For the second year, Austin City Limits spread the festival vibes across two weekends, which only helped the pain of decisions like “OutKast or Beck?” a little. Weekend one treated music lovers to perfect weather, and weekend two gave them the classic festival experience: mud, mud, and more mud. Both weekends were dotted with creative, silly, and sometimes vulgar flags, and both featured up-and-coming artists playing too-small stages that forced fans to squeeze in just to catch a glimpse of their favourite acts.
There’s something to be said for checking out a legend, even if you’re unfamiliar with their full catalogue. Occasionally, you’ll be disappointed in a lacklustre performance by someone who has lost a spark. Sometimes, though, you’ll get lucky and be delighted at a show that represents why the artist means so much to so many.
If you took a chance on Jimmy Cliff, the legend was evident. Cliff knew he was playing to a mixed audience, with fans and curious bystanders alike, so he set out to engage everyone at every turn, dancing, laughing, joking and encouraging as much arm-waving as was possible. He played his best-known hits, of course, like ‘The Harder They Come’ and ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’, but he also delved into political anthems like ‘Afghanistan’ and gave everyone a lesson in ska by explaining that he was one of the people who created the sound. He taught the crowd how to skank old-school, and then proceeded to dance all across the stage.
At 66, Cliff was lively and proud of his legacy, telling the story of how he was asked to do soundtracks for The Harder They Come and Cool Runnings. “When they asked me if I could do a soundtrack, I said, ‘What do you mean, can I do a soundtrack? I’m Jimmy Cliff! I can do anything!’”
“I have to say it – y’all are better than weekend one.” Jack Antonoff performed with all of his energy both weekends, but it’s true: weekend two festival-goers just gave a little bit more back. It’s tough to stand still at a Bleachers show, anyway, because their pop rock jams are the kind of infectious that start at your feet and shoot straight to your head.
‘Wild Heart’ is the epic headbanger whose drums sink under your skin; ‘Reckless Love’ could basically be a song by The National; ‘You’re Still A Mystery’ is the jammy vehicle that Antonoff uses to introduce his fellow Bleachers band members near the end of their set. Both weekends, the closer was the summer-to-fall hit, ‘I Wanna Get Better’, but it was only on weekend two that the energy became so frantic, Antonoff almost possessed as he destroyed his guitar, swinging it wildly around the stage and smashing it into the ground.
Instead of leaving the wreckage splintered across the stage, the lead singer handed the pieces out to his fans, sealing his thankfulness for their participation.
Sexy Scottish soul was the order of the afternoon both weekends, and Paolo Nutini was happy to fill it. Despite a rainy weekend two, both of Nutini’s sets occurred during the hottest, sunniest, sweatiest times of day, which felt completely appropriate to pair with his sweltering songs.
‘Scream (Funk My Life Up)’ was the best way to get the soul train moving, and then ‘Let Me Down Easy’ slowed it down to a crying sway. Even old favourites were re-imagined in a new, more sadly soulful way – ‘Jenny Don’t Be Hasty’ was less of a flirty, adolescent dare and more of a desperate, mournful plea, and ‘Candy’ was all grown up.
Nutini was more detached from his crowd for weekend one, but by the second weekend and after a headlining night show, he was all smiles and winking jokes, encouraging bum-squeezing and sticky embraces.
If you ever wondered what music by an alien spaceship commander who could totally shred on guitar might sound like, the answer is always St. Vincent. Annie Clark is a hero to musical oddities, and as weekend two might imply, she’s very open to collaboration.
The patron saint of experimental dance music took all kinds of “props” from the crowd, including a camera from the photo pit, a fan’s x, another fan’s y, and even somebody’s crutch (which we can only hope that person got back, for their mobility’s sake), punctuating songs like ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Your Lips Are Red’ with a little extra touch of interaction.
Though it was entertaining, even powerful, to watch Clark climb the rafters in a dress and heels, she shone brightest when she played awesome tunes like ‘Digital Witness’ and ‘Birth In Reverse’ to thrilled, dancing audience members. Unpredictable theatricality is freeing, but a damn good song played well is even better.
The question on many ACL-goers’ lips seemed to be, “Will Sam Smith be as good live as he is in his recorded hits?” The answer, with a huge sigh of relief and a fist pump in the air, was a resounding, “Hell yes!”
Smith drew crowds far larger than his early evening side-stage time slot was really capable of holding, but his warmth and genuine excitement at having people show up for his set was able to reach everyone. While his biggest hits were certainly the loudest sing-alongs, a majority of the crowd seemed to know the words to every song.
‘Money On My Mind’ is one of the catchiest, most danceable songs on his ‘In The Lonely Hour’ album, but the best of the set was ‘Stay With Me’, which shut everything down and felt like it stopped time in its despairing romance.
