Austin City Limits 2017 Festival Review: Top 10 Sets

It took some digging, but we found the true spirit of the festival's namesake

Photo by Amy Price
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Photography by​ Amy Price

Back in May, we aired our concerns with this year’s lineup for Austin City Limits, as well as music festivals in general. It’s there for anyone who wants to read it and debate angrily in the comments section, but the bottom line is this: In an era where it’s much easier for a musical act to make money playing festivals than selling records, the alarming amount of overlap isn’t surprising. Artists gotta eat, too.

My colleague David Sackllah already articulated what might be worth considering when curating future ACL lineups, so the real question, now that weekend one has come on gone, is … how was it?

Well, a lot like Lollapalooza. Remember, both fests are presented by C3, meaning that the similarities don’t end with just the headliners and mid-tier acts, but the look of the thing as well. Vendors display their names in the same whimsical block letters; the same white globes with the festival’s name populate Zilker Park’s grounds; hell, even the wristbands look the same.

If we take the issue of identity out of the equation, none of this is a bad thing. I have a blast at Lolla every year and I had a blast at Austin City Limits. Plus, there’s a bright side to the homogeneity: When the bigger acts at both fests are so similar, it forces you to get out of your comfort zone and check out some musicians you may have otherwise never been exposed to.

That’s where the gold lies in ACL: going a little farther underground to find some of the weirdness that Austin always heralds—whatever that means to you. It’s no coincidence that so many of the best acts at the first weekend of ACL were homegrown in the city’s wildly diverse music scene. And many of the ones who weren’t felt like they could be.

But wait! What about Ryan Adams? Run the Jewels?? Or Chance??? All of ’em were great! And they all played Lolla this year. No need to rave about them again.

Not that all of the acts on this list are complete unknowns. Indeed, a couple of them did play Lolla, and one of them even qualifies as a bona fide superstar. But regardless of fame, they all helped give Austin City Limits an identity in a year where that was harder than usual to do. Remember, to find gems, you’ve got to dig.

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10. Valerie June

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Valerie June has always operated in a folk and bluegrass framework, which made her a natural fit for the roots-focused bill of Tito’s Handmade Vodka stage. But her ability to vocally surge forward like a breaking dam, then streamline it into the bend of a river gave her an otherworldliness that continues to set her apart from others in her field. A kiss-off rumination like opener “Somebody to Love” would have worked just as well in the surrounding wilderness as it did under a tent with a pitch-perfect backing band of shit-kickers.

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09. Mondo Cozmo

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Sometimes a musical act finds their footing after releasing their first album. That’s not a knock on Mondo Cozmo‘s debut, Plastic Soul, which brims with catchiness and heartland muscle. But the album relies a touch more on mood and synths than the band’s live show, a mutating beast whose sound seems to grow with the size of the audience. The ACL crowd was easily twice as big as the one at Lollapalooza just two months earlier, pushing anthems such as “Chemical Dream” and “Shine” to new Springsteenian heights. Granted, Josh Ostrander has always taken his cues from The Boss, but in terms of scope alone, there’s a huge difference between Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and Born to Run. Lately, Mondo Cozmo has been reaching for the latter.

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08. Everything on the BMI stage

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Not every act on the BMI stage hailed from Austin, but the festival’s tiniest stage seemed committed to showcasing the spirit of strangeness—something that gets celebrated on a daily basis in the capital of the Lone Star State. Robert Ellis‘ latest band, Traveller, explored the humorous side of range life; Spencer Ludwig elevated his lighthearted funk from novelty to virtuosity with his trumpet work; and Luke Combs adorned his pop-country songwriting with enough eccentricities to reclaim that genre’s formerly good name. “Keep Austin weird” is a phrase that gets thrown around so much, it’s hard to tell what it even means anymore. The BMI stage’s answer would likely be “Keep Austin inventive.”

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07. D.R.A.M.

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Rap and R&B play home to plenty of weirdos these days, but D.R.A.M. still manages to be in a class all his own. Crooning to the point of near-parody, he’s too goofy to ever be James Blake, Frank Ocean, or The Weeknd. After all, darkness usually isn’t your forte when you sing about WiFi, Ubers, and the finer points of bagels with lox. That’s why it made sense to put D.R.A.M. on ACL’s Honda Stage in the blazing afternoon sun. Decked out in flip-flops, a bathrobe, and sunglasses rimmed with golden palm trees, he came into his own as a potential future headliner here, hosting a party as much as he was performing a show. When he left the stage for a quick change after “Caretaker”, he made sure his piano man kept the crowd entertained with some ivory-tickling. When there seemed to be a lull, he kept up the energy by reminding everyone to love their mama. And when the audience screamed for his most popular song, you’re goddamn right he closed out his set with “Broccoli”.

