Austin City Limits Was The Perfect End To This Year’s Epic Festival Season
As many of you know, festival season is an extremely subjective time period. It arguably begins with Coachella in April and ends sometime in the months of September/October. Festivals outside that range abound, what with Halloween, Valentine’s Day, March Madness, New Year’s, and Thursdays, but the wonder of “festival season” is the type of people it brings out – generally young adults in school who can’t make time the rest of the year. That attraction is reflected in the festivals that choose to operate during festival season, as they’re always quite big and lofty.
I recently returned from a 5-day trip to the wonderful city of Austin, TX where the annual Austin City Limits festival is held at Zilker Park. Coming from Los Angeles, my first impression of Austin was the price of everything – it’s damn cheap, and I loved it. But the second thing was the friendliness. Austin is one of the more liberal and younger cities in Texas, and it shows in its people and how they treat others. My first destination after landing at Bergstrom International Airport was to pick up my festival wristband from will call. It was an easy trip, and an even easier interaction with the helpful festival staff who were kind enough to give us a ride on a golf cart to and from our car. No reason, just because they were there and were feeling generous. This theme continued throughout my stay, and I loved every second of it.
Now, before I even got to Austin City Limits on Friday, I stopped by Vulcan on 6th Street for the very first stop on Zeds Dead‘s “2 Night Stand Tour.” The show wasn’t part of ACL’s official afterparty series, but all the same, it reflected Austin’s bona fide nature as the Live Music Capital of the world. Aryay provided opening duties, but try as he might, the heroes of the night were on everyone’s mind. Zeds Dead played an electrifying two-hour set that ranged from electro to drum & bass to dubstep and included more than one track from their album coming out next year. (And yes, Omar Linx will be on it.)
And finally, Day 1 of ACL was upon me. I took a $15 Uber from my friend’s north-ish Austin home and arrived at 4th/Guadalupe where ACL provided a free shuttle service for attendees. I would use this service every day of the festival, and I can only begin to estimate the savings. Thank you, Austin City Limits.
After the brief ride to the festival grounds, and a brisk walk to the entrance, I was inside. First, let me say that security at the festival was phenomenal: police and security officers were present, but not aggressive. They were there to react to any bad events, rather than act preemptively, and I think a lot of attendees appreciated that. Speaking of attendees, it was an all-ages and family friendly festival, and I’ll get to the implications of that in a bit.
The festival grounds were very reminiscent of Coachella, without a lot of the fanfare. There was grass, short and neat, and not muddy anywhere. There weren’t really any art installations, and most of the square footage of the grounds was taken up by either stages, food vendors, or merch booths – not counting foot traffic. The center of the festival was the most open area by far, and many attendees took advantage of this to throw a football or frisbee around with their friends or kids when others weren’t walking in the way. The rest of the festival, especially the areas around the stages, suffered from some logistical errors that I can’t really think of a solution to, other than to have less people. The major issue that contributed to difficult transit from stage to stage was the sanction to use lawn chairs and sitting areas for families. This caused a considerable amount of traffic buildup in the audience area, and those walking/standing often found themselves navigating treacherous terrain between those sitting and lying. Still, once you got close enough to a stage, there were “No Chair Zones” that helped.
The food vendors’ area was another place that was a little difficult to navigate for a completely unavoidable reason: people love food. And at Austin City Limits, it was absurdly affordable. Remember before when I said that Austin was cheap, and that it was similar to Coachella? This is where that similarity begins to unravel. Among all the food items and vendors, I can estimate only 5% of items sold cost more than $10, and if it was priced at that level, what you received was worth the price. The cheapest food that I purchased was a serving of Parmesan-parsley French Fries that were priced at a very reasonable $4 – and they were delicious. The alcohol variety was also quite refreshing, without breaking your wallet. Even better, they carried my favorite hard cider, Crispin, and I found myself drinking it all weekend. (Responsibly.)
The organization and placement of the stages was probably the most jarring thing for me. At most festivals that I go to, I’m used to music at all times at all locations (barring brief intermissions where an artist had to set up instruments and whatnot). However at ACL, the proximity of stages to one another, the amount of stages (seven), and the amount of artists created an interesting solution from promoters C3. The stage performers were staggered, with stages facing each other or in close proximity switching off so that sound bleed didn’t occur.
For quick instance, while the Miller Lite stage was going off, the Honda stage remained silent. The same applied to the Samsung and Homeaway stages. The rest of the stages were offered a bit more leniency, as they were not as loud nor directly faced another stage.
Now that we’ve talked about logistics, let’s talk about performances.
Getting into the festival the first day, my first goal was to catch Alina Baraz & Galimatias at the Austin Ventures stage. Unfortunately, they were late in getting ready, and Royal Blood was playing at Samsung, so I made an executive decision and made the trek over to the mainstage. I later heard that Alina & Galimatias put on a great show, I don’t doubt it.
Dance music at the festival was overall relatively light, but Friday was definitely the lightest. Only two other acts that day who fit the bill, Disclosure and Flosstradamus, the latter of which who might as well have been puppeteers to the overwhelmingly responsive crowd. I’ve heard mixed things about their performances, and my first time seeing them was definitely one for the books.
I was able to catch a little bit of Brandon Flowers’ set before Floss, and was lucky enough to hear him close with “Mr. Brightside” from The Killers. It actually made me cry. I was also able to see Tame Impala in the early evening, whose eclectic blend of electronica and rock made for an eye-opening performance. While their presence on a festival stage was overwhelming already, I can only imagine them playing the stadiums that they’re now selling out.
