Friday, October 15, 2021

RECAP: Austin City Limits Music Festival 2021

(Photo by Charles Reagan/ACL Festival/C3 Presents)

On October 12, 2019, I left Zilker Park. I had a great day there, I got to see Denzel Curry, Brittany Howard, Billie Eilish, Childish Gambino's last show ever, and possibly The Cure's last show ever too. I, unfortunately, was only able to go that day but I still made the most of it, I still had a blast with the group of friends I got to meet up with there, and I was very much looking forward to 2020's festival...but, ummm, do I really need to say it? So of course, 2020's festival didn't happen, at least not in person. However, around the end of April, things started looking up. Lollapalooza started making some rumblings that their fest was going to happen, tours were getting booked, more shows were being announced, and it really seemed like after a year off, ACL was going to get to happen again. 

The lead to the festival's announcement was pretty interesting. At the beginning of April, there was a message posted on a festival forum I frequent by a person who posts once in a blue moon but is never wrong. They were responding to someone who was saying that with ACL booking more hard rock and classic rock acts it seemed like the fest would get away with booking either or for headliners. The response? "More Like Stevie Nicks & a big Country Headliner." Rumors also started swirling around of a lineup drop at the end of May and the festival taking it's usual dates at the beginning of October and lo and behold, all of these things ended up being right. 

The Lineup:

I want to say something real quick about this lineup before I get into what my initial thoughts were. First off, this lineup went through a handful of changes, the biggest being DaBaby getting kicked off the lineup after his stunt at Rolling Loud and Stevie Nicks dropping out due to concerns of COVID-19 with her old age. However, C3 (the company who books the fest, I'll be referring to them a lot in this paragraph) made up for both losses big time. When DaBaby was kicked off DaLineup, he got replaced with Tyler, the Creator (more on him later) and when Stevie dropped out, she was quickly replaced with Duran Duran, a booking that is still amazing to me. 

When I first saw this lineup I was...confused? Yeah, I think confused is the best word, mainly due to some gross overbilling, strange headliner choices, and the whole thing just felt small. As far as positive remarks go, I still applaud C3 for booking George Strait for this year's festival. Booking George was something that made ACL stand out this year among other major festivals across the country. While they easily could've grabbed something safe like Foo Fighters and Post Malone who will headline every festival under the sun in the next 2 years, they decided to go out and grab George out of left field. Grabbing Stevie Nicks would've been an added bonus too as I don't think I'd pay money to see her on her own. The rest of the lineup was where I started my confusion. For example, I love Black Pumas, I think they're an awesome band, but are they really worthy of being billed above two of Pitchfork's headliners? And does Machine Gun Kelly need to be on the top line of any lineup? The same question sort of applies to DaBaby, does he really need to be headlining festivals of ACL's size that aren't just straight-up rap fests? Regardless of my complaints, there was still more than enough that I wanted to see and my mom and I ended up grabbing 3-day passes for the first weekend. 


This is how my Friday started and to be honest, I'm super happy that it did start this way. I had flown back home to then drive up with my mom and it felt nice to not be as rushed to have to make it to the gates at 11. There was one major issue though and that was that 3 PM is when something starts that the festival likes to call a "peak time" which means that's the time when the majority of people attending the fest like to show up to the park. So as you can imagine, opening the gates at one of these times was pretty chaotic. My mom and I decided to shuttle in the first day of the fest and that was a major mistake. We got in line at around 2:30 to ride in and didn't get on a bus until around 4. Once we got off the bus, the line to get your bag checked and wristband scanned was even more chaotic. It was just a sea of people with no real lines and everyone just sort of pushing forward until you got to a security guard. 

Not really ideal.

However, once I was in the park, it was smooth sailing. It wasn't too crowded inside the park which made acquiring a spot for the last two sets of the day extremely easy. The first show I got to see back in Zilker Park was the mighty Black Pumas.

