The Head and the Heart synchronize with the sunset at ACL Fest

Sunset and the Head and the Heart are a good match. When the Seattle indie-folk band played the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2014, their set was slightly earlier in the afternoon, but this time, the sun went down right in the middle of their splendid hourlong set on the American Express Stage.

They were looking right at it as they played, and frontman Jonathan Russell took note. “I know it gets hot here in the daytime,” Russell said, probably thanking his lucky stars that the Head and the Heart is now big enough to play just shy of the headlining slot. “But there are few places that get more beautiful when the sun sets like this.”

Their music fits the occasion. A marriage of memorable melodies, multi-part vocal harmonies and primarily acoustic instrumentation, the Head and the Heart’s sound sometimes seems like it’s refracting the twilight on a night like this.

It’s possible that many of those in the crowd, which appeared to get more packed near the stage as the set went on, were staking out places for headlining band the Killers an hour or so later. But judging from the throngs who sang along on fan favorites such as “Lost in My Mind,” plenty were there specifically to hear Russell and his five bandmates: keyboardist Kenny Hensley, violinist Charity Rose Thielen, bassist Chris Zasche, drummer Tyler Williams and recent addition Matt Gervais on guitar.

There was no Tom Petty cover in this set — kind of a shame, as this is a band whose lineup would lend itself very well to Petty’s more acoustic material — but a midset highlight was their rendition of the Crowded House pop classic “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” which they recently issued as a single. Other standouts included “Let’s Be Still,” the title track of their 2013 album, which started quiet and gradually built up steam; and “Shake,” the standout track on that record.

Several selections came from last year’s “Signs of Light,” after which co-founder Josiah Johnson went on hiatus. The band hopes to bring him back at some point, but in the meantime, Gervais (who’s married to Thielen) has become an integral part of the group, sounding even more vital in his role than he did when the band taped the “Austin City Limits” TV show earlier this year.

 

Rainbow Kitten Surprise sweats it out on the big stage at ACL Fest

“OK, who drew the short straw? Rainbow Kitten Surprise? Congratulations, you get to play straight into the sun at the peak of the afternoon on the hottest day of ACL Fest.”

Stage placements don’t go like that, of course, as everything’s worked out well before weather forecasts arrive. But the North Carolina band definitely got a tough assignment at their first Austin City Limits Music Festival. The upside: They were on one of the fest’s two biggest stages. The downside: It was, to paraphrase singer Sam Melo, “hot as (add your favorite expletive here).”

Still, the five high-spirited organic-rockers made the best of it. “Hey, you’ve got your friends with you,” Melo encouraged sweaty festgoers midset. “Me too. It’s the only reason I’m out here.”

Indeed, Rainbow Kitten Surprise seems like a tightly bonded bunch. As a vocalist with no instrument responsibilities, Melo is free to engage in frequent bursts of physical expression, from high kicks to swirling twirls to near-leaps into the crowd. Bassist Charlie Holt often mirrors his jumps and dips, his moves accentuated by grunge-worthy hair that rivals the length of Melo’s grizzly-caliber beard.

Singer Sam Melo and bassist Charlie Holt of Rainbow Kitten Surprise perform during the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Austin, Texas, on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Drummer Jess Haney and guitarists Ethan Goodpaster and Darrick Keller round out the lineup, which covers a lot of stylistic ground during the course of the set, from rock to soul to funk to pop to hip-hop and more. The vocals stayed up-front throughout, a credit both to the band’s arrangements and the skillfulness of their sound crew, which got a well-deserved shoutout from Melo near the end of the band’s hourlong performance.

The crowd thinned out a bit for the second half of their set, likely more because there’s little shade at the American Express Stage than for any musical reasons. Melo kindly tossed cans of water to a few folks in the crowd at one point. A couple of intriguing new songs mixed in with older material, including one that appeared to be called “Free Fall” — as close as they came to a Tom Petty tribute, though they probably could have pulled that off well if they’d tried.

And no, there were no rainbows, nor kittens, nor really much in the way of surprises. We’ll forgive them for that band name, though, because they seem like a nice bunch of guys. Here’s hoping they get a little cloud cover for Weekend Two.

Deap Vally riles Killers fans with raucous, sex-positive ACL Fest set

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And the humblebrag of the weekend goes to: Deap Vally.

“I see that Garbage t-shirt out there,” singer/guitarist Lindsey Troy told an audience member during the band’s Sunday afternoon ACL set, her lips curling upward salaciously as the words left her mouth. “I bought the same shirt. We toured with them this summer. Sex is not the enemy!”

