The first day of Austin City Limits Music Festival was an absolute scorcher—both in terms of the exceptionally hot weather and the sizzling performances. Nearly every act commented on the heat, but shockingly, none seemed fazed by it. To combat the heat, festivalgoers chugged water and carried around handheld cardboard fans in various shapes—lemons, beer cans, and a massive head of Michael from The Office (but to be fair, I don’t think that last one was meant to be a fan). American Express, who also sponsored the festival’s biggest stage and was the official partner of ACL’s cashless wristband payment system, offered fans several opportunities to relax and cool off.
For both weekends of the festival, American Express are offering benefits for cardholders who register for cashless payments. All festivalgoers received access to the first level of American Express Experience, which offered an air conditioned lounge with various activities and giveaways on the first level. The second level Card Member Club was a card member exclusive, offering a great view of the American Express stage along with a rooftop bar decorated with repurposed musical instruments.
Dragonflies were spotted hovering all over the Zilker Park festival grounds along with a small plane pulling a banner that read, “Andrew has a boner.” Though given the fact that the plane flew around all day, let’s hope it didn’t last that long or else Andrew’s probably in the hospital. Another recurring theme was Beto O’Rourke stickers, pins and t-shirts galore with several organizations onsite, registering people to vote. Though we live in dire times with deep rage and division, day one of Austin City Limits was a much needed kick of serotonin.
Dressed in all yellow and with her band dressed in all blue, Richmond, Va. singer-songwriter Natalie Prass was a much-needed ray of light. Though a noon set time can often mean a sparse, disinterested crowd, Prass’ energy was magnetic as she played singles from her recently released second LP, The Future and The Past. Songs like “The Fire” and “Ship Go Down” displayed her breathy voice—a pleasant concoction of jazz, pop and soul—and her band’s summery blues guitars and perky keyboards. “Short Court Style” was the highlight of the set—drawing yelps of approval after the opening notes.
Indie-folk rockers Big Thief make a quiet, beautiful racket and their ACL set translated that perfectly. Songs like “Shark Smile,” “Real Love” and “Mary” felt intimate yet mighty. Lead singer Adrianne Lenker points to another contradiction as she commented on how sweaty it was on stage. In reference to the heat, she called herself “a fragile Minnesota soul,” but quickly clarified, “strong and fragile.” Lenker personifies “strong and fragile” as she tugs at the heart strings with pretty folk ballads and makes her guitar scream during extended solos. She also gave a shoutout to her new solo record, abysskiss, which came out on Friday, and she played a track from it, “Terminal Paradise,” but this time with a full band. Though mixing sweat and tears would make it somewhat painful to cry, I would be surprised if most people had dry eyes in the crowd.
Canadian dream-pop band, Alvvays were simply made for sunny weather. The group’s danceable jangle-pop along with their retro aesthetic and summery imagery (merry-go-round, ice cream, pool, wayfarers, etc.) just make this occasion feel right. Performing tracks from their two full-lengths, songs like “In Undertow” and “Dreams Tonite” really connected with the crowd as everyone was clearly basking in the glory of their sweet dream-pop bliss. After delivering a rambunctious version of “Saved By a Waif,” lead singer Molly Rankin noticed a Beto shirt, which resulted in her widely-appreciated quip, “Fuck Ted Cruz!” The crowd laughed and cheered before joining in full force for their fan favorite track and set closer, “Archie, Marry Me.”
Besides the obvious musical reasons, David Byrne and his band get a special mention here for wearing impeccable, matching suits in the 90 degree Austin sun. With his customary grey-suited troupe, Byrne serenades the crowd while clutching a plastic human brain, but it’s all par for the course. Playing solo hits as well as Talking Heads classics, the set was nothing short of a spectacle with a group of a dozen or so other musicians (dancers, percussionists, keyboardists, etc.) all playing wirelessly and in a seamlessly choreographed fashion. The group’s symbiotic relationship was more than impressive. Songs featured funky African-inspired rhythms and idiosyncratic flourishes that we’ve come to know and love from Byrne. Bryne closed with a rousing cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which gave off a tropical marching band vibe and a revolutionary spirit as the song’s lyrics commemorate the names of minorities who were violently killed.
