by Andrew Calvio, Austin, Texas
Note: Be sure to check out all our killer photos from the fest on Austin 101.
Austin City Limits, ACL Fest came through like a whirlwind. Once again jam packing 140 artists into nine stages over the course of two weekends filled with music, fun, and festivities that kept everyone entertained. At this point in its 22 year history, ACL is a well-oiled machine that continues to grow and adapt every year. It would be impossible to cover everything but I gave my best effort. Three exhausting days and countless miles walked, this is just some of what we saw.
Weekend 1 ‘plane issues”’significantly delayed Kendrick Lamar’s headlining set on Friday night. Die-hard fans never lost hope while festival organizers scrambled to keep the crowd at bay. At 9:46pm, an hour and 6 minutes past his scheduled start time, the Pulitzer Prize winning rapper took the stage. For those that stayed, the brief 30-minute set was well worth the wait. Lamar crammed 10 and a half songs in during his time on the AMEX stage. Covering hits that spanned his catalog, he highlighted many but not all bangers keeping the young crowd bouncing enthusiastically. The energy was high as music kept rolling before power was cut during the chorus of the anthem “Alright”. Appropriately, the crowd kept the chant going, “We gon’ be alright” as the lights in the park started to light up the exits. It’s always puzzled me how a festival of this magnitude in the heart of the city of Austin has a curfew so early. However, those decisions are not up to me or the artists. We just have to enjoy what we are given. Weekend 2 fans were more fortunate as K.Dot was able to deliver a full 21-song set that included everything expected from the Grammy winner, including a couple of my favorites “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Love.” At the end of his set he promised, “I will be back.” We can’t wait for that day Kendrick!
At the Honda stage on the other side of the park, The Lumineers benefitted from the Kendrick’s AMEX stage delay. Already a large draw, many more people trekked across the field to catch the majority of this headlining set. They started with the crowd pleaser “Cleopatra” and kept their foot on the gas the whole way through. In the middle of their set frontman Wesley Schultz jumped from the stage and walked through the crowd while singing “BRIGHTSIDE.” Fan interaction is always fun to watch, being there to experience the feeling made the night even better.
The rest of Friday was full of goodness as well. The Mars Volta kept the lights low for an ultra moody set at the Miller Light stage. Making their first appearance since 2008, the El Paso natives left the crowd wanting more with the omission of “The Widow.”
A set that I very much wanted to see more of was Maggie Rogers. Her bubbly stage presence and catchy music had the crowd bopping when she covered Whitney Houston’s “I wanna Dance With Somebody.” But the schedule kept rolling and I had to run.
Dave Grohl and Brene Brown sat down at the Bonus Tracks stage and spoke about music that moves us. Grohl labeled Freddie Mercury “the greatest rock vocalist of all time” saying that Mercury had the power to unite the whole audience. Brown played a clip of John Denver’s “Take Me Home” and Grohl asked “why can I smell my mom’s ashtray while I’m sitting in the front seat of her car with no seatbelt?” It was a point made referencing how we connect emotionally through music without even thinking about it. Dave Grohl is a genuinely funny guy and getting to hear him speak in such a personal way was definitely a highlight of Day 1. Or perhaps I’m just a fanboy.
Portugal the Man had a good afternoon chill set. Nothing super fancy, just good harmonies and solid instrumentalists playing some tunes that made you sing and dance along to. Songs that made you “Feel It Still” as you walked away.
Thee Sacred Souls kept the audience engaged. At one point singer Josh Lane jumped from the stage and literally started running through the crowd while singing the chorus for “Running Away.” Again, I’m a sucker for artist engagement with their audience. I’m glad I caught this.
Abraham Alexander from FT Worth, Texas was grateful to his guests for being part of his very first ACL. The soulful sounds coming from his band were a pleasant break in the afternoon sun.
Over on AMEX, Lil Yachty showed he too has the ability to speak to your soul. He started his set with an all female band, The Silver Sisters, whose melodies spread warm word butter all over our ear breads. However, midway through the second song Yachty stopped the song and said “I’m gonna give you what you want. I see you. Open up the pit. My time is too short!” Chaos then began as Lil Yachty started screaming like a banshee and jumping around encouraging the youthful audience to bounce.
