If you heard the traditional sounds of “Miles and Miles of Texas” drifting across Zilker Park from the Honda Stage a little past noon on Friday at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, you probably figured it was Asleep at the Wheel, who’ve been playing the fest’s first day since it started way back in 2002. Turns out only one Wheel-er was onstage, though.
Ray Benson’s western swing band played its regular fest gig last Friday, but because he made an album this year with local honky-tonk fixture Dale Watson, it made perfect sense for weekend two to feature Dale & Ray. The duo, backed by Watson’s first-rate Lone Stars band, mixed up songs from their album with a few Wheel and Lone Stars favorites in a crowd-pleasing 40-minute set for a few hundred early arrivals.
Part of their charm is cornball humor. As they introduced their theme song early on, Benson feigned confusion on which member of the duo he was. “Look on your guitar strap,” Watson advised, as each had their first names conveniently carved into the leather.
Trading the Lone Stars for Asleep at the Wheel was an apples-and-oranges comparison. The Wheel’s sound is more fluid and colorful; the Stars sound a little more direct and focused overall. The instrumentation is similar, though there’s no keyboards in the Lone Stars mix. Steel guitar has a place in both bands, but the spectacular runs of the Stars’ Don Pawlak stood out on several songs in this set, especially the George Jones tribute “Jonesin’ for Jones.”
Other numbers paid tribute to the late Merle Haggard (“Feelin’ Haggard,” from their new album) and Waylon Jennings (a set-closing “I Don’t Think Hank Done It This Way”). They also acknowledged their debts to Commander Cody and Austin guitar great Bill Kirchen on “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and to Willie Nelson on his tune “Write Your Own Songs.”
There’s little shade to be found anywhere at the Honda Stage, and by 1 p.m. the temperatures were already well into the mid-80s, so the short set was about right, allowing folks to get out of the sun for a bit before the next wave of music began on adjacent stages. Whether Watson will return for ACL Fest 2018 remains to be seen, but it’s pretty much a given that Benson and the Wheel will be back in the saddle for their Friday slot next year.
This year’s new Barton Springs West gate at the Austin City Limits Music Festival helped make for smoother and shorter entry times for early arrivals via the park’s main entry point on Barton Springs Road. But there’s long been another gate on the northwest end of Zilker Park, so we checked out the Lady Bird entrance as Weekend Two began on Friday morning.
This appears to be the easiest, fastest, and chill-est way into the grounds, at least in the early hours. Last Friday, we saw crowds of a few hundred at the main Barton Springs East gate, with a smaller grouping of around 100-200 at the new Barton Springs West entrance. For weekend two at the Lady Bird entrance, probably 50 to 60 early arrivals got in quickly with no visible problems.
Within a few seconds of the “Star Wars” theme blasting from the park’s P.A. at precisely 11 a.m., per longstanding ACL Fest tradition, everyone from the Lady Bird entrance was in the park. If the moment lacked the mad-dash drama that sometimes occurs at the main gate, with superfans of the night’s headliner dashing toward the park’s biggest stage, there was a zen-like calm in watching most of the festgoers stroll into the park, in no big hurry but just happy to be here.
Getting there from that side of the park is a little tricky, as the best access point is the pedestrian footbridge across Lady Bird Lake near Austin High School. There’s also an unmarked fork in the path right after crossing the footbridge: Bear right to get to the festival, as the left path leads only to the Hike & Bike Trail with no fest access.
Those who’ve figured out how to come in early from that direction, instead of the more popular Barton Springs Road walk-in, seem to like the alternative route. Among them were Michael Sosa and Jessica Sosa, an Austin couple who were attending their fourth or fifth ACL Fest. They’re psyched for headliners Jay Z on Friday and Red Hot Chili Peppers on Saturday, but they like to come early to see some bands they might not already know.
“The early part of the day is really good for music discovery,” Michael offered. Jessica concurred, saying that they often wander from stage to stage in the afternoon “and see what catches our ear.”
