On Friday, October 5th, Austin’s crown jewel Zilker Metropolitan Park was yet again transformed for two weeks to host the 17th annual Austin City Limits Festival. This year’s offering was tilted to more seasoned music fans with the fest’s biggest headliner to date, Paul McCartney, sharing the top slot on the American Express stage with Metallica on Friday and Saturday night respectively. Younger fans had to contend with the fact that the highly anticipated Sunday headliner Childish Gambino was out after he broke his foot attempting the splits on stage in Dallas in September, replaced by Houston hip-hop artist Travis Scott who was flown in from New York after his Saturday Night Live performance to close out the last night.
As steamy as a bowl of hot menudo, Day One was the sultriest of the three, as people filed into the pecan-lined entrance of the park. Increased security this year meant no more backpacks with more than one pocket, to speed up entry and reduce contraband. Canadian pop group Alvvays got a modest crowd rocking early in the day at the Miller Light Stage while musical genius David Byrne packed the sun-filled lawn at the American Express Stage. Dressed in matching grey suits, Byrne and his eight-piece band kicked off his set with “Here” and “Lazy” before a string of Talking Heads songs including the crowd favorite “Once In a Lifetime” that featured the artists signature unorthodox dance moves in front of a minimalist metal curtain.
Exiting David Byrne as quickly as cattle stuck in the mud, much of the crowd moseyed their way to the opposite side of the park to go one of either two ways: to the funk soul of JUNGLE at the Barton Springs Stage or the Zeppelin-sounds of Greta Van Fleet at the Miller Light Stage. While the precocious rockers from Detroit were belting out tunes to arguably one of the largest crowds they have ever seen, JUNGLE’s low-key grooves in the pecan grove continued the dance party vibes. After an exhausting summer of festivals and a European tour, the U.K.-based soul brothers brought the heat of their latest album For Ever to Texas. Starting their set with “Heavy” and “Smile, California” McFarland and Lloyd-Watson sang their hearts out to hits “Busy Earnin’” and “Time” from their debut album at the peak of the afternoon sun.
Texas artists were well represented at ACL this year, especially during golden hour on Friday with back-to-back sets by notable Lone Star State up-and-comers. Around the time when the massive ACL Eats food court was clogged with patrons slamming East Side King tacos and Shake Shack burgers, the Honda Stage featured the creamy smooth R&B of El Paso singer-songwriter Khalid, crooning to the audience in a dayglow yellow t-shirt. At the adjacent Miller Light Stage, San Marcos, Texas-born musical collective Brockhampton turned up the energy with their self-described “boy band” hip-hop.
Austin City Limits has hosted a slew of heritage artists such as Neil Young and Lionel Ritchie over the years, but they pale in comparison to living legend Paul McCartney. With VIP tickets to his recent Freshen Up tour costing more than a three-day wristband to ACL, many jumped at the opportunity to see the former member of The Beatles and Wings. Filling nearly half of the park, an estimated 60,000 fans caught the Liverpudlian belt out over 30 songs that leaned heavily on the hits, with a few songs from his most recent albums Kisses on the Bottom (QRO review) and Egypt Station to round out his set. Kicking off with “Hard Day’s Night”, McCartney alternated back and forth between his Beatles and post-Beatles work dedicating several tunes to close friends such as John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix as well as his late wife Linda. The end of his set brought fireworks both literally and figuratively with James Bond soundtrack song “Live and Let Die” crescendoing with pyrotechnics followed by a spirited Beatles sing-along to “Hey Jude”. His five-song encore was strictly from the Beatles era with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Helter Skelter”, and “The End” sending the fans to the gates.
October Saturdays in Austin are dedicated to University of Texas football games and this year was no exception, as the Longhorns beat their rival the Oklahoma Sooners to improve to 5-1 on the season. So, when the announcement came from festival organizers that due to the threat of inclement weather, that the gates wouldn’t open until noon, many Austinites gave out a sigh of relief and finished drinking their beers and watching the early game before making their way through the gates on Day Two of ACL Fest.
While one of the most famous musicians from Liverpool, England captivated the audience the previous evening, indie rock group The Wombats from the Capital of North Wales drew many fans to the American Express Stage early in the day. Kicking off with “Cheetah Tongue” from this year’s Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life (QRO review), The Wombats’ short set with cheeky lyrics helped hype up the afternoon crowd.
Powerful female artists dominated Day Two at ACL, including Kim Deal, who gained prominence as the bassist and co-vocalist of ‘80s and ‘90s alt-rock phenoms the Pixies before founding The Breeders. Joined by original line-up of sister Kelley Deal, bassist Josephine Wiggs, and drummer Jim Macpherson, Zilker Park rocked out to iconic songs from Kim Deal’s notable career including “Divine Hammer”, “Gigantic”, and “Cannonball”. On the adjacent BMI Stage Austin’s own Sabrina Ellis showed why her and her band Sweet Spirit deserved a coveted slot at ACL Fest. Shimmying her way across stage with the charisma of a Broadway actress, Ellis energized a crowd with her presence, especially during the rocking tune “Take Me To A Party” from 2015 album Cokomo.
