Early into Saturday of Austin City Limits’ 2016’s second weekend, the crowds are noticeably less dense. Whether this is because much of the audience is recovering from a post-Radiohead bender following Friday’s stellar headlining performance or because people are looking for ways to avoid the heat beaming down square on Zilker Park is unclear. But those who made the time to come to ACL early on Saturday are rewarded with a wealth of fine performances. Sure, there’s a lot of humid heat to bear, but this is Austin: sweat is part of the price of admission.
The first set at the HomeAway stage, right across from the main stage, features the up-and-coming brother/sister duo Tennyson, who hails from Edmonton, Alberta. Luke and Tess Pretty are 20 and 18, respectively, but based on their early afternoon performance on Saturday they can hold their own with the big-name players in electronic music. Don’t let the band’s age, or the media’s coverage of its age, fool you: Luke and Tess’ youth has no necessary link to their creativity. There’s no need to describe them as “talented beyond their years”, though that claim is certainly true. In an age where home recording software and musical instruments are widely accessible, it should hardly be surprising that there are young musicians getting their names and talents out there, both on social media and at festivals like ACL. Regrettably, as The Guardian notes, there still exist sentences like this about the band: “It’s like the Series of Unfortunate Events siblings started an electronica band.” No matter: Tennyson’s talent will beat out the narrative gaming soon enough.
Luke and Tess bring tunes to the ACL crowd that are as instrumentally impressive as they are “bangers”, to use Luke’s word for one of the numbers in their set. There are plenty of limber beats and catchy synth motifs, but both Luke and Tess get to flex their chops on their instruments – keys/synths and drums, respectively – in some surprisingly jazzy interludes. These jazz influences are reminiscent of Todd Terje‘s It’s Album Time.
Tennyson’s set concludes with a charming bossa nova ditty called “Tomatoland”. “We only break this one out in case of special audience emergencies”, Tess jokes. The band claims to mess up the song, but the audience hardly notices. Based on the buzz at the front of the HomeAway stage, this is a band that’s already amassing a following. Luke and Tess clearly know this, as made plain by their effusive “thank yous” to the audience. Enthusiastically and sharp, Tennyson is a sleeper highlight of this year’s ACL. Considering that much of their music is available for a “pay-what-you-will” price on Bandcamp, there’s no reason not to check them out.
After briefly wolfing down a plate of brisket nachos from the Salt Lick (it wouldn’t be a proper Austin festival without barbecue), I head to the Tito’s stage to check out the set by the Brazilian musician Luisa Maita. A “music critic” description of Maita’s music might read, “Florence and the Machine doing the samba.” Maita’s powerful vocals fill the tent shading the stage, with her impressive rhythm section in Ze Nigro (bass) and Erico Theobaldo (drums) providing beats that are impossible not to move to. But simple description misses the mark when it comes to Maita’s music: over the course of her 45 minute set, I heard samba rhythms, funk grooves, rock riffs, and nimble-fingered guitar leads that bring Radiohead to mind. (My mind might just be imagining that due to carryover from last night’s headliner, admittedly.)
Luisa Marita (Photo by Patricia Araujo)
Sadly, only half of the Tito’s stage audience stands up and gets into the sensuous fluctuations of Maita’s music; the back half of the crowd sits, presumably there to take in the shade. For Maita’s engaging performance, the Tito’s stage became a microcosm of the common audience divide in music festivals: those there for the music, and those there for the experience of the festival. Anyone in the former camp at Maita’s set had a great time, and one hopes that those foolishly seated got something out of it too.
What lots of bands at ACL accomplish with a full four or five-piece setup, Jack Garratt has to accomplish on his own. Dexterously moving between drums, keys, and guitar, all the while singing, Garratt pumped the crowd up at the Cirrus Logic stage. At one point, Garratt – with a guitar strapped to his back – played the drums with his right hand and the keys with his left. A phenomenon in his native United Kingdom, Garratt has not yet received a major public appreciation here in the States. The crowd response at ACL might be an indicator of things to come; not long into his hour-long performance, the crowd is firmly on his sign, hopping and jumping to his strident bass drum hits.
