Vultures is the Dave Grohl, John Paul Jones, Josh Homme supergroup. I am elated -- I really hadn't been too excited about the prospect of watching Andrew Bird at 7 p.m. (To those readers who say "Um, how did you not know that?" I would say, "Hey, there's a lot of information -- most of it useless -- roiling around in this brain of mine. I forget things sometimes.") I have something to look forward to.
In the present, though, Asleep at the Wheel nearly puts me asleep on the grass. I am reminded, again, that I am in Texas. This doesn't stop me from nearly getting the shakes, mostly because of flashbacks to musical experiences with my parents. Asleep at the Wheel makes me think of the episodes of "Austin City Limits" that my father would occasionally watch when I was a child. ACL got hip sometime in the past decade but, before that, it was all Loretta Lynn and the Oak Ridge Boys. (Cringing for angry e-mail. Pre-emptive response: I was 8. I was not interested in Ricky Damned Skaggs.)
Additionally, I feel like I've been dragged by those same parents of mine to a bluegrass festival, a semi-regular occurrence in my childhood. Asleep at the Wheel is not necessarily bluegrass; they're probably more country. But either way, the old people -- including the woman in a "Price Is Right" power chair -- are freaking me out. Am I not at a rock concert?
What's that I hear? Strains of bass, coming from the other end of the festival grounds? I hurriedly go to my back left pocket for my ACL guide. I scan down. "School Of Seven Bells." I turn to the guide and discover that SOSB features a former member of one of my favorite underrated acts, The Secret Machines. While members of Asleep at the Wheel unhook their dialysis machines to rotate between songs, I turn an ear in the direction of SOSB's stage. I think, "Yep, that's rock 'n' roll," and, with apologies to the elephants who have settled into their lawn chairs for the weekend, I bolt down the hill.
I arrive at the Livestrong stage to find that -- in addition to The Secret Machines' fine guitarist -- SOSB is rounded out by pretty twin sisters. Once again, I curse my lack of preparation. I settle into my first favorite of ACL. I decide that the easy comparison for the band is Tegan & Sara + RATATAT, but later come to the more elegant solution: SOSB = Ladytron + Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But comparisons are not important. School of Seven Bells is fantastic and I am happy.
Heartened, I meander over to Blitzen Trapper, who remind me that bands can play folksy, rootsy music without being boring.
Next up: Parlor Mob, a New Jersey-bred group of rock guys who are being observed by a field of chair-bound gray hairs. It occurs to me that the lawn chairs will not be a passing fancy. They are everywhere, and they are annoying. The possessors of those chairs are militant with their territorial instincts, often tying their chairs to those of others to create super love seats that stretch for yards. Throughout the weekend, I will want to pummel people in those chairs. For now, though, I am content to reflect on the difference between Lollapalooza and ACL. At the former, college girls in bikinis. At the latter, 40-somethings with chopped hair and varicose veins.
Parlor Mob is entertaining, although not life-changing. I leave the Zeppelin wannabes for The Avett Brothers, an outfit I watched in Kansas City at the behest of my friend John. They were strikingly mediocre the first time I saw them, but -- based on continuous hype -- I've decided to give them another chance.
I watch for half an hour and, just as I'm ready to deem them a BIP band (and as I'm ready to curse the hipster nation for its sudden and disingenuous adoption of bluegrass as a hip alternative to, well, everything), I hear "I And Love And You", which is a devastating and truly beautiful song. (Try it here, it's the title track.) I get my first music-induced chills of the weekend.
I walk down the hill to watch a band with which I've always flirted but never truly embraced: The Walkmen. I own three of their albums, and each time one of their songs hits on random, I think, "I should listen to these dudes more often." I am impressed. Whatever "it" is, they have it. Their lead singer has the personality of a front man, their sound projects while remaining crisp, and I'm a little disappointed that I have to leave early, burdened by my need to see as much as possible.
I dejectedly (not really) walk to Dr. Dog, who is different than I expected (less electronica), but pleasant.
And then, it's time for Phoenix. I scrap my plan, which was to -- on the advice of an insider -- watch the entire set of the eccentric Daniel Johnston. I am drawn in by the need to see "1901," which I missed two weeks before when I left before the encore.
Phoenix sounds great, thus queering the theory I espoused two weeks ago: Their sound is not made for the outdoors. There are a lot -- a lot -- of people watching, and I am stuck near the back. Nonetheless, it feels like I'm 100 feet from the stage. Reluctantly, I tear myself away to watch some of Daniel Johnston.
Johnston is something of a legend in the alt/indie music scene. Diagnosed as bipolar, he's been recording music since the 1970s. Onstage he's, well, shaky, both literally and figuratively. And while I'm sorry that he's screwed up, and while I'm sorry that I'm obviously not smart enough to understand his art, I have to go back to Phoenix, because Johnston's music is not anything that I would label "good."
Before Phoenix plays "1901" to close their set, I catch a glimpse of lead singer Thomas Mars' face on one of the giant screens next to the stage. He looks as appreciative as any musician I've ever seen and for that, I like Phoenix a little more. Before I absconded to watch two Johnston songs, he'd alluded to the fact that the crowd before him was the biggest his band had ever had at a show. Now, he looks like he can't believe that such is the case. His attitude makes me enjoy "1901" even more than I'd planned.
My work is not done. I take a listen to Bassnectar. He's sort of amazing, but I am left to wonder if I'd like anything if it were played at the volume he's using. I give him 30 minutes of my time and resolve to watch him live in a small club if I ever get the chance.
I'm hitting a wall. I've been sprint-walking from band to band all day and I am tired. I sit on a grassy hill, drink a beer, eat a double hamburger (no cheese, please) and store energy for the final push.
I get to Them Crooked Vultures early in the hopes that I can get close enough to see the members of the band without aid of the screens on the side of the stage. I manage to secure placement just in front of the sound booth. I am alone, of course, and resolve that I've seen enough music festivals by myself to last awhile.
I am rejuvenated, however, when Homme and his more-famous bandmates take the stage. From the opening riff it is clear that this is a far cry from Bassnectar or Asleep at the Wheel. This will be a rock show. For any of Homme's failings (his onstage arrogance can be overwhelming when with Queens of the Stone Age), he is everything a front man should be. His snarls are well-timed, his Elvis-like hip shakes never fail, and even in front of two rock legends, he's intimidated by nothing.
The Vultures are great when they're building into a song. Grohl is fascinating on drums. But the songs seem thrown-together. The songs are not the point, of course. The point is that a former member of Led Zeppelin is playing in a band with the man who is arguably the most famous drummer of our time, and that they're all being led by the consummate lead singer. The effect is enjoyable, if not musically perfect. Mostly, I am happy to watch Grohl beat the drums like Animal from the Muppets.
With most of my energy spent on Them Crooked Vultures, I make no effort to get close to Kings Of Leon. They play a predictably tight set, looking somewhat bored during most of it. At the end of the night, Vedder does join them onstage and a part of me is joyous, even as the exclusive Target + iTunes deal that Pearl Jam made haunts my brain. I can't bring myself to think that the collaboration is forced, but the thought crosses my mind.
Weary from a long day in the sun, I walk with the other lemmings to the exit. Outside, I cross a hill to find that the taxi line is the longest of any line I've ever seen. It snakes back and forth through chain link fences that bring to mind the processing line from "Children of Men" and I am intimidated. I sit on a park bench and contemplate my options. I could take the shuttle downtown, but then I'd have to find a cab to my friend's house. I could start walking, but I've been advised that the park is far from anywhere that I'll need to be.
Reluctantly, I get into line. Two hours later, my feet afire, but with new line-sharing friends made, I collapse into the back of a cab. The air mattress in the apartment where I'm staying feels like heaven. I fall asleep, Day 1 over.
Saturday morning finds me checking Weather.com and learning there's a 90 percent chance of rain. The umbrella that I carried around Friday will once again be taking up residence in its pocket. (Left-bottom.)
My friend Chris texts as I'm en route to the festival: "I got an 'artist' bracelet for you." I am overjoyed. I learned on Friday that my media pass, while pretty, didn't grant me any special access. The media zone was barren of free food or drink and, because I wasn't holding court in an ESPN tent, it didn't have much to offer me. Chris had lamented the fact that I didn't have the mythical artist bracelet on, and then went and did something about. As I read his text, I grant him status of "Effective human," which he shares with approximately 2 percent of the NBA.
I rush into the grounds with visions of greatness in my head. Chris has been raving about a band he helps manage, The Dexateens, for months. I've listened to two of their albums, but left each encounter with their recorded work thoroughly underwhelmed.
