Andra Day delivered a show-stopping rendition of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” that hung in the air not as an artifact of another time, but as a relevant, and current, protest.
“Alright, alright, alright,” intoned one of Austin’s most recognizable voices Sunday night, as he wound up to introduce another. “There is no other place that you would want to be than right here, right now, to hear this Texas legend and American icon.” And with that, Matthew McConaughey yielded the stage to Willie Nelson for the next hour. “Whiskey River” kicked off the set, as it always does. By the end of it, artists from across the festival grounds—Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff, Local Natives, St. Paul and the Broken Bones—had joined Willie in the chorus to the Carter Family anthem “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
That’s the Austin City Limits Festival in a nutshell, its own circle made full with an artist who was largely behind Austin’s very first music festival—the Dripping Springs Reunion of 1972—and was the featured artist in the 1975 pilot episode of the PBS show that gave this particular festival its name. Some time ago, Austin City Limits became the longest-running music program on television. The festival is catching up fast, now in its 15th year.
Those 15 years have not been without their growing pains. The festival takes place over two weekends now, instead of one, to accommodate demand. It also happens a little later in the calendar to escape Central Texas’s apocalyptic heat. There has been an evolution of, and even struggle over, the festival’s identity, as well. Both the television show and the festival have moved beyond their singer-songwriter roots in Tex-Americana to embrace a wider range of music.
Perhaps “struggle with identity” isn’t the right phrase here, but rather “negotiating its brand,” as ACL seeks to define its market share. It’s all fine and good, really, as the ongoing experiment of U.S. festival culture makes for some interesting developments, even if ACL seems more and more like its siblings, a sort of mid-America Coachella, with many artists and stage sets repeated between the two. As an Austinite, I confess to hoping for a local accent among the festivities, but it’s hard to argue with a group of promoters who successfully bring the world to your doorstep, year in and year out. Here’s a sample of the whirlwind from this time around.
OK, this thing about the full circle isn’t just me. While I may be a creature of habit with a soft spot for history, always seeking out Asleep at the Wheel in their early set on the first day at every ACL, ACL is also, on some level, a creature of habit, with a soft spot for history in programming Asleep at the Wheel in an early set on the first day of every ACL. These Western swing revivalists led by the irascible Ray Benson, pioneers of the Austin scene, started the party off as they so often have before. Willie Nelson recorded ACL’s pilot episode, after all, but Asleep at the Wheel starred in the first episode of the first season.
Banks and Steelz: I admit an initial bit of head-scratching at the prospect of the collaboration between Interpol’s Paul Banks and RZA, but Wu Tang never steered anyone wrong. Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” played the duo onto the stage. Its Kill Bill resonances inevitably brought Quentin Tarantino to mind—or at least the source material that Tarantino and the Wu-Tang Clan share in ’70s exploitation cinema. Though not an obvious collaboration on the face of it, Banks and Steelz is an excellent one, both atmospheric and menacing, sort of a tighter take on the Damon Albarn/Del the Funky Homosapien balance in Gorillaz, but with a retro gaze rather than a futurist one. Largely, Banks builds the moody and ambient nest of music and chorus; RZA explodes the ambience with deft lyricism. There’s a tension in the pattern that works across both battle anthems like “Love and War” and party songs like “Wild Season.” As would be expected, they performed most of debut album Anything But Words.
Bombino: Meanwhile, in the Tito’s Vodka tent that serves as home base for a range of eclectic “other” musics from gospel to Latin to EDM to world, Tuareg phenom Bombino electrified a crowd that brought together old dad guitarheads and young dancing hippies. And, really, anyone who valued musical craftsmanship, hypnotic rhythms, and a notion of the trans-Atlantic history of blues guitar had a place in this big tent. The instrumental music Niger-born Bombino plays may be familiar to most listeners through the lens of the band Tinariwen, though Bombino’s style is even deeper in the modern vein. He takes that American blues-styled guitar back to its West African origins, and then ratchets up the volume and tempo to dizzying heights. The Tito’s tent had further international voices on tap Saturday afternoon, with both the “new voice of Brazilian pop” Luisa Maita, and Colombia’s explosive Bomba Estereo keeping the vodka-fueled dance party going.
