It was early afternoon on the festival’s first day when I felt the first rain drop fall. I was standing near the edge of the Bud Light Stage watching Brooklyn rapper Theophilus London frantically trying to pump up the first few hundred festival go-ers, and as he paced back and forth, sweating furiously beneath a heavy jacket and wide-brimmed hat, the gentlest sensation of moisture suddenly brushed across my cheek. As I realized what it meant, the woman standing directly in front of me stopped bobbing along to the rhythmic bass and turned around. We looked each other in the eye with expressions of awe.
“Was that rain?” she screamed over Theophilus London’s lyrics about the streets of New York.
“Yes,” I shouted back. “I think it’s starting to rain!”
We both screamed, held our arms and faces to the sky, and began to dance with joy. It was raining in Central Texas – something that hadn’t happened in large amounts since 2010 – and this moisture was a gasp of life in the middle of Texas’s worst drought in recorded history.
In a way, it’s ironic. The festival promoters, Austin-based C3 Presents, spent months worrying about how the dry conditions might play out when 90,000 people returned to Zilker Park for the annual event. After all, the festival has a history of trouble reacting to Central Texas’s unpredictable weather. In 2008, the grassy lawn of the park was under-watered, and as attendees began to trample the dry grass, great clouds of dust began to rise into the air. Those who remember that festival refer to it alternately as “The Dust Bowl” or “The Year of the Black Booger” (in reference to the fact that, after breathing in the dust for hours, the mucus in one’s nose was colored a disturbing shade of gray). The following year, during 2009’s festival, clouds dumped a constant shower of rainfall across the park. Unfortunately, C3 had laid an intense amount of “Dillo Dirt” fertilizer into the ground to encourage lawn growth and fight back the dust conditions, and as the rain washed away the top layer of dirt and grass, the oozing black sludge rose to the surface. Although it offered the opportunity for the playful mud-wrestling that can be so iconic of outdoor music festivals, attendees quickly grew repulsed by the substance because of its sewage-like odor.
Thankfully, the majority of the 2011 ACL Festival performers took the weather conditions in stride, delivering the kind of sensational performances that earned their slot line-up in the first place. Whether it was Santigold delivering a full-blown stage show complete with props, back-up dancers, and three costume changes, or perennial favorite Iron & Wine breaking away from their standard sound to deliver a creatively improvisational musical exploration, each band or artist seemed to recognize that the rain was actually invigorating the audience rather than dampening spirits.
Some, like retro-rockers Fitz and the Tantrums and electronic artist Chromeo, shrugged off the weather entirely, giving performances that made the crowds of thousands dance and gyrate through the humid evening.
And although by Sunday the sun had rushed back into the sky, sending the thermometer shooting back into the upper 90s, the enthusiastic joyfulness that had washed over the festival attendees for two straight days seemed to linger. 90s indie rockers The Walkmen drew a steady crowd, while later in the afternoon those trendy surfer dudes from SoCal, AWOLNATION, reveled in the energy of their audience and took the idea of “crowd surfing” to a whole new level.
All in all, 2011 will go down in the record books as a year of miracles. The rainfall brought some of the coolest temperatures ever experienced during Austin City Limits, but it also ushered in a sigh of relief for the city of Austin and the outlying communities. And after headlining a jaw-dropping line-up including Coldplay, Kanye West, My Morning Jacket, Stevie Wonder, and Grammy Award winners Arcade Fire, festival veterans are left with only one question: how is 2012 going to top this? –Kat Lang
Photo Credits: Kat Lang