By Richard Skanse
It’s been a couple days now since Weekend 1 (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) of the 15th annual Austin CIty Limits Music Festival came to a close. 48 hours, and I’m just now crawling out of recovery mode. The last time I attended one of these things was back in 2012, and based solely on the evidence of every achy muscle in my body on the long walk (two miles that felt like five) back to my car after night one, well it’s safe to say that the festival is aging a lot more gracefully than I am. But I made it back for two more days in a row, managed to see a fair amount of really good music, and ultimately lived to tell to the tale, so I’m now good and ready to do it all over again.
And by that of course I mean, next year.
Rest assured, LSM will have boots (or at least sneakers) on the ground for Weekend 2 (Oct. 7-9) of this year’s ACL Fest, with more coverage still to come, but those sneakers won’t be mine. A man has his limits, even if it means missing out on the chance to see some of my favorite acts again but potentially playing very different, looser sets than they did over the first weekend, along with several acts I didn’t get around to seeing the first time around and especially Weekend 2-only acts that I was really looking forward to: namely, Amanda Shires and Margaret Glaspby. (I’d add the legendary Willie Nelson to that wish list, too, but the powers that be for some reason saw fit to schedule him at the same time as Shires, so … good luck with that, Willie.) But none of that matters really, because the closest I’ll get to Zilker Park this coming weekend will be via live streaming, so … bygones.
Anyway, back to Weekend 1 — or at least the bits of it I managed to experience and take note of in person. Let’s not call it a “review” though, so much as one guy’s admittedly sometimes narrow perspective of it all. Perspective is key here (more on that in a moment).
First off, a quick head’s up to any seasoned ACL goers who haven’t been there yet this year: The lay of the land has changed a bit. For starters, an alarming number of the Chair and Blanket People now have inflatable couches, too. These ridiculous contraptions look sorta like giant neon vaginas, and they seem to be everywhere, which of course makes navigating through densely packed crowds more interesting than ever. Also, the artist merch booth, official festival store, Waterloo Records tent, and “Honda Artist Signing Shack” have all been relocated from the main Barton Springs entrance/exit to the back of the park closer to the Samsung Stage — a counterintuitive move, one would think, given that impulse-buying a T-shirt, poster, or armful of new vinyl on the way out of the park now entails adding several thousand more steps on the already overheated FitBit, but the long lines just to get into the festival store all weekend suggested that the souvenir business was still booming. Oh, and speaking of buying stuff, you can now make most of your purchases via a wave of your (pre-credit card linked and password secured) festival wristband, which if nothing else makes it easier to forget that you’re actually paying $9 per beer or Mighty Cone.
The biggest change of all, though, at least in terms of the lay of the land, is the absence of the Austin Ventures Stage, which used to sit in the sorta-center of the festival grounds between the park’s “Rock Island” outcropping and the ACL Eats food court. Ostensibly it was removed to improve crowd flow (“Big-ass porta couch, coming through!”), open up a new, naturally shaded lounging area (albeit one not particularly convenient for watching or hearing any of the other stages), and perhaps most importantly to solve the problem of sound bleed. In years past, many a fine Americana or acoustic-based act playing the Austin Ventures stage was pummeled by the louder indie-rock bands doing their thing on the nearby Miller Lite Stage. That was less of an issue this year, though still not entirely avoidable, what with the Miller Lite Stage now competing against the new Cirrus Logic Stage, located directly across the short end of the park from it, next to the main entrance. Somewhat ironically, it was a Miller act — Saturday night’s Andrew BIrd — who got the short end of that sound-wars stick when his lovely but low-key, Prairie Home Companion chamber-folk was pitted incongruously against the arena-sized indie dance-rock of Ireland’s Twin Door Cinema Club.