A surprise that I did not expect came from the T-mobile stage as Half Alive put on an upbeat alternative/indie pop rock show. They were fun musically and visually, especially when they had a couple dancers come onto the stage. That was certainly unexpected, but I now know dancing is something that is expected out of these guys. Great show.
TikTok star Nessa Barrett kept the early afternoon crowd smiling saying the last time she was at ACL she was in the crowd. Another moment of appreciation on the big stage. Her faithful fans sang along to all her songs while the uninitiated stood by and soaked in her energy.
Asleep At The Wheel took their traditional opening spot and started the party as the doors opened Friday morning. Ray Benson wore an Austin Verde jersey as they played their set. As always they sounded crisp and amazing. If you get the chance to see this band, do it before it’s too late!
A couple of sets that I wish I would have gotten to take in were Little Sims, Devon Gilfillian, The Revivalists, and I’m still not happy with Kali Uchis pulling out of the lineup at the last minute.
The Foo Fighters!! It’s always a pleasure getting to attend one of their shows. Dave Grohl is one of the greatest entertainers around. The energy and the banter that he has with his band and the crowd makes you feel like you’re hanging out with a friend (we’re practically best friends). Early in the set, Grohl asked “ Who hasn’t seen us yet?” When hands went up and the newly minted Foos cheered loudly, Grohl responded “Well f*ck y’all we’ve been around 28 years and you couldn’t make it to one damn show?” My funny BFF. Making their first stop in Austin since the passing of drummer Taylor Hawkins, this night was emotional for many fans. However, Josh Freese put on an awesome display of musicianship and fit in nicely. As someone next to me said, “He’s not Taylor, but damn!” It was kind of sad to not have Hawkins come out mid set and do his classic Freddie Mercury call and response but those memories will always be there. The Foo Fighters headlining set was a classic rock show full of hits that elicited singalongs every step of the way. Maybe my eyes started misting but that was probably just the dirt in the air. Towards the end of the set, I was filled with anticipation. Dave is known for bringing someone to the stage. I was thinking that we may see a Kiss Guy reprise. I would not have been mad about that. However, I was left in awe when Shania freaking Twain came out and performed “Best of You” with the band. It was a moment that you just needed to soak in. I will say that as much as I love and respect the country goddess, she definitely did not fit in vocally with Grohl. It was not the best mix of the two genres, but still amazing to witness. I should have taken cues from way earlier when Dave kept telling the crowd to look at the Honda stage saying “Shania… you’re on Fiya!” When the show finished with “Everlong” I looked at the time and noticed we still had six minutes left and felt cheated. They are known for marathon sets and I wanted them to get turned off like Kendrick did the previous night.
As mentioned, the other headliner of the night was Shania Twain. As a wee lad, I had a pretty big crush on her. Who didn’t, am I right? The crowd tonight was filled with cowboy hats, more rave than country, and polo shirts. Shania on her own stage singing her songs sounds amazing. The set started with a newer release “Waking Up Dreaming” which was a good way to connect with her newer audience before really leaning into the hits. If you’ve ever seen the video for this song it would make her outfit choice for tonight a little easier to understand. She wore a bright red wig on her head, a sparkly silver shirt with bedazzled silver shorts and matching boots. Cute, but not the Shania I was used to. She was here to entertain and that she did. I didn’t get to sing along until the third song “Don’t Be Stupid.” Admittedly, I’m a surface level fan and not an actual Shaniatite or whatever they call themselves. I left as she started “You’re Still The One.” Sadly I couldn’t stick around to hear her say “let’s go girls.” I’ve always liked singing along to “Man, I feel Like a Woman.” It’s a great anthem to celebrate women’s empowerment and I love the women in my life.
Bob Moses had a beautiful sunset on the Miller Light stage. His show was spectacular with just the right lighting to set the mood. My favorite part of this set was towards the end when they covered an INXS classic “Need You Tonight.” Lovely.
Noah Kahan had a gigantic crowd on the T-mobile stage. I feel like he would have been better suited on one of the big stages. In a moment of understanding, between songs Kahan looked out to the sea of people and said, “That’s a lot of people. Holy shit. I can’t believe I’m here, what a dream.” I would have liked to stick around for more of his set but it felt a bit claustrophobic.
