The annual Austin City Limits festival kicked off on October 5th-7th with a jam-packed three-day lineup of rock, rap, pop and more. With the Texas senate race heating up (along with the actual atmospheric temperatures in Texas), it was a particularly zesty weekend of music. Here are the most memorable, exciting and all-around best performances we saw.
Most Legendary: Paul McCartney
His Fabness was in fighting form for his big ACL headlining slot, a marathon show running over two hours in a packed Zilker Park, under Texan skies. He gave a touching tribute to the Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick, who died just this week. “I’d like to dedicate this to one of our fallen heroes,” McCartney said. “Our engineer, a buddy of mine.” Then he did “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” from Sgt. Pepper—the perfect song for an Emerick tribute, since his studio wizardry reached its zenith on Pepper. He also did tributes to John Lennon (“Here Today”), George Harrison (“Something”) and Linda McCartney (“Maybe I’m Amazed”). Despite the oppressive heat—you could see sweat pouring down McCartney’s face—nobody wanted it to end, least of all Paul himself. Leaving during “I’ve Just Seen a Face” or “I’ve Got a Feeling” or “Blackbird” would have been unthinkable, while new tunes from Egypt Station fit right in. But the night’s biggest moment was no surprise at all: Paul sat at the piano, struck up “Hey Jude,” and was enveloped by the roar of 60,000 voices joining in. Paul hears this kind of thing every night, but he never fails to enjoy it—as thousands of strangers sang “na na na, na na na” while swaying on the grass under Texas stars, the way this song was always meant to be heard, Paul couldn’t resist adding, “It feels like the whole world is singing!” It did.
Best Stride Towards Accessibility: Emotive ASL Artistes
Fans of Nelly, Greta Van Fleet and other festival dynamos may have noticed over the weekend a rotating cast of people signing on the sidelines of most performances. They’re professional interpreters of American Sign Language — and they looked cool as hell. All across social media, festivalgoers lauded the interpreters — “Dream job!!” wrote a Wombats fan. One of the ASL stars happened to be Galloway Gallego, the pink-haired interpreter known for working with Wiz Khalifa, Brockhampton and many other rappers. Dream job, indeed.
— vampiRISU ⚰️ (@ReallyRisu) October 7, 2018
Best Rebel Yell: Elle King
“Anybody ever gotten kicked out of someplace? Fuck yeah, I have!” said Elle King before stirring the fiery crowd with her banjo and backup band, The Brethren. Between soulful, heart-on-sleeve ballads about bad dates, bad friends and being bad in general, King finessed some primal screams from her blues. She also had some fans, and even her own backup singers, rolling with laughter as she strutted silly across the stage. All the while her shirt read, “Sorry, I wasn’t listening.” Elle King is a little bit country, a little bit rock n’ roll, but ultimately, she’s punk as fuck.
Best Stage Banter: Metallica
“I smell barbecue!” shouted James Hetfield, drawing the hoots and cheers of thousands of Texans. Metallica hit the ground running on Saturday night, just a few minutes shy of their 8 P.M. start time. Opening with the earsplitting combo of 2016’s “Hardwired” and “Atlas, Rise!”, the metal gods sated their most devout fans with a setlist heavy with 1980s cuts, most prominently from 1984’s Ride the Lightning and 1986’s Master of Puppets. There were many tributes to be made; first, Robert Trujillo cranked out the searing bass solo from 1983’s “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth),” authored by the band’s first bassist, the deceased Cliff Burton. But the best of all was the essential Texan fare: “Now for a Stevie Ray Vaughan deep cut!” announced Trujillo — perhaps ironically, perhaps not — indulging bandmate Kirk Hammett with a goofy blues-rock doodle to “Telephone Song.” Hetfield shared his own sinister Vincent Price cackles well throughout the night, and the field cackled right back. “I love you too,” Hetfield intimated tenderly to his fans. “How about that for heavy metal?” After 37 years of fuel and fire, it’s hard to believe Metallica will be dimming down their flame anytime soon.
Best Dance Party: Residente
Nestled discreetly in a thicket on the south end of the park, the Barton Springs stage was about to go pure perreo. On Saturday night, Residente and his fabulous Afro-Caribbean band riled up the crowd with an arsenal of congas and funk guitars. Many fans donned Puerto Rican flags as capes — one even came dressed as Wonder Woman. Along with cuts from his 2017 solo endeavor, the San Juan MC threw longtime Calle 13 followers a bone with fan favorites like the 2014 humanist fight song, “El Aguante,” and 2005’s cumbia pop hit, “Atrévete-Te-Te.” As Residente himself once sang, “What does it matter if you like Green Day? What does it matter if you like Coldplay?” A Residente dance party is a dance party for everybody.