Musically, Garratt is all over the place: his guitar work is bluesy, and his drums and keys sound like remnants from a Disclosure album. (A friend of mine who attends the performance with me likens Garratt to Chet Faker.) These disparate sounds smack of an artist finding his footing, which certainly seems the case given Garratt’s quick rise to prominence in the UK. In a sea of hype, it’s hard to know which boat to hop aboard. With a Brit Award and a BBC Poll under his belt, Garratt could take his talent any number of directions; if he can rile up audiences the way he does at ACL, he can feel confident in taking on bigger venues. The only question for Garratt now is where his sound will go.
In moving from the Cirrus Logic stage to the main stage, I am transported not only in location but also backwards in time. LL Cool J is one of those rappers whose career is so spread out that it’s easy to forget his beginnings in rap and hip-hop. Ask anyone what LL Cool J is up to in 2016 and he’ll likely answer “Lip Sync Battle”; me, I have strange nostalgia for the 2003 S.W.A.T movie in which he stars. (Says PopMatters film critic Cynthia Fuchs of the film: “An expensive, hyper-actionated, CD-selling, multi-raced and multi-buddied flick.”) But irrespective of where LL Cool J is getting his cultural clout at the moment, it’s impossible to deny that he’s still got it.
At the same time on the previous day of ACL, Foals had a respectable but manageable crowd at the main stage. LL Cool J’s audience stretches almost all the way to the HomeAway stage, and with every command of “hands up!” or “Let me hear you say YEAH!”, they reply in enthusiastic unison. Backed up by DJ Z-Trip (one wonders if anyone was re-creating “Novacane” in the crowd), LL Cool J runs up and down the stage, leaning into the swaying arms of the audience as he speeds his way through his material. I won’t pretend to have listened to his last LP, 2013’s Authentic, but I do admire his performance chops. I do question his choice of a tight t-shirt, long pants, and a beanie as appropriate attire for Austin, but then again it doesn’t hold him back any.
A bit later, I head to see Cage the Elephant perform, only to be stopped dead in my tracks by what will likely rank as the oddest performance of ACL 2016.
From 5:30-6:30 PM, the Miller Lite stage hosts Melanie Martinez. The stage behind Martinez is decorated like a Barbie Dream Castle; in the back of the stage, two men operating synthesizers and programming are dressed like bunny rabbits. Martinez herself is clad in a princess dress; at one point, she gets on top of a giant mock birthday cake. This cutesy, sweet tooth aesthetic seems nothing more than saccharine gimmickry at first pass, but when Martinez starts singing about Mrs. Potato Head as a means of exploring sexuality and beauty, it’s clear her style is, well… something else. In a manner of seconds, Electropop 4 Kidz becomes Adult Swim: The Concert. One of the charms of a music festival is stumbling onto a performance that takes you entirely by surprise, and this set certainly does that.
Melanie Martinez (Photo by Catie Laffoon)
One’s interest in Martinez will inevitably be contingent on how appealing one finds the “social commentary sponsored by Toys R’Us” approach. As synecdoche for her entire sonic, one need only know this quotation, which she said to the buzzing ACL crowd toward the end of her set: “If you know the words please sing along as loud as you fucking can… this song is called ‘Mad Hatter’”.
The moment Cage the Elephant strums the first chords of its opening song, it’s obvious how very perfect it is for ACL, if not Austin as a whole. Like Foals, Cage the Elephant is a major player in the “indie-gone-mainstream” fold of rock music: just hip enough to have its vinyl sold at Urban Outfitters, but recognizable enough that your parents might not turn the dial when one of its songs comes on the radio. The band’s stadium rock inclinations and slightly Southern inflections make it the Austin Common Denominator rock band. Dutiful and energetic without ever being particularly compelling, Cage the Elephant gets the crowd on all fours and moving, and therefore complete their festival obligations. But in a festival ripe with interesting rock groups Cage the Elephant takes on a character not unlike sonic wallpaper in a crowded bar. Cheers brought on by a Texas A&M football game at the Beer Hall opposite the Honda stage produce more volume than the Cage the Elephant set.