Here’s the thing, though: My casual dismissal of Bird’s set as a “can’t really hear this, just move on” lost-cause in truth had a lot less to do with the sound-bleed from the louder Twin Door Cinema Club than with my own desire to call it an early night. My all-day-for-three-days festival endurance just isn’t the same at 44 as it was back in my early 30s, when I’d routinely be at the gate in time for the opening Star Wars fanfare every morning and usually stay until the very end of the main headliner’s set. I’d started Saturday with every intention of staying at least through Bird’s show, based on the enthusiastic recommendation of friend and Lone Star Music owner Zach Jennings; but since Jennings had opted to stay home that day to lick his Longhorn wounds, spend time with his newborn son and reserve his energy for LCD Soundsystem on Sunday, I figured I could sneak out and make it home to San Marcos at a decent hour — knowing I’d be back at the park at the crack of 11 a.m. in time to catch (and interview) Austin’s Shane Smith & the Saints. Thus, I gave the admittedly very talented Bird — whose set was later described by the Austin American-Statesman’s estimable Peter Blackstock as being “as lively and enchanting as it was creative and challenging” — little more than 10 or 15 minutes of peripheral attention before limping to the exit.
Suffice it to say, that means I didn’t see even a minute of Saturday night headliner Kendrick Lamar, by far one of the most critically lauded (and successful) artists of the last five years. That’s just one of the oh, 80 some-odd reasons why I’m definitely not at liberty to make any sweeping statement about who delivered the best performance of the weekend — and frankly, why nobody is, even the Chuck Norris types fully committed to attending both weekends. Be they diehard, ticket-buying fans or even much-harder-working-press than me with an endless supply of free coconut water, cold-brew coffee and Kind bars to keep them going, it’s just humanly and logistically impossible to see every act booked at a festival of this size. The best anyone can hope to do is to make a concerted effort to catch as many of their favorites (or assignments, as the case may be) as they can while also keeping their mind, eyes, and ears open to new discoveries. Factor in any number of variables on perspective — from preconceived expectations matched, missed or exceeded to where you’re standing in the sound field or crowd — and the notion of any one act standing out as a consensus festival “best” is patently absurd.
Let’s take Friday night Samsung Stage headliners Radiohead, for example. Having spent a few weeks earlier this summer immersing myself back into their catalog around the release of their ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, I was primed and ready to be as blown away by the always edgy British band as I had been the last time I saw them live — a full 15 years ago on the opening night of their Amnesiac tour in Houston. Maybe not camped-out-all-day and pressed-against-the-front-railing ready, but psyched enough to claim a spot on the left close enough actually see the stage in person and not just on the giant projector screens. They opened with “Burn the Witch,” the assertive lead track on the new album and to my ears their best song in ages, and by God, it sounded … muffled and toothless, an utter letdown. I got a text from Zach Jennings — admittedly a much bigger fan of the band than me, and he was just as alarmed from his spot on the far right. “It’s like they’re playing inside of a sonic bubble. Weird … Getting drowned out by Major Lazer …”
“Daydreaming,” Moon track 2, was even more listless and dispiriting, and I dejectedly started slinking back in hope of maybe finding a spot where I could at least hear the band louder than the chattering crowd. Eventually I found my way to a sweet spot at mid-field behind the soundboard tower, and voila, just in time for “Airbag,” everything finally sounded in its right place — even though I could no longer actually see the band or stage at all. You see, on account of Radiohead being all artsy-fartsy difficult …err, I mean Radiohead, the visual feed to the big screens was not a crowd-friendly view of what was actually happening, but rather a maddeningly disorienting, constantly changing mosaic of tiny band member closeups, amounting to little more than a light show of flickering white-noise. It may have aesthetically fit the music, but the effect felt chilly and impersonal to a fault. I found this especially disappointing in part because I have such fond memories of Thom Yorke — notoriously one of rock’s gloomiest and most inscrutable frontmen — being so disarmingly animated and almost giddy at that Houston show back in ’01. But if he so much as cracked a smile or acknowledged this crowd with anything more than the odd mumbled “thanks,” it was lost on anyone but those in the first few rows.
