Ben Kweller

Hard to believe, but Austin City Limits Music Festival turns 11 this weekend. Over the years, we’ve seen some ups and downs — the dust bowl, the mud bowl, the propane tank fire, Ben Kweller’s mysterious bloody nose — but the good times have easily outweighed the bad.

This year’s ACL lineup, featuring The Black Keys, Jack White, Neil Young and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is arguably the best in a few years. A caravan of additional world-class musical acts round out the weekend-long party. Here are the top 10 acts you don’t want to miss.

Delta Spirit, AMD stage, 2:15 p.m. — One of the top buzz bands over the last few years, San Diego quintet Delta Spirit expanded their sound on their self-titled third album. Catch some of their kind-of-country, kind-of-beachy, kind-of-Brooklyn-y sound.

Alabama Shakes, Barton Springs Stage, 5:30 p.m. — Grab a turkey leg and maybe a tallboy (if you’re willing to wait) and head over to the Barton Springs stage to catch one of the busiest and most talked about bands of 2012. The Athens, Ala. southern soul revivalists released their debut album Boys & Girls in April to widespread acclaim. Since then, they’ve been touring to sold-out concert halls across the globe.

Soul Rebels Brass Band, Zilker Stage, 6 p.m. – It’s always frustrating when two bands you want to see are booked for the same time slot; fortunately the Zilker stage is just a stone’s throw away from the Barton Springs stage. After catching the Alabama Shakes, head over to see New Orleans’ Soul Rebels Brass Band. Fusing elements of funk, jazz, soul, hip-hop and drumline, the band is a classic example of why the Big Easy remains one of the world’s greatest music cities.

Metric, AMD Stage, 4 p.m. – Few bands have been more successful without the benefit of a label than Brooklyn-based indie-pop four piece Metric. “Help, I’m Alive” is one of the better indie-pop singles to come along in the last half-decade. It definitely has that radio-ready sound, but it also has a sinister edge and blow-the-speakers production reminiscent of MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular.

The Roots, Bud Light Stage, 6 p.m. — Hip-hop’s greatest live band returns to the ACL stage on break from their primary gig as the house band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” The best band on television (apologies to Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band) has also been one of the most prolific, releasing fourteen studio albums since 1993.

Jack White, AMD Stage, 8 p.m. — What do you do when you have two can’t-miss shows happening at the same time on different stages? Good question. It’s bad enough that the folks at C3 Presents put Delta Spirit and The War on Drugs on at the same time, but double-billing Jack White and Neil Young is just downright criminal. Here is one of the greatest artists of our generation in the prime of his career, fresh on the heels of an excellent solo debut.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Bud Light Stage, 8 p.m. — Neil’s the man. Seriously, one of the greatest musicians ever. Definitely the greatest Canadian ever. Expect him and his legendary garage band Crazy Horse to blow the roof off of the Bud Light stage Saturday night.

Gary Clark Jr. AMD Stage, 2:15 p.m. — In many ways, this may be the one show not to miss this weekend at ACL. Gary’s legend has simmered around Austin over the last 10 years, and later this month the supremely talented guitarist and soul singer’s major-label debut Blak and Blu hits shelves nationwide. The buzz is already palpable, and Gary certainly has the chops to match the ever-mounting hype. This could be one of the very last chances to say you “saw him when ...”

Iggy & the Stooges Bud Light Stage 6:15 p.m. — Old and haggard as they might appear, it’s just not every day that you get a chance to see a band as legendary as the Stooges. Iggy and company were the true progenitors of punk rock, laying out a blueprint for the sound with Raw Power in the early ‘70s. Forty years later, they’re still as wild and unpredictable as when they first started.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers Bud Light Stage, 8:15 p.m. — One of the most convulsion-inducing and widely-appealing bands of our time, the Red Hot Chili Peppers blasted onto the national scene in the early ‘90s and never let go. Over the years they’ve experimented and developed their sound but never lost the original fan base that made them punk-funk heroes to begin with.

Printed on Friday, October 12, 2012 as: Top 10 acts to watch at weekend festival

Utopiafest Press Art

In the western hills outside San Antonio is Utopia, Texas, a small town with a population of 227, according to the 2010 census. In addition to being known as an idyllic rural community, it has recently been put on the map as the home of Utopiafest, an annual music festival that started in 2009. This year’s festival will take place Friday, Sept. 28 to Sunday, Sept. 30 and features psychedelic/indie rock band Dr. Dog, Texas singer/songwriter Ben Kweller, bass virtuoso Victor Wooten, Widespread Panic’s Jimmy Herring and, coming all the way from Mexico City, electronica act Mexican Institute of Sound.