The Struts: I’ve known plenty of Struts fans, but had never seen the band before. There was a part of me that underestimated them as a sort of off-brand The Darkness, but that did not give them proper credit at all. There’s a little more Freddie Mercury glam here and a little less hair metal: tons of Alice Cooper, a touch of the early ’70s football terrace, and yet still more than a hint of the Crüe. Frenetic frontman Luke Spiller is the key to this equation. The man has costume changes. And impeccable makeup. And capes and tunics in a glaring Texas sun that isn’t really forgiving of either. Another Struts newbie standing nearby about summed it up when he looked incredulously at his friend and said, “This guy’s a rock star”—in a festival culture of DJs and singer-songwriters and vocalists who don’t always quite measure up to such arena-shaking bombast. Spiller owned this crowd with a call-and-response of body and voice, having them shout the choruses and dance as instructed: getting down low, jumping up high. “Put Your Hands Up” and “Could Have Been Me” were particular crowd pleasers. Spiller’s offhand remark that “It’s about time that rock ’n’ roll is fun again, yeah?” definitely got my spirits up for the dilemma I was about to face.
Die Antwoord/Flying Lotus: As Friday rolled into evening, the opposing big stages at either end of the festival grounds hosted two contrasting, and compelling, acts. In one corner, South Africa’s provocateurs Die Antwoord; in the other, auteur afrofuturist DJ Flying Lotus. Both challenge their listeners. Die Antwoord assaults them, really, with a barrage of imagery and puerile insult that I honestly want to hate but can never quite look away from. Redneck “zef” posturing of “Fatty Boom Boom” and “We Have Candy” aside, these are globalizing, pastiche postmodernists who frame themselves as rebels outside the system while taking center stage at a major festival. If Die Antwoord’s challenge is an assault, Flying Lotus’s challenge is one that elevates and puzzles. The man has an album themed around the Tibetan Book of the Dead, for chrissakes. And, Friday was his birthday, an occasion he shared with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Given all that, Flying Lotus did as he pleased, alone, on one of ACL’s biggest stages, digging deep and throwing his favorite “weird shit” into the mix. “I’m purposely here to fuck with you guys,” he said. “You guys were just chillin’. You’re fucked now.” After playing a loop of voices intoning “No one will ever save you,” he taunted again, “I swore I wouldn’t put no cosmic jazz on my new album, but I’m a liar, a manipulator.” The free jazz that underpinned the set seemed at least a more honest manipulation than that over at Die Antwoord, and it was obvious that Flying Lotus, emptying a tequila bottle before our eyes, was having fun. Both acts are masters of imitation, and music-as-electronic-manipulation was perhaps best put on display at the festival here.
Radiohead: The legendary Brits closed out Day One with the kind of headlining perfection one might expect, delving deep into the catalog without ignoring the most familiar tunes (“Creep” was missing, but it’s a rarity for the group live). And even though it was Thom Yorke’s birthday, there was not a great deal of celebrating, or banter, or even really conversation on stage. The band went straight to the business of being rock stars. It was a serviceable set, even a fine one, but I came away feeling much as I would after hearing Radiohead’s music played on the stereo without much added by the live experience. Then again, maybe Die Antwoord and Flying Lotus had burned through all my neurons already.
JR JR: We launched the Saturday with dance rockers JR JR, formerly Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. They were just the way to start a dreamy fall day in Austin. “Simple Girl” was a highlight, as were the group’s sparkly stage outfits. Explaining themselves, JR JR were the first artists of the day to nod to the political climate, saying the air was thick with unease while out on tour, and that’s why they decided to dress up like the Golden Girls. The music, and the lamé cape, did put a spring in our step.
