Beyond the Gates: As the consolidation of music festivals inevitably leads to hegemony, it becomes challenging for the remaining ones to develop a distinct identity. Austin City Limits (ACL) has had its troubles in the past, but this year it set itself apart from the rest by going all out, booking not just one but two of the biggest rock acts still active in Paul McCartney and Metallica. Not content with nostalgia, the festival looked to the future in burgeoning pop stars Khalid and Camila Cabello and some of the hottest rappers of 2018 with Travis Scott and BROCKHAMPTON.
Between established indie rock powerhouses like The National and Phoenix, rising acts like Big Thief and Japanese Breakfast, and legends like David Byrne, the festival took a well-rounded approach to indie rock that felt true to the history of the festival, even if many of those drew smaller crowds than many of the popular rap or electronic acts playing. By appealing equally to teenagers and adults who have been coming for all 17 years of the festival, ACL was able to strike the right balance.
With a sold-out crowd for the first weekend, the excitement was overwhelming no matter if you were there primarily for Paul or Travis. The differences encouraged discovery and branching outside your comfort zone, something that can be challenging in an era of algorithms. Any festival the size of ACL will have its issues, and ACL wasn’t immune to setbacks and challenges, including the last-minute cancellation of headliner Childish Gambino, but even with an unnaturally hot October weekend, the festival lived up to the promise of its impressive lineup.
Best Bites: ACL has always done a great job at showcasing many of the city’s best restaurants and food trucks, and this year was no exception. Longtime staples like Torchy’s Tacos, Austin Pizza, and The Salt Lick BBQ were omnipresent, though a few interlopers like Chipotle and Shake Shack drew large crowds as well. Because of the heat, many were clamoring for cold treats like frozen bananas from Bananarchy or ice cream from Amy’s. For those looking to venture out from beyond typical festival fare, some of the best food could be found at Chi’lantro BBQ, whose beef kimchi fries were the perfect late night snack, or the Chicken Karaage from East Side Kings, which was so good I went back for seconds.
Festival Fashionista: Overwhelming heat for what is ostensibly fall kept many burgeoning fashionistas from realizing their true potential, though some like one individual in a full body Spider-Man outfit certainly tried. There were plenty of band tees to go around, especially those for The Beatles and Metallica. With all the rock stars at the festival though, it was one who wasn’t there that was present on nearly everyone’s shirt. Representative Beto O’Rourke, currently running an a shockingly close race for U.S. Senator against Ted Cruz, was felt everywhere at the festival, as you couldn’t go to any set without seeing shirts and signs displaying his name.
The Most Important Election of Our Lives: Though the bands were the star attraction, most people seemed to be preoccupied with the upcoming midterm election and the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Walking into the festival down Barton Springs, you were solicited by volunteers trying to register voters and campaign for Beto. Once inside, there were even more resources to register and learn more about candidates. The Texas voter registration deadline was two days after the festival, and artists like David Byrne, Durand Jones, and Sharon Van Etten reminded the audience to do so during their set.
Many were impassioned, like CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry leading the massive crowd to shout a cathartic “Fuck” as a response to Kavanaugh’s confirmation earlier that day. Jones bemoaned gerrymandering in Austin before launching into a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s All Right”. Annie Clark led a positive reinforcement against the “insane shit going on outside of here” before playing “Digital Witness”. David Byrne, in tradition with recent tour, finished with his cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a righteous protest song against police brutality, which resonated on the day that Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyk was convicted of second-degree murder for the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald.
When it came to politics, though, the most engaged were The National, who opened their set by having Julie Oliver, the Democratic Candidate for the U.S House of Representatives Congressional District 25, give a campaign speech about standing in solidarity with survivors, criminal justice reform, and universal healthcare, calling the upcoming midterms “the most important elections of our lives” before introducing the band. The National were charged up and pissed off, tearing through songs with a newfound energy. Singer Matt Berninger introduced “Guilty Party” by calling Brett Kavanaugh a liar (and making a joke about the band Liars that flew over the crowd’s head) and dedicated a rousing “Mr. November” to Oliver, Beto, and other Democratic candidates.
