Another year, and another twin set of weekends spent at Zilker Park, just south of Austin, with a consistently stellar line-up congregating under the relentless Texan sun.
Clash was there once again to enjoy this year’s festival, and this is what we saw and heard...
The Lemon Twigs
The elements that characterized the very best of ’70s rock were things like expert, fluid guitar riffs, unselfconscious harmonies with the power to be haunting or silly, and Keith Moon. Many bands have attempted to capture the magic of this era of music, but so often it feels forced or kitschy. Enter the Lemon Twigs. Led by brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, this four-piece performs a throwback sound that feels lived-in and genuine.
When the band opened with ‘I Wanna Prove To You’ on the first day of ACL, it was immediately apparent that they were talented. With Brian on guitar and lead vocals, and Michael behind the drum set, you could tell the brothers grew up with instruments in their hands. Brian effortlessly ripped through riffs on live jams like ‘Frank’, while Michael spun his sticks in between fast-paced beats - and in almost every song, complicated time signature transitions kept everyone on their toes. Just when you think you’ve been impressed as much as you can by the Twigs, instruments change hands, sending Brian behind the set and Michael up to the front to add high-kicks and leaps to his masterful guitar playing.
After Michael’s first song singing lead on the recently released ‘Night Song’, he mused: “You should see when I really get hot,” and followed this by taking a huge bite of a sandwich. The band’s biggest showstopper is ‘Baby, Baby’, which starts as a loungey love song meant for a tan out by the pool, but then explodes into a fast-paced rock ‘n’ roll sing-along.
For as much swagger and style as this band has to accompany their sound (think bell-bottomed corduroy pants, flat-topped hats and bright stage make-up), they still know how to play to their audience: the Twigs rounded out their ACL set with a cover of a local favorite, Roky Erickson’s ‘I Walked With A Zombie’. With the wild-child attitude of the aforementioned Keith Moon and the chops to back it up, the Lemon Twigs are setting a foundation for rock ‘n’ roll domination.
When a group of young guys from the University of Michigan decide to contribute to blue-eyed funk, it can feel played out. And while Vulfpeck showcased that they have instrumental chops during their hot Friday set at ACL, they also demonstrated why skepticism isn’t unfounded. Band founder Jack Stratton seemed compelled to be both self-critically self-aware, and insistent on his right to perform this genre of music. The whole set kicked off with the band members being introduced as if they were at a sporting event, to which the voiceover announcer proclaimed, “Just like at a real sporting event, the energy will drop palpably after this intro.”
Stratton also preempted crowd applause by letting the crowd know he knew he was playing into their expectations: “Oldest trick in the book,” he remarked as he and his bandmates jammed side-to-side on stage. But then, halfway through the group’s set, Stratton was left alone on stage to deliver, as he called it, the “keynote lecture.” This consisted of Stratton proclaiming himself the “number-one number-two man,” and then listing out all of his knowledge of different types of beats and other musical history. “I specialize in everything. I mince garlic, not my words,” he said. It was a forced mansplaining Twitter rant, but in real life. And it ended in Stratton leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ to a singular drum beat, which Stratton was sure to point out was Clyde Stubblefield’s drum part to James Brown’s ‘Cold Sweat’.
All this tomfoolery did manage to keep the crowd’s attention for the most part, but even as Stratton did a handstand during the group’s best-known song, ‘Back Pocket’, distracted audience members played on their phones and planned on who to see next. All of this tongue-in-cheek “showmanship” was an unfortunate distraction from some incredibly talented musicians: Joe Dart, in particular, is a hero on the bass, which is perhaps best showcased on a tune called ‘Beastly’, where his fingers move faster than lightning. Frequent collaborator Antwaun Stanley added a strong vocal lead for the songs he joined in on, including ‘Funky Duck’, which led to one band member being carried on the shoulders of a security guard from the sound booth back to stage.
Stripped of their sarcastic hipsterism, Vulfpeck are a good band, but there are just too many snarky white guys on the Internet these days to make this group stand out.
