Playback: ACL Fest's First Weeknd Moves Mountains
ACL Fest 2015 weekend one wrap
"I hope you're having a good festival, with Mach nine orgies as far as the eye can see," said Father John Misty from the ACL Fest main stage last Saturday afternoon. "All of society's taboos have gone out the window for this pure Dionysian affair."
With that, the indie shaman – alternatively known as Josh Tillman – forced upon the blissful crowd his despairing piano ballad "Bored in the USA." Eruptions of awkward laughter from the audience punctuated his grim lyrics informing us that our looks will fade, our love will wilt, and our debt-ridden, overprescribed lives are an unfulfilled rip-off. We'd come to elude reality, and Misty instead brandished an existential mirror, reflecting our flaws and vulnerabilities.
Thanks, I needed that. The night before I'd taken EDM and watched MDMA DJs. Or was it the other way around?
Dance music has gained equal footing with guitar-wielding acts at ACL. Time to connect with the millennials who fixate on giant LED screens and think of bass as a frequency, not an instrument. Yet, Flosstradamus was bunk, offering a disjointed set of trap remixes that resounded with party people plasticism – even in a chemically enhanced reality.
A more rewarding experience had come deep inside a horde of youngsters witnessing British brethren Disclosure scrape the sky with "Moving Mountains." As the twinkly track exploded into an almighty technoid outro and a geometric Everest engulfed the stage, any rocker could see dance music's euphoric potential. The marketplace agrees: Disclosure's sophomore album, Caracal, had just topped the UK charts that morning.
For me, Father John Misty's Kafka ponderings and Disclosure's electro mountaineering were definitive moments of ACL's first weekend, yet in the big picture, the fest's ultimate moment arrived late Saturday night when Drake rapped "Energy" as fireworks exploded over Zilker's postcard view of Downtown Austin. The Canadian rapper, who captured the gathering's largest audience, had pulled out all the stops in his 30-song set: pyrotechnics, a Future guest spot, and a smooth-talkin' R&B segment aiming to drop all panties in Travis County.
"Where all the ladies at tonight?" he asked, then paused in a moment of self-reflection. "Man, that sounds like such a Drake thing to say!"
The self-proclaimed "6 God" demonstrated a singular performance prowess. For the bulk of the set, he was alone onstage, charging up hits with added drama while every word spoken was an affirmation of personal success. He's a self-assured ladies' man with an invisible gun and a dubious "started from the bottom" backstory. If you love that character, you'll love the show. If not, prepare to be underwhelmed with redundancy.
The only act billed higher than Drake on ACL's poster was the Foo Fighters, who returned Friday night after headlining in 2008. Frontman Dave Grohl, still confined to a rolling guitar throne after busting his leg in a summer stage plunge, led his Foos through an improbable amount of hits during the two-hour engagement and called in local axe man Gary Clark Jr. for a solo on Sonic Highways single "What Did I Do?/ God as My Witness."
Even with a bum leg, the former Nirvana drummer once again proved a relentless rock & roller. Three hours after his band closed the fest with an excessive version of "Best of You," he ambled into Arlyn Studios and inquired, "Why's it so fuckin' quiet in here?" The South Austin recording studio was hosting a party for renowned rock photographer/unrenowned harmonica player Danny Clinch, who'd just jammed with Gary Clark Jr. in the studio's cutting room.
Amongst the roughly 50 attendees at the private party were porno king Ron Jeremy, who stayed busy signing breasts, actor Justin Long, and guitarist Nick Valensi of the Strokes, who were said to have spent two days last week recording there. Plenty of familiar faces to Austin music were also present, including ACLer Shakey Graves, superproducer Frenchie Smith, and Black Pistol Fire, who'd just completed tracking a new album in the studio.
Clinch threw together an ad-hoc quintet to close out the night: Grohl on bass, fellow Foos Taylor Hawkins and Rami Jaffee on drums and organ, respectively, Valensi on guitar, and himself on harp. The Stroking Foo-tographers laid down mostly free-form rock jams, in which Grohl contributed caveman basslines while Valensi handled the heavy lifting. Hawkins was a beast throughout. The highlight of their long, after-hours session: a potent version of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You."
