Some people, it seems, are born with natural festival stamina. Being an infrequent festival attendee, I’m working with too small a sample size to judge my ability to do the day-in-day-out grind without dissolving into a sweat puddle after the first day. Although I’ve lived in Austin for a few years now, I have yet to attend the megalithic South by Southwest (SXSW), which unlike the Austin City Limits festival encompasses music, film, and tech. Should I ever decide to give up a week in pursuit of secret shows and artist sightings at crowded Sixth Street bars, I’ll likely find out my real mettle as a festivalgoer.
Following Day One of ACL 2018’s second weekend, I have a small inkling about my festival stamina: it’s not great. I wake up on Saturday morning, a ring of sunburnt skin around my neck, knees sore from standing up for hours on end, and a bleary-eyed, curmudgeonly expression across my face. ACL is only three days long, but it feels like another week lay ahead of me.
Fortunately, by the time I arrive at the festival my early morning slog fades away. The hum of the early afternoon crowds and the sound of Durand Jones and the Indications, my first band of the day, kick my brain out of its morning fog. Then again, it could be the Gatorade-esque energy drinks some promoters were handing out right at the entrance of the ACL shuttles.
On Day One, I found myself waiting for a good deal of the festival; waiting, that is, to ensure I had good viewpoints for key acts like The National. There’s nothing inherently wrong with sacrificing a show or two to ensure that you’re actually watching the band onstage, rather than simply looking at the giant screens on the sides of the stage whose purpose is primarily to broadcast the show to those who prefer to bring camp chairs and laze, usually with a beer or two in tow.
In the interest of getting a broader picture of the festival, I decide that my guiding principle for the shows today is “impressions”: that is, gathering brief impressions of as many artists as I can reasonably see. The trade-off here is depth: in catching performances for only a few songs at a time, I lose the ability to get into the groove of a set, and of course, I might end up missing a band or artist’s best tune. But considering how good a job ACL does of representing artists of many musical styles, I know I have to see what that variety looks like in real-time. Naturally, I make this decision on the day in which the temperature shoots to just above 90 degrees, but then again the life of an arts critic comes with plenty of self-loathing. I continue to allow myself to read news bits about Kanye West, for instance.
Durand Jones and the Indications, in full view of the already balmy sun, get the early crowds moving considerably with their set at the Miller Lite stage. The number of people dancing like no one is watching surprises me; people let loose at festivals, sure, but in my experience not at 1:00 pm when barely any liquor and beer has been consumed. Credit this lack of inhibitions to the band’s incredible energy and constant audience engagement: leading up to the James Brown-esque number “Groovy Babe”, frontman Jones goads various segments of the audience into varying enunciations of the word “groovy”, which the audience responds to with jubilation. The band rips through a great performance comprised mostly of songs from its 2016 self-titled debut, in addition to some new singles and a cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”. Fans of classic soul will find plenty in Durand Jones and the Indications’ music to enjoy, but these folks aren’t just doing their genre by the numbers.
Building off of the moments of political engagement from the day before, Jones reminds his audience about the importance of voting, after which he adds, “I can’t wait for that orange man to be out of that white house.”
Meanwhile, at the small BMI stage – the only one at the festival to not feature big screens, designed to encourage more intimate performances – Ruston Kelly spins some country yarns that draws a small but rapt crowd. Country and western music, in general, are a natural fit for a city like Austin, but even with ACL’s reputation for genre range, both tend to be underrepresented, especially since the headliner acts tend to be major pop, rock, or hip-hop artists. Kelly’s country isn’t out to reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t need to. His earnest and at times gruff delivery are just what the doctor ordered for those who make sure to arrive at the festival early. I, for one, gladly welcome any male country artist who decidedly breaks from the, to borrow Bo Burnham’s phrase [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stVNdLmKGYw], “millionaire metrosexual” country which continues to dominate country radio.
