Photography by Amy Price
Over the past five years, Austin City Limits has undergone a true transformation that has slowly morphed the festival into something miles away from its beginnings as a showcase of folk rock and alt-country. ACL was late to the game as well. As recently as 2013, the festival’s headliners were classic alt-rock bands like Depeche Mode and The Cure, current alt-rock favorites like Muse and Kings of Leon, and a legacy headliner in Lionel Richie. Fast-forwarding three years later, the oldest headliner is Radiohead, a band that helped pioneer the blend of electronic music with alt rock. Relatively current acts like Mumford & Sons and LCD Soundsystem were also headliners, offset by EDM heavyweights Major Lazer and Kygo. A younger lineup resulted in a younger crowd, and for a festival that frequently felt out of touch compared to other major ones, like Coachella or Lollapalooza, it was refreshing to see ACL overwhelmingly embrace current festival trends.
This year’s ACL Weekend One ran smoothly, with good weather, no cancellations of note, and solid performances all around. Zilker Park in September is always overbearingly warm, so having the festival in the low 80s with no rain made for a surprisingly beautiful weekend. With a trio of A-list headliners in Radiohead, LCD, and Kendrick Lamar, the weekend stood as one of the best lineups of the past half-decade.
ACL featured its fair share of EDM artists each weekend, but the acts were otherwise spread out almost by genre. Most of the hip-hop artists (Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, LL Cool J, DJ Mustard, and Kamaiyah) played Saturday while the majority of the folk and country acts (Mumford, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, and Nathaniel Rateliff) played Sunday. At times, it felt like multiple festivals consolidated into one, where people could exist in their own separate worlds or come and go between them if they wanted to.
Fifteen years in, ACL operates like a well-oiled machine. And while it may not have a reputation for booking cutting-edge acts, this year’s installment proved that ACL is more than capable of putting together a lineup of talented, relevant artists who create a strong draw. ACL brought out the big guns for their 15th year, showing how far they’ve come since their folksy beginnings. The result was one of the festival’s best years yet.
Most Forgettable EDM Headling Filler
Like many national festivals, Austin City Limits is still undergoing that weird transition phase to include more EDM artists for the young college clientele while still appealing to its roots rock and baby boomer fans. The Chainsmokers fit the bombast bill to a T as the duo of Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall pulled all the tricks with pyrotechnics, strobe-lights, and amped, cheesy proclamations. FM-dialed songs like “Never Let Me Go” and “Closer” were filled with intermittent clips of popular songs like KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite” and Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”. Bringing in an assortment of guest vocalists could have helped breathe new life into hollow and flat songs, but one thing is certain: Festivals, including ACL, are lending themselves to these over-the-top extravaganzas more and more each year. –Alejandra Ramirez
Most Underwhelming Hypeman
There’s no stipulation that an artist has to sing every part of their songs during a set. One of last year’s most invigorating ACL sets was by Future, who played a minute or two of over 30 tracks to an engaged crowd who shouted the words back at him. The problem with Tory Lanez is that he doesn’t have anywhere near that amount of hits, so when he jumps up on stage while the DJ plays a track of his that maybe a handful in the moderate crowd knows, it rings hollow. He did his best to hype things up, frequently jumping in the audience and trying out call-and-response tactics, but for the most part things were fairly tame. Even if his debut album was a bloated mess, he has good songs that should transfer well to a festival audience, but it appeared he overestimated the amount of fans in the crowd who had actually heard his songs before. –David Sackllah
Listening to a bit of Honne’s hybrid of electronica and R&B, it’s apparent that there are influences of modern electro-R&B stars like James Blake and Sampha. However, for all their efforts, Honne fall well short of their influences, playing the kind of placid R&B crooning that approximates a watered-down Sam Smith at points. They veer dangerously close to adult contemporary at other times, recalling Maroon 5 or The Fray. It’s challenging to leave a lasting impression at one in the afternoon, but the band did little to establish a clear identity. They played fine, like talented musicians and competent performers, but were interchangeable with a number of their contemporaries. –David Sackllah
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
Most Typical ACL Artist
If you’re wondering why Austin City Limits is such a long-standing fest, look no further than Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. The band is brandished with an amalgam of rustic rock, soul, and blues that appeals to the old-school ACL attendee. The blue-eyed soul belter could easily be compared to anyone from Van Morrison to the larger-than-life Joe Cocker during songs like rollicking brawl “I Need Never Get Old” and the smooth, psychedelic charmer “Shake”. As expected, crowd-pleaser and breakneck carouser staple “S.O.B” turned into a karaoke call-and-response session. No question, their set was good, but given that the band has already been to Austin twice in the past year, it would have been a nice surprise to get another soul artist on the bill. –Alejandra Ramirez
