The Most Memorable Moments of Friday’s ACL Fest

Cassandra Jenkins, Billy Strings, and SZA on a lighthouse

Genesis Owesu performs on the Tito's stage. See more images from Friday's fest in our photo gallery. (photo by David Brendan Hall)

An ideally-overcast Friday opened Weekend One of ACL Fest. Here are the Chronicle music writers’ highlights from day one at Zilker Park.

Cassandra Jenkins Ever So Gently Pulls Us In

Cassandra Jenkins (photo by John Anderson)

Perhaps, for me, the singular moment of ACL’s Friday was bearing witness to Ghanaian-Australian artist Genesis Owusu leading the Tito’s tent in a hyped refrain of “Get the fuck out!” but Cassandra Jenkins’ whisper-sung vignettes brought me the most emotional comfort. A voicemail from jail presaged “American Spirits,” contrasting her life experiences with those of an incarcerated friend – exemplifying the Brooklyn songwriter’s charitable style: soft voice, sharp writing. Fronting a sax-inflected quartet with compositions leaving room for real-time introspection, Jenkins’ 30-minute set pulled largely from last year’s An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, though recent single “Pygmalion” rocked harder live than in-studio. Delivering lyrics with eyes closed, her lime eyeshadow sometimes gave the impression of glowing green corneas – fitting for superhuman empathy. Closer “Hard Drive,” a brilliant achievement of spoken scene writing, proved the exemplar of material you want to hear amidst the daytime sobriety of a music fest. – Kevin Curtin

Looking for our review of The Chicks' Friday night headliner set? Find it here. (photo by Gary Miller)

Billy Strings Brings Bluegrass Mainstream

Kudos to ACL for having the guts to put a bluegrass act as a big-stage headliner. Billy Strings has the bona fides, from a Grammy to a slew of International Bluegrass Music Awards, but it was far from certain whether he could hold a general festival crowd to close out the T-Mobile stage. Billy burned it down. As a five-piece with fiddle, mandolin, banjo, upright bass, and Strings on guitar, the outfit tore through an hour of acid-reflexed jams – “Red Daisy” blistering a 10-minute stomp to start. Strings played to the audience, racing around the stage and shaking his ass and pulling up his T-shirt to slap his tattoo-speckled stomach. At times, the show pumped more towards bro-grass than bluegrass behind the warped effects pedals, but even tender touches like “Love and Regret” held the crowd enthralled. Recalling having played the Tito’s tent stage in 2019, Strings noted, “We’re always proud to be the ones to bring some bluegrass to you.” The Michigan guitar-slinger just might be the one to break the genre into mainstream appeal. – Doug Freeman

THEBROSFRESH Two-Step Between Southern Rock and Slinky R&B

THEBROSFRESH (photo by John Anderson)

In their cowboy era, sartorially, THEBROSFRESH took the Tito’s stage in Western shirts only to open with Brandy’s Nineties R&B classic, “I Wanna Be Down.” They wrapped with Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” and easily prevailed over the audience of hundreds to line dance for “a zydeco two-step” in between, keeping the cowboy hats on. Their drummer and lone background singer joined in. Vibrant, Louisiana-born twins Torrence and Thurman Thomas curl and bob around their guitars, hinting gently at their latest Southern rock touchpoints of – checks notes – ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd, as they “redefine” Southern music to include pop, R&B, funk, and lots of other genres country musicians have been cashing out on for years. Coherence (or say, familiarity) of that effort remains debatable, as the feel-good zydeco romp ended and an upbeat but psychedelic original, “Consequence Remains,” stilled an older audience – clearly not raised line dancing in Dallas’ West End every weekend and heading home to think about their crush to slinky R&B jams. Or maybe they were imagining their crushes, actually. – Christina Garcia

Zach Bryan Stages Modern-Day Revival Through Vulnerability

Zach Bryan (photo by Gary Miller)

Born on an army base and raised in Oologah, Okla., 26-year-old country sensation Zach Bryan delivers the two best things in country music: storytelling and camaraderie. As a writer, I’m jealous of the effortless vulnerability in his words – the ultimate gift he gave Friday’s denim-heavy audience with an eight-track performance of seminal hits like “Godspeed” and “Heading South.” Bryan opened 15 minutes late to an impatient crowd with high-energy “Open The Gate” off May’s American Heartbreak, sporting a Southwestern-style striped shirt that, combined with the lyrics, could be interpreted as a statement on the Texas border. According to a fellow audience member who went to his Stubb’s show on Wednesday, Bryan was still getting over a cold. But his fantastic six-piece band picked up any slack and then some, as Austin native/star fiddle player Lucas Ruge-Jones busted out dizzying reels between choruses to give Bryan a chance to catch his breath. These days, when he sings “Heading South” – the 2019 YouTube hit that blew him up – a full band accompanies to crowds of devoted fans. Still, Bryan retains the same raw earnestness as the standout video, filmed around a campfire while he was in the army. Bryan continues the storytelling tradition of a man and a guitar with something to say – now there’s just more people listening. – Clara Wang

Carly Rae Jepsen Handles Modern Dating with Fairytale Grace

Carly Rae Jepsen (photo by David Brendan Hall)

Carly Rae Jepsen knows the release date for her next album, The Loneliest Time, is the same as Taylor Swift’s. She’s thrilled, pointing out the alignment toward the end of her set, after a substantial number of the notably packed-out Barton Springs stage evaporates post-”Call Me Maybe.” The rainbow-outfitted pop star might also be one of those dating app people who speak fluent sarcasm. We know that most songs she’s written are about relationships – mostly with boys, sometimes with her cat – but they’re not all about love. As a departure, some mine heartbreak. “Beach House,” from the forthcoming album, brightly spins a yarn around a bottomless pit of romantic disappointments, each special in their own way. But despite taking a spin on the torturous Catherine wheel that is modern dating, Jepsen struts through her corner of the universe adorned with fluffy clouds and shiny stars – looking picture-perfect with a performer’s flair honed over a decade-long career. Did you know she starred as Cinderella on Broadway? – Christina Garcia

SZA Leads Honda Crowd to Safe Harbor

SZA (photo by David Brendan Hall)

If pop stars must have elevated platforms, I would prefer they use that expansive vantage to alert the stoned 14-year-olds surrounding me, “Someone help, that dude is choking to death.” Still, there’s no denying that in our post-Astroworld world, show-halting interventions of empathetic crowd awareness score festival performers plenty of points. Instructions to “take three steps back” might as well be written into the setlist ahead of time. Such cynicism would have been my reaction if literally any other ACL headliner had ascended a prop lighthouse, looked out upon a troubled sea of faces, and raised a siren to assist a drowning “gentleman in a green shirt.” But, as the artist herself would later point out (this time at the bottom of the stage in an inflatable row boat): SZA isn’t someone who thinks of herself as a “headliner.” As the camera lingered for minutes on her frightened, alert face – leaned over the deck until the man came ashore – nobody could deny the achingly-vulnerable neo-soul luminary to be as human-sized as musical Titanics come. – Julian Towers

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ACL Fest 2022, SZA, The Chicks, Carly Rae Jepsen, Zach Bryan, THEBROSFRESH, Billy Strings, Cassandra Jenkins

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