By S. Pulse
(Note: Check out all our festival photos on Austin 101 Magazine).
The Austin City Limits experience is unique and changes each year. Several themes emerged from this year’s festival including artists making comments on Texas politics, a slew of admiration for the festival, and the inclusion of a large amount of hometown talent.
Many of the artists used their platform to make political statements. Several comments were made regarding the abortion ban and anti-LGBTQ legislation in Texas while touting the importance of voting. Overall, the comments that artists made from the stage were messages of encouragement, support, and hope that, through action, we can make our world a better place. Voter registration was also available on site at the festival to facilitate that action.
Another theme we heard from multiple artists, was their praise for the ACL Festival as well as admiration for the city of Austin. Marcus Mumford claimed that he had played ACL more than any other festival (5 times) and that it is “one of my favorite festivals in the world”. Other artists marveled at how much it meant to them to be at the festival. Sultry Belgian singer Tamino stated that he had been to Austin as an emerging artist at SXSW and that it was amazing to now be on an ACL stage. Playing the Barton Springs stage, Texas native Mama Duke, looked to the future with great aspirations saying, “Lizzo played a side stage, like this, and came back a headliner.” Playing ACL holds a lot of weight for the participating artists.
We suspect this year’s ACL lineup was populated with the most local acts ever. Having the reputation as the Live Music Capital, Austin attracts and cultivates musical talent. The Chicks’ Martie Maguire, Spoon, Conan Gray, Adrian Quesada, Asleep at the Wheel, TheBrosFresh, Buffalo Nichols, Sarah and the Sundays, Lesly Reynaga, Good Looks, Pleasure Venom, Darkbird, Me Nd Adam, Mama Duke, Flora & Fauna, Como Los Movies, and even Kacey Musgraves have lived or currently live in Austin area.
The real star of ACL remains the music. It can be daunting to choose who you will see, but by attending Weekend Two (W2), festival goers can benefit from Weekend One (W1) intel. Just for you, we tried to hit as many acts as possible. Here is a summary of the highlights, standouts, regrets and tips from our W1 warriors.
Day One: Friday
As has been the tradition for the past 20 years, Asleep at the Wheel kicked off the festival. Sporting a long-white beard, band leader Ray Benson opened with “Miles and Miles of Texas” singing “I rode up into Austin, the cradle of the West. Just ask any cowboy, he’ll tell you it’s the best.” And on this day, Austin truly was at its best. Partly cloudy skies delivered near perfect festival conditions in Zilker Park. Here are some of our day one highlights.
Just because your mama likes them, does not mean you can’t enjoy them too! Their message of female “take no shit” empowerment resonated beyond generational boundaries. They survived cancel culture, divorces, and internet trolls while refusing to mute their truths. Their songwriting is honest, vulnerable, and bold; a posture that helped usher in a new generation of confident female country artists. And speaking of generations, there were three generations performing on the American Express stage. Lead singer Natalie Maines, her father and slide-guitar aficionado Lloyd Maines and son, guitarist Slade Pasdar, all performed. In addition, fiddle player Martie Maguire was joined on stage for a violin duet with daughter Eva. The evening was truly a family affair.
Never shy of making political statements, The Chick’s ACL show was no exception. Lead singer Natalie Maines took the stage in a bedazzled RBG shirt and, at one point, addressed the crowd, “If there is a female in your life that you care are about, vote for Beto.” The Chicks also made a statement against gun violence by performing “March, March” while a video collage background touted somber statistics.
The Chicks delivered a solid set. Opening with the blue-grassed infused “Sin Wagon,” fans were instantly reminded that Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire are technically exceptional musicians. Crowd favorites “Wide Open Spaces,” “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Goodbye Earl” became loud sing-alongs. Their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and Beyonce’s “Daddy Lessons” also thrilled the crowd. In all, The Chicks performed 22 songs, undoubtedly leaving many fans satisfied, albeit with hoarse voices.
