Saturday, October 10, 2020

LIST: Ranking Every ACL Fest Set I've Ever Seen

A picture I took of the American Express Stage in front of the Austin Skyline at the festival in 2018.

Right now I should probably be in Zilker Park. I'd probably be seeing the beginning of a set at either the American Express or the Honda Stage. Maybe I'd be finishing up a Korean Chicken Sandwich from Chi'lantro, or maybe I'd have meeting an artist at the Waterloo Tent. Of course, we can't be doing that this year and while I accepted it early on, it still stings. There's no greater joy than being able to party with 75,000 strangers every day for 3 days straight. Enjoying the artists I love, exploring new sounds, and most of all, meeting tons of new people. This year was supposed to be year 3 for me. As speculation ensued, I was excited to hear that maybe this was the year I would get to see Rage Against the Machine or Kendrick Lamar for the first time but now, I'm just excited for the virtual fest this weekend.

In the past two years, the festival has helped me find my new favorite artists and let me see artists who I don't think I would normally. So to honor this ACL weekend, I figured this would be the best way to celebrate by counting down all 13 ACL sets I've seen. (I know that seems low but keep in mind, I only went to the festival Saturday of last year)

13. Megan Thee Stallion

I don't even think I have to explain this one. I walked into the fest planning on going straight to the Miller Lite stage and was shocked to hear no music even though I showed 20 minutes into when her set was supposed to start. At least I got a better spot for a set I'll talk about in a little bit

12. 21 Savage

This is the only still the only festival set I had to leave early because of just how boring it was. Now don't get me wrong, I like 21 Savage's music. I Am > I Was was one of my favorite trap albums of the last decade and I still keep songs like Bank Account and Don't Come Out The House in constant rotation, but the man is just not a good live performer. Giving little to no effort while singing, pacing back and forth atop of a giant LED mountain. Maybe I would've have had a better time if I was maybe 10-15 rows back from the stage, but good performers will keep you entertained no matter how far back you are. 

11. Highly Suspect 

Highly Suspect is another band that falls under that same category, I love their music and was excited to see them live but man was it disappointing. The band themselves are super tight and all of the performances were great, it was everything in between that rubbed me the wrong way. Most notably, the picture up above. Before one of the songs, lead singer Johnny Stevens walked along Metallica's Snake Pit and as he was walking said, "Can I borrow that sign real quick?" After the fan handed it too him, Stevens walked to the edge of the Snake Pit and said, "ALRIGHT. Before we do this next song, I need everyone to say one word, and that word is F*CK. On the count of three, we're all gonna say f*ck, ready? 3, 2, 1!" Of course, usually when an artist instructs you to do something, they usually say "nah you can do better," but Stevens took a different approach and instead took 8 minutes to make sure he got the response he wanted. Also notable was on another trip along the Snake Pit, Stevens asked everyone to put two hands up "because it looks pretty when y'all do that." He then noticed someone in the audience in the VIP area who didn't have in hands up and said, "TWO HANDS UP! EVEN YOU MOTHERF*CKER! DON'T THINK YOU'RE SPECIAL BECAUSE YOU'RE VIP." At least Lydia slapped live. 

10. Khalid

Photo Courtesy of Rolling Stone

Khalid is the first ACL Fest set I ever got to see so he'll always have that honor for me. I do still enjoy his music so getting to see him was big for me. However, the more I look back on this set the more I realize not how bad it was, I had a great time, but his performance was just lazy. Khalid is a Pop and R&B singer, he's not a rapper, yet he kept thinking he could get away with letting the crowd sing half of the songs. He's a singer, he's expected to sing all of his songs. But there kept being these weird moments where the chorus would hit and I was immediately met with a backing track. And sure, I wouldn't mind this if it was just for a couple songs but it happened for every single song. I can't go too hard on this set though because I didn't leave disappointed. Khalid has great energy on stage and is very engaging with his audience, who was also great. They sort of enable him to get away with backing tracks because they're all singing along to every word, dancing, and for some reason, even moshing at one point. That I still don't understand. So while I'd never pay to see him again, I wouldn't mind seeing another Khalid festival set sometime. 