Back at fest, up-and-comers spent the sunny weekend proving themselves on big stages. Vintage soul singer Leon Bridges, a complete unknown just a year ago, certified his meteoric rise with a main-stage set verifying he's the real deal – voice, songs, band, et al. While he received his local coronation at South by Southwest this spring, remember that Alt-J was SXSW's foremost buzz band two years previously. The Leeds quartet drew a massive crowd on Sunday night and perfectly re-created their indie rock birdcalls with a light show almost impressive enough to conceal that they're totally boring showmen. Country redeemer Sturgill Simpson, on the other hand, has beefed up his music to adapt to major bandstands with a sonic stampede that includes huge musical breaks and seamless segues.
ACL 2015 also landed some loathsome duds. Singer/rapper Boots, notable for co-writing Beyonce hits and producing fellow ACLers Run the Jewels, scared off a crowd at the Austin Ventures stage on Saturday with off-putting clatter. Conversely, G-Eazy amassed a large audience on Saturday he hardly deserved. The Oakland rapper – imagine a combination of Drake and Macklemore with GQ fashion consultation – demonstrated club rap for the intellectually paralyzed with his cheesy hooks like "Molly and that whiskey, that's Monica Lewinsky!"
Harkening back to ACL's rootsy ancestry, Dwight Yoakam provided a small stage highlight on Sunday as he and his band of rhinestone cowboys offered a masterful set of showtime honky-tonk.
"It's really grown up," observed Yoakam, whose twangy tenor rings as true as when he headlined ACL in 2003. "It's not like it used to be at Aquafest or the early years of ACL Fest, but it's good to be here."
Deciding which act to close out ACL with on Sunday night – the Weeknd or the Strokes – wasn't simply a matter of choosing between two bad haircuts. It was about pop vs. rock and seeing an active chart-topper vs. a legacy act. I doubled down, hitting the first half of Weeknd, who stood doubly dynamic to ACL's other Canadian headliner by fronting a live band, gripping the audience with youthful charisma, and floating his melancholy through beautiful vocals.
On the other side of the park, the Strokes offered the perfect goodbye, raving up a hostile "Take It or Leave It" before Julian Casablancas bid Austin a slacker adieu.
"I hope you guys, uh, have wonderful lives."
Smothered & Covered
Covers overheard during weekend one: Enough with the Beatles, okay?
George Ezra: "I Try" (Macy Gray), "Girl From the North Country" (Bob Dylan)
Foo Fighters: "In the Flesh" (Pink Floyd)
Rhiannon Giddens: "The Lonesome Road" (Sister Rosetta Tharpe)
Houndmouth: "Runaround Sue" (Dion)
Hozier: "Blackbird" (Beatles), "Problem" (Ariana Grande) with elements of "Regulators" (Warren G/Nate Dogg)
Billy Idol: "L.A. Woman" (Doors) "Mony Mony" (Tommy James & the Shondells)
Vance Joy: "The Chain" (Fleetwood Mac)
Last Bandoleros: "Get Back" (Beatles)
Muddy Magnolias: "Jesus Is Just Alright" (Doobie Brothers)
Residual Kid: "Scentless Apprentice" (Nirvana)
Nate Ruess: "Rocket Man" (Elton John)
Sturgill Simpson: "The Promise" (When In Rome), "You Don't Miss Your Water" (William Bell), "The Motivator" (T. Rex)
Kali Uchis: "Waiting in Vain" (Bob Marley)
Waxahatchee: "I Lost It" (Lucinda Williams)
The Weeknd: "Drunk in Love" (Beyonce), "Love Me Harder" (Ariana Grande)
Dwight Yoakam: "I Feel Fine" (Beatles), "Ring of Fire" (Johnny Cash)
Seven Undercard Acts to Catch on Weekend Two
Strand of Oaks: Heavy psych-folk beardo
Rhiannon Giddens: Ex-Carolina Chocolate Drops violin muse
Royal Blood: British bass-n-drums rippers
Fidlar: Pop-haunted dirtbag punk
Con Brio: Smooth San Fran street funk
Knifight: Imposing darkwave with powerful melodies