Best (and Only) Brazilian Pop Star
There was maybe 100 people in the Tito’s tent for the samba/pop hybrid of Brazilian artist Luísa Maita, but those who did were definitely fans who made the journey specifically to see her play. A star in Brazil who sang at the Olympics’ opening ceremony and has won awards from the Brazilian equivalent of the Grammys, she is a recognizable star there who has yet to crossover to an American audience. For those who did venture to her set, she put on a solid showcase of her dance-pop, upbeat and grooving, enough to make those unaware of her before likely to do some research and see what they are missing out on. –David Sackllah
EDM with the Best Taste
Two rows of fluorescent polygon cubes hovered above Flume’s station of electronics as a warped assortment of visuals from the helix flower to morphed characters were flickering behind him. He pulled out all the tracks, old and new, from his self-titled 2012 project to his most recent output, Skin. Eerie and wavering synths pulsed in “Helix”, explosions of greens and red swirled during bangers “Holdin On” and “Sleepless”, and skittering glitches blared in the Vince Staples- and Kucka-assisted “Smoke and Retribution”. Neon glow lights flashed like strobes to the Tove-Lo collaboration “Say It” and the erratic climax of “Take a Chance”. The FM-friendly “Never Be Like You” and Disclosure remix of “You and Me” drew the audience into Flume’s hypnotic pulse. –Alejandra Ramirez
Band of Horses
Biggest Victim of Scheduling
One of the changes ACL implemented this year was the addition of the Cirrus Logic stage, another second-tier-style stage that allows them to add more mid-level acts and alter the layout of the festival to reduce crowd congestion. It was a success in that regard, but created an issue with the fact that it was positioned directly across from the Miller Lite stage. During Band of Horses’ early evening set, it meant they were playing against M83, and even if you got close to the stage, while Band of Horses admirably played their blend of folk and southern rock, it was frequently interrupted by the electro-pop bombast of M83 across the park. Band of Horses did their part, mixing in old favorites with new and smiling rather than using the Mark Kozelek method, but it was still a disappointment, accentuated in part by the fact that when M83 was silent in between tracks, Band of Horses sounded really wonderful, serene, and engaging. –David Sackllah
While last year’s Traveler helped to establish Chris Stapleton as a country star, it’s rare to see him on the summer festival circuit, and ACL is one of the only major fests where he would be a feasible fit. Taking the main stage before Mumford & Sons, he and his band played well, especially on singles like “Fire Away” and the stunning “Tennessee Whiskey”. His set was the kind of relaxing classic country sound that would have fit in perfectly at ACL a decade ago, and while it played well this year, it did drag a little compared to the more high-energy sets of the weekend. Subdued, workmanlike, and rocking a killer beard, Stapleton didn’t quite capture the crowd’s attention the way some other acts did, but was enjoyable nonetheless. –David Sackllah
Most Surprising Hip-Hop Set
Between Jazz Cartier, Tory Lanez, Schoolboy Q, Kamaiyah, LL Cool J, Flying Lotus, and Saturday headliner Kendrick Lamar, 2016 proved a big year for hip-hop at Austin City Limits. Throw Odd Future member Domo Genesis into the picture, and you have a pretty stellar lineup for fans looking for spitfire lyricism. Genesis boasted a lethargic, deadpanned delivery on “X”, off of his Under the Influence 2 mixtape. To bolster his set, he included West Coast classic “Xxplosive” from Dr. Dre and rapped along to the popular Tyler, The Creator track “Rusty”. The highlight of the performance was when he brought out his “Stevie Wonder” quintet to support him in both a rendition of Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and a spiraling jam of Genesis standout track “Dapper”. –Alejandra Ramirez
Most Underrated Hip-Hop Artist
Jazz Cartier boasted the unwavering confidence of a seasoned rapper as he growled on “Talk of the Town”: “I am the prince of the city/ Nobody else fucking with me/ ‘Cause I am not fucking around.” Picking up where he left off on his mixtapes, Marauding in Paradise and Hotel Paranoia, the Toronto rapper continued to make his claim upon Drake’s hip-hop throne through earnest performances of the cacophonous, braggadocious “100 Roses” and the harsh “Save Me from Myself”. However Cartier’s unabashed punk aesthetic is a far cry from Drake’s more FM-friendly, mainstream opulence. He had the crowd most hyped during fan-favorite “Dead or Alive” as harsh electronics and erratic ricochets coalesced in his dark declamation. –Alejandra Ramirez
Most Likely To Headline in the Future
For the past six years, Local Natives have been regulars on the ACL docket, making Austin their second home. “Austin was one of the first cities to care about us outside of Los Angeles,” said keyboardist Kelcey Ayer. “It’s a huge part of our history.”