Best Family Reunion: The Revolution
The band that helped catapult Prince to fame in the 1980s, the recently reunited Revolution, made a special appearance in Austin this Sunday. It wasn’t the only reunion of monumental proportions; the Tito’s Vodka tent could hardly contain the throng of moms, dads, toddlers, tatted-up bikers, yoga instructors and precocious teens spilling out into the field. Ushering in the sunset with such classic electro-funk grooves as “I Would Die for U” and “1999,” Brown Mark and Wendy Melvoin held down the harmonies while the rest of the Revolutionaries locked down the moves, sending the all-ages audience into a sweaty reverie.
Best Fan Moment: Travis Scott
After an injured Childish Gambino bowed out of his ACL appearance Sunday night, Travis Scott was jetted from New York to Austin just hours after he taped his performance on SNL. “Two hands to the sky,” he commanded his Austin fans at the Amex stage. “And love to Childish Gambino!” Flames and fog engulfed the stage as he ran through “Stargazing,” “Upper Echelon” and “Dark Knight Dummo.” Scott spotted a fan in the crowd wielding a sign and beckoned him to the stage. “You, with the sign,” said Scott — pointing to a fan in the crowd — “Come here. Let him through.” Security promptly plucked a gangly young fan from inside the screaming mob, and the boy immediately stoked the crowd with the bravado of a pro, ripping his shirt off in the process. Scott kicked off his 2016 hit “Goosebumps” by handing off the mic to the boy, whose own Auto-Tuned raps didn’t miss a beat. Scott topped off the song by giving his guest the hat off his head.
Best Should Have Been a Headliner: Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe’s afternoon set was the one that smoked them all on Sunday. Like the trouper she is, Monáe was covered head to toe, shoulder to wrist on a scorching October afternoon in Texas — and went through ample costume changes. She strapped into a checkered trenchcoat and bodysuit to serve a funked-out performance of “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “Electric Lady,” then wiggled into her fluffy pink shrimp pants for “Pynk,” spreading messages of empowerment and solidarity in a time of political strife. “This goes out to all my electric ladies,” she declared. “We break the rules, we make the rules, we make the world a better fucking place!” She dedicated her song “PrimeTime” to her late mentor, Prince — as well as her fans from all over the gender and sexual spectrums. “No matter how you love, or who you love, you are welcome at my show, anytime,” said Monáe. “And if you didn’t come with anyone, I want you to know that you are safe!”
Best Moment of Non-Silence: CHVRCHES
The Glasgow synth-pop trio were anything but mellow on Saturday—lead singer Lauren Mayberry prowled the stage looking like a vengeful prom queen escaped from an Eighties slasher flick, in a poofy ballroom gown, a “Love Is Dead” necklace, fishnets and mile-high mod-stomper leather boots. “We’re too British for this temperature,” she announced. “It’s very warm. This fabric is not very breathable.” But like many people on Saturday, she had trouble on her mind. “A pretty bad day for humanity,” she said. “That’s why we make dance-and-cry music, for when you don’t know whether to dance or cry or do both at the same time.” Mayberry, never one to back down politically, led the crowd in a loud moment of rage. “I don’t know why they do a moment of silence at time like these. What we need is a moment of screaming ‘fuuuuuck!’” She then led the crowd in a cathartic scream—as she put it, “in honor of Metallica.”
Best Musical Makeover: Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten gave one of the weekend’s most stunning sets on Saturday afternoon, giving a first live taste of her expansive new sound on Remind Me Tomorrow, her eagerly awaited album, due in January. It’s been four years since the Brooklyn singer-songwriter shattered hearts everywhere with the indie torch ballads of Are We There. Since then, Van Etten’s gone back to school to become a therapist—which makes sense, given that some of us have been using her songs for therapy for years now. She’s also become a mom, fluked into her first acting gig on the Netflix sci-fi drama The OA, and played the roadhouse on Twin Peaks. Instead of standing solo with an acoustic guitar, she has a full band behind her, fleshing out the new keyboard-heavy shoegaze feel of empathetic new songs like “Comeback Kid,” “Don’t Do It” and “Seventeen.” She also picked up the guitar again for the Are We There show-stopper “Every Time The Sun Comes Up.”