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06. Carson McHone

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While country is only part of the sonic equation in Austin, there’s no denying that, when most folks think of the type of music to come out of Texas’ capital, they probably think of someone like Carson McHone. A purveyor of no-cheese, no-bullshit honky tonk, she and her songs conjured the sounds of beer mugs clinking and peanut shells being crushed under boots. Neither of those things existed in the dimly lit Tito’s tent, but a well-deep voice, crackerjack backing band, and salty song titles like “Dram Shop Girl” and “Maybe They’re Just Really Good Friends” do wonders for the imagination.

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05. Lukas Nelson and Promise of The Real

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Like many people, I was introduced to Promise of the Real through their work with Neil Young on The Monsanto Years. But their backseat status and Young’s generally clunky lyrics on that album glossed over the fact that PTR had already forged their own body of work. After their Friday evening set on the Miller Lite stage, consider me a convert. Lukas Nelson’s guitar workouts sound, well, a lot like Neil Young, but with more shimmer—the spaces filled in by harmonics and Tato Melgar’s bongos. After thanking an absent Lady Gaga for her vocal contributions to “Find Yourself” and closing with a cover of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl”, it’s clear that Nelson is someone who respects both his elders and his contemporaries (maybe he gets it from his dad). But it’s also clear that Promise of The Real don’t need any help finding their musical identity. It’s already there.

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04. Mobley

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The early bird doesn’t always get the worm at music festivals, especially on a Saturday. It’s hot and the crowd tends to be hungover, meaning that, if you’re a musician who wants to stand out, you better bring something special. If you’re Austin’s Mobley, that means building a device that transforms humans into a giant drum machine. Cuffed to a network of cables, four festivalgoers knelt in front of him with their palms open, each person transmitting a different percussive sound into the PA when he tapped their hand. As he toggled back and forth between this and lead guitar, it was a moment of practical yet hypnotic spectacle.

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Other bells and whistles included a floor tom being passed through the audience and Mobley standing on his drum stool, then leaping down on it for the final drum sequence of closer “Solo”. But all of these visually and sonically impressive moments work in service of a more complicated theme—namely addressing one’s country as if it’s a lover. When a separation stems from racial or socioeconomic injustice, the breakup suddenly has a lot more weight behind it. It’s unlikely that everyone who witnessed Mobley’s show-stopping set was aware of any of this. But that’s what makes great pop music, isn’t it? A message wrapped in pleasure. Pleasure wrapped in a message.

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03. Gorillaz

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Although this list mainly consists of smaller acts, a festival the size of Austin City Limits still needs a couple headliners to bring their A-game. And to be fair, most of them did. But the very nature of Gorillaz‘s concept allows them to have a more unpredictable concert experience than, say, Chance the Rapper, Red Hot Chili Peppers, or The Killers. Because they rely heavily on guest stars in both their recorded work and their live performances, you never know who’s going to show up.

On Sunday night, it was Peven Everett for “Strobelite” and “Stylo”; festival-mate D.R.A.M. for “Andromeda”; a puffy-gowned Kilo Kish for “Out of Body’; and Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz, proving that the repeated phrase “Sex Murder Party” is much more tolerable when surrounded by a full band, six backing singers, and Jamie Hewlett‘s increasingly human(z) animation.

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That seems to be the aesthetic of Gorillaz more and more these days—Damon Albarn and co. refusing to hide behind a projection screen or hologram, instead serving as the flesh-and-blood incarnations of their virtual band. I prefer it that way. Why watch a cartoon of Del the Funky Homo Sapien when you can get the real thing? A music festival requires this kind of in-person presentation.

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02. Raging Fyah

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Confession: I fucking hate reggae music. I mean, yeah, Bob Marley’s great and I can get into The Congos, but reggae has always been one of those genres I have to bite and smile my way through when it’s discussed at a party or within a circle of other music critics.

Raging Fyah could change that.

I don’t know enough about the genre to give technical insight into why, beyond the typical surface observations: Delroy Hamilton’s bass really bubbled! And check out Kumar Bent’s upstroke! No, Raging Fyah’s appeal came from that crucial yet impossible to define element of any great concert: energy.

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It was in the way the musicians thrashed and swayed, finding a subtle kind of aggression despite the laid-back nature of the music. It was in the way they gradually escalated the crowd’s call-and-response vocals from celebration to fury during their closing song. No, I don’t know what the tune is called. But I know how it felt. And I know that it’s making me reconsider my own musical bias.
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01. Jamila Woods

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I’m totally psychoanalyzing her here, but I can’t help but wonder if Jamila Woods‘ strength as a performer comes from her own introversion. Before “Way Up”, the space-bound closer from last year’s fantastic HEAVN, she dedicated the song to her fellow introverts, closed her eyes, and simply began singing. There’s something to be said for that kind of low-key strength. Outside of thanking the audience, introducing her mighty Chicago backing band, and joking about having to endure “titty sweat”, she didn’t say a whole lot because she didn’t need to. That makes a Windy City reminiscence like “LSD” (sorry, folks, no Chance sighting) or a neo-soul call to action like “Blk Girl Soldier” that much more powerful. Woods doesn’t have a lot to say—she has a lot to sing.

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Photographer: Amy Price

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