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The evolution of Austin City Limits is a part of the living history of Austin.

2010 October 5

It would probably seem strange to most, particularly in Austin, but I’ve never been to a real concert before.

The Fall of 2001 was, for obvious reasons, a weird one for everyone-but weirder still for me. I was fourteen; at the start of that sometimes exciting, sometimes terrible transformation process from child to young man, boy to teenager.

Joss Stone at ACL (Credit: CourtesyPhoto)

Every school night, I stowed away in my room, all of the lights off and the television on mute so as to create the perception that I was asleep for class in the morning. One night in the midst of that routine, a music video came on and I could not help but turn up the volume. It was a strange fusion of old and new, a familiar sound but like something I had never heard before at the same time. It was what I would later hear referred to as a “seedless watermelon” – a particular kind of audible perfection.

I was seeing The Strokes debut music video, “Last Nite.” That night, I had found something that I had never seen or heard before. I was no longer a prisoner to the monotonous rotations of a local Top 40. It was an approach to music that was, in my mind, not just profit driven. These guys wrote their music and played their instruments with some contagious sort of emotional experience. Of course, looking back, that was all nonsense. Just like almost any band, it was and is very profit driven. Music is a business. But in that moment, it didn’t feel like it.

(Credit: Austin City Limits)

After I saw The Strokes on television, I became occasionally music-obsessed. For weeks at a time throughout the rest of my teens, I would scour television or the internet for the next musician who could speak directly to my heart. That is how I found Austin City Limits.

It was 2002 and the Austin City Limits program was very proud to advertise the arrival of their inaugural festival that year. In 2002, at 15, Austin, TX was 1,200 miles away in reality and a million miles away in my mind. But, like any good art, it also felt like it was right next door.

So here we are, just days away from ACL’s 9th annual music festival, and it is almost impossible not to be curious about Austin City Limits’ genesis.

The television show came about originally in 1976 and has been broadcast by the University of Texas at Austin-based PBS station KLRU for 35 years. Most (and some years, all) of the early Austin City Limits seasons featured only Texas-based musicians. As ACL has become one of the last (and indeed, longest running) concert shows on television, its range of bands has expanded with its influence. By 2002, the Austin City Limits show had been in existence for over 25 years and was well on its way to earning the status of a cultural institution. The inaugural 2002 festival, which featured acts such as Ryan Adams and the Blind Boys of Alabama atop its ticket, drew over 75,000 attendees despite its comparatively slim line-up.

(Ryan Adams at the first Austin City Limits Festival, 2002)

From the first festival until now, ACL has grown to an event featuring nearly 150 acts and seeing 75,000 visitors per day. Nearly a quarter million in a single weekend. Starting last year, the festival began operation in October instead of September, to try and avoid summerlike temperatures.

In 2003, ACL was given the National Media Arts award at the White House. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has spent the last year celebrating ACL’s storied performances, and at the start of this month, right in line with the ACL festival, Austin City Limits will become an official “Rock and Roll Landmark.” ACL can thank its longevity, in part, to the consistency of the staff that has kept it afloat all these years. Terry Lickona, just one such example of this, has been a producer for the program since 1977.

(Early Austin City Limits performance, 1976)

As a student and writer of history, seeing living history is always an exciting prospect. Austin City Limits is just that: living history in the way of popular music.

Soon to be filled with 3 bajillionty people.

The Strokes, it turns out, are one of ACL’s 2010 Headliners, commanding the final curtain on AMD’s Friday Night stage. So here I am now, almost ten years older, now married, now an Austinite, now-for better or worse- hopelessly wrapped up in the business of adult life, and this is finally my chance to see the boys that introduced me to Rock music live and in person.

And so will I even go? Who knows. At this very moment, I don’t know the answer to that question. It is said, sometimes, that the anticipation always trumps the real thing. But I do know one thing: whatever awkward, coming-of-age relationship I have with an average retro rock band from 2001, and whatever nostalgia that might inspire next weekend at Zilker Park, there are thousands of stories just like mine for thousands of different musicians.

Those stories-the rawness of them-that familial-like connection to the bands and songs is what makes a festival like Austin City Limits such an amazing idea. This city has literally grown up with ACL. For a few brief days at the outset of every fall, Austin and ACL is a part of the present history: live and in color. A festival of fun and celebration that brings people from all over! Something that is, more each day, uniquely Austin, but shared and enjoyed by everyone. Of all the sweet sounds we’ll be hearing soon, that might be the sweetest.

My stars! A massive sideways guitar that might light up, potentially?! (Credit: Carlton Wade)

Who was your first favorite band?

What was your first concert?

Would you like ACL to go back to a Texas-music-only format?


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2 Responses leave one →
  1. October 5, 2010

    I think ACLFest would be awesome as a Texas only music format, but only if it’s not a KGSR only music format.

  2. October 5, 2010

    Most of the Texas music we’ve heard — ACL or not, has been great. Even if ACL is too big now to have an all TX format, I’d love for another show to pick up the slack.

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