Best Brain: David Byrne
Same as it ever was. David Byrne was an early highlight on Friday, starting his set by brandishing a plastic model of a human brain, serenading it the way Bowie used to sing to a skull. Squawking in a prim grey suit, Byrne led his eight-piece band through a percussive set that went delightfully heavy on the Talking Heads classics. He dipped into his new solo album, American Utopia, but he was in peak form as he ripped into Heads house-burner-downers like “Once In A Lifetime,” “I Zimbra” and “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody).” Byrne ended with his raging version of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a Black Lives Matter protest anthem that felt musically, politically and spiritually in sync with the rest of his set—a different kind of song about burning down a different kind of house.
Best Y2K Revival: Nelly
The man wasn’t kidding—it really was hot in herre. Nelly did a crowd-pleasing hip-hop set on the Homeaway Stage, right next to the festival’s designated Sober Park—maybe they figured this was the least likely place for Nelly-inspired naked dancing. Even though he’s a St. Lunatic, Nelly was born right here in Texas, a fact he mentioned more than once, rocking a Longhorns jersey in honor of the local team’s big victory. Nelly mixed a little bit of uh uh with a sprinkle of that uh uh, while the fans let it all hang out. He led sing-along versions of “Country Grammar (Hot Shit),” “Batter Up“ and “Air Force One,” not to mention his version of Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.” He also made the most of his country-radio resurrection with his solo version of the Florida Georgia Line duet “Cruise,” although it’s safe to say most of the audience was counting the minutes until the “I think my butt getting big!” climax of “Hot In Herre.” Why does Nelly live this way? Hey, must be the money!
Best Guitars: Parquet Courts
Austin City Limits was a sort of homecoming for the art-punk wits in Parquet Courts—they’re Texas boys who drifted up from Denton to Brooklyn a few years back. They delivered one of the weekend’s most festive guitar-driven blasts, perfectly timed as Sunday’s afternoon sun finally cut through the storm clouds. “I like it here,” singer Andrew Savage said. “Austin pulled off everything Portland ever tried to be—except electing Democratic senators.” As semi-quasi-local boys, Parquet Courts had some of ACL’s most barbed comments on the upcoming Senate race—“all of us are counting on you right now, Texas”—as they bashed Ted Cruz and raced from crackpot loft-funk (“Wide Awake”) to psychedelic slow-ride twin-guitar groovery (“One Man, No City”) to screamy faux-core (“Light Up Gold”).
Best Pop Ingenue: Camila Cabello
Poor Camila had an impossible act to follow — she had to go on right after Janelle Monae seemed to knock the earth’s axis a few degrees sideways. But she was more than up to the challenge, from the Eno-style synth rush of “Never Be The Same” (one of the year’s finest pop hits) to the Cuban-diaspora melancholy of “Havana” (one of last year’s finest pop hits.) She also crooned Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” And for comedy value, she told the crowd, “Thank you, Dallas!” Twice.
Best Family Values: Brandi Carlile
“Today I learned progress is not a one-way street,” the Northwest rootsy singer-songwriter announced during a somber yet soulful performance on Saturday, after the bad news about the Supreme Court broke. Carlile did songs from her sixth album, By The Way, I Forgive You, while discussing her wife and kids. “I think it’s important, and especially now, to stand here in the great state of Texas and tell you about our family and our right to exist.”
Best Homecoming: Khalid
Khalid might be the American Teen of the moment, but he’s also a kid from El Paso, and his ACL appearance had the joyful sense of a local celebration. The 20-year-old R&B phenom took the stage to “8Teen” and never let up, in front of one of the weekend’s most rapturous audiences.
Best Cover Version: Japanese Breakfast’s “Dreams”
Cover versions are a tradition at festivals, where artists reach out to fans outside their usual comfort zones. Covers can be an ice-breaker, a change of pace—or a humiliating flop. At this year’s ACL, they ranged from electro trio Arizona doing Drake’s “Passionfruit” to Nelly’s take on “Bodak Yellow” to Greta Van Fleet doing a snippet of McCartney’s “Good Day Sunshine.” At the Austin Kiddie Limits stage, a children’s choir did their version of Side Two of Abbey Road. But Japanese Breakfast won this prize with a gorgeously sad version of the Cranberries’ “Dreams,” honoring the late singer Dolores O’Riordan, the Celtic zombie princess of Nineties rock radio. It’s a tough Cranberries hit to sing—much tougher than the karaoke staple “Linger.” Yet singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner even nailed the Limerick lilt. She made her “Dreams” fit right into a set highlighted by her own great tunes like “Diving Woman” and “Boyish.”