Lee Bains leans into the mike and says, "We're the Dexateens, and we're from Alabama." Thirty seconds later, I can tell that the Dexateens are what the kids call the real deal. I decide that the band needs to hire a new recording engineer because whatever it is that they are doing onstage has not yet been translated to an album. Aping the Drive-By Truckers' legendary Three-Axe Attack (which I've always wanted to write -- it means there are three guitars), the 'teens form a wall of dirty Southern rock sound that is complemented by the harmonizing of Bains, John Smith and Elliott McPherson. I like the band's sound. I like their happy, dancing bassist. I like that most of the group is driving to New Orleans for a show that night. And I really like that they have to be back in Alabama by tomorrow morning, because one of their members has to play in church.
As I stand backstage, having engaged my artist wristband for the first time, I shake hands with Bains. He's genuine, friendly, and has even read my most-notorious column. I resolve to tell everyone I know to see the Dexateens live at their first opportunity.
(Seriously, if you like music and they're in your town, go.)
I move to the big AMD stage and watch The Virgins. The band is serviceable; mostly I'm glad to see some weird-looking dudes with tattoos onstage. Their music is not mind-blowingly original, but I'm oddly content, potentially because of all the 14-year-olds girls in attendance …
… but not because of where your mind went, sicko. I'm glad there are 14-year-old girls in the front row at The Virgins because these 14-year-olds seem excited about rock music. And, even if The Virgins aren't as good as, say, the Dexateens, I'd rather the ninth-graders be listening to them over the latest Gwen Stefani album.
All is right with the world. Teenagers like rock music, ACL is manageable again because it's early in the day, and it's not raining. Two of these things will soon change.
I hustle across the park to see the end of Alberta Cross. I am disappointed that I didn't leave The Virgins earlier. The description in my ACL pocket guide used the words "rootsy folk-rock" for Alberta Cross and, because I've already seen enough rootsy folk-rock to last a James Taylor lifetime, I didn't make a point to get to the Cross. From the sounds of things, that was a mistake. I resolve to catch the band live if I ever again have the chance.
My friend Chris recommends that I not miss The Felice Brothers. After his roaring success with the Dexateens, I feel that I would be an idiot to disregard his advice. I am not disappointed. The Felice Brothers are, well, brothers who grew up playing bluegrass in the Catskill mountains. I like their energy and I like the biggest (girth, not age) brother on the accordion.
It begins to rain. I am glad that I've brought my umbrella. The poncho, for now, stays in the left bottom pocket.
Mute Math is acceptable, if not spectacular. I retire midway through to speak to the guitarist from The Toadies, Clark Vogeler. He is guarded but friendly, and I will think back to the things he has to say when I watch his band perform Sunday.
After a free beer and some dry ground in the Artists' Village, I return to the grounds to find that those grounds are getting wet and full. It's the magical 4 o'clock hour, and the late-comers are doing that -- coming in droves. I stand under my umbrella and watch half an hour of the critically maligned Citizen Cope. It is long enough to understand that CC is a borderline BIP, especially in the rain. My resolve flagging, I dip back into the Artists' Village before hiking across the park to watch the last half of Flogging Molly.
I've never been a Flogging Molly fan. I see why as I watch them perform. There's is a magical combination: Irish music plus a punk sensibility. Unfortunately, they can't quite make it compelling.
Speaking of punk, … And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead is playing down the hill next. I march down and take up position where I know I can escape quickly.
Trail of Dead is most important in my musical history because they introduced my brother Dan and me to the aforementioned Secret Machines, who opened for them at a tiny club in Kansas City. Since that performance, Trail of Dead has gotten more melodic. Or, it is possible that the rain dampens their energy enough that they are right on. Or, it could be that I see their best four songs before I leave to dry off in the magical grotto that is the Artists' Village.
I'm becoming confused by the rain. I have to hike back across the park to Mos Def, whom I've resolved to see because so many readers have told me he's good. Those readers must never have seen him live because he is 99 degrees of terrible. Even in the steady shower, I have time to write the following when I extract my trusty notebook from right-bottom:
"Do something, man."
"This is g------ terrible."
"He's getting paid for this?"
"I'm sorry, Rap Music, but if this is what you're trotting out for public consumption, you need to start over."