Speaking of the best, one or our favorite sets of the festival was an afternoon set by Gabriels. Fresh off opening for Harry Styles, lead singer Jacob Lusk’s enchanting voice induced literal goosebumps. His vocal quality has the smoothness of Marvin Gaye and the timbre of Billie Holiday. And yes, those are some old school comparisons, but that’s because Lusk’s range, inflection, and control are a rarity in today’s musical landscape. He is also a first-class performer. Taking the stage in one of his red silk lined capes, he captivated the audience with dramatic poses, a flirtatious side-eye, and engaging banter. Revealing that he was once a worship pastor, he invited audience members to engage with one another and join his unique brand of church. The crowd at the Barton Springs stage was all in and so were we. Check out their first album “Angels and Queens – Part 1” and see if you agree with Sir Elton John who claims that it is “one of the most seminal records’ that I have heard in the last 10 years”. We are sad for the W2 attendees as Gabriels was only a W1 set, but we have a strong feeling that Gabriels will one day return as a headliner and to that we say “Amen”!
NATHANIEL RATELIFF & THE NIGHT SWEATS
Full disclosure, we have seen Nathaniel Rateliff and his band The Night Sweats multiple times and enjoy their music, so we thought we knew what to expect. That is why we were blown away by what, we consider, to be a whole new level of energy and confidence. Rateliff’s vocals (always strong) sounded even more robust. The Night Sweats, a talented crew of seven musicians, including a soulful 3-piece horn section, also brought their A-game. “I’m On Your Side,” “Face Down in the Moment”, and “Hey Mama” were standout songs.
We talked to many fans who bought one-day tickets just to see Zach Bryan. A former active member of the US Navy, Bryan now devotes all his time to music and by time, we mean every waking moment. This young man is a music-making machine. He is constantly writing and recording. Honest and vulnerable, Bryan’s songwriting has cultivated a large and avid fan base. His set experienced a late start (rumored to be caused by a band on an opposing stage running over), but Bryan was gracious to the audience, and he delivered a tight set of favorite songs including “Something in the Orange,” “God Speed,” “Heading South”, and “Revival.”
Her pale skin, dark red lips, and patchworked long dress stood out in stark contrast to the heat of the Texas sun, but Cyrus was undeterred by the bright glare that fell upon the American Express stage. Performing mostly songs from her first full-length album “The End of Everything,” Cyrus impressed the crowd with her melodic vocals and thoughtful songwriting. One of our favorite songs from the set was her performance of “Again,” a collaboration she made with the controversial rapper XXXTenacion prior to his murder at the early age of 20. The lyrics “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone my dear,” in hindsight, hit as prophetic. Other standout songs included her regret-laden post break-up song “I Burned Down LA” and her hit song “July” about being trapped in a relationship. Her music can be emotional and haunting, but also fun. Prior to the introduction of “I Got So High I Saw Jesus,” Cyrus speculated that “a lot of you are probably already there right now.”
Despite their early set time at the Tito’s tent, Baton Rouge natives and current Austin residents, TheBrosFresh proved that they can attract a crowd. Taking the stage clad in traditional western shirts, jeans, and cowboy boots, you may think you were about to see a country act, but then the beats drop, and the brother’s falsetto voices fill the air. Their soulful music is only one part of the equation. The other component is their ability to work a crowd and provide an interactive entertainment experience, that on this day, included a sing-along, a dance lesson, and a collaboration with the LASA Raptors marching band.
OTHER FRIDAY STANDOUTS:
Billy Strings proved that bluegrass is alive and well by attracting a huge crowd as the band lit up the night at the T-Mobile stage.
Headliner Sza performed atop a lighthouse set, gyrating, and singing her own brand of R&B at the Honda Stage. She also performed her collaborative hits “All the Starts” and “Kiss Me More.”