“I am your fuckin’ fitness instructor today,” Skepta declared to his Friday fans, who he dubbed his “energy crew”. It was the first rap set of the weekend to feature crowd surfing and mosh pits, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Backed only by his DJ, DJ Maximum, Skepta still managed to be engaging with hard-hitting rhymes and grimy beats.
The artist proudly represented his hometown, letting the crowd know he was bringing them “straight from London grime shit.” Air horns punctuated tracks like ‘Shutdown’ and ‘Corn On The Curb’, the latter of which garnered a huge rap-along from the fans. To keep the energy high, Skepta would egg the crowd on, with challenges like, “If you’re gonna do a pit, make it a big one.” This helped push his energy crew through the heat of the day and his blazing-hot set.
It’s tough to be a moody, high school slow dance siren at a hot, bright music festival. “Why did I wear pants? Why did I wear clothes? Why didn’t I wear a swimsuit? Why didn’t we all wear our swimsuits?” Angel Olsen mused on Saturday afternoon as the sun beat down on her and her stylish band.
Olsen, decked out in a peach jumpsuit with puffy sleeves, sounded gorgeous with her sleepy, Roy Orbison-esque tunes, and rather than a big, jumpy dance party, her set encouraged fans to lie back in the grass and close their eyes.
Olsen breaks a lot of “rules” that seem to be the standard for rockstars at festivals - for one, she played her biggest hit, ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’, third in her set. And yet, that didn’t lose her almost any bodies from her crowd. She also didn’t engage in any banter until her fifth song, and she focused on the heat (because it was hard to focus on anything else). “Have you ever wanted to go to a sweat lodge? Yeah? Now you don’t have to. Feeling spiritual? Me too, me too.”
Indeed, it was easy to feel moved by sparkling melodies like that in ‘Intern’, where Olsen purrs, “I am going to fall in love and run away.” Although there was (thankfully) no actual melting that occurred, Olsen’s last quip about the heat was: “I feel like the melting clock in that painting. Is this even real?” With otherworldly vocal vibrato and fuzzy, dreamy guitars, Olsen transported ACLers in spite of the heat.
It’s hard to name a band that has as much fun on stage as Cut Copy. By the end of this Australian band’s set, they’re as soaked through with sweat as the happy fans who dance to their electro-pop jams.
There’s an ’80s vibe to Cut Copy’s music, but when you see them live, you understand that their ’80s influence doesn’t stop there - some of the best Duran Duran dance club moves live on amongst Dan Whitford and his crew.
The guys lit a fire under the crowd right away Saturday evening with ‘Need You Now’ running into ‘Black Rainbows’. The fans turned into a sea of waving arms during ‘Where I’m Going’, the most Beach Boys-like sing-along in their repertoire. They followed with one of their clubbiest dance hall tracks, ‘Free Your Mind’, where the lyrics popped up like children’s tapes of old on the band’s big stage backdrop.
Really, there wasn’t a song where fans stopped moving, and the band took notice. “I love that you guys are dancing out here. You guys are something special,” Whitford remarked. Still, some of the biggest jams are the band’s earliest, as ‘Hearts On Fire’ proved - with lights flashing and bodies jumping, it was the best soundtrack for a setting festival sun.
Before any artists scheduled for the 7PM ACL slot took the stage, a park-wide tribute took place. Every big screen next to a stage fed into the feed of some Red Bull-sponsored skydivers, and Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin’’ was the backdrop to their descent. It seemed everyone stopped to look up into the sky, where the divers were visible from the main field - some with sparklers trailing behind them - until their chutes slowed them back to earth. There was applause, singing, hugging, and lots of phone cameras held high to capture the moment.
This communal moment of Petty appreciation would have been hard to follow no matter who you were, but Swedish pop star Tove Lo had a particularly difficult time due to some technical difficulties on stage. After opening with ‘True Disaster’, and making her way through ‘Lady Wood’ and ‘Influence’, Tove Lo apologized to her fans and said she’d be back as soon as she could.