Opening up with “Past Lives” — a synth-friendly sweep — the quintet were quick to appease fans with the warped instrumentation of “Wide Eyes” and the eerie “You and I”, tracks from their earlier and more innovative works on Gorilla Manor and Hummingbird. Candid democrats, the LA outfit eventually got political, encouraging the young crowd to battle cynicism and register to vote before playing their glistening anthem “Fountain of Youth” off their recent effort, Sunlit Youth. In a fitting farewell, “Sun Hands” began with soothing harmonies reminiscent of Fleet Foxes and culminated in a gnarled dissonance. –Alejandra Ramirez
LL Cool J
Best Hip-Hop History Lesson
Day 2 of ACL was filled with rap and electronic artists, so much so that the traditional mainstage classic throwback artist was none other than LL Cool J. The rap legend pledged to take the crowd, a healthy mix of older fans there to see him and younger fans waiting for Kendrick and ScHoolboy, on a guided tour through the history of ‘80s hip-hop, and that’s exactly what he did. It began with Z-Trip, who was serving as LL’s DJ, warming the audience up by playing a mix of Biz Markie and Beastie Boys, among others. When LL Cool J took the stage shortly after, he went right into it with a powerhouse rendition of “Mama Said Knock You Out” and kept the energy up from there. Enthusiastic and forceful, he led a surprisingly tight set as he hammered through hits from across his career. Unfazed by the fact that many in the crowd only knew him as an actor and TV personality, he joked about how the songs he was playing came out before most of the audience was born. Playing to a surprisingly packed late-afternoon crowd, his set was proof that those who go to ACL for the legacy acts aren’t just trying to watch classic rock artists. –David Sackllah
While this weekend marked ScHoolboy Q’s first appearance at ACL, it was far from his first time in Austin, as the popular rapper has been a staple since his breakout in 2012, making stops at SXSW or Fun Fun Fun Fest every year. Playing to the largest crowd of his many trips to Austin, he showed bright signs of improvement from his spotty past, where he often appeared exasperated or unenthused. This time around, he was gracious by the outpouring of support, lamenting towards the end that he was disappointed he didn’t have more time. While he was promoting his great Blank Face album from this summer, he made time to go back to cuts like “Blessed” and “Hands on the Wheel” from Habits & Contradictions to appease the longtime fans.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that Q is a bona fide mainstream rapper with his last two albums debuting at number one and two, respectively, on the Billboard charts, but an impressively large crowd who knew his material well was a good reminder. Singles like “Man of the Year” and “Studio” resulted in massive sing-alongs, and he was very excited by the warm reception. Closing with a high-energy rendition of “That Part”, where he encouraged mosh pits to open up in the crowd, Q finished the set by showing how far he had come from the days of his earlier, spotty performances. Not quite a star-making set, the early evening spot on the main stage showed that four years later, Q is still on the rise, and it’s exciting to watch. –David Sackllah
Shock Done Best
Don’t expect anything less than absurdly filthy and hilarious at a Die Antwoord show. The South African rave-rap duo, Ninja and Yolandi Visser, launched into a provocation of warped cartoons of cocks and naked bodies as they reveled in their hyper-sexual, fuck-all everything attitude. DJ Hi-Tek’s cacophonous and jarring electronics complimented the over-the-top antics as the duo got a field of fans to scream their warped mantra — “Happy Go Sucky Fucky” and “Fuck Your Rules” — while Ninja mooned the crowd to the chorus of “Raging Zef Boner”. Yolandi sported her high-pitched squeals in the blast of “We Have Candy” as Ninja thrashed around in his Dark Side of the Moon shorts, spitting out crass rap after another in steroid banger “Banana Brain”. While their zef philosophy of all things vulgar comes off as an old shock joke at this point, it definitely wasn’t boring. –Alejandra Ramirez
In a rare occurrence, Andra Day had already made her ACL Live taping debut this past June before her slot at Austin City Limits, proving her all-star stature. Aligning herself with Alicia Keys’ philosophy of self-love, Day took about a minute wiping off her makeup before her throat-scratched rasp and vibrant blue keys unfurled together to deliver a jazz rendition of Kendrick Lamar’s “No Make Up”. In another soulful cover, the San Diego songwriter offered a moving take on Nina Simone’s political “Mississippi Goddam” as smooth-riffed meanders and ascending piano hurdles complimented her coos and yowls of politics in Ferguson that flowed like spoken-word poetry. Transforming to the jazz songstress in the purple dress, her beguiling timbres dripped of honeydew during the bluesy, jive “Gin and Juice” and transformed to a glossy elixir in “Forever Mine”. In a proper send-off, she ended with the arresting ballad “Rise Up”. –Alejandra Ramirez
Best Neo Soul Dance Party
