The Texan two-weekend titan returns

The Austin City Limits Music Festival of 2018 is a British Invasion reborn in the capital of Texas. Just as he co-instigated the original invasion in the ’60s, Paul McCartney is back to lead the way for a new, young crop of Brits to spread the gospel of UK-based rock ‘n’ roll.

From Shame to CHVRCHES, Blood Orange to Yungblud, there were too many bands from abroad to cover in one weekend, so we’ll be back Weekend Two with more favorites like Arctic Monkeys and Jungle. For now though, here’s our take on the first round of bands.

FRIDAY

Noname
“I’m gonna rap a little bit, I’m gonna be very uncomfortable and awkward,” Chicago’s Noname said with a laugh after laying down two vulnerable tracks to kick off a sweltering Weekend One set. She was talking about her stage persona, but she could have just as easily meant the physical discomfort of the Texas sun in October.

Every brief moment of cloud cover or light caress of wind was necessary and refreshing, and this could also easily stand as a metaphor for Noname. She was effortlessly cool before even stepping foot on stage - her backdrop was simple but statement making; a neon-pink outline of her name setting the tone.

On opener ‘Self’, the similarities in flow to her Chi-town colleague Chance The Rapper were obvious. There’s the grinning spoken word pacing of her rhymes, the tracks that fuse a choir of voices with jazz-level instrumental skill, and the cleverness of the lyrics. But perhaps more striking are the differences. This is a woman rapping about mental health and sexual desire, a refreshing perspective in the rap game. One-liners stick out on tracks like ‘Don’t Forget About Me’, where Noname laments: “The secret is I’m actually broken,” or ‘Yesterday’ with the wisdom: “And I know the money don’t really make me whole.”

A lot of the tracks on Noname’s latest release, ‘Room 25’, go deep. She prefaced this by saying, “[‘Room 25’ is a] very intimate, vulnerable tape that’s really weird, but I’m gonna play stuff from it cos fuck it.”

This peek behind the curtain of what can feel like rappers all having their shit together was endearing, and did nothing to take away from Noname’s talent. “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?” she challenged in opener ‘Self’, but by the time she closed out with “the sun going down” in ‘Yesterday’, nobody questioned Noname.


David Byrne
The stage show for the tour of ‘Utopia’, Byrne’s 10th solo album is visually entrancing. It opens on a room created by silver chains that surround the stage, with a student desk dead center, a model of a human brain, and Byrne, the lecturer, sharing his observations via ‘Here’, the closing track of ‘Utopia’.

Despite being booked in the high heat of the day, Byrne and his incredibly talented backing band stuck to their script and wore matching grey suits with nude dance shoes on their feet that made it look like they were barefoot. Nobody sat still - everyone, including the percussion section, was mobile, so that in watching Byrne, you got performance art as much as you did a killer concert.

For the Talking Heads fans sweating it out in the direct sunlight, they didn’t have to wait long to be rewarded for their efforts. The third song into the set was ‘I Zimbra’, followed directly by ‘Slippery People’.

Though Byrne looked, understandably, like he might pass out from a heat stroke, muttering “Oh, for God’s sake!” at the heat halfway through his set, his band couldn’t mask their joy. They’re hyper-talented, playing complex rhythms while dancing and pulling coordinated faces.

Byrne was one of the first performers of the weekend to get political. When he talked about a voting organization his band was supporting, the crowd erupted in cheers, prompting him to say, “That sounded like a lot of excitement. But seriously, it’s your choice.” He also covered Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’ to close out his set, an ode to the black lives lost to police violence.


Khalid
What’s more American than a sunset, a cool breeze, and teenagers dancing at a music festival to songs about youth? Maybe that’s what Khalid was picturing when he penned songs for his debut album ‘American Teen’, and ACL Fest simply manifested his vision.

Certainly, this was the scene Friday evening: high schoolers and college kids alike, hands clasped, singing along to ‘8TEEN’: “I still live with my parents... Let’s do all the stupid shit that young kids do.”

Khalid looked thrilled to take one of the bigger stages at ACL Fest, and so eager to perform that he actually started 10 minutes before his called set time. Flanked by talented back-up dancers dressed like they’d walked out of a ’90s music video, Khalid see-sawed from joining his dancers to stalking the stage, giving his fans who packed the stage a chance to get just a little bit closer.

