Of all the electronic acts at this year’s ACL, you’d have to think Nero were the hardest for non-fans to get excited about.
There’s just something robotic about them. When the UK trio are on stage, you rarely catch a look at the guys triggering the music, from their light box on stage. But it’s not just stagecraft that’s robotic. Even a guy in a mouse mask formed a stronger connection with the crowd. It’s the music.
When they play tracks with solid hooks, things work fine, it’s interesting candy. Totally listenable. But others are just a slog. Nero worked with Skrillex to win a Grammy for “Promises,” but the lyrics (repeated versions of “I’m so wasted on myself”) don’t add up to much.
Still, give Nero credit for having a real singer in the band. Alana Watson appears on stage and actually sing in the flesh, looking and sounding like a band that fell out of a “Hunger Games” set.
The final moment of disconnection seems too rich a metaphor. The set ends on a huge drum roll out, but the band has already thanked the crowd, clicked a button and left the stage.
Obviously they had a huge crowd. EDM is a huge movement. Still, they seem to take themselves so seriously, that it just seems silly. Despite sounding glitzy and polished, Nero felt mostly soulless, like a soundtrack to a big budget, but disappointing dystopian Hollywood blockbuster.
Were there this many people here to watch Vance Joy last weekend?
So much for counter-programming. This was by far the biggest assembly at the Home Away stage I’d seen all weekend, with the exception of Hozier, and then they’re about tied. Was it a quirk or the schedule? Or does the folky pop of this Australian singer songwriter have this many fans?
A bit of both, maybe.
Vance has a certain appeal: his voice is solid, and his plainspoken emotional lyrics definitely speak to the college crowd. His video for “Riptide” has 90 million views and he’s been opening on tour for Taylor Swift. So there’s that.
But the outer ring of the crowd—which was bleeding, amazingly, into the Samsung stage—was just using it as background music. They were here to chill and chat—folks who had heard Vance Joy on the radio or online, but haven’t heard of indie poet Kurt Vile or Chance The Rapper, who were busy playing on competing stages.
Sometimes Vance Joy’s music is so straightforward it’s annoying even as harmless pop, like when he bellows out a heartfelt chorus, “allll I really wanted/was time,” ten times.
That’s when it’s time to bail on the YouTube show and go watch Chance the Rapper and his brass band sing “Cocoa Butter Kisses.”
Amason are one of those pop bands who you can’t quite place, but later surprise you by being Swedish.
I’m no Swediphile. Those bands start off piquing your interest but tend to wear thin. This band, Amason, though, wears better than most.
They started with a driving number, propelled by sparkling synthesizers and guitars. The drumming was slightly suspect, but it was an upbeat, fun mood.
A lot of that was due to the gorgeous, smoky voice of lead singer Amanda Bergman. It”s reminiscent of Cat Power’s, but Bergman’s has a higher range with a sweet falsetto.
After such a strong start though, Amason’s second song turned down the mood a little too quick, extinguishing their energy with a slow ballad. The set quickly picked up again, but there was never enough momentum to propel the crowd’s interest. It was just a lot of ups and downs, as opposed to a mapped out set with a climax and a come down.
Still, Amason is often worth watching. Not that their live show has the same 12 minute jams, but Amason started to give off a War On Drugs vibe, and you could see their potential there. These were songs that were going somewhere. And a War on Drugs, but with a female singer at the helm … How cool would that be?
Alas, the band’s output onstage is usually more subdued, which is too bad, because once you dig a bit you realize half of Sweden’s movers and shakers are on stage here. You’ve got folks from Miike Snow, Dungen, and the songwriting duo who did Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” Come on!
“It’s pretty warm. It’s pretty cold in Sweden. That’s why we have turtlenecks (on),” said co-vocalist Gustav Ejstes.
Fair enough, but it’s hot and sunny here. Let’s try and play accordingly.
She does broad sweeping emotion exceptionally well. Florence Welch does not have a conventional voice. It’s deep, moody and occasionally borderline shrill. But it’s a brilliant vehicle for the emotion that sweeps through her, seizing her body as she pours out her soul. With a mirrored tapestry that mimicked rippling water at her back, she opened with “What the Water Gave Me” her voice building to a shout on the third verse “You couldn’t have it any other way!” The song is a strange elegy that grapples with darkness in a mythic sense. She followed it with “Ship to Wreck” a song from the new album about wrestling with personal demons.
A few minutes later she asked the audience to be her choir for the night and with an crowd of thousands lifting their voices in solidarity, she performed a glorious version of “Shake It Out” one of the most uplifting anthems of the modern era which re-frames a cliche “It’s always darkest before the dawn” as an ecstatic declaration of independence. She’s a master of deeply cathartic emotional whiplash. I cried. Twice.
