The Austin City Limits music festival isn’t far from the heart of Austin’s downtown, but getting there isn’t a matter of simply walking through the front door. With no official parking adjacent to or near Zilker Park — that is, unless one wants to fork over several hundred dollars for a VIP parking pass — festivalgoers must either walk two to three miles to Zilker Park from downtown, or take a free but highly congested shuttle line from Republic Square downtown to ACL. There’s also a drop-off area in the north end of the park. Every day, the festival starts off with a small journey on the part of festivalgoers. This move to reduce vehicle traffic in this popular area of Austin’s south side is smart on the part of the festival conveners, though as I walked back downtown after the festival a steady line of cars on both lanes inched forward. On this weekend, all roads seem to lead to ACL.
Once in the confines of Zilker Park — a large space that feels smaller than it is when dotted with huge stages — festivalgoers are immediately presented with numerous options. Just past the main entrance at Barton Springs road, there is a stand where one can digitize her festival bracelet to function as a credit card for use at one of ACL’s many shopfronts, spanning tacos to band merch to local jewelry. Faced with all this consumerism, one can’t help but wonder if ACL is nearing its peak capitalist moment, which some artists have said is true of the other major Austin music festival, South by Southwest (SXSW). ScHoolboy Q, who is playing ACL this year, said of SXSW in 2014, “I’m tired of performing and seeing my fans outside the gate…. That’s not fair. It’s not about the fans no more, it’s all about money, who can give you the best look.”
ScHoolboy Q’s opinion of ACL remains to be seen; perhaps this second weekend of ACL 2016 will give him an idea of the festival’s direction. But walking through the well-organized festival grounds, it’s easy to mistake ACL, which is understood to be a music festival, with a county or state fair. In between the Miller Lite and Tito’s Vodka stages (#brands, y’all), there are rows of food stands operated by local favorites like Chi’lantro and the Salt Lick, as well as greasier Austin fast food standbys like P. Terry’s and Austin’s Pizza. Parallel to those food tents are four shopping rows run by local Austin shops, selling products such as jewelry, home decor, and posters of musicians like Willie Nelson (who is performing at ACL this year).
Because of the impeccable sound mixing and design by the various festival techs, there’s little sound hemorrhaging as you move between stages. Only when the booming bass drums of Major Lazer thud intermittently throughout Radiohead‘s set do I get a sonic reminder of the simultaneous performances going on at ACL. As such, one could get lost in the commercial areas of the ACL grounds, hearing the faint waft of music in the background only once in awhile. The only acts whose volume emanates throughout the park are electronic groups like Major Lazer and Die Antwoord.
This market square dimension of ACL is not new, but it has become more efficient over the years. By and large the lines move at a quick clip, and the layout of the festival grounds is conducive to those who wish to use the dining area as a place to rest in between sets. Of course, the festival is called Austin City Limits, meaning that the representation of local commerce is not only natural, but perhaps a good idea. If one is going to pay for overpriced festival food, it’d be better to buy an authentic Austin taco rather than a generic hot dog or hamburger. Nine dollars for a draft beer is absurd (by Austin standards), but at least that nine dollars gets you an Austin craft brew instead of Miller or Bud Lite.
Commercialization is inevitable for a music festival of any size. Gathering together two weekend’s worth of artists — many of them top-tier, top-dollar artists — isn’t something that mere ticket sales can cover, unless festival passes hike to even steeper prices. (Three-day wristbands for ACL start at $225 and then appreciate slightly to $250; single-day tickets run $100. This is a bargain compared to SXSW, whose music badges for 2017 are selling at $925, but it’s still no little amount.) Knee-jerk complaints about the branding that’s so prevalent at ACL are easy; there’s not a lot of sexy artistic appeal in saying, “We’re performing at the HomeAway Stage.”
To my eyes, the extent of the commercialization at ACL is predictable, and not so intrusive as to hinder my enjoyment of the festival. Like any festival of its kind, ACL has to balance respect for the musicians with the sponsorship needs that accompany the organization of a festival of this caliber. The success of the festival in maintaining this balance is emphasizing the “Austin-ness” of the vendors, which helps introduce Austin culture to those coming from out of state while providing familiar signposts for locals. Simply put: even amidst the presence of corporate signage and integrated branding, it’s easy to make ACL about the music, and nothing else.