Alanis Morisette showed the AMEX crowd that she still has what it takes to keep all eyes on her. Her pitch control is still impressive. There are not a ton of artists that can stay consistent throughout the years. She sounded amazing! There was a group walking away early to catch another set and I heard one say “Her voice, Holy crud.”
Thirty Seconds To Mars was definitely one of my favorite sets to watch this year. Jared Leto is fun, no doubt about it. The stage entrance he had was the second best I’ve seen this year. (It’s hard to beat Pink). They started with “Walk on Water.” As the first few lines were sung there was no sign of Leto. He then stepped out onto a platform perched above the stage next to the Honda sign and jumped down trusting only the cables that slowly let him down. That was cool. Their set was all about engagement and keeping the crowd entertained. During the song “Seasons” Leto brought local artist Calder Allen onstage to help. That was not the only special guest of the evening. The Minister of Culture, Matthew McConaughey, made an appearance to help select fans to join onstage for the final song. Because, why not? Leto provided a photographer’s dream. He brought all the photogs up form the pit to take photos from behind him on stage- a very rare scene indeed.
Shaed sounded good on the BMI stage. However, severe sound bleed from Poolside at Miller Light made it difficult to hear at times. My favorite moment came not from the band, but from two bros passing on the way to the bathroom. One looked at the other and said “Gorgeous hair dude.” Keep Austin Weird.
Tanya Tucker and her band sounded tight on the T-mobile stage. She referenced recent back surgery saying it was “good healing out here.” Before she started a song she looked at the band questioning what was next then joked with the crowd “after 52 years you think that I would have it down by now. Everytime we go onstage it’s like the first time.” This Texas country legend put on a nostalgic set that brought many memories of a childhood many moons ago.
I didn’t get to see Mt. Joy but I could overhear in passing that the theme of appreciation continued with them as well. “This is a dream come true for us, playing for this many people.”
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram had Tito’s tent overflowing during his set. His bluesy songs rang sweetly in the air as the crowd sunk into the smooth rhythm and cries of his guitar. Sounding far beyond his years, it’s hard to believe that this young man is only 24 years old. So good!
I can’t go without mentioning an amazing set by local artist Ben Kweller. A longtime Austin favorite, Kweller did not disappoint. We actually caught him twice this weekend. Starting at the Long Center lawn with ACL Radio’s morning broadcast on Friday then again on the Miller Light stage Saturday. He talked about the tragic passing of his son earlier this year. He told us about how Ed Sheeran phoned him to offer him an opening spot so he could release and heal in a safe space. Seeing him with his full band was a fantastic way to spend the afternoon. Kweller closed his set with “How I Am,” a song written by his son Zev.
Jesse Ware made an appearance on the Honda stage. She is very photogenic with her wardrobe selection but her set was underwhelming for me. This is where I think Noah Kahan should have been worked onto the bigger stage.
Shooks, another local Austin band, had a good sized crowd at Tito’s. Singer Marlon Sexton, the son of another Austin legend (Charlie Sexton) conducts himself in rockstar fashion by dancing around and jumping off drum kits. Their indie rock sound is infectious and is fun to see live.
My favorite set of the day came from the best band in Austin right now. Die Spitz is amazing live and they always put on a killer show. Angsty girl power punk rock got the morning started. I was surprised to see the number of people that showed up to this 11:45am set. What was even more exciting was that during an early morning set, their fans were here to slam into each as is customary at a Die spitz show. It was a positively chaotic and fun way to start the day.
Some sets that I’m really sad to have missed: Rina Sawayama, Gus Dapperton, Poolside, Coi Leray, Tove Lo, Calder Allen, Chromeo. Saturday was stacked and could have been a whole weekend on its own!
