Photo by Cambria Harkey for ACL
At the end of the day, none of the handwringing or controversy mattered. As much as certain individuals were angered initially by James Murphy’s decision to reunite the band — certain individuals who flew from Austin to New York in 2011 to watch the final show at Madison Square Garden and are now writing recap articles — it didn’t matter to the thousands in the crowd eagerly awaiting the chance to see the band’s first time back in Texas since ACL 2010. They just wanted to see their favorite band, either for the first time or the tenth. Minutes after the band took the stage for a tight 90-minute set, all qualms were immediately squashed.
The band played a solid mix of favorites from all three of their albums, delivering only songs the crowd would want to hear with minimal filler or banter. It was familiar, like an evening out with old friends, as they went through routine runs like the combination of “Tribulation” into “Movement” into “Yeah”. The band’s legend grew over the past half-decade as a powerhouse live act, and they brought that drive and showmanship to ACL in full force. They certainly didn’t draw as big a crowd as Mumford & Sons, but the good-sized audience they did draw was tremendously excited, making for a killer back-and-forth.
Photo by Roger Ho for ACL
Even in 2016, there’s nothing like seeing a giant crowd losing their mind to “Dance Yrself Clean” or “All My Friends”. There may be valid reasons to criticize LCD Soundsystem’s decision to reunite, but watching the way a crowd reacted to their live set was a reminder of why so many fell in love with them in the first place. Whether they’re making a new album or not, it will always be a special opportunity to get to see them in action. –David Sackllah
Best R&B Artist
While there may have been no rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain” like there was at Coachella, that doesn’t mean Gallant’s performance was any less impressive. Introduced through an ascending piano phrase, he roared with an arresting falsetto that would unwind into the bedroom-eyed “Open Up” as expansive, low-end synths unfurled behind the nearly a cappella-styled registers. While his voice easily hearkens back to ’80s and ‘90s R&B floating vocals, erratic bursts of instrumentation lean to a contemporary style gleaning subtle traces of hip-hop and soul.
Reminiscent of Maxwell’s timbre but with a Frank Ocean candor, Gallant’s set had the audience peering into words that read like cathartic diary entries. Backed with a full band, tracks like “Talking to Myself” transformed the alt-R&B digital layers to a more expansive and haunting space of robust percussion and sharp chords. Standing atop a golden velvet chair, the Columbia crooner slipped into an impassioned performance of “Weight in Gold” as he contorted his body wildly to cannon drum rolls and finished it off with a poetic wail. –Alejandra Ramirez
Best Hometown Hero
A native of small-town East Texas who has collaborated with Willie Nelson and plays Austin frequently, Kacey Musgraves’ ACL debut was long overdue. She made the most of it with a knockout, early-afternoon set that showcased why she is such a magnetic performer. She brings her songs to life onstage with personal asides to add color, and as rehearsed as it may be, hearing about the nosy neighbors or condescending individuals who influence her songs helps to make them relatable. Her country/pop crossover played well to an attentive audience, and crowd sing-alongs of hits like “Merry Go Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” were the kind of moments you traditionally go to a festival like ACL to see. An extremely talented, charismatic performer, Kacey stood out brightly as the best country artist of the weekend. –David Sackllah
Best Rock Band
Radiohead Photos by Cambria Harkey for ACL
In a year where ACL moved heavily towards a younger direction with a lineup of primarily rap and electronic artists, it was helped by the fact that when it came to the more traditional rock headliner, the fest went with the most acclaimed band of the last 20 years. For their first ACL appearance, Thom and the gang did not disappoint, delivering a two-hour set that spanned across their entire career, spending as much time on OK Computer and Kid A as they did on In Rainbows and The King of Limbs. While the setlist was slightly weighted towards A Moon Shaped Pool, it wasn’t overwhelmingly so, and songs like “Daydreaming” or “Identikit” had as warm a reaction as older favorites like “The Gloaming” or “Lotus Flower”.
Part of what makes Radiohead such a festival headliner-friendly act is that they have so many entry points into their discography. While ranking their records may not be as hotly a debated topic as rankings someone like Kanye’s, their audience is comprised of different generations for which OK Computer or Kid A might be the holy grail that introduced them to the band, but for just as many that record may be In Rainbows. That’s why when the band played the opening notes of “Airbag” as the fourth song in the set, you could feel a chill work over the crowd, but then a similar feeling occurred when they went into “Reckoner” in the second hour.
The band was in top form, locked in sync while faithfully recreating the songs. Johnny was a treat to watch especially, as he would switch between guitar, percussion, and electronics frequently throughout the set. There was little crowd interaction, which wasn’t surprising, but anytime Thom did address the crowd he was mostly gracious. There wasn’t much spontaneity either, but a few moments like “The National Anthem” being introduced with samples of radio transmissions discussing the moon landing and Thom prefacing “2+2=5” by leading an impromptu sing-along of the chorus of “How Soon Is Now” broke the routine.