I am nonplussed. I want to like Mos Def, but I cannot abide by his making up songs onstage, the likes of which I would create in my shower.
Or, I suppose, in my car. But right now, showers come to mind because it's raining so much.
I slip-slide my way across the park to a small stage, where I meet an Australian who tells me that Australia is the best place on Earth, separating her from exactly zero other Australians, and watch some of DeVotchKa, who look very fun. But, I can't stay long: The Decemberists are playing across the way.
At Lollapalooza, The Decemberists caught my wrath for being the ultimate BIP. It seems unlikely that they read my column, so I'll chalk up their change of heart to coincidence. They rock hard enough to keep me interested for two songs. Then, it's back to the Artists' Village for beer and contemplation of my next move.
The familiar strains of Dave Matthews start up. Familiar not because I've ever been to a show. Familiar because ubiquitous. I flee. I hate the Dave Matthews Band like I hate stubbed toes and spiders in my bed, but I choose not to exacerbate that feeling by watching. I dance through mud puddles on my way to Ghostland Observatory, stay as long as I think is reasonable, and leave, hoping to beat the traffic.
I get on a bus downtown, eat a chicken Caesar pita and make a lap of Sixth Street. The food has made me sleepy and Chris isn't going to make it out. I drive home to sleep. I'll need the rest.
Sunday dawns muddy at ACL. I gamely arrive at 11:30 a.m., hoping to see as much music as possible on the day I've deemed the best of the three. Odds on rain stand once again at 90 percent; my pockets are filled to capacity one more time. Water coming from overhead is the least of my worries as I tromp to my first act of the day. The Zilker Park grounds are disgusting, and almost no effort has been made to change that condition. My expectations of straw bales and efforts to soak up standing water go unfulfilled. The only concessions made to the standing water are pieces of plywood laid out like bridges and the occasional roping-off of areas deemed too treacherous for walking.
It will get worse.
A band called LAX plays on a small stage. I watch, briefly, and decide that it's a little like being at a huge outdoor bar where strangers are doing karaoke.
I pick my way through the barnyard to Alela Diane, whom, as regular readers may recall, I like quite a lot. Along with 100 other early risers, I watch Ms. Diane try her best to tame the outdoor atmosphere but, generally, it's for naught. She's a classic BIP. The good news: Her voice is amazing, whether recorded or live. Nonetheless, I can't figure out why she would be booked at an outdoor festival. Then again, I'm not 55 and planted in a lawn chair for the day, like much of her audience.
My doldrums are winning as I walk through the muck to Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. Thankfully, Joe and the Honeybears cast them off like the exorcist played by Gabriel Byrne in "Stigmata." Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears play rock/R&B/blues like this writer thinks it should be played: with an eye toward having a good time. To my untrained ear, Lewis sounds like a young James Brown, and the effect they produce is pure, unadulterated fun.
(Take a listen here: I recommend "Sugarfoot.")
Regretfully, I leave Joe and march back to Vince Mira, whose sound check I'd heard 30 minutes prior and who had caught my ear while doing it. As I'd walked by, I'd thought I heard Johnny Cash. I looked in my guidebook to see who was playing. "Vince Mira sounds like Johnny Cash reincarnated." I congratulated myself on being able to make obvious comparisons.
However, after Lewis and the Honeybears, his wail fails to capture my attention. I give him two songs' worth of my time before reporting back to Joe, who is continuing to define the phrase "belting out songs."
I make my first stop of the day at the Artists' Village. While inside, I contemplate whether I will ever be able to go back to a mortal's festival experience. I'm already tired and muddy and it's only 1:30. While I'm considering my capacity for endurance, a voice calls my name. I should recognize Brent Barry, but I don't, at first. We talk for the first time in our lives and I'm pleased to find out that (A) he's read my book and liked it and (B) he's as cool as I always thought he'd be. He references surfing with "Ed" (that would be Vedder) and that he'd been at Pearl Jam's taping of their turn on the normal "Austin City Limits" television program the night before. I leave impressed by Barry and sad that my career didn't go like his did.
For my misery, there is free beer and the knowledge that -- while I'm not as cool as Brent Barry -- I do know that one should use straw when trying to dry out a mess of mud. Not hay, like the grounds people at ACL think. Score one for the farm kid.