Utopiafest reflects the size of the town by embodying the saying “less is more,” aspiring to be a smaller scale alternative to bigger festivals like Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun Fest. The producers have capped the maximum amount of tickets to be sold at 2,000. Just like Utopia’s tightly knit community, the small audience of Utopiafest makes it easier for people to recognize each other and turn strangers into friends.

“We want to maintain a feel of comfort and intimacy first and foremost,” said Travis Sutherland, founder and producer of Utopiafest. “Sometimes people get sick of being in massive crowds.”

Utopiafest takes the good parts of a bigger festival while trying to eliminate the negatives. There are no long lines or overwhelming crowds, and, perhaps most importantly, seeing a famous band doesn’t require staking out a spot hours in advance. None of the set times overlap, making it possible to see all 28 acts, 17 of which are local to Texas. 

The two stages are strategically placed between two large hills, creating an amphitheater that resembles a natural venue. The festival encourages interaction with the environment by allowing attendees to camp out on a plot of land only 150 yards away from the stage.

The Four Sisters Ranch is a 1,000-acre plot that Sutherland’s family has owned and lived on for five generations. Having become an Eagle Scout at age 13, Sutherland wandered the West Texas hills as a youth and has since sought to combine his passion for music with his love for the environment.

“I wanted to give everyone the opportunity to experience this land that we’re so blessed with,” Sutherland said.

New additions to this year’s festival include a second stage, an opportunity to pre-camp Thursday, three times the parking space, additional food vendors, upgraded lights, a laser show and more Porta-Potties.

“After last year I kept hearing ‘I had the best weekend of my life!’ from people, so that’s set the bar for me,” Sutherland said. 

Since its inception the festival has steadily grown in attendance and size every year, but Sutherland and his co-producers Aaron and Jamie Brown of Onion Creek Productions have expressed their intent to limit that growth.

“My only goal is to make the land self-sustainable while minimizing destructive tendencies,” Sutherland said.

In addition to the music, there will be a disc golf course with workshops led by professionals. Black Swan Yoga, an Austin studio located on Fifth Street, will offer yoga classes.

“I’m really looking forward to hearing great music and doing yoga out in nature,” said Joshua Whisenhunt, a Black Swan instructor and UT alumnus.

Utopiafest offers a diverse music lineup in a scenic environment.

“This is as close to a perfect festival as it gets,” Sutherland said. “It would really suck for you to miss it.”

Printed on Friday, September 28, 2012 as: Utopian hills come alive with indie music

Singer-songwriter Ben KwellerÂ’s newest album, Go Fly A Kite, emanates a homegrown southern feel with a number of catchy, personal tunes.

Photo Credit: Bruno Morlan | Daily Texan Staff

Ben Kweller answered the phone when I called his record label, The Noise Company, to request an advance copy of his new album, Go Fly A Kite. Kweller said hello and directed me to someone who could send it my way.

It was the perfect introduction to my experience with an album that is personal, sincere and easy to listen to. The musicianship shows off a southern rock influence reminiscent of The Allman Brothers and Big Star. The lyrics let us into Kweller’s heart when he sings about friendship, loss, anger and hope.

The Greenville, Texas native broke ties with former record label ATO last year and produced Go Fly A Kite, released today, through his own label, The Noise Company. That may be the source of the homegrown feel of the songs — and the reason it came out almost a year later than originally planned. The album starts with “Mean to Me,” a punchy rock tune that begs to be turned up loud, while “Free” is a foot-tapper of a track with heavy bass. Kweller uses piano perfectly on “Rainbow,” a song about trying to come out on the other side of hard times.

In the ten years since his first solo studio album, Sha Sha, Kweller has changed and grown, both musically and personally. He married Liz (of the song “Lizzie”) and they live in Austin with their two sons. He’s put out two pop rock albums, one that I’m tempted to call lo-fi, and a delightful country record, 2009’s Changing Horses.

But no matter the style he chooses, his good-natured Texas honesty and kindness show through. In Kite’s closer, “You Can Count On Me,” he sings, “It’s a sad day, ‘cause all my old friends have changed. I just want you to know that I’m still the same.” And after 10 years of great songs, I can’t help but
believe him.