By Lynne Margolis
(Check back for GRAMMY.com's ongoing Austin City Limits Music Festival coverage, including blogs and artist interviews as part of our GRAMMYs On The Road series.)
At 5 p.m. on Oct. 12 Zilker Park in Austin, Texas, the site of the 2012 Austin City Limits Music Festival, seemed downright empty. Bands weren’t competitively blaring music from across the festival’s seven stages, and it was easy to move where you wanted.
That is, until you rounded the bend toward the Barton Springs stage where most of the bodies filling the park were already planted waiting for Alabama Shakes. Every year this stage plays host to at least one act already worthy of a bigger slot, and this year Brittany Howard and company were it. Fresh off a win for Emerging Artist at the Americana Music Awards, the Alabama-bred band's set of retro soul/R&B rock — and Howard's powerhouse, Prince-meets-Etta James vocals — was an enormous hit, even without performing "Hold On," their biggest song yet that reached the Top 40 on Billboard's Rock Songs chart.
GRAMMY winner and Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood and his side project, Downtown Rumblers, faced tough competition from the small BMI stage as they performed songs from their latest album, Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance. But their sound, and almost everyone else's, was nearly drowned by the massive voice of Florence Welch of Florence & The Machine, who received frequent cheers from the audience. An ACL veteran, Hood plowed through and the band drew quite a large flock for a performance that doubled as a celebration of the last night of their tour.
Asked earlier to discuss the difference between performing at outdoor festivals and indoor venues, Hood said, "It's a very different animal. The trick is to learn how to do [them] all. And it's a learning curve. There's a lot be said for the immediacy of a small, intimate room, [and] there's a lot to be said for big open spaces, especially with a band like the [Drive-By] Truckers, [which] is very big and loud and really works well in the big open spaces."
Taking the stage earlier that day were GRAMMY-winning road veterans Asleep At The Wheel. The band holds the distinction as the only act to have played every year of the festival's 11-year history. Asleep At The Wheel's 45-minute set included a performance of the country classic "Ida Red."
A minor first-day glitch with non-scanning wristband chips didn't dampen enthusiasm for Thievery Corporation's hip-hop/reggae set, the funky electro-jazz sounds of Umphrey's McGee or headliners the Black Keys. A far cry from their first ACL gig in 2005 when they played a small stage for many new fans, the GRAMMY-winning duo (augmented by their discreet keyboard player, John Wood), put on an entertaining performance to end day one of the festival, a top billing that may lie in the near future for Alabama Shakes.
(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis currently contributes to American Songwriter, NPR's Song of the Day and newspapers nationwide, as well as several regional magazines and NPR-affiliate KUT-FM's "Texas Music Matters." A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen from A To E To Z, she has also previously written for Rollingstone.com and Paste magazine.)