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ACL, aka the dust bowl

A little late, but I had other things to worry about.
(ETA: There are pictures behind the cuts now.)

Thursday, or the day of evacuation

Jose, Claudia, my mom, the dogs, and I headed out at around two o'clock Thursday morning. Jose and Claudia could see I45 from their apartment, and they knew it was a parking lot. Jose maneuvered us through downtown, through the Heights and to the old Hempstead highway. We hit a few stoplights, but it was nothing like the parking lots that I-45 (downtown), I-10 (the Heights) and 290 (Hempstead highway) had become. We'd see the freeways from time to time and shake our heads in disbelief.

Whereever Hempstead highway ends, we found another road (looking at the map, I think it is Spencer Road) heading west which turns into a two lane road, maybe a half hour into the trip. Here we had our first slow down, and almost were at the stop and go snail's pace of the rest of traffic leaving the city. Around this point, baltassoc called me to see how it was going, and I remember looking down to tell him about our progress and seeing that my trip meter (which included running around Houston a bit before we left) was at 43 miles. Half an hour later, it was at 47 miles. At various points, I was sorely tempted to declare the road a one-way highway, and get into the oncoming lane, eastbound traffic be damned. Jose and Claudia, in the other car, reported having similar fantasies. On the other hand, though, our friend had called to tell us that she hadn't yet made it to the Beltway on 290, and she had left two hours before we did.

Eventually, Spencer Road hit Katy / Hockley road, and we took that to get closer to 290. Fortunately, we'd passed the old 9-bar Ranch (where Fairfield is now), which has no access roads to 290 (this is about 25 miles from downtown, though I think it's still technically Houston), and we were able to avoid getting back on the highway. We headed back to the old Hempstead Highway and took that all the way to Hempstead.

Thank goodness we'd been going to the ranch for 30 years. 290 has slowly been turned from an old four lane highway that goes through all these small towns to more of a freeway, and the freeway bypasses a lot of those towns. What's nice, though, is that they kept that old highway, so we knew exactly how to get through Hockley, Waller, Prarie View, and eventually Hempstead without actually touching the gridlocked freeway. We probably got from Hockley to Hempstead in 20 minutes. The people along 290 probably took a couple of hours to get the same distance.

We decided to abandon 290 when we got to Hempstead and head to Bellville instead. At 4:37 in the morning, my mother and I went into semi-hysterical laughter over absurdity of a traffic jam in Bellville, Texas. Apparently one of the evacuation routes was moving people through Bellville to highway 36 to get to Brenham. We almost lost it all together when we saw some poor school bus driver trying to figure out what the fuck was going on as he started his daily route. It took us about 20 minutes to get through town and we veered away from traffic towards Industry. We ended up hitting some idiotic convoy of about ten cars that really didn't understand that if you have an open road during an evacuation, you hightail it as fast as you can before you get caught up again, so after Industry, we veered off onto FM 1457, which got us to Round Top without seeing another car.

Round Top to the ranch took us the usual 20 or so minutes, and we got to our beds around 5:45 in the morning. Poor baltassoc was awakened one last time just so I could tell him that I’d gotten to my destination in a little less than four hours. I slept until maybe noon.

Everyone was slightly disoriented the next day (the dogs didn’t help, since they weren’t exhausted from the drive and got up at their normal time), and we had no real idea of what was going on. My mom got a radio out, and we started hearing about the horror that we’d managed to avoid. At some point, I realized that I wasn’t necessarily out of the clear, since I needed to pick up baltassoc from the airport in Austin. David, the guy who runs the ranch, reported that it took him an hour to get into Giddings that morning, usually a trip that takes no more than 15 minutes.

baltassoc’s plane was scheduled to get in around 9:30, and around 3:00 I panicked, got some old maps, and started studying back roads to Austin from the ranch. It’s 70 miles, usually takes about an hour, to Austin, but that’s on 290, and lord knows how bad that was going to be. The only map I could find wasn’t particularly detailed, but I hit the road around 3ish with a vague notion of going to La Grange and trying to get to Bastrop so I could hit a back road I found on the map.

Close to La Grange, I called baltassoc to let him know that I was on the road and if the phones for some reason went out to call the ranch for details. Adorable, sweet, wonderful man that he is, he pulled out Google maps, figured out where I was, directed me to a back road I would have never found, and saved me 24 miles off of 71, getting me to Smithville without having to run into evacuation traffic. My personal On-Star system. My hero.

