The Best Dang Concert Diary in Texas: Takeaways from Austin City Limits

After three days of battling excruciating heat, rain storms, and the escalating crowd size at Austin’s Zilker Park, I was actually very sad to see Austin City Limits end. Similar to years past, I’ll leave the great state of Texas with a deepened appreciation for the “weirdness” of Austin, Tex Mex cuisine, and the wealth of opportunities for a good ol’ fashioned adventure this festival has to offer. For more ACL accounts and a gallery of the weekend’s festivities, read on.

1) Less is not more. Everything is bigger in Texas, and this includes Queso serving sizes, golf umbrellas, the ambition behind Kanye’s stage construction, the ACL bike lot, and the hype surrounding headlining music legend Stevie Wonder. Over the past few years, I’ve learned to come to ACL overly prepared, as the weather is almost always unpredictable this time of year and, hell, anything can happen. While here, I always load up on runny Tex Mex queso dip, nachos, and hard tacos, so this year, we hit up Guero’s and Maudie’s in Austin and sampled the nachos from The Salt Lick and Tim Love’s Love Shack inside the festival grounds. (The Salt Lick won our blind taste test.)

For me, the most ambitious performance was Kanye West’s and his troupe of ballerinas on Friday night. For his opener, “Higher,” Kanye descended into the crowd from a hydraulic lift and casually swaggered onto the stage. The following hour and 45 minutes was remarkable in its aesthetic simplicity and near-perfect execution. Unfortunately, the ever-so-anticipated Stevie Wonder’s Saturday performance was marred by some technical sound issues (My Morning Jacket could be heard pretty distinctly even from Wonder’s corner of the park). Dedicated fans set up shop around the Bud Light stage starting that morning in anticipation of this headlining performance, but the impression shared by the exiting crowds was generally nonplussed…To go out with a bang, the weekend ended with recent Grammy winners Arcade Fire; the closing honors served as a homecoming of sorts for band members Win and Will Butler (who grew up in Houston suburb, the Woodlands). They played an aggressive show for the festival’s most-coveted time slot and bid adieu to Austin with Regine Chassagne twirling around in multicolored ribbons and the sad announcement that they wouldn’t be back for a few more years.

2) Be open to try new things. I’ve heard the name Skrillex before, but realistically knew very little about the LA-based electro DJ and producer. Now I do. His performance at the Google + stage on Saturday was surely one of the most crowded, rowdiest and high-energy shows of the weekend. Crowd surfing fans started coming over the front rail in waves as soon as Skrillex took the stage, and the thousands surrounding continued jumping in unison through his hour of glory. At one point, he lifted a fist-pumping, little, blonde boy from backstage onto his soundboard. That kid is going to be so much cooler than anyone I know…I’m now also a converted Tito’s Vodka fan, thanks to the Vodka slushie concoction booth in the media area (amazing idea).

3) Timing is everything. I came with two friends from New York, a camera and a rough itinerary for our 72 hours in Austin. We ended up with an arm full of wristbands, some sweet cowboy boots and backstage access to Cut Copy’s Saturday afternoon performance and Fleet Foxes Sunday show. On Saturday, while standing on fold out chairs in an attempt to catch a glimpse of TV on the Radio from the Google + lounge, a concerned concert-goer approached us and explained that he’d lost his girlfriend, Bridget, and asked if we would hold up a barcode he’d drawn on a piece of cardboard with Bridget’s name. Trying to be polite (we’re in Texas, after all), we obliged, and within seconds Bridget and her man were reunited. Incredible…Like many other surprised festival-goers, we had a few Terrence Malick/Christian Bale sightings (Fleet Foxes, TV On the Radio, Bright Eyes), and have been informed via the Twitter-sphere that they were indeed shooting a film throughout the weekend’s festivities…In addition to hosting some of the festival’s biggest names and attractions, the Bud Light stage also acted as a backdrop for the weekend’s most cringe-worthy-but-cute public engagement. An adorable Aussie fellow took the stage on Sunday afternoon and asked the crowd if he could use it as a forum to ask a “very special question”. The lucky lady joined him, and (phew) she said yes. They also announced that they’re moving to Austin just because they like it that much.

