By nearly all accounts, the first weekend of Austin City Limits music festival was a success. Early on the managing group, C3 Presents, had to deal with the disheartening news that Childish Gambino was cancelling, but they sidestepped the problem with quite a bit of dexterity. The festival slated Lil Wayne to play in Donald Glover’s stead during Weekend 2, and filled in Weekend 1 by shuffling around a few names and promoting Justice to a feature spot.
In the same vein, the entire affair appeared meticulously organized, as C3 and the City of Austin seem to have the distilled the magic of hosting music festivals down to a science. Every year the organizers seem to do a better job of keeping the grounds relatively litter-free, which fans and residents alike can appreciate.
In terms of their technological wherewithal, the festival also navigated the influx of Bird and Lime scooters gracefully, the cell phone service seemed markedly improved, the ACL app was streamlined and the Uber and Lyft lines were neatly coordinated, for the most part. A fun aside: there even appeared to be fewer cigarette smokers, which is likely a sign of the times (and the rise of Juul!) but certainly makes clean-up simpler and the general fan experience a little cleaner.
The weather was on the hotter side, with an unpleasant dampness that made the early afternoons uncomfortably sticky, but the lingering clouds meant the heat was slightly south of scorchingly unendurable — a rare occurrence during ACL!
Musically, I of course couldn’t see every concert, and my own curmudgeonly music tastes mean that I forewent several performers who were obviously fan favorites (sorry, Travis Scott!). But, here is a brief breakdown of what I did see, enjoy, dislike and cry upon witnessing.
Most Visually Stunning: Blood Orange
Granted, I was incredibly excited to Dev Hynes in person, as the reclusive musician is incredibly picky with where and when he performs, but the visuals of his performance were striking. While he and small group of dancers spun, slid and shimmied in the foreground of the stage, a loop of film ran in the background. The clips appeared to be a mix of original home videos, likely from a number of different sources, interspersed with routines of elegant choreography that resembled his recently released “Better Than Me” music video. (Here’s a live stream of “E.V.P.” from the performance.)
Hynes has a penchant for making unapologetically political music, much of which centers around issues of blackness, such as identity, sexuality, police brutality and community. His newest album, “Negro Swan,” came out about a month before Austin City Limits, making the festival a perfect opportunity to debut an entirely new set custom-made for the new tracks.
By combining the intimacy of the vintage footage with his probing lyrics, Hynes created an atmosphere ripe for experiencing a deep emotional connection. The sensuality of the dancers, though, both onstage and on film, added an element of juxtaposition that cut through the somber imagery. Instead, the choreography suggested that the sadness that Hynes elicits in his music doesn’t have to be paralyzing; it can be put to work, as a soundtrack to action, and that conversion can be a thing of beauty.
Biggest Surprise (Good Edition): David Byrne
Byrne played what was, in my opinion, one of the best shows of the weekend, which was surprising for several reasons. First, I’d never seen a live David Byrne performance, so I had very low expectations. That one’s on me. Second, Byrne put out “American Utopia” earlier this year, but during the show he indulged fans in a number of the Talking Heads greatest hits. While he did perform several of his new tracks, as well as a cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” Byrne played more old material than new, which was gracious of him and a decision enthusiastically praised by the crowd.
Finally, all of the bands who performed during the midday Texas heat deserve a purple heart for their sacrifices to music, but Byrne and his posse of eight musician/dancers really went above and beyond. Their fearless leader himself is 66 years old, and he didn’t miss a beat. Everyone on stage was dressed in gray suits, pants and shirts from head to toe, carrying their instruments around as they danced and giving the performance an astounding effort.
After half a dozen songs, though, the sweat began to seep through the performers’ outfits, and I began to legitimately worry for the safety of some of the paler-skinned performers (the crew’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson doppelgänger looked like he was about to pass out from heat stroke in the middle of “Once in a Lifetime”). After each song ended, I was torn between wanting Byrne to begin another and wanting some staff official to call a mercy rule and end the show. Plus, they performed at 3:30, not even a prime spot! The musician and his entourage put absolutely 110 percent into the show, and I was dumbfounded.
Biggest Surprise (Bad Edition): Big Thief
I had high hopes for Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia, but I found myself the least impressed by Big Thief. I should offer a relevant caveat: They performed early, like 12:30, on Friday, which is the first day, so the Brooklyn band might have had trouble channeling crowd energy. On the other hand, despite the surprising number of strong bands performing early on Friday, including Cuco, Noname and Alvvays, there was a good turnout at the Barton Springs set, so numbers were not much of an issue. The weather was horrendous, but that was hardly an issue exclusive to Big Thief.
At the end of the day, the set felt sluggish. Perhaps it’s just her personality, but Lenker herself seemed like she was working against the odds to rally, which bodes poorly for a group largely predicated on her energy.
Most Dance-Friendly: Nelly!
Everyone knew it was coming, but “Hot in Herre” might have been the most danced-to song of the entire festival. Nelly made a point of his Houstonian roots, and he was rocking a University of Texas jersey in celebration of the Longhorns win that afternoon over the University of Oklahoma, so the whole performance had an aura of celebration.
He performed “Air Force One,” “Country Grammar” and even covered Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” so he definitely checked all the boxes in terms of fan favorites. The mood on Saturday night was also turned all the way up, given the good weather, Longhorn win and impending night shows, so Nelly was the perfect musician to capitalize on the congenial vibe of the evening.