A swarm of her humongous crowd left for difficulty-free pastures, but the diehards stuck around till the singer returned at 7:25. “I promise to make it up to you!” For those who continued to stick it out, there was an apparent topless performance later in the set. But as pro-women’s liberation as you can be, there’s no hiding behind mediocre vocals and rehashed electro-pop songs.
Chance The Rapper
Chance The Rapper knows how to headline a music festival. He held nothing back Saturday night, busting off floor fireworks and ‘Mixtape’ out of the gate. This might have been to make sure his crowd was paying attention, but Chance had nothing to worry about. Every single member of the packed crowd knew every word to every rhyme, and when they weren’t rapping along, they were screaming their adoration for the Chicago artist.
As much as he warranted a rock star’s welcome, Chance quickly brought hias Biblical twist to the affair, encouraging the crowd in a sing-along for ‘Blessings’. When you’re surrounded by sweaty festival-goers, it’s atypical to feel like you’re in church, but in the middle of that Zilker Park field as voices lifted to sing, “When the praises go up, the blessings come down,” you could close your eyes and be fooled.
This isn’t Christians-only rap, though, which is part of Chance’s talent. He covers topics from God to his family to drunk nights out. He’s innovating with full-sounding choirs and horns over catchy, hooky beats, making music that is fascinating and layered while remaining accessible. He works with seemingly everyone, so that when Justin Bieber’s voice blasted from the speakers for the sweetly sexy ‘Juke Jam’, a chorus of young people scream-sighed in unison; and when the voice of DJ Khaled declared, “Another one!” everyone started singing ‘I’m The One’ before you could hear it over the speakers.
At one point, Chance asked the crowd who had been with him “since day one.” This led into one of his best songs to date, ‘Sunday Candy’, where his buddy Donnie Trumpet (aka Nico Segal) got to really shine. The dance party broke out for the 1-2-3 punch of ‘All We Got’, ‘No Problem’ and ‘All Night’, during which more pyrotechnics punctuated a joyful celebration of music. Chance slowed things down to close out the show, leading a festival-appropriate lullaby of ‘Same Drugs’.
“My name is Jacob Banks and I come from London to fuck with you real quick,” the man of the hour proclaimed early Sunday morning. Backed only by a drummer and guitarist, Banks’ soulful voice was the perfect pick-me-up after a long first festival weekend, and the UK’s native son drew a sizable crowd.
‘Unholy War’ had that ‘I Put A Spell On You’ rhythm that begged for hip swaying, and ‘Part Time Love’ was introduced by Banks as being “about dating someone who’s shit, but you date them anyway ‘cause you’re shit.” Banks’ balance of humor, talent and charisma made him entrancing on stage, whether he was wailing on his own originals, like ‘Mercy’, or paying tribute to another London artist. “Gotta rep for London,” Banks declared as he performed a reggae-tinged version of ‘Put Your Records On’ by Corinne Bailey Rae.
While Banks had no official hype man, a security guard in between the stage and the crowd stepped into the role unofficially, spritzing the overheated crowd with water and leading fans in hand clapping. By the end, this was unnecessary, as Banks had won over everyone. He closed his set with super jams ‘Monster’ and ‘Chainsmoking’, but the audience wasn’t done with Banks.
In the only real-and-truly demanded encore, fans remained crowded around the stage, chanting “One more song!” until Banks had no choice. “Joke’s on you guys,” he laughed. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen. We played the set. This one’s half-finished. Could be shit.” Banks closed with an as-yet unreleased song that was one of the best of the set, leaving everyone hungering for more.
Whether you were a hardcore Danny Brown fan, or only knew his name because of his Run The Jewels collaboration (ahem…self call-out), you were in for an entertaining afternoon at his Sunday set.
First of all, he came onstage to Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ blaring, rock hands held high. From here, he transitioned into ‘Die Like A Rockstar’, a depressing but factual ode to famous folks we’ve lost to drug addictions over the years.