9. Deftones

This set was a big moment for Deftones. Being 18 years past their biggest album, sub headlining the biggest festival in Texas was an interesting booking. But the band has developed a really awesome cult fanbase that will always be there for them. However, this set got off to a rocky start, like, really rocky. This set was my first introduction to Deftones so when the riff to Rocket Skates started and lead singer Chino Moreno screamed into his mic, causing a lot of distortion, I thought Chino just sang with a distorted mic but as the set went on, I realized that the sound was just messed up. This persisted for the first 25-30 of their set which eventually led to the band to just walking off stage. When they returned however, it was glorious. I had realized even with the sound issues that these guys are amazing live. Abe Cunningham's drumming is amazing, Steph Carpenter is playing these huge chunky riffs, and Chino is running all around the stage like a 2-year-old in a grocery store. I also couldn't help but laugh whenever bassist Sergio Vega would bang his head as he had a giant, almost afro but it always looked hilarious. 

8. The Wombats

I think my most memorable takeaway from this set was just how hilarious these guys were. Every moment between songs they had me busting up laughing. One of the funniest being when a plane promoting the Netflix show Big Mouth flew by the park carrying a banner that read "ANDREW HAS A BONER." (I know, not the best weekend to be Andrew.) When the drummer noticed this, he immediately pointed it out to which lead singer Matt Murphy responded "is he just continually erect? We have a doctor on tour with us now so if Andrew needs any medical assistance, let us know, we can help him." He then dedicated the next song, Greek Tragedy, to Andrew and his erection. Another takeaway from this show was just how fun it was. There was such a fun vibe in the pit that made this show so enjoyable and it helps that the music was great too. I also need to make mention of the band bringing actual people in Wombat costumes on stage during the song "Let's Dance to Joy Division" because that was honestly a highlight of the weekend. 

7. Brittany Howard

Before ACL 2019, I had never listened to Alabama Shakes, had never heard Brittany's solo album Jaime, and honestly, I didn't plan to see her. However when schedules were released and my group planned on camping for Billie Eilish, I was sort of forced into it, but I was blown away at how great the set was. To start off, I do wanna say I feel kinda bad for Brittany because I don't think too many people were there for her, rather, it was just the set they needed to get through before Billie, and she even kind of made reference to that when she walked out on stage saying, "How you doin'!? There's so many of y'all I like that," but nonetheless, she won me over. Her voice, her stories, the music, it was all fantastic. Her backing band was on fire for the set mainly thanks to legendary drummer Nate Smith slapping the skins behind her. There was also a phenomenal Prince cover about halfway through her set with Brittany just pouring her heart out over the song. Other highlights in the set included her speech about love before the song Baby with Brittany saying, "mmmm. Love. Such a tender thing. 50/50 love is the best thing in the world. But sometimes, you get that 70/30 love. And you're on the wrong side of it." The performance of Baby was honestly incredible with this super awesome piano solo right in the middle of it and Brittany is hitting these heavenly high notes. If you haven't listened to her debut solo album yet, please do it, you won't regret it. 

6. Denzel Curry

Already disappointed by a Megan Thee Stallion no show, I wasn't thrilled when 3 PM rolled around and Denzel wasn't on stage. However, the second he came on stage about 10 minutes later, all was forgiven. Almost immediately a flurry of mosh pits opened up and it was off to the races. This may sound like an exaggeration but I literally did not even see him until  Denzel didn't even really have a big intro. His DJ just came on stage, played a football hype up chant, then started the title track from his 2019 album ZUU, before Denzel just sprinted on stage and started rapping. For the next 45 minutes, it was mosh pit after mosh pit, banger after banger, and Denzel barely stopped for a breath a few times. On stage, he was unstoppable. Between jumping and sprinting across the stage, Denzel was still nailing every bar and even served as his own hypeman most of the time. His performance of the song Ultimate opened up one of the biggest mosh pits I'd seen in my entire life. For reference, I was about 25 rows back from the stage before the song started and I was 10 rows back when the song ended. If you're a rap fan and you have yet to see Denzel live, make sure you get around to it when concerts come back. 

