By Derek May:
They say everything’s bigger in Texas for good reason. I’ve lived here long enough to see that true of our food, our trucks, our heatwaves, and our capacities for extreme kindness and wonton assholery. So it was absolutely no surprise that it should and does apply to our entertainment.
Some of you may know Austin City Limits merely as a PBS television show presenting indoor concerts in an entertaining but digestible hour for the past 48 seasons. But since 2002, “ACL” has been better known as the massive outdoor, multi-stage, multi-day, now multi-weekend music festival featuring up-and-coming music stars and Hall-of-Fame veterans. While the venue takes over every square inch of downtown Zilker Park, in reality it takes over the entire city. Air B&Bs can make their year with just a weekend. Traffic is easily doubled (which, if you’ve ever driven through downtown Austin, is saying something). And the sheer volume of people is quite something to behold. By one estimate there are around 450,000 people in attendance over both weekends, a number that simply boggles comprehension even as you’re sandwiched within that ungainly mass.
Til now I’d managed to avoid all this. I’m a music fan, of course, but it’s not my love (that would be film and television). So while I enjoy a concert now and again, it’s not something I feel particularly obsessed with. My wife on the other hand—she truly adores the live-music scene. The pandemic period was especially hard in that we had to forgo several concerts we’d already purchased tickets for. For me, it was an inconvenience; for her, it was heartbreaking. So needless to say, she is an ACL vet, thriving in the presence of old favorites and giddy at the discovery of new ones. So when she asked me if I wanted to attend this year, I didn’t exactly jump. For me it’s all about the particular draw—but I had to admit, this was one I couldn’t say no to.
One of the best parts of ACL is the sheer cornucopia of options available for your listening and viewing pleasure; it’s also perhaps its biggest drawback. Even with five massive stages scattering the perimeter of the park, there’s no way to schedule 20+ bands a day without some of your favorites overlapping. This is partly basic logistics but also seems somewhat calculated to entice patrons to purchase a full 3-day music pass (or, perhaps, one for each weekend), as some bands do play across multiple days. So even under the best of circumstances, one must plan out the most workable (and affordable) option(s).
Price here can become a matter of perspective. It’s no secret concerts are ridiculously expensive. To see just one of this year’s headliners separately up in the nosebleeds might easily cost the same as a day pass. So you have to calculate the value of seeing, realistically, about five bands per day with those costs. For us, we decided that attending one Saturday (October 7, 2023) allowed us to see all the bands we truly desired at a pricey-but-under-the-circumstances-reasonable cost of about $350 for both of us.
This, naturally, did not include food and drink, which are set at the higher end of the usual festival markups. A can of beer or a hamburger will easily cost you $15 each, but that’s not exactly news. What was unique this go round was the decision to move to a cashless event. Everything from water to T-shirts could be paid either by card or by the chipped wristbands received prior that allow you to synch to a credit card and pay with a mere tap to a monitor (and a PIN for extra security). This certainly sped up lines at the cashier and overall was a pleasant and welcomed touch.
When it comes to traversing the grounds, things become far less organized. It’s a free for all in both the best and worst sense. Attendees can simply stand or are allowed to sit on blankets or personal folding chairs you bring with you and haul about. Those in larger groups are known to setup a sort of camp, complete with individual flags allowing wanderers to find their way back. It’s a clever and convenient option if you plan to settle at either a single stage or within listening distance of a few. For the more nomadic, however, it can be a challenge to find a spot that over time doesn’t become overwhelmed by standers contorting themselves into any available square inch (and I mean that literally) they can get a foothold, even if that means stepping right through the middle of couples, onto and over property, and without regard for who they might be blocking (or annoying).