One of the most mesmerizing aspects of a Danny Brown performance is how his voice can change from its standard cartoonish whine to a deep, throaty hell-growl all in the same song. It gives Brown’s whole show a winking devilish grin - he doesn’t take himself too seriously, allowing everyone to have a better time.
Whether it was purposeful or not, the opening of ‘Monopoly’ fit perfectly with the exit of ACL photographers, as the recording proclaimed, “You better get the fuck outta here.” This is also when the circle pit heated up for Brown, who seemed amused by the mayhem. One of the standout tracks of the set came near the end with ‘Really Doe’, where fans new and old caught on quick to the refrain and chanted along.
Y’all - DRAM is having fun. From his gold pineapple sunglasses to his plaid bathrobe and socks with sandals, he’s here for a good time. It’s evident from his ever-present grin, his playful lyrics, and his unique but lovely crowd call-and-response: “Austin, Texas. If you love your mama say yeah, though!” This was DRAM’s refrain for his set, and it always garnered a big response from fans (you’re welcome, moms!).
Part of why DRAM gets to lay back and enjoy is because of how hard working his crew is. His DJ got the enormous crowd jumping with a big circle pit in the center, before DRAM even took the stage. Part of the appeal for fans has to be how masterfully he combines funk, rap, R&B and dance - like on ‘Cash Machine’, where it kicks off with the opening piano from Ray Charles’ ‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So’ but loops it with a wicked drum machine. Then there is the oddly precious ‘Cute’, which DRAM introduced by saying” “If she don’t think you’re a fuckin’ creep, she gonna be flattered when you say…”
And has anyone else turned ride sharing into a deeply romantic (and equally hilarious) slow jam? There was cha cha dancing, DRAM’s part from Chance The Rapper’s ‘Coloring Book’, and an ode to smoking “broccoli.” It was a party and a love-fest all rolled into one, and it was hard to find a face without a smile by the end.
When you see Gorillaz live for the first time, it’s more than a bit surreal. Logically, as an adult, you understand that this is not, in fact, a cartoon band. It is, instead, a Damon Albarn-fronted, guest musician-studded electro-rock experience with a sort of conceptual-art-front that came to life before Sia ever donned her long wigs. And yet, there’s an adrenaline rush you get the first time you “see” the “band” on stage.
After almost 20 years, fans can’t have helped but to garner an affection for the dead-eyed, downtrodden 2-D, the up-to-no-good troublemaker Murdoc, sweet but dangerous Noodle, and Russel Hobbs, who was most famously brought to life by Del Tha Funky Homosapien. If you were around for the group’s 1998 debut, you’re transported back to that time, and you can’t help but to be awestruck.
There may not be a better kick-off song than ‘M1 A1’. Featuring a clip from Day Of The Dead, haunting vocals shout over and over, “Hello? Is anyone there?” Albarn smartly mixed old favorites with songs off of the latest Gorillaz release, ‘Humanz’. All the while, clips from the original music videos and made-for-the-stage animations jumped from the screen behind Albarn, his full band, and his backing choir.
‘Tomorrow Comes Today’ and ‘On Melancholy Hill’ dipped back in the past in the first part of the set, as the rest filled out with the newer jams. ‘Andromeda’ featured a guest appearance by DRAM, who had played the same stage earlier in the day; its follow-up, however, was the most head-scratching of the set. ‘Sex Murder Party’ is a strange song anyway, but live, it feels like a joke. When a group of preteen boys start whispering the titular lyrics to each other and gasping with laughter, there may be a mismatch on the set list.
Otherwise, though, the song choices were stellar, and they built to a fever pitch at the end of the set as ‘Stylo’ rolled into ‘Feel Good Inc.’, and the house was brought down with ‘Clint Eastwood’ and an appearance by the aforementioned Del. These last two elicited the biggest sing-alongs of the night, and the final song could send chills down the spine of any 30-something whose soundtrack of youthful angst was the refrain of, “I’m useless, but not for long.” The cheering at the end of the set was as much for mastermind Albarn as it was for the animated front of this treasured band.