The singer had the benefit of being Texas-claimed, too - he attended high school in El Paso, and gave the city a shout-out for his second and third songs of the set: ‘Winter’ and ‘American Teen’. If you’re unfamiliar with Texas or Texans, here’s the only thing you really need to know: we love a shout-out. This is a sure-fire way to win over a crowd, and Khalid didn’t even need to try. His voice, smooth and honeyed, and cool electro-pop tunes are enough to keep anybody swaying.

It’s not all carefree, youthful partying in Khalid’s world, though. “This next one is sad as fuck, is that cool with you?” he asked to wild cheers, before easing into ‘Coaster’. Indeed, a lot of Khalid’s songs seem to be about heartbreak, but you’d never know it as this talented 20-year-old endear himself to teens (and the young at heart) everywhere.


Hozier
Festival crowds are hit and miss. Sometimes you luck out, and you’re on a stage where people come who know your deep cuts, where they lock arms and listen respectfully, moved by the music and happy to be paying it respect. Other times, you get a mix of folks who have heard ‘that one song’ on the radio, and others who just want to say they saw you and intend on talking through your whole set.

Unfortunately for Hozier, at this year’s ACL he was stuck on the HomeAway stage, which is awkwardly placed in the way of people trying to get to food, a wine lounge, or another stage entirely. This led to consistent interruptions of people milling around, taking selfies, or passing drinks.

Despite opening with the Mavis Staples-approved ‘Nina Cried Power’, the festival setting on this particular day made Hozier’s powerful vocals and gospel-inspired music sound muddy. With so many obstacles to face, Hozier did not break - he went with the flow.

“What a fine day and beautiful sunset,” he cooed between ‘Jackie And Wilson’ and ‘From Eden’, and ended his set with a crowd-pleasing cover of Destiny’s Child ‘Say My Name’, which led into his biggest hit, ‘Take Me To Church’. Lucky for fans in the know who woke up early, Hozier also performed that day at Austin’s famed venue Threadgill’s, where his voice perfectly filled a space for music lovers and the choir on ‘Nina Cried Power’ was angelic.


Paul McCartney
Awestruck. It’s the best word to describe what it feels like to see Paul McCartney live for the first time. For so many attending ACL, this was the first opportunity they had to see this legend in person, so it was common to hear in between songs a passerby say, “I can’t believe this!”

And the ex-Beatle pulls no punches. He kicked the evening off with ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, and during ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, footage of him and his former bandmates in their youth filled the giant video screens behind him. Wings fans weren’t let down either, with a rendition of ‘Let Me Roll It’ early in the set list, and stadium-appropriate classics like ‘Band On The Run’ and ‘Live And Let Die’ to usher in pyrotechnics galore. There was also a killer horns section that appeared in the middle of the crowd during ‘Letting Go’, their instruments glimmering under spotlights.

The new material fit in well with the old, as Paul performed the playful and suggestive ‘Come On To Me’ to a crowd who knew the words. ‘Fuh You’ was the other choice from new album ‘Egypt Station’, which was a great singalong, and an earworm that you could mishear to make you blush.

As much as Sir Paul is an outrageously talented musician, and as much as his voice has held up all these years, his storytelling is at least equally as engaging and essential to his performance. To hear him reference Eric and Jimi (Clapton and Hendrix, of course) with such nonchalance reminds you that this is a man who has worked with some of the greatest artists in history, because he stands among them.

Rock ‘n’ rolling has its place, but the most emotional moments of the night came from tributes to Paul’s old bandmates. ‘Here Today’ was bookended by memories of John Lennon, and ‘Something’ for George Harrison. Some were moved most by the classic chant-along ‘Hey Jude’ that ended the main set, but the beautiful closing triple-hitter of ‘Abbey Road’ - ‘Golden Slumbers’, ‘Carry That Weight’, and ‘The End’ - were the tearjerkers of the encore.

Disbelief. Nostalgia. Full circle. These are the feelings Paul McCartney gifts you with a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face.

SATURDAY


Sofi Tukker
If you’ve somehow missed out on the self-appointed femme house evangelizers Sofi Tukker, you weren’t at ACL Fest this year, because the entire festival-going population decided to crowd in and around the Tito’s tent for the duo’s afternoon set. There always seems to be one miscast band on a too-small stage, and this year, Sofi Tukker was it.

Their most well known song to date is ‘Best Friend’, whose non-explicit version was used in an iPhone commercial. However, this duo (Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern) has a discography that runs deep with jams, despite having only released a 10-song album and six-song EP so far.

