ACL Music Festival 2021 Review


by Brianna Caleri

Note: Check out all our ACL Festival 2021 photos and our ACL Artists New Music Playlist to keep the fun going and discover new music.

Stage hopping

This year, I saw 50 acts at the Austin City Limits Festival. Is it something I’d recommend? Absolutely not. Do I feel like the authority on Weekend 2 of Austin City Limits? Kind of. I’m glad I took the plunge, but if I learned anything, it’s that my show intuition is pretty good. I liked what I thought I’d like. I was bored by what I thought I’d be bored by. Most people are showing up at Zilker Park each day with a handful of bands they’d love to see and a willingness to wing the rest, and this is still the strategy I endorse. Ask your friends who they loved, and look up as many artists as you can on your favorite streaming platform before you go. You always want to leave some room for discovering the unexpected; falling in love with a band you’ve never heard of.

Megan Thee Stallion

At a glance

My favorite set of the weekend: Jon Batiste
The local band I need to see again: Dayglow
A set I knew was going to be good: White Reaper
A set I hoped would make more sense once I saw it: Phoebe Bridgers
A set I can’t believe I missed: Channel Tres
An artist I didn’t know before, who will now dominate my YouTube search history: The Hu

Bummed we missed: (Many locals and others) Brene Brown with Ted Lasso’s Brett Goldstein, Missio, David Ramirez, Alison Wonderland, Rufus Du Sol, Jade Bird, Finneas, Asleep At The Wheel (Weekend One only and due to weather Friday’s schedule was cut short), Gina Chavez, Kathy Valentine, Cautious Clay, Tate McCrae, St. Vincent (Weekend One), Tierra Whack, Madeon.

Notable changes: Besides Covid rules and onsite tests and vaccines, there were some stark contrasts to previous years including no Waterloo Records artist autograph tent, a new ‘Bonus Track’ stage that included cool interviews and shining a light on mental health, a focus on inclusivity (drag queens and more).

COVID-19 precautions

In the worst case scenario, holding ACL after all, could launch Austin back into another COVID-19 crisis. Thankfully, with entry precautions in place, it seems that the first weekend barely made a dent in Austin’s cases. According to the most recent news from Austin Public Health, only four cases have been traced to the first weekend. Security did check my vaccine card, but the “masks required” signs are so unenforceable, they only serve to mock the rule.

Duran Duran performs

Friday

The unofficial theme Friday, according to this reviewer, was legacy. One of the special qualities of ACL is its varied lineups, from newcomers to legends. This year returning from a year off due to Covid, there was an emphasis on the timelessness of live music. Despite our fears, we made it back. There were a few assumptions that felt a little premature (no, the pandemic is still technically not over; looking at you, Miley), but the spirit was there.

Skip Marley

Family matters

Kicking off the legacy trend was R&B singer Saleka, daughter of film director M. Night Shyamalan. Her stripped down, jazzy arrangements in the early afternoon provided an unchallenging portal into the world of ACL. Gracie Abrams, daughter of film director J.J. Abrams, played a more cinematic, Lorde-like set Saturday. On the much more rousing end of the spectrum Skip Marley, grandson of reggae great Bob Marley, played a more rock-forward set. Audience members danced to Marley’s original music, and broke out their phones to record a warm cover of “Three Little Birds.” Austin-based hip-hop duo Riders Against the Storm had an extra reason to celebrate their debut ACL Fest performance: the married couple are expecting. Chaka and the pregnant Qi Dada gave a memorable performance centered on love and fueled by pure charisma.

The incomparable Erykah Badu started her set 23 minutes late and stole not just the scene, but the entire day. Wearing a long, colorful duster covered in tassels and one of her signature tall hats, her waist-length hair blowing ethereally in the breeze, Badu called out for 70’s babies, 80’s and 90’s. The singer brought attention to the latter group, recalling her own 90’s pregnancy. “If you were a baby at that time, then you were my baby, too,” said Badu. “I have been waiting for y’all to grow the fuck up.” Her stoic band, wrapped in chaotic orange and blue stripes (inmate reference, or just weird?), sat still, adding to her mysterious, spacey stage presence. Weekend One missed out on this one.

Returns

This September, for the first time since 2015, industry veterans Heartless Bastards put out a new record, which Austin360 called a “career-best.” Their greatly anticipated ACL performance (another Weekend Two exclusive) felt like a regular set, especially in comparison to Maggie Rose’s set minutes before. (Rose’s band was one of the tightest all day, without stiffness. Her energetic backup singers did not pull any punches, and her bassist pulled off a solo that would have been obnoxiously long had it not been so delicious, “Sir Duke” lick included.) The change in pace was momentarily jarring, but the roots rock brought a certain moody romance befitting the blazing Texas sun.

