ACL Fest 2016: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats get down in classic ACL style

Nathaniel Rateliff of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park Sunday October 2, 2016.  JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Nathaniel Rateliff of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park Sunday October 2, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats play the kind of music that made Austin City Limits the empire that it is — a grownup, professional-grade hybrid of blues, rock, soul, folk, and country music. Though the band only formed in 2013, it’s easy to imagine the Denver eight-piece taping an ACL session in the old studio on the University of Texas campus. It feels like they have been playing together for ages.

Rateliff could easily have filled the old, small space with his voice and stage presence, wailing over a swell of organ and horns. But rather than the old studio’s skyline silhouette behind them, the actual Austin skyline loomed large and sparkly in the 4 p.m. sun as Rateliff and band performed at the festival’s biggest stage.

The lyrics were a challenge to make out in the huge crowd, but thousands still sang along and bounced joyfully to tambourine-tinged, white-guy R&B.

Early in the show, Rateliff assessed his enormous ACL crowd: “Man, there’s a lot of you! In the sun! Lots of white people getting burned out there.”

Sunburned or not, the crowd seemed in good spirits, especially excited to hear “Shake” and radio hit “S.O.B.”

Rateliff was a natural follow to the Samsung stage’s earlier big-draw, “Dime Store Cowgirl” Kacey Musgraves, and it was impressive to think how far the institution of Austin City Limits has come in 40 years. So many influential artists have paved the way for this weekend’s strong showing by country and soul artists.

Underscoring that history, the fans around me played a spontaneous game of musical “fill in the blank” during Rateliff’s set. As each song hit its groove, someone would call out, “Ooh, hey, now he reminds me of _____________!” Here is the list of the different ways those fans in the shade at stage right finished that sentence:

“. . . Sam Cooke!”

“. . . Joe Cocker!”

“ . . .The Band!”

“ . . . Otis Redding!”

“ . . . Sturgill Simpson!”

“. . . Van Morrison!”

“ . . . Nakia Reynoso!”

“. . . James Brown!”

Rateliff and band threw themselves into the performance like the greats, with bruising tambourine, intense facial expressions, and coordinated dancing by the horn and sax players. Their style of music felt over-represented at the festival, but then again, it has long been ACL’s bread and butter.

“When I was a kid my mom taught me how to dance,” the singer shared in some of the only stage banter that was decipherable from the far sidelines. Apparently Mom taught Rateliff well.

“Those are some ‘Get on the Good Foot’ moves,” my friend said appreciatively as she watched the giant screen on the side of the stage.

The hootenanny ended with a tip of Rateliff’s hat and smiles all around.

ACL Fest 2016: Gregory Porter’s jazz gospel heals spirits, Sunday sunburns

Jazz vocalist Gregory Porter performs on the third day of the opening weekend of the 2016 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park Oct. 2. 10/02/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Jazz vocalist Gregory Porter performs on the third day of the opening weekend of the 2016 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park Oct. 2. 10/02/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Dear ACL Fest weekend two folks,

There may come a time on Sunday when you have had enough. The sun is too hot and you have accidentally endured more folk-country or EDM or whatever genre is not your thing than you ever intended. You may be feeling a tad sunburned and, shall we say, stabby.

I implore you: Get yourself to Gregory Porter’s 6 p.m. set in the tiny Tito’s tent. Get some shade, soak up some soul instead of sun, and heal your spirit with the gospel of jazz. Whoever booked Porter in this same place and time both Sundays knew exactly what they were doing (or had a stroke of divine intervention).

Walking into the tent, it felt like the band was leading a revival among friends.

Porter and his classic band of pianist, saxophonist, drummer, and upright bassist were everything ACL needed right when we needed it  – a small crowd at sundown, warm, soaring vocals, audience-participation hand claps, and the out-of-sight instrumentalist solos. (I don’t know who had the unenviable task of getting a grand piano into the Zilker Park grounds and up onto the stage, but whoever you are, thank you.)

Original anthem “No Love Dying” was a major sing-along highlight, with Porter, who was returning to the U.S. from touring in Korea and Australia. calling out, “I don’t care who you’re voting for!” in between chorus shout-outs of “There will be no love left dying here.” “On My Way to Harlem” movingly spoke of Langston Hughes, Marvin Gaye, and going home.