Andra Day: I didn’t know much about Andra Day going in, but will absolutely pay attention to her from here on out. Day is a deep soul singer, backed here at ACL by a much grittier band than has appeared on many of her recordings. There’s some Etta James and Amy Winehouse in her delivery, but when Day announced Nina Simone as her hero, it just about all fell into place. She delivered a show-stopping rendition of Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” that hung in the air not as an artifact of another time, but as a relevant, and current, protest. She also took on Kendrick Lamar’s “No Makeup,” making a point of removing her own and talking about beauty standards to the crowd all the while. It’s a gesture I heard she had carried over from Weekend One of the festival (and likely other shows), but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. If Radiohead’s set the night before replicated their recordings, Andra Day was an act best heard live. Here’s hoping her recordings catch up to her talents in performance, keeping the grit her recorded tracks had often wiped clean.
LL Cool J: I pretended to be ironically interested in LL Cool J’s afternoon set all week, but as the day came, I confessed to myself that I was genuinely excited to see Ladies Love Cool James in action. When musicians, rappers especially, have transitioned into a broader career of acting and celebrity, there’s always the fear that they’ll only come back to the game with rust. By the rules of the genre, country stars can age into their authenticity and accolades; rappers, not so much. After DJ Z-Trip riled up the older crowd with golden age hip-hop (and even a bit of local pandering with “Deep in the Heart of Texas” of all things—it worked), a cascade of sparks fell on stage as LL stalked out to shout: “Don’t call it a comeback!” “Mama Said Knock You Out” felt like a rejoinder to all of my doubts about what the man could do on stage in 2016. “Jack the Ripper” followed, and then LL’s signature mix of bravado lyrics and slow jams for the ladies. Still got it.
Khruangbin: I also made a point of hustling over to one of the smaller stages before LL Cool J’s set ended to check out Khruangbin, a largely instrumental Houston three-piece who has chosen the unlikely source material of ’60s and ’70s Thai soul-funk. This is deep crate-digging for influences, the sort of Southeast Asian surfy guitar that entertained tourists and Vietnam GIs on leave, filtered through Tarantino soundtracks, and now brought back live by an expert group of eccentric and engaging Texans. Hypnotic stuff, and worth following up on.
The Chainsmokers: The Naked and the Famous and Cage the Elephant both played sets Saturday afternoon fully loaded with radio hits, but one of the hottest acts coming into the festival was the producer/DJ duo The Chainsmokers. On Saturday they were even fresh from an appearance earlier in the morning on ESPN Game Day. The crowds swelled in anticipation, and two guys jumped around a lot on a stage set where they poked at a laptop. Heading to a music festival to dance with abandon is absolutely a legitimate modus operandi, but I confess that this strain of EDM is just not my thing. Flying Lotus’s forays into free jazz archaeology are fascinating and funky, but when an act of this stature throws down KISS’s “I Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll All Night” or the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” or, God help us, Coldplay’s “Yellow,” it just seems cheap and shallow. This, however, was a minority opinion at ACL, so, again, Chainsmokers: It’s apparently not you, it’s me.
Kendrick Lamar: On the other hand, headliner Lamar doesn’t pander. King Kendrick may just be the most exciting artist working in this moment whom ACL can recruit (that is, until they can score Beyoncé). The test of a hip-hop artist at a festival such as this is their ability to hold the stage, solo, for an hour and a half. Lamar did have some live musicians with him, a guitarist and Thundercat on bass. And he was joined by Schoolboy Q, too, but, basically, he commanded the attention of thousands through his words alone. Lamar reached back to the early tracks for the fans he called his “day ones” and took the set through To Pimp a Butterfly and beyond. In October of an election year, and in a moment where Black Lives Matter so thoroughly intersects with sports and popular music, politics can be hard to avoid. JR JR had alluded to it, and Andra Day dredged it up through “Mississippi Goddam.” It roiled through the sets of Raury on Friday (the new track “Shoulda Listened”) and Domo Genesis on Sunday. Kendrick Lamar kept it as a subterranean theme throughout his time on stage, told through his lyrics and shown through video clips in black-and-white that ran continuously behind him.
