A blog about the Austin music scene, the Live Music Capital of the World.
Author: Ramon Ramirez
Ramon Ramirez is the news director of the Daily Dot, and formerly its entertainment editor and evening editor. He is an Austin 360 regular come ACL time.
His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Grantland, Washington City Paper, Austin American-Statesman, and Austin Monitor. Follow him on Twitter: @AThousandGrams.
Bob Moses is the human embodiment of the culturally ubiquitous Snapchat floral crown. It’s nonchalantly cool and dressed for summer, but it’s also not here to make a statement. You can take a group picture during it because it’s a lull perfect for recalibrating–and you can dress it up with a filter to make the occasion seem more fun.
The Vancouver-bred, New York-made three-piece band hit the star-crossed Cirrus Logic stage Sunday afternoon and churned out its aristocratic poolside jams perfect for South Congress brunches, where plates become immortalized by social media.
I’m certainly not above that. “Before I Fall” connected with tambourine-led percussion and gorgeous riffs.
“Hey you know who this is?” an exuberant swaying man said in front of me. He missed the “Bob Moses” stenciled onto the band’s front-and-center bass drum.
Bob Moses was started by journeymen musicians and producers Tom Howie and Jimmy Vallance, who funneled their indie rock and trance backgrounds into pleasant tunes that are great for commercial licensing. It’s subtle and steadfast, but for an iteration of ACL that’s been defined by dad rock, flaming EDM, and Kendrick Lamar, Bob Moses bled into the pack.
A word about the Cirrus Logic stage: For years attendees have been conditioned to expect it to cause congestion in its old locale near the food court. Now it’s to the right of the Barton Springs entrance, and totally forgotten. You know how a friend will text you to meet up near a flag but it’s too dense to ever get there? Not so during Bob Moses, a set that made an ideal meeting point because it was rich with cell service.
Plop down your inflatable couch and take a seat if you like, I’m leaving after 45 minutes to get a good spot for Willie.
New York City electronic duo Break Science sustained momentum Sunday at the Tito’s tent with a 45-minute set full of zoned-out youth. The weekend is winding down, but we have to keep dancing.
It’s a familiar, effective live setup: Drummer Adam Deitch becomes a human exclamation point, echoing beats with bangs and fills. The Bronx-raised Borahm Lee makes trip-hop-rooted beats flourished with jazzy sensibilities. Dude’s played for Kanye West and Lauryn Hill, and his long-standing chops make his work hypnotic and layered.
“We didn’t get much sleep last night,” Lee said onstage. Performing during the day’s hottest and brightest hour, Lee seemed oddly placed.
He’s the kind of Reagan-era kid who refers to songs as “joints” and whose musical landscape is rooted in Run DMC and Public Enemy, as he toldHyphen magazine. There is, however, a clunky, industrial, Linkin Park-like leaning to the churning production. It should kill at downtown spaces like Empire Control Room, where the band performs late Sunday.
After set-closing “Android Love,” the highest and most earnest compliment came from a washed-out EDM bro: “That was sick.” Sure, but think how much better it’ll be without all that pesky sunlight.
It took seven years of consistent Texas touring, but Local Natives are a sustainably sourced startup, earning a big stage ACL gig the old-fashion way.
“Just looping around,” singer Taylor Rice says at Zilker Park. The five-piece Los Angeles band spent the week between Austin City Limits engagements doing as such–playing concerts in New Orleans and Houston. That’s common for bands wiring tours between the festival, but in 2009 the band arrived at South by Southwest and got stuck performing 11 shows in a weekend.
“We were driving out like we were going to the holy land,” says guitarist Ryan Hahn, before remembering one particularly nuts afternoon. “[We’re] walking down Sixth Street holding our amps, playing the next show, then having like a half hour before the next one.”
Even then, however, the band could tell the overdrive gigs were paying off.
“Every single show had more and more people at it,” Rice says.