I did have to get on 71 for the 10 miles or so between Smithville and Bastrop, and the last six of those were some of the most painful driving moments I’ve ever had. I spent an hour inching along those six miles. Speeding up to as many as 13 miles an hour, but generally going about two, if that. Turns out that there are some lights in Bastrop, and the back up to get through them was considerable. There was also gas in Bastrop, and I managed to only have to wait ten minutes to fill up my little over half empty tank. I wasn’t taking any risks on running out of gas.

A little past Bastrop, I found another back road that took me practically directly to the airport, and I averaged 60 miles an hour for the last 24 miles of the trip. baltassoc and I sort of raced each other to our respective airports. I got to Austin’s at around 5:45 and hung around the bar area with my laptop, chatting with friends on IM and catching up on news, until his plane got in.

We got to 290 to head back to the ranch, and got there in about an hour, though occasionally, I’d slow down from my 70plus miles an hour to gawk at the number of cars heading west. Every gas station along the route had nearly half-mile long lines waiting to get in, blocking the rest of traffic.

A romantic interlude followed.*


*I'm not reporting on every one. Assume there were more at various points throughout the weekend and assume that they were very, very good.


Friday, or the day of waiting

The next morning, baltassoc got to meet my punchy family (and the dogs). Everyone was a bit grumpy. Something about lack of sleep due to dogs talking to one another in the early hours of the morning. Somehow this was my fault. We lingered over breakfast, had some coffee, walked around the ranch a bit, showered, and consulted the ACL schedule. Jose and Claudia had gone into town to secure food and some gas for Claudia’s car, and they reported that it wasn’t that bad. While we could have easily enjoyed the Steve Earle set, we decided to shoot for making it in time for the Robert Earl Keen/Lucinda Williams sets. Around 1:30 we decided that it was probably a good idea to go ahead and head on out.

There was a lot more traffic on the road than usual, but it was passable, and the worst part was I-35 when we rolled into Austin an hour and a half later. We decided to head across country (i.e. Lamar) instead of on the freeway to get to Zilker Park, stopping at Whole Earth Provision for some supplies before we got to the park.

As usual, there were mobs getting into the park and theoretical no parking in the neighborhood. As usual, I had a friend in the neighborhood who was more than happy to give me permission to park in front of her apartment. That we could only find a space a few blocks from her apartment (and coincidently closer to the park) was unfortunate for the parking authorities.

It was hot. I'll say this again later on, with much more vehemence, but damn, it was hot. The line to get in the venue was pretty long, and we heard part of Lucinda Williams as we were walking in. She sounded ok, but we didn't have any difficulty making the decision to head over to Robert Earl Keen instead. We found a spot close enough to be able to sorta see, and sat down to listen. He was quite good, very engaging, and much better than the last time I'd seen him.

After the set, we looked at the schedule (Spoon and Thievery Corporation) and decided to wander around the grounds a bit to get a lay of the land. I'd seen Spoon twice, most recently at Lollapalooza, and I can't say I'm impressed. I heard part of Thievery Corporation while we were wandering, and they may merit another listen somewhere down the line. We headed over to the art market and checked out all of the stuff for sale. There were a few things that could have ended up in our possession, but we restrained ourselves and after grabbing some food, eventually wandered back to the Cingular stage to hear John Prine.

Me, listening to John Prine


I'd never heard John Prine before, but I loved a lot of his songs. baltassoc said that he wasn't looking good at all, and his voice was definitely that of a rode hard and put up wet musician. But I enjoyed the set immensely (the backrub I got during the set didn’t hurt…), and we decided to just hang out where we were and listen to Keane from afar while waiting for Lyle Lovett to start up.

I can't say either one of us was particularly impressed with Keane, and we kept trying to figure out which 80s band they were trying to be. I said George Michael meets U2. baltassoc heard some of the Smiths and James in there. Eventually, we heard a song we sort of recognized. We could have gotten up and trekked across the field to hear Blues Traveler, and a much better show, but we were sort of lazy, and it was nice to just sit and talk, and we didn't want to miss any of the Lyle Lovett show.

Ah, Lyle. They started with a few gospely numbers, complete with horns and a black woman with a beautiful voice. Lyle came on maybe ten minutes into the set, and he was awesome. Great songs, great voice, great band. He introduced his band by asking the crowd to guess whether each band member was a truck driver or not (this was after he sang an ode to his pick up). It was a fun, engaging set, and it ended with this amazing cello solo that I'm still reeling over. I don't at all regret missing the Black Crowes for Lyle, though the Crowes sounded good as we left the park.

We were out of there by ten, stopped for food at Fudruckers, and made it back to the ranch in about an hour. On the way back, we talked about how much we were looking forward to the rain from Rita to come and cool down the park in Austin. In our absence, my family had battened down the hatches in preparation for Rita. Lots of water in any container that would hold it, all the doors but one locked, all the outside furniture as secure as it could be for the hurricane to come.