During South by Southwest last March, the Broken Spoke was the local music institution that got the big secret show when Garth Brooks showed up to play the old-school country dance hall. For the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the big winner was longtime South Congress anchor the Continental Club, where fest headliner the Killers played a midnight show to 250 fans on Thursday night.
Word went up late Thursday via the band’s Twitter account that the show would be happening:
When in Texas, go BIG. @continentalATX 250cap. $20 a head, doors at midnight, 21+.
A long line quickly formed down South Congress outside the club. The Continental, arguably Austin’s most important music venue of the past 30 years, isn’t new to such high-profile shows; a few years ago, Robert Plant and Patty Griffin performed there (billed as “Patty Griffin and Her Driver”).
The Continental show arose after a day of speculation about an apparent private show earlier Thursday atop a downtown building.
After bringing the first weekend of ACL Fest to an end on Oct. 8 with a powerful hour-and-a-half set on the American Express stage, the band will return this Sunday to close out the second weekend as well.
Austin360 contributing writer Chad Swiatecki was on the scene and filed this report:
For whatever difficulty Killers singer Brandon Flowers may (or may not) have had connecting to the audience in Zilker Park on Sunday when his band closed out Austin City Limits Music Festival, he had no such problems Thursday night.
In a hastily arranged drop-in show at The Continental Club, the Las Vegas rockers delivered 60 minutes of hits new and old.
The show saw Flowers clad all in black save for a gold lame´ cheetah print suit jacket and having no trouble provoking cheers and sing-alongs from the moment the opening of the cocky strut of new single “The Man” kicked off the show. It was interesting to watch Flowers and his bandmates and backup singers adjust to a stage far smaller than what they’ve played with any regularity in more than a decade.
That meant for Flowers’ turns on keyboards along with vocals he had to contort himself to use a standard vertical microphone off to his side instead of getting a telescope boom mic positioned directly in front of him. He handled it with relative ease, but the definite highlights came on songs like “When You Were Young” and others where he was able to prowl the stage and lean into the band’s many anthemic moments.
About 40 minutes into the show Flowers paused to intro the song “Andy, You’re A Star,” which he said the band hadn’t played in close to 10 years, and recalled writing it in drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr.’s garage while obsessing over Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” album. While the dissonant opening moments of that song might recall the punk icon’s solo material, its final third on Thursday shifted into the grandiose and shiny smooth rock that Flowers and his bandmates would come to make a living with soon after the release of debut album “Hot Fuss.”
A run through Tom Petty’s “American Girl” felt somewhat by the numbers even if it was an admirable tribute to an artist Flowers said he respected but was never able to meet. And show closer “Mr. Brightside” was a test tube example of what the band does best, crafting tales of characters caught in the middle of tough places and attaching them to undeniable choruses.
We’ll see on Sunday for the band’s second night closing the festival whether the back to their roots club show has any effect on their supersized outdoor performance, but for an hour in a sweaty and historic dive bar in downtown Austin they were in top form.
Set list: The Man, Interlude, When You Were Young, Somebody Told Me, Smile, Human, Run For Cover, Andy, You’re A Star, Read My Mind, Runaways, All These Things That I Have Done, Mr. Brightside
It’s too bad, by the way, that former Austin singer-songwriter Joe Pug recently moved back to his home turf of Maryland, as it seems likely that Killers leader Brandon Flowers might have brought him onstage for one of these occasions. When Flowers toured behind a solo album two years ago, he had Pug open some shows, and even brought him onstage during the encore for a duet version of Pug’s song “If Still It Can’t Be Found”:
Anyway you slice it, summer 2017 has been rough. Hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes: Mother Nature threw it all at us this year. We’ve seen a lot of devastation. Is your soul feeling weary? Music helps. Here are nine Austin City Limits Music Festival sets that will lift your spirits
Chance the Rapper:(8 p.m. Sat., Honda) When “Jesus is all I got” is your biggest turn-up line, you know you’ve got a reeeeeal different kind of show on your hands. Coming from the background I do (which is as Christian as you can get without any snake stuff), I would say that Chance is living out his witness in the way that it looks like in the textbook. Which … is the Bible. His words have come rolling off his tongue, his actions can be seen in his work, and now Chance’s fans are singing praises in a massive festival concert venue. Blessings come down, indeed. — Eric Webb
Solange: (7:15 p.m. Fri., Barton Springs) “I’m weary of the ways of the world,” Solange sang. The singer’s voice is light and clean on recordings; its power is startling live. She digs into soulful runs. A man shouted, “Sis, you better say it.”