That is, of course, provided you’re an expert at maneuvering through crowds. By the time ACL 2016’s second weekend begins, all passes (three-day and single-day) are sold out. When I arrive in the early afternoon on Friday, the festival space is bustling but not overcrowded; I make my way to the performances between 2 PM and 5 PM with little to no difficulty. But by the time Radiohead’s set begins promptly at 8PM on the main stage, however, the crowds are an undulating mass. As I look back on the main stage when I walk out from Radiohead’s set, the distance looks like miles.
Though I lack a historical understanding of ACL attendance, it sure feels like it’s approaching capacity. It takes a huge crowd to make Zilker Park feel tiny, and the ACL 2016 crowd does just that. But as with any festival, good timing and polite pushing do reward those who want a good view for any given show. Only once or twice on Friday do I wish I had a better view.
My first set of the day is at the stage named after Texas’ vodka of choice, Tito’s. Right at 2:15PM, the power trio called Prinze George plays its opening notes. Prinze George’s debut EP, released in August of this year, is entitled Illiterate Synth Pop. Given just how many indie bands are taking on the synth-pop aesthetic, it’s nice to see a young band poke fun at the genre moniker, even as it performs music in that style. The Maryland-based trio owns the blessedly shaded Tito’s stage, cranking out an impressive set for the sweaty afternoon crowd. The brief gig peaks with an excellent cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U”.
Aesthetically, Prinze George does fit the description of the genre its EP title makes fun of. Naomi Almquist perfectly fits the role of ethereal frontwoman, complemented by guitarist/keyboardist Kenny Grimm. But it’s powerhouse drummer Isabelle De Leon who wins the crowd over the most, especially with a booming drum solo at the end of “I Would Die 4 U”. De Leon’s use of acoustic drums — with occasional use of an electronic drum pad — brings the physicality of a rock gig to a mostly electronic aesthetic, which is accented with some sharp guitar leads by Grimm. Festivals are a great place to find bands like this, promising talents that allow you to utter the eye-roll inducing phrase, “I knew them before they were cool.”
Following Prinze George, I take the short path over to the Miller Lite stage, where the Canadian outfit the Strumbellas have already begun their set. All it takes is one cursory glance at the six-piece band to see that it’s the exactly the kind of group you want at a festival. Armed with a bevy of sing-along choruses and foot-stompin’ bluegrass rhythms, the Strumbellas get the crowd moving and singing, even as everyone swelters under the afternoon sun. As I tap my feet to the bouncy rhythm of the Strumbellas’ final song, I can’t help but be reminded that Mumford & Sons are playing on Sunday night, and had that band not gone a certain way, their music could have been something like this — something enjoyable.
My first show at the main stage is Foals, who like the Strumbellas look like they were tailor-made for these festival stages. Ten years ago, Foals could have likely been classified as an indie rock group, but now they’re an archetypal case of indie’s going mainstream. The hip haircuts and clean guitar leads belie the fundamental radio rock aesthetic in which Foals purvey. The band’s hour-long set is tailored perfectly to the main stage: the riffs and choruses are huge, and much of the crowd sings along with the band. Foals’ setlist has a tendency to blur together — save for moments of respite like “Spanish Sahara” — but the one-two punch of “Inhaler” and “What Went Down” brings the band’s performance to a satisfying and heavy close.
If Foals represent where mainstream rock is right now, the Los Angeles-by-way-of-Derbyshire band the Struts signify what rock used to be. With their penchant for bluesy, AC/DC-style riffing and frontman Luke Spiller’s flamboyant style (he wears a reflective black cloak at ACL, heat notwithstanding), the Struts are a blast from the past in every way. Spiller is an expert crowd wrangler; with the highly anticipated evening sets not far off, the increasingly overwhelming crowds are getting antsy, and Spiller plays that to his and the band’s advantage. The unabashed love of over-the-top cock rock theatricality initially brings the Darkness to mind, but unlike those goofy Brits, the Struts’ relationship to their source material is unabashed earnestness — there’s no outright parody in their set, though occasionally the guitar parts do veer dangerously close to ripping off rather than emulating. On its own, the Struts’ set is an entertaining hour, but when juxtaposed with the music of Foals and many other of the indie rock artists at ACL this year, it’s all the more refreshing in its retro thrills. “Are you ready for rock ‘n’ roll to be FUN AGAIN?” Spiller asks. The crowd cheers.