I was baptized by the sound of horns
Oh I found out on my way through Harlem
Marvin Gaye used to play “What’s Going On” right over there
I so could use some of those blues from Langston Hughes

Porter and company gave us lush harmonies on a cover of The Temptations’ ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone” that had audience members simultaneously trying to shake a leg and take a video. The jazz singer worked in a snippet of powerful black spiritual “Wade in the Water.” (I would love to see Porter cover Bill Withers’ “Use Me” next time.)

The energy dipped during jazzier number “In Fashion,” as part of the crowd left early to grab dinner or good spots for the evening’s headliners. But Porter picked things back up for a big finish, his voice bobbing and weaving, high and low, to appreciative cheers. A woman who had been enthusiastically dancing along held her hands up in Porter’s direction, making a heart shape in the air.

Mark your calendars for 6 p.m. Sunday at Tito’s, weekend two folks. Take a load off your body and soul with Gregory Porter.

ACL Fest 2016 review: Chainsmokers draw the crowd closer after dark

The Chainsmokers’ Saturday set made one thing very clear: there are two separate and distinct Austin City Limits Festivals.

The Chainsmokers perform on the HomeAway Stage at the Austin City Limits Music Festival on October 1, 2016. (Tamir Kalifa for American-Statesman)
The Chainsmokers perform on the HomeAway Stage at the Austin City Limits Music Festival on October 1, 2016. (Tamir Kalifa for American-Statesman)

There exists the Daytime ACL, with parents, kids, and often modest crowds of live music lovers at each of eight stages, getting to see top-notch songwriters, bands, and soul singers up closer than one might expect from an enormous festival.

And then there is ACL After Dark, where legions converge on one or two major acts, and the tired, intoxicated masses give themselves over to throbbing bass, strobe lights, and the will to dance.

The Chainsmokers were one of Saturday’s big draws in the latter category. The bouncing crowd was so thick – with people and smoke – that even a glimpse of the jumbo screens was rare from the edge of the audience.

When images did peek through the throngs, I could sees the most enthusiastic crowd of any set I’ve witnessed so far — EDM fans waving flags and cheering for blasts of orange flames. Chainsmokers duo Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall of New York City seemed to be having a blast too, pogo dancing and working the crowd in between synth parts. When they called out “Austin, Texas, are you ready?” pyrotechnics usually followed.

Chainsmokers played a bit of “Kanye” and got a brief singalong going to a sample of KISS’s “Rock n Roll All Night.” A transition from radio single “Never Let Me Go” to Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” was also a crowd pleaser.

“Everybody get as low as you can right now! Get low, get low, get low!” one of the DJs instructed, then everyone jumped up amid more bass and fire. Dancers who needed extra room for elbows and kicks grooved farther out into the open field.

At times, it was hard to tell how much of the crowd was actual Chainsmokers’ audience and how much consisted of Kendrick Lamar fans slowly making their way to his headlining set (likely a combination of both).

Introducing Chainsmokers’ recent number one hit and fan favorite, “Closer,” Taggart, who also sings on the track, said of its origin: “I got drunk and starting listening to old bands we love like Blink 182, Dashboard Confessional, and Taking Back Sunday. They tell it like it is. I wanted to write something like that.” (I may never hear pop-punk quite the same way again.)

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For my money, EDM’s haunting vocals have less resonance without a singer present, so I let myself daydream of Taggart and Paul bringing up ACL performers Jess Glynne or Melanie Martinez to animate Chainsmokers’ vocals.

Andra Day could’ve filled in beautifully on the almost-ballad “New York City,” with lyrics, “To know what it’s like to love somebody like I love you? / To know what it’s like to kill yourself with bad habits?” Phoebe Ryan did join the DJs on “All We Know” but it felt too brief.

The Chainsmokers may not have been my kind of nightcap, but the sight of thousands of people dancing in unison is a beautiful thing. The New York DJs proved they know how to light up ACL After Dark.