Solange said it. She told the microphone how she tried to drink it, dance it, work it, sleep it, sex it, read it, run it, write it, cry it away. “Cranes In the Sky” made the woman who caught the beach ball dab at her eyes with a triangle of tissue folded until it was fat. There’s a final note at the end of the recorded version of the song that’s piercing in its height. Solange hit it live, and people couldn’t seem to believe their ears. — E.W.
Tank and the Bangas: (11:45 a.m. Sun., Homeaway) Tarriona “Tank” Ball is a slam poet who grew up in the shadow of Jazz Land. The band’s numbers meander, expand and contract as the music takes them where it wants to. That skill with verse made for a few folks likely smiling through their tears on “Rollercoaster.” Tank, playing pastor and best girlfriend, gave a spoken-word ode to the thrill of love and being free. It became an exhortation to find the one whose heart skips a beat for you. — E.W.
Tomar and the FCs: (11:30 a.m. Sat., Miller Lite) Our Austin360 Artist of the month for October is Austin’s new king of rock ‘n’ soul. On funky numbers like “Heart Attack” and “Do You Feel It,” he moves across the stage fluidly, coaxing the crowd into motion with a toe-tapping, shoe-shimmying shuffle and a wide open smile. On the gut-twisting slow burners, he reaches inside and goes deep. This is no flash-in-the-pan romance. Williams belts out melodies with a time-weathered heart so open and raw, so earnest and real, it ignites a beacon of hope for the broken. In a summer marked by disaster and devastation, songs like “Day-By-Day” and “No One Is Alone” are a healing salve for aching souls. — Deborah Sengupta Stith
Mondo Cozmo: (1 p.m. Sat., Barton Springs) “This is what never giving up looks like,” Josh Ostrander said during his Saturday set on weekend one. After decades kicking around the Philadelphia indie music scene in relative obscurity, the artist better known as Mondo Cozmo seemed blown away by his newfound success at his early Saturday set on weekend one. The level of emotion added a triumphant vibe to his soaring rock anthems that split the difference between Bruce Springsteen and U2. — D. S.S.
Dram:(4:15 p.m. Sun, Honda) Taking the stage for his ACL Fest set stage clad in a plaid bathrobe, bejeweled pineapple sunglasses and sandals with socks, it was clear R&B singer/rapper Big Baby Dram has come to embrace his role as the free-spirited Muppet of the hip-hop world. He’s a living cartoon character with windmill dance moves, a blunted drawl and easygoing flair.He has two catch phrases that become mantras for every set. “If you love your mama say ‘Yay-ooo'” and “Spread love.” Try to shout them out without smiling. — D.S.S.
Muna: (1:15 p.m. Fri., Homeaway) If Muna’s about anything, it’s about celebrating yourself without apology and without regret. “I Know a Place,” in that sense, serves as the band’s most vibrant anthem. Gavin explained that the band wrote the song for Pride in 2015, and that fact elicited exhilarating cheers from the audience. To put yourself out there and be who you are means physical risk, Gavin said, and that’s become more apparent than ever in recent years. Maskin urged the crowd to make the Honda stage their “place” on Saturday. — E.W.
Andrew McMahon: (2:15 p.m. Fri., American Express) Defiant hope means a lot coming from McMahon. The singer famously battled leukemia, which put a hold on his music career. His on-stage presence — twisting his spine away from his piano and toward rapturous fans as if he can’t stand to not be with them; using that piano as another stage level; striking the keys like a cobra on “Dead Man’s Dollar,” his own fangs bared when he opens up his arms and tells his fans he wants to make a life for them — is irrepressible joie de vivre from a man who knows what’s at stake in this life. — E.W.