Black Pumas were a solid start to the day. If you've yet to see them live, I highly encourage you to do so. This isn't a secret but Eric Burton is a fantastic singer and Adrian Quesada is an amazing guitar player. Eric was also very engaging on stage and the band was just full of great musicians. I do have my gripes about this set though, mainly the fact that if this band had anyone else besides Eric and Adrian in it, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed this set. The setlist was also...kinda wack? Me personally I think their song Fire is much better towards the end of the set, plus I'm hurt that they don't play Touch the Sky live. But neither of these things are as bad as the fact that even with an encore, they finished their set 6 minutes early. I still enjoyed myself either way and I honestly don't doubt that they could headline this festival next time they come around. After around an hour of conversating with the people around me, listening to what I could of Jon Pardi's set from across the field, and checking my phone, the lights on the stage turned blue and it turned into Friday night's headlining set, George Strait


Now I want to give you guys full disclosure before I start reviewing George's set just to get my biases out of the way. Y'all have to understand that I adored this man. Just ask anyone in my family, whether it be parents, cousins, aunts, uncles. Whoever you ask, they'll likely tell you stories of me putting on a cowboy hat, strapping up a toy acoustic guitar, and pretending to be George. And even as I've gotten older and grown out of pretending to be George, I still have nothing but admiration for the man. He's stuck it out in the country game for so long and his level of quality has never decreased. ACL booking George was one of the main reasons I bought a wristband and I knew going into this that this would be the closest I'd possibly ever get for one of his shows.

Okay, my bias is hopefully clear now. This was my third time seeing George. I had been lucky enough to see him on the Twang Tour and again a few years later when he was doing his Cowboy Rides Away Tour, and dare I say this was the best of each three shows I've seen. I attribute most of that to the people I was around and how close I was for his set but regardless, he's a legend and at 69 years old, his voice has not aged a day. For two hours straight, he ran through hit after hit and for the crowd just ate it all up. You could also just tell that he was happy to be there, saying in his greeting to the crowd, "We were booked to play this thing a year ago and we're so excited to finally be able to play for y'all" before launching into Here For A Good Time. He also told us "... and then we're limited on our time, unfortunately" which caused the crowd to start booing to which George responded, "That's what I'm saying!" George was in great spirits the whole night and you could tell for a lot of people around me that it was truly special to have him headlining the Friday night of the festival. Oh yeah, I got to dap up Jon Pardi as he walked to the soundboard to watch George's set so that was cool too. 


Jack Harlow drew in a looooot of people on Saturday

Saturday already started better based solely on the fact that we found a solid parking spot in a garage for $15, got a belly full of BBQ, then got to be within walking distance of the park. The day started with just hanging out around the park before wandering over to Gracie Abrams' set. Gracie is still getting her feet wet in touring and playing shows but regardless, I'm excited to see where she goes from here. I really enjoyed her EP Minor from last year and I think a lot of the songs translated well live. She was also super cool on stage and you could tell she was excited to be playing a festival of this level, freaking out at one point that Jack Harlow was closing the stage she was playing. After this we turned around to the Honda Stage to get a good spot for Surfaces and boy oh boy where do I begin. 

For those unfamiliar with them, Surfaces are a pop duo hailing from College Station, Texas. They've had a few viral hits, mainly the songs Wave of You and Sunday Best. I wasn't too crazy about their new album that dropped over the summer but after seeing their set, I really need to give it another spin. For a solid hour, Colin Padalecki and sidekick Forrest Frank gave off so much energy and were just solid performers. They've definitely cut their teeth and after seeing this set, they honestly may have deserved to play a little later in the day. Forrest also took some time to express his gratitude saying "Playing this festival has been a dream of mine since the first time I stood at this stage in 2017 and it's truly an honor to play for you guys." I also have to point out that the cover of Ain't No Mountain High Enough that they threw in absolutely slapped. 