Fortunately, the music itself was genuinely thrilling, at equal (but unpredictable) turns angular and abrasive, disjointed and dreamy. A tad heavy on slower Moon fare and blippy, bleepy Hail to the Thief cuts, yes, but admittedly, one really shouldn’t go into a Radiohead show in 2016 expecting to get a heavy helping of The Bends. They did reach all the way back to 1995 to retrieve the gorgeous “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” though, along with a not ungenerous fistful of Kid A and OK Computer classics including “Idioteque,” “Paranoid Android,” and “Karma Police.” You’ll hear no complaints with the set list from this guy. After the show, Jennings (who sadly never did find a satisfactory spot) and I reconnected and ran into noted Austin music scribe Michael Corcoran, who was uncharacteristically effusive. “I’m not a Radiohead guy, couldn’t name one song they played tonight,” he’d post a little later on Facebook, “but that set at ACL Fest was one of the most strangely powerful rock band performances I’ve ever seen.”
Now, as anyone familiar with his work knows, “Corky” is a notoriously tough and critical nut to impress, let alone bowl over, so that’s saying a lot. I just wish I could agree with him. By merit of any one of those aforementioned songs alone, getting to see Radiohead in 2016 in a beautiful Austin park really should have been one of my all-time favorite favorite ACL Festival experiences, too. But the honest truth is, I just had a hell of a lot more fun earlier that same evening surrendering to the utterly batshit bonkers (and cartoon boners) freak show circus put on by the South African rap ’n’ rave art mob Die Antwoord. I’m no raver or “Ninja” by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ll be damned if that set didn’t make me feel invincible for an hour. Ditto Saturday’s performance on the same Honda Stage and 6:30 time-slot by Cage the Elephant, a ferociously energetic rock band from Nashville armed to the teeth with snarly hooks, swagger and a charismatic frontman (Matthew Shultz) who howls like Eric Burdon, sneers like Liam Gallagher and moves like a feral young Mick Jagger.
Granted, it’s not like either Die Antwoord or Cage the Elephant really had to work all that hard to win me over; I went into the festival looking as forward to seeing them as I did Radiohead. But the fact that both acts embraced their allotted time onstage with such full-throttle, all-on-the-line underdog tenacity and palpable hunger did not go unnoticed. I’ve just always been a sucker for acts that make a concerted effort to conquer, or at the very least actively engage a crowd, no matter how big or small. Which is why I’ll also take the dry, self-effacing wit of Scott Hutchinson, frontman of Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit, any day over their far more famous British brethren’s icy detachment. Winging lightly about the Texas heat during his band’s early afternoon set on Friday, Hutchinson joked about retreating from his mic a few steps to the back of the stage (in the shade) for all of his “rock moves.” “That’s one good motivation to get more popular,” he said, “so you get to play at night instead of stuck in the fookin’ sun!”
A little genuine charisma goes a long way, even from a long ways away. I didn’t catch more than a couple of songs from Texas’ own Blue October later on that day, but even from a fair distance it was clear that Justin Furstenfeld was operating at his usual 110-percent emotive best, with several thousand fans hanging onto every impassioned word and soaring chorus. Meanwhile, Texas country singer-songwriter Maren Morris fared just as well on the smaller BMI stage. Despite starting 20 minutes late due to a reported “miscommunication by festival organizers,” she had the crowd in the palm of her hand from the get-go — and positively ecstatic by the time they joined her for the first “Hallelujah!” in her breakout hit, “My Church.”
Apart from catching the tail-end of perennial ACL Fest openers Asleep at the Wheel on my way to meet up with Jennings for Frightened Rabbit, Morris was actually the only overtly country/Americana-ish act I managed to see on Friday. I went pretty light on the rootsy stuff on Saturday, too, sadly arriving too late to see Austin’s terrific Matt Sever — aka Matt the Electrician — make his ACL debut. I did manage to catch up with him and booking agent Laura Thomas afterwards in the media lounge, though. “I think when you’ve been in a place for 20 years, they [ACL] finally just go, ‘OK, fine …” Sever offered with a laugh. “No, actually, Laura has really been pushing for years, and I think her tenacity finally paid off.”
“He had a great crowd, too, so hopefully they’ll have him back,” Thomas said. “He played the Tito’s Stage, where people could sit or stand, but he had a lot of people standing up front, singing along and cheering him on, which was really nice to see. There was one woman in the crowd who even yelled, ‘Go local!’”