The Missing Movement: It seems like every week there’s a new think piece published asking if the #MeToo movement has gone too far, decrying a so-called “cancel” culture that lacks nuance and understanding. These pieces describe our society as one where every allegation supposedly ends the careers of famous men, but a weekend at ACL proved that was decidedly not the case.
Børns, who recently made headlines after denying allegations of sexual misconduct by multiple women, played to one of the largest audiences of the festival. While he went through a collection of forgettable synth-pop, a mostly young audience of thousands sang-along, either not knowing or not caring about the recent news against him.
Along with Saturday night’s performance by Nelly, who recently settled a lawsuit over sexual assault and was accused of sexual assault by two additional women, it showed that for many in the music industry, there are still zero consequences for predatory or abusive behavior, and that we have a long way to go in holding people accountable.
That One Performance: It’s hard to believe Paul McCartney is 76. One on hand, he’s been behind countless cultural movements for the better part of 60 years now, but seeing him onstage play through decades of hits for over two hours, it feels like he could do this forever. Charming and charismatic, he even made the new songs from his 2018 album Egypt Station feel exciting. Sure, he told the same stories between songs that he’s been telling for years, like the time Jimi Hendrix asked Eric Clapton to tune his guitar while on stage, or being approached by Soviet government officials backstage when The Beatles became the first rock band to play in the U.S.S.R., but he tells them so well you don’t mind hearing them again.
McCartney touched on each part of his career, with some of the biggest sing-alongs coming from “Maybe I’m Amazed” and a few Wings songs, including a fireworks celebration alongside “Live and Let Die”. He moved the giant crowd with tributes to George and John, and drew silence through songs like “Blackbird”. Mostly, the sound in the audience was rapturous applause and multitudes singing together. Whether it was “I’ve Just Seen A Face” or “Ob La Di Ob La Da”, every Beatles song brought everyone together. Of course, some of the biggest moments came from the biggest hits like “Let It Be” and “Lady Madonna”, but these slightly smaller songs reminded everyone just how influential The Beatles have actually been all these years.
ACL has been trying to book Paul McCartney for the history of the festival, and so, this felt like a watershed moment. While there are plenty of valid criticisms of Paul’s career in the past few decades, standing in a crowd of thousands all singing the refrain to “Hey Jude” together with him was the reason you go to music festivals in the first place. Though his youthful vibrancy was contagious, the reality was that it’s doubtful many in the crowd will get the chance to see him again, and so it was a celebration, for those who walked from their house to those who flew in from Austrailia. I got to see it alongside my parents, lifelong Beatles fans, and as generations came together, it was a performance no one present would ever forget.
The Best of the Tiny Fonts: It can be difficult to trek out to Zilker in the early afternoon, but those who made the effort were treated to sharp sets from some of the most promising young indie rock artists around. Natalie Prass opened the American Express stage on Friday with a funky set that brought out the soulfulness of her latest album, The Future and The Past. Prass’ powerful voice carried the set, and she brought a burst of energy to the early morning.
Following that up was Big Thief, who displayed a smoldering intensity as they tore through songs from their two records. Singer and guitarist Adrienne Lenker was celebrating the release day of her solo album, a serene moving folk record, but she rocked it out with Big Thief. Shredding through prolonged solos, Lenker and her band commanded the audience through a thunderous set.
On the last day, Amen Dunes played an early afternoon set to a small crowd of largely hungover but devoted fans. Sticking primarily to songs from their stupendous record Freedom from earlier this year, along with a sublime Tim Buckley cover, Damon McMahon and his band enchanted the early afternoon audience with beguiling folk-rock. In the sweltering heat, the slow-burning songs had room to stretch and envelop the crowd. Though the vibe was more subdued than the rest of the festival, it was a good way to ease into the last day.
Via Chicago: Even with a stronger focus on Texas artists this year, another city that made a big impression this weekend was Chicago through the sets of Noname, Smino, and Ravyn Lenae. The city is undergoing a resurgence in rap and R&B currently, and three of its brightest stars, who all collaborated on each other’s recent projects (though did not join one another at the fest this weekend), all left their mark.