Singer-songwriter Kevin Morby delivered a powerful set at the Honda Stage and received the ultimate acknowledgement from Nathaniel Rateliff who donned a shirt emblazoned with his name for his evening performance. Give a listen to his new album “This is a Photograph” and see if you don’t get a Bob Dylan vibe.
Critically acclaimed British R&B artist Arlo Parks delivered her own brand of soul-melting sounds at the Miller Lite stage. Parks voice eases worry and wraps you up like a big warm hug.
If you’ve ever been through a breakup or experienced self-doubt, may we suggest you download a healthy dose of Jazmine Sullivan. Sullivan, a Grammy-award winning R&B artist gave a voice to women scorned performing her hits “Bust the Windows” and “Insecure.” She even tossed in a therapeutic cover of “Killing Me Softly with His Song” to comfort those ladies.
We only caught the tail-end of Carly Rae Jepsen’s set at the Barton Springs stage, but we were impressed by the size of the crowd, and they were an avid fan base as they knew all the words to every song. Jepson’s set had crazy energy.
We were bummed that we missed Genesis Owusu’s unique blend of funk and hip-hop at the Tito’s Handmade Vodka tent. We heard his energetic set prompted a sing-along of his latest single GTFO (Get the F*#k Out). Try a sample platter of his material by listening to “Good Times,” “WUTD” and “Don’t Need You.” You’ll be hooked!
Smokey-voiced, singer-songwriter Early James seems an old-soul with a unique throwback sound. His music caught the ear of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach who signed him to his label. He is only playing W2, and James should be on your “must see” list.
Another W2 only artist that has generated monumental buzz is Wet Leg. Following the meteoric success of their hit single “Chaise Lounge,” this British duo just released their first full album, which has received stellar reviews. Get to their set early as we are sure that it will be one of the most attended daytime sets. (Friday, 2:30-3:15 at the Honda Stage).
Day Two: Saturday
LIL NAS X
This talented pop-rap superstar is one of the hottest acts in the industry, so it was surprising to see this headliner assigned to a 6 pm time slot, but we are thankful that they put him on a main stage. The large format American Express stage was needed to accommodate the massive crowd as well as his ornate performance troupe of dancers. Over the course of the evening the self-proclaimed “Wizard of Naz” performed 12 songs in 3 acts complete (Rebirth, Transformation, and Becoming) with 4 costume changes. It was the most theatrical and elaborate performance that the ACL Festival has ever seen. He delivered all the hits that the crowd expected plus an ass-shaking dance number to Beyonce’s “Pure/Honey.” At the close of the set, we realized that we had been holding our breath and found it odd that the world was still spinning. It was a wild, sensual, mind-bending ride and we want to do it again.
Largely known as half of the duo known as Outkast, Big Boi has also enjoyed wide-spread popularity with his solo career. Performing with his collaborating partner, Sleepy Brown, Big Boi delivered a spirited set that kept hands swinging and folks singing. “So Fresh, So Clean,” “Ms. Jackson,” “B.O.B.” and “The Way You Move” all set the crowd in motion with a roaring reception.
Raised in nearby Georgetown, playing ACL was a homecoming for Conan Gray. Always stylish, Gray took the stage in a red fur-trimmed cowboy hat and a red brocade western themed outfit, a nod to his return to Texas. The first thing you notice, however, is not the outfit, but Gray’s striking, gender-fluid beauty. However, there is so much more to Gray than his good looks; he has real talent. Much like his good friend Olivia Rodrigo, Gray writes songs from the heart about some of the darkest times that young people face as they come of age. The Conan Gray fanbase relates and the entire concert was a sing-along with crowd members belting out every word in a show of appreciation. Note that you do not have to be young and full of angst to be touched by Gray’s music.
