After taking a hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic, the Austin City Limits Festival cautiously returned to Zilker Park to celebrate its 20th year, for another two Friday-to-Sunday weekends, October 1st-3rd & 8th-10th. In the weeks leading up to the event, ticket holders anxiously awaited to see if the fest was going to happen, but as the permit process ramped up with the City of Austin, COVID cases began to decline, which allowed the show to go on. The weather also created some anxiety leading up to the event, but the stormy forecast only affected the first day of weekend one. The rains on Thursday pushed back gate times to 3:00 PM, which caused some backups at the gate and the cancellation of the early shows such as the perennial country crooners Asleep at the Wheel, who have played every festival save this year’s weekend one. Save the few raindrops during George Straight, the sky and ground stayed relatively dry for revelers desperate to find a bit of normalcy.
The festival ramped up safety precautions including the requirement that attendees either had proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test, and masked up in the denser areas. Although only a fraction of the fans wore masks, it was remarkably easy to move through crowds. It appeared that after a year and a half of distancing, festival-goers were more respectful of people’s space. By 5:00 PM on Friday, fans arrived in droves to see Texas-native Megan Thee Stallion command the Honda and Miller Light side of the grounds – reminiscent of Lizzo’s overflowing crowd the previous edition (QRO recap). Fans were pumped to continue Hot Girl Summer into the fall with Megan leading a twerk off with her backup singers.
Texas artists packed this year’s line-up and one of the hottest Austin groups, the Black Pumas finally got to perform for a huge local crowd on the opposite side of the park at the grand Lady Bird Lake Stage. Dripping sweat as they stared into the setting sun, lead man Eric Burton and guitarist Adrian Quesada captivated a chill crowd who held up their hands and clapped along to the beat. The four-time Grammy nominees delivered a soulful foil to the Texas dance party engulfing the other side of the park. The highlight of the set was the finale, “Colors”, that ended in a sing-along to the refrain, “My sisters and my brothers / They see ’em like no other / All my favorite colors.”
As dusk fell on the crowd, Australian solo artist Chet Faker (formerly known as Nick Murphy) took the Miller Light Stage. Dressed in overalls and sporting a bushy beard, a spotlight illuminated and followed him as he moved from one instrument to another on stage. The minimal background put the focus on the singer’s silky vocals and laidback grooves that inspired some head nodding and swaying without much of a build-up, until he performed his version of the 1996 Blackstreet song “No Diggity” that put the artist on the map in 2012.
While ACL festival headliners typically skew towards a choice between rock veterans such as Metallica and hot hip hop artists such as Childish Gambino, the first night of weekend one featured a Texas country legend in George Straight on one side of the park and child star-turned-Madonna Miley Cyrus on the other end. The people getting their groove on to Chet Faker didn’t have far to go to see Miley’s set. Dressed in a blue ‘80s style blouse, the artist showered the crowd with affirmations and love – at one point saying that disconnecting over the pandemic has connected us even more. Her Vegas-worthy show was everything you would expect in a headliner. While her crowd was a younger demographic, her rendition of Blondies “Heart of Glass” won over the older folks in the crowd.
Interestingly, Friday night’s pairing blanketed the crowd with nostalgia and familiarity. Fans literally grew up with Miley as they watched her mature from child actor to stage performer, while George Strait served as the soundtrack to an older audience’s love span of first kisses, promising romances, and messy divorces. Cowboy hats became a common feature as festival-goers began making their way from Miley Cyrus to George Strait, where Texas pride was on full display.
The Poteet-born Texan George Strait took to the stage to “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and played nearly 30 songs during his two-hour set. Dressed in the stiffest starched jeans and shirt, the first half of the set was punctuated by a couple of classics and two songs that didn’t quite resonate with the Austin crowd, “Condigo”, a ditty that read like a commercial for a brand of liquor he owns, and “The Weight of the Badge” that would have pleased, say, a Fort Worth crowd. As King George got deeper into his set, he brought out the crowd-pleasers “Amarillo by Morning” and “The Chair” and an encore of “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and a twangy rendition of the Tom Petty song “You Wreck Me” as folks headed out of the gates for the evening.
After a successful return to Zilker Park on Day One of Weekend One of the Austin City Limits Festival, fears of an overcrowded and wet weekend were alleviated. Saturday’s forecast was warm and humid but mostly dry for festival-goers who were pleased to have a little extra space to roam around in their cowboy hats and colorful festival gear. Highlights of the day included guttural vocals and headlining first-time performance from New Zealand-based electronic trio RÜFÜS DU SOL and the back-to-back appearance of the wildly popular Billie Eilish.
As usual, the younger fans streamed into the park early in the day to brave the Texas heat and see some up-and-coming performers. Over at the sun-drenched Lady Bird Lake Stage was 22-year-old Norwegian indie-pop singer/songwriter girl in red, followed by American Idol’s 25-year-old Remi Wolf at the nearby T-Mobile Stage, who delivered soulful R&B Grooves to an impressively sized crowd.