Now the band has a tour bus, and Rice says he had time to walk around ACL and catch Miike Snow, Haim, and LCD Soundsystem last Sunday. “We used to always be on the same circuit,” he says of Miike Snow.
Local Natives are touring behind last month’s “Sunlit Youth,” a poignant, politically fused new record. Whereas 2013’s “Hummingbird,” boasting aching ballads and winter tones, disseminated slowly, the new album is lively and built for large-scale crowds.
“When we put out our last record ‘Hummingbird,’ it was actually quite a long time before those songs felt comfortable,” Rice says. “That albums a little bit darker, and maybe more of a grower… It felt like to us there wasn’t tons of enthusiasm at the time.”
One month into the new release, Rice says the enthusiasm is palpable onstage: “It feels like they know all these news songs.”
The band’s most blatantly political statement to date, the song “Fountain of Youth” features a nod to “Mrs. President.” The band has been actively encouraging fans to get registered to vote, though stopping short of blatantly stumping for Hillary Clinton.
“We’re still kind of discussing the line,” Rice says. “If you play the song it feels obvious to me where our stances lie… When you [get partisan] you put people who have made their minds up on the defensive.”
But Rice says that simply encouraging voter turnout is the “best possibility to making somebody feel open-minded.”
It’s a timely pivot for a rock band bursting with post-blog chops. For Local Natives, ACL is where the fun starts.
Dude, it’s OK to perform a rap concert. Don’t kill my vibe.
There just isn’t any hiding from Kendrick Lamar. After four years of consistent stops in Austin, the Southern California rapper seized the Samsung stage Saturday at ACL with heart-stopping urgency.
This is ski mask music for grumpy locals who remember the Church’s Chicken on Oltorf and South First before it was lost forever to gentrification. So why the hell is there a guitar breakdown smeared on my “M.A.A.D City?”
Eminem (2014) was a nostalgic retread by the time he landed at Samsung. Drake (2015) was a pop man dispensing anthemic smiles. Kanye West (2011) was jaw-dropping theater. Despite the useless backing band there to sugar-coat the product for live music purists, this was an urgent phantom menace so razor-sharp you ultimately forgive the jammy interludes that rendered last year’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” a deferential, overly dense brick. It left all the tricky musical choices in the hands of legends like George Clinton, and the thing lost its heart.
Here it meant that perfect bangers like “Money Trees” lacked tempo and were burdened by sappy drum fills and guitar noodling. This is a guy who took Imagine Dragons seriously and collaborated with them at the Grammys, after all.
But Lamar is a hulking talent still finding his voice. He shouts out individual audience members like Jay Z in 2003; he’ll punctuate audience banter with “don’t you agree?” like Kanye circa “Late Registration.” He leans on the “left side” versus “right side” stage gimmicks perfected by Method Man and Redman in the late ’90s.
In between, turbo thoughts and an act pinned to 2016 in ways we’ll always remember.
Lamar emerged to footage of Ron Artest’s 2004 NBA brawl. If you’ll recall, Artest and his Indiana Pacers were playing on the road in Detroit; after a fan antagonized him, he snapped and swung. The footage was emblematic of the exhausting pleasantries that come with having to nod through a Chainsmokers set before this. Lamar tapped into the crowd’s stress, anxiety, and anger for a booming release.
With “Butterfly” tracks like “King Kunta” already built on live grooves, Lamar put it together. It’s clear he’s interested in expanding the toolkit and experimenting, and the next record may melt faces.
His stage screens stuck to a black-and-white filter throughout the 90-minute set. Every shot of the audience rendered a sea of clumped together, gray beings who lost their minds when the hook to “Alright” switched on. It was as unified a front as you’ll ever see in Zilker Park.
Lamar’s music is introverted and pensive, and rap’s best writer took ACL into the cave. Next time though, let’s remember that crispy six-strings licks aren’t a prerequisite to being a rock star.
You spin DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat” anywhere and it’ll work.