After Sever excused himself to go find his son — and maybe a little bit of heritage rapper LL Cool J, who was minutes from taking the Samsung Stage clear across the park — I high-tailed it back to the BMI Stage to see Nashville’s Aubrie Sellers. I fully expected to find her playing to a crowd at least as big and energetic as Morris’ there the day before. Alas, it wasn’t even close. Sellers has a voice as gorgeous as her mama’s (Texas’ own Lee Ann Womack), and it actually pairs quite intriguingly with her grungy but sassy style of “garage country” on record. But for some reason, it just didn’t connect with that afternoon’s crowd, which started on the thin side and never really grew to more than what could politely be called a “smattering.” Sellers’ originals like “Magazines” and “Loveless Rolling Stone” sounded strong enough, as did an inspired cover of Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” (one of two new tracks tacked onto Atlantic Nashville’s recent re-release of her early 2016 debut, New City Blues), but rote bar-band passes at both “Money” and “All Day and All of the Night” fell flat, even for this committed Kinks fan. That said though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that both John Carrico (our LSM photographer, who ended up catching a lot more sets over the weekend than I did) and his girlfriend came away from Sellers’ performance duly impressed. Proof, once again, that one spectator’s “eh” will almost always be another one’s dayum!
Also, to be even more fair, Sellers really should have been scheduled for Sunday, which apart from Honda Stage headliners LCD Soundsystem was pretty much ACL’s answer to Nashville’s AmericanaFest. Beginning with Austin’s own Shane Smith & the Saints, who did the ghosts of Levon Helm and pre-electric rock band Mumford & Sons proud with their invigorating, foot-stomping early morning set at the Miller Lite Stage, the entire day was stacked with primo roots, folk, and prestige country of both the classic and outlaw varieties — not to mention Forth Worth’s righteously space-chooglin’ Quaker City Night Hawks, who had no problem luring a hearty crowd to their 4 p.m. set at BMI. No doubt a lot of those folks moseyed directly over from East Nashvillian Margo Price’s preceding set at the neighboring HomeAway Stage, still buzzed on the Americana Music Association’s “Emerging Artist of the Year”’s spirited mix of Waylon-style honky-tonk (complete with a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose”) and sterling, John Prine-worthy narrative songwriting.
As good as Price was, though, it was reigning Nashville queen Kacey Musgraves — playing the giant Samsung Stage fresh from attending her 10-year high school reunion in Golden, Texas, the night before — who really set the bar for the afternoon. If you have to press me for my personal favorite — and unexpectedly so, to be honest — performance of the entire weekend, it was Musgraves by a country mile and then some. Backed by a sharp-dressed band as dead-aim on the money as Haggard’s Strangers or Buck Owens’ Buckaroos, Musgraves opened with the delightful title track of her second major-label album, Pageant Material, and then proceeded to, well, charm the ever-livin’ dickens out of a crowd that likely would have been tough to shoehorn into UT’s Frank Erwin Center arena. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind in front of all those people, either. After playful romps through “Biscuits” and “This Town,” she looked out at the sea of fans and spotted one particularly colorful banner that caught her fancy. “I really like that rainbow Texas flag,” she enthused. “I can get behind that!” On the surface, Musgraves’ brand of country may be far more traditional stylistically than Morris’, Sellers, and even Price’s combined, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more progressively liberal woman on the country music landscape since, well, maybe ever. What’s more, damn near every original song she sang went over like a greatest hit — though none more so than the stunning “Merry Go Round” (which she played solo acoustic) and of course “Follow Your Arrow.” After that, the groovy, set-closing cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking” was just sweet, savory gravy.