image Austin native Terrence Malick directing Christian Bale backstage at Fleet Foxes

Photo Diary: Making New Friends at Austin City Limits

This is my fourth year at Austin City Limits. This year also marks the rock festival’s ten-year anniversary (the first six obviously don’t count). These festivals are a lot like airports—they’re pop-up communities, mini social experiments, petri dishes for human social interaction. I keep coming back simply because of the people at ACL, us festival-goers in a contained environment with one another with no fire department-approved easy way out. This year, with my two counterparts, I decided to divert my attention from the media area and get crowd-focused. We made a pledge to interact with every interesting person we passed, using our press credentials as a launching pad.

On Friday, we ascertained some noteworthy Intel. 1) Almost everyone cited “the rainy year” (2009) as their most memorable experience 2) Stevie Wonder is one helluva crowd pleaser. Check out our new BFFs after the jump.

image Patrick Origin: Dallas, TX Track record: 3rd year at ACL The Best: The year that it rained really badly. As annoying as it was trudging through the mud that was up to your shoes and losing my shoes and getting really dirty and as smelly as it was, that made it the most fun. It made it a whole different atmosphere. The Worst: The years of overindulgence. 2011 Attractions: I’m really excited to see Stevie Wonder, because I figure I wont have many other chances to see him again. I’ve seen Cold War Kids a few times before, and I’m excited about them.

image Giselle and James Origin: Cut and Shoot, TX Track Record: G: This is my fifth year; J: My second year The Best: G: Dancing in the rain at Citizen Cope two years ago when it was pouring; J: The mud ruined my shoes. I came in here with some good, brand new shoes and walked out with no shoes. The Worst: J: There are no bad memories here. Only good ones.

image India Origin: Seattle, WA Track Record: Six years The Best: MIA in 2008. And in future tense: Stevie Wonder and Santigold. They’re just gonna bring it home. It’s always been good but it’s gonna be better this year. 2011 Expectations: I’m impressed with the lineup— Stevie Wonder, that’s all I’m gonna say. Also excited about Fleet Foxes

image Jackie and Bob Origin: Austin, TX Track Record: J: Six years; B: All ten The Best: J: The mudfest. That was fun to watch; B: Richard Thompson, Robert Plant and Allison Krause. 2011 Attractions: J: Coldplay, Stevie Wonder and Randy Newman. Backstage Wishes: B: The Secret Sisters; J: I’ll go with Randy Newman. image Junie and Leslie Origin: Las Vegas, NV Track Record: Four years Original Attraction: J: I’m from Marfa, Texas originally, so I was telling her about this and she’s into all the Indie bands. L: He didn’t know who anybody was. I saw the list of bands and was like, “What?”; J: I was like, “I don’t see Iron Maiden on that list.” The Best: J: When it rained a lot two years ago. It was miserable but great. And Foo Fighters (2008). Texas Appeal: L: People are so polite. To have this many people and never see fights or problems—there’s a lot of good energy. 2011 Attractions: J & L: Ray LaMontagne, Brandi Carlisle and Coldplay. Stevie Wonder, he’s a legend and we’ve never seen him. ACL Advice: L: Be prepared for anything: rain, sun. Stay hydrated. Austin Go-To: J: There’s a place called Casino El Camino. They serve the best burgers I’ve ever had.

image Kayla Origin: Oklahoma City, OK Track Record: 1st time Hula Hooping History: A friend brought it to my attention, and I hooped for six hours and was hooked. ACL Appeal: Kanye West. Initial Reactions: It’s pretty awesome, but it’s not very hoop-friendly. There’s just not a lot of room, but it’s just because it’s so crowded. I just wish I had some space.

image Erin and Charlie Origin: Brooklyn, NY Track Record: E: My first time; C: I came two years ago. It was the really wet year. 2011 Highlights: E: Foster the People; C: Kanye Austin Go-To: C: We went to The Salt Lick for barbecue. It lived up to the reputation. Necessary improvements: E: Real bathrooms, no port-a-potties.