Austin’s DJ Mel did just that Saturday afternoon at the Tito’s tent. But wait… Is he beat-matching the Champs’ 1958 smash “Tequila,” then bleeding in the Ramones, Yung Joc, Jimmy Eat World, Lil Jon, and Bill Haley? Is dude actually scratching vinyl and chopping up a Nate Dogg sample?
“I thought this set ended at 5:45pm,” DJ Mel said at 5:45pm. “Let’s f*cking party.”
He killed his final 15 minutes with familiar Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, and Ginuwine tracks for the whole family. It was an inter-generational intersection that popped.
The Austin Music Awards Hall of Famer born Mel Sandico used his Austin City Limits gig as a post-war favor. He’s broken out big this year, opening for Barack Obama at South by Southwest. But he’s also a classical DJ who can read a room and toast to the art of the deal. Late in the set, DJ Mel hit a booty-centric sweet spot that stacked Juvenile, Bubba Sparkxxx, and Khia.
“Back in the day or whatever you had to make a commitment. You had to invest a lot of money and equipment and a lot of time looking for records,” DJ Mel told me back in March. “The whole EDM thing is something that was planted many, many, many years ago with underground parties and DJs… in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s with the underground raves. You’re seeing it come to fruition and [become] a mainstream thing. And I have no problem with it, and it benefits DJing in general. I remember back in the day when DJing was not a mainstream thing—now there’s indie rock dudes from like the early 2000s that are EDM dudes. But I think there’s this trickle-down effect for the greater good: It helps everyone else.”
Of course, he’s way too professional to diss ACL contemporaries like Flume and Diplo. But Saturday, dude took them to school.
DJ Mustard’s muddy afternoon HomeAway set was a chaotic inferno full of EDM hedges, novice mosh pits, and ironic Adele singalongs. He’s a Los Angeles producer and one of rap’s most vital craftsmen. But Saturday at ACL, he basically shared his Vegas bachelor party playlist.
Rocking white headphones and engaging Austin’s rich high school ruling class, he played the EDM game of prioritizing the drop, party, and mass audience. LOUD NOISES and all that.
“We got any hop-hip fans?” was more of a room-reading, hopeful question. The kids did fine with DMX, Jay Z, and “Get Low.” He spun Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” until the part where Drizzy name-checks DJ Mustard. There were bursts of flames onstage.
“This is the part where we sing all the songs that I make,” he said before pivoting into a block of originals.
It was a peaceful anti-hater demonstration full of familiar, modern club classics.
“Can I put you on my Instagram?” he asked at the end.
Overall, however, Mr. Mustard lorded over a generic showing that lacked creative direction and a sense of authorship. And so as a public service, here is a key list of brilliant rap songs that the 26-year-old producer has given us since his 2012 ascent. (That he performed in Zilker Park.)
Precocious electronic duo Tennyson grooved and experimented early Saturday at the HomeAway stage with band-camp chops. We’re talking warm house samples, lively keys, and relentless beats from from siblings Luke and Tess Pretty.
The Edmonton, Canada, band is a one-week ACL pop in. The jazzy bedroom compositions recall James Blake circa 2011 when his foggy, downtempo crooning influenced a generation of DIY balladeers.
“ACL, oh my gosh, this is crazy,” Tess said.
The band is finding its footing, and apparently still a little starry-eyed about the occasion. In a white Adidas T-shirt, wiz kid Luke looks more like a YouTube teen idol than a resourceful songwriter. (According to his Twitter bio, he was born in 1996.)
Tess deftly ran her samples through an electronic drumkit, nailing every sound. She also worked in dynamic background harmonies to give the project a sense of human urgency.
At the outskirts of the stage, families of four watched and smiled. “Look, they’re brother and sister!” a mom said to a disinterested toddler. In years past, this staged was tightly walled off and lined with portable toilets. Now you can sit under the five trees aligning it, and walk back into the newly relocated Kiddie Limits area. Tennyson played expert border patrol between this rest area and the ACL rat race.