Pink’s catalog is deep with party tunes and touching songs about female empowerment and lyrics that encourage resilience. The diverse, multi-generational crowd at her ACL performance was a testament to her music’s wide appeal. In addition to her own material, Pink performed six cover tunes including 3 Non-Blondes “What’s Going On?”, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody, and Bishop Briggs “River”. Attention W2 concert goers! Do not worry about rushing to the shuttle or cueing up for your Uber ride. Stay the whole show. Her final number “So What” contains a festival first and a wonderful surprise as she flies above the crowd on wires as is typical of her tours.
While he is widely known for his collaborations with Post Malone, Wiz Khalifa, and Da Baby, rapper Tyla Yaweh delivered a dense set proving he can also generate interest as a solo artist. Performing at the Barton Springs stage, he encountered mic difficulties, but, spurred on by the enthusiastic crowd, Yaweh continued to spit bars. Before taking the stage, his DJ hyped the crowd, and in a hilarious moment, spurred the crowd on to sing Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” and Fun.’s “We Are Young.” The humor came when he cut the music and the crowd of rap fans were caught belting out all the words to these pop tunes.
OTHER SATURDAY STANDOUTS
Fans of indie rock found a home Saturday night at the T-Mobile stage where Manchester Orchestra performed followed by The War On Drugs. Manchester Orchestra delivered a dynamic set punctuated by the dramatic voice of Andy Hull who noted that this was the fifth time the group had played ACL. The War on Drugs performed a low-energy set, but the crowd did enthusiastically respond when they played their latest hit, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” and fan favorite “Red Eyes.”
The Ventures were founded in 1958 and are known for shaping the way electric guitars are used to make music and spurred the surf rock movement. The band has remained afloat as members age by continually seeking new members. Sixty-seven-year-old drummer Leon Taylor was the star of their Saturday ACL set as he wowed the crowd with his drum proficiency, particularly on “Wipeout”. Their relevance as a band was on full display, at the next set across the lawn where a young all-female band Aquadolls, gave a shout out to The Ventures before performing their own brand of surf rock-inspired pop.
Adrian Quesada (of Black Pumas and Grupo Fantasma fame) performed with his new band Boleros Psicodelicos introducing a new audience to the dramatic boleros music genre. The genre was widely featured on the Narcos soundtrack. The Boleros Psicodelicos set included rotating lead singers, each with an outstanding voice.
If you want to see a spectacular performance, be sure and attend Tobe Nwigwe’s set. It is a visually mesmerizing experience that meshes a talented band of performers and dancers. Even if you are new to Nwigwe’s material, make the effort to hit this show. We only caught the beginning, and it left us wanting more. Also, Nwigwe is a Texan, so show him some love.
We heard great buzz about Wallows‘ afternoon set at the Honda stage. Hailing from California, these indie rock darlings have a reputation for delivering a raucous live performance. Sorry to have missed them.
W2 concert goers will have an opportunity to see Tai Verdes and it will not be “A-O-K” to miss his set. In addition, W2 fest attendees will also get to see a set by the legendary band Death Cab for Cutie. Both artists will draw large crowds and we deeply regret that they were not part of the W1 lineup.
Day Three: Sunday
She puts the Yee in our Haw. Austin has a long-standing love affair with Kacey Musgraves. Maybe that is because the one-time Austin resident is a non-conformist befitting our town’s “Keep Austin Weird” vibe. It’s no surprise she headlined this year after an incredible showing at the fest in 2019.A large crowd at the Honda stage welcomed the headliner with roaring applause. Sporting a Charlie’s Angel-like hairdo, Musgraves looked like a goddess transported through time from the 1980s. But there was nothing old-fashioned about her music. Many of her songs were fresh from her latest release “star crossed”. She even performed a live debut of her song “Keep Looking Up”, a song of encouragement, from her “star crossed” album. Fan favorites “Space Cowboy,” “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Rainbow,” and “Slow Burn” received an outpouring of admiration from the crowd. She was very engaging with the audience, at one point revealing that she has become a “book slut” and that the highlight of her day was a walk to iconic “Book People.” Musgraves also threw shade at Ted Cruz, inserting his name into her song “High Horse.”
