It is not until the end of the second weekend of Austin City Limits 2016 that I realize just how otherworldly the experience of the festival is. Even for a local Austinite like myself, the trip to the Zilker Park festival grounds takes over an hour, and once in the tree-lined confines of the park I feel that I am in another world. Moving in between concerts, local food vendors, and scores of people intoxicated on music and substances, I don’t realize just how much I’m removed from my daily routine. When I wake up on Monday morning and remember that I no longer need to make the journey out to Zilker Park via city bus, suddenly my internal clock goes right back to normal. Life moves at a slower pace than the hour-by-hour schedule of a music festival.
Still, in the post-festival daze that a friend of mine who attended the festival describes as “festival withdrawal”, I don’t feel removed from my experience of the ACL itself. ACL flew by quickly, but it didn’t fail to leave lasting memories. Here are some of mine from the second and final weekend of this year’s festival.
GOOD: The Headliners—While it’s all too easy to reduce the quality of a music festival to its headlining artists, the already-popular ACL drew a huge crowd due in some part to its superlative headliners across all three nights. Radiohead ends Friday night with a set that reached into every corner of the band’s discography, from mid-‘90s alternative (“My Iron Lung”) to the stellar tunes of this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool. LCD Soundsystem’s Sunday night dance caps off the festival with “All My Friends”, an undeniably danceable tribute to camaraderie. But it’s Kendrick Lamar who stands out amidst an already stacked headliner roster: standing amidst a bouncing, jubilant crowd of people who know all the words to “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Alright”, I can’t help but be sucked in to the whirlwind of energy channeled by my fellow festivalgoers.
GOOD: Punctuality—Save for Haim, who only arrives a few minutes late to their 7PM set on Sunday, just about every set runs on time. The Haim sisters even make up for their slight tardiness by ending their gig with a rousing drum battle, ever the rock stars that they are. Haim’s set is so good time doesn’t matter in the slightest. In a setting where there are too many bands to see all at once, being assured that things will run on time makes hopping from one stage to the next substantially easier.
GOOD: Tennyson—My favorite new discovery of this ACL is Tennyson, a brother/sister electronic duo from Edmonton, Canada. Luke and Tess Pretty’s hybridization of electronic music’s heteroglossia of textures and jazz’s rhythmic free play makes for a lively Saturday afternoon set. Following an intricate set of electronic jams—with Tess on drums Luke on keyboards and synths—the young duo closes out with the cutesy but charming bossa nova of “Tomatoland”, a song it only breaks out for “special audience emergencies”. The cheer of the small but earnest crowd that came to see the band in the early afternoon heat is considerable, and an indication that this is a group that’s going places. If Tennyson starts to pick up hype, it’s not hype for hype’s sake; with their impressive but unpretentious musicianship and their pop smarts, Luke and Tess are stars in the making.
GOOD: Amasa Hines—In just one hour at the small BMI stage near the festival entrance, Amasa Hines schools its audience on the breadth and depth of rock ‘n’ roll. Incorporating funk, blues, prog, and soul without ever sacrificing the uniqueness of each one, this Arkansas band is one of those festival acts that deserves a much bigger stage than it got. Amasa Hines proved worthy of the main stage with its rollicking cover of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” alone.
GOOD: The Food—Sure, it’s overpriced, but when you get Austin-centric cuisine like loaded brisket nachos, fried fish tacos, and cold brew ice pops, you’re getting your money’s worth. And if the free and abundant water refill stations aren’t enough, there’s also more than enough reasonably priced (for a festival, anyway) Topo Chico to go around.
BAD: Smartphones—This year of the ACL Festival, its 15th, no doubt was full of memories that’ll last a long time. Understandably, many wished to capture these moments, even if only for a few seconds, on their smartphones. I take a couple of shots myself. But as I watch an overwhelming amount of the Saturday night crowd record Kendrick Lamar’s incredible performance on their Snapchats, I’m saddened by how many people are recording a moment they could be living in. Moreover, the heavy network congestion at Zilker Park makes it practically impossible to send any substantial video or photos. As a pragmatic decision, living ACL through an iPhone screen is thus a poor choice, and as an experiential one there’s no question. An infrequent snapshot is no problem, but a livestream is unacceptable. (This problem is hardly unique to this festival, of course, but it’s a problem nonetheless.)
BAD: The Heat—Complaining about hot weather in Austin is a lot like griping about chilling conditions in Northern Siberia: it comes with the territory, so shut up. Nevertheless, from the opening of the festival until about 5:30 PM each day, the Central Texas sun directs its rays right on Zilker Park, incentivizing people to seek shade in lieu of stopping by the already underattended afternoon sets. ACL is worth a three-day pass ($250, a far cry from the almost $1000 required to attend South by Southwest Music Festival), but those with porcelain skin or sensitivity to being scorched should amply prepare in the years to come. Austin isn’t getting any cooler anytime soon.
BAD: The Chainsmokers—Hosting one of the most packed audiences of the weekend, the Chainsmokers’ Saturday evening performance is a cacophony of seizure-inducing lights and groan-worthy bass drops. It’s all quite flashy and impressive from a technical standpoint, but musically it’s the equivalent of a Michael Bay movie: lots of flash masking the lack of substance underneath.
BAD: Mumford & Sons—Walking toward the festival exit at Barton Springs Road on Sunday night, I look over to the direction of the main stage, where Mumford & Sons are singing “Believe”. The banal existentialism of that song’s repeated chorus—“I don’t even know what I believe”—doesn’t sound any more compelling in a live setting than it does on the album in which it initially appears, 2012’s Babel.
Nah, I think to myself. Let’s end this festival on a good note.