She and drummer Julie Edwards then blasted into “Walk of Shame,” the snarky, sex-positive garage rocker off the Los Angeles duo’s brilliantly titled debut album, “Sistrionix.” Troy attacked her battered Fender Mustang as she shouted the song’s brash, narrative-rewriting chorus: “’Cause I got places to go / But I’ve got no change of clothes / Baby I don’t feel no blame / I’m gonna take this walk of shame.”

To compare Deap Vally to the groundbreaking all-female punk bands of yesteryear based purely on gender would be horribly reductive, though Troy’s carnal howl does at times recall the Runaways’ Cherie Currie and L7’s Donita Sparks. But the frontwoman’s blunt-force riffs also nod to the libidinous, bluesy thunder of Eagles of Death Metal, while her interplay with Edwards’ explosive, unhinged drum breakdowns channels another garage rock duo you may have heard of — the White Stripes.

Lindsey Troy of Deap Vally performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Sunday October 8, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As the first band to grace the American Express Stage on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., Deap Vally had the unenviable task of winning over diehard Killers fans who hugged the barricade and prayed for a respite from the sun’s unforgiving rays. Troy fully rose the occasion, bellowing with every iota of strength, “AUSTIN CITY LIMITS! WHAT THE F*** IS UP!” She unleashed primal shrieks both sultry and savage on “Heart Is an Animal,” her guitar work simultaneously cacophonous and controlled.

The set highlight came during the defiant, empowering “Smile More,” off last year’s raucous “Femejism.” Troy playfully but firmly rejected the male gaze as she hollered: “”Stranger in the bar tells me to smile more / I look at him and I ask, ‘What for?’ / I am happily unhappy, man / And no, I don’t wanna shake your hand.”

At the time of this writing, Troy and Edwards will probably be holding a meet-and-greet at the Waterloo Records tent, where, unlike the subject of “Smile More,” they promised to shake the hands and sign the cleavage of their fans. It’s unlikely many audience members will ditch their front-row Killers spot to go hang out with them. But I kind of hope they do.

Spoon steals the show after a spectacular skydive at ACL Fest

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You don’t know how it feels to have a hard act to follow until you’ve taken the stage at the Austin City Limits Music Festival right after three skydivers parachuted onto the grounds while the fest’s P.A. played Tom Petty singing “Free Fallin'” recorded at the Heartbreakers’ 2006 ACL Fest appearance.

Britt Daniel of Spoon performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday October 7, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

That was Spoon’s opening act Saturday night in Zilker Park. But there might not have been a single act in the lineup more suited to the task as Britt Daniel and his bandmates immediately went about proving as soon as they began. The night’s headliners (Chance the Rapper, Red Hot Chili Peppers) were still to come, but the hometown heroes packed the Miller Lite Stage far more than anyone had all weekend, and they kept the huge crowd enthralled for a solid hourlong set.

Britt Daniel, right, and Alex Fischel of Spoon perform at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday October 7, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

It’s much to the indie-rock band’s credit that although co-founders Daniel and drummer Jim Eno are hitting middle age, their fan base still stretches well into a younger generation. Many twentysomethings danced and sang along as the band reeled off 13 songs from their past five albums, including four off this year’s “Hot Thoughts.”

PHOTOS: Spoon at ACL Fest 2017

It helps that Daniel and Eno have been keen on recruiting younger players into the band’s ever-shifting lineup over the years. Gerardo Larios (formerly of Austin band Money Chicha) and Alex Fischel, the group’s most recent additions, largely laid the foundation with mood-setting keyboard work. Daniel punched through the haze with cutting vocal and guitar leads as Eno and bassist Rob Pope, who’s been with the group for 10 years, kept precise and often thunderous time throughout.

Rob Pope, left, and Britt Daniel of Spoon perform at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday October 7, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Daniel made sure to salute the band’s home-turf fan base. “We’ve been doing shows all year; it’s good to finally be playing here,” he stressed a few songs in, noting the band’s return from extensive touring after they unveiled “Hot Thoughts” during South by Southwest in March. “This is where it all started, right?” he asked the crowd, as they launched into “Don’t You Evah” from 2007’s “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.”

“I Turn My Camera On” and “My Mathematical Mind,” two songs from 2005’s “Gimme Fiction,” were clear crowd favorites, but really everything the band played was well-received, amid a set that was carefully selected and skillfully paced. Daniel was a maelstrom of sound and motion throughout, often sinking to his knees for a shredding solo, or thrusting his arm in the air as he sang.

Britt Daniel of Spoon performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday October 7, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

It was only toward the very end of the set that some of the crowd began to migrate up the hill for Chance the Rapper’s set that was about to begin. Most stayed with Spoon till the end, a heavy and muscular version of “Rent I Pay” from 2014’s “They Want My Soul” that stressed Spoon’s guitar-rock roots more than its later-era keyboard atmospherics.