The British electronic R&B star delivered a knockout performance to a packed crowd in the Tito’s tent in the late afternoon, a smooth 45-minute dance party that stuck primarily to her wonderful debut album, For All We Know, released earlier this summer. With a backing band, Nao tore through singles like “Fool to Love”, “Girlfriend”, and “Bad Blood” with an energy and charisma nearly unparalleled over the course of the weekend. Her futuristic beats were much more subdued and alluring than the pounding EDM direction of Alunageorge on the other side of the park, and while she certainly deserved a later spot on a bigger stage, it felt like a steal to get to watch her in a more-intimate setting where you didn’t have to brave through giant crowds to catch a good view. With ACL serving as the last stop of her current tour, she left it all out there with a tremendously grooving performance, a nice oasis from the sea of people just outside. –David Sackllah
Strangest Main Stage Performance
Flying Lotus has been touring with a similar stage setup for the past two years since the fall 2014 release of his jazzy odyssey You’re Dead. It’s an overwhelmingly hypnotic arrangement, where his booth is positioned between two screens showing various animations. As an artist who has worked frequently with Adult Swim, you can tell some expert animators worked to display a wonderfully deranged assortment of visuals to immerse the crowd. Flying Lotus has the set down by now, weaving in material throughout his career, alternating between jazz, trap, downtempo, and glitch, to where a switch from horrific screams to an ‘80s-sounding video game soundtrack isn’t unusual at all. He even morphed into Captain Murphy for a 10-minute interlude, as well as playing some versions of songs featuring Chance the Rapper and Travis Scott.
Ultimately a crowd-pleaser, he ended with a 10-minute medley of “Wesley’s Theory” and “Never Catch Me”, his two released collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, which appeared to be the only ones a crowd mostly waiting for Radiohead actually recognized. He made an aside about the perils of opening for Radiohead, exclaiming he got the opportunity to play for a massive crowd of people who just wanted him to finish so Thom could take the stage. Ultimately, he was genial, jokingly addressing the controversial comments he made about Hillary Clinton earlier this month by saying he’d vote for her but wasn’t excited about it. His set definitely plays better when the sun isn’t brightly blaring down, and it was a treat to see an experimental artist like Flying Lotus on the mains stage at ACL in the prime spot right before the headliner. –David Sackllah
Best Under Crowded Set
The west coast rapper has been on the rise this year, with the critical acclaim of her excellent mixtape from this past spring, A Good Night in the Ghetto, and a prominent feature on YG’s single “Why You Always Hatin?”, which also features Drake. Whether it was due to her being scheduled at 1:45 in the afternoon or being relegated to the smaller, covered side stage, only a couple hundred people came out to her set, but those who did were in for a treat. Kamaiyah and her DJ brought the energy, running through singles like “Out the Bottle” and “How Does It Feel” to a hyped crowd who were there specifically to see her, making for a more compelling performance all around. Throughout the half hour she was onstage, she was upbeat, commanding, and charismatic, knowing how to work a crowd, no matter the size. Later in the afternoon, DJ Mustard played her hook on “Why You Always Hatin?” to a crowd of thousands and Z-Trip gave a speech decrying the decline of “real” hip-hop, and both moments got large audience reactions. It was disheartening then that none of those people made the effort to actually go see Kamaiyah, a rapper with classic west coast sensibilities who can truly rock a stage. –David Sackllah
Best Reason To Wake Up Early
Lizzo may not be a star yet, but she is well on her way. The modest crowd who made the early journey to catch her were promptly awoken by her high-energy set. Taking the stage with her DJ and backup dancers, she exuded positivity with hopeful songs about self-confidence and empowerment. Her versatility was stunning, as she switched effortlessly from a spitfire Nicki-like flow over TNGHT beats to soulful jams that she belted out with her powerful voice. As early as her set was, she was genuinely excited to be performing at one of the festival’s mainstages, explaining that she grew up in Houston and always dreamt of playing ACL. Based on the new songs she was playing, it’s likely she’ll have a much better slot the next time she plays. –David Sackllah
Most Welcoming Break to EDM Cheese
While many know gospel jazz artist Gregory Porter via Disclosure’s slow-burning “Holding On”, he also boasts impressive notches in his belt like the Grammy-winning Liquid Spirit. And to a relatively small crowd, Porter took them to church through his warm, expansive timbres and his Sunday-best attire of a beige vest, yellow tie, and white-collared shirt. Backed by a pianist, upright bassist, saxophonist, and drummer, songs like the optimistic “No Love Dying Here” had Porter becoming a modern-day Martin Luther King as the number coalesced into beautiful and preaching recitations with traces of R&B and silky piano flourishes. Brassy croons of “I was baptized by the sound of horns” and jaunt percussion strolls gave a watercolor Black history lesson with mentions of Langston Hughes and Marvin Gaye. –Alejandra Ramirez
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.
Photographer: Amy Price