Eagles Of Death Metal
Do you remember those I Spy books from childhood? That’s what the Eagles Of Death Metal stage setup feels like. I spy…a knight’s armor! A monster mask! A gladiator helmet! A towel with Richard Simmons’ face on it! Somehow, it all makes sense when you attend the Church of Rock ’n’ Roll with Jesse Hughes and his crew.
The whole band came onstage to Pilot’s ‘Magic’, with Hughes riding a badass-looking tricycle. Anything Hughes does ends up looking badass, really - from his signature handlebar mustache to his red suspenders, he’s a man who wears his look with pizazz. But Hughes isn’t just style - he’s substance, too. The frontman gave a shout-out to a special audience member, saying, “We even got one of our sisters from Paris tonight. Survivor, ass-kicker.” Hughes sprinkled in spirit-lifting adages surrounding his band’s survival from Paris’ 2015 terrorist attack throughout the performance, declaring, “Stay hearty, have a good time, and don’t let the bad guys win.”
And then there’s the music - fun-filled, booty shaking-worthy, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll. On ‘So Easy’, even Hughes couldn’t help but let loose some dance moves. There was the Bowie cover, ‘Moonage Daydream’, that moved some diehard fans to tears, and then there was the song for the Bataclan, ‘I Love You All The Time’, that got EODM’s eyes dewey. The guitar riffs were killer, because as guitarist Dave Catching put it, “You can not fuck around in the home of the greatest guitar players of all time.”
In fact, Catching proved his chops as during ‘Speaking In Tongues’, he had Hughes blindfold him and hold up the tricycle from earlier so that his guitar was between the handlebars, and then blasted out a riff that nearly set everyone on fire.
Most of all, this show was about love. Hughes, who very publicly worked out his post-traumatic stress from the attack in Paris, said to his Austin fans: “Ladies and gentleman, I’m gonna make this promise to you. If I pass out, don’t worry about it - but I’m gonna shake my dick and dance and have a good time till the very end.”
A supergroup is only as good as its parts, but in the case of Dreamcar, the parts are better than the whole. This California band combines almost all of No Doubt (sans Gwen Stefani) with lead singer of AFI, Davey Havok, to create…an odd combination.
Havok still stalks the stage as in days of old, but he traded in his all-black goth look for a smart grey suit and purple tie. He either leans into his operatic talents, or more frequently sing-talks, which can make lyrics difficult to discern. The most captivating person on stage, really, is Tony Kanal.
Dressed as he always has in shin-high boots, cargo pants and a sleeveless tee, Kanal is an incredible bass player with a smile that blesses whomever it lands upon. But even Kanal’s pearly whites can’t entertain you for an entire set. Havok definitely gave his all for the Dreamcar performance - in fact, during ‘The Assailant’, he walked along the edge of the stage and briefly held onto the scaffolding at the edge. When the song was finished, he said, “I was just wildly electrocuted when I grabbed the scaffolding. But I kept singing for you!” He and the band laughed it off and forged ahead, which is incredibly impressive (and hopefully had no lasting effects for Havok). He seemed to fully recover, as he joked, “At the risk of being a self-parody, I like your bats, Austin.”
All in all, Dreamcar is a group full of talent that doesn’t seem to quite know who it wants to be, but the lower stakes of a lesser-known group name do seem to allow all parties involved to loosen their ties.
“I’m a happy person. I just can’t write happy songs,” Karen Elson quipped during her Saturday set. She laughed at the admission, but she wasn’t joking - her songs seemed to all involve heartbreak, murder or witchery of some kind, which seemed like an appropriate range of topics for an October festival.
Elson has a lilting, melancholy voice to match songs like ‘Wonder Blind’, and her backing band adds to her forest-fairy vibe. Her fiddle player, Odessa, occasionally contributed backing vocals to sweeten the tunes, whereas killer guitarist Megan McCormick brought things down to a darker tone, so that the two were almost juxtaposing angels on either side of Elson.
