Photography by Amy Price
Over the past five years, Austin City Limits has undergone a true transformation that has slowly morphed the festival into something miles away from its beginnings as a showcase of folk rock and alt-country. ACL was late to the game as well. As recently as 2013, the festival’s headliners were classic alt-rock bands like Depeche Mode and The Cure, current alt-rock favorites like Muse and Kings of Leon, and a legacy headliner in Lionel Richie. Fast-forwarding three years later, the oldest headliner is Radiohead, a band that helped pioneer the blend of electronic music with alt rock. Relatively current acts like Mumford & Sons and LCD Soundsystem were also headliners, offset by EDM heavyweights Major Lazer and Kygo. A younger lineup resulted in a younger crowd, and for a festival that frequently felt out of touch compared to other major ones, like Coachella or Lollapalooza, it was refreshing to see ACL overwhelmingly embrace current festival trends.
This year’s ACL Weekend One ran smoothly, with good weather, no cancellations of note, and solid performances all around. Zilker Park in September is always overbearingly warm, so having the festival in the low 80s with no rain made for a surprisingly beautiful weekend. With a trio of A-list headliners in Radiohead, LCD, and Kendrick Lamar, the weekend stood as one of the best lineups of the past half-decade.
ACL featured its fair share of EDM artists each weekend, but the acts were otherwise spread out almost by genre. Most of the hip-hop artists (Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, LL Cool J, DJ Mustard, and Kamaiyah) played Saturday while the majority of the folk and country acts (Mumford, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, and Nathaniel Rateliff) played Sunday. At times, it felt like multiple festivals consolidated into one, where people could exist in their own separate worlds or come and go between them if they wanted to.
Fifteen years in, ACL operates like a well-oiled machine. And while it may not have a reputation for booking cutting-edge acts, this year’s installment proved that ACL is more than capable of putting together a lineup of talented, relevant artists who create a strong draw. ACL brought out the big guns for their 15th year, showing how far they’ve come since their folksy beginnings. The result was one of the festival’s best years yet.
Most Forgettable EDM Headling Filler
Like many national festivals, Austin City Limits is still undergoing that weird transition phase to include more EDM artists for the young college clientele while still appealing to its roots rock and baby boomer fans. The Chainsmokers fit the bombast bill to a T as the duo of Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall pulled all the tricks with pyrotechnics, strobe-lights, and amped, cheesy proclamations. FM-dialed songs like “Never Let Me Go” and “Closer” were filled with intermittent clips of popular songs like KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite” and Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”. Bringing in an assortment of guest vocalists could have helped breathe new life into hollow and flat songs, but one thing is certain: Festivals, including ACL, are lending themselves to these over-the-top extravaganzas more and more each year. –Alejandra Ramirez
Most Underwhelming Hypeman
There’s no stipulation that an artist has to sing every part of their songs during a set. One of last year’s most invigorating ACL sets was by Future, who played a minute or two of over 30 tracks to an engaged crowd who shouted the words back at him. The problem with Tory Lanez is that he doesn’t have anywhere near that amount of hits, so when he jumps up on stage while the DJ plays a track of his that maybe a handful in the moderate crowd knows, it rings hollow. He did his best to hype things up, frequently jumping in the audience and trying out call-and-response tactics, but for the most part things were fairly tame. Even if his debut album was a bloated mess, he has good songs that should transfer well to a festival audience, but it appeared he overestimated the amount of fans in the crowd who had actually heard his songs before. –David Sackllah
Listening to a bit of Honne’s hybrid of electronica and R&B, it’s apparent that there are influences of modern electro-R&B stars like James Blake and Sampha. However, for all their efforts, Honne fall well short of their influences, playing the kind of placid R&B crooning that approximates a watered-down Sam Smith at points. They veer dangerously close to adult contemporary at other times, recalling Maroon 5 or The Fray. It’s challenging to leave a lasting impression at one in the afternoon, but the band did little to establish a clear identity. They played fine, like talented musicians and competent performers, but were interchangeable with a number of their contemporaries. –David Sackllah
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
Most Typical ACL Artist
If you’re wondering why Austin City Limits is such a long-standing fest, look no further than Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. The band is brandished with an amalgam of rustic rock, soul, and blues that appeals to the old-school ACL attendee. The blue-eyed soul belter could easily be compared to anyone from Van Morrison to the larger-than-life Joe Cocker during songs like rollicking brawl “I Need Never Get Old” and the smooth, psychedelic charmer “Shake”. As expected, crowd-pleaser and breakneck carouser staple “S.O.B” turned into a karaoke call-and-response session. No question, their set was good, but given that the band has already been to Austin twice in the past year, it would have been a nice surprise to get another soul artist on the bill. –Alejandra Ramirez