Saturday, or Rita's wrath

We woke up, and nothing happened. Well, that's not entirely true. There was a lot of wind. We heard it thumping on the house, and we saw the tree limbs swaying. It was gusty outside, but no more than some spring days.

We got ourselves semi-organized, though not quickly enough, and we got to Zilker Park right as Split Lip Rayfield's set was ending. They're this bluegrass punk band that baltassoc likes, and he played some of their music for me on our way back to the ranch Friday night. Fastest mandolin player that I've ever heard. I was bummed that we missed them.

Since there wasn't anyone else on the lineup we wanted to see until 2:30, we decided to go ahead and get lunch at Chuy's. The wait wasn't that long, the margaritas were cold, and the food was excellent.

Our timing was perfect, and we got back into the park just in time to stop in the SBC tent, grab some free mini fan/spritzers, check the internet, and wander over to hear Buddy Guy sing the blues. Last time I heard him probably was a good decade ago at a blues festival in Houston, and frankly, I think he was better now. His band was fantastic, especially the other lead guitar, and he had a lot of fun mimicking other guitarists.

The downside. It was fucking hot. Amazingly hot. And on top of the heat, there was dust. Thousands upon thousands of particles of dust. It hadn't rained in Austin in weeks, and the grass was pretty much dead, so there wasn't anything to hold down the dust. Rita's gusts of wind didn't help matters too much, because any cooling effect that they had (which were minimal) were offset by the amount of dust that they kicked up. You'd see sparkles in the air and realize it was dust. You couldn't see across the field. Breathing was a problem. It was awful.

After Buddy Guy, we thought about going over to Martin Sexton, but it was too hot, and we fled back over to the SBC tent. Then we sought refuge in the mister tent. Finally we decided to screw it and go secure our spots for Robert Randolph, which I have to say, were pretty up close.

Robert Randolph and the Family Band is amazing. Go. See. Them. if you haven't had the pleasure. Unfortunately, the set was plagued with a lot of technical problems, so it's not likely that it will make the DVD, which is unfortunate, because it was amazing notwithstanding the delay in getting some guitars and microphones working. At one point, the drummer and Robert Randolph switched positions, and Robert Randolph is as amazing on the drums as he is on the guitar. I've never seen anyone with that much energy before. And the energy wasn't just it. The man is amazing on a slide guitar, absolutely amazing.

After Robert Randolph, we located a friend of ours, and after unsuccessfully trying to take refuge in the Gospel tent for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, we decided to just chill for a while in an R&R tent that they'd set up in the middle of the park and chat. J., our friend, has been going to ACL with me ever since I started going, and I love her dearly. She wanted all the scoop on me and baltassoc, and we spent about two hours chatting before getting ready for the Drive By Truckers.

I've seen the Drive By Truckers four times now in the last year, and I continue to like them a lot. Their set didn't differ too much from Lollapalooza, two months ago, but it was good, and they played hard. We left about three quarters of the way in to hear the end of Roky Erickson and the Explosives. Or to try to. That particular stage was the lowest in the park, and the dust was unbearable. We didn't last two songs before giving up and heading back to the ranch. We heard Oasis as we were leaving. They were very loud.

Sunset during Drive By Truckers, lots of dust, lots of people.


People were beginning to head back to Houston now, and there were more people on the road headed east than the previous two nights. There were signs all over the highway saying that we should expect delays to Houston and that there was a gas shortage. It was a little disconcerting, but we didn't really run into any trouble until after Elgin, where these two idiots were going about 40 side by side. A turning lane opened up, and I found myself being one of those assholes that gunned it to 80, illegally passing the 15 cars stuck behind the slowpokes and drove 80 miles an hour all the way back to the ranch.

New rule: People who do not know how to drive on the highway are not allowed to evacuate/return to the city until everyone else has.

We got back to the ranch, had some chicken, watched the stars in the nearly cloudless and moonless night, and went to bed, coughing up all the crap that we'd inhaled. And it wasn't even pot.


Sunday, or the day of greatness

We made it out of the ranch much earlier on Sunday than we had the previous two days. We were meeting an old friend of baltassoc's and actually had to be somewhere at a particular time. We were only 15 minutes late.

Lunch was lovely, and we rolled into the festival at around 2:15, in time to hear the last parts of the Rachel Yamagata set as we walked towards the park. Had we not had lunch, we would have tried to make it to that set.