While they’d played, the sky had faded from the last embers of dusk into the onset of another ACL Fest night. The memory of their set would linger, long after dark.

Britt Daniel of Spoon performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Saturday October 7, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Car Seat Headrest earn their 2 p.m. set time with sleepy ACL Fest performance

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Will Toledo is Car Seat Headrest. Will Toledo is a staggeringly prolific songwriter, a brutally confessional lyricist, an exemplary champion of DIY ethics even as his humble indie rock project has signed with Matador Records and achieved previously unfathomable levels of success.

But Will Toledo is not a rockstar.

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 7, 2017 – Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.(Erich Schlegel/Special Contributor)

Reality smacked hard during the Seattle-by-way-of-Virginia quartet’s 2 p.m. set at the Honda Stage on Saturday, where they played to a noticeably smaller and more listless crowd than the one Mutemath dominated at the same time and place on Friday. There’s no questioning Toledo’s songwriting chops — dude’s released 10 studio albums and a handful of EPs since 2010 — but the 25-year-old frontman could not be bothered to show any vital signs onstage beyond pushing his blocky shades up his nose after every song.

The singer and guitarist pays obvious deference in both his languid posturing and slurred vocals to reigning garage rock revivalists the Strokes, but as the New York indie rockers proved themselves at this festival two years ago, even Julian Casablancas struggles to do a convincing Julian Casablancas onstage — and that was with the momentum of a headlining set on their side. Toledo’s heart was in the right place, but he hasn’t earned the right to slack off before a sleepy afternoon crowd yet.

Thankfully, his bandmates knelt before a different altar, one of good-natured crowd banter and rock star histrionics. Lead guitarist Ethan Ives slashed through the muddy tumult with tuneful, trebly licks, looking more Woodstock than ACL with his voluminous curls, tucked-in brown t-shirt and prominent smiley face belt buckle. Ives took lead vocals for a powerful cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger,” his guitar work oozing subtle sensuality and his vocals hinting at a deep well of longing bubbling beneath the surface.

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 7, 2017 – Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.(Erich Schlegel/Special Contributor)

Toledo, meanwhile, added airy falsetto backing vocals, proving his strongest suit was playing second fiddle to his bandmates.

Still, there’s no denying the great strides Car Seat Headrest have made in the past year, and any sort of inclusion on Austin’s biggest conventional music festival is a huge win for them. Drummer Andrew Katz acknowledged as much: “The last time we played Austin was South by Southwest, I think 2015,” he said. “The crowds were much smaller.”

“2016,” Toledo deadpanned (and he was right — they played the 450-capacity Central Presbyterian Church), before launching into the remarkably on-the-nose “”Drugs with Friends.” The audience grabbed hold of the opening lyric, “I get to know myself every weekend and I’m weak,” and by the time Toledo reached the chorus, he had achieved his own makeshift anthem as fans chanted in unison: “Drugs are better than friends are better than drugs are better than friends!”

Will Toledo is not a rockstar. But he knows how to read a crowd.

ACL Fest: Foster the People swap gun violence song ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ for ‘Love’

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Fans expecting Foster the People to close their ACL Fest 2017 set Friday evening with mega-hit “Pumped Up Kicks,” an anti-gun violence anthem about a troubled kid who fantasizes about shooting his classmates, were met instead with a cover of John Lennon’s “Love.”

While the band didn’t specifically attribute the song’s absence on the playlist to the mass shooting in Las Vegas (they actually played it again in San Antonio last night after declining to play it Monday in North Carolina), frontman Mark Foster delivered an impassioned three-minute speech about the need for unity before launching into the Lennon cover, dedicating it to standing “in unity with our brothers and sisters who were affected by the Vegas shooting” (and rapidly dispersing the crowd).

Mark Foster of Foster The People performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Friday October 6, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“The last three years working on this record were interesting. Every morning I’d wake up and read the news and there would always be some kind of tragedy somewhere… And then the political situation in our own country, ripping apart friends and ripping apart families—dividing us more than ever… Writing this last record, I felt it was really important for us to make a joyful record, using joy as a weapon. Because joy is the best weapon against oppression. It’s the best weapon against depression,” Foster said. “People aren’t inherently evil. The stories on the news make us think we’re surrounded by danger… but people are inherently good…. We’re more united than you think.”

Everything leading up to the emotional closing was the typical by-the-numbers blockbuster of a set you’d expect from the now three-time ACL Fest alums. The band’s a bonafide hit factory, and despite my best intentions to not be won over by the LA-based act’s car-commercial rock, polished synths, layers of party percussion and well-developed performance chops, I quickly (though somewhat begrudgingly) had to admit I was entertained.