One of the most memorable songs of the set, ‘The End’, oozed with emotion and heartache, but Elson still ended the tune by glancing back at her bass player, Tom Blankenship, and grinning broadly. She is truly an artist of dichotomies.
The standard live opener for Ice Cube is the first track from his 2008 release, ‘Raw Footage’, which is Keith David ominously defining a “pyroclastic flow.” “That’s what happens when a volcano blow. That’s what happens when Ice Cube starts to flow. … Nothing can survive a pyroclastic flow, and no one will survive this one.” It’s a menacing way to start the show, but it gets the blood pumping and the crowd amped every time.
Cube gave a rap lesson to adolescent fans in the crowd, joking, “I know y’all thought that I was all movie’d out. Some of you motherfuckers are so young you didn’t even know I could rap!” For these youngins, Cube offered up N.W.A. songs that have been given new life through their re-release on the Straight Outta Compton soundtrack - specifically, he recreated with stage cohort WC the same line about “what the police said backstage” before ripping ‘Fuck Tha Police’, and followed that up with ‘Gangsta Gangsta’.
Before ‘No Vaseline’, Cube proclaimed: “I had to write one of the greatest diss tracks in the history of the world” because of his fall-out with his N.W.A. crew, keeping the history lesson going as he simultaneously entertained his fans. But Cube didn’t want to leave anyone out, so he had a special treat. “I got shit for the ladies,” he said as he introduced ‘You Can Do It’. “It don’t spell out romance…I just ain’t corny to get you horny.” It seems like Ice Cube has nine lives, and he’s just getting started.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
“Do we even know any songs by that…the Red Hot Pepper band?” “Uhrrm probably like one. Were there any on the radio?” This was an exchange overheard on Weekend 1 at the Chance The Rapper stage, and boy, did it make anyone within earshot over the age of 26 feel old. Luckily, the Peppers had no problem filling a sea of bodies into the main stage area either weekend, and massive sing-alongs ensured that this was merely a fluke generational gap.
It’s hard to avoid knowing the Red Hot Chili Peppers, really - their music has spanned four decades, and they’ve had radio hits during three of them. 1999’s ‘Californication’ and last year’s ‘The Getaway’ got the most love from the weekend two set list, with RHCP making their way through four songs from each album.
There is so much talent to take in at a live Chili Peppers show. First, you have your founding fathers: Flea, banging his head and his bass in unison, and the ever-youthful Anthony Kiedis, who surely made a deal with the devil to be looking as great as he does at 54. Will Ferrell’s body double, Chad Smith, keeps a mean beat, and while he is no John Frusciante, Josh Klinghoffer’s 10 years with the Peppers has allowed him to make his own mark at this point.
RHCP’s choice of covers did nothing to help them connect with younger fans, but they were masterful choices nonetheless: there was the Stooges’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, Funkadelic’s ‘What Is Soul?’ and the cover that graced their fourth album, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’. The band also paid tribute to the late Tom Petty with a cover of ‘A Face In The Crowd’, which felt particularly necessary at ACL.
Still, for the radio-savvy, original hits like ‘Around The World’, ‘Otherside’ and ‘Californication’ were the real highlights - and NOTHING but nothing will ever beat the communal energy of a crowd singing “I don’t ever wanna feel like I did that day” during ‘Under The Bridge’. Turns out you don’t need a church choir when you have thousands of fans who know your lyrics.
Solange (both weekends)
No one is pairing gorgeous music with transfixing visual artistry like the Knowles sisters. There is simply no competition for them. In their own distinct genres, sisters Beyoncé and Solange lead the pack with innovation, biting political critique, and grooving, danceable fun - kudos to Mama Tina (and, if you’re not following @mstinalawson on Instagram, you’re missing out on some damn good corny jokes). But we’re not here today to talk about the whole Knowles family. We’re here to talk about Solange.