Charley Crockett performing on the VRBO Stage at ACL Fest 2021 (Photo by Jackie Lee Young/ACL Fest/C3 Presents)

From that point on the day honestly started to kind of fly by. Charley Crockett took over the VRBO Stage to start the second half of the day and while his music is great in its own right, the man is a natural-born performer. He's one of those performers that is just tough to take your eye off of because you don't know what his next move will be. Whether he's running circles behind his mic stand or shuffling down to his knees and back up again, he is definitely gonna be someone to not miss when he comes through your city. His setlist was solid too even though it leaned a bit heavier on new stuff. I can't knock it though, hearing Welcome to Hard Times live was such a fun time and I Need Your Love, one of my favorite songs of this year, was definitely better live. After Charley, I got to cross a big one off the list, Phoebe Bridgers. While I want to come on here and praise her set to the sky and talk about how awesome it was...I have to talk about some of the negatives first. 

For starters, ever since the schedule dropped, I think it's been stupid that Phoebe was playing in the daytime. Punisher isn't an album that could translate as well during the day, trust me, I've tried walking my dog in the middle of the day listening to it and it just doesn't work out. But actually attending her set made me realize that her playing in the daytime wasn't the biggest damper on her set, it was the talkers. If you've never listened, most of Phoebe's music is slow indie-folk music with a lot of sad lyrics and it's very soft, easy on the ears usually, which means at a festival set, it's very easy to talk over. And it was, for about the whole set. I think the worst it got was during the album's title track where at times, I couldn't even hear Phoebe sing. However, despite the noise, I still think she deserved her mainstage spot. The opening punch of Motion Sickness -> Garden Song -> Kyoto was about as solid of a run to open a show as any. The finale of I Know The End was amazing too, that song takes on a whole new life live. And on-stage, Phoebe is such a sweetheart. She didn't talk much but when she did, it was usually met with a smile and a punchline of some sort. For example, before Kyoto she pointed out a fan's sign that was supposed to read "MOMMY" but was flipped upside down with Phoebe saying, "your sign says WOWWY," she then introduced the song saying, "This song is for anyone who's ever had to lie to CPS about their parents." Even funnier though in my opinion was her introducing Chinese Satelite by saying, "This is a song about getting chased by anti-abortion activists. This one is dedicated to Greg Abbott."

After Phoebe, I saw a little bit of two sets. Freddie Gibbs threw down on the T-Mobile stage for the little bit of his set I got to watch. As far as live rappers go, I think I could consider Freddie one of the better I've seen. He was actually rapping all of his lines over instrumentals and had great energy. And yes, he's just as funny onstage as he is on Twitter and as he was on Instagram. I also got to see about 20 minutes of Doja Cat from the very back and honestly, if I didn't have anything else I wanted to see immediately after her, I probably would've tried to get closer because her set looked so fun. She had a big production with background dancers, tons of choreo, and she sounded really good too. I know this doesn't really go in order but I think I'll talk about her now since she was pretty underwhelming, Saturday night's headliner was the one and only, Billie Eilish

Now a lot of you guys know that I love Billie and her music, as far as pop music goes it's awesome to see someone who might be one of the biggest pop stars in the world making boundary-pushing and cutting edge pop music. I've also already been lucky enough to see her play this festival in 2019 and I was excited to see what she could do with a full 90 minute headlining slot. Unfortunately, she suffered from a lot of the same problems as she did when I saw her last time. I don't know when it'll happen but eventually, her sound crew needs to wake up and realize that she's not playing 1k-2k person theaters and clubs anymore, she's playing big arenas and huge festivals. Billie doesn't have a loud voice to begin with so why would you keep her voice so quiet in the mix?

