Firstly, I’d like to once again thank Austinist for hooking me up with a couple of free passes to the Wall of Sound Festival. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise and it was a nice surprise on Friday. Now to the review/recap. We started up I35 around 11am, a bit of a late start but with the festival scheduled to run until midnight or so we wouldn’t miss too much. Upon arrival at the ball park I was initially surprised by the small amount of vehicles in the parking lot. Having run the ACL gauntlet the weekend before, I came expecting, at the least, a large crowd and maybe some parking hassles. We found neither, surprising in the first case and welcome in the latter. As soon as I entered the ball park I was surprised again, this time at the lack of visible security or event personnel. A girl sitting at a folding table just inside the gates asked not to see our wristbands or IDs but rather for a cigarette. Once inside we did a quick recon mission to see how the stages and vendors were laid out.
The festival advertised 30 bands on 3 stages, and while this was technically true there were some definite issues with the placement of the stages. The 3rd stage was located in a fenced in area outside of the field itself. It was smaller than expected but worked fine except for a sizeable amount of bleed from the main stages inside the park. The frustration was evident on the faces of the 3rd stage performers as they tried to play while sound from the considerably louder main stages washed over their sets. The 2nd and 3rd stages were both in the outfield of the ballpark, but to the surprise of my friends and I, they were literally side by side. It was really just one big stage split in half. In theory it was a decent idea, have one band set up on the left stage while another played on the right stage and vice versa. In practice, however, it caused many problems. One of these problems was that the schedule didn’t allow any time for sound checking the bands. This lead to one of three situations occurring during each changeover, none of them good. The first scenario, which seemed fairly common and was probably the most confusing, was that some bands would try to sound check on the left stage, while another band performed on the right stage. This lead to quite a few tense moments on stage where one band would yell at the other for sound checking during their set. The second scenario was a band having to sound check before their set, thus either cutting into their set time, or causing them to run long and delay the start times of future sets. The final scenario had bands just getting up there and playing without any sound check at all. This caused quite a few bands to have really bad mixes and detracted from a good number of sets I was eager to see. There were other complaints as well. Overpriced water on a very hot day, only two food vendors and just one beverage vendor who served anything other than beer, soda, or water being the main ones. Complaints aside, and I wouldn’t have mentioned them first if they weren’t massive and glaring, the festival promoters did put together a good lineup.
Lymbyc Systym’s sibling duo started the day off nicely for my friends and I. Their mix of electronic loops, drums, and amazing sounding old analog keys drew a pretty large crowd to the small third stage. I actually saw them on Friday night in Austin opening for This Will Destroy You as well and the boys played as impeccably on Saturday as they did the night before. These were Lymbyc Systym’s last two shows on their 8 week tour and they were really tight from all of those performances. Next up was Austin metal kings, The Sword. One thing I need to mention about the main stages at Wall of Sound is the wall of massive PA speakers in front of the stages, they were not kidding about a wall of sound. Those bad boys were cranked to 11 all day. The Sword utilized every decibel the PAs could put out as they made ears bleed all across the outfield. They started out with Age of Winters number “Freya” and after rocking through that one, announced that they were going to spend the rest of their set playing “some new shit”. The Sword was one of the few bands all day that really sounded good all the way through. After this we took advantage of the festival’s loosely monitored in and out policy and left to grab a bite to eat that was not insanely over priced and terrible like the food inside the parks walls.
Upon our return we went over to the main stage again to check out current Pinback tour mates Om. I had never heard their music before their set on Saturday and I probably won’t be listening to them again any time soon. I’d give them the nod for worst set of the festival even though there was a small crowd in front of the stage who thought they were fantastic. Om’s shtick, and it does seem pretty shticky to me, went as follows. Have a guy on bass play super loud, droney, almost non musical shit through two of the largest bass cabinets I have ever seen. One friend guessed they were each 6x12s or even 6x15s. On top of that have a shirtless drummer play the bell on his ride so much you just want to die. Oh yeah and they played 3 songs over the course of an hour plus set (which was supposed to be 40 minutes and caused some disaster later in the evening). I was more than pleased when they left the stage to a smattering of applause and a lot of boos. After the Om debacle I checked out a bit of Bobby Bare Jr., not too impressed although they had a couple of good extended musical outros, and tried to see a bit of White Denim but missed them. At this point the schedule was worthless as their were delays on all stages and bands were just going on whenever the band before them ended. Pinback was up next, and this was the set I was most looking forward to as I had never seen them before. I have to say, I wasn’t overly impressed.
