We can hardly process all that we’ve seen and done over the past weekend. Beginning with a few thanks to both HomeAway and Tito’s Handmade Vodka, for letting us crash their backstage lounges (even if we had to sing for our wristbands at HomeAway – #WorthIt). The short version is that – after over 15 years of Zilker Park takeovers, introductions of hundreds of new bands to the Austin and global audiences, and helping to redefine what a festival should be – Austin City Limits Music Festival has still got every bit of the magic, renegade spirit, and reckless joy that it had when it first came on the scene.
For a deeper dive, we’ve got to take it all day-by-day, starting with Friday.
Day 1, in which a titan takes the stage, music is literally everywhere and HomeAway becomes a hometown hero:
Friday of ACL 2017 was always going to be about only one thing. Jay-Z was a late addition to this year’s lineup and he could not have been more welcome. Sporting his signature subtle white tee and a Dallas Cowboys lid to replace the more common Yankees cap, he ran through a set bound and determined to serve as not only a voyage through the best of Jay-Z’s catalogue, but as a notice for all other festival headliners – Friday night’s closer is the one to watch at ACL. A one-man tour de force, he effortlessly commanded all attention without every bringing his wife on stage (which was a floating rumor, throughout both weekends). But, with “Run this Town” as his opener and a few moves into pop like “Empire State of Mind,” and “Izzo,” it was plenty clear who ran Austin by the time he hit the trifecta of “Big Pimpin’,” Hard Knock Life,” and “Numb/Encore.” It was more than enough to prompt an answer from the tens of thousands of Austin fest-goers. Indeed, they did want an encore and very much wanted more, come the end of his searing set.
If they’d spent the whole day on the grounds, however, they got a whole lot more. Specifically, the HomeAway stage was a severe draw, as Muna owned the early crowds with their incredibly danceable anthems, as the crowd began an early afternoon sway that spilled out into Zilker, infecting the park with a profound positivity that even managed to cheer up the otherwise sullen, “Edge of Seventeen,” cover that sprung forth from the speakers. They nimbly worked through their setlist and had a smile on most faces, whether they were crowded on the rail or walking from stage to stage.
Over at the Tito’s tent, the mood was perhaps more subtle, but no less enthusiastic. Valerie June worked the crowd into an easy rhythm – one aided by being fortunate guests of the Tito’s backstage area. Her sharp notes and distinctly jazz rhythms were a welcome addition to the blue skies and welcome breezes.In her pink shorts and shimmer top, she enchanted all who visited the Tito’s tent, and had them clapping and moving long after they moved to the next musical adventure.
Our next musical adventure – with all deference to “Hova” – was the supreme highlight of ACL 2017, which is an impressive feat on the first day of a long musical weekend. But, our SXSW pick from yesteryear, James Vincent McMorrow tore open a live wire of emotion, energy and infectious grooves. Beginning with his turn toward hip-hop rhythm and backing beats on “We Move,” through to his most recent release, “True Care,” – which partly abandons some of the slow jam of songs like “I Lie Awake Every Night,” in favor of even more soaring vocals, set against increasingly electronic sounds. But, regardless, his allure is beyond compare. Falsetto notes, set against driving tunes and a humble, self-aware showman makes it the best of the fest, even after reflecting back on the whole weekend.
But Friday – which could be easily rebranded as “Ditch Day,” echoing the common vernacular from baseball games played in the mid-afternoon on a weekday, such as this – had plenty of other highlights to speak of, as well. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, which we found hard to get close to, for the collision of scheduling with Ms. June and Mr. McMorrow, had a tone that broke through the din of the crowd and competing stage acts, with more than his hit, “Cecilia and the Satellite” (though that song certainly was the crowdpleaser of the set). Too, The Revivalists, still hot on the success of “Wish I Knew You,” from the KGSR airplay and national regard, made their time at the Honda Stage into a true party, complete with a Mick Jagger-level swagger that had been heretofore reserved at ACL for only the likes of The Killers and Foo Fighters. Ryan Adams, too, tore into a soulful and yet powerful set that would have been legend at any other festival, but is and remains par for the course at Austin City Limits Music Festival. It doesn’t make it any less emotive when he pleads “Come Pick Me Up,” from his underground hit, but emotive and amazing are commonplace for ACL Music Festival.
Perhaps the quiet hero of the evening was the quietest set at ACL 2017. Silent Disco, an experiment by DJs who want to promote a more immersive and inclusive experience, took over the Tito’s tent at the end of the night and, although the sound from the stage was nominal, the movement of the crowds, adorned in one of three different lighted headsets, was enough to make anyone crave to be a part of the gathered throng. A perfect nightcap to the best of Austin’s “Ditch Day,” and ACL 2017 was off to the best start.