But still! One of my most anticipated artists of the weekend was the headliner for Saturday night, Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl showed up in his now iconic adorned throne, and showed off his polished festival performance persona. He effortlessly interacted with the crowd while giving renditions of his best tracks the production they deserved. Alas, we are a dance music blog, and so I cut my viewing short to go catch up with Disclosure at the other end of the venue.
I arrived at their set an hour after they had started, just as they were playing “When A Fire Starts To Burn.” Now, I must admit, Disclosure’s music is not my cup of tea, but I wanted to give their live show a chance. “WAFSTB” is one of their most well known songs, and an actual favorite of mine, so I figured it a good point to enter their set. Unfortunately, whether it was because their set is a journey, or because their music really truly isn’t for me, I found it absurdly boring and left in ten minutes. I regret not going back to see the rest of the Foo Fighters’ set, but I left such a good spot in the crowd earlier, I felt it wouldn’t be the same.
I took the shuttle back to 4th/Guadalupe, made a little detour to an afterparty at Kingdom, took the $15 Uber back to my friend’s house, and steadied myself for Day 2.
Day 2 started earlier and ended later for me, packed with nearly back-to-back must-see performances for me. I was basically stuck at the Homeaway and Samsung stages for the first four hours of the day to see Ryn Weaver, Glass Animals, Misterwives, and Twenty One Pilots. All of them sort of touched on the electronic realm, Glass Animals especially, so all of these performances were quite enjoyable.
Twenty One Pilots was especially entertaining, considering the type of antics that frontman Tyler Joseph is known for. At one point, he disappeared from the stage and was next seen climbing the stage scaffolding at stage left, ascending all the way to above the giant LED screens for their song “Car Radio.” It was definitely one of the most entertaining moments of the entire weekend.
Glass Animals had a sort of tropical house vibe to them, and lead singer Dave Bayley vibed hard with the crowd in the heat. Their laidback style fit in well with the early afternoon set, and fans had an easy time dancing slowly in the crowd.
Misterwives, who catapulted into EDM knowledge thanks in part to their track “Coffins” being covered by Pegboard Nerds, have truly grown into a fully formed and powerful outfit. Lead singer Mandy Lee, aside from being drop-dead adorable, had incredible stage presence and left the crowd feeling right at home – even if you were an out-of-towner like me.
I wanted to catch Ryn Weaver mostly because of the sheer amount of remixes her hit “Octahate” received, and her own performance was definitely enjoyable, though admittedly not totally my cup of tea.
Just like I how I was waiting for Foo Fighters on Friday, I was desperately anticipating performances from Bassnectar and Deadmau5 on Saturday night. Bassnectar’s performance was scheduled for the Homeaway stage, which I found odd considering Flosstradamus had performed on the objectively bigger Miller Lite stage, and surely Bassnectar could bring a bigger crowd. (I couldn’t confirm this as I was right in the middle for the whole performance.) Still, he played to the all-genre festival with cut-ins of Nirvana and Weezer, mixing his unique brand of bass music with rock classics.
Deadmau5 had already started by the time I made my way over to the Honda stage, and it was going off. The producer/DJ was steadily keeping the crowd moving, mixing in old school deadmau5 classics like “Strobe” and newer tracks from while (1<2) like “Infra Turbo Pigcart Racer.” Seeing his couch-and-beer interlude for “Seeya” in person for the first time was also really enjoyable. It definitely made it feel more like a live set than watching a DJ stay behind the decks.
I skipped the rest of Drake’s performance to take the shuttle back home.
Day 3 was the latest start for me, getting to the festival close to 4 o’clock. The day didn’t hold as many great acts for me as Friday or Saturday, but it still held some of my most anticipated sets of the weekend. (I had so many ‘most anticipated sets,’ I know.) First up was Sylvan Esso, the male/female singer/DJ duo from North Carolina with an oddly vivacious and socially minded spin on dance music. I gave their self-titled album the #6 spot on my Top 10 Albums list for 2014, so you should check it out. They played some new music from their album out next year, and had the crowd grooving slowly to their weird beats and infectious vocals.
I stopped by the Tito’s Handmade Vodka stage for a bit to check out Classixx, who infamously got booed off stage at a Zedd tour last year. Their set at ACL definitely made me wonder why, as their live performance was definitely noteworthy, featuring sultry guitar licks and processed vocals.
Chance The Rapper had one of the biggest crowds that I could visibly see all weekend, and Vance Joy was a bit of a disappointment. Griz put on a typical Griz set – funky and downright fun. But all of this, this entire weekend, was leading up to one moment for me…
I’ve been excited to see them since the release of their second album Between II Worlds last month, and interested to see how the much more vocal album would fit in with their live show. The answer: the show was a lot less powerful than previous sets, missing mainstays like their “Icky Thump” edit and “Must Be The Feeling” track. In their place were newer tracks like “Circles” and “What Does Love Mean,” tracks with a much slower feel and a more intimate sound. Their set was like watching a play unfold, the main actors playing with vibrations and tempos like they would with a script. Other than Bassnectar, Nero’s set was the only one that I felt I had to be in the thick of it for, and I don’t regret it one bit. All of the sweat, tears, and pain afterward were worth it. I can’t wait to see them again for HARD Day of the Dead on Halloween in Los Angeles.
It’s hard to actually say what my favorite festival of the year has been so far, they’ve all been such unique experiences. Austin City Limits is definitely up there though. Organization, lineup, people, location, venue, it all just worked.
Weekend 2 begins today. If you enjoy it half as much as me, you’ll be in for a really good time.
If there’s any photo that can encapsulate the experience last week, it’s the one below.