“Hey ACL, you’re wicked. There’s no other festival in the world that we’ve headlined three times and that makes it our favorite festival in the world.” Mumford & Sons came back for another visit to Zilker Park. Once again they brought members of the Austin High marching band onstage to start the show. They put on a spectacular light show this year which caught me by surprise. They lit up the entire park! Marcus Mumford is a people pleaser and he made sure to show this during their headlining set when he came off the stage and walked through the crowd while singing “Ditmas.” During the latter half, the Mumfords or the Sons, whichever you prefer, came together on an alternative stage that was set up on top of the soundboard tent in the middle of the crowd. Here they played a low-key set that probably would be really cool if there wasn’t another band on the opposite stage blowing their sound out. It was visually pleasing but not a great idea when Odesza was playing on Honda. Regardless, they debuted the new song “Maybe” with Noah Kahan before bringing the Huston-Tillotson Concert choir on to assist with two songs on the small stage. Honestly, I’m Mumforded out but this was still an enjoyable show. Weekend 2 had Hozier joining the Mumfords for “Timshel” and “Awake My Soul.”
Closing out the Honda stage on Sunday was Odesza. The last time they came through ACL was 2018, the same night Sir Paul McCartney played AMEX. I was all in for McCartney’s performance that year but I couldn’t help but be amazed by the light show that was happening behind me that night. Since that day I’ve had Odesza on my list of artists to see. I finally got what I needed. I’m not really a big fan of dance/electronica, but I love live music and a good show. Odesza did not disappoint. Their use of the drumline was spectacular and kept my eyes locked in. Their lightshow was great also but I have to admit that Mumford distracted me this year with their production coming over the top of my head at times. There were lots of glow sticks being tossed around and even ran into a couple of glowing hula hoops. They utilized a variety of guest singers including Sudan Archives, Naomi Wild, Izzy Bizu and Jack Froggatt. It was a giant party with thousands of my best friends, I’m glad I was able to make it this time around.
Cigarettes After Sex played a lowkey set at Miller Light stage. They kept the entire thing monochrome using very little light. The faithful loved every minute of it. I was fighting off boredom but stuck around long enough to satisfy one of my concert buddies.
Labrinth was an artist I had been waiting for all day. When I arrived at the T-mobile stage about midway through his set, I ran into a mammoth size crowd. Not quite Lizzo 2019 size, but still very large. I thought Noah Kahan was a massive crowd but I had no idea this would happen the very next day. The crowd stretched back all the way to Tito’s lounge with very little wiggle room. This stage was not equipped to handle this amount of people and it was very difficult to hear anything. Disappointed, I decided to move elsewhere. As I was walking away I could hear him say “I can’t hear you ACL.” Same, buddy.
Death Grips had a fun and aggressive rap rock set that was somewhere in between bark rap and freestyle over punk hip hop. It was interesting. Keeping it very simple they had a large red screen that illuminated them in silhouettes throughout the entire set. It was a cool look but did get boring after a few songs. I did notice that on the video screen, it turned what we saw into a sort of animation. That was neat.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were another favorite of the day. Karen O can keep your attention without trying too hard. I was there to relive the moment I was defeated by my future wife on Rock Band. I thought I was the best, but it turns out I was not. When they played “Maps” we all sang loudly while reminiscing but that was not the best part of the set. The closer “ Heads Will Roll” started a dance party that had every single body moving. It was really fun and by the end of the song I was out of breath.
Hozier was on AMEX having his own church service in the blazing sun. I always feel sympathy for the artists that have to perform with a face full of sun. But that’s festival life, right? At the beginning of “To Be Alone” there’s always a call and response. A bunch of oh oh oohs, and such. On this day Austin did not show up as he noted “Austin I love you, but you’re gonna have to do better than that” he then restarted the sequence eliciting a more satisfying response from the crowd. There’s no doubt that this man is talented and has a voice that caresses your inner ear canals everytime he sings a verse. That is where he keeps the focus, the music not the production. Sometimes it’s nice to have a relaxing day at the park just enjoying the music. This is what Hozier’s set did for me, it gave me a chance to gather myself and just vibe. During the final song of the set “Take Me to Church,” he was down in the pit with the fans and someone handed him a pride flag. When he returned to the stage he draped it over his mic stand showing unity and peace. The crowd loved it and finished in a singalong. Great set.