One of the most anticipated sets of the night was from Paramore. Returning to the stage after a four-year break, Paramore is also about to drop their first new album since 2017. Lead singer Haylie Williams, sporting an “End of the F*#king World” t shirt came ready to rock. Flinging her bright orange hair into the air, she proved that she still could ignite a crowd and that she has earned a permanent spot as a rock legend. Relive, or discover, your inner emo self and be sure and catch their set.
More than a Meme, Oliver Tree put on one of the most entertaining sets at ACL. Taking the stage on a razor scooter sporting his traditional wide leg jeans, bowl cut hair and red sunglasses, Tree opened with “Alien Boy.” In an attempt to endure himself to the crowd, Oliver claimed to be an Austin native who attended St. Elmo Elementary. This was the first of many cheeky falsehoods that Tree used to toy with the audience. He even tried to rattle the Chili Pepper fans that had cued up for the evening show claiming that their set had been canceled causing some fans to become nervous. It was not until he explained that the cancelation was because “the truck broke down that carries the socks that they put on their Johnsons” that the Chili Pepper fans could be sure it was a farce. Being full of angst, self-defacing, and overly emotional are a part of the persona that is Oliver Tree and makes for an entertaining set, but the real draw to see his performance is his music. His songs are creative and infectious. Do not miss Tree’s entertaining merger of wit and talent.
Initially, taking the stage alone, Marcus Mumford opened his set by performing acoustic versions of two Mumford and Sons songs; “Awake My Soul” and “The Cave.” Later, joined by his band, Mumford launched into material from his recently released album “self-titled.” The album is boldly raw in terms of content, including facing the trauma of childhood sexual abuse (detailed in his song “Cannibal”). It was the highly personal nature of the songs that led Mumford to pursue a solo effort with this material. His melodic voice served as a perfectly matched delivery vehicle for the introspective nature of his songs.
Mumford’s set included a pleasant surprise. Danielle Ponder has been touring with Mumford and he brought her on stage briefly while performing “Grace.” She later returned to share vocal duties with Mumford on “When I Get My Hands on You.” Her powerful voice took the already beautiful song to a spine-tingling level. The crowd greeted her contribution with loud cheers. Note that Ponder performed earlier in the day on the same stage. We attended her commanding day set and can report that it is worth the effort of an early arrival.
Note that Mumford’s female collaboration is not only for the stage. His new album features Brandi Carlile, Phoebe Bridges, Monica Martin, and Clairo. He also collaborated with Tom Howe to create the music soundtrack for Ted Lasso. (The fest gave more Lasso love last year with the addition of Brett Goldstein & Brene Brown).
JAKE WESLEY ROGERS
Glam pop sensation Jake Wesley Rogers has the style, presence, and talent of a young Elton John. In fact, Sir Elton agrees and has stated that he sees his younger self in Rogers. Wearing a jumpsuit that resembled a space suit, we could not help but also draw comparison to David Bowie. His set was full of energy and movement, but his music was the star of the show. A cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” dazzled the crowd, but it was his introspective song “Pluto” that had the biggest impact of the afternoon. The song, about doubting yourself and the importance of being loved, has become an anthem in the queer community, as well as for anyone who has felt like an outsider.
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
The rock legends drew a huge crowd filled with anticipation. The evening started with an extended instrumental jam with bassist Flea and guitarist Frusciante exchanging riffs. The piece culminated in vocalist Anthony Kiedis taking the mic and transitioned into “Can’t Stop.” While there was some muck raking about the RHCPs returning to headline for a third time, it was a unique experience as the show marked Frusciante’s first ACL headlining appearance since returning to the band. His guitar style elevated the RHCP experience. Hard-core fans were pleased by the songs selected and the unexpected jams added to many of the songs.