Best (and Only) Brazilian Pop Star
There was maybe 100 people in the Tito’s tent for the samba/pop hybrid of Brazilian artist Luísa Maita, but those who did were definitely fans who made the journey specifically to see her play. A star in Brazil who sang at the Olympics’ opening ceremony and has won awards from the Brazilian equivalent of the Grammys, she is a recognizable star there who has yet to crossover to an American audience. For those who did venture to her set, she put on a solid showcase of her dance-pop, upbeat and grooving, enough to make those unaware of her before likely to do some research and see what they are missing out on. –David Sackllah
EDM with the Best Taste
Two rows of fluorescent polygon cubes hovered above Flume’s station of electronics as a warped assortment of visuals from the helix flower to morphed characters were flickering behind him. He pulled out all the tracks, old and new, from his self-titled 2012 project to his most recent output, Skin. Eerie and wavering synths pulsed in “Helix”, explosions of greens and red swirled during bangers “Holdin On” and “Sleepless”, and skittering glitches blared in the Vince Staples- and Kucka-assisted “Smoke and Retribution”. Neon glow lights flashed like strobes to the Tove-Lo collaboration “Say It” and the erratic climax of “Take a Chance”. The FM-friendly “Never Be Like You” and Disclosure remix of “You and Me” drew the audience into Flume’s hypnotic pulse. –Alejandra Ramirez
Band of Horses
Biggest Victim of Scheduling
One of the changes ACL implemented this year was the addition of the Cirrus Logic stage, another second-tier-style stage that allows them to add more mid-level acts and alter the layout of the festival to reduce crowd congestion. It was a success in that regard, but created an issue with the fact that it was positioned directly across from the Miller Lite stage. During Band of Horses’ early evening set, it meant they were playing against M83, and even if you got close to the stage, while Band of Horses admirably played their blend of folk and southern rock, it was frequently interrupted by the electro-pop bombast of M83 across the park. Band of Horses did their part, mixing in old favorites with new and smiling rather than using the Mark Kozelek method, but it was still a disappointment, accentuated in part by the fact that when M83 was silent in between tracks, Band of Horses sounded really wonderful, serene, and engaging. –David Sackllah
While last year’s Traveler helped to establish Chris Stapleton as a country star, it’s rare to see him on the summer festival circuit, and ACL is one of the only major fests where he would be a feasible fit. Taking the main stage before Mumford & Sons, he and his band played well, especially on singles like “Fire Away” and the stunning “Tennessee Whiskey”. His set was the kind of relaxing classic country sound that would have fit in perfectly at ACL a decade ago, and while it played well this year, it did drag a little compared to the more high-energy sets of the weekend. Subdued, workmanlike, and rocking a killer beard, Stapleton didn’t quite capture the crowd’s attention the way some other acts did, but was enjoyable nonetheless. –David Sackllah
Most Surprising Hip-Hop Set
Between Jazz Cartier, Tory Lanez, Schoolboy Q, Kamaiyah, LL Cool J, Flying Lotus, and Saturday headliner Kendrick Lamar, 2016 proved a big year for hip-hop at Austin City Limits. Throw Odd Future member Domo Genesis into the picture, and you have a pretty stellar lineup for fans looking for spitfire lyricism. Genesis boasted a lethargic, deadpanned delivery on “X”, off of his Under the Influence 2 mixtape. To bolster his set, he included West Coast classic “Xxplosive” from Dr. Dre and rapped along to the popular Tyler, The Creator track “Rusty”. The highlight of the performance was when he brought out his “Stevie Wonder” quintet to support him in both a rendition of Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and a spiraling jam of Genesis standout track “Dapper”. –Alejandra Ramirez
Most Underrated Hip-Hop Artist
Jazz Cartier boasted the unwavering confidence of a seasoned rapper as he growled on “Talk of the Town”: “I am the prince of the city/ Nobody else fucking with me/ ‘Cause I am not fucking around.” Picking up where he left off on his mixtapes, Marauding in Paradise and Hotel Paranoia, the Toronto rapper continued to make his claim upon Drake’s hip-hop throne through earnest performances of the cacophonous, braggadocious “100 Roses” and the harsh “Save Me from Myself”. However Cartier’s unabashed punk aesthetic is a far cry from Drake’s more FM-friendly, mainstream opulence. He had the crowd most hyped during fan-favorite “Dead or Alive” as harsh electronics and erratic ricochets coalesced in his dark declamation. –Alejandra Ramirez
Most Likely To Headline in the Future
For the past six years, Local Natives have been regulars on the ACL docket, making Austin their second home. “Austin was one of the first cities to care about us outside of Los Angeles,” said keyboardist Kelcey Ayer. “It’s a huge part of our history.”
