Three Generations of Writers Reflect on ACL Fest 2021

Personal journals from a plague-era festival

The crowd waits for Polo G (Photo by Gary Miller)

Name: Raoul Hernandez

Years Attending ACL Fest: 19

Inaugural year, 2002, the Austin City Limits Music Festival ran one weekend only, Sat.-Sun., Sept. 28-29. Los Lobos, Gillian Welch, Wilco, Robert Randolph: rootsy, rockist, and locally simpatico. Arc Angels closed a dimly lit Zilker Park as a couple anonymous hippie chicks serenaded me under said cloak of darkness. Free, mostly white, and terminally single, I’d settled here a decade earlier, yet reexperienced that moment all over again: Austin rules.

In 2009, heavy rains and Dillo Dirt – a compost composed partly of treated sewage – couldn’t dampen Raphael Saadiq’s second coming of Motown, nor Detroit seer Rodriguez in the Tito’s Tent, and why don’t I remember Eek-A-Mouse’s set? I do recall 10 days of swine flu and fever afterward, which also afflicted the child of one C3 principal (a potentially deadly situation), and that during my convalescence a woman at the Austin Film Society handwrote a note on my membership renewal about hemp therapy. Levon Helm held court that year as well.

Walking up Barton Springs Road this past weekend, every ACL Fest year and second weekend attended, I felt the muscle memory kick in instantly. Having indulged, but not craved, live music for a year-and-a-half, I could feel the expectation begin at my toes. That lady from AFS now manned an ACL Fest daycare out of our house; Austin Kiddie Limits canceled because the littlest still can’t get vaxxed, our friends all went, but left their kids with us. Irony being, of course, that ACL Fest is now almost exclusively for youth.

Charley Crockett serenaded every Austin demographic possible last Saturday in the park. The next morning, Bastrop MC Deezie Brown kick-started the Sabbath with one of the most energetic and heartfelt deliveries all day. Jersey’s Danielle Balbuena, aka rapper 070 Shake, packed Tito’s with millennial resilience. This coming weekend, I’ll make up for missing last Friday by taking ex-AFSer Agnes to the Miley-n-Megan show, while catching more ascendant locals on giant stages: the Teeta and Nané.

At 3½ months, our infant Lazlo found himself sans earphones at his Zilker christening in 2014: Jimmy Cliff – terrific/terrible parenting all in one stroke. Local kids still can’t get into Austin’s 21-and-up centers for live music capitalism, so they depend on ACL Fest. They deserve it, too.

Name: Kevin Curtin

Years Attending ACL Fest: 12

If I had been abducted by aliens on my bike ride home from ACL Fest 2019 and experienced two years of what we believers call “lost time,” then was dropped back down into the grounds of ACL 2021, would I have any clue, from my surroundings, that a pandemic having already zipped 4.5 million bodybags was transpiring?

Fuck no. I’d probably see the 1% of people wearing masks and attribute it to allergies.

Aside from the vaccine checkpoint at the entrance, plague-era ACL felt like the usual spring hullabaloo: friends, families, lovers, high school cliques, tourists, and guest list-y entertainment industry folks traipsing around Zilker: experiencing music, yakking about anything-but-COVID, occupying territory with lawn chair settlements, and posing for “Look, I was there” pictures with those pastel flags and the giant frame.

On Friday evening, I did observe a subtle phenomenon of festival sociology in which the droves gathered to see hometown breakouts Black Pumas were equally spaced out directly in front of the stage as they were 1,000 yards back – so, despite it being a huge crowd, you could walk right up to the front. That early inhibition didn’t last and, ultimately, ACL’s audiences were hype, carefree, and socially un-distanced as ever. Up onstage, with touring having resumed for three months plus, no act can be excused as “rusty” or praised for “post-lockdown passion”: Those that sucked (Polo G) are just uncaring about the craft of live performers, and those that were inspiring (Erykah Badu) were so because they’re actually great. For better or worse, this is an experience in tact.

Even if ACL 2021 felt unchanged, Austin’s largest singular festival has mutated majorly since my late-Aughts initiation. Poptimism has overthrown a lineup once annoyingly rock-heavy only to land lopsided the opposite way. I certainly don’t miss a biannual Pearl Jam/Kings of Leon/Strokes headlining, but I do pine for the days they’d throw the record store demographic a bone with Shuggie Otis or Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. No matter, I still get plenty of kicks – Tkay Maidza, 070 Shake, and even Miley Cyrus rang my bell this year – and I’m sure not deluded: I see happy young people with disposable income all around me hearing exactly what they want. Sometimes the tail wags the dog.

Name: Morgan-Taylor Thomas

Years Attending ACL Fest: 2

Only following the little dirt road to the great and powerful Austin City Limits for the second time – and this being my first as credentialed media – I feel my Dorothy-esque rookie-ness taking over. Aching muscles, scorched arms, and figuring out how to effectively write a publication-worthy review before the sun rises or my eyelids give out: all current concerns.

Since my original visit in 2019, a global pandemic has run rampant, destroying the last year my fake I.D. remained “valid” and ultimately shaping the last three days at Zilker Park. However, even with the necessary vaccine/proof-of-negative-test checkpoint, “required” mask areas, and subconscious deliberations like, “Should I actually barricade for Billie Eilish?” I still found a couple moments to relish. 

The first highlight of my 2021 ACL experience lies in a rectangle gated area known as the press lounge. A pingpong table, shaded couches, and unlimited strawberry lemonade GoodPops? Man, I don’t know how I survived out in the wilderness two years ago. Nevertheless, the true joy came in conversing with Austin’s journalism community. Listening to them interview artists and watching them efficiently sprint about the field, taking notes at their designated performances, taught me more about writing than my last seven semesters in J-school.

My second highlight, made up by a collection of moments, exists in discovery. From watching Deezie Brown’s high-octane set to belting Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever” with my friends on the way back to the car, I’ve never had an experience so equally exhausting and exhilarating. Yet, that’s the essence of music journalism: taking those modest moments, for artists and yourself, and realizing their magnitude and significance.

So, although ACL reigns as my first paycheck festival, the memories I made and the overwhelming sense of belonging prevail as bits no one, not even the wicked witch of COVID-19, can take away.

ACL Fest Weekend 2 runs Friday through Sunday at Zilker Park

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ACL Fest, ACL Fest 2021, Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion, Miley Cyrus, Nané, The Teeta, Deezie Brown, Tkay Maidza

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