Americana vibes and a Texan swagger are intoxicating and naturally Charley Crockett came out on the VRBO stage for his 3:20 PM set in a vintage lavender two-piece bedazzled suit; the man is simply a show stopper. Crockett can croon with the best of them and his newest album, 10 For Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand pays homage to the late country singer James “Slim” Hand, and has been receiving critical acclaim since it was released a month ago.
Continuing the Texas vibes was Austin-resident and Latin-folk singer Gina Chavez, who has become a notable feature of the local community, and she got to pump up a large festival crowd. Chavez has long been known for being a high-energy performer, and her ACL Festival performance did not disappoint. Chavez’s eclectic mix of reggaeton, cumbia, folk and anything in between had the modest-sized BMI Stage crowd dancing and hanging on to every word she belted out, especially as she sang in Spanish off of Up. Rooted.
Festival mainstays Future Islands gave the lineup on Saturday a weighty presence during the middle of the day. The Baltimore synth-pop band has been a feature of SXSW, Float Fest, and several other local appearances over the years, so their set drew a large crowd of growing fans eager to hear songs from their 2020 release As Long as You Are. Half of their set was devoted to songs from their new album such as “In For Sure”, “Hit the Coast”, and “Plastic Beach”. In typical fashion, lead man Samuel Herring sang life-affirming baritone ballads while writhing and pulling at his shirt and power lunging at the crowd. Punctuating songs were his guttural vocals such as heard in “Season (Waiting On You)”, which give the band such a unique sound juxtaposition typically reserved for metal groups but with ancient origins.
While a wave of concert-goers flooded the eastern side of the park to see TikTok phenom Doja Cat, others lingered by ACL Eats for some late afternoon metal. The modest-sized Tito’s Tent Stage often features eclectic acts and Saturday’s was no exception with The Hu. In their first tour since the pandemic, the Mongolian metal band with throat singing and folk instruments got fists pumping to ancient poetry and war songs with a Led Zeppelin-like vibe. Their ancient guttural chanting set to modern metal was authentic and quite a contrast to Future Islands frontman’s use of the technique earlier that day.
New albums are perfect to release before major music festivals, and Modest Mouse’s The Golden Casket release in June (QRO review) gave loyal fans the opportunity to enjoy singles such as “Fuck Your Acid Trip” and “We Are Between” (QRO review). Some argue that Modest Mouse does not deliver the same energy as other rock acts of the same time period in a music festival format, but true fans were lined up by 1:00 PM to get a front row spot for one of the most solid rock bands to still be performing 20 years after forming.
As the sunset on Saturday, the west side of the park began to swell for Jack Harlow and RÜFÜS DU SOL. When you think of Kentucky, a charismatic rapper such as Jack Harlow’s doesn’t immediately come to mind. After bedroom mixtapes in high school and releasing singles such as “Routine” and “Dark Knight,” Harlow’s career began to form and sky rocket. Opening his ACL Fest set with hit single “Tyler Herro,” young fans feverishly danced and sang along. Although casual music fans might say they don’t know Harlow, his catchy rap songs are definitely commercial hits and will propel him to remain relevant for years.
Saturday night really came alive with dueling headliners Billie Eilish and RÜFÜS DU SOL. Billie Eilish’s rise to fame is no mistake; at not even 20-years-old, the young Gen Z superstar has built a huge following over the years; her humble homeschooled upbringing meant creating music with her brother at a young age. Returning to the ACL Festival for back-to-back years, the maturing artists played hits for the massive crowd from their recent album Happier Than Ever. Eilish entranced her fans as they hung on every word and lyric she spoke, even taking a middle-fingered jab at Texas Lawmakers for a “My Body My Choice” expletive statement which was met with a roar of approval. Single hits such as “You Should See Me In a Crown,” “Happily Ever After” and “Bad Guy” prove her staying power and have stamped her name in pop music history forever.
Two years of distancing and isolating has changed us as a society. Compounded by civil unrest, these times call for a cathartic release and RÜFÜS DU SOL delivered with their hour set of trancey and tribal electronica set to blinding lights at the Honda Stage. Having just come from a sold out show at Red Rocks in Colorado followed by Governor’s Ball (QRO recap), the Australian electronic is just getting back to dazzling crowds and giving them hope for a better future. With their slow build ups and showering breakdowns set to Tyrone Lindqvist’s comforting vocals, a sense of communion enveloped the crowd inspiring us to rise up and overcome this sad moment in history.
It was interesting to see how the pandemic has changed behavior at music festivals. The city’s risk of allowing a major festival seemed to pay off without any major issues. Sure, the masking was hard to enforce, but checking vaccines and negative tests at the door was a good TSA-style approach to alleviating fears and is the type of hygiene theater that will probably be a feature of gatherings to come. Over the course of the weekend, concert-goers respectfully distanced from each other when not near the stage. You could see pods of people on their lily pads with three-foot buffers between the next pad – a luxury at a music festival that was not lost on this reviewer. One could simply walk through a crowd and nearly get to the front fence without trampling one another.
