05. Lukas Nelson and Promise of The Real
Like many people, I was introduced to Promise of the Real through their work with Neil Young on The Monsanto Years. But their backseat status and Young’s generally clunky lyrics on that album glossed over the fact that PTR had already forged their own body of work. After their Friday evening set on the Miller Lite stage, consider me a convert. Lukas Nelson’s guitar workouts sound, well, a lot like Neil Young, but with more shimmer—the spaces filled in by harmonics and Tato Melgar’s bongos. After thanking an absent Lady Gaga for her vocal contributions to “Find Yourself” and closing with a cover of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl”, it’s clear that Nelson is someone who respects both his elders and his contemporaries (maybe he gets it from his dad). But it’s also clear that Promise of The Real don’t need any help finding their musical identity. It’s already there.
The early bird doesn’t always get the worm at music festivals, especially on a Saturday. It’s hot and the crowd tends to be hungover, meaning that, if you’re a musician who wants to stand out, you better bring something special. If you’re Austin’s Mobley, that means building a device that transforms humans into a giant drum machine. Cuffed to a network of cables, four festivalgoers knelt in front of him with their palms open, each person transmitting a different percussive sound into the PA when he tapped their hand. As he toggled back and forth between this and lead guitar, it was a moment of practical yet hypnotic spectacle.
Other bells and whistles included a floor tom being passed through the audience and Mobley standing on his drum stool, then leaping down on it for the final drum sequence of closer “Solo”. But all of these visually and sonically impressive moments work in service of a more complicated theme—namely addressing one’s country as if it’s a lover. When a separation stems from racial or socioeconomic injustice, the breakup suddenly has a lot more weight behind it. It’s unlikely that everyone who witnessed Mobley’s show-stopping set was aware of any of this. But that’s what makes great pop music, isn’t it? A message wrapped in pleasure. Pleasure wrapped in a message.
Although this list mainly consists of smaller acts, a festival the size of Austin City Limits still needs a couple headliners to bring their A-game. And to be fair, most of them did. But the very nature of Gorillaz‘s concept allows them to have a more unpredictable concert experience than, say, Chance the Rapper, Red Hot Chili Peppers, or The Killers. Because they rely heavily on guest stars in both their recorded work and their live performances, you never know who’s going to show up.
On Sunday night, it was Peven Everett for “Strobelite” and “Stylo”; festival-mate D.R.A.M. for “Andromeda”; a puffy-gowned Kilo Kish for “Out of Body’; and Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz, proving that the repeated phrase “Sex Murder Party” is much more tolerable when surrounded by a full band, six backing singers, and Jamie Hewlett‘s increasingly human(z) animation.
That seems to be the aesthetic of Gorillaz more and more these days—Damon Albarn and co. refusing to hide behind a projection screen or hologram, instead serving as the flesh-and-blood incarnations of their virtual band. I prefer it that way. Why watch a cartoon of Del the Funky Homo Sapien when you can get the real thing? A music festival requires this kind of in-person presentation.
02. Raging Fyah
Confession: I fucking hate reggae music. I mean, yeah, Bob Marley’s great and I can get into The Congos, but reggae has always been one of those genres I have to bite and smile my way through when it’s discussed at a party or within a circle of other music critics.
Raging Fyah could change that.
I don’t know enough about the genre to give technical insight into why, beyond the typical surface observations: Delroy Hamilton’s bass really bubbled! And check out Kumar Bent’s upstroke! No, Raging Fyah’s appeal came from that crucial yet impossible to define element of any great concert: energy.
It was in the way the musicians thrashed and swayed, finding a subtle kind of aggression despite the laid-back nature of the music. It was in the way they gradually escalated the crowd’s call-and-response vocals from celebration to fury during their closing song. No, I don’t know what the tune is called. But I know how it felt. And I know that it’s making me reconsider my own musical bias.
01. Jamila Woods
I’m totally psychoanalyzing her here, but I can’t help but wonder if Jamila Woods‘ strength as a performer comes from her own introversion. Before “Way Up”, the space-bound closer from last year’s fantastic HEAVN, she dedicated the song to her fellow introverts, closed her eyes, and simply began singing. There’s something to be said for that kind of low-key strength. Outside of thanking the audience, introducing her mighty Chicago backing band, and joking about having to endure “titty sweat”, she didn’t say a whole lot because she didn’t need to. That makes a Windy City reminiscence like “LSD” (sorry, folks, no Chance sighting) or a neo-soul call to action like “Blk Girl Soldier” that much more powerful. Woods doesn’t have a lot to say—she has a lot to sing.
Photographer: Amy Price