During Bleachers’ set, it was clear that super producer Jack Antonoff was much more concerned with being a frontman than a singer, opting for more of a spoken approach and sounding strained when he did sing. Some found that reliance on his prevailing star power annoying, but I enjoyed the theatrics, and found the set to be one of the most engaging of the day. The group’s two saxophonists brought a hefty portion of that excitement, especially Evan Smith, who had just come back from his COVID-19 exposure and isolation that canceled the band’s performance the first weekend of ACL Fest. As the crowd shouted the cadential “carried away” during “I Wanna Get Better,” I started to remember what’s great about big concerts.

Early in the day, I overheard a festival-goer ask a friend, “Are you guys gonna stick it out ‘til the bitter end? Miley?” He either didn’t know or didn’t care that George Strait was slated to finish out the night. Either way, it’s been clear that the most publicly anticipated act on ACL’s first day of festivities was Miley Cyrus. It feels like every year the singer reinvents herself and makes an excited return, and this festival was no exception. Cyrus looked more glamorous than ever in a sparkling red bodysuit, with hair and makeup somewhere between Debbie Harry and Marilyn Monroe. Some of her juvenile stage antics stuck around but since leaning into a grittier rock style, her voice is at its best. A forceful, unflinching and un-self conscious cover of Janis Joplin’s “Maybe” offered the best vocals all day.

Machine Gun Kelly

Audience participation

I started this weekend with some notion that Machine Gun Kelly was very self-serious. I’ve since revised that impression. He spent his set climbing the scaffolding to hang upside down (was it a reference to Twenty One Pilots’ stunt at ACL 2015, or is this just what scrappy emo-adjacent performers do?) and calling out a journalist for admitting to taking too small a swig of alcohol. It felt as earnest as that level of showmanship could. Megan Thee Stallion supported local twerkers, recruiting a small army of audience members to dance onstage. Seemingly normal women in the crowd became unhinged each time “hot girl” left the performer’s mouth. Which was a lot. She alternated between rapping and dancing, a smart tactic for conserving breath and a clean, controlled performance.

Texas had a lot to be proud of Friday, between Megan Thee Stallion, Erykah Badu and several smaller acts that share a state heritage. Black Pumas are emblematic of Austin in pop culture right now, and did the city proud with a smooth performance that provided a nice foil to Meg’s organized chaos. George Strait’s set opposing Cyrus’ offered a similar haven of gentler country music, but I kept looking up the hill wistfully, wishing I could enjoy both at once. Cyrus soaked up every bit of spotlight, but Strait didn’t need all eyes on him. Couples two-stepped to the sentimental set that closed out with a tribute to the late, great Tom Petty. “If I do walk offstage for the last time,” said Strait of an impending retirement, “I’ll still hear screams and cheers in my mind.”

Girl In Red

Saturday

As an attendee, I’m mostly interested in big-ticket shows I would never see à la carte. As a reviewer, there are standouts that make me embarrassed to admit I would ever skip a show to enjoy a complimentary cocktail or hair braiding at the Tito’s Lounge. (So I didn’t, but boy did it look nice.) Saturday and Sunday were less stacked for me, by my own taste, but some diamonds in the rough made the increased crowds–and hoofing it even more from stage to stage–worth it.

Bedroom pop

In comparison to Friday’s lineup, Saturday felt more driven by up-and-comers and consequently, Gen Z. Francis Forever played an early set, anchored by their original TikTok hit “space girl,” and an intrinsically fitting stratocaster-shaped ukulele. (“Mommy!” shouted an audience member. “Parent!” corrected singer-songwriter Frances Garrett.) Norwegian breakout Girl in Red played a very energetic and incredibly casual set punctuated by endearing, but rambling stage banter and songwriting insight. Sad-girl hero Phoebe Bridgers appeared on the massive Lady Bird stage that closed out with a headlining set each night, the band seeming dwarfed in their signature skeleton costumes. Maybe it was the heat at the height of the day.

Future Islands

Maybe it was being sandwiched between two very forceful acts: dark synth pop group Future Islands (whose phenomenal frontman paces across the stage like a politician giving an impassioned speech) and provocative, gravelly rapper Freddie Gibbs (at Bridgers’ adjacent stage; by far the most jarring scheduling of the weekend). Either way, aside from Bridgers’ popularity, it was as hard to discern why she was in this specific place at that specific time as it was to stay awake to appreciate her lovely band.

Queen of bedroom pop Billie Eilish closed out the night with an adorable set, elevated by perfect vocals; a surprise only to those prone to underestimating the teen idol, who haven’t heard her acoustic performances. Eilish is a consistent performer with a short attention span. She forgot lyrics, laughed, and befriended a cricket. Alone onstage for most of the set (except when her brother and creative partner Finneas joined on guitar), Eilish seemed younger than I ever appreciated on a phone screen. Her movement was almost cautious, but her energy was all there. The performer also urged her zealous young following to hold politicians accountable for the ecosystem and reproductive rights. “This is the only moment…of the moment,” she said, with some fumbling pensiveness, and despite the sadness of her repertoire, smiled on into the night.

