Eyes were on Texas for the Austin City Limits Festival this weekend, as the public looked to see how the city’s largest outdoor music festival would respond to a tough week of news dominated by headlines of a massacre at a Las Vegas music festival and the death of a great musician. The show must go on and it did with headliners, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The xx, and Gorillaz rocking the inhabitants of Zilker Park from October 6th-8th.
Friday at ACL started off with typical early October weather, hot and muggy with hardly a cloud in the sky. With a little more breathing room than in previous years, and adding a new Barton Springs stage across the street from the park, the fest felt way less crowded, apart from the TSA-style security checks at the gate that created long waiting times for anyone with a bag. Acrobatics ruled early in the day as New Orleans-based MUTEMATH’s front man Paul Meany, with fresh buzzed cut hair, bounced around stage and jumped into the crowd in their early afternoon performance at the Honda Stage, the main stage for early evening headliners on the far west side of the park.
The Miller Lite Stage, adjacent to the larger Honda Stage, hosted a slew of powerful performances over the weekend, which started with up and coming ‘60s-tinted, pop rock band, The Lemon Twigs, led by multi-instrumentalist brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario from New York. Garnering attention from their South by Southwest sets earlier in the year for their stage presence, the band, who attended the same high school at Billy Joel, put on a high-energy performance with plenty of leg kicks as they moved through “As Long As We’re Together” from 2016’s Do Hollywood and the Of Montreal-sounding “Why Didn’t You Say That” from Brothers of Destruction, an EP they released just last week.
Dramatically shifting gears in what could be said to be a rather safe and mainstream festival curation was the electro punk of Canadians Crystal Castles, featuring both keyboardist Ethan Kath and singer Edith Frances coming on stage in all black with stockings over their faces, cut with holes for their eyes and mouths. The darkness of their tunes sharply contrasted the brightness of the late afternoon sky, with revelers bouncing around to “Crimewave” from their 2008 self-titled debut at the Honda Stage, and others just standing there. Dropping her black gown to reveal a baby blue puritan ankle-length dress and dog collar, Frances jumped around singing and banging buttons with Kath, and then pouring a bottle of water on her head as she sang the deep echo-y track “Enth” from their 2016 release Amnesty.
The synth vibes continued as the day approached magic hour at the modestly sized BMI Stage, nestled in a stand of trees on the festival’s south side, with La Femme from France. The BMI Stage has a history of presenting some of the best under the radar performances and La Femme was a hit. A pleasing combination of super dancey krautrock with a Daft Punk disco vibe, the band killed it! The nine-member group was impressively dressed with thrift store finds ranging from gypsy pants to Shriners bowling shirts to berets. “It’s Time to Wake Up” from 2013’s Psycho Tropical Berlin coated the crowd in dreamy syrup of sexy vocals and melodic fuzzy synth work – perhaps the best to grace the BMI Stage this weekend and worthy of catching again at ACL Weekend Two.
As the only covered venue at the fest, the Tito’s Stage provided a nice refuge from the sun during the day with vibes on the smoother side, and a Silent Disco at night that was anything but silent. Fresh of the Migration Tour, a highly anticipated performance by British musician and producer Simon Green, a.k.a. Bonobo, featuring live backing band drew a large crowd as day turned to night on Friday. The ambient electronic beats thrown down by Simon on “Cirrus” from 2013’s The North Borders and “Migration” from the this year’s album of the same name were complemented nicely by a quartet of drummer, guitarist, keyboardist, and flutist.
Fans were torn as the fest got deeper into the evening with tough choices between two rising stars. At the Homeaway Stage, adjacent to the top headlining American Express Stage, throngs of people poured in for the buildups and breakdowns of 21-year-old Dutch EDM DJ Martin Garrix. Complete with on-stage pyrotechnics, his set had a sea of fans pumping their fists into the air as they moved into position for elder statesman Jay-Z.
Emerging diva and sister-in-law of Jay-Z, Solange reigned at the Barton Spring Stage, the new venue under large heritage pecan trees intended to reduce festival noise bleed. Fresh off a series of summer festivals including Panorama (QRO recap), Mo Pop, Bumbershoot, and Outside Lands (QRO recap), Solange was as polished as ever. Accompanied by modern dancers and a gentle horn section and coated in an atmosphere of red, Solange crushed it with “Mad” from this year’s Seat at the Table with her soulful sultry voice and white dreadlocked mane.
British indie pop trio The xx had the unenviable position of being up against Jay-Z in the top slot for the night. The broody and emotive set kicked off with the atmospheric instrumental song “Intro” and then “Crystalized”, featuring the breathy vocal stylings of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim from their self-titled 2009 album (QRO review). Decked in black and facing each other as they jammed out on guitar and bass, Croft and Sim traded turns singing “Lips,” “Dangerous,” and “On Hold” from their latest release I See You (QRO review). As the clock approached 9:30pm, a cascade of rainbow colored lights enveloped the stage making for a dramatic close to their set. Many fans cut out a little early to catch the end of Jay-Z’s set on the opposite end of the park.