First of all, Solange’s stage is bathed in red light, and peppered with huge geometric shapes - a central red circle, white pillars, and triangles. This gives a feeling of being on another planet, with a bright moon behind, and is a great neutral-but-interesting backdrop for the contemporary, coordinated dance moves that all of Solange’s backing band participates in.
Both weekends, Solange took to the stage later than expected - on the first weekend, it was just 15 minutes, but on the second, flight delays caused her to start 35 minutes after her scheduled time. For the fans, it didn’t matter. The moment her supporting singers entered the stage, a roar of cheers and applause rang out.
It’s hard to describe exactly how and why Solange’s movements are so thrilling. For example, in the opening ‘Rise’, she and her singers bow in succession at the waist, with loose arms and relaxed expressions. This simple movement fits with - and represents - the musical elements to the song so well, that you are immersed in every aspect.
This isn’t to say, however, that Solange’s artistry is untouchably high brow. In fact, she makes it clear that she wants her fans to have a party at her show - during ‘Don’t You Wait’, she announced: “I wanna turn this thing into a family reunion. But first I wanna know - who’s invited to the cookout?” She and her band break into the loosest dancing of the evening, and the crowd has no choice but to follow in their gleeful footsteps.
Visionary, artist, dancer: Solange is all of these things, and a powerful singer. Perhaps the best showcase of her vocal prowess was ‘Cranes In The Sky’, where her voice flitters and floats until it lands solidly on the chorus. And then there’s that Mariah Carey-worthy high note at the end the puts an exclamation point on the whole thing.
Every moment of Solange’s set was a favorite moment, but if pressed, the most moving far-and-away came during weekend two. During ‘F.U.B.U.’, Solange climbed down to her fans at the front row, and beelined for one fan. Her choice was deliberate - the woman was a middle-aged black woman, whose shoulder Solange touched as she sang directly to her, looking deeply into her eyes. The woman mouthed the words back at first, but eventually teared up until she finally sobbed into Solange’s arms. Solange held her in a bear hug until the end of the song, defining for everyone who was unclear exactly who this song was for. The vocal embrace was made tangible, and turned a festival moment into something private, personal, and goosebump-worthy.
From the dance party of ‘Losing You’ to the depth of ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’, Solange led fans through every possible emotion during her short set. She proclaimed, “I appreciate each and every one of you so goddamn much.” The tears flowing down fans’ faces at the end of the set assured the mutuality.
Jay-Z (both weekends)
Jay-Z is a hitmaker and a polished performer who still manages to make every crowd feel like they are his one and only favorites of all time. He’s the kind of artist whose repertoire makes you go, “Oh yeah! That one!” as he pulls out hit after hit - for both ACL weekends, that involved classics like ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’, ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.)’, and ‘Big Pimpin’’. It also featured some of his just-released jams, like ‘Bam’ (for which Damian Marley guested weekend two), and the church-on-Sunday-worthy ‘Family Feud’.
While Jay’s lyrics seem to jump back and forth between bombastic and self-effacing, he comes across only as humble and thankful when it comes to his fans, thanking them for applause with the charm of a school boy. Jay’s backdrop for his headlining night was a larger-than-life silver balloon animal structure by artist Jeff Koons. For a guy who has always been a master of mixing art (see ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’),”it was the perfect environment. It also helped add a sheen to ‘Empire State Of Mind’, a song that already sparkles on its own.
One of the more moving moments of the set was Jay’s dedication of ‘Numb’/‘Encore’ for the late Chester Bennington, which saw an entire field singing the chorus of the former. After Jay says he was “already in the car,” he returned anyway to deliver an encore of ‘99 Problems’ to an adoring crowd. Despite chants for Beyoncé both weekends, Mrs. Carter never appeared, but Jay held his own, and his songs could be heard in the mouths of fans the rest of the weekend.