Rockers Greta Van Fleet

Ultimate guitar

Gentle, unaffected vocals were front and center all day Saturday, but the lineup wasn’t lacking in guitar riffs. Call it confirmation bias, but I walked through the front gates knowing Louisville’s White Reaper could be the most exciting set all day, and they did not disappoint. This garage rock band is everything critics of Greta Van Fleet seem to be longing for (more on them later): an original, but retro rock band with dual lead guitars and a bassist moving so fast, it took me a few seconds to process what instrument he was playing. The high-energy keyboardist was full of jokes and hard to take eyes off of. There were a few awkward lulls when frontman Tony Esposito seemed dissatisfied with a crowd standing around on the verge of heat stroke, but the already-weary festival-goers obliged and opened up a mosh pit during the band’s best-known and very riff-driven “Might Be Right.”

White Reaper gave the Austin-based Dayglow a run for his money, but the solo songwriter brought an excellent and very earnest band to the clearing across the street from the rest of the festival containing the VRBO stage. Sloan Struble’s peppy 80s-inspired indie pop sounded crisp with guitar and keyboard-forward live arrangements and the singer’s strong, nearly conversational tenor leading the charge. The band is quirky and stilted in only the most likeable way, and they look like they’re from here. (Struble wore a shirt his mom crafted with an image of his dog.) “Fuzzybrain” was one of many meandering, slow songs all day, but the first that I wasn’t immediately tired of. I was disappointed to leave to check out Jack Harlow in the same time slot, who couldn’t have been more opposite Dayglow’s sweet demeanor. The rapper seemed relaxed in performance, but praised Austin on its perpetual willingness to mosh. “Next time I see you, I’m gonna be the biggest name on that fucking flyer, man,” he promised. Harlow’s set ended early and I ran–the only time all weekend–back to catch the guitar-shredding end of Dayglow’s.

So much to see

All at once, I had to catch Modest Mouse, The Hu, and Doja Cat. They were all worth seeing, but given a magical choice, I would have stayed for fifteen minutes on either side of Modest Mouse’s timeless masterpiece “Float On” and spent the rest appreciating the militant sincerity of The Hu. The former’s influential frontman Isaac Brock seems only to have aged more fully than ever into his lisp and tiki shirt fashion. All I could feel watching camera close-ups of brass plates, animal horns and an absolutely filthy banjo was gratitude to this odd band for leaning into their truth for nearly three decades of greatness. The latter, a charismatic Mongolian metal band that utilizes traditional instruments and throat singing techniques, had the most unified and invested crowd I saw all weekend. People crammed under the Tito’s tent raised their fists and chanted, “Hu! Hu!” Doja Cat, whose set I caught the end of, said she was sick but looked happy to be onstage nonetheless. The beautiful rainforest set, choreography and rock arrangement felt more Super Bowl than Austin City Limits, which isn’t a complaint. It might have been sickness or a technical issue, but the rapper’s vocals were almost always lost within her backing track.

Sunday

By Sunday I was winding down, and the lineup was looking less exciting to me. There was a stretch in the middle of the day that felt overhyped and generic, but some of the best shows all weekend flanked that zone of exhaustion. One reminder forced on me by my failing feet: shows are better when you stay for the whole thing. Ultimately, I’m glad I gave up on walking between everything on my list, and just enjoyed what I decided to prioritize.

Marc Rebillet

Couldn’t tear myself away

Miss part of a Marc Rebillet set and you’ll probably never see it again. The chaotic loop maker (Loop Daddy, if you will) improvises the entirety of his sets until the last song. Rebillet stood onstage in his customary silk robe, and eventually, boxer shorts. He cartwheeled, spun around a tampon someone had thrown onstage, crowd surfed with champagne and hosted a pre-choreographed gay cowboy dance party. The live streams that made Rebillet famous relied on his deranged showmanship, which in the live show, culminated in a long improv around the phrase “Fuck Greg Abbott.” Other performers took shots at the Texas governor, but Rebillet made it art, and was the only one I saw to make a legitimately risky (and graphic) statement. Compton rapper Channel Tres played across the street, preceded by many videos of choreography on social media. I had wanted to check out his set, but couldn’t convince myself I could risk missing anything else from Rebillet.