First was Lenae, who helped kick off the weekend with a smooth, soulful set. By playing the bulk of Crush, her grooving EP from this Spring, produced by Steve Lacy of The Internet, she gave an animated performance, her band loosening up the songs. Towards the end, she worked through a house track that had the Tito’s tent dancing, nodding to the genre’s Chicago roots.
Next was Noname, mere weeks removed from her excellent Room 25. To a modest albeit devoted crowd, she tore through new tracks like “Self” and “Montego Bay”, and later led a teary-eyed singalong to the beautiful “Don’t Forget About Me”. Noname called Room 25 an intimate, almost uncomfortably vulnerable tape, and seemed genuinely warmed to find the crowd singing along to the new songs.
Finally, Smino closed out the Chicago showcase the next afternoon with an upbeat set that had the crowd erupt into a mosh pit for nearly its entirety. While technical difficulties occasionally plagued him, that didn’t appear to bother the crowd, who sung along to nearly every track, and had such high energy that he had to tell them to stop moshing towards the end of his set so that he could introduce the band.
Between the three of them, they brought the new sound of Chicago to a welcoming audience.
Afternoon Soul: When it came to hometown heroes, noticeably absent from the festival was soul-revivalist Texan Leon Bridges, who instead played a benefit rally for Beto the week before in Austin. Fans of throwback soul had plenty of other options, though, such as Indiana musician Durand Jones and his band the Indications, who led a soulful jam session early Saturday afternoon, even drawing festivalgoers’ attention away from the annual UT-OU football game being broadcast nearby. Jones is a natural performer who howled his way through original songs and covers of Curtis Mayfield and The Beatles. Immediately after in the Tito’s tent stage was Curtis Harding, who played a more modern form of blues rock from last year’s Face Your Fear, which he produced alongside Danger Mouse. A nod to the festival’s roots, the two sets offered a nice variety to the more pop and electronic sounds elsewhere.
Enter Night: Even with Macca on the bill, the first day to sell out of single-day tickets was the first Saturday with Metallica. Based on the number of band tees in the crowd, the divide between general festivalgoers and those primarily there to see the legends was apparent. Nearly 40 years into their career, the Bay Area rockers still sound sharp, especially guitarist Kirk Hammett, who shredded his way through their esteemed catalogue on Saturday night. While they admittedly spent a little too much time on songs off their latest effort, Hardwired to Self-Destruct, Metallica balanced it out with favorites like “Fade to Black”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, and “Seek and Destroy”, all of which sounded fantastic.
For Austin City Limits, the band had a unique setup, with a walkway stage that protruded out into the crowd, allowing Hammett, bassist Robert Trujillo, and singer and guitarist James Hetfield to connect directly with the fans, which often left drummer Lars Ulrich on the main stage by himself. Hetfield seemed especially gracious, thanking fans for their decades of support, and though the flow of the set appeared routine, moments of spontaneity broke out like Hammett and Trujillo soloing through a Stevie Ray Vaughn deep cut.
While heavy metal isn’t a typical genre for ACL, Metallica was able to transcend genre and deliver one of the more memorable sets in the festival’s storied history. Though many left before the encore, the thrill of seeing classics like “One” and “Master Of Puppets” back to back was hard to top, especially when the band still sound this fresh and this exciting after all these years.
The Comeback Kid: Hidden away on the Barton Springs stage on Saturday afternoon was Sharon Van Etten, playing with a full band for the first time in years as she debuted a handful of songs from her upcoming fifth studio album, Remind Me Tomorrow. She opened with the raucous new track “The Comeback Kid”, which found her in full rock-star mode, belting out the chorus as the band thundered behind her. While she peppered in a few older songs like “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” and “Magic Chords”, the singer mostly wowed the audience with new material.
Led primarily by synths and keyboards, the new songs were dramatic and engaging, with Etten delivering an enraptured performance, fully commanding the stage, often shouting as the noise rose behind her. It was a far cry from her earlier albums, packed with a nervous energy that crackled onstage. Her band was impressive, too, and featured Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu as one of its members. Based on her set alone, Remind Me Tomrrow is now easily one of the most anticipated records of 2019, and should bring her to a much more prominent placement on the lineup the next time she returns.