5. Billie Eilish

Love her or hate her, you can't deny just how big Billie Eilish has become and if you want to deny it, just look at any pictures of her crowd from this set, or look at the fact that she sold out her entire arena the week of this festival when shows weren't supposed to start until March. While at times it seemed like she may have just been going through the motions, the energy of the fans around me made the set memorable. Her stage design was minimal for someone in her position, just a riser, a keyboard, and a drum set aided by an LED screen behind her, and she made the most out of the little she had. Her stage presence was incredible and you could tell she enjoyed being up on stage. The set, however, was not without a few hiccups. For starters, it's no secret that Billie isn't exactly the loudest singer so you figure that her voice would be mixed a little louder so we could hear her singing. Nope, in fact, it was quite the opposite as her voice was mixed so low that it was hard to even hear her talk in between songs. Also while I loved the energy the fans provided, you could tell that some of them didn't really know how to behave themselves. Screaming at inappropriate times, breaking out into mosh pits (terrible ones at that), and a lot of pushing and shoving to get closer to their queen. The worst of it being when Billie came down onto the ground and stood along the barricade to get closer to her fans. First, she was held around the neck by someone who really didn't want to let go, then, after returning to the stage, Billie told us, "Yo, somebody stole my ring." So while her performance was great and Billie is amazing, I doubt we'll be seeing her back at ACL anytime soon. 

4. The Cure

I know that this one shouldn't count because I didn't see the entire set but man, the 30 minutes I got to see were incredible and I almost regretted seeing Childish Gambino over them. Even as far back as I was, I was in awe of how great this band was live. It's obvious that age is catching up to frontman Robert Smith but he still sounds just as amazing as he did in the 1980s. His voice hasn't missed a beat and neither has the band behind them as the songs they played in the encore set I saw sounded not just as good, but even better than the studio recordings. But the one thing that stuck out the most was Smith's pure happiness being on stage. At this point in his career, Smith could easily be phoning it in, just playing the hits and leaving but I don't think he did this huge tour just for the money, you could tell that he just really loves playing live. When I got to the Honda Stage, the band had already been playing for a solid hour and a half, yet they showed no signs of fatigue as they were ripping through "The Caterpillar." Their performance of "Friday, I'm In Love" was possibly one of the best live performances I've seen of any song, ever. It just hit every feel good bone in my body and put the biggest smile on my face. With rumors of the band releasing two albums "this year," I'm hoping the band continues to tour because I will not hesitate to snatch up tickets.

3. Childish Gambino 

Donald Glover is a mysterious man, so while this might not technically be the last show he ever plays under the Childish Gambino name, he made it special considering it might be. He had one of the grandest entrances I've ever seen in my two years of going to the fest, popping up in front of the soundboard and rising up on a platform studded with disco balls. Glover spent as much time in the crowd as he did on stage, signing an Awaken, My Love vinyl, taking selfies with a few lucky fans, and talking to us about his band. On stage, he was an unstoppable force. He has an amazing voice, he's an incredible dancer, and the live band behind him was insanely good, adding another level to the songs I already knew I loved. His stage show was also great with lots of lasers, fireworks, and video screens making it feel like I was watching a concert film directed by Glover himself. The show was split into three sections, the first third being the bangers, songs like The Worst Guys and Worldstar, the former of which featured touring guitarist Ray Suen absolutely killing the guitar solo, the trippy songs, which featured more moodiness and performances of songs like Have Some Love which featured a really awesome dance break right in the middle, Riot! which had an absolute explosion of sound after a tuned down intro with just Glover and a guitar strumming a few chords, and Terrified which dead serious brought me to tears. The last section, and possibly the best, was all of the hits starting with This is America right before the encore break then leading into Sober, 3005, and Sweatpants which sent the crowd into an absolute frenzy before ending his set with Redbone which was the cherry on top for the best show I saw last year. 