Jon Batiste

New Orleans’ Jon Batiste (of The Late Show band who just did his ACL TV show debut) played an evening set I put on my hit list after seconds of listening on Spotify. Surely the jazziest set of the whole weekend, it was also the most cohesive, the most energetic, the most spiritual and overall, my favorite hour of the whole weekend. I missed Tierra Whack (who put on a very fun show at ACL in 2019) and Madeon (an electronic artist I’m sure would have been fun to dance to, if not so interesting to watch). Batiste pulled out all the stops. Classical piano quotations. Melodica solos. Sax solos. Three powerhouse backup singers in angel wings. A sleek baby blue suit with shorts and a rhinestone cowboy hat. Batiste led not just the experience of the set, but the experience of being a group of people at a major festival, tired but reveling in the last moments together. This was not a concert, he declared. “This is a spiritual practice.” Encouraged by Batiste, the crowd held up their ASL “love” signs, and it looked an awful lot like a UT game.

As much as I adore Trixie Mattel, I realized too late I’d stayed too long. The first drag queen to ever play ACL (“…and possibly the last,” she quips about the heat), Mattel drew a crowd far too large to fit under the Tito’s stage tent. It was exciting to see her with a band (looking cute in matching pink), and to hear her crack new jokes. Mattel is a practiced performer, and aside from the novelty of things happening live, I didn’t feel like I gained much insight seeing her live. I was far away and the sound outside the tent boundary was shoddy, but I took awful phone pictures and that’s what matters. By the time I made it over to Greta Van Fleet, the band was well into its set, and I wondered if I’d missed out on a lot of their range, or if the show was relatively one-note. It did feel slower-paced, but the Sunday sets had been overall high-energy, and it felt nice to slow down and watch a group in very 70s outfits simply play the instruments in front of them. Josh Kiszka’s wailing vocals were so flawless, I made a note to listen at home and determine if I believed he wasn’t lip syncing. (I do.) I wish I saw more, but I fear if I did it would have lost what little mystique it had.

I made sure to arrive at the opening of the day so I wouldn’t miss two breakout Austin bands, who shared the time slot and forced me to start my day rushing from one stage to another. Nané offered an exciting start to the day that was fun, funky and unique. Perhaps from playing in their hometown, or perhaps just from being seasoned musicians (championed by Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard), Nané showed none of the nervousness that characterized the other days’ early sets, and let loose from the first note. Zach Person and his drummer, Jake Wyble–a two-piece band by pandemic necessity–started off by melting faces, as if the noon sun wasn’t enough. The duo played blues originals and turned out a technically fantastic, soulfully gripping show, although it’d be great to see them with a bassist again one day.

Play us out

Duran Duran brought me back, not to the 80s but to the last ACL, in 2019. I thought of The Cure, who looked so much older and so much more inviting in person than I ever could have imagined. I thought of Robyn, whose set utterly redeemed me after a rainy weekend of stress as a photographer with the wrong equipment for the job. They were the feel-good throwback headliners who could be nothing less than fabulous, just by continuing to exist within the standards they set for themselves. Duran Duran opened with “Hungry Like The Wolf”–an exciting classic no matter how annoying you may have decided it’s gotten after four decades of radio play–as I was still walking up the hill to the stage. The band sounded great, and new wave never stops being fun. (To learn about some little-known Austin history, look into Raul’s night club, and how it made the city an important hub in the development of new wave.) Simon Le Bon stopped his signature strutting, mostly unchanged after all these years, to deliver an oddly impassioned yet noncommittal address that Duran Duran does not care about your political beliefs. The tone deafness, I hope, was not lost on much of the audience, who several times over the weekend heard more committed takes from performers, acknowledging that policy affects lives. I accepted the boring reality of such an empty statement and tried to chalk it up to clumsy wording. They’re suspending their caring while they’re onstage…right?

I’d heard buzz about Tyler, the Creator all weekend. His show was highly anticipated; rightfully so, as the closing night’s headliner. I don’t know how much of the exciting stuff I picked up on, not knowing the rapper’s career very intimately, but it was not the set I’d been imagining. That wasn’t a bad thing. (“This show was way better than last week’s,” he told the crowd.) Given the buzz, and Tyler’s reputation as a sometimes-mad genius, I expected something bizarre. What I saw (in the back half of the set) was introspective and measured. It was great to hear a rapper a cappella, not doubling himself. He moved with intention. The set–including a boat that actually rocked back and forth–was beautiful, welcoming and entirely fitting a “fall” night in Austin. While many performers felt dwarfed by the giant stages, Tyler stood up there all alone and filled the whole stage.

While this year’s fest had some buzzworthy artists such as Phoebe Bridgers and Austin’s Black Pumas and headliners that can draw big crowds – Strait, Stallion, and Eilish – it was definitely a slimmed down year. It still showcased amazing artists and had some new additions that make us excited to see what comes next for the fest in 2022. Check out all our ACL Festival photos and thousands more on Austin 101 Magazine.

Categories: Featured Posts, music festivals, REVIEWSTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,