Sunday’s are typically slow rollers, as people tire from getting their steps in over the past two days. Those that did come early got to see Louisville garage rockers White Reaper and R&B hip-hop artist Cautious Clay. At the more intimate pecan tree shaded part of the park, Canadian country artist Tenille Arts’ performed a charismatic mid-afternoon set at the BMI Stage on the heels of new album Girl To Girl set to release late October 2021. Although it’s always great to see the favorite and more established artists play at these large music festivals, seeing new and upcoming artists such as Tenille reminds us that there is still plenty of beautiful music being written, despite Pandemic times.
The festival began to really fill up for Band of Horses, who played the Lady Bird Lake Stage. Despite playing at the hottest part of the day on the Lady Bird Stage, which notoriously gets bathed in the setting sun, Band of Horses acted as though they were headlining a massive nightclub stage. Lead singer Ben Bridwell didn’t even acknowledge the heat or look to be sweating in the hot “early fall” Texas weather of the day while belting through hits such as “Casual Party” and “No One’s Gonna Love You” off of their last studio album, 2016’s Why Are You OK (QRO review).
Michigan rock band and 2019 Grammy Award winner Greta Van Fleet had a much better showing than Doja Cat during the same slot the previous day on the sun-baked Lady Bird Lake Stage – the crowd swelled from first to last song. In just a few short years, Greta Van Fleet has become wildly popular and their live show is definitely worth catching. While their music can be said to be derivative takes on Led Zeppelin tunes, they deliver a performance that the metal gods would smile down upon. Frontman Josh Kiszka, dressed in a sparkling skin tight one-piece like Lionel Richie from his Commodores days, channels the sexiness and vocal power of a young Robert Plant on stage. His voice carried nearly the entire length of the park as they worked through a tight set of nine songs, including six from their 2020 album The Battle of Garden’s Gate and crowd pleaser “Black Smoke Rising” from their 2017 debut album From the Fires (QRO review).
DJ and producer Chris Lake might not be a household name, but he delivered a surprisingly high energy set on the Miller Light Stage before the sun began to set behind the trees. Lake’s live rendition of the hit “Changes” turned that corner of Zilker Park into a downright dance party that usually would be reserved for a dark club. Judging by the movement of the crowd, this was perhaps the most energetic show of the entire weekend. The crowd of revelers at Lake’s set immediately and collectively began losing themselves in his well-curated dance tracks. His performances are not to be missed.
Erykah Badu, hip-hop goddess, soul phenom and perpetual ‘late is on time’ diva hasn’t had a new album since 2010’s New Amerykah Part Two,but her long-time reputation for incredibly soul-felt shows and a flair for the extreme meant that an audience would wait all night to see her perform even two or three songs. Badu did take the stage ten minutes after her scheduled headliner start, with a variety of music from her long, illustrious career. Hits “Honey,” “Tyrone” and “Bag Lady” closed out the night with a captive crowd of fans singing along and dancing to every word.
While a majority of the audience for the Austin City Limits Festival were born after Duran Duran reached epic stardom as English New Wave pioneers, their place in the rock canon was bolstered by the critical success of their 1993 album Duran Duran. Songs from the latter period provided the largely millennial audience a gateway to some of the band’s older synth-pop offerings. The still good looking and charming frontman Simon Le Bon, dressed in signature white pants and jacket, wooed the crowd with his avuncular velvet voice – telling the crowd after singing ‘90s hit “Ordinary World, that, “This year it’s taken on a new meaning. It’s all about trying to find a normal life again.” The twelve song set ended with mega-hit “Rio” that had the crowd had no difficulty recognizing and singing along as they made their way to Tyler the Creator.
Tyler, The Creator’s 2021’s release Call Me If You Get Lost intrigued many a fan to hunt down the phone number that was posted on billboards in Los Angeles to hear a recorded message of Tyler and his mother. It was a heartfelt and a unique way to garner interest for an entire show’s production that is built around Tyler literally being lost on stage in a Hawaiian shirt and boat shoe, finding himself captaining a washed-up boat. A clever pyrotechnics show made up for the fact there wasn’t water in which Tyler could navigate. In addition to the impressive stage production the artist masterfully delivered 2021 tracks such as “Corso” and “Lumberjack” that hit just as hard as his established successes “Yonkers” and “Oldie”.
After the show, an exhausted and grateful crowd slowly filtered out of the festival, happy to have had the chance to gather with each other and connect with performances that were once a familiar hallmark of the Austin community and are showing new signs of life after a pause. ACL Fest returns for Weekend Two as locals prep for the upcoming Utopia and Levitation Festivals later in October.
-words & photos: Jessica Alexander & Alex Freeman