Encapsulating at least three quarters of festival attendees, the hip-hop legend Jay-Z commanded not quite a full set as advertised, closing with about 15 minutes short of the hour and forty-five minutes granted. Notable from hundreds of yards away was his backdrop that featured a three-story tall metallic balloon dog by the artist Jeff Koons. Compared to previous years, the late Friday sets conveyed a chill vibe that was sustained throughout the rest of the weekend.
With the number of Tom Petty covers reaching half a dozen on Friday, Day Two, on Saturday, October 7th,, would feature a very literal tribute to the recently departed rock star by festival organizers. Saturday, the only sold out day of the festival, started off with a thick blanket of clouds which didn’t do anything for the humidity, but the sun wasn’t so much of an issue as many festival goers ditched their sunnies and picked up paper fans. The crowds were thick at the gates with stepped up security from the day before. Full-on body touches and metal detector screening jammed up the lines during the afternoon as a noticeably larger crowd descended on the grounds.
Over in the chill zone that was the Tito’s Tent, six string bass virtuoso Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner laid down a set of spaced out jazzy R&B tunes. He kicked it off by asking the crowd, “Are you ready to go down a rabbit hole,” then commencing with “Rabbot Ho” and “Captain Stupido” from 2017’s Drunk. Sporting a thick gold chain, blond dreads, and silky gold trimmed shorts, Thundercat had the crowd bumping when he laid down the bass lines from his sunburst orange Ibanez bass to Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls”, one of the L.A. musician’s most well-known tracks.
Continuing the psych rock legacy of Roky Erickson and The Thirteen Floor Elevators, Austin’s own The Black Angels levitated a mid-afternoon crowd in the pecan tree-lined Barton Springs Stage. A medical emergency caused the band to cancel its ACL late night show with Erickson on Thursday night at Emo’s, so that one-two punch had to wait for another time. Fortunately, their haunting set on Saturday afternoon went on as planned. Sharpened by a summer worth of touring in support of their 2017 release Death Song, the Black Angels flexed their muscles on powerful new tracks “Currency”, “Half-Believing”, and “I Dreamt”, before revisiting a smattering of older tripped out songs such as the opening track from 2010’s Phosphene Dream (QRO review), “Hunt Me Down”.
Australian synth-pop band Cut Copy got the dance vibes going as the sun began to set on the west end of the park. Easing into their set with the slow bounce of “Need you Now” from their 2011 album Zonoscope (QRO review), they picked up the energy with “Black Rainbow” from their latest record Haiku from Zero and spiraling jam “Where I’m Going” that had hands pop up in the air. At straight up 7pm, just as band was performing their hit “Lights and Music”, Cut Copy’s audio was abruptly cut off. Unbeknownst to the fans at Zilker Park, a tribute like no other to the late Tom Petty was commencing. The entire park was washed in the sounds of “Free Falling” while three parachutists jumped from a plane high above the festival. The three descended to earth with a Texas flag in one parachutist’s hand and sparklers trailing the other two divers.
Local indie rock stars Spoon took the stage in front a crowd of tens of thousands at the Miller Lite Stage as soon as the Tom Petty tribute skydivers landed in a nearby field. Kicking off their set with the pounding drums of Jim Eno in “Do I Have To Talk You Into It” from their ninth studio album Hot Thoughts (QRO review) – the track rocked a crowd eager to see the sexier than ever Britt Daniels strut across stage. The catchy pop tune “I Turn My Camera On” from 2005’s Gimme Fiction had the crowd shimmying and singing along as darkness fell over the park. Spoon worked through material from five albums before closing their set with the fuzzy emotive synths of “I Ain’t The One” from Hot Thoughts performed only once before live, last month in Milwaukee.
ACL festival favorites Red Hot Chili Peppers returned for another headlining set on Saturday night at the America Express Stage, just four years after their last appearance, and they haven’t aged a bit. Rocking through over twenty years of material, the band slayed the crowd with all the energy expected of the top spot. Moving seamlessly from hard hitting tunes like “Can’t Stop” from 2002’s By the Way to the funky vibes of “Dani California” that had Flea bouncing around the stage in typical fashion, the band ripped through 18 songs to an epic crowd that went all the way back to the Homeaway Stage.
The band kicked out hit after hit before frontman Anthony Keidis stopped to address the crowd, saying “Tom Petty did not die in vain,” before covering the Funkadelic song “What Is Soul”, dedicated to the southern musician. The tribute continued on the first song of their encore, a moving solo version of Petty’s “Face In the Crowd” performed by guitarist Josh Kilnghoffer. Coming off of the short rest, the remaining band members returned to stage for 2016 song “Goodbye Angels” and a spirited version of “Give It Away” from their 1991 masterpiece Blood Sugar Sex Magic that had Keidis throwing windmill kicks as the crowd shuffled to the exits.