“We only play this song for very special audiences,” Tess said before the set closer, “Tomato Land.”
“[For] emergencies,” Luke added.
It’s a throwaway gimmick of a track, there to fill up space on the SoundCloud page. But, you know, they apparently had five more minutes to kill.
The crowd was thin and filled with toking teens. Luke and Tess playfully bantered. Luke snapped panoramic smartphone pictures. They rocked songs called “You’re Cute.” Best high school talent show set ever.
Major Lazer arrived 17 minutes late to the Honda stage Friday night, and the dancehall-seasoned electronic trio doused Zilker park with flames and neon.
Rapper and producer Walshy Fire played master of ceremonies. Former Taylor Swift beau Diplo took turns as DJ and hype man, dressed in all white and a Polo-style cap, oozing professional golf swagger.Trinidadian DJ Jillionaire owned the opening third of the set, then kind of awkwardly stood onstage. A quartet of accomplished dancers accented the performance with unsinkable moves.
Last year’s “Lean On,” which closed Friday’s gig, is one of the world’s most popular songs at 870 million Spotify streams. July’s “Cold Water” was co-written by Ed Sheeran and boasts killer vocals from Justin Bieber; it went off like gangbusters. For their part, Diplo, Jillionaire, and Walshy Fire later donned No. 46 Longhorns jerseys with their names on the back (superstar sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson wears 46 for Texas on the field). It was smart pandering.
Between remixes of Drake and Desiigner, Major Lazer ran on its brand of global optimism. These are songs you can hear in night clubs from to Johannesburg to Sao Paulo to Austin City Limits.
“If you believe the rest of the world should follow this example,” Walshy Fire said, inferring unity having just shouted out various festival flags. “Put one hand high.”
In the trenches for the Major Lazer set, however, a bro-centric reality. Straight, young, mostly white men grappled with how to feel and act relative to expectations from their friends and society. Major Lazer provided a coming-of-age backdrop, and these are the 10 bros I encountered on the ground.
1) The bro train
The bro train is a chain of bros who put their hands on each others’ backpacks and forcefully move in for a closer view as a unit. Leave no bro behind.
2) The bro who jokes at strangers
Prior to the Lazer show, an apparently inebriated girl tried to find her friend Sarah by desperately yelling, “Sarah!”
“Sarah’s on the other side,” the helpful bro quipped to her.
3) Flag bros
Flag bros are there for their bros by holding a flag and signaling them home. They are steadfast and reliable. “Come And Take It” flags, and also flags featuring Drake, Harambe, and Texas State university were most prominent.
Mexico flags, too: “I see Mexico showing out everywhere,” Walshy Fire said mid-set.
4) Gucci bro
Someone spilled beer on this bro’s shirt, which he immediately said was a Gucci shirt.
“You got it all over my Gucci shirt,” he said.
“Who wears a Gucci shirt to ACL?” the stranger asked.
“I had to.”
Gucci bro thinks that high-end fashion is funny because his favorite rappers celebrate it so much. It’s fun and funny to say the word “Gucci,” and this bro is self-aware and jovial.
5) Meta bro
He’s a talker, and having an incredible time. Not sure how to express himself, he looks to his buddy and simply says: “This is awesome.”
6) Elbow bro
Like in the NFL, you get hurt when you’re not playing full speed. If you don’t join in jumping, don’t be mad when elbows conk you on the head and lower back. Do you even rage, bro?
7) ‘Do you have a cigarette, bro?’
I don’t, sorry man.
8) Man-spreading solo dancer bro
I am entitled to this space. It is mine.
9) Shirtless bro
Major Lazer implored the audience to remove their shirts, then throw them in the air to create a fun moment of crowd participation. Shirtless bro was all in.
10) International bro
International bro prefers to document the journey by asking strangers to take his photo in front of iconic decorations like that big ACL balloon. He’s thrilled to be here and take in Major Lazer, a popular band that he’s heard on the radio in his home country. It’s amazing just to make the trip and man, maybe the world could learn a thing or two from this DJ collective: Here every bro is free to fist pump.