Songhoy Blues: (3:15 p.m. Sun., BMI) Formed in exile in Bamako after radical fundamentalists took over their region of Northern Mali, the band has killer chops, and they play like rock stars. But it’s the magnanimous joy lead singer Aliou Touré and his crew radiate while they sing and dance that reinforces every notion we have about the incredible, life-affirming power of music. — D.S.S.
Of course no one was going to steal the show from Killer Mike or El-P once they took the stage at Austin City Limits Music Festival, but Bruce sure did try.
Bruce was a fan pulled from the crowd about 20 minutes into the set when the MCs saw his sign claiming he could rap Killer Mike’s parts on the Run The Jewels track “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry.” That being no easy feat, the performers decided to let the super fan – wearing a T-shirt with the group’s signature pistol-and-fist imagery – take a turn on the microphone, with the added hurdle that he had to perform without a backing beat to keep the rhythm. And if he slipped even a bit he’d lose the mic and be shown back to he crowd.
But wouldn’t you know it, a minute-long blur of ballerinas and Pontiac Catalinas later, Bruce backed up his brag and won the cheers of the audience and slaps on the back from his apparent heroes.
That crowd-pleasing diversion was about the only pause in the hour-long set that saw the ATL-meets-NYC pairing make yet another argument for them being the best live hip-hop act currently active.
With lyrical flows that regularly exceed 100 words per minute it’d be easy for each rapper’s delivery to turn into a blur of syllables, but the vocal control and movement in timbre and dynamics they put to use constantly adds an important textural variety within songs and individual verses. That helps preserve the inherent bounce that is so crucial to making Run The Jewels a group that stands pretty far apart from its peers.
It’s also part of why next Saturday they’ll become perhaps the most lyrically aggressive and profane rap group to record an episode of the Austin City Limits television show.
One does wonder, even with the show having plenty of lead time for editing purposes, how the show’s producers will manage the bleeps or silences in the audio to obscure objectionable words from the eventual public television broadcast.
Whoever gets that task will need to have a pretty deep knowledge of the lyrical nooks and crannies of the group’s three-album and possibly million-word canon. Hope someone can get them Bruce’s phone number. Seems like he’s up to the task.
The end of the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s first weekend seemed scripted from the moment the Killers were announced as the Sunday headliner on the American Express Stage: The Las Vegas rock band known for hard-hitting anthems would send everyone home with a grand finale of their all-time biggest hit, “Mr. Brightside.”
It took about five minutes for Brandon Flowers and his bandmates to tear that page out of the playbook. After opening with an explosive rendition of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl” — following suit with one of the weekend’s biggest trends — the band doubled down by ripping straight into “Mr. Brightside” as their second song. How to follow that? Did they overplay their hand up front?
Not at all, it turns out. The one-two punch was so exhilarating that it set the tone for a terrific last hour-and-a-half of the fest, but in truth, the Killers have a pretty deep catalog after 15 years together. “Mr. Brightside” may have rightfully put the band on the map when their debut album “Hot Fuss” came out in 2004, but they have other songs that are even better, and that made it easy to keep the momentum going.
The show seemed cathartic for the band, which was performing for the first time since 58 people died when a country music festival in their hometown became the site of a horrific mass shooting a week ago. The band was flying home from Australia at the time.
During a break in “The Way It Was,” the Killers’ fourth song, Flowers expressed solidarity with the band’s fans. “Coming from Las Vegas, and as musicians, I want to say thank you,” he said. “Don’t you ever let any (expletive) get in the way of doing what you want to do.”
The band’s fans returned that spirit in kind. They sang along loud and clear when “Smile Like You Mean It,” another favorite from “Hot Fuss,” followed “The Way It Was.” They erupted ecstatically when “Human,” arguably the Killers’ best pop song, turned up a little later, one of three selections from the band’s underrated 2008 album “Day & Age.”