The Breeders played a solid set on the IHG stage. They have never really had a crazy stage production so it felt good seeing them again without any fillers. More than half of their set was tracks from their sophomore and most commercially successful album Last Splash released in 1993. It was a nostalgic set for my crew as this was often the soundtrack for many crazy nights when we were naive and vulnerable. It’s important to note that the Breeders played a one off gig at Stubbs in between weekend 1 and weekend 2. During the encore of said set, they covered “Gigantic,” the Pixies song with none other than Dave Grohl assisting on the guitar! If you were there, (in Napoleon Dynamite voice) Lucky!
Tash Sultana is amazing. I don’t believe that there is a single instrument that they don’t know how to play. Do you remember in elementary school when you were taught to play the recorder? You thought, “I’ll never use this again in my life.” Well Tash remembers and they definitely work that silly instrument into the mix. Truly amazing musicianship! If you’ve never witnessed live looping then you’re missing out. Sultana is one of the best in the business and they are a wizard with the guitar.
I believe Niall Horan is a truly nice guy. His relaxed stage presence and very casual conversation between songs made him feel relatable. He said “I forgot how f*cking hot it was, I’m not the right material for this.” Keeping with the weekend theme of appreciation, he spoke of how his friends were always going on about how great Acl was “and I’m finally here. I’m glad that I made it to Austin TX. I love this town. This is a great city.” Horan sounded great and gave the crowd what they wanted including the One Direction song “Story of My Life” which was possibly the loudest sing along of the weekend. I look forward to catching a full set in the future.
I had an obligation to Dave Grohl to go see the Walkmen. Having that distinctive New York sound, they were fun to watch. What really made me feel connected as if they were speaking directly to me was a line from their song “ All Hands and the Cook.” In this, vocalist Hamilton Leithauser says “And by the way, it won’t last. The rain will come, summer’s passed.” I know that this was not written to reference Texas heat but it sure felt like it. Thanks for the affirmation.
Morgan Wade had a decent size mid-afternoon gathering on the IHG stage. Sporting a Led Zeppelin t-shirt and ripped jeans she does not fit the typical country starlet. Her sweet southern drawl has a way of sucking you in when she sings. It seems that there is only one direction that this artist is steering her career in. She will continue to do great things.
Suki Waterhouse was so good. I missed her at SXSW during the Daisy Jones activation and I was bummed about that but I made sure to catch her this time. She has great stage presence and just looked like a superstar standing in front of her band. The strategically placed fans at the front of the stage emphasized this and gave her that slow motion windblown look when she stood at the mic. Her mashup of her own “Brutally,” Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” Taylor Swift’s “Lover” was phenomenal. She’s cool.
Dope Lemon had a very chill afternoon set on the Honda stage. At first glance I thought I saw Zach Galifianakis standing on stage but it turns out it was singer Angus Stone. After getting passed a buzzing monitor in the first song, they were very relaxed and even brought out a sitar for a couple of songs.
Mimi Webb spoke about having a song gain traction right before Covid then having her entire career get put on pause. She turned to Tiktok and found a way to keep the momentum going. “And here I am playing ACL.” Some inspired girls in the crowd were heard saying, “she’s so cute!”
Randall King was surprisingly good. I have never heard of him before and was impressed how he could just flip the switch to turn on the good ol country boy charm. His voice is classic country and carries well with his band’s melodies. Bonus points for being from West Texas as that’s my old stomping ground.
Jane Leo was not at all what I expected but in a good way. Although I did feel like they were lacking something, maybe one more person to fill some gaps? Not sure. Jane Ellen Bryant and Daniel Leopold were fun to watch and would fit perfectly as a background band at a party in a 1980 frat film. Their fan base love them and I walked away smiling.
Maddison Cuningham opened the AMEX stage on Sunday. Ironically enough her sound reminded me of Harriet Wheeler of the late 1980s band the Sundays. Cunningham showed really good pitch control and range that made for a pleasant first act of a very long day.
Some sets that I regret not squeezing in: Ivan Cornejo, Ellis Bullard, Yves Tumor, and Glorilla.
Overall, ACL had another great year bringing in so many good artists. The Food seemed to have a better flow this year as well. I loved the idea of having ACL Sweets all in one spot. It was frustrating at first but all it took was looking at a map. So many positive things come out this festival in Austin. Now the focus is clearing the post ACL allergies, or ACL-ergies if I must. I can’t wait to do this again next year!
Check out all our ACL Fest photos on Austin 101.