The most energising music festival moments are those where you’re squished in a crowd, dancing like there’s no tomorrow, surrounded by strangers who are quickly becoming friends by association and mixed sweat. After a few of those experiences, though, sometimes you want to stretch out with your longest-known friends on the grass, staring up at the stars.
Belle & Sebastian were the soundtrack for the latter experience, a rejuvenation opportunity before a Beck-or-OutKast dance party. Hardcore fans thrilled at the group’s forthcoming new album sang along to songs from a catalogue spanning nearly two decades, while the rest of us rested our eyes and wore the sweet music like a soft sweater. Even for us, though, we could recognise and bop along to ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’.
“We don’t make music for black people, we don’t make music for white people, we don’t make music for purple people, we don’t make music for gay people, we don’t make music for straight people – we make music for everybody.”
This was the decree from OutKast before they played their final song of the night, ‘The Whole World’, and you could feel it in the air. Everyone was dancing, singing, hugging, jumping, happy. The reunited duo was achieving its goal: they were uniting. Loyal fans were over the moon at deeper cuts like ‘Aquemini’ and ‘SpottieOttieDopaliscious’, and casual radio fans were treated to every hit, of which there are so many.
‘B.O.B.’ opened the night, ‘Ms. Jackson’ accepted her apology, ‘The Way You Move’ broke out the salsa, and ‘Hey Ya!’ was what might happen if you were to invite 15 high school reunions to the same party. And we haven’t even mentioned ‘Roses’ or ‘So Fresh, So Clean’ yet. This hip-hop duo was on point, with rated-R banter about how guys could please their ladies, and a killer band to back them up. A performance like this makes you cross your fingers for new material, if only to get André 3000 and Big Boi to keep touring.
There’s something special about singing, “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” at the top of your lungs with 10,000 other people. No matter how much of an outsider you feel like, there’s comfort in the vibes that this kind of sing-along creates – you’re not alone in feeling alone.
Beck, the most enthusiastic, entertaining ‘Loser’ of them all, orchestrated this and many other magic moments during his weekend two performance for ACL. There were old classics, like ‘Where It’s At’ and ‘Think I’m In Love’, newer favourites like ‘E-Pro’, ‘Girl’ and ‘Hell Yes’, and gorgeous tunes off of his latest release, like its first single ‘Blue Moon’.
In between the amazing music, Beck didn’t rest on his laurels – he cracked jokes, hung up caution tape, and faked the deaths of most of his band members. He also danced like his feet were on fire, which made it way easier for fans to uncross their own arms and boogie.
After being completely blown away by OutKast during weekend one, it was hard to convince myself to trek across the park and see Beck instead, but it was totally the right choice. Both shows were of the highest entertainment calibre, with great music and excellent crowd interactions. Beck proved that it’s never been cooler to be a loser.
“How many of you are here to see Iggy Azalea?” asked Merrill Garbus before laughing. The tUnE-yArDs creative centre knew her audience might not be familiar (or perhaps even ready for) her band’s breed of experimental, political dance-pop, and after playing a mix of slower jams and quicker songs during weekend one, Garbus and company kicked things off with more energy for weekend two.
‘Gangsta’ was played way earlier in the set, and recent single ‘The Real Thing’ went over even better the second time around. The group’s best known song, ‘Bizness’, had a little more oomph behind it, which allowed its follow-up, ‘Water Fountain’, to be an even bigger dance party. Even if there were Azalea fans vying for space near the front, it’s safe to say that the tUnE-yArDs machine converted many, inspiring Garbus to say, “It’s totally fine if you’re here for Iggy, we’re just so glad you’re here, so thank you!”
“Alright my loves. This next one, we dance to.” I’m pretty sure that whatever Shara Worden asked her crowd to do, they would do. Consisting heavily of young girls, the fans for My Brightest Diamond were some of the absolute best of the entire festival. Respectful, attentive, and overjoyed to be so close to the coolest role model you could hope to have, they cheered wildly between songs, danced, clapped along, and clearly endeared themselves to Worden, whose smile never left her face.
The show kicked off theatrically, with a live, local marching band making their way through the crowd from the back, and then up on stage with Worden and her bandmates to open with ‘Pressure’. ‘Be Brave’ was possessive, the kind of song that is already gorgeous on its own, but when performed live, it fills your eyes, lungs and heart with its anthemic melody. ‘I Have Never Loved Someone’ was the lullaby near the end of the set, sung intimately, as if for each individual fan. After the band took its final bows, I turned to leave and faced one of the young fans, who seemed near tears and laughter at the same time. Her eyes wide, she said, “That made my life!” She had it right.
Between The Shins and Broken Bells, James Mercer knows his way around a music festival. Something about big, open fields, large crowds of sweaty, inebriated people, and warm end-of-summer days makes a music fan crave big, beautiful music, and that’s exactly what Mercer and Danger Mouse provide.