The set, however, was not without problems. We would have liked Anthony Kiedis’ mic dialed up and there were some unexplained pauses hinting of possible technical issues. By far, the biggest complaint from festival fans was the short set length. Slotted to perform until 10:00 pm, the crowd was left mystified by the band ending their set 30 minutes early. Logistically, this presented enormous problems as Kacey Musgraves’ set across the park ended at the same time. Departing patrons clogged the exits. In addition, the traditional closing fireworks took place over an empty American Express stage before a smattering of stragglers. RHCPs early departure remains unexplained.
OTHER SUNDAY STANDOUTS
Following the recent release of their critically acclaimed album “Lucifer on the Sofa,” we thought Spoon’s set would be heavy on new material, but hometown favorites Spoon understood the ACL assignment. They delivered a set with a smorgasbord of tunes from throughout the years that left fest goers satisfied.
Japanese Breakfast is the current indie rock flavor of the month. Fest goers who flocked the T-Mobile stage to see what the buzz was about, saw vocalist Michelle Zauner entertain the audience with her breathy voice and gong skills.
Austinite Buffalo Nichols started his set by playing his King Tricone Resonator, sliding between the frets, and serving up a much-needed infusion of blues. He puts his own spin on the genre by blending traditional chords with unexpected backing tracks.
We were curious. Who is Taipei Houston? How does a band with only two released singles nab a slot at ACL? We attended their early set and found our answer. The band consists of only two brothers that put out a big sound and they are pure rockers. The two brothers, Myles on drums and Layne on vocals, bass and guitar duties served up a full-bodied, overflowing shot of metal rock. Both are outstanding musicians and, not once did they share that their last name is Ulrich. Yup, Metallica’s Lars’ kids want to make it on their own and, after experiencing their set, we have no doubt they will find success; even without playing the Ulrich card.
Griffin Washburn, aka Goth Babe makes feel-good indie music. His live shows are interactive and fun. Cupcakes, beachballs, and contests were all part of Washburn’s concert wizardry.
We caught a glimpse of female rapper Bia’s set, and it had the energy and polish of a headliner act complete with backup dancers clad in silver. We wish we would have caught the full set.
The W2 schedule includes some real gems that were not on the roster for the first weekend. Be sure and checkout British singer-songwriter Tom Odell whose voice is as beautiful as his lyrics. Also appearing W2 only is the angst pop idol YUNGBLUD with his misfit themed music.
WEEKEND TWO TIPS
Overall, W1 of ACL delivered. The sun was out, and temperatures were hot, but manageable. The forecast for W2 promises more of the same. Some quick tips if you are headed to Zilker this weekend.
· Download the ACL app and read through the items allowed and banned section.
· Pay attention to the clear bag policy outlined on the app.
· Sign-up for cashless payments ahead of time.
· Avoid arriving between the 3-5 pm rush.
· Consider using the Southern gate near Lady Bird Lake adjacent to the Mopac Bridge. It’s usually not as crowded.
· The free ACL shuttle from Republic Square gives easy access to and from the park from downtown and runs frequently.
· There will be 2 ride share areas. Check the app for a detailed description but be aware that these areas tend to have a lengthy backlog at the end of the night.
· Walking or riding your bike, if viable, is the best option
· Pick a rendezvous spot where you can meet up with friends, should you get separated. Cell phone service can be spotty, and batteries can die. Map out a spot ahead of time to reunite as getting separated from your group can easily occur.
· Make your schedule ahead of the festival. Decide on what acts you want to see. Consider the distance between stages and that the park will be much slower to navigate as the evening crowds arrive.
· If possible, arrive for the early day acts. The park is not as crowded, and you will enjoy a more intimate concert experience.
· Take advantage of the new orange recyclable cups. Keep it green
· Note that there is a second food court near the Barton Springs stage that is often less crowded.
· If you are in need of shade, consider taking a break at the Beer Hall near the Miller Lite Stage or the tree shaded Wine Grotto behind the T-Mobile stage.
Good luck and enjoy the festival!