This being ACL, there were of course a few issues that, while not enough to keep the set from being an all-time ACL classic, were certainly noticeable. Mostly, the band sounded fairly quiet unless you were way up front, and since Major Lazer was blasting their EDM from across the park at the same time, Radiohead came close to being overpowered at times. The worst instance was during the first half of “Exit Music (For a Film)”, where Thom sang with an acoustic guitar, but the pounding bass of Major Lazer was just as audible. It was even more noticeable for the last 30 minutes of the set, after Major Lazer finished, as the band’s songs were all the more entrancing by not having to compete with the bass on the other side of the park. Besides that, the general presence of overexcited festival bros who felt the need to wildly shout-talk during the slower songs served as a reminder that die-hard fans may be better served seeing Radiohead on their own tour.
Besides those two issues, Radiohead’s set was easily one of the top headlining sets in ACL history, with moments like the guitar solo in “Paranoid Android” and the quiet grandeur of “Nude” standing as spine-tingling moments. Old favorites like “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and “Karma Police” resulted in united, melancholy sing-alongs. The paranoid anxiety and existential dread of Radiohead’s best doesn’t quite match well on paper with a festival audience whose main goal is to spend a weekend partying, but for those two hours Friday night the band did their best to create a universal moment that hearkened back to the festival’s alt-rock roots while also crafting a wholly unique experience that was miles away from ‘90s rock headliners of years past like RHCP or Pearl Jam. Quibbles aside, Radiohead’s set was the kind fans will be talking about years down the line and proof that the festival can still pull together legendary evenings in year fifteen. –David Sackllah
Most Deserved Headliner
It’s been 18 months since Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, the Grammy-wining masterpiece that catapulted him to the level where he can not only headline a festival like Bonnaroo or ACL, but bring out the biggest crowd of the entire weekend. Looking back on rap headliners in previous years like Outkast, Eminem, Kanye, and Drake, each either traded in nostalgia or had bona fide radio hits that elevated them to superstar status. Kendrick’s highest-charting single as lead artist was “Swimming Pools”, which didn’t even crack the top 10, and he only has one platinum album to his name. Unlike the others who have been household names since early in their career, Kendrick truly came up from the underground, starting as a mixtape rapper who was playing to meager crowds at SXSW and one-off shows back in the days of Section 80. Before he was the rapper to emerge from the pack as a voice of a generation, and even before the Dr. Dre cosign, he was a young, fresh voice out of Compton with a warm sense of humor and a keen awareness of social issues, not preachy enough to be a “conscious rapper” but able to pack a devastating, thought-provoking punch now and then.
While not the majority of the crowd, there were many who had been fans since those early days waiting close to the front, yelling out for random deep cuts from Section.80 throughout the set. For that following, it was truly special to see Kendrick ascend to become one of the most relevant rap stars today, the rare artist who came up from the underground and in less than five years worked his way up to headlining major festivals, a feat normally reserved for legacy rock acts or rappers firmly in the mainstream.
Those expecting a legendary set were not disappointed, as Lamar took the crowd on a swirling odyssey, journeying through the introspective jazz of To Pimp a Butterfly as well as the booming fan favorites from good kid, m.A.A.d city. For those who had seen him already on this tour, he managed to switch things up by incorporating a few tracks from this year’s B-Side compilation, untitled unmastered., notably opening the show with an empowered sing-along of “Untitled 07 (Levitate)”. Lamar was in a good mood throughout the evening, doing his best to pump up the crowd through interactions, and even brought out Schoolboy Q for an impromptu performance of “That Part”. He hit early with favorites like “Backseat Freestyle” and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”, and while he lost some of that intense momentum during the more introspective midsection that featured TPAB album cuts like “These Walls”, “For Sale”, and “For Free”, he brought it back with a thunderous take of “King Kunta” that got everyone in Zilker off their feet.
Years of playing together has developed an undeniable chemistry between Lamar and his live band, and they were on fire throughout the night, often jamming in between songs, incorporating jazzy interludes around complex arrangements like “Wesley’s Theory”. They really amped things up for “Alright”, with Kendrick extending the chorus towards the end to hype up the crowd, providing a nice fake-out where they acted like they were going to walk off midway through before running back to the instruments and leading one last sing-along.
The night ended with Kendrick asking the crowd what Section 80 cut they wanted to hear before concluding with a spirited take on early single “A.D.H.D.” He had to teach a lot of the crowd the chorus, but playing the early favorite was a clear indicator of how far he’s come in the past five years, while also serving as a nice wink to the fans who have been there the whole time. Lamar has more than earned his spot as an ACL headliner, and it was encouraging to see a relevant artist in their prime get the chance to have top billing at a festival known mostly for featuring older artists. More than a victory lap, Kendrick’s set showed that he’s still on the rise and that this likely won’t be the only year we see him take top billing at the festival. –David Sackllah
Click ahead for our complete gallery from ACL 2016.