Sporting a tucked in undershirt, chain, rings, and monochromatic prison-style tattoos paired with a young Johnny Cash’s slicked-back hair and Michael Jackson short, painted-on pants, white socks, and black shoes, Foster strutted and slid across the stage with swagger. His dance moves may not reach MJ levels, but his energy, knack for falsetto and do-do-do-driven earworms, and ability to pull of things that would be cringe-worthy in another lesser performer’s hands (see: the semi-spoken word bits of “Loyal Like Sid & Nancy” or the band’s straight-forward cover of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” performed tonight by Foster with a custom guitar covered with shards of broken mirror) made the set an undeniable crowd-pleaser. Save for a pair of slower numbers midway through the set, including “Sit Next To Me,” hands were in the air and spirits high throughout the hour-long sunset performance.

Foster The People play at Stubb’s Thursday, Oct. 12 and return to Zilker Park for Weekend Two of ACL Fest.

Skepta spits dizzying bars and summons joyous mosh pits at ACL Fest

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Twenty minutes into his Friday afternoon set on the Homeaway Stage at Austin City Limits, Skepta made a deal with his audience.

“Can I spit some lyrics, please?” he asked the crowd before barreling into “Skepta Interlude,” which first appeared on Drake’s album-playlist hybrid “More Life” back in March. “Let’s get f—king lyrical.”

Skepta performs during the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Austin, Texas, on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

It was a strange request, as the rapper had been getting lyrical all along. The 35-year-old British MC — real name Joseph Junior Adenuga — couched his dense statements inside pummeling grime bangers that kept droves of fans moving for the entirety of his hourlong performance. Skepta knew his late-afternoon set was not the time for introspection. This audience wanted bars.

So that’s what he delivered. The MC emanated braggadocio as he bounded across the stage and spat dizzying boasts off “Hypocrisy”: “I’ve got fifteen different iPhones / But I am so not phony / They try to disrespect me / when they’re online especially / But everything cool when they check me.”

Everything is definitely cool with Skepta after last year’s “Konnichiwa” landed him on several year-end lists, and nobody was trying to check him during this set. The rapper’s motor-mouthed delivery and thick accent prevented most of the audience from rapping along with his furious tongue-twisters, but boy, did they dance. Shirtless bros and and hipster girls two-stepped ebulliently, their life forces replenished by rumbling bass drops as the sun tucked mercifully behind the stage.

“The energy is correct for the titles you’re screaming right now,” he told the audience before playing breakout single “Shutdown,” which currently has more than 44 million Spotify streams. “Front to the back, left to the right: pits,” he demanded.

As with many things in his triumphant past year, Skepta got exactly what he wanted.

ACL Fest: Even a loud crowd can’t sour sweet James Vincent McMorrow

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Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow’s afternoon set at ACL Fest 2017 was marred by a common culprit that can hold back softer and folk acts playing fest sets: crowd noise.

Even through the outer-ring sprawl of blankets and folding chairs and into the thick of it mere feet away from the stage, McMorrow’s unfaltering falsetto struggled to break through a wall of chit-chat from selfie-takers and day-drinkers. McMorrow’s backing band banged, but his voice really took flight over sparse arrangements, an unfortunate thing when facing a young crowd that seemed to have a disregard for concert etiquette only rivaled by their disinterest in wearing undergarments. (Insert old-man fist shake.)

A large crowd is reflected in Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow’s glasses as he performs on the HomeAway Stage during weekend one of the 2017 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park Oct. 6, 2017.

Crowd noise complaints aside, McMorrow’s set soared. There’s a short list of artists who successfully pull off falsetto live in a meaningful way, and McMorrow pushes his powerful high-pitched voice out with a breath-taking passion and earnestness few can. His songs feel vulnerable but sexy, like Bon Iver tunes for the bedroom—somewhere between Rhye and The Bee Gees.

The bespeckled, bearded and… be-hatted McMorrow looked sharp on stage swapping between a stunning twinkling turquoise ax and a shiny all-black guitar. He also seemed to be having a blast on stage, laughing about Reptar and Golden Girls flags waving in the crowd and inadvertently (he claims) throwing his diamond in the sky, a la Jay-Z.

The crooner reeled in the rowdy crowd some as he stepped out from behind his keyboard and moved around the stage later in  his performance and began digging into a pair of people-pleasing hits: “Rising Water,” with its opening wobbly, funk-filled Stevie Wonder keys and synchronized hand claps, and set-closer “Cavalier,” with its anticipated high refrain of “I remember my first love,” which hit like a sledgehammer and sent the crowd into cheers on that first sweet delivery.

Today’s set comes at the end of roughly 16 months of touring, McMorrow said, and marked a rare Austin appearance for the band. If soulful folk with an R&B edges moves you, get it while the getting’s good: You can catch James Vincent McMorrow again this week at Scoot Inn and back at Zilker Park for Weekend Two of ACL.