As I make my way back to the main stage for Flying Lotus’ set, the evening takes a more electronic turn. Performances by Flying Lotus, Die Antwoord, M83, Flume, and Major Lazer are about to unfold across the Zilker Park grounds, an appropriate uptick in tempo and rhythm as the crowds begin to swell to their largest sizes. At the main stage, Flying Lotus begins his set unassumingly; he walks out to the front of his stage setup casually and waves to the crowd. He flashes a huge smile. Then he steps up to his rig, which is obscured to the audience by a metal grate that is also used to display dizzying color patterns throughout his set, and begins his hour-long odyssey of musical textures from every genre, from EDM to cosmic jazz to back again. The crowd is surprisingly staid in response to FlyLo’s performance; noticing that everyone is “just chilling”, he announces, “I’m just gonna play weird shit, then.” He then plays up the cosmic jazz even more, to the delight of those near the front row and the bewilderment of many further back in the audience. The video display is a perfect match for FlyLo, who for the entirety of his performance is the man behind the curtain, wringing out strange sounds from invisible knobs.
On the opposite end of the park at the Honda stage, Die Antwoord is wreaking havoc. Seizure-inducing displays of light and colorfully dressed backup dancers are only the beginning of the mayhem being brought to Zilker Park’s north end. This South African group, led up by Yolandi Visser and Yelawolf lookalike Ninja, sounds like The Knife being produced by Skrillex for a Nickelodeon advert. The crowd happily indulges Die Antwoord’s unhinged performance; the crowd is dancing (or, rather, thrashing) all the way from the front of the stage to the very back.
When Die Antwoord’s set finishes, a no less danceable but far less insane performance by M83 starts. This year, M83 released Junk, an album consisting of ’80s pastiche and cloying nostalgia that continues to feel like a throwaway, especially considering the vast and powerful sonic landscapes of albums like Before the Dawn Heals Us. Junk is not without its solid tracks; “Do It, Try It” proves to be an effective firestarter at ACL. But looking around and seeing the crowd get riled up for pre-Junk tracks like “Reunion” and “Midnight City”, it’s hard not to feel that Junk is a bit of a one-off. Fortunately, the stellar lights show that accompanies M83’s performance helps bolster the high-production ’80s worship that makes up the bulk of the tracklist.
When 8PM rolls around, there are still a few sets happening across the ACL grounds, but there is really only one destination for the remaining festival attendees: the Radiohead performance at the main stage. The Samsung Stage is laid out to accommodate an especially large festival audience, but once the band steps up to the stage and starts the night off with “Burn the Witch”, the confines of the audience prove especially tight. Everyone on the lawn wants the best possible view, resulting in a great deal of crowd-shifting.
Much digital ink has already been spilled about the excitement over having Radiohead at ACL this year. Overhyping is an associated risk of this breathless pre-and-post show coverage, but the legendary British band truly does not disappoint. The set leans heavily on this year’s excellent LP A Moon Shaped Pool, but there’s plenty from the breadth of Radiohead’s career, enough that few could leave truly unsatisfied. “My Iron Lung” gets a rollicking rendition early in the concert. “Paranoid Android” hasn’t lost an ounce of energy over the years, as its powerful encore performance here evinces. In Rainbows is represented with fine performances of “Nude”, “Bodysnatchers”, and “All I Need”. The best light show of the day happens during “Idioteque”‘s peak intensity.
When played alongside earlier tracks, the Moon Shaped Pool numbers sometimes become more staid and languid, “The Numbers” especially. But “Daydreaming” remains a transfixing beauty, and “Ful Stop” continues to solidify its reputation as one of Radiohead’s best jams. To hear a band this late into career not only release one of its best LPs to date but also give a headlining performance of this caliber is a privilege that the eager attendees of ACL Friday undoubtedly felt as the final notes of “Fake Plastic Trees” rang throughout the park.