With the setting sun casting a sunset the shade of autumn leaves over Zilker Park, I take a quick circle around the festival grounds to catch a little bit of each of the performances leading up to the 8:30 PM headlining set by Kendrick Lamar. First up is ScHoolboy Q, whose audience at the main stage is surprisingly sparse. A thick crowd is forming at the nearby HomeAway stage during his set in anticipation of the predictably bro-ish show by the Chainsmokers. ScHoolboy Q, who as previously mentioned in my Friday coverage has expressed disdain for the corporatism of South by Southwest (SXSW), struts about the main stage with ease, spitting out quick and agile verses in between expressing love for his fans. After one song he tells the crowd that no one believed in him until he started reading the comments on songs he posted online. It is a rare thing that online comments motivate one to a successful career, but the buoyant if slightly smaller crowd responds to ScHoolboy Q’s appreciation by jumping up and down throughout the rest of the set, shouting back his lyrics to him all the while.
The close of ScHoolboy Q’s set gives way to the loud spectacle of the Chainsmokers, who became famous for a song with the actual, unironic name “#Selfie”. The EDM/dubstep duo, consisting of Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall, does well with the ACL audience, due in no small part to an admittedly impressive light show, but mostly to the requisite rise-and-fall that leads to the buildup and the drop. The Chainsmokers draw one of the most tightly packed audiences of the weekend; with each predictable bass drop, the shapeless mass of people sardined in front of the stage moves about, slightly on-rhythm. The lights sure are pretty to look at, though. The schizoid patterns of light that jet out from the stage are at least more interesting than the sunset performance by Conor Oberst, which is so inoffensive that I forget I went to it when I leave Zilker Park.
I arguably would have benefited from remaining at the main stage in between ScHoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar’s set, to get the best possible view for the latter. Just a few songs in to the To Pimp a Butterfly rapper’s performance, and it’s clear that he will be the one to beat this ACL. Accompanied by black-and-white films of varying subject matter (including Ronald Reagan, Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, and a woman undressing), Lamar and his band work an alchemical magic on the main stage audience, whose arms are raised in excitement for the majority of Saturday night’s final concert. On “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Alright”, there isn’t a single person not singing along.
Lamar continually checks in on the audience, goading it to its maximum volume and movement. As a performer and a ringleader, Lamar is impeccable. He’s clearly still riding the high of To Pimp a Butterfly, his 2015 LP that sent critics into a tizzy of increasingly hyperbolic adulations. If this show is any indication, however, the critical reception of that album might not be so over-the-top after all.
The welcome guide and map provided by ACL cites Friday night headliner Radiohead alongside Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson as the festival’s biggest all-time bookings, but even the superb and career-spanning show by Radiohead can’t top the fire Lamar brings to the main stage. (“Fire” here is metaphorical and literal; fire cannons prove an eye-popping complement to the black-and-white footage.) The third night of ACL will see a hotly anticipated reunion gig by LCD Soundsystem and two hours of synchronized sing-yelling by Mumford & Sons. In the wake of what Lamar leaves behind on the ACL main stage, both acts have work to do.
The only disappointment during Lamar’s concert comes from the audience. While taking photos or recording Snapchats is so commonplace at the festival as to be easily missed much of the time, the amount of people watching Lamar through phone screens is saddening – or, in the case of those obscuring other people’s view of the show with their phones, maddening. There’s nothing wrong with using a phone for a quick second to capture a special moment, but here too many mobile devices are used as intermediaries to the immediate. Angling for the best view of Lamar, I have to find a clear angle amidst the throngs of people recording a moment they’re not living in.