About halfway through the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Saturday headlining set at ACL, the illustrious funk rock band took a brief break. Flea (Michael Balzary), the eccentric, electric bass man, took a moment to address the crowd with whatever happened to be flowing through his mind after rocking out half a setlist of hits.
“There’s a great big bubble of energy here that is protecting us, and we’re here because we love humanity and music and nature,” he said, eyes closed. “We’re here because we love these things and we will rise above anything that threatens them.”
This moment — which is typical at many RHCP shows, but most likely inspired from the recent Las Vegas shooting — was met with rousing applause from the massive crowd at Zilker Park.
After a week of tragic news headlines, with 59 shot dead at a Las Vegas country music festival from a killer with an unknown motive followed by the death of rock icon Tom Petty, it had been a rough week for music fans. Festival organizers promised to step up their security (which they did, but not in a wayv that was overtly bothersome) and even go so far as to offer a refund to anyone who felt unsafe attending the festival.
Throughout the course of the festival, several artists took moments to make tributes to Tom Petty, including covers of “American Girl” by The Killers and Lukas Nelson, and “Refugee” and Wildflowers” by The Revivalists. Anthony Kiedis of RHCP also took a moment to mention to Tom Petty’s spirit, “you did not die in vain.” Best of all, Saturday at 7 p.m., the festival’s stage screens all began playing footage of Tom Petty’s 2006 ACL set of “Free Fallin’”, with directions to look up. Up in the air, three sky divers pulled their parachutes and flew down over the festival, with one of them emitting a sparkling tracer behind them. It was emotional, taking it all in. It served as a beautiful tribute to a man whose art and music reached many the world over.
Despite such emotions running through the weekend, the festival served as a testament to what a good time is and should be. With so much artistry and performance packed into almost 72 hours, much of it turns into a blur of excitement and activity.
These are some of the things that stood out during my first year at ACL, and will likely prep you for a great Weekend Two.
Vulfpeck was my first act I saw Friday at ACL, and I think they may have spoiled me with one of my top three favorite performances right off the bat. I was blown away by how good these music geeks were.
The band of niche virtuoso players modeled after the "golden" sound of 60s session artists like Booker T. and the MGs and pop-R&B greats like Stevie Wonder played at the staggeringly large American Express stage. The group came out to fanfare from a pre-recorded Sports-arena-like announcer calling each member out to their instrument — super corny, but the band rocks it in the best possible way. I couldn’t stop smiling from the band’s antics.
What followed was pure joy and pure funk. The group is insanely talented, bassist Joe Dart slammed out constant laser-accurate intricate bass grooves and singer Antwaun Stanley riffed his voice in every direction possible for maximum soul power.
All you need to do to understand is check out this awesome performance of their funk classic, “Beastly”
Right after Vulfpeck’s set Friday, I moseyed my way over to the other side of the festival at the Miller Lite Stage, where I saw Lukas Nelson perform as his own solo outfit for the first time.
In short, the man can do it all. He could croon like a true soul man, and then turn around and rip an unholy guitar solo that hits you in that spot that causes you to scrunch your face and a say “ooooh!”
One takeaway moment came when Nelson began talking about singing “Georgia on my Mind” with his father every night they would go on tour together. The problem was, he had an ex whose name was Georgia, and singing that song every night brought memories of her back. So he said he wrote “Forget about Georgia” in retaliation, and man did that song scorch.
The next takeaway moment came when Nelson began to cover Petty’s “American Girl.” As the bass moved through the stagnant guitar riff that opens the song, Nelson cried out, “I just wanted to say thank you for all the love and music this guy has given us.” It was a faithful cover that ended in a fiery guitar solo.
Here’s video of Nelson’s performance of “Find Yourself”, his recent hit single that featured Lady Gaga on the recording:
Angel Olsen was a clear highlight Saturday.
Her dreamy, hazy set in the middle of the hot day was something else. Her voice was both otherworldly and extremely worldly, as if she was channeling the country of Loretta Lynn with the edge of Patti Smith.