From the BMI stage, it’s a short hop to the Honda stage, where at 2:30 Mon Laferte hits the stage, a clothing-synchronized backing band in tow. Just as Natalie Prass did with her band on Friday, Laferte has her musicians sport sharp uniforms, in this case, white shirts and dark mustard trousers. Laferte’s festival press copy declares that her music incorporates “rock, blues, pop, bolero, and electronic elements in her music”, which it turns out is no publicist’s exaggeration. Her music alternates between more genres than I can count at times, including that most inimitable of song sub-genres, the “would-be James Bond theme”, which her latest single “Antes de Ti” fits brilliantly. She gives the eager ACL crowd a show befitting a stage as large as the Honda, and she earns some real audience love with her cover of the late and beloved Texas artist Selena’s “Si una vez”. It’s also delightful to see an artist perform and address the audience almost entirely in Spanish, in a part of the country where Spanish-speaking culture is rich and profound.
Across the field at the main stage, the Wombats – with a stuffed wombat in tow, resting amongst the drum kit – amass a sizable mid-day crowd. I must confess that the Wombats were never particularly on my radar, and I don’t have much expectation when I arrive at their set. As I near the stage, lead vocalist Matthew Murphy tells the audience that this next song is about “his favorite citrus fruit, the lemon”, which he says far outclasses the grapefruit. Maybe it’s the English accent – like most Americans, I’m a sucker for it, an impulse I must remember to curtail when people like Nigel Farage exist – but I’m charmed by the droll observation. There’s a certain type of rock artist that’s ideal for the main stage during the first half of the day; when I attended ACL two years ago, Foals and Local Natives fit that bill. The same holds true for the Wombats, whose energetic if not entirely distinctive alt pop-rock riles the crowd up perfectly as the day begins to transition into the evening sets. Power chords, earnest, and direct hooks: it’s the right kind of stuff for this time of day.
My next hour is driven by a study in contrasts. At the Barton Springs stage, Japanese Breakfast – the name for the solo project of Michelle Zauner – plays its brand of spacey, even shoegaze-y indie pop, which attracts a crowd comprised of people likely to tell you that they discovered Zauner’s music “before it was cool”. Having been burned out on indie music like this for quite some time now, I found myself detached from what was otherwise a perfectly fine performance. Zauner herself is a wonderful and kind performer, and for that reason, I’m glad the ACL organizers chose her to represent the de rigeur indie of the day. It would be easy to stack a festival like this with artists like Japanese Breakfast, and it’s commendable that ACL doesn’t play it safe in that regard.
St. Louis-born rapper Smino, whose thumping music welcomes me to the Miller Lite stage after some time at the Japanese Breakfast set, is building some fantastic energy amongst his audience. I’m less familiar with Smino’s music than I am with Japanese Breakfast’s, but it doesn’t take long for me to become fully engrossed. I hear some distinct echoes of other artists in Smino’s music from time to time; there are moments that wouldn’t be out of place on a D’Angelo record, and if anyone is looking for someone to fill the niche that R. Kelly once did – given that, in case a reminder is necessary, he’s a terrible person – Smino more than fits the bill. Constantly running across the stage, hyping up the crowd, he gives an absolute blast of a show, one that thankfully drowns out the din of people occasionally cheering and hollering for the University of Texas football team, whose game is being broadcast on a big screen in the nearby Beer Hall tent. (I get that festivals are “an experience” and that one need not be in front of a stage at all times, but attending a festival to sit in front of a TV for a few hours is a, well, interesting choice.)
Due to a medical issue in the originally-slated band Highly Suspect, the ACL organizers found themselves having to make a last-minute play to fill the 4:00-5:00 pm hour. While recognizing that such last-minute shake-ups inevitably result in hail mary plays, the decision to go with American indie pop duo slenderbodies, who performed just earlier in the day, was an interesting one. The group advertises itself on its website thus: “With vivid imagery at the forefront of vocal waves, the slenderbodies paints portraits of siren songs, sultry nights with foreign lovers, lost romance, and home.” I’m pretty sure any band with vocalists uses “vocal waves”, but alas, it does sound poetic. Onstage, slenderbodies perform an amalgam of airy indie pop, the lamentable subgenre that is “PBR&B”, and electronic music, which amounts to some compelling beats over fairly predictable chord progressions and guitar leads. Rather fittingly, I leave to catch Brandi Carlile right as the duo jumps into a cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” which manages to take any of the sexual energy out of the original.