Derby, Derbyshire’s the Struts are the kind of band that burns anthems early into the set. It’s a bold strategy that works because every track is written for spilled beers and backstage antics.
2013’s breakout “Could Have Been Me” won the Miller Lite stage early with anthemic clapping and an irresistible British charm that recalls the Darkness’ pastiche peaks.
With cheerleading chants, hand claps, and expert air-drumming, Luke Spiller dresses the part as a frontman. His knucklehead anthems recall, say, Kiss’ “Strutter” modernized with My Chemical Romance’s mid-2000s march tempos. Songs like “The Ol’ Switcheroo” stuck with glam sensibilities. Cab Calloway-like, call-and-response singing on “Kiss This” was saucy and vibrant.
With set-closing new single “Put Your Money On Me,” the band coerced everyone to sit down prior to the rousing final chorus. It’s a move that Slipknot perfected at the 2001 Ozzfest, sure, but it still moves.
“And for those of you seeing us for the first time: Welcome to the cool club, kids,” singer Spiller said.
It’s d***s-out-for-Harambe rock. And Jesus Christ frontmen are so rare these days that damn if I don’t enjoy seeing a man commit to a pair of leather trousers.
He may perform literally in Freddy Mercury’s clothes (Zandra Rhodes outfits him, as she did Mercury), but he’s a welcome revivalist. Whereas Jet and Towers of London missed big because they sucked and lacked onstage charisma, Spiller oozes it.
Here it’s a mildly populated jam out jostling for positioning alongside Chicago Cubs fans, but Spiller is a veritable rock star. Everything is crisp and resonant, fat, and happy in terms of the music’s generous portions of singalong breakdowns, flowing hair, and familiar power chords. The band’s been wearing out one record, 2014’s “Everybody Wants,” forever (who has time to record when you spend part of the year supporting Guns N’ Roses?), and because of the constant grinding of one live batch they have the collective power of vets.
“Now you can scream,” Spiller said after “Dirty Sexy Love.”
It’s rock that’s fallen out of favor and relegated to jukeboxes at dives, but the Struts proved that maybe you can mine meaningful work out of the ’80s night cover circuit. Or at least retreads with heart.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re your band,” Spiller said, lamenting his band’s lack of U.K. radio success, before later adding: “It’s about time that rock and roll was fun again.”
Bombino wasn’t much of a talker Friday during his Tito’s stage ACL appearance, but he put everything in its right place at the 15-year-old festival.
The Tuareg guitarist born Omara Moctar planted a flag in the tent, and united the space under its shade as an oasis for thirsty passersby already out of gas. There’s a front coming tomorrow, but it’s been a summer-in-Texas hot kickoff to weekend two.
This is lyrical noodling that rolls like the desert hills of the 36-year-old’s native Tuareg, Niger. Or Arizona or wherever–it’s universally arresting stuff. It’s NPR dad rock that works for the scenesters, burnouts, and the dude wearing a Crossroads Guitar Festival T-shirt from 2004. (Eric Clapton was joined by Tommy Shaw and Jeff Back on that one. Killer.)
Donning a blue robe, Oakley-esque bubble shades, and a white scarf, Bombino and his three-piece band won on groove-laden six-minute jams built around his guitar’s timing and direction.
It thrills guitar nerds, but cursory searches reveal pained blues: “My brothers! Far from your ancestral culture, your personality disappears along with your spirit,” reads the epigram for his latest video for “Akhar Zaman.” The clip is dedicated to the world’s refugees.
Produced by Dave Logstreth of the Dirty Projectors, this year’s “Azel” comes amid a mournful stretch. According to the Los Angeles Times, this year the northern African guitarist lost a first cousin, former bandmate, and a mentor “quite suddenly.”
For Austin City Limits attendees, however, joyful and hypnotic respite.