Another tune from that record, “A Dustland Fairytale,” didn’t generate quite the same crowd response, but it might be the band’s crowning achievement, almost cinematic in its piano-driven emotional sweep. They followed that with another Petty song, this time keeping it quiet for a stripped down take on “The Waiting.” The Killers’ brand of rock is so grandiose and ambitious that one might not have pegged them as big fans of Petty, but Flowers said the icon’s death hit him hard. “We’re grateful for all he did,” he added graciously.
From there, it was a hard sprint to the finish, through crowd-favorites “Read My Mind” and “Runaways” (from 2006’s “Sam’s Town” and 2012’s “Battle Born,” respectively) and headlong into “All These Things That I’ve Done.” Against the odds, it was an even more powerful set-closer than “Mr. Brightside” would have been: The audience spontaneously and repeatedly chanted its key line, “I got soul but I’m not a soldier,” needing no cue from Flowers.
The band’s lone misstep was the first song of the encore. “The Man,” the lead single from the band’s new record, is embarrassingly bad, a machismo brag that might be intended as tongue-in-cheek but doesn’t come across that way. It’s almost painful to hear a lyricist of Flowers’ caliber sing about being “USDA certified lean.”
The red flag is right there in the new album’s credits: No less than 14 co-writers are credited on the tune, a sure sign of a song that has been beaten to death by committee. (The Killers had never done that before, and hopefully never will again.) If any further proof were needed, just listen to the crowd: The thousands who sang along without prompting on many songs throughout the night had comparatively much less connection to “The Man,” despite the promotional push it has received.
The new album’s “Run for Cover,” a much stronger song with an unfortunate title under the circumstances (it’s a relationship metaphor), fared better mid-set. A minor surprise: Those were the only two songs from the new album to be played. “Wonderful Wonderful” hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 last week, the first Killers album ever to do so.
Another “Hot Fuss” song (“Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”) and the “Sam’s Town” selection “When You Were Young,” the band’s second-highest-charting single after “Mr. Brightside,” filled out the encore of a remarkably solid show. If the Killers don’t quite have the longevity of recent-past ACL Fest rock headliners such as Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters and Radiohead, they proved more than worthy of their big-stage moment, a fitting finale to an emotional first weekend in Zilker Park.
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.
Taking the stage for his Austin City Limits Music Festival set stage clad in a plaid bathrobe, bejeweled pineapple sunglasses and sandals with socks, it was clear R&B singer/rapper Big Baby Dram has come to embrace his role as the free-spirited Muppet of the hip-hop world. He’s a living cartoon character with windmill dance moves, a blunted drawl and easygoing flair.
With his tendency toward schmaltzy vocal flourishes, the 29-year-old artist from Hampton, Va., could just as easily have ended up as a lounge singer in a hideaway bar somewhere instead of on stage at ACL Fest persuading a crowd of thousands to shout out their love for their mamas (before cheekily adding, “I love your mama, too.”)
The fact that he still seems genuinely surprised and overjoyed by his success gives him an air of humility that allows him to belt out his sexual proclivity for a “Group Thang” — explicitly and passionately — without seeming particularly sleazy.
The crowd rocked with him through his whole set. A group of over-hyped kids bizarrely decided to mosh during the sing-song pick-up track “Cute,” but they got particularly lit during the hits, such as “Cash Machine” and “Cha Cha.”
He played a heartfelt version of “Dram Sings Special,” his feature on Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book,” but a good portion of the crowd was clearly in it for his monster 2016 collab “Broccoli.” As soon as the song wrapped, half the crowd filed out while he was still closing his set.
But Dram didn’t seem to care. He’s just in it to spread love.
Security guards were spotted handing out water to the crowd and sprayed water on those in the front row and along barriers.
The shady spots at the festival filled up quickly, with a cool spot to sit being hard to come by. The new area on the other side of Barton Springs Road was an added bonus for those looking for shade, offering a big cluster of shade trees. The two additional canopies in the center of the park also helped with heat relief.
“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.
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.