Sure, many of Olsen’s songs are downtempo, and they didn’t play well to a restless, inebriated crowd of festival goers. Many stayed for a song or two and moved on to other sights and sounds. But I stayed through for “Sister” off last year’s “My Woman,” and it was powerful.
Olsen’s voice could get so delicate and ethereal, as if she was a ghost, and then she could project and have her vocals cut like a diamond if she wanted. Her band, all in blue suits and bolo ties, jammed out like they were My Morning Jacket to it.
Angel Olsen was a clear highlight, if at least for being such a clear change of pace. Here’s (amatuer) video of her performance of “Never Be Mine”.
As for the least Sunday vibed band, but maybe one of the best acts of the weekend, that is Run the Jewels. They were certifiably awesome.
There was so much raw power in their set, and Killer Mike and El-P were just so cool. Just two large dudes trading verses, swapping rhymes and making jokes about each other while some super heavy beats shook the entire crowd. Up by the stage, fans crowd surfed and rocked their arms back and forth to the massive beats. It was near impossible to not want to get up and dance to the show’s fiery songs.
Near the end of the set, Danny Brown (who played a bizarre, also “lit” set earlier in the day) came out and rapped his verse on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)” to the surprise and delight of everyone there.
“That guy is a rockstar,” said Killer Mike.
In short, RTJ gave everyone at their show a booster shot of energy and set the tone for what was left of Weekend One.
As the first chord of The Killers headlining set rang out to Tom Petty’s “American Girl” a certain kind of magic filled the air. It was a faithful tribute. Right before the song’s iconic guitar solo, Brandon Flowers shouted out: “Ladies and gentlemen, pay some rock n’ roll respect to the irreplaceable Tom Petty!” To which each screen illuminated with a portrait of the fallen rock star.
As the song came to a close, The Killers surprised just about every single person there by going straight into “Mr. Brightside,” the song we all thought was going to close out ACL. It was a bold move, and maybe costly, as many people left just a few songs after to go catch the rest of Gorillaz and leave. I stayed for another 40 minutes or so, because growing up, these guys were one of my favorites. Hearing some of these songs live as an adult, and in such a grandiose spectacle, really made me re-evaluate just how good this band is (or was) at writing pop/rock songs.
The show reached a cathartic height when Flowers took a moment during “The Way it Was,” when he addressed the Las Vegas shooting one week prior that left 58 dead and hundreds injured. The band is from Las Vegas, and this show was the first they had played since.
“Coming from Las Vegas, and as musicians, I want to say thank you for coming out tonight,” he said. “Don’t you ever let any (expletive) get in the way of doing what you want to do.”
A passionate cheer from the crowd came in response, and then came another hit off 2004’s “Hot Fuss,” “Smile Like You Mean It.” The night was full of hits from the band’s first two albums, “Hot Fuss” and “Sam’s Town” and only two (“Run for Cover” [which may have been in poor taste, even though they mean from relationships] and the kind of awful “The Man”) from the group’s newest, “Wonderful, Wonderful.”
While they were always crowded, upon walking up to the festival hydration stations, you're met with swamp fans blowing some cool, damp air your way. So it's already great. Then, usually about five minutes of wait time, you get your water bottle or water backpack ready and you’re greeted by a staff member whose sole job is to greet you, chat with you, and fill your container up with purified water via a coily water hose. Normally, most festivals will provide a spigot over a mud pit for self-service.
I was pretty immediately impressed by how nice the official ACL Merch store was. This thing was a full-on building, complete with air conditioning. Fest officials sort of corrals you in, as a security and crowd control measure. Once you’re in, it’s an air controlled boutique, full of (honestly, pretty pricey) apparel, knick knacks and keepsakes with the ACL brand, many of which were fused with the super-cool (in my opinion) retro-styled Aviator Nation. Give this a look if you get the chance. It’s pretty nice, and pretty orderly in there despite the volume of traffic.
In what may be a decent version of the hall of fame of popular Austin eateries, the selection of ACL Eats (which served as a giant food court in the middle of the fest) was something to take in. While just about everything costs at least $10, expect a full meal with a side to be closer to $15 and $20.
Definitely the best value for your dollar, the Chi’Lantro Korean BBQ Beef kimchi fries were fantastic and brought me to life.