They balanced their set skilfully, playing some sweeter, slower tunes like ‘The High Road’, some more up-tempo sing-alongs like ‘Holding On For Life’, and some deep drumming chasers like ‘Meyrin Fields’. Flags, LED bouncy balls, and soft grass to sit on made the Broken Bells set one of the quintessential festival experiences of the weekend.
Some artists seem destined for greatness. That was the vibe Jhené Aiko gave off for her late-afternoon Sunday set. She owned the stage confidently, her voice was dripping in honey, and her music was somewhere between classic Sade and modern Frank Ocean.
Aiko sings about relatable situations, and raps as well as most of her peers. Her biggest hit to date, ‘The Worst’, caused her sizable weekend one crowd to lose it, and she closed on a Tupac cover, ‘Keep Ya Head Up’, that felt even more earnest coming from the mouth of a woman. Aiko’s on the rise, and she’s going to hit the top in the blink of an eye.
Picture the kind of girl who you’d want to be your best friend. She’s confident, but vulnerable; funny, and flawed; she’s the definition of cool. She’s Jenny Lewis.
Both weekends of ACL, Lewis commanded the stage with a kind of presence that feels innate. One moment, she was strumming her guitar, patterned to match her suit (which matches her latest album cover for ‘The Voyager’). The next, she had the mic in her hand and was strutting across the stage, pointing out someone in the audience, stepping onto a speaker, dancing in front of her drummer. Every move could be choreographed, but it’s just Jenny.
Apart from her presence, Lewis is funny, almost snarky when it comes to stage banter. That kind of humour comes through in her music, too: one of her recent singles, ‘Just One Of The Guys’, mocks the fact that she’s just another “lady without a baby”.
Even though Rilo Kiley has officially broken up, fans can rejoice in the fact that Lewis still breaks out some of their songs, like fan favourite ‘Silver Lining’ or heart- wrenching ‘A Better Son/Daughter’ (seriously, if you aren’t familiar with the latter, stop everything and look it up now and get a box of tissues and cry it on out). And fans of her older material will be thrilled to hear gems like ‘Acid Tongue’ and ‘Rise Up (With Fists!!)’.
She’s an everywoman and a rare talent all at once, the kind of person who inspires you with her voice so that when you walk away, you hold your head just a little bit higher.
There’s a time of night where the air’s getting cooler and neon lights flash brighter, and everyone’s inhibitions have dropped just enough to get a raging dance party started. Combining all of these perfect elements with the light-up legs duo of Chromeo made for an atomic bomb of fun.
It almost didn’t matter if Dave 1 and P-Thugg were playing big hits like ‘Night By Night’ or ‘Jealous’ – as long as there was a great guitar rhythm to boogie to, boogie we did. There were guys in sombreros doing Russian-style arms-crossed kicking, couples doing some dirty grinding, and girls climbing up on the tallest guys they could find to try to make eye contact with the band while they raised their hands in the air.
Before the rain came for weekend two, the crowd kicked up some dirt to get down with these Canadian masters of electro-funk.
One of the biggest crowds of either weekend braved mud (and lost some sandals) in order to squeeze in tight to see the flurry of hair flipping that was Lorde. With just one performance over both ACL weekends, this one-time-only opportunity was met with a nearly frantic crowd screaming like it was their last night on earth.
The first seven layers of fans burst out smart phones to capture the gothy pop queen, whose minimalist music put her uniquely dark vocals front-and-centre. Lorde revealed that this performance was the last of her American tour, which just added to the urgency of the moment. Whereas many artists’ fans are waiting for their biggest hits, every song seemed to be at least 100 people’s favourite. A costume change at about the halfway point, set to a cover of Kanye West’s ‘Flashing Lights’, rebuilt momentum and anticipation, and by the time ‘Royals’ arrived, ACL royalty had been crowned.
It’s clear that if she wanted to, Lorde could sell out the biggest Austin venue – the giant open field that is Zilker Park. Even fans on the outskirts, who could barely see the singer herself, stood faithful through the performance to be a part of it all.
Everyone knows certain songs act as time capsules full of emotions and memories you felt back when you first heard them. Pearl Jam should be considered historians, then, because every song seems to capture the spirit and feeling of the birth of grunge and 90s rock. Eddie Vedder sounds as soulful as he always has, if perhaps a bit less angry. Passing fans would recognise 'Even Flow', 'Jeremy' and 'Better Man', and the more hardcore would be thrilled at the inclusion of songs like 'Why Go' and 'Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town'. With choice covers both weekends – John Lennon’s 'Imagine' and The Who’s Baba O’Riley' – the musical range for this Sunday headliner gave a little something for everyone to latch onto before wiping off their Doc Martens and heading home.
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