Even when a song is a bop on its own, house music won’t always translate to the stage if the purveyors of the tunes are lacklustre. Spoiler alert: Sofi Tukker go HARD in the paint. They dance, sweat, and demand participation from their audience - and it’s all done out of love. When Tucker eggs an audience on, claiming: “I didn’t hear a goddamn thing” during a crowd singalong, he’s doing it to make participation the only safe option.

In a crossed-armed world where it feels too vulnerable to sing along at a show, Sofi Tukker make you feel shame only if you act too cool. Sophie is the kind of frontwoman you cannot take your eyes off: every movement is poetic, yet accessible. She is effortlessly cool, making guitar playing look like the sexiest thing you could possibly do.

Tucker brings the fun, humping the air and showing off his checkered- pants booty - and still manages to be a sex symbol with his impossibly deep voice and overall charm. The crowd lost their minds for ‘Fuck They’, moshing up a storm to the delight of the band. ‘Batshit’ was another barnburner, and ‘Drinkee’ closed the set out in an unbridled joyous Portuguese-laden dance pile.


Blood Orange
Dev Hynes is a musician’s musician. As Lightspeed Champion, he worked with artists like Florence Welch, Alex Turner, and Mike Mogis, and now, as Blood Orange, he’s worked with Solange, Haim, and Carly Rae Jepsen, to name a few. He takes license to be experimental and self-reflective on his latest release, ‘Negro Swan’, and translates this into funk, soul and musicianship to create a true vibe for his live set.

Back-up singers accompany Hynes as though their lives depend on emoting his words, and Hynes uses an electric guitar to speak for him when words aren’t enough. His solo in ‘Nappy Wonder’ caused his own band to lean back, where in ‘Charcoal Baby’ he used it to groove the song forward.

As a frontman, Hynes is almost reluctant - he just wants to get to the jams. Lyrically, he’s questioning, exploring big questions without clear answers. Combining this with danceable music, that’s where the magic happens.


CHVRCHES
“This is the last day of my 30s, so it’s all downhill from here.” This was Lauren Mayberry’s bold statement on Saturday night after a costume mishap, however a quick Google search revealed she did not, in fact, mean she was turning 40. Rather, Sunday was her 31st birthday, so she’s simply on her way to being in her 30s from here on out.

While less surprising than if she was turning 40, this is still a surprising reveal for the youthful, energetic Mayberry, whose sweet voice is such a refreshing balance to the heavy, electronic rock that CHVRCHES creates. Truly, the band makes sprawling, danceable anthems that you can enjoy whether you know the words or not.

Despite the later time slot, the day was still hot, causing Mayberry to say: “We’re too British for these temperatures.” She still managed to have her rock ‘n’ roll moment - since Metallica was slated just 30 minutes after the end of CHVRCHES set, Lauren requested that the crowd scream “fuck” with her at the top of their lungs, and they breathlessly obliged.

The punchiest part of the set was off the band’s latest release, ‘Love Is Dead’, rolling ‘Miracle’ into ‘Forever’. Sparkly, poppy and thick with dark synths, it was like if Taylor Swift actually ever had a metal moment.


Metallica
On Saturday night, a whole new generation of rockers was born: Dads with daughters, moms with sons, families gathered to bang their heads to the fast guitars and growling vocals of Metallica.

Drummer Lars Ulrich was on fire out of the gate for ‘Hardwired’, a three-minute song that feels faster when James Hetfield enunciates words like he’s at an auction. Hetfield didn’t address the crowd until after the second song, ‘Atlas, Rise!’ came to a conclusion, at which point he said: “I smell a barbecue. Metallica is with you ACL, it’s about time!”

The band then dug deep into their discography for ‘Seek And Destroy’, which saw one hardcore fan lift his homemade “Metallica at ACL!” 3D sign in solidarity to the beat. For an uninitiated metal fan, you’d have to wait until the very end of the band’s set for ‘Enter Sandman’, with its recognizable droning beat that breaks into a fiery guitar solo from Kirk Hammett.

Perhaps this set wasn’t enough to convert the stuck-in-our-ways non-metal-heads, but enough of the crowd threw their rock hands up to give hope for a next generation.