I can already tell that things are going well at Carlisle’ set, and things only get better for her performance at the Honda stage. I find my spot on the lawn just as she begins narrating a poignant song called “The Mother”, which she wrote for her daughter Evangeline. She describes the tune as being motivated by her realization that the myth of immediate attachment with one’s children creates serious harm for good parents who, for whatever reason, don’t have that instant spark. (Carlisle is the master of song introductions, describing the powerful piano ballad “Party of One” as the kind of song that happens when “you get into a fight with your spouse and then stay up all night getting drunk to Joni Mitchell”.) The strength of the record Carlisle is promoting at ACL, 2018’s superb By the Way, I Forgive You, shows not just in Carlisle’s impassioned performance, but also in the fact that her own material holds up to an outstanding cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”, for which Carlisle brings out her friend and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. On a somewhat smaller note, this was a fantastic set for anyone who, like me, pays attention to (obsesses over) cool guitars: Carlisle at one point sports a delightful parlor guitar, and McCready wields what looks like a futuristic ax that was converted into a guitar.
Wondering if McCready happened to get that guitar from Prince’s vault, I strategically wander back and forth between the BMI and Miller Lite stages, where, respectively, Trampled by Turtles and Blood Orange are playing. The Honda stage in between those two hosts CHVRCHES in just an hour, for which I want to get a good sight line, and so for a better part of an hour I subject myself to what might go down as the strangest two sonics to put in separate ears: raucous, somewhat traditionalist bluegrass, and whatever it is Dev Hynes of Blood Orange can be said to be creating. (A friend attending the festival with me, describing him fondly as a “genderless alien”, assures me that like David Bowie he’s not from this planet.) I’m all about genre-melding, mixing, and reformulating, so the dissonance of Trampled by Turtles and Blood Orange overlapping proves to be one of my favorite little moments of the festival, the kind of thing one can only experience in places like this. By the end, it’s as if I’d been at some far-off planet where, apropos of nothing, a hoedown broke out.
CHVRCHES take the stage right at their assigned time of 6:30 and punch right into “Get Out”, the lead single from their newest LP Love is Dead. When I first heard CHVRCHES around the time of their debut release, 2013’s The Bones of What You Believe, I heard and read that live, the band’s music held up but that the trio – consisting of Mayberry, and instrumentalists Iain Cook and Martin Doherty (both of whom alternate between synths and guitars/basses) – had yet to find its sea-legs when it comes to live performance. Well, whatever CHVRCHES did between that time and the present did the trick: this is a band that’s clearly not only played dozens of festival stages but has also owned them. Being the primary vocalist, Mayberry carries much of the spotlight, but when Doherty takes center stage for The Bones of What You Believe cut “Under the Tide”, he jumps around the stage with gusto, inspiring the audience to do the same. Politics also prove a source of connection between the CHVRCHES and the audience; Mayberry reserves some choice words for local senator Ted Cruz, and she dedicates “Leave a Trace” to women survivors everywhere.
All three of CHVRCHES’s solo LPs receive fine representation. Being a big fan of this trio I had my own quibbles – I was hoping for Every Open Eye deep cut “Dark Side of Me” – but I and everyone around me, moved by the booming beats and catchy synth melodies, have nothing to complain about when the sun sets both on Austin and on the band’s time at ACL. I have heard some complaints about Love is Dead for how it is “too poppy”, which really is to say “too commercial”, an odd claim given that CHVRCHES were never exactly a lo-fi, bedroom electronic outfit by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone who has the good fortune to catch this band at future gigs will see just how seamlessly CHVRCHES’ entire discography flows together. Success hasn’t gotten to this band’s head, and in many ways, it’s only made it better. Love may be dead, but CHVRCHES thrives.