I exit the Village with high hopes for Clutch, whom I've read about but never heard. I hope for a revelation on the level of STS9 or Miike Snow at Lollapalooza, but am generally disappointed.
The mud is becoming a problem, but I soldier on even as my shoes become 60 percent disgusting. I walk up the hill to watch the Chris-endorsed Jypsy. The band's backstory is interesting: From the snippets I gathered, the four siblings who make up the band were raised by their parents to play bluegrass and almost treated as indentured servants in their capacity as backup players. They "escaped" at a young age and began playing their own version of bluegrass -- which, apparently, involves the three sisters' dressing like crazy people. I meet those sisters before their show and am impressed that they could hold a conversation 30 seconds before going onstage. Their sound is reminiscent of the good parts of the Dixie Chicks (keeping in mind that I have a grudging -- if secret -- affection for the Dixie Chicks).
I'm wearing down but I'm thrilled that I next get to watch one of my current favorites: White Lies.
I'm no tastemaker, but I'm willing to stake much of my reputation on the quality of the White Lies' debut album. I think they're a fantastic rock band and their live show does little to dispute my case.
I spend 45 minutes enjoying myself thoroughly, and then I walk back through the mud to the stage where the Toadies are playing.
When I sat down with Vogeler of the Toadies the day before, I did so with intentions of finding out two things:
1. How much has changed between then (1994, when the Toadies' excellent album "Rubberneck" was released) and now?
2. Is it annoying to play "Possum Kingdom" (the band's most famous song) over and over?
To my latter question, Vogeler said no. He contended that the crowd's energy whenever they hear that song makes any repetitiveness worthwhile.
My former question launched us into a 20-minute conversation. To hear Vogeler tell it, life after "Rubberneck" was difficult for The Toadies. Their label made it difficult to return to the studio and when they did, the resulting output was not embraced. Vogeler left music to work in film editing and, it seemed to me as we spoke, wasn't planning to come back.
But here he is on Sunday afternoon, onstage with his old band in front of a massive crowd on a hot fall day. The Toadies' lead singer sounds just like he did on "Rubberneck" and I'm willing to fall under their spell. Until I take a closer look. Vogeler had warned me that the band was getting older, but I had pushed aside his protests, mostly because he looks so good. He's in his 40s, but carries it well. His bandmates, on the other hand, do not. And while I want to root for the Toadies and hope that this long-delayed comeback goes well, I have to wonder if their appearance will prove to be a hurdle. Vogeler made it clear that the band is excited about working on new material. I have no problem trumpeting that sentiment; I've long thought that "Rubberneck" was overlooked as an album. The problem: As I watch them onstage, I can't help but think that they look like they're trying to hold on to the glory days. They're certainly capable of rocking; Vogeler's guitar work is perfect. But they looked battered and like they need to employ Daft Punk's trick of cloaking their bodies in ageless costumes.
Then again, it could be the mud talking. I'm standing in filth that's up to my ankles. The heat is not helping matters; the smell is at best unpleasant and at worst nauseating. I will later learn that the stench should come as no surprise. The turf that looked so fairway-like on Friday sits on top of a conglomeration of treated sewage and lawn clippings that is now bubbling to the surface.
I'm becoming defeated. I leave my distant Toadies vantage point for the Artists' Village, where I get a beer and a water and find a place to sit down. Chris has left for the weekend, leaving me with no one to talk to. Times are dark.
And then, heavenly intervention. Two girls walk by and ask if they can sit down. A conversation breaks out. Like me, they're not sure what they're doing in the Artists' Village. One of them got in without a bracelet. And like me, they enjoy fun. Emboldened by their collective attitude, I drag them back onto the grounds. I make them watch some of The Dead Weather, explaining to them why they need to pay attention. Like most people, their eyes perk up when they hear of Jack White's contribution to the group. I stop myself from further explanation, not wanting to get into the Alison Mosshart conversation, especially not at this distance. Because we can barely see her, the girls wouldn't understand my awe at Mosshart's ability to transform from meek human to energetic dervish. After a few grimy, but beautiful songs, we start our journey toward Girl Talk.
En route, we pick up two more fun-lovers and I'm taken back to my last day at Lollapalooza, when I finally met the cool Canadians. In those Canadians' honor, I teach my four new friends how to Mailman a beer. (Hint: It involves a can of beer, a car key, and the imitation of Karl Malone's tendency to put his hand behind his head during end-of-career dunks. I'll show you sometime.)