Rilo Kiley was playing on the main SBC stage, and they were a lot younger than I thought. I guess that their songs are so world-weary that I was expecting someone more like Lucinda Williams. They reminded me more of the younger hipster art people that I know here in Houston. I'd say they don't top 30. Their short set was good, and they played all the songs that I wanted to hear, especially "Portions for Foxes."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was hot. Fucking, unbelievably hot. Record hot. Like 104 when Rilo Kiley was playing and ultimately getting to 107. The only saving grace was that the wind wasn't blowing as much on Sunday, so the dust wasn't as bad. Everyone seemed to be moving rather gingerly, too, so as not to kick up too much dust. We were towards the front of the crowds on Sunday, in areas that were densely populated, and people weren't moving too much there, so I imagine that had a lot to do with the smaller dust load.

At any rate, we found ourselves back at the gospel tent after Rilo Kiley to hear the end of Brave Combo. They were finishing their set with this awesome rendition of the Hokey Pokey, and I understood why baltassoc had put them down on his schedule grid instead of Rilo Kiley. Wonderful.

I could have easily seen the Kaiser Chiefs or the Bravery under normal circumstances, but I wanted to save myself from heat exhaustion for Wilco, so we decided to stay in the gospel tent (in the shade) for 45 minutes before heading over to Arcade Fire. A local gospel singer named Ruthie Foster hopped on the stage, and we heard the first 20 or so minutes of her set. She was very good, and her guitarist was better. As the crowd got larger, the dust settled a little. I think the people standing on the outside kept the dust from blowing in.

We managed to find a good place to stand for the Arcade Fire. I'm still at a loss as how to describe them. They're utterly chaotic on stage. They'll all go off in a million different directions, and then without warning, they'll be back together without missing a single beat. Their members switch instruments with abandon, and their stage show is as good as their music, and their music is incredible. I still can't describe it. It's somewhat choral. There are xylophones and violins and upright basses and motorcycle helmets and accordions in addition to the standard guitars, drums, pianos and basses, and I've never seen so much enthusiasm towards a single cymbal. And damn it was hot. That they could move with that much energy in that heat is utterly phenomenal.

We left Arcade Fire totally riveted and went over to Bob Mould afterwards. It was actually rather nice to switch gears so entirely. He was more traditional rock 'n' roll than Arcade Fire, and quite good. Four guys on a stage, jamming. The sun was setting and the dust was kicking in again, and we left the set a little early to secure a spot for Wilco. As we were settling in, we heard my favorite Decembrists song "Red Right Ankle" which sort of made that whole hour perfect.

We'd elbowed our way into Wilco a little to the right of the soundstage and about 20 yards in front. And I was in heaven for a good hour and 15 minutes. I LOVE Wilco. I saw them earlier this year, I saw them last year at ACL, and I am constantly amazed at how consistently good they are. Some guy yelled out that if the next song rocked any harder he would die. baltassoc and I were very concerned for him, because they rocked pretty fucking hard. The new guitarist is excellent, Jeff Tweedy is excellent. They concentrated pretty much on A Ghost is Born and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, though there was a song from each of Being There and Summerteeth. I was in heaven. That baltassoc was with me to experience with made it even better.

After Wilco, we checked out the Waterloo tent to pick up some music, and we almost didn't make it out of there due to the dust. Though most of the day wasn't nearly as bad as the day before, inside that tent was just awful. You could barely see, and my lungs are now caked with this gunk. We were pretty quiet after getting our CDs and getting out of there (though I was half-listening to Tortoise, who sounded really good). We walked back to the car, wheezing, but happy that we'd had a good day. We felt sort of bad for the people who were going to the park just to see Coldplay, because they missed out on some amazing music.

We drove back to the ranch in pretty good time, picked up our stuff and made it back to Houston using the same back roads that we used to get to the ranch on Friday, though I'm pretty sure we could have used 290. We rolled in to my house around 2:00 in the morning.

I'm happy to report that my house was still there, the pecan tree was still standing, and I had a shitload of unpreparing for a hurricane to do.

I got baltassoc to his plane at around six the next morning, and I went back to bed for a few hours before going to work.

The shows were awesome, awesome, awesome, despite the heat. I've seen a lot of bitching about September date on the rant and raves section of craigslist, but these past two Septembers have been very unusual in the heat. Given that the festival sort of has to be during the touring season, there's not much that the organizers can do about the heat, and NO ONE could have predicted (a) a hurricane and (b) 107 degree heat.

I'd say that the major problem is the dust, and the organizers should water the hell out of that park for the month leading to the event to get the grass growing.

I've had fun in the past with my friends, but this time was even better, because I was there with baltassoc. It made it perfect.