Femme The Future: As stacked as the lineup was, there was a noticeable lack of female artists in the top billing, as all seven headliners on the bill were men. Outside of the headliner spots, however, there were a wide range of women whose performances proved that they’re more than ready to headline the festival now or in a short period of time: CHVRCHES, St. Vincent, Tinashe, and Elle King all delivered great performances throughout the weekend, drawing large crowds and exuding charisma as they locked in to their respective sounds with complete mastery.
Then there was Janelle Monáe, who brought the full force of Dirty Computer to an enraptured audience. With an elaborate stage setup, multiple costume changes, and a killer dance troupe, Monáe strutted with an MJ-like bravado through all of her new hits and some choice cuts from earlier in her career. A master at stage design and developing a distinct style, Monáe brought the same level of energy as any headliner, and everyone could have gone for another hour — at the very least. Here’s hoping she has higher billing next time around.
Ain’t That Boy From Texas: This year, ACL shone a spotlight on a handful of stars with Texas roots that brought a new shade to the typical definition of the state’s music. BROCKHAMPTON, the young rap collective who formed just 30 miles away in San Marcos, Texas, delivered a ferocious set Friday night on the heels of their latest studio album Iridescence. The group hyped up its legion of dedicated fans through one jam after another, and brought an energy reminiscent of the early Odd Future performances. Kevin Abstract, the group’s de facto leader, stood out from the pack as he told stories of working as a broke artist in San Marcos and acknowledging the journey they took.
Khalid and St. Vincent were other artists from Texas in big spots, but the hometown hero of the festival was Travis Scott. Due to Childish Gambino canceling, Scott ended up as the main stage headliner Sunday night, and after watching his set it’s impossible to imagine it any earlier in the day. With two large stages that were elevated above the main stage, Scott towered over the crowd of insanely excited young fans, who rapped along to every word and erupted into mosh pits at every possible moment. It’s wild to think, only 24 hours prior, he was way up in the New York City studios of NBC, where he served as the musical guest for Saturday Night Live.
While Scott can sometimes be devoid of a real personality, his steely determination to create a spectacle led to the rowdiest set of the festival. The only way to truly experience it was from as close up to the stage as possible, where songs like “Antidote” and “Goosebumps” ended with literal fireworks and massive pits. By the time he ended the set early with “Sicko Mode”, it was apparent why he had been tapped as a headliner, as it would be hard to top the energy from that set. Scott mentioned the set being the realization of a longtime dream, and the triumphant headlining set from the Houston native found the festival stepping into the new realm of Texas music.
Don’t Believe the Hype: Depending on who you talked to, the most anticipated band of the weekend was Greta Van Fleet, a group of brothers from Michigan who trade in unashamed Led Zeppelin worship and are about to release their debut album later this month. Hyped up as this year’s saviors of rock, the band drew a larger crowd than BROCKHAMPTON, who played the same stage after them, as everyone wanted to see what the fuss was about. The answer was a competent band doing a loyal rendition of ‘70s rock that didn’t really add anything new or exciting. Songs bled together and charisma was lacking as they played to a massive audience. While they’ve piqued curiosity, watching their by-the-numbers set showed they have a long way to go before holding attention and emerging as the captivating live act they are purporting to be.
Coming Home: What made ACL so inviting this year was that it had something for everyone. Classic rock, heavy metal, indie rock, rap, R&B, and pop were all equally represented, showcasing legends alongside exciting young acts. I didn’t even get to mention Phoenix’s amazing set, the last of their tour, which kept a massive crowd on its feet for the entire time, or Arctic Monkeys bringing a burly swagger as the top-billed rock band of the festival.
While an expanded layout did improve crowd control, there were certainly moments where the audience was so large that it felt impossible to navigate. Every festival has its growing pains, but to be able to pull off an event of this magnitude is an accomplishment unto itself. That the same fest could have Paul McCartney and Travis Scott close out the same stage on different nights points to how ACL managed to cater to all types of audiences without a large dissonance.
Austin City Limits rediscovered its identity as the concert event of the year for the state, and if it can pull off a lineup like this next year, it should remain in that spot for a very long time.