From there, all roads point in one direction: Metallica, the band whose logo and various iconographies I see on more shirts than any other throughout the weekend. I’ve written about metal extensively for PopMatters, and it remains to this day my favorite mode of musical expression. Seeing Metallica live for the first time, even well after what most would consider its “glory days”, is for me a rite of passage, a pilgrimage to one of the great wonders of the metal world. As with Paul McCartney the night before, there’s a joy in seeing Metallica that simply comes from being in the presence of a legendary act, a sentiment I can tell is shared by many festivalgoers based on the rapt gazes of those in the deepest depths of the crowd.
But Metallica’s performance doesn’t just live up to high expectations for reasons of the group’s pedigree: this is that rare and wondrous case of a legacy act that still has a ton of fuel left in the tank. By its very nature heavy metal takes its toll on the body over the years, whether one performs the music or even simply listens to it: heads bang, vocal cords shred, and should one end up on the wrong end of a mosh pit, faces will be smashed. I can’t say that James Hetfield sounds exactly like he did back in the ’80s, but I can say that he also doesn’t sound like someone whose voice has been left to tatters after decades of live performance, and that alone is a feat. The same goes for the instrumentalists, particularly Kirk Hammett, who looks like a time capsule from the ’80s shred era himself.
About a quarter of the way through Metallica’s set I have to leave for Justice’s hour-long stint at the Honda stage, but both before and after that hour I catch a bevy of Metallica songs new and old. The set kicks off with “Hardwired”, the lead cut off of 2016’s double LP Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, which our own Adrien Begrand spoke of quite fondly upon its release and from there the band shreds through a collection of songs that could equally win over new converts and please the initiated. Predictably, the band saves “the songs you’d expect” for the encore, and the one-two punch of “Nothing Else Matters” and “Enter Sandman” sends fists pumping, heads bobbing, and throats screaming — in other words, everything you’d want out of a metal gig. Metallica even gives “One”, an all-time favorite metal track of mine, an outstanding rendition; even I, a pretty reserved concertgoer, can’t help but headbang along.
I feared that the huge draw of Metallica might result in a slim crowd for the French electronic act Justice, but I was dead wrong: starting from ten minutes before Justice’s set, the crowd bunches itself like a can of sardines, producing some of the most claustrophobic space I’ve encountered at the festival. But when the first notes of “Safe and Sound” ring out, no one had space on their mind, as Justice clearly prepared itself to bring a top-tier dance party to ACL, and that it does.
Superficially, one might read Justice as an electronic contrast to Metallica’s old-school, thrashy riffs. Yet as I argued in my interview with the band for PopMatters, Justice has transformed from what seemed like the Next Big Thing in French electronic music, which most supposed would be the case after 2007’s breakthrough debut Cross, into one of the more interesting inheritors of the classic rock and heavy metal tradition. There’s even a song called “Heavy Metal” in the setlist, although it must be noted that it’s a bit closer to a Bach prelude than a Metallica jam. Still, Justice’s penchant for big riffs and its rock-‘n’-roll sensibility, exemplified by the leather jackets sported by the band’s two members, Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, make this show an ideal complement rather than a foil to Metallica.
In keeping with the blueprint set out by the recently-dropped Woman Worldwide, a unique “live album recorded in the studio”, Justice weaves together the best cuts from its three studio discs — Cross, Audio, Video, Disco (2013), and Woman (2017) — into a seamless set list, a symphony of electronic squelches, thudding bass drums, and fist-pumping riffs. Standing amongst a constantly-moving crowd — it’s no small thing to try and keep up with Justice’s ability to change the pace in any given second — I suddenly remember that I started off the day listening to soul music. Wrapping Day Two up with some heavy metal dance music somehow not only seems like a good thing to do, but the natural thing to do given all the bouncing around I’ve done between sets. My knees are a little weak, but somehow I’m not tired.