ACL 2016 review: Melanie Martinez channels inner toddler, highlights hypocrisy of adulthood

The stage was set for the world’s largest, wildest toddler: two giant birthday cakes and a dead-eyed teddy bear flanked rainbow-colored toy blocks spelling out CRY BABY. Two men in jumpers and fuzzy rabbit ears played haunting nursery-rhyme tunes on synthesizers and instruments behind the props. A wolf-human hybrid in a lab coat lurked somewhere.

Melanie Martinez performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park Saturday October 1, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Melanie Martinez performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park Saturday October 1, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Into this eerie scene bounced Melanie Martinez, out of an enormous crib, wearing a blue and yellow babydoll dress, hair like Cruella Deville, freckles painted on her cheeks as if she were a ragdoll. An excited, youthful Austin City Limits festival crowd eagerly sang along as Martinez, 21, from Queens, NY, launched into her theme song, “Cry Baby.”

They call you cry baby
Cry baby
But you don’t [expletive] care
Cry baby, cry baby
So you laugh through your tears

Martinez crooned and pranced for her peers — teens and young adults who relate to her concept album about the haunting elements of growing up and the hypocrisy of a pristine facade. (Tattoo-covered legs and a large nose ring appropriately contrasted with the childlike imagery of Martinez’s outfit and stage setup.)

“We’re gonna play my album,” the former contest on The Voice declared. And play the album she did, often with tracks in order.

On “Dollhouse,” the album’s second track and the second of the ACL set, Martinez makes it clear she is not singing of a perfect family or childhood but precisely the opposite — something pained, hidden, and at least a little twisted — a grotesque carnival version of what often lurks beneath real-life selfies and family photos.

Picture, picture, smile for the picture
Pose with your brother, won’t you be a good sister?
Everyone thinks that we’re perfect
Please don’t let them look through the curtains

Martinez connected well with her fans and her voice seemed strong enough for the pop material, but she lacked anything to do on stage besides skip back and forth. She needs a full band with which to connect. Midway through the set, the novelty was wearing off and fans were moving on to the next big draw.

It might’ve helped for Martinez to bring a slew of her devoted fans on stage for crowd favorites like “Soap,” “Sippy Cup,” “Carousel,” or especially “Pity Party,” with its Leslie Gore sample singalong, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”

Martinez has talent and a message that resonates with her audience, as well as creativity and entrepreneurial spirit (her self-directed, crowd-funded music videos are YouTube hits). The question is: what’s next after she outgrows her crib and sippy cup? A cover or two could have given a better sense of where Martinez sees herself heading after “Cry Baby.”

ACL Fest 2016 review: Top 5 ways Andra Day called us to rise up

Andra Day emerged to taped strains of The Flamingos’ classic “I Only Have Eyes For You,” and thus the tone was set for a performance that was nothing less than captivating. Taking a page from her best known song, “Rise Up,” Day encouraged just that — a spiritual uprising — from the modest but enthralled Saturday afternoon crowd.

Andra Day performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park Saturday October 1, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Andra Day performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park Saturday October 1, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Top 5 Moments in Day’s set:

Day covers Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” Day and the band she referred to as “family” gave their all to Simone’s song about the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers — Day reaching out to the crowd with her arms, her guitarist seeming to dig into the material with his body. Day introduced the song by saying she pays “tribute to the greats” and that the message of Simone’s song should be “inspiring, particularly right now.” The powerful wail of Day’s voice made lyrics “gotten me so upset” sound like she was calling out “Ferguson.”

Look, no make-up! Early in the set, Day told the crowd, “This is a conversation we’re having with you. Let’s talk about learning lessons.” And after embodied renditions of “Forever Mine,” “Gold,” “Honey on Fire,” and “Gin and Juice (Let Go My Hand),” she sat down at her black stool to preach self-acceptance. Her make-up and appearance once controlled her, Day said, and she didn’t feel good about herself without putting on a mask. Kendrick Lamar’s “No Make Up” helped her get past that, she said, to a “more real relationship with myself, my God, my people.” Day then spent more than a minute wiping the pin-up girl makeup off her face — from bright red lipstick to darkened eyebrows — a move she has made in concert before but which is no less moving for its repetition. Her call to “get real” was met by cheers and calls of “You’re beautiful!” from the crowd. The song was, like all the others, flawless.