In defense of Billie though, I do think her stage show has improved since her last time at the festival and a lot of the new stuff is really good live. Mainly songs like Billie Bossa Nova which I didn't care for too much on release or of course, Happier Than Ever which closed the show. I think I heard about 50,000 people go to therapy for free screaming out that last "JUST F*CKING LEAVE ME ALONE!!!" line. The reason I bring up Billie now though is because of the set I saw right before her who, even as a big fan of his music, I was completely blown away by. That, someone, was Dayglow

I actually have this festival to thank for introducing me to Dayglow when he was added to the lineup late to fill in a mid-afternoon spot on the festival's smallest stage. Now, two years later, Sloan Struble and his band closed out the VRBO Stage with one of the best shows of the weekend. On stage, Sloan is kind of awkward, kind of weird, but his swagger and his confidence really make his performances stand out. Whether it was him skipping out on stage and hitting the woah during an extended intro of the song Something or him and guitarist Colin Crawford leaning on each other's back for the guitar solo during the song Medicine, there was always something worth paying attention to. While Dayglow might be the solo project of Struble, these songs absolutely shine live with the added members. I also have to mention that the crowd for this set was amazing. Everyone was singing, dancing, giving all of the energy Sloan was giving us right back. This set could've easily ended my day and I would've been very content. It was the perfect closing set for a stage like this one. 


Sunday, in my opinion, had the weakest daily schedule of any day I went but I also didn't want to sit around and do nothing for a while so we again got to the park early and got to take a picture in the frame, in front of the Rock Island, and in front of some of the stuff Tyler the Creator brought with his GOLF pop up shop. While the park was pretty calm up until then, the energy get turned up almost immediately when KennyHoopla took the stage. Sitting at Tito's pop-up booth after playing their Plinko game, I heard the sound of loud guitars coming from the T-Mobile Stage so, curious, my mom and I went to go check it out. For the next 30 or so minutes, Kenny kicked ass and took names. I'll admit, I haven't been too crazy about this "pop-punk revival" that's been happening recently. I think a lot of artists just think that the loud the music is, the better it is, leading to a lot of overblown and lifeless songs and albums, but Kenny 100% won me over. He was doing twirls on stage and jumping into the crowd who loved every moment of it. I'm excited to see where he goes from here. White Reaper followed soon after and kept the energy level high with a solid, riff-heavy hour of music. Their keyboardist was a huge goofball but I loved him for that. He poked fun at the two artists after them saying, "Who's ready for Polo G?? (crowd cheers) But who's ready for Karol G?? (crowd cheers again) We didn't get the memo that we had to have a G in our name." He then unofficially renamed the band "Reaper G." 

The performance of their song Conspirator was an absolute mess but I mean that in a good way. Before the song, their keyboardist asked everybody to throw their boxed water up to the stage if they had one which of course, everyone obliged. The singer also asked for people to open up mosh pits which again, everyone obliged. And during the song, the keyboardist would open up boxes of water that had been thrown on the stage and throw them back into the audience. It's all in the video linked above so check that out if this all doesn't make sense. 

Cautious Clay took over the Miller Lite stage soon after and provided the chill R&B vibes for his hour slot. He has a great voice and was a great presence on stage. He also didn't just sing, he also had songs where at the end he would throw in a flute or a saxophone solo and also played guitar on a couple songs. He was the perfect mid-afternoon set in my opinion. Band of Horses played the Lady Bird Stage next and delivered banger after banger for their time slot. Also surprisingly, their set wasn't nearly as crowded as I anticipated it would be. I showed up about halfway through their first song and got a spot about midway between the stage and the soundboard but I could've easily been 4-5th row if I actually tried. Their music is a solid blend of Americana and Heartland Rock and in my opinion, it was perfect festival music, and had Stevie still been playing, I think they would've been great to start the leadup to her set. I also have to point out that they threw in an awesome cover of Brooks & Dunn's Neon Moon that the crowd really enjoyed and I think frontman Ben Bridwell did it 100% justice. Finally, their performance of The Funeral was just as great as I anticipated it would be even with Bridwell stopping in the middle of the song saying, "Man, I can't remember the chords. I've played this song a million times I don't know why it's escaping me."