Her feet don’t touch the ground. Welch doesn’t wear shoes when she performs and she rarely stops moving. She sprinted around the stage, spun in circles and at one point ran through the pit high-fiving fans before dashing to the mid-field sound barrier where she sang to the back half of the audience.
She made a crowd of thousands feel intimate. Welch aims to create an experience at her performances. “Are you ready to dance with us?” she cried at the beginning of “Spectrum.” She invited the audience to move madly with the pulse of a rhythm designed more for channeling spirits than booty shaking. Later she asked audience members to turn and face the stranger standing next to them, to give them a hug and connect on a human level. Thousands happily complied.
She also invited the audience to remove a piece of clothing and wave it in the air like a flag to represent something they needed to let go of. Then she removed her own shirt and dashed through the front of the crowd in her bra.
The music. Welch was backed by an 11-piece ensemble, including a trio of brass players who doubled as vocalists, occasionally joining the two back-up singers in a Greek chorus of epic harmonies. The levels were amazing. Huge crescendos of sound subsided to quiet acoustic guitar. Also, who else puts a harp front and center in their set up and makes it work beautifully?
She makes her own rules. Any other artist would have taken the show out on the deliriously buoyant sing-along version of “Dog Days Are Over,” her biggest hit. But Florence follows her own muse and she still had emotions left to work out. She ran down into the crowd, hugged more fans and made out with a stranger during “What Kind of Man” then exorcised a few more demons with a furious rendition of “Drumming Song.”
Any other artist’s crowd would have started to peel out. It was late. There were shuttle and taxi lines to beat. But there was little movement in Florence’s crowd. Who could go? We were thoroughly entranced by the best closing set we could have hoped for at the end of a fantastic weekend of soaring sounds.
“I came all the way from New York,” the Weeknd told the Austin City Limits festival holdovers Sunday night. The sudden R&B superstar held court over a turbulent crowd of movers and believers. All the Honda stage headliner could do was verify the merits of his “Saturday Night Live”-musical guest ascent with a dynamo, pyrotechnics-assisted goodbye.
Back at the lawn-chair dividing line, it was a murky swarm of young fans there to sing anthemic ballads like “Tell Your Friends” about drug abuse and explicit sex. But these were mostly bathroom cigarette, temporary-tattoo thrills. For its part the Zilker lawn became an under-18 dance club in terms of scattered grinding, awkward courtship, nihilist escapism, and so much pointing of filming phones at the stage.
Though I’m not sure how the Weeknd himself–born Abel Tesfaye–is doing. The guy has five albums of music under his belt since 2011, but broke through as a national force this summer on the strength of smash hit “Can’t Feel My Face.” His best hour of work is lean, extravagant, distinctly somber, and bleak R&B. He seems to be approaching the demon-laden chunk of his “Behind the Music” documentary: “When I’m f***ed up, that’s the real me” goes the vulnerable hook to “The Hills.”
Couple the relentless output with rampant touring and a confessional new record–August’s “Beauty Behind the Madness”–about “prisoner”-like addictions to vices that often bring terrible consequences, and I’m just glad he gets some time off. The Weeknd told us that this was his last festival engagement of the year on stage. And like the thoughtful gentleman he comes off as live, apologized for the second week in a row about cancelling his 2013 ACL appearance because he had to “call in sick.”
Honestly bro most of these people weren’t rocking with you then. Though underneath his show’s two-story stage exterior (keys, guitar, drum players were mounted above the Weeknd, flickering in red lights) was a set dedicated to 2011’s sample-suite debut mixtape “House of Balloons.” These low-rent jams were ambitious then and here have the space to soar with a big budget: “High For This” opened the set and cleansed the pallet. His synth-heaven, post-Prince guitar odyssey “The Morning” destroyed with its aimless stripper homages. (Touring guitarist Patrick Greenaway was the night’s quiet hero.) And the Weeknd tinkered with the house lights to finish with an arresting belting of “Wicked Games.”
Between these flags on the moon his knack for Michael Jackson-inspired, soaring pop won over casual parents. The hook to “Often” was presented as a technically nonsensical but fun new line of “ask me how many times I come to Texas, I say ‘Austin.'” His dialed-in cover of Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love” was the most impressive karaoke performance you’ll see in town outside of Ego’s. And last year’s “Love Me Harder,” a Weeknd feature for Arianna Grande, flickered and pounded.
“I go by the name of the Weeknd and this is my story,” he said. It was ACL’s most captivating.
That’s best boiled down to when 25-year-old Michigan producer GRiZ grabs a sax and lays a studious solo over his laptop’s pulsing dance tracks. Griz will then splice in Andre 3000, Bee Gees, and Parliament while kids near the portable bathrooms hula hoop. It’s how one blows out the Tito’s tent after two weekends of Austin City Limits.