image Marissa and Todd Origin: Austin, TX Track Record: M: All ten years. And I’m only 22. My parents are big music fans; T: Six years The Best: M: I liked Tom Petty (2006). And when it started to rain for the big mudstorm here. When the rain came down, everyone was drunk already and we loved it; T: LCD Soundsystem (2010) was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Hands down. And when Bob Dylan played (2007). The Worst: M: When it was 114 degrees, walking to ACL. My friend passed out at Bob Schneider (2010). 2011 Attractions: M: Kanye. Austin Go-To: M: Polvos for margaritas. Torchy’s for a great taco. Uncommon Objects on South Congress.

Photo credit: Jessica Austerlitz

Industry Insiders: John Stage, Pit Man

For a taste of what many have named New York City’s best barbecue, you must venture up to 131st Street in Harlem, take a gander under the Riverside Drive Bridge, and viola, Dinosaur BBQ. John Stage, the owner of the original Syracuse roadhouse and its satellite locations (Rochester, Harlem), sat us down at the roundtable, gave us a tour of the slow-roasting barbecue pits, and explained the art of making beautiful meat.

How did Dinosaur BBQ come into being? I started Dinosaur BBQ in 1983 as a mobile concession business, doing biker events, fairs, festivals. I was a gypsy BBQ guy for five years. I ended up in Syracuse and opened up my first Dinosaur location in 1988, opened up my second one in Rochester in 1998, and my son went to college around 2004 so I decided to move back to New York. That’s when I opened up Dinosaur here.

So, you started out feeding bikers? I was at this event in 1983 called the Harley Rendezvous, and it was a big gathering of hardcore bikers. I wasn’t doing anything really significant at the time, so I was looking around, and saying, “Man, I should get in the business of feeding bikers. They’re some hungry men.” Back then, it was a very, very close society. It’s not like it is now where everybody rides a Harley. I literally cut a fifty-five gallon drum in half and went to the organizers of these bike events and asked them to let me cook. That’s how it started. I called myself Dinosaur BBQ, but I really wasn’t barbecue. I was grilling. As I started cracking the Mason-Dixon line in the mid-80s I realized what I was doing; as a matter of fact I was told what I was doing. People would say, “Son, this is good but it ain’t barbecue.” I didn’t know what the hell barbecue was. I was raised in New York. To me, barbecue was throwing a hamburger or hot dog on a grill. I started learning about pits and slow cooking, and it really intrigued me. I eventually got on my bike and took a tour of the south to get a taste of what real barbecue was. It became a life’s pursuit from that point.

How do you describe the Dinosaur BBQ recipe? We smoke in the traditional southern manner. In Tennessee, Texas, and North Carolina, we’re all pretty much doing the same thing — cooking meat for long periods of time with an indirect fire. If you had to categorize it, our pulled pork is probably the most Memphis-based, our brisket is definitely Texan. Our barbecue pits are made in Mesquite, Texas, but we’ve got our own style. I can’t say I’m ever one to try and duplicate any one region.

How’d you choose this location? I was living on 101st Street at the time, and every time I went on the West Side Highway on 125th Street, I liked the feel and the vibe of it. I just loved the idea of being under this bridge. If you walk out, take a look at this bridge, it was the same architect that built the Eiffel Tower. There’s such a power and presence here.

Describe the Dinosaur BBQ clientele. We probably have the most diverse clientele in New York City. We get everybody from my neighbors, the Harlemites, people from all over Manhattan, the Bronx, Jersey, Westchester, some Columbia University students. You name it, we get it. You come here on any night and you’re going to see black, Latino, white people just mixing it up having a good time.

All coming together for the love of barbecue? Barbecue defies all socioeconomic boundaries. I’ve always said that. You know, rich and poor — it don’t matter. People feel good when eating barbecue. It’s really diverse and I like it that way.