Pinback is a band that owes much of their impressiveness on albums to the fantastic musical balance. All of the interweaving bass and guitar work as well as the complicated interloping vocals of Rob Crow and Zach Smith rely so heavily on a proper mix, and that mix was off on Saturday night. I definitely want to see them in a proper club setting with a good sound guy before passing final judgment, but I was left unimpressed this weekend. After Pinback I ventured out to the 3rd stage to catch the end of a really impressive set by Austin rock act Lions. Sometimes no bullshit balls to the wall rock and roll can be such a breath of fresh air in the current musical atmosphere and their set was just what I needed at that moment. I’ll definitely check them out again. I then walked back to the main stage to catch the last 3 or 4 songs of The Books. The Books are a duo comprised of one guy playing really intricate, mostly finger picked, pieces on acoustic guitar and another guy playing a cello. They play along with prerecorded tracks comprised of a video montage and various electronic atmospherics. Really cool stuff, I wish I could have seen their whole set.
The last three bands of the day were the ones that most people probably came to see, the central Texas trio of Denton’s Midlake and Austin’s own Ghostland Observatory and Explosions in the Sky. Midlake was scheduled to play first of the three but undisclosed problems required Ghostland to go on first. They took the stage and did exactly what they do best for 40 minutes. The music was loud, the dancing was ever present and the light show, while not nearly on par with the one at ACL last weekend, was very cool. The only complaint I can come up with was that the crowd didn’t let their guard down like they do in Austin, so the general dance party vibe of the show was missing. Midlake promptly took the stage after Ghostland ( the sets were was behind schedule at this point, Ghostland went on after 11pm which was the time Explosion were supposed to take the stage) and they played the set of the day. They are just so so unbelievably tight. Midlake played a short set that featured most of my favorites, “Roscoe”, “Young Bride”. “Van Occupanther”, and “Head Home” included. Also present was an unnamed new song that I had heard them play at ACL as well, it was really great and has my hopes set really high for the new album. So after this only one band remained, one of my favorite bands of all time, Explosions in the Sky. I’ve seen the band probably half a dozen times in Austin, but it had been a while since my last encounter with them. Once again, the sound was not the best, it seemed like some of the drums weren’t properly mic'd, etc. but they gave it every bit they had and the result was very enjoyable. Unfortunately the festival’s horrible management reared its ugly head one last time in the form of the Fort Worth police forcing the band to stop playing 2 songs into their set. Explosions guitarist Munaf grabbed the microphone and explained to the crowd with a terribly pained expression in his face that the cops were here to enforce the curfew and they would have to stop playing. As the crowd cheered for just one more song you could really see the disappointment in the band members faces as they walked off the stage and it lead to a definite “What the fuck?” moment amongst the crowd as we dejectedly and confusedly walked out of the ball park.
On the ride home from Fort Worth, my friends and I discussed the day and tried to piece together how someone could so badly flub a quality event like this. Maybe I am just spoiled because I live in Austin and get to see well attended, professionally presented, and much appreciated shows all the time, but I just don’t see how you can screw something up so bad. You simply can not allow the poor stage management all day to cause your headliner’s sets to be cut short. 90% of the reason I went to this show was to see Midlake, Ghostland, and Explosions, and they were the only three bands I saw all day that had their sets significantly shortened due to time restraints. Even besides that, where were the security people? Where were the medical personnel? Where were the smiling faces in easily identifiable Wall of Sound employee shirts to answer my questions? Where were the promised vendors? I would estimate that at no point in the day were there ever more people in the crowd than would have easily fit in a show at Stubbs. As I milled amongst the 500-1,000 people there at any given point in the day I kept thinking that if this event had been held in Austin there would have been 10,000 people there.
I’d summarize the day in one word, disappointing. It could have been fantastic, but it was anything but, and the burden of this disappointment falls in no way on the shoulders of the bands, it falls squarely on the organizers and promoters of the event. I don’t think I’ll be making a return trip next year unless these issues are given a serious look and some major changes are made.