After Sweet Spirit finished their set, 2017 Grammy-nominated Sofi Tukker, as part of their Treehouse World Tour, dazzled a full house at the Tito’s Handmade Vodka Tent. Fresh off having their songs “Best Friend” and “That’s It (I’m Crazy)” featured in Apple iPhone commercials in this year & last, it’s clear the duo’s crowd follow commercials and the hip sounds that accompany them. Who can blame them when their infectious high-energy dance songs are matched by the duo’s dance moves and drumming? Similarly, Scottish synth-pop group CHVRCHES had the crowd moving along to Lauren Mayberry’s flower dress accentuated moves as she conjured a Black Swan ballerina.
British musician, Devonte Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, has been busy continuously producing other musicians such as A$AP Rocky, FKA Twigs and even Blondie. With a late afternoon time slot on the massive Miller Lite Stage, a relatively packed crowd filled right into the front of the stage. Hynes most recent album release, Negro Swan, having been written to “…[explore] in my own and many types of black depression…” was thoughtfully shared with a large production of projection screens sharing scenes of various urban neighborhoods in the United States.
St. Vincent, having recently been in Austin to record an episode for the 44th Anniversary kickoff of Austin City Limits (the television series), returned to ACL Festival with a production setup matched perfectly to last year’s MASSEDUCATION (QRO review), including title hit “Masseducation”, “Pills”, and closed out with crowd-pleaser “New York” that had an Austin twist. With a recent announcement that MASSEDUCATION will be released as a stripped-down version album called MassEducation, it’s great to see Clark still bring all the enthusiasm of her hits for the audience in a near-headliner time slot for two-weekends in a row now.
Deciding which headliner to see at ACL Fest can be a downright pain, which is one reason why festival organizers have moved to a two-weekend format. On Saturday night, it came down to whether you wanted to head-bang or boogie. It was clear from the line-up that the metal contingent of the fest would camp at the American Express stage for the one-two punch of Deftones, who suffered horrible sound problems, and metal gods Metallica, who more than made up for it with a performance that still have fans buzzing about. On the opposite side of the park, Justice electrified the shufflers and hip swingers in the crowd with their foggy, strobe-intensified dirty beats. With bopping tunes such as “D.A.N.C.E” and grandiose anthems such as the “Genesis”, both from the their 2007 self-titled album, the duo appeased their mob of dancing revelers.
As Day Three of ACL approached, it was clear that the festival had peaked and fans struggled to make their way to the gates before late afternoon. Even though Saturday suffered a late start due to the threat of bad weather, Zilker Park was in the storm’s bulls eye on Sunday. Monitors that flanked the stages showed ominous radar with red storm cells making their way towards the park with dark heavy clouds threatening to evacuate the festival around 2:30 pm.
In the pecan grove of the Barton Springs Stage, Brooklyn post-punk rockers (by way of Denton, Texas) Parquet Courts did what they could to keep the impending storms away. Kicking off their set with “Total Football” the lead track on this year’s Wide Awake as a light sprinkle showered the crowd, the band provided a nice punctuation of intelligent rock to the weekend’s offerings. Texas is currently in the crosshairs as a bitter senate race between Beto O’Rourke and incumbent Ted Cruz heats up. Parquet Courts frontman A. Savage underscored the tension when at one point in their set he stopped and quipped that Austin has done what Portland hasn’t, except elect a Democratic senator.
The surprise of the day came at the feet of a rising star that performed as if she were the headliner on Sunday. Janelle Monae’s performances have been notable for years, but she suffered from a Mickey Mouse Club goody two-shoes aesthetic. That was until Prince came along to collaborate with her on Dirty Computer before the Purple One passed away in 2016. That collaboration helped thrust the artist into more mature and provocative territory. Complete with sexy stage dancers and a series of wardrobe changes ranging from disco ball suit to pants that evoked a female body part, Janelle Monae stunned the late afternoon crowd with her impressive performance.
As darkness fell over the park, Sylvan Esso lit up the crowd with their vocally rich and emotionally charged pop songs such as “Hey Mami” and “Die Young” complete with fuzzy, heartwarming beats. The North Carolina dance electro-duo of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn appealed to the ready-to-party Sunday evening crowd. Since being Grammy-nominated in 2017, the duo has been performing at various festivals throughout the world. With recent single “PARAD(w/m)E”, it looks like 2019 holds tons of promise for Sylvan Esso, who had fans dancing way into the night.
As Sylvan Esso wrapped up on the Home Away Stage, the Arctic Monkeys kept the thinning crowd on the west side of the park entertained with a set of over 20 songs including bangers “Do I Wanna Know?” and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor”. The balance of Sunday night’s audience made their way over to Travis Scott. The Houston native, who stepped into the headliner spot after Childish Gambino had to cancel his ACL Festival appearance, seemed right at home in the spotlight, also standing alone as the only hip-hop headliner of the weekend. With this year’s release of ASTROWORLD, Scott paid homage to his hometown with tracks such as “Astrothunder” and “R.I.P. Screw.”
While the pyrotechnics and fog machines that pumped up the Travis Scott didn’t keep a flagging crowd from dispersing, his die-hard fans committed until the end. As part of the “Astroworld: Wish You Were Here” tour, Scott will be headlining shows throughout the U.S. through the end of this year and into 2019. If you didn’t get a chance to catch him at Weekend One, don’t sleep on seeing this 26-year old rising star as he sharpens his stage presence this weekend or on a tour date near you.
-words & photos: Jessica Alexander & Alex Freeman