As the Austin City Limits Festival concluded its first weekend in the pecan tree-lined urban oasis of Zilker Park, chill vibes permeated. Although the heat returned with sunny skies, the crowds and lines were much more manageable on the final day, creating breathing room for taking group selfies and chilling on blankets. Sunday’s performers complemented the relaxed temperament of the festivalgoers, providing smooth danceable grooves from early in the day with D.R.A.M. until the nearly dozen cast of characters walked off stage at Gorillaz.
D.R.A.M., aka Does Real Ass Music, provided a soulful start to Sunday afternoon at the Honda Stage to a thinner crowd than the previous day. Decked out in a plaid bathrobe and bling-lined double pineapple shaped Gucci sunnies (that retail at Nordstrom for a tad over $1,200), the Virginia rapper/producer’s attire looked like it was inspired by The Dude from the Big Lebowski with a Cristal budget. D.R.A.M. laid on the sexy with his soothing R&B, asking the fans, “How many of you looking to end this night with some god damn good loving?” and then saying, “You play this muthafucking song right here though, and she fucking with it, and in the right mood, that muthafucker going down,” before leaning in to his humorous track, “The Uber Song”, released earlier this summer.
California psych surf rockers The Growlers are no strangers to the sun, and they got a lot of it with a late afternoon slot on the Miller Lite Stage. Hot off their ‘City Club Fall Tour’, frontman Brooks Nielsen strutted on stage in a red bowling shirt and medium brimmed black hat as he eased the crowd into their set with the thumping rhythm of “Drinkin’ the Juice Blues (Hashima)”, a surfy tune based on a song by the ‘60s Turkish band Tinariwen. Continuing with another ‘60s cover “Psycho” by country crooner Eddie Noack, the group started their original tunes on their third song “Hiding Under Covers” from 2013’s Gilded Pleasures, and then showcased the pleasant interplay of their three guitarists on four songs from their latest Julian Casablancas produced LP City Club, while beach balls bounced around the crowd.
Performing live rhythms alongside the likes of Ghostface Killah, Tyler the Creator, and Frank Ocean, the talented young Toronto quartet BADBADNOTGOOD have been building an appreciation for jazz as witnessed by their overflowing audience at the Tito’s Tent stage – yacht rock for a younger generation, you could say. Drummer Alexander Sowinski laid down some break beats throughout the set that had heads bopping for 60 minutes. Accompanied by the solid melodies of keys player Matthew Tavares and sax player Leland Whitty on “Confessions” from 2016’s album IV over Chester Hanson bass riffs, the crowd was mesmerized by the virtuosity of their late afternoon instrumental performance. Although skipping weekend two of ACL, the quartet will be conjuring up some deep grooves out west at Desert Daze in Joshua Tree this weekend (QRO preview).
Performing in Austin for the third time in 2017, Portugal. The Man’s vocalist/guitarist John Gourley took the Homeaway Stage at dusk sporting Gilligan’s Island attire and his signature porn ‘stache to an audience not quite as large as Saturday evening’s. Kicking off their set curiously with covers of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”, Portugal. The Man energized the crowd when they laid down the familiar synth wobble of “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” from 2013 album Evil Friends (QRO review). Gourley lead the crowd in singing the chorus, “All I wanna to do is live in ecstasy / I know what’s best for me,” while smoke and lasers permeated the atmosphere. Featuring additional cover songs by The Beatles and Oasis, the band disappointed some by performing their latest hit “Feel It Still” late in the set after many had left the stage to jockey for position to see Gorillaz and The Killers on either end of the park.
Who would have thought that a virtual band created in 1998 by Blur singer Damon Albarn and animator Jamie Hewlett, would have such a long-lasting reality as a hit-producing machine? Coming off a six-year hiatus with fifth studio album Humanz this year (QRO review), the Gorillaz live act featuring a choir section among other performers drew a crowd that rivaled cross-park closers The Killers during the final act of ACL 2017 Weekend One. Starting off with post-apocalyptic vibes of “M1 A1” from the 2001 self-titled debut album, the 16 song, 65-minute set featured a parade of performers including D.R.A.M. on “Andromeda”, Zebra Katz on “Sex Murder Party”, and Kilo Kush on “Out of Body” from their latest release. The dramatic set was complete with larger than life animations projected on the stage, Albarn’s soulful melodica playing on “Tomorrow Comes Today”, and grand finale of “Clint Eastwood” featuring Del the Funky Homosapien gracing the stage to rap his lyrics in person – the perfect recipe of high energy and catharsis to end what many will remember as a super chill weekend at Zilker Park.
-words: Alex Freeman
-photos: Jessica Alexander