This is where I have my biggest beef. Under the best of circumstances crowds are a pain, no question. And going to an event such as this you know that from the get-go. But you also expect a certain (minimum) level of basic social etiquette that would allow everyone a sort of baseline degree of enjoyment. Eh, no. Whether it’s stepping all over you and/or your stuff, gradually sidling into your space no matter how often you move to avoid it, or casually blowing smoke (of all kinds) into your face rather than simply blowing upward (or in any attempt at away), the people tend to range from apathetic to outright rude. Call me oversensitive, but I don’t think it’s THAT much to ask. I still think about the one couple, barely out of their teens, who floored me by politely asking if they could cut through our seats, if it was ok to step on our blanket with their shoes, and thanked us for the allowance. It was such a small but appreciated gesture that stood out amongst the masses who simply did not give a fuck. A small measure of hope for humanity restored.
That all being said, the actual performance of everyone we saw was absolutely top-notch. While there wasn’t a lot of time for bands to personalize the stages as much as you might find during a solo concert, each certainly owned their space and offered as unique an experience as you could hope for. Most locations had multiple massive screens that gave you a solid view regardless of where you found your space. And I have say, as someone who has worked as both camera and director for similar events (though not on this scale), the live coverage of each band was incredible. Camera work flowed in natural and artistic pans and zooms, never rushing so you couldn’t follow but also never lingering to the point of missing something else. The directors switched angles with near psychic precision. The coordination amongst the various crew so matched the choreography of the bands you would have thought they’d taken weeks to rehearse. It truly made the shifting from watching tiny figures onstage to gazing upon the movie playing out at the sides a seamless and magical experience.
So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about the bands individually. Obviously I can’t cover anyone we didn’t see, so here’s a little breakdown of the ones we did:
First up when we arrived around 1 p.m. was someone I’d never heard of but my wife was excited to see. Young Abby Sage is a beautiful pixy of a singer with a whispery, melodic voice reminiscent maybe of a Billie Eilish. Her Indie Alt/Pop sound was in keeping with the genre but certainly felt like she had her own unique spin. Though soft-spoken, she was energetic and sweet, and the crowd loved her. I was certainly impressed enough to check out more of her work, and I’m sure in a few years she’ll become a main draw (and learn to stop knocking over mic stands and set décor—really it was cute).
Next up was yet another star on the rise my wife was excited to see. At a mere 24 years old, young Declan McKenna has at least one major hit with “Brazil,” which is apparently what every teenage girl there had impatiently stuck around for; and after 4 minutes of wild dancing and singing along to every memorized lyric, they scattered like mice when the lights come on. It was sort of hilarious and surreal. Before and after that, though, McKenna rocked the large crowd with a number of interesting grooves that felt both modern and also like 60s/70s throwbacks. There were a number of politically and socially charged anthems, and Declan certainly threw himself (sometimes quite literally) into each song. While we may not have been his demo, we thoroughly enjoyed the set and will happily listen out for what he’s got next. Plus, I’m a sucker for any group that incorporates a rock flute.
CHRISTONE “KINGFISH” INGRAM
This was one performer I didn’t know but was intrigued to see; and boy, did he not disappoint. I’m a big Rhythm & Blues fan from way back, but my tastes generally run old school: Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, all the way up to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan (and of course, I can’t forget the man, Jim Byrnes). I’m not as up on the youngsters, but in my post-concert research I’ve learned that young Kingfish has been blowing people away with his once-in-a-generation guitar mastery and soulful vocals since he was a tyke. The big man from Mississippi rocked the house, belting out Delta-Blues joints mixed with a bit of modern rock and a touch of electric soul. At one point he engaged in a friendly riff battle with another amazing player, the two going head-to-head, with Kingfish (in my opinion) earning the slight edge. And while that might indicate there are a lot of talented guitarists in the world, I would argue few can also sing like Kingfish, as well as imbue each song with that intangible classic energy that comes from being born of the South, of studying amongst the greats and the legends (as he has), and truly loving the music he has inherited and made his own. I’m already looking to buy his first 3 albums and will be impatiently awaiting those to come.