How do your restaurants upstate different from this one? They’re all different. You can never duplicate an original. I would never try to take the Syracuse restaurant and put it anywhere else. I had to go with the architectural integrity of each building. The one in Syracuse is an old, turn-of-the-century auto dealership — it was the first Cadillac dealership in Syracuse. The Rochester location is a 1905 train station. It’s on the water, and it’s an incredible piece of architecture. They all feel like a Dinosaur, but they look a little bit different. They have the same vibe and flavor, but I would never try to copy any of them. I want them all to be slightly different. If someone goes, “Well this don’t feel like Syracuse” … well good, it’s not supposed to.

Was the first joint a hit from the start? It wasn’t at first. Again, back then it was a different environment. If there were motorcycles parked in front of a restaurant years ago, it had a bad reputation. Now nobody cares. Back then it was different. So the first year, nobody really got us, and then it started catching. By the second year, it was big. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I finally got a liquor license. We were a place just to get a good plate of food. But no one was going on dates there; no one was making it a night out. Once we got our liquor license, then the whole vibe of it changed, and we became a real place to go to. Then we started adding live music.

Do you guys do music shows here in the New York location? On Monday night we have an open jam, and on Friday and Saturday. We have music three nights a week, sometimes four.

Do you have any interest in expanding? We’re looking at a space in Brooklyn right now. I take one at a time. We may put another one upstate, but I’m not sure yet. There’s three balls in the air and I’m not sure where they’re going to drop right now.

What should someone order their first time here? Our number-one selling item is the ribs. Our ribs are St. Louis cut, and we slow-smoke them for up to four hours until the meat pulls off the bone. We rub them, smoke them lightly, and put light sauce on them. Our brisket is all about that slow-cooking process. We’ll smoke the brisket for up to 12 hours. and all the fat and all the connective tissue is based out. It ends up having slightly more fat than a bone of skinless chicken breast. The fatty part of the brisket drips out. I’ll put a plate of lean brisket up against any order of skinless breast, and it’ll have a lower fat content and be healthier for you. Pulled pork is the same thing. It’s a pork shoulder. If you put a nine-pound pork shoulder in the pit, you’re going to end up with four pounds of usable meat, because all that fat drips out of it. That’s what makes good barbecue. You want to start with a fatty piece of meat, and then the cooking process leaves it with a good flavor. It’s lean, and you’re never going to see hunks of fat on a piece of pulled pork.

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What time do you have to start cooking the meat to get ready for lunch hour? What you would be eating for lunch today went into the barbecue pit last night. We load it up about 1 a.m.

Does someone have to be here 24 hours a day? No, we’ll build a fire that will take it until about six in the morning. The barbecue pits maintain a certain temperature, and they cook very slowly at 250 degrees. The fuel self-regulates. If you’re burning low, that fire takes a long time to go down. If we were cooking at 500 degrees, that fire would be gone in an hour and a half. Because it’s at 250 degrees, we can stretch it until about 6 a.m. Another guy comes in around 7 a.m., puts another log on the fire, and builds it back up again.

Where do you go out in this neighborhood? My favorite bar in Harlem is St. Nick’s Pub on 148th Street and St. Nicholas. It’s a great old-school jazz club. Showman’s on 125th Street is a blast. Lennox Lounge is cool. I go around the corner to my friends at Toast — that’s a good Dinosaur watering hole. Those are my Harlem haunts.

How much barbecue do you eat on a daily basis? We’re going to sit down at 11:30 a.m. and do a big tasting. We do this every day in the morning, and then again at 5 p.m. When the barbecue comes out, we inspect it and taste it. I eat barbecue every day. I’m not sitting down with massive plates of it, but I’m sampling it everyday. We get a team of the general manager, the kitchen manager, and my service director. We all sit down to sample our food each day, and then we have a roundtable discussion about it. If something’s perfect, it goes over here, if it needs a little something more, it goes over here. We just re-tweak everything.

Best barbecue joints in the country? I loveThe Salt Lick right outside of Austin. It’s the quintessential Texas barbecue restaurant. It’s about 22 miles outside of Austin, in a dry county, and it’s nestled on this very picturesque road. You start smelling it about a mile out. If I’m in Memphis, I like the Cozy Corner.