This would be the day that would reward an Americana/country/soul roots historian like myself. There were amazing retro soulsters in every direction, beginning with Amasa Hines’s Southern-rock flavored rhythm and blues, and Anderson East’s blue-eyed soul.
Margo Price: That, and my favorite new honky-tonker Margo Price. The first Nashville country artist signed by Jack White’s Third Man Records, Price is the real deal. With a voice that echoes Loretta Lynn and an outlaw swagger the likes of Tanya Tucker, Price and her on-point band offered a clinic in country music, as it should be Sunday afternoon. She proved she can write in the tradition with the best of them in “This Town Gets Around” and crowd-pleasing closer “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle).” She nodded to the greats with deep-cut covers of George Jones, Rodney Crowell, and Merle Haggard. This was all the more exciting, because she may have been among the minority of artists who changed up their sets from the festival’s first week, when Price’s covers included local favorites Doug Sahm and Billy Joe Shaver. There was plaintive steel guitar, pulsating Waylon-and-the-Waylorsesque bass, and even a touch of badass accordion. And that isn’t easy to pull off. Price won me over in a small venue during SXSW, so it was great to see her do the same with an enormous, and raucous, festival crowd.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats: Rateliff’s is one of those stories: a journeyman musician who came up through the Denver scene and, all of sudden, with the release last year of a record on Stax, seems to be everywhere. The man seemed genuinely thankful to be on the ACL main stage, and awfully pleased that so many fans were itching to sing along. With a big band and full horn section, Rateliff expanded the soul and gospel themes that had played across the afternoon. By the time “SOB” finished out the set, the crowd legit seemed like they were going to church, happy with the spirit.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones: As Rateliff wound down, Alabama’s St. Paul and the Broken Bones took up the baton on the stage across the way, with a full horn section and charismatic front man all their own. Paul Janeway—he who has invited so many unlikely but apt comparisons to the signing of Al Green—ran hither and yon across that stage while belting out song after song. At one point, he dropped to the ground and ensconced himself in a tarp that covered the stage: “Sometimes you have to roll yourself up in a burrito,” he said. If the diminutive dork-chic Janeway can manage to sing as powerfully as that, he can roll himself up in anything he wants. The band even treated the crowd to a cover of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” in what I think should be a new festival tradition of artists trading songs across genres.
Willie Nelson: Full circle. And now, Sunday evening, we’re back where we began, with Willie Nelson. McConaughey wasn’t lying about Willie’s iconic status, particularly on his home turf of Texas. This is a man who started his career in blood-bucket bars where drummer Paul English often had to cajole the band’s pay from the barkeep with a pistol. This is a man who wrote hit songs for the likes of Ray Price, Patsy Cline, and Faron Young: a man almost from another time, and yet timeless in a way that commands the respect and rapt attention of the crowd. He’s lost some key band members in recent years, but Paul is still up there on percussion, and “little sister” Bobby on piano. Mickey Raphael still plays harmonica with a sound, to my ear, as central to the identity of Willie Nelson’s music as his time-worn guitar, Trigger. “Whiskey River” started things out, as always. He played the classic medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Night Life,” and stirred in the singalong radio classics “Mamma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again.” He covered like-minded artists Billy Joe Shaver and Tom T. Hall, and dedications to dear departed friends Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. He played the grand old man of Austin music in these moments, but also its funny pothead grandfather with “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a song he introduced as a gospel number. He used this as a bridge to his closing songs. It’s a country music tradition that Willie carries over from those blood-bucket days, playing gospel for the show’s big finish. The idea in those old dance halls was that if you played the crowd out on a gospel number, they were less likely to stumble into drunken fights in the parking lot. I don’t think there was much of a threat of that here, but the tradition did give us those wonderful moments as all the festival artists joined in for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and Willie himself ended on the Hank Williams number “I Saw the Light.” There were a few more sets to the festival after that, but I figured nothing could quite top Willie. So, I ventured toward the exit, catching a bit of Haim playing Prince’s “I Would Die for You” on the way out. And, Willie, you know I would. | Jason Mellard
Photos by Jamie Crawley; view full photo album here