This may actually have been the biggest draw for us. We had tickets to Alanis in 2020, and then . . . you know. So this was our first real opportunity to finally see her in concert, and she was totally worth the wait. While only playing for an hour (like most of the bands), she was able to pack in just about every hit throughout her long career, and I can report with glee that she has not lost a single step, physically or vocally. Her unique voice sounds as fresh as when I first heard Jagged Little Pill in high school, and she owned the stage, skipping constantly back and forth, end to end, with a smile and even occasionally whipping that long hair around like a kid again. What stood out to me most was that despite belting out emo numbers from her darker days, she seemed to be a good place, cheerful and content. And honestly, I am so happy for her to see that. While it may have been cool to watch Jared Leto bungee jump off the top of his stage as Thirty Seconds to Mars played concurrently, I feel more than satisfied to have experienced Alanis, both her epic and beautiful performance and her arrival at a place of peace after a long and fraught journey. Loved it!
One of the last great rock bands I’ve waited to see, the Foo Fighters closed out Saturday night, easily drawing the biggest (and most compact) crowd for their plus-sized 2-hour set—and for 2 straight hours they never stopped rocking. Unapologetically in your face while also graciously inviting you along, the band knocked out hit after hit, often feigning the end only to pick it back up later to melt your face once more. While they nailed each of their own classics, they managed to squeeze in a few from others, particularly while introducing band members, including their newest drummer John Freese, taking over duties following the tragic loss of Taylor Hawkins. I felt a unique affinity for the non-Dave Grohl members after having watched their fun horror movie Studio 666 (even if you don’t like horror, I highly recommend, it’s a fun romp), so it felt like more of a treat to see each do their thing.
And after giving their all rocking, talking, and carousing, the band had one more gift to give. As I said, one of the downsides to ACL is not being able to see every band, and like many this night, my wife and I were a little bummed not to see Shania Twain (I generally loathe country music, but I often find myself enjoying her cross-genre songs). So it was an awesome delight when a red-wigged, silver-clad Shania popped onstage during “Best of You” to duet alongside Grohl and the band. Once they got her mic properly leveled, she pitched her own glorious take on the song and energetically worked the stage to the frenzied crowd. In the end, it was one of the best ways we could have seen her and certainly a festival highlight.
Leaving the grounds alongside 100,000 other fans was daunting to say the least. I did not envy the cleanup crew, and we did what little we could to help along the way. As we shuffled our way through the exit (upon finding the right one), it took at least 30 minutes to walk the quarter-mile or so back to our pickup spot. We were two of the fortunates able to get a family member who lives in Austin to drop us off and pick us up, and, despite any other troubles, that was definitely the way to go. The sea of people struggling to get their cars out, or track down their rideshares, or even bicycle out was a headache I wouldn’t want. So remember to plan well ahead should you go and expect not to rush.
All in all, Austin City Limits is a duality of experiences. It’s much like any other concert—the good and the bad—only magnified by ten. If you’re not a fan of crowds, you’ll have to weigh heavily the worth of attending; but insofar as the bands themselves are concerned, it can definitely be worth it for the right lineup. The performances were legendary, and I will remember them fondly. As for the rest, we’ll have to see if I can be persuaded back another time. HULU was apparently streaming the entire festival live, and that might not be a bad option in the future.
But if you love your live music and to hell with the negatives, then ACL is the biggest, best, Texas-sized event for you.
Long live rock!
Derek May, of San Antonio, TX, is Editor-in-Chief and occasional writer for Flapper Press. He has written nearly 50 movie reviews for movieweb.com and completed 13 original feature film and television screenplays, many of which have been winners or finalists in such prestigious competitions as the Walt Disney and Nicholl Fellowships, the Austin Film Festival, and the Creative World Awards. He served as a judge for 10 years for the Austin Film Festival and Texas Film Institute screenplay competitions. His latest project has been the highly acclaimed stop-motion animation fan series Highlander: Veritas, which released its second season in July 2022.