SUNDAY


Shame
Shame were up against it in their festival slot. Scheduled at the very beginning of the last day, with the sun shining hot and bright above a shadeless stage, performing to a few fans (with ‘Not Angry’ signs to match frontman Charlie Steen’s handmade shirt) but far more newcomers, the band had an uphill battle to win over an exhausted, heat-stricken crowd.

With arms outstretched, Steen kicked the set off with his droning vocals of ‘Dust On Trial’, tossing his mic back and forth and then shifting to a mosh pit-esque dance move, scooping his arms under him to match Charlie Forbes’ driving drum rhythms.

The group put it all on the line from the get-go, and this vulnerability translated to charm, which might not be the first word that comes to mind while Steen is screaming “bathe me in blood” during ‘The Lick’. And yet, as he declared, “Fuckin’ hell, it’s hot today,” the audience was well and truly charmed. They followed his lead as he led them in pumping arms, which further fueled bassist Josh Finerty’s wild leaping about the stage. At times, Finerty looked like he might pass out, but after a quick drink and a snot rocket, he was back up and running, completing a full roll on the ground for ‘Lampoon’.

Steen, on the other hand, opted to take his shirt off, apologizing, “You’ll have to excuse us - we’re British. We’re not used to sunshine.” Steen also got down to the level of the crowd, inciting excitement and dancing. ‘Friction’, in particular, got people jumping up and down.

Steen took this opportunity to encourage this behavior, saying: “Smile. Don’t take this so seriously, it’s just entertainment. Really. Enjoy yourselves.” By the third time Steen posed with arms outstretch, the crowd roared with applause. Shame beat the heat and won the morning.


Janelle Monae
The stage was set: angular white blocks stacked in the center, with risers on either side. A band, all wearing black and white clothes. A single mic stand atop that center stack. Smoke poured out of the wings as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey blared from the speakers. The band performed ‘Dirty Computer’ as the associated music video played on a screen at the back of the stage, and then Janelle Monae emerged, with goggle glasses, a white and red striped jacket, and long black and white braid to jump into ‘Crazy, Classic, Life.’

Her back-up dancers were like an army of awesome women, surrounding her and supporting her words through movement. Already, Monae’s fans went wild as she proclaimed, “I am not America’s nightmare / I am the American dream.” For ‘Screwed’, Monae whipped out her electric guitar, showing off her chops, and when she cooed, “Wanna get screwed at a festival,” a smile spread across her face when the audience ate it up.

Before ‘Django Jane’, Monae went through a costume change onstage - she swapped out her jacket and hat, blew a kiss to her reflection in a mirror a stagehand carried, and then climbed back to her personal riser to sit in a bright red throne carried out just for her. ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ was the natural follow-up, and an arm-waving singalong was the order for ‘Electric Lady’. Only then did Monae take a moment to break between songs, and this was to say: “I feel so much love in this place. Happy pride forever!”

Monae’s infamous vagina pants made an appearance for ‘Pynk’, and men and women alike sang it loud and proud, celebrating women’s sexuality. As Monae proclaimed, “We’re celebrating self love, even if it makes others uncomfortable.” The Prince protégé made a big statement with her ACL Fest performance: when Janelle sings, you listen, and you dance.


Phoenix
This is a love letter to Phoenix. This French band first set foot on ACL Festival ground in 2006, playing in the heat of the day to a modest crowd during their tour for ‘It’s Never Been Like That’, the album before their breakout hit ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’. During that set, the band had nothing to lose. They’d had success with songs on soundtracks - ‘Too Young’ was used in Lost in Translation, the film by Sofia Coppola, who is married to Phoenix’s lead singer Thomas Mars - but they did not truly know what ‘Lisztomania’ would do.

They performed with swagger, almost as if they were wearing rock star personas along with their outfits. Ever since ‘Wolfgang’, though, they play with wide-eyed wonder. At the end of every song they play, there’s a pause, an unspoken moment of thanks as they take in the scene: thousands of people, singing their words, dancing to their music, smiling and feeling connected.

Mars and his bandmates are clearly big on nostalgia. Each night, before they play ‘Fior di Latte’, the sexiest track on their latest release, ‘Ti Amo’, Mars announces: “I went to see Prince in Seattle when I was eight-years-old, and he had everyone wave their arms back and forth, and I’ve been trying to relive that moment every night since. So during the chorus, I want you all to wave your arms - follow the leader.”