Keyboardist Charles Jones takes the lead. About halfway through the groovin’ set, Day generously gave up center stage. She called out, “we’re gonna take it all the way back,” acknowledged her four bandmates as “my brothers,” and gushed about Texan Jones as a collaborator and vocal talent in his own right. Jones grinned, leaned back, exuberantly playing the keys, and giving his all to choruses of “Where would I be without you?” while Day harmonized on the sidelines.

Day calls us to “Rise Up.” “My prayer for this song is that it’s something encouraging,” Day said, dedicating the anthem to people who struggle with depression and self-acceptance. Day said her own transformation of self-love infuses all of her music. “That level of freedom is unprecedented,” she said. “I’ve experienced it. It is so powerful.” And with that, Day launched into a soul-stirring rendition of “Rise Up.”

And I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again

The crowd raised arms in praise, and tears were wiped away and hugs exchanged by audience members as the song ended.

A queen covers Queen. After “Rise Up,” Day closed with Queen’s “I Want It All,” dropping to her knees, back bend onto the stage, crying out “People do you hear me, just give me the sign / It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth / Here’s to the future for the dreams of youth / I want it all, I want it all.”

Andra Day is the future of soul, even as she so deftly evokes the past. Hers is the powerful voice of right now.

 

 

 

ACL Fest 2016 review: Jess Glynne and band shimmer with soul

Question for Jess Glynne’s audience: Did you cry too?

I felt the tears in my eyes from the first strains of opening jam, “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself” and thought, “Well, this is a good start to ACL.”

Learn to forgive, learn to let go
Everyone trips, everyone falls
So don’t be so hard on yourself, no

Only a smattering of festival-goers had gathered for Glynne’s 1 p.m. set on Friday, as the Austin City Limits Festival kicked off under clear skies and bright sun. But Glynne’s six-piece band strutted on stage in coordinated black track-style suits, like the stadium act that they are back in Britain. Glynne sashayed after them, strong, soulful vocals ringing out into Zilker Park.

Jess Glynne performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park Friday September 30, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Jess Glynne performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park Friday September 30, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

By halfway through the second song, “Rather Be,” (Glynne’s hit with Clean Bandit), the crowd had quadrupled and cheerful throngs were bouncing and clapping along in the sun. I dropped my pen in the grass and let myself dance.

“Are you ready to get down with my band and me?” Glynne called out, before waving her guitarist and bassist up front to dance in a line with her, grooving side to side to the pulsing funk bass line. During “Gave Me Something,” Glynne’s purple and blue lamé cape billowed in the early autumn breeze, and her two stellar backup singer-dancers leaned side to side in slow motion and punctuated choruses with tambourine exclamation marks.

More contagious choreography accompanied the disco-infused “Right Here.” During “You Can Find Me,” I wanted so badly to be rollerskating.

Through all of this, I thought: Prince would be proud.

Jess Glynne’s music (and talented, multiracial, gender-diverse band) would be at home at a gospel festival, on Top 40 radio, or in a Zumba class. It is timeless — recalling En Vogue and Adele, Sly & the Family Stone and Chaka Khan (whose “I Feel For You” Glynne and band covered) — and even after having to cancel shows and undergo surgery on her vocal chords in 2015, Glynne’s voice and songwriting are the real deal.

Glynne’s hourlong, 13-song set did lose some steam in the middle, with “Why Me” feeling like a throwaway and the tempos slowing. The dancing was still infectious, the sound shimmery, the band in the pocket — but something was missing. For all the ways Glynne was reaching out to the crowd with her lyrics and intense expression — her shoulders mean it when they dance — I also wanted to see her connect physically. I wanted her to reach out and grab hands in the front row during heart-swelling closer “Hold My Hand.” I wanted to see Glynne and the other singers jump into the crowd and dance with us.

The festival setting — with a big gap between stage and super-fans in the front row — prevents that kind of intimate connection. Glynne is set for a UK arena tour later this fall. She deserves a bigger audience Stateside too, a la Adele. But before she gets too huge, I hope she comes back to play small clubs too. “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself” would bring a crowd to its knees in the dark.