On this Sunday ACL is offering very different musical experiences. The mainstream parlay of Alt-J then Hozier and finally Florence and the Machine is a huge standalone ticket. Over here I’m guessing people want a last turn-up before getting dirty at the Weeknd.
The suburban Detroit producer born Grant Kwiecinski made it look effortless–and while any herb can lubricate proceedings with some Jackson 5 or “Nuthin’ But a G Thang,” well, all that geeky sax to his credit never got old.
“You are now welcome to the funkiest party in the galaxy,” he said. His sideman Muzzy Bearr–a schlubby dude with a guitar and a beard–strummed frat-house funk progressions, and brought nonstop chill vibes.
The last third of the set began to lose some folks jostling for one final slab of ACL viewing real estate, and also erred mostly on straightforward, bright-lights EDM. It started to hit us.
After GRiZ the Sunday night, “oh man I have to be in early tomorrow” dread sets in. But for now a man wore a tank top that read “Free the Universe.” Piece of cake.
Børns is having a big year that’s about to get bigger. After drawing huge crowds to his afternoon ACL Fest sets each weekend, he leaves for New York. He’s scheduled to play “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon later this week, right before dropping his debut full-length album on Friday. We sat down to talk with the 23-yr-old pop phenom also known as Garrett Borns after his set.
Austin360: You’re from Michigan originally, where in the state are you from?
Grand Haven right on Lake Michigan. It’s very sand duney.
So almost beachy for the Midwest.
Super beachy. A lot of people think (Lake Michigan) is the ocean because it’s so massive and the beaches are so nice. Really sandy open wide beaches. It’s kind of a tourist town actually. It gets kind of crazy in the summer.
That explains so much. Your music is so beachy. It seemed like a disconnect that you grew up in Michigan. Were the cold months hard?
It made you appreciate the beachy months… There’s like icebergs and stuff. It froze pretty far out. I would always cross country ski out there with my husky. … I really liked that variety of seasons because in the summer you’re building tree forts and going down to the sand dunes, running down them and swimming in the waves rolling in. In the fall there’s all the color tours. I love Michigan. Love it there. My heart is there.
Talk to me about “10,000 Emerald Pools.” You said it’s a song about falling in love under water?
It was a song that I recorded with my friend (Jack) Kennedy who is a really talented creative dude…I was like “What if we wrote a song about going on a tropical island and you’re there and you go for a scuba diving trip. And then you’re underwater and you see this woman. She’s scuba diving and you guys fall in love right there. The plankton (waves hands). It’s such a romantic sparkly place to fall in love with the coral reef, fish all around. Then you turn into mermaids and have crazy mermaid sex, I don’t know.”
You’ve got such a summery pop sound. We’re you trying out a bunch of things and that’s something you happened upon or has it always kind of been in your heart?
I think it’s always been there. Growing up I loved listening to the Beach Boys and BeeGees… The Turtles did it a lot too. They had very sexy verses, very moody, and they had these really grand choruses. (Sings) “I can’t see me loving nobody but you!” There’s something that felt so good about recording like that.
Is it a little surreal to be playing to these huge crowds all of a sudden?
Yeah. I always want to make sure it’s happening organically, that I’m not forcing anything. I found a management team in L.A. that really believed in what I was creating and wanted to give me the time to create it before we start talking to labels or anything like that. That gave me some peace of mind. I didn’t want to just get signed because they were like ‘This kid’s got kind of cool style and he’s got a good voice.” I wanted to get signed because they liked the body of work that I made and trusted me.
I read somewhere you used to do a magic show when you were 10.
I had a regular gig at a restaurant where I did table magic, a lot of card tricks, some money tricks kind of things that could fit in your hands. I liked that the most.
Far be it for me to stump for traditionalist values at Austin City Limits, but seeing the gospel tent flip into a full-blown electronic dance space does take a second to adjust to. The Coachella-esque festival tradition of cramming a rhythm nation under a tent is an expansive expectation for today’s fest populous–you can’t stop progress.
Sunday afternoon in a dry, 90-plus heat, Los Angeles production duo Classixx (Michael David, Tyler Blake) dished synthetic bangers up and down the Tito’s Handmade Vodka tent. Flags swayed inside–I liked the unprompted idea to blow up U.S. Women’s National Team star Megan Rapinoe’s face and mount it on a stick–and the band pulsed in lively beats behind a glimmering silver DJ stage, live synths and guitars accenting songs.
A man with a camouflage backpack, Keystone Lite-branded camping chair, and comfortable-looking puffy sneakers surveyed the scene like a man who just found his old hang under new ownership and selling gentrified gelato.
Younger people to his left, behind the sound stage and the handicapped seating area, danced in neon face paint and mouthed the words to a remix of Yacht’s “Pyschic City.”