The National are one of those bands that connects with people on such a deeply emotional and personal level that even casual fans of the band would’ve been moved by the heartfelt singalongs that filled the band’s ACL set. The whole thing was practically a sad, collective singalong as The National played a career-spanning show. On “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” festivalgoers yelped with unremitting passion, “I can’t explain it / Any other way!” Despite my view and others’ being partially obscured by an extremely lifelike plush dog on a stick, the band delighted the crowd with songs like “Guilty Party,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Graceless.” Though the band weren’t much to see onstage, as soon as frontman Matt Berninger wandered off into the crowd during “Day I Die,” people were hypnotized by his presence. Berninger seemed to be in good spirits, commenting on his sunkissed complexion, “I always look this pink. It’s about the romance.”
After scoring a number one album with their recent major label debut, Iridescence, the juggernaut boyband, Brockhampton were a must-see for tons of young festivalgoers who were ready to watch their beloved band ascend from cult status to the mainstream right before their very eyes. The band opened with their new single “New Orleans” and the bar for the rest of the show was now set sky high. The crowd was jumping, bouncing their arms and rapping along from the get-go, especially during hits like “Weight,” “Boogie” and “Gold.” The band’s primary mastermind, Kevin Abstract, introduced the group as “the world’s best boyband” and it’s really hard to argue with them. Later, he instructed the crowd to make “a big ass moshpit” and they quickly returned the favor with not just one, but several moshpits that opened spontaneously throughout the crowd. Though it didn’t get the best reaction of the set, “Queer,” was delivered with such finesse and fierce tenacity that the sweat I’d been experiencing all day quickly turned into goosebumps.
Based on the sheer volume of Beatle posters and t-shirts around the grounds, plenty of folks were mainly here to see McCartney. Some fans parked at the front of the stage as early as noon when Natalie Prass opened the stage earlier that day. American Express were kind enough to let some members of the press and some Amex card holders watch the set from the platforms above the side of the stage. As McCartney and his band walked onstage to the packed out Austin crowd, I’ve never heard a roar quite as loud or a sea of humanity quite as vast. McCartney opened with “A Hard Day’s Night” and immediately, fans knew they were in for something special. Throughout the whopping two hour set, McCartney dedicated songs to his wife who was in attendance, George Harrison and the recently deceased Beatle sound engineer Geoff Emerick. He was quite talkative—telling anecdotes of everything from the band’s old days in Liverpool to running into members of the Russian government at one of his shows.
Though he played songs spanning his entire discography, unsurprisingly, Beatle hits like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Love Me Do,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Blackbird,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and “Carry That Weight” drew some of the biggest cheers and singalongs. Despite the fact that his new single, “Fuh You” from his latest album, Egypt Station, sounds a bit cringey and uncomfortably modern, surprisingly, people really connected with it as if it were one of his classics. “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude” were the two most undeniably affecting moments as people swayed their arms in unison and screamed the lyrics with such joy and conviction. Though the show’s focal point was pure human connection through music, the show was not without its theatrics. “Live and Let Die” brought unrelenting fireworks and balls of fire. “Blackbird” saw McCartney with just his acoustic guitar ascend on a moving platform until he was well above the stage and the crowd. And he returned for an encore waving a Texas Flag as his bandmates brought American, British and LGBT Pride flags. The 76-year-old McCartney was lively and his voice was astoundingly solid. As cheesy as it sounds, his ACL headlining performance transcended music and anyone who’s playing the Amex stage or any other for the rest of the festival will have their work cut out for them after the elder statesmen, McCartney, showed how it’s done.
Disclosure: American Express paid to send Paste to cover Austin City Limits Music Festival.