Jess Glynne set list:

Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself
Rather Be
No Rights No Wrongs
Gave Me Something
My Love
Ain’t Got Far To Go
Love Me
Right Here
Why Me
Take Me Home
You Can Find Me
I Feel For You (Chaka Khan cover)
Hold My Hand

Tune-yards captivate in colorful, percussive ACL performance

Tune-Yards perform at the 2014 Austin City Limits music festival on Sat., Oct. 4, 2014 at Zilker Park in Austin, TX. ASHLEY LANDIS/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Tune-Yards perform at the 2014 Austin City Limits music festival on Sat., Oct. 4, 2014 at Zilker Park in Austin, TX.
ASHLEY LANDIS/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Colorful, percussive, and eclectic by design, Tune-yards brought experimental pop to ACL Fest on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon.

Primarily a vehicle for New England-native Merill Garbus, the now Oakland-based band–often a duo but this time including regular bassist Nate Brenner and three accompanying vocalists/instrumentalists–wore painterly bright outfits that fit their quirky, enthusiastic performance. Garbus banged her drums with long, dramatic arm motions, singing in a fierce, deep wail at times, then shifting easily to tense staccato and back.

Tune-Yards perform at the 2014 Austin City Limits music festival on Sat., Oct. 4, 2014 at Zilker Park in Austin, TX. ASHLEY LANDIS/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Tune-Yards perform at the 2014 Austin City Limits music festival on Sat., Oct. 4, 2014 at Zilker Park in Austin, TX. ASHLEY LANDIS/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“Jump back! Jump back!” and “WOOHAW, WOOHAW! Gotcha,” Garbus yelped on “Water Fountain.” Background harmonies made for rich layers on standout track “Bizness” as choruses of “Don’t take my life away” resonated across the park.

“When it comes to politics, sexuality or economic power,” The L Magazine once wrote, “Merill Garbus neatly lines up the dividing walls of a segregated cultural mindset and proceeds to smash them, musically, one by one.” It’s hard to make out some of those radical deconstructions during a festival set–and for a white American band playing music more than tinged by Afrobeat, the line between experiment and appropriation can come up for discussion. But Tune-yards were compelling enough to make new listeners want to dig deeper and decide for themselves.

Garbus expressed heartfelt gratitude to be playing for a festival crowd, inviting everyone to the band’s after-show at Emo’s on Sunday night and return ACL engagement next weekend. “But if you can’t make it, just thanks for being here now.”

Rebelution brings chill vibe of “roots reggae music”

“We’re groovin’ / There’s nothin’ like roots reggae music.”

Rebelution’s early afternoon ACL set was, for better or worse, a demonstration of those lyrics brought to life. If you came to the fest to get your groove on–to, say, take off your shirt, shake your tail feather in slow motion, and wave your arms in the aromatic air–then the Santa Barbara, California, six-piece was for you.

The band took the stage with promise, bringing an upbeat, engaging energy via trumpet, saxophone, keys, acoustic guitar, and pulsating drums and bass. Singer/guitarist Eric Rachmany repeatedly called out to the crowd, forgoing the common ACL acronym and urging “Austin City Limits” to wave its hands in the air and sing along to feel-good lines like “We’ll be dreaming safe and sound” and “Turn it up / I wanna lose it.”

But nobody ever lost it. Instead of building on the audience’s sunny mood and grooving goodwill, Rebelution settled into a loose, laid back set. Rachmany mentioned “healing the nation” in a song but never took the opportunity between jams to address any specifics of what needs healing and how. (I found myself longing for 1990s-era Rage Against the Machine and frontman Zack de la Rocha’s epic, boldly pro-Zapatista rants.)

Rebelution is back for its second ACL Fest and certainly drew a sizable crowd. But knowing Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue were across the park, throwing down one of the undisputed sets of the fest–even surprising the ACL audience with special guests from the University of Texas marching band–made Rebelution’s frat-hippie vibe that much less compelling.

Not that the band itself would notice. As the lyrics go on “The Sky Is the Limit: “You say I’m a fool / I say whatever / I’m in it for the good vibes together / and the love lasts forever.”