Although ACL 2018 boasts one of the better lineups of recent years, news broke just weeks before the festival’s first weekend that put a damper on one of its headlining artists. Childish Gambino (the moniker of actor and musician Donald Glover) broke his foot during his ongoing This Is America Tour, rendering him unable to perform for his two scheduled weekends at ACL. The rap offerings at the festival this year provide more than enough for fans of the genre, with Smino, Lil Wayne, and Travis Scott being just a few key examples, but Gambino’s absence is no doubt a disappointment, particularly after the massive hype and excitement generated from the “This Is America” video.
After some schedule shuffling the Sunday lineup receives a double-headliner configuration: the Arctic Monkeys at the Honda Stage, which was initially planned, and Travis Scott – initially only slated for Weekend One – at the American Express stage for a slightly truncated performance (one hour and 15 minutes, where artists are typically given at least an hour and a half). Scott’s brand of rap differs from Gambino’s; the latter’s genre indifference and frequent goofiness contrast with Scott’s intense, at times aggressive style. A friend watching Scott with me at the end of the night remarks that it might be the most masculine performance she’s seen in a long time. But the festival organizers can hardly be faulted for this arrangement given the tight timeline between Gambino announcing the postponement of his tour and ACL’s first weekend. All of us attending are still dealing with far more music than we can hope to experience.
And on this last day of ACL 2018, that experience comes with an additional complication: mud. Local forecasters predicted thunderstorms on Saturday and Sunday of Weekend Two, but thankfully we were spared any rain on Saturday; what downpour took place happened over Saturday night, after most of the festivalgoers had already left the grounds. But being spared rain means being given mud, and on Sunday festivalgoers are greeted by mud throughout the entirety of Zilker Park, including a noticeably damp plot right in front of the main stage, which most folks spend the bulk of the day avoiding. (During some popular sets, like Janelle Monáe, some folks brave the muck – hats off to them.) Not even 90-degree weather – yes, that’s Austin in October – successfully dries out the festival grounds, but no matter. There are shows to be seen, and a festival to finish. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself as my Teva sandals cake with mud. (For those unfamiliar, Gabriella Paiella penned the definitive guide on the excellence of Tevas.)
My day begins as my fiancé and I seek a break from the already near-scorching heat under the shaded Tito’s stage, a small setup that is the only of ACL’s stages to be mostly covered. We are greeted with some loud, throaty, and inviting folk music by the Ghost of Paul Revere, a band whose name is itself a kind of draw; upon hearing it, one cannot help but think, “Well, I have to see what that’s all about, then.” The band, a trio from Portland, Maine, scratches the same itch that’s quelled by the Avett Brothers: earnest, tuneful folk music that takes some cues from rock ‘n’ roll. In addition to being one of the many acts at ACL who encourage the audience to vote, the Ghost of Paul Reverse also provides the Tito’s crowd with an exuberant and sing-along-able start to this last day. These guys may be from the Northeast, but with tunes like theirs, if they spend any more time around Austin, they’ll find themselves with a devoted fanbase.
From Tito’s, I step out into the sun – from which we only receive infrequent cloud protection – and head to the main stage where Twin Shadow, the project of George Lewis Jr., is soon to start. I only know a couple of his tunes, but my fiancé has incessantly been spinning the pure ’80s jam “Saturdays”, from his recent LP Caer, and it’s a catchy tune to be sure, so I’m eager to see what he has to offer the ACL crowd. To a surprisingly small crowd – even for it being early in the festival, I expect a larger audience for an artist of Lewis Jr.’s popularity – Twin Shadow plays a stellar set, even as some of the features of the Caer tracks aren’t present live. (“Saturdays”, for instance, features Haim, who make no special guest appearance.) Sporting a weather-inappropriate jacket and black leather pants, which he assures us are to respect us for “braving the heat”, Lewis Jr. ends up in just the leather pants at the end of the performance. Was it the weather? Sure. But was it because of all the fun he and his two bandmates were having up there? I’d like to think it is.
Janelle Monáe is scheduled to pick up where Twin Shadow left off an hour later and knowing I’ll be dealing with a large crowd for her gig I hop over to see Elle King at the nearby HomeAway stage before heading back to get a good view at the main stage. King adds to the growing trend of soul music throughout this weekend, though country and rock also factor into her sound. The former proves an especially interesting sonic amalgam; there aren’t too many soul singers you see toting banjos, after all. King proves to be not only a vivacious performer but also a delightfully crass humorist: she dedicates one song to “all the women who are assholes out there”, and the phrase “show them your titties” is shouted more than once. This funny streak may be the one thing that makes sense of her parentage: comic actor Rob Schneider is her father. In most other ways, King looks and acts like she grew up in a bustling musical family, and she’s a true blast to watch.
What can be said about Janelle Monáe that isn’t just a thesaurus entry for “superlative”? Expectations were high amongst the audience, myself, and my friends; all of us clearly heard the wonder that is Dirty Computer, a contender for 2018’s album of the year, and if Monáe’s ACL performance was just half as good as the record, it’s still worth the hour we’d spend in the sun and mud. Well, to no one’s surprise, Monáe’s show doesn’t just rise to the level of Dirty Computer: it vaults it by leaps and bounds. Clad in several kinds of sartorial abstraction, including a sharp military-like jacket near the end of the set, Monáe – who between notes is almost constantly smiling – floors the ACL audience, inducing screams, tears, laughter, and everything in between. Musically, Dirty Computer is done justice, especially on the irresistible, Prince co-write “Make Me Feel”, the title cut of Electric Lady, and the impassioned power ballad “PrimeTime”, which incorporates a shout-out to Prince’s Purple Rain. But no song and performance stand out more than “Pynk”, in which Monae and her backup dancers sport some yonic trousers (imagine what that looks like first, then Google it), all while singing and dancing about feminine power, strength, and sexuality.