By minute 37 the overflow crowd took shape as an astute pack of unpretentious dancers. Disappointed Cowboys fans found a healthy moment of escape. The band guests were rowdy fenced off stage left. An overheard comment summed up the movement best: “Classixx is sick.”
It was a stunning morning at Zilker Park for the final day of Austin City Limits Fest 2015. The fields were almost empty, the sun was shining, and up came a generous westerly breeze.
Ideal weather, then, to catch a band called Knifight.
They’re an Austin synth pop band, via Tyler, Texas, and like Ume, another serious, intense, Austin group playing in an awkward noontime slot best left to chill acts, they did their best to work the crowd into a mood. No easy task.
But they played a tight, focused set with a big brash sound. Their bio says they’ve opened this past year for another intense (almost emo) electronica act, Future Islands, as well as Duran Duran. How’s that for an interesting fit.
This time slot is about numbers–meaning, there aren’t enough of them to go around this early in the day.
An hour later, Virginia folk band The Hunts had an audience four times the size as Knifight’s, at the same Austin Ventures stage. The Hunts’ music is definitely a better fit for this time of day, but they also have the benefit of that many more people in the park.
The Hunts’ music is cute. They’ve got singable parts, a relaxed vibe and some soothing harmonies. There’s even whistling. Once you find out they’re a seven piece, and all brothers and sisters, it’s enough to make fans of pulsing synth rock sick to their stomaches. The only problem is that those fans weren’t there before noon.
“I write songs about sex,” a dour, 21-year-old singer said from Austin City Limits Music Festival’s HomeAway stage during her Sunday set. “I write songs about being sad. I write songs about the human condition.”
Halsey knows her brand.
That brand is “clumsily churlish sulk-pop,” and it moves the masses. In the brow-wetting midday heat, a crowd bulging at the seams chanted “Hal-sey! Hal-sey! Hal-sey!” as set time approached. Signs held up high in the audience read “Slut for Halsey” and “I missed my senior homecoming for this.” When the singer emerged from backstage, the spitting image of “True Blue”-era Madonna, she met the euphoric screams with a curt “Thank you.” Halsey launched into “Gasoline,” and the caboose of a hand-holding string of teenagers weaving through the crowd let out a squeal like she just got a new iPhone.
“Are you deranged like me? Are you strange like me? Lighting matches just to swallow up the flame like me?”
The songs from this year’s “Badlands” LP are a study in a peculiar ennui, the kind articulated by young Americans who have the resources to feel misunderstood alongside their closest friends for a couple hundred dollars. Halsey flanked herself with red, white and blue as she sang about selling her soul to a “three-piece” that’s got her down on her knees. Images of drowning recur lyrically, and sparse, moody trap-rap beats recur rhythmically.
There were few dimensions from song to song. This was not pop music meant to be enjoyed — this was pop music with which to identify the ways you are misunderstood because you are just so weird and so dangerous and so dangerously weird. One shade of sullen, carefully optimized to encourage ticket sales.
“And I’m gonna write it all down, and I’m gonna sing it on stage/But I don’t have to f****** tell you anything, anything.”
After sorta-confessing that she has “done some things she just can’t speak,” Halsey said she wanted to see Austin bounce. She said it in the way one might say they want another cigarette. But she was also a champion for her flock of wildchildren. The heat punished, so she stuck out two water bottles to a guy working security.
“My good sir, could you give these kids some water?” He didn’t turn. Halsey bristled and grew chillier. “I’m talking to you, homeboy.” That sure showed him.
“Roman Holiday,” Halsey said, was a happier tune. In it, the narrator’s father punches through the dining room wall; it’s mostly a weary-eyed look back at young love and having sex in the back of cars. When Halsey moved to the wings of the stage for an interlude, the camera trailed her like a child that took instructions to “stay near me” hyper-literally and followed its mother into the bathroom. The audience craned its next to see any trace of what Halsey was doing. On “Hurricane,” she reminded the audience that they don’t belong to anyone but themselves. They met her with moon-eyes.
Halsey introduced her last song, “New Americana,” as a satire, which it’s not. “This song is about the power of a youth collective just like you,” she said, singing of legal marijuana, Biggie and Nirvana. Astride the barrier separating the audience from the stage, she looked like a student revolutionary from “Les Miserables,” rallying her brigade to care and not care at the same time.
The set ended early, but the crowd still chanted. If you turned back to see if Halsey had returned, you would not have seen a close-cropped, platinum blond head saying an affectless “Thank you.” You would have seen kids screaming like baby birds for set lists and towels thrown down from the stage by crew members.
“Survival of the richest, the city’s ours until the fall. They’re Monaco and Hamptons bound but we don’t feel like outsiders at all.”