“Last time we played ACL was 2007!” Blue October frontman Justin Furstenfeld hollered to a huge 4 p.m. crowd. “This is amazing!”
The five-piece Texas rock band enjoyed a home field advantage and a prime time slot, perfect for local festival-goers starting their weekend early and parents picking up kids from school on their way to Zilker Park.
As grownups swayed to Blue October’s “Sway,” toddlers with blue Mohawks rolled in the grass. A young brother-sister duo snuggled on a blanket in the shade cast by a jogging stroller.
I only wanna dance with you
Every time I try
We only get an hour or so
Blue October’s music was made for ACL. Furstenfeld’s vocals manage to evoke both sunlight on a breezy day and the anxiety of a parent who is too stressed to fully enjoy the fest.
The front rows screamed along with gusto, while many in the crowd’s midsection played minimal attention to the stage, content to visit with friends while the music surrounded them. Those distracted listeners missed shirtless guitarist Matthew Ostrander gamely leaping off the drum risers for effect and a heavily tattooed Ryan Delahoussaye playing violin like he meant it. (Hard to miss in the crowd: a defaced Donald Trump sign reading, “Make ACL Great Again.”)
One of Blue October’s most compelling qualities is that of a mainstream rock band focused on mental health. Justin Furstenfeld, who lives in San Marcos, has made his past struggles with mental health public, and many of Blue October’s songs reflect those experiences, as well as challenges with sobriety, parenthood, and marriage. He introduced “Fear” as a song for anyone struggling.
I don’t have to fall apart
I don’t have to be afraid
I don’t have to let the damage
The singer’s voice ranges from growling ’90s grunge to the cleaner emoting of Journey’s Steve Perry. For better or worse, lyrics like “I gained forty pounds because of you” from “Say It” were almost impossible to decifer underneath heavy vocal echoes and booming bass. (Easy to hear were ample F-bombs, which made the mom in me wonder if this was the right band for so many toddlers after all.)
Mid-set, Justin Furstenfeld (who brother Jeremy plays drums in Blue October) embraced and sang next to the band’s sign language interpreter. Her artistry and enthusiasm added another level to the music.
Current radio single “Home” seems designed for wedding receptions in the Hill Country more so than a big rock crowd. Harder anthem “Houston Heights” was a highlight that got locked knees bouncing and reluctant heads banging.
Members of the crowd often called out, “We love you!” And Justin Furstenfeld always responded in kind. “We’ve been here so long,” he said. “We’re so grateful, so blessed to be here. I just want to come sit in your lap and give you a hug.”
He did almost that. Furstenfeld marched down to the lawn, clasping fans’ hands and even singing forehead-to-forehead with a ‘tween girl in the front row. (Jess Glynne, please take note. Crowd interaction is possible at ACL!)
Much of the large crowd left before the set was over, smiling after singing along to big 2006 radio hits “Hurt Me” and “Into the Ocean.”