Opening up with “Past Lives” — a synth-friendly sweep — the quintet were quick to appease fans with the warped instrumentation of “Wide Eyes” and the eerie “You and I”, tracks from their earlier and more innovative works on Gorilla Manor and Hummingbird. Candid democrats, the LA outfit eventually got political, encouraging the young crowd to battle cynicism and register to vote before playing their glistening anthem “Fountain of Youth” off their recent effort, Sunlit Youth. In a fitting farewell, “Sun Hands” began with soothing harmonies reminiscent of Fleet Foxes and culminated in a gnarled dissonance. –Alejandra Ramirez
LL Cool J
Best Hip-Hop History Lesson
Day 2 of ACL was filled with rap and electronic artists, so much so that the traditional mainstage classic throwback artist was none other than LL Cool J. The rap legend pledged to take the crowd, a healthy mix of older fans there to see him and younger fans waiting for Kendrick and ScHoolboy, on a guided tour through the history of ‘80s hip-hop, and that’s exactly what he did. It began with Z-Trip, who was serving as LL’s DJ, warming the audience up by playing a mix of Biz Markie and Beastie Boys, among others. When LL Cool J took the stage shortly after, he went right into it with a powerhouse rendition of “Mama Said Knock You Out” and kept the energy up from there. Enthusiastic and forceful, he led a surprisingly tight set as he hammered through hits from across his career. Unfazed by the fact that many in the crowd only knew him as an actor and TV personality, he joked about how the songs he was playing came out before most of the audience was born. Playing to a surprisingly packed late-afternoon crowd, his set was proof that those who go to ACL for the legacy acts aren’t just trying to watch classic rock artists. –David Sackllah
While this weekend marked ScHoolboy Q’s first appearance at ACL, it was far from his first time in Austin, as the popular rapper has been a staple since his breakout in 2012, making stops at SXSW or Fun Fun Fun Fest every year. Playing to the largest crowd of his many trips to Austin, he showed bright signs of improvement from his spotty past, where he often appeared exasperated or unenthused. This time around, he was gracious by the outpouring of support, lamenting towards the end that he was disappointed he didn’t have more time. While he was promoting his great Blank Face album from this summer, he made time to go back to cuts like “Blessed” and “Hands on the Wheel” from Habits & Contradictions to appease the longtime fans.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that Q is a bona fide mainstream rapper with his last two albums debuting at number one and two, respectively, on the Billboard charts, but an impressively large crowd who knew his material well was a good reminder. Singles like “Man of the Year” and “Studio” resulted in massive sing-alongs, and he was very excited by the warm reception. Closing with a high-energy rendition of “That Part”, where he encouraged mosh pits to open up in the crowd, Q finished the set by showing how far he had come from the days of his earlier, spotty performances. Not quite a star-making set, the early evening spot on the main stage showed that four years later, Q is still on the rise, and it’s exciting to watch. –David Sackllah
Shock Done Best
Don’t expect anything less than absurdly filthy and hilarious at a Die Antwoord show. The South African rave-rap duo, Ninja and Yolandi Visser, launched into a provocation of warped cartoons of cocks and naked bodies as they reveled in their hyper-sexual, fuck-all everything attitude. DJ Hi-Tek’s cacophonous and jarring electronics complimented the over-the-top antics as the duo got a field of fans to scream their warped mantra — “Happy Go Sucky Fucky” and “Fuck Your Rules” — while Ninja mooned the crowd to the chorus of “Raging Zef Boner”. Yolandi sported her high-pitched squeals in the blast of “We Have Candy” as Ninja thrashed around in his Dark Side of the Moon shorts, spitting out crass rap after another in steroid banger “Banana Brain”. While their zef philosophy of all things vulgar comes off as an old shock joke at this point, it definitely wasn’t boring. –Alejandra Ramirez
In a rare occurrence, Andra Day had already made her ACL Live taping debut this past June before her slot at Austin City Limits, proving her all-star stature. Aligning herself with Alicia Keys’ philosophy of self-love, Day took about a minute wiping off her makeup before her throat-scratched rasp and vibrant blue keys unfurled together to deliver a jazz rendition of Kendrick Lamar’s “No Make Up”. In another soulful cover, the San Diego songwriter offered a moving take on Nina Simone’s political “Mississippi Goddam” as smooth-riffed meanders and ascending piano hurdles complimented her coos and yowls of politics in Ferguson that flowed like spoken-word poetry. Transforming to the jazz songstress in the purple dress, her beguiling timbres dripped of honeydew during the bluesy, jive “Gin and Juice” and transformed to a glossy elixir in “Forever Mine”. In a proper send-off, she ended with the arresting ballad “Rise Up”. –Alejandra Ramirez