Spirits high, the five of us walk to Girl Talk with enough time to worm our way toward the front. I decide that this will be, in essence, the end of ACL for me. Because I've gambled on Girl Talk, which will end at the same time that Pearl Jam is set to begin, and because no band is going against Pearl Jam on the schedule, all 60,000-plus people will be in front of me for views of Vedder and the boys. I am OK with my decision. After yesterday's interview, and after a summer spent blasting his music at parties and barbecues, I'm invested in Girl Talk.
When he comes onstage, I am not disappointed. His presence in front of a crowd is similar to his presence in person: There is something peaceful, fun-loving and carefree about the man. His joy resonates in his music, which, of course, is hardly his music at all.
That isn't meant to be a knock on Gillis' art. There is a great deal of technical skill involved in his chosen medium. He is, in essence, using other peoples' music as if that music were an instrument. Much like "normal" bands combine the sounds of a guitar, drums and bass to make songs, he combines the sounds of rap songs, pop songs and rock songs to create, well, compositions.
I look around the crowd and see nothing but smiles. And lots of them. People are stretched back as far as is possible.
Onstage, Gillis is surrounded by young people who are just as happy as he appears to be.
My four new friends and I spend an hour dancing to the most ridiculous mix of music anyone at Austin City Limits has ever heard. I'm reminded that this is what I think a concert should be like. There are no lawn chairs in sight.
Eight o'clock comes and we are exhausted, sweaty and muddy. My shoes are ruined forever. It's possible that one of the girls, who has been walking around barefoot since 5 p.m., has contracted a hookworm. All of us probably have vomit, urine or feces somewhere on our person; we watched a man throw up in the mud while walking as we took in The Dead Weather.
In this frame of mind, we smuggle ourselves into the VIP section of the festival, telling the woman at the door that we're on our way to the Artists' Village. We sit in blessedly available chairs and I hear the familiar strains of "Why Go" and "Elderly Woman." I'm disappointed that we're not closer to the action, but as I've learned at music festivals, one has to make decisions. It's like being a triage doctor in wartime. Not every limb can be saved.
We've lost the two other males in our group of five and, as Vedder wails on, I'm content to sit at a table with two pretty girls with a free Heineken in my hand.
Eventually, it's time to go. We exit the VIP section and make it to the buses ahead of the crowd. We arrive to a surprisingly deserted downtown, eat Mexican food and say our farewells. I will later learn that the girls will go back to the apartment where they are staying and pass out after 10 minutes.
I return to my weekend home and spend 20 minutes in the shower, hosing the mud off my legs and ankles. Clean, I take stock of myself in the mirror. There's Friday's sunburn, random cuts on my legs from Saturday and a few muddy speckles that I missed from Sunday. I can't bear to take off the three wrist bands I've collected because, even though the festival felt more like a gauntlet than it should have, something makes me want to hold onto the memory for one more night.
I spend some time on the phone, winding down after the long weekend that came after another long weekend, which came after an entirely different long week. My host retires and waves through the sliding door. Finally, I hang up the phone and go inside to lie down on my now-familiar air mattress.
Sleep will come quickly, in part because of the 15 miles I walked during the day. But, as my eyes close, I wonder if something else might be at work. In theory, I should still be wired after a long day of live music, a day which ended -- for me -- with one of the most energetic shows I've ever seen. But I'm not wired. I'm calm. I think back to the effect Gillis had on the drunk girl in the Artists' Village. I wonder if she made it home safely, even while I assume that she did. And then I wonder if, somehow, Gillis, as Girl Talk, has had the same effect on me. Maybe my calm demeanor can be attributed to his genius with a laptop computer. Maybe he's a musical Messiah, and I should have spent even more time with him, absorbing his Zen-like aura.
Or maybe it's the Mailmanned beers and the near-marathon I've walked.
As I drift off to sleep, I decide that I want to give the credit to Girl Talk, for one night at least. I may not be able to understand completely why the Dexateens have "it," and Mos Def doesn't. I may not be able to explain exactly why I like the White Lies so much. And I may not be able to comprehend what Girl Talk has done to my brain. Tonight, I don't have to. Tonight, I need only believe in the transcendent, inexplicable, and magical power of live music.
I can go back to being analytical tomorrow.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.