2. Metallica

I was sort of skeptical when I saw Metallica headlining ACL Fest. Don't get me wrong, I love the band and they're the reason I got into harder rock and metal music, but for them to play ACL? The heaviest headliner before them was Foo Fighters and they aren't exactly the heaviest rock band out there. Nevertheless, I took the opportunity, got to the AmEx stage at 1:30 that afternoon, and after a tumultuous day of music, my day of waiting paid off. This late into their career, the band is still in excellent form, still bringing a ton of energy on stage and still dishing out those fast, chugging riffs that they made their name on. James Hetfield is still an amazing frontman while he has obviously calmed down over the years. After the one-two punch of Hardwired and "Atlas, Rise!" to kick off the show, Hetfield stood in front of a mic and said, "I SMELL BARBEQUEEEEE!!!" Over the next two hours, the band delivered hit after hit and the crowd ate it up. For someone seeing the band for the first time, the setlist was almost perfect. And dare I say, most of the songs sounded better live, songs like Welcome Home (Sanitarium) and even One, the latter of which might have been the highlight of the night for me. The band's last two songs produced the biggest sing-a-longs of the night with Nothing Else Matters and Enter Sandman closing out Saturday. Enter Sandman was complimented with two separate firework blasts and one last "AYE AYE AYE" chant before the band threw out guitar picks and drumsticks then thanked all of us before heading home. While I knew to expect something good, I didn't expect the show to be quite as good as this was. I still listen to the live recording of this show quite often and it takes me right back to standing there in Zilker.

1. Paul McCartney

I think the best way to describe just how great this show was is by saying this isn't just the best ACL set I've ever seen, it's the best concert I've ever been to in my life in general. I know this might sound terrible of me to say but I wasn't incredibly hyped up to see Paul. Sure I knew a couple of Beatles song and knew Maybe, I'm Amazed but walking over to the AmEx stage, I decided that I was only gonna go just so I could say I'd seen him since it was such a big booking for the fest. As showtime got closer and closer, the anticipation grew more and more. His show started with what might be one of the softest intros I've seen from a headliner at ACL in my time going. A little video played, then the house lights turned on, and out came Paul and his band. He opened up with Hard Day's Night which, to this day I still don't remember hearing the opening chord because of how loud and excited everyone around me was. After that first song alone, I knew the rest of the night was gonna be special. The next 2 hours and 15 minutes were an amazing trip through Paul's entire career and his backing band was on fire for all of it. Something I remember vividly was his performance of Letting Go which has this huge horn section in the middle of it. I heard the horns but I couldn't figure out where they were coming from but a camera showed them standing along the barricade in the middle of the pit. 

While I did enjoy the whole show, there was nothing I enjoyed more than the last half of the show where the setlist just became hit after hit after hit. Let it Be was one of the songs I knew beforehand and singing along to it with 60 thousand strangers was honestly beautiful. After that was Live and Let Die which was an insane flurry of pyro, fireworks, lasers, just absolute chaos on stage but beautiful chaos. And then, Hey Jude, which gave me chills just thinking about it. Leading up to the festival I had been waiting for that part, the NA NA NA NANANANAAAA and it was incredible. You could tell I wasn't the only one and to be quite honest, I wouldn't have any problem if it kept going on for two more hours. It's such a beautiful thing to think about moments like that. Very rarely can you get such a large group of people to just drop everything they're doing and just sing along. The performance of Helter Skelter was everything I expected it to be. The guitars were loud, Paul was screaming his head off, and the drums were just booming away. His show ended with the trilogy of Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End and after a burst of confetti, McCartney walked off stage. This is probably a bold statement but if you ever get the chance at all to see Paul McCartney live, take it. He's still as energetic as he was at 30 as his is now and he still sounds amazing. Even if you don't like The Beatles or Paul's solo work, give his show a chance, you will not regret it. 

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