Sunday ended with 3 of my most anticipated sets of the weekend back to back to back. It started with Marc Rebillet who is a bit hard to explain if you don't know about him and his shtick. Essentially, he goes on stage in a robe and his boxers and makes up beats and loops on the spot for 55 minutes before usually ending his set with a couple songs that people know from before. He also does a lot of crowd work, even asking an audience member what a song he was going to make up should be about (she said penis) and at one point he stage dived, landed on his back on top of the crowd, then opened a bottle of champagne and sprayed it all over the crowd. After his set I left to go use the bathroom and fill up my water bottle and had to listen to a little bit of Greta Van Fleet who are once again getting rave reviews but they're still not for me. I will say though, Safari Song absolutely slapped live. The next two sets I saw were not only the best of the day but also two of the best of the entire weekend. Those two were St. Vincent and Tyler, The Creator

Both of these sets were artists I had high expectations for just based on what I've seen from previous live performances and even with those high expectations, I was still blown away. I'll start with St. Vincent (who for simplicities sake I'll just call Annie for the rest of this writeup) because she was easily the better of the two. For starters, Annie is a queen and she commanded the stage with authority. She's an awesome singer and an even better guitar player, even if she didn't solo as much as I wish she could've. I also have to point out the Daddy's Home era is one of the coolest she's ever done. The band is on point, the background singers are amazing, and the reworked versions of the song Digital Witness was fun, funky, and just a solid opener. The songs Marrow and Birth in Reverse let her guitar playing shine, I danced like a fool to Los Ageless and Fast Slow Disco, the latter of which might be the best performance she did of any song, and it really hurt to have to walk away right as she started Cheerleader but the impression left was strong. 

To end the festival, Tyler the Creator played for about an hour and 15 minutes and many times throughout his set I thought to myself, "I can't believe DaBaby was supposed to be Sunday's rap headliner." Tyler is an absolute pro and I've never seen one single person command a stage and an audience like he did, even if the audience was pretty subpar. To start his show, Tyler walked on stage while intro music played holding two suitcases, one holding a microphone that he pulled out, then he put a knee up on a trunk on stage, and held his hand under his chin as the intro music started ending with the refrain that's very common from his latest album "CALL MEEEEE IF YOU'RE LOSSSSST." The intro music ended with a phone ringing before he launched straight into CORSO which was probably the best opening song I saw at any set the whole weekend. As he rapped through the verse, fireworks were going off on stage, Tyler was hitting his weird dance moves and slithering across the stage, and still rapping every single word. While I do think the first part of his set kind of dragged since it was mainly reliant on new material, once the Flower Boy stuff started, it was smooth sailing from there. I also have mosh pits and a less than packed audience to thank as I started the show parallel with the sound booth and ended up about 20 rows back and the closer I got, the more fun the audience was. For a song like Who Dat Boy, I was the only person within about 20ft of me jumping to the song. Meanwhile, when I got to the spot I ended the show in and NEW MAGIC WAND dropped, I had the time of my life. On stage, Tyler is equal parts weird as he is funny asking us multiple times, "Y'all good?? Because I am wet!" He also cracked me up during the intro to Boredom where he was trying to get the crowd to sing starting with the left side who he said was "Trash. I should've stayed home." He then tried the right side who he told, "Trash. I should've gone to Dallas." He then finally asked everybody to sing and they did, but Tyler responded, "That was great but y'all were offbeat. It's fine though." Tyler is a showman and really knows how to rise to the occasion. As the final notes of RUNITUP played and everybody jumped one more time, Tyler left the stage, giving us the middle finger, then disappearing backstage.

So, despite the lineup being pretty weak, I once again had a blast in Zilker Park for the festival. You could tell a lot of people were grateful to be back and just about everyone I got to talk to (between sets of course) was super happy to be there and usually super nice. The ACL experience may have been tampered with a little bit due to what felt like lower attendance and mulch all over the park due to rain but regardless, I had a great time and I don't think I saw a bad performance the whole weekend. My top 5 sets of the weekend in no particular order were George Strait, St. Vincent, Tyler the Creator, Surfaces, and Dayglow. 

I took a lot of videos over the weekend, like, a bunch. If you want to check any of those out, I'll link the YouTube playlist below. All photos were taken by me except for where stated.