This is the kind of endearing, pure interaction you get at a Phoenix show. There’s never a dull moment or a bad song in a Phoenix set, but some of the highlights of ACL’s late-add set included the aforementioned ‘Too Young’ morphing into the ‘Wolfgang’ pop gem ‘Girlfriend’. ‘Rome’ is also always a huge sing-along, as it builds and rebuilds to a euphoric climax.

For a popular, radio-friendly band like Phoenix, it amazes me to this day that they have managed to shoehorn in a part of a nine-minute song that starts off with an auto-tune monologue from a corpse to the clean pop rhythms of ‘If I Ever Feel Better’, but ‘Funky Squaredance Pt. 3’ has segued perfectly for years, and allows Mars to briefly rap. And on this, their last performance for the ‘Ti Amo’ tour, all of the band members were leaning into the joy of their jobs.

Deck d’Arcy went wild on a guitar solo, where brothers Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz had a more subdued back-and-forth musical interaction to close out ‘Drakkar Noir’. And touring drummer Thomas Hedlund, a staple in the group for years now, is a beast behind the kit, almost flying out of his seat with every wild stomp of his feet.

Most Phoenix songs are rhythm-driven, but ‘Ti Amo’ is one of the most obvious, and Hedlund is put to work as Mars goes out into the crowd every night to close out the evening, climbing up on fans, taking swigs of gifted beer, and directing the crowd to quiet down and get crazy in succession. You always worry Mars will be manhandled to the point of no return, but he always puts himself on the line to connect directly with fans. This giving attitude is one shared by the band, and makes every set unforgettable.


Sylvan Esso
There’s a lot of political unrest in America right now. Many of us are frustrated with the bony grip our old, white, patriarchal government continues to choke around our rights, our bodies, and our humanity. This was a theme throughout the weekend, as Rock The Vote and other voting agencies advertised in between bands’ sets and encouraged fest-goers to register and talk back with votes. A number of artists spoke about this during their sets, but none more passionately than Sylvan Esso.

This duo is from North Carolina, and yet Nicholas Sanborn wore a ‘Beto for Texas’ shirt - a left-leaning political figure stirring up hope in a very conservative state. He also took a moment to decree, “Tonight and next weekend and forever we want to dedicate our performance to Dr. Ford and Anita Hill. Please vote. Please fucking vote.” This heartfelt cry was backed up by frontwoman Amelia Meath, whose powerful voice played well against her witchy vibes, her fringe-and-sequin bodysuit glittering in the smoke and stage lights.

And the audience was there for it - they danced enthusiastically, not with abandon so much as with renewed purpose at this challenge from the band. And then, there were the songs. ‘Coffee’ is a total jam, and security guards by the stage were inspired to spray water from bottles into the hot but happy crowd, punctuating beats. Introducing new single ‘PARAD(w/m)E’, Meath said: “This is our brand new song. It’s about the end of the world.” The apocalypse never sounded so joyful as when Meath sings, “How’s that for manifesting our destiny?”

In dark times, sometimes it just feels necessary to dance it out, and Sylvan Esso balance the need to face it and “fuck it” expertly. One particular set highlight was ‘Hey Mami’, and watching Sanborn dance wildly while Meath stalks the stage and the fans go nuts is cleansing. For good times and anthemic, we-can-fix-this feels, look no further than Sylvan Esso.


Travis Scott
Opening on a commercial for Houston’s AstroWorld, Travis Scott’s set was playing to his hometown fans. In a way, it was a full-circle moment for the Austin City Limits Music Festival: a Texan-made-good musician was heading up the entire weekend, and Scott wanted to play up to this.

What’s different, of course, is that this Texan traded in country guitars for dank beats and auto-tune. Scott’s pyrotechnics were certainly headliner-worthy - after Scott jokingly told everyone to put their hands in the air, his DJ Mike D. said, “Fuck that!” as fire shot up from the stage floor. It was so hot, it could be felt back at the HomeAway stage.

A mosh pit formed in the center of the crowd, and everyone else obeyed as Scott instructed to either get low, bounce, or anything in between. Towards the end of his short set, Scott brought a fan onstage who had been holding up a sign requesting the song ‘Goosebumps’. The fan dedicated the song to “his girl” before pulling off his shirt and leaping up and down with Scott. Closing out with ‘SICKO MODE’, Scott vanished as quickly as he’d appeared, short and sweet to close out the weekend.


Words: Caitlin Teibloom
Photography: Katherine Squier


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