Run The Jewels (both weekends)
There’s some kind of magic going on with Run The Jewels. Is it the undeniable and innovative beats they use to back their tracks? Is it the humor spliced in with biting political commentary on verses expertly spat? Is it the obvious, genuine bromance between Killer Mike and El-P? Is it DJ Trackstar, the ultimate rap (and RTJ) fan? Is it because Jamie “El-P” Meline has a unicorn horn for a…I’ll stop. Because it’s clearly all these things and more.
At an RTJ show, you’ll dance, you’ll jump, you’ll scream till you lose your voice, and you’ll feel like you’re part of a fellowship that might just help you make it through these ridiculous times we’re living in.
There’s always a sing-along to kick off an RTJ show, because DJ Trackstar spins Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ to welcome our heroes, Killer Mike and El-P onto the stage. Then it’s a waiting game to see which favorite will make this particular set list. With three albums full of jams, there’s simultaneously no way to go wrong, and never enough time for everything. For both ACL weekend sets, RTJ played mostly from their latest release, with bangers like ‘Talk To Me’ and ‘Call Ticketron’. Classics like ‘Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)’ and ‘36’ Chain’ got the loudest rap-alongs and the most fist-and-gun hands in the air, and weekend one even brought a fan to the stage to rap ‘Oh My Darling Don’t Cry’ a cappella. He did well, but nobody can beat the originals.
With age (and back-to-back-to-back shows), Mike and El have become more concerned for the wellbeing of their fans. This led to El laying down some rules a few songs into the second weekend set: “I see that you guys have a lot of energy today, so we’re just gonna say one thing before we get started. We are a very simple group of people, but we do have two rules that we’d like you to stick to. When you’re here at a Jewel Runner concert, and you feel tempted to flail your arms and jump around and throw your body around because tomorrow doesn’t exist and today feels amazing, we understand and we appreciate it. We want you to do it. But it’s a Jewel Runner show now, so if you see somebody around you that isn’t keeping up, that falls and feels uncomfortable, pick ’em up and put ’em away or do something to make them feel safe and continue on your fun. I hate to sound like a dad, but I worry. Second of all, this is really simple. This is a large festival with a lot of different people. Not all of you know each other. There are probably a lot of drugs and alcohol coursing through a lot of your veins. Allow me to give you one guideline. If you’re single and fucked up and having the time of your life, you know what will end having the time of your life? Killer Mike jumping down into the crowd and trying to attack you because you put your fucking hands on someone who didn’t want them to be put on them.”
Killer Mike succinctly added: “Put your selfie stick in your ass. We’re about to party.” Later, however, he was forced to step in more directly.
“Everybody, everybody. Hey do me a favor real quick - we’re having such a good time that we’re crushing each other so I’m gonna count to 1-2-3, and we’re gonna take one step back cause we wanna give some people in the front row. Now look, chill, listen. I know we’re gonna get funky, we’re gonna get crushed, but what we’re not gonna do is fight, we’re not gonna show each other no negative energy, we’re gonna understand and keep this shit going. For those of you guys who might not have been to a Run The Jewels show, squeezing happens, and we rectify it, but we’re not gonna fight. Man in the pink backpack? I saw you get squished, I don’t want you to fight, cause I want you here, OK?” RTJ: artists, peacemakers.
It wasn’t all crowd-directing banter between songs, though. When Killer Mike took a moment to give shout-outs to all of the festival flags he could see, El-P jumped in with, “Huge shout-out to No Chair Zone.”
They also invited friends out - Danny Brown jumped in on ‘Hey Kids’ both weekends (although RTJ must have not expected him weekend two because they ended the song early and had to rewind), and weekend two had Joi jumping in on ‘Down’ and Boots performing his part in ‘2100’. It was an RTJ family affair for fans and crew members, and these Jewel Runners escaped with the ACL Fest crown.
Words: Caitlin Teibloom
Photography: Katherine Squier
Another year, and another twin set of weekends spent at Zilker Park, just south of Austin, with a consistently stellar line-up congregating under the relentless Texan sun.