Monáe’s placement at the 4:00 pm slot on the main stage connects the first and last day of ACL’s Weekend Two in one distinct and powerful way. As I wrote in my Friday coverage, David Byrne’s incredible performance of selections from his American Utopia tour concluded with a cover of Monáe’s protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout”, which highlights the injustices of police brutality and race-based violence that still plagues the United States. Byrne then occupied the 4:00 pm main stage spot, and with his and Monáe’s performances bookending the weekend, “Hell You Talmbout” felt like Byrne’s way of passing the torch to Monáe, who two days later gave a performance equally – if not more – unforgettable than his. When I think about this festival years from now, Monáe and Byrne will come first to mind.
Needing a breather after Monáe’s show, I grab a beer at the enormous Beer Hall tent, where ACL-ites drink and watch sports games on one of the two massive screens, and make my way to the Barton Springs stage, where the rock outfit Houndmouth is already cranking out some killer riffs for the late afternoon audience. As I watch through the latter half of the band’s set, I at times lose grasp of what type of rock it is going for. Some tunes veer close to top-40 material, the kind your parents wouldn’t turn the radio dial on, while others achieve the rootsy vibe that I expected. The tone leans more toward the latter on the whole, but either way, it’s a rollicking and welcome change of pace in recovering from – in a good way! – Monáe the hour before.
Speaking of Monáe: since I had the fortune to see one of Prince’s most brilliant inheritors, it only fits that I see Prince’s beloved band, the Revolution, on the Tito’s stage just as the sun begins to set. The small tent which envelops the stage already is jam-packed by the time that I arrive, so there’s no hope for me as I attempt to get cover from what little sun remains illuminating the festival. I can’t complain, though, once I get into the groove that’s being set by Prince’s band, which quickly makes me wonder why someone decided to place this classic band in one of ACL’s smallest venues. Admittedly, since I lacked the good fortune to see Prince while he was still living, there’s a melancholy to seeing this nonetheless genius band performing songs associated with an artist gone too soon. But to see Prince’s friends and colleagues turn the dial up on numbers like “America” is a pleasure in and of itself, and if anyone can conjure the spirit of the man, it’s these fine folks. If I have one complaint with ACL this year, it’s that this band should have been a much higher billing.
For the first of the final three sets, I’ll see at ACL this year, I head to the HomeAway stage where St. Vincent is about to perform. Her 2017 record Masseduction was one of my favorites of that year, and once she takes the stage, I’m reminded of all its many signs of brilliance. Joined by a three-piece band, consisting of a woman on bass and synths and two men wearing what look like socks over their heads and blond bowl cut wigs atop them, Annie Clark proves why she’s one of the premier rock masterminds of our day. Clark arms herself with an arsenal of her signature Ernie Ball guitars, ranging from jet black to neon yellow, and shreds her way through songs like the sensual “Los Ageless” and “Digital Witness”.
Clark complements her raucous yet perfectly controlled performance with surrealist live films on the backstage projection screen, which like her genius performance of “Los Ageless” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, brings the late work of Samuel Beckett to the world of rock music. It’s equal parts terrifying, intriguing, and euphoric, all of which make Clark one of contemporary music’s true treasures. She also gets the honor of performing the only encore I see at a festival where time is strictly regimented: following chants of “one more song!” and “Annie!”, she returns to the stage for a stripped-down, guitar-only version of the St. Vincent cut “Severed Crossed Fingers”, a gift to her home state.
When I attended ACL two years ago, Sunday night concluded with some musical dissonance: the newly reunited LCD Soundsystem at the Honda Stage, and the pseudo-folk actually-rock outfit Mumford & Sons. Two years later ACL hasn’t changed up that strategy, with Arctic Monkeys and Travis Scott putting the bow on this year’s festival. Both sound at the top of their form, although how different those forms are: call it the sad dudes (the Arctic Monkeys) and the angry dude (Travis Scott). I split my time between the two sets, hoping to get a representative slice of what each artist is bringing to the festival, and that I do.
The Arctic Monkeys‘ is the least visually assertive of the two sets; by and large, the band sticks to the music, which it does exceptionally well. The driving bassline of “Crying Lightning”, the Black Keys-indebted “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High”, the early ’00s classic “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”: these and many others receive not just dutiful but thoughtful renditions. With music being the indelibly personal thing that it is, I can’t help but think of junior high when I hear the early Arctic Monkeys tunes, yet it’s not just a nostalgia trip. It’s an excellent rock concert worthy of providing a cap to a major festival.
Travis Scott, meanwhile, does his best to make sure that ACL ends on the highest energy level possible. His first move, one that I can’t fully process at the moment, is bringing out Shaquille O’Neal as his hype man – a move apparently part of a larger promotional effort with American Express. But before the rest of the crowd and I can pause too long to ask ourselves, “Is that actually SHAQ?” (but just long enough for me to shout, “Shazaam is here!”), Scott tells his DJ to drop the beat, commands the audience to “go”, and then everybody appropriately loses their minds.
The two giant screens flanking the American Express stage artfully make it seem as if Scott generates smoke every time he moves – props to the visual effects team are owed there. And while I’m too far from the stage to tell if he’s actually doing so, who’s to say he isn’t? I knew little about him coming into the show – my fiancé tells me he’s “Kylie Jenner’s baby daddy”, a sign of just how behind my own times I am – but I can confirm this: the guy knows how to own a festival stage. It’s one thing to be a good performer: it’s another to know how to appeal to a festival crowd where thousands upon thousands of people are passing through.