Three hours later, it was reigning country and Americana king Chris Stapleton’s turn on the Samsung Stage. Now, I’m afraid I can’t tell you how the first half of his set played out, but I’m happy to report that the Dallas Cowboys whooped the San Francisco 49ers 24-17 to improve their record to 3-1. As for Stapleton, though, I’d like to hope that he at least played his excellent “Parachute” or really anything with a little kick to it before I finally made it back to that side of the park, because the second half of his set that I did catch was the actually the dullest I heard all weekend other than Canada’s City and Colour. Full disclosure: It took me a long while to finally come around to buying the Kentucky singer-songwriter’s phenomenally popular and acclaimed Traveller, and I definitely did come around to respectfully admiring it a good deal of it, but I remain one of the few Americana fans in the country still apparently immune to Stapleton Fever. And the live experience really didn’t help, I’m afraid, because apart from his album’s nicely loping title track, everything I heard Sunday pretty much sounded the same to me: long on sleepy drawl and overwrought male-isma, culminating with an especially sluggish “Tennessee Whiskey” that seemed to last an interminable 15 minutes. (Yeah, yeah, I know … just let me wrap this up here and I’ll meet y’all down at the hanging tree; I’ll bring my own rope.)
LSM boss man Jennings, back in action and rocking a full charge of festival vigor after taking Saturday off, texted me soon after Stapleton’s set to tell me in no uncertain terms that I’d likely be out of a job come Monday if I didn’t make it back pronto to the Honda Stage on the far side of the park for LCD Soundsystem, the act that had topped his must-see list from the moment the ACL lineup was first announced. “I know,” I texted back, “but I kinda sorta feel like one of us should see Mumford & Sons, just because, well …” I argued that I actually still quite liked Mumford & Sons, because dammit, I’m old enough to like what I like and not give a rat’s ass about what’s hot or not, and besides, we are an Americana website and even though Mumford’s last album kinda went in a different direction, they still warranted …
Sigh. Long story short, I caved and somehow found Jennings in the dead center of a sea of thousands at the Honda Stage, minutes before LCD mastermind James Murphy walked out to the loudest roar of applause I heard all weekend. As the band kicked the set off with “Us v Them,” a very giddy Jennings slapped me on the back and promised, “You won’t regret this, Skanse.” He’s never been more right. Like instant Radiohead convert Corcoran two nights before, I didn’t know a single song LCD Soundsystem played, but from the start, they were absolutely glorious. I knew enough going in that this wasn’t going to be one of those dude with a laptop deals, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a live spectacle of this magnitude, reminding me straight away of the brilliant Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. It was joyous and exhilarating and bigger than life and indescribably, undeniably human — in other words, chock full of pretty much every quality I’d found lacking in Radiohead’s performance. To quote a line I scribbled down from the third song they played (“Never Change”), “This is how I fell in love.”
But I didn’t stay. Right around 40-minute mark, I stole away. Jennings, already well on his way to musical nirvana, either didn’t notice or didn’t care. I told myself I’d be back, I wanted to come back, but I still wanted to at least pay Mumford and Co. the courtesy of hearing a song or two.
And as it turned out, I didn’t regret that, either — and I never did make it back to LCD land. I made it across the park and into the Mumford sound field halfway through Babel’s “Lover of the Light,” still thinking I’d be good with 10, 15 minutes tops. I wasn’t quite as familiar with the following “Tompkins Square Park” or “Believe,” having never really listened to 2015’s Wilder Mind quite as much I had the first two albums, but no matter. Two and a half songs was all it took to not only hook me for the rest of the night, but remind me why I always have and likely always will defend these Londoners. Sure, their lyrics may be painfully earnest (not that I’ve ever particularly minded that). Their arrangements may be as predictable as they are dynamic. And their namesake singer, Marcus Mumford, still reminds me of goofy Joey Tribbiani from Friends, no matter how many cool stage moves and sweeping dramatic gestures he cops from Bono. But oh, what a joyful, irresistible noise the lot of them make — pretty much just like the joy that the admittedly much hipper and ostensibly edgier Murphy & Sound were making in their own fashion on the far side of the park. And honestly, I couldn’t tell you which one was “better.” I’m just glad I made that decision to try a little of both.
Related: A tale of two gatherings: ACL Fest 2016, Part 2 (starring Willie!) and a visit from Ireland’s “Other Voices” TV show make for a very exhausting — but magical — weekend of live music in Austin