Thirty years ago today, public TV’s Austin City Limits brought the band to play — not the Beatles, of course, but another rising act, Willie Nelson. Last month, KLRU-TV’s spinoff Austin City Limits Music Festival brought 130 bands to play — a mix of modern crowd-pleasers on eight stages and tents under a blazing Texas sun.
For the station and its trademark program, the festival’s broader musical range hints at changes in Austin City Limits broadcasts as KLRU brings in a co-producer for the series—the local concert promoter that has built the festival into an Austin institution in three years.
Attendance at the three-day festival Sept. 17-19  was nearly as amazing — 70,000 to 75,000 a day — as the unexpected 97-degree heat with high humidity. Ticket-buyers who came to experience the music of now — rock, bluegrass, funk and R&B with dashes of hip-hop, new wave and country, filled the soccer fields of central Austin’s Zilker Park. The Saturday show sold out.
|Rising local act Los Lonely Boys performs at the Austin festival. (Photo: Cambria Lyn Harkey.)|
Attendance has rocketed from 75,000 in 2002, the festival’s first year, when it was only two days, to 155,000 last year and 210,000 this year. According to Capital Sports and Entertainment, producer of the festival, almost half of the festival-goers came from outside Austin and a quarter from outside Texas.
Even without the help of the big red sun, this year’s big acts like Sheryl Crow, the Pixies, Elvis Costello, Ben Harper, Wilco and Phish’s Trey Anastasio would have generated plenty of heat. Fans, mostly in their 20s, were also entranced by local favorites like the Gourds, Joe Ely and the Old 97s, as well as the breakout Los Lonely Boys.
Imported acts like Canada’s Broken Social Scene, Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand, Sweden’s Soundtrack of Our Lives and Venezuela’s Los Amigos Invisibles helped enliven the large crowds but couldn’t keep all fans on their feet. On-site medics treated more than 300 for heat exhaustion.
The festival performers now represent a much broader array of contemporary music, and that mix not only thrills the young folks who make live concerts successful but also reflects the evolution of youthful musical tastes in the decades since Austin City Limits went on the air.
“In the first year, they didn’t book anybody who wouldn’t be booked for the show,” says Michael Corcoran, music critic and columnist for the Austin American Statesman. “But now the show is changing, getting a little more cutting edge, with people like the Pixies.”
Capital, the festival organizer that KLRU brought in as co-producer of the TV show, has everything to do with that. Terms of the five-year contract signed last year are not public, and Charlie Jones, a principal of Capital, says it provides “substantial funding” for series production in return for rights to use the show’s name. “We share the brand,” says Bill Stotesbery, chief exec of KLRU.
The money is already bolstering the traditionally impoverished series: KLRU had the funding to do high-definition tapings of the Crow and Anastasio performances last month for future broadcasts (Crow will air Nov. 2), and the entire festival was taped for a CD/DVD to be issued by Warner Brothers’ Rhino Records. KLRU also benefited from a private fundraiser featuring Crow the night before the festival.
Some pubcasters and dedicated fans of the show may wonder if the partnership with a promoter will alter what fans love about the show. Terry Lickona, visionary producer of ACL, is reassuring — to a point.
“We don’t want to alienate the programmers or the core audience,” says Lickona. “We’re not going to make a 180-degree turn.”
The man who began producing the show in 1977 and is widely credited with the savvy to book the right musicians and let them call the shots, says the new “team” booking is working. Lickona will now have an equal partner in planning the broadcast season — Jones, his CSE partner George Couri and booking agent Charles Attal.
“We all share the same visions and same passion . . . for the music.
. . . and for maintaining the show’s integrity,” Lickona says.
“I may have to be more aggressive to ensure the booking of some legacy
acts . . . , but if I firmly believe they are deserving, I won’t shy
from being assertive about that.”
He foresees an Austin City Limits that attracts new viewers and broadens the PBS cume.
“It may also be able,” Lickona adds, “to fulfill the unmet needs that so many programmers have complained of: a lack of music programming outside of pledge drives.”
Web page posted Oct. 11, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee