10 Ways ACL Weekend Two Was Different

Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP
Florence + the Machine performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Oct. 11, 2015, in Austin, Texas.

Historically, the second weekend of a music festival double-header is always better for myriad reasons. Weekend One fest-goers will probably be quick to disagree, but my observation is grounded in experience – I’ve attended every double weekend of Coachella and Austin City Limits since their expansions (in 2012 and 2013, respectively). 

Each year, a similar narrative plays out: celebrities and looky-loos flood the first weekend hoping to stake an “I saw it first” claim. They believe their weekend is where the party’s at, though most of them -- especially at Coachella -- lounge around at some offsite house party for most of each day, then mosey in for a couple headliners, imposing a suddenly claustrophobic air on those who’ve stuck it out all day. After all, if you’re wealthy, what does it matter how much you dropped on premium entry just to see two or three bands? The artists know this (if they’re smart), and often turn in somewhat duller sets for those more ambivalent patrons. 

Then Weekend Two rolls around and the vibe shifts dramatically: the “scene” crowd largely thins, the bands become more comfortable (they’ve already had a dress rehearsal to boot), and what culminates is a festival full of real music fans -- people who went broke buying passes, who will put up with the elements all day sans complaints, who will wait countless hours in the sun at a barricade to see their favorite acts and leave with the unassailably euphoric feeling that the whole three-day endeavor was curated just for them. That experience has been periodically magnified when an artist takes advantage of their encore appearance by making drastic changes (for example: the Weeknd bringing out Kanye West for a surprise mini-set during Coachella’s second go-round earlier this year), but most shows are perfectly mirrored.

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That’s been the modus operandi -- until this year at ACL. In one of the smartest moves in contemporary festival booking history, organizers of the 3rd annual double ACL (and 14th year overall) turned the paradigm on its head by swapping out not only local acts early on each day over the course of the two weekends, but also by changing up headliners. Most notably, rising rapper/producer Future -- who guested with Drake last weekend for live debuts off No. 1 mixtape What a Time to be Alive -- filled in for Killers frontman Brandon Flowers on Friday, Modest Mouse replaced Alabama Shakes in that same early evening time slot Saturday night, and the mighty Florence and the Machine closed Sunday’s fare in place of the Strokes.

Unless you avoided those major switch-ups -- in which case, where the hell were you during some of the fest’s most momentous sets? -- it was practically impossible to walk away from the three-day run feeling like you hadn’t witnessed something unique. Of course, not every difference between the two weekends -- Oct. 2-4 and 9-11 -- was for the better, making it extremely difficult to claim that one weekend trumped the other. 

Here are 10 instances -- from worst to best -- in which ACL fest’s second weekend was different.

10. Future played his own full set
At an ACL fest where rap is already much more prominent – Drake’s appearance marks only the 4th hip-hop headliner in the festival’s history – you’d think the addition of one of 2015’s top dogs (with top-selling album Dirty Sprite 2) would enhance the vibe. Mmm … not so much.  The Atlanta producer/rhymer didn’t so much flow as he did mumble (his album is, after all, about consuming copious amounts of codeine) through his hour-long set on the Honda stage, though fest organizers get a nod for curating a smart back-to-back-to-back on that end of Zilker park for the younger generations: youthful dance parties at Flosstradamus and Disclosure followed Future’s set.

9. J. Cole performed with Drake
Though the bulk of his set was identical during Weekend One, Drizzy deserves big ups for not settling on a simple repeat guest with Future. Instead, he wowed the legions of fans swarming the Samsung Galaxy stage by bringing out North Carolina’s J. Cole -- who just hours earlier performed at Washington, D.C.’s Million Man March -- to perform his songs “No Role Modelz, “A Tale of 2 Citiez” and Jeremih collabo “Planes.” Did it make Drake’s largely-comprised-of-snippets run more interesting? Debatable. But it did show initiative on the Canadian rap star’s part to do something special for his fans, and it prompted him to speak on the progress of highly anticipated upcoming disc Views From the 6: he announced that his “Hotline Bling” video will drop soon, and that this show would likely be his last of the year so he can focus on the finishing the new album.

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8. Disclosure brought out Lion Babe for “Hourglass”
With her astounding voice and magnetic dance moves, Lion Babe vocalist Jillian Hervey had already presented herself as an inimitable primal force to be reckoned with during her own duo’s Sunday sets each weekend at 12:45 p.m. (CT) on the Honda stage. She didn’t repeat her perfectly vertical high kick in 6-inch heals (!), but she did provide ample previews of her tantalizing talents by guesting with Disclosure Friday night on the Honda stage for her part of new song “Hourglass.” 

7. The cooler weather on Friday 
Friday’s original forecast showed rain, and once again ACL braced itself for another downpour damper (Sunday of the fest’s first double weekend in 2013 was canceled altogether due to flooding, and several early-bird sets got nixed on last year’s second Saturday due to heavy morning showers). But luck held and, though it was still humid, overcast yet rainless skies blocked at least some of the sun’s intense heat for half of Weekend Two’s first day. “This is much better,” remarked Billy Idol at the outset of his 4 p.m. (CT) set on the Samsung Galaxy stage. A shame the cloud cover didn’t last all weekend. 

6. The Decemberists’ satisfying changeup 
At Coachella 2012, Radiohead was one of the only acts to significantly alter their set list from Weekend One to Two, and what a relief that was -- one would hope that any band with such a vast catalog would seize the opportunity to gift their audience with exclusive moments. Remarkably, the Portland-based folk-rock band Decemberists only repeated three tunes (“Cavalry Captain,” “Make You Better,” and “Down by the Water”), instead opting to open their Sunday show on the Honda stage with an epic narrative (the three-song medley that opens 2009’s The Hazards of Love), close with a B-side that’s only turned up live twice before (“Fits and Starts”) and throw in a couple deep cuts (“Leslie Anne Levine,” “The Chimbley Sweep”) along the way. Now that’s how you kill it two fest weekends in a row.

5. An abundance of local acts swapped  
It’d be wholly unfair to rattle on about how some local bands were more deserving than others of ACL’s early bird slots (nearly every act between 11:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. [CT]), because every one is among the very best and hardest-working in Austin’s sea of musical talents. Perhaps the most significant performance of those exclusive to Weekend Two came from hip-hop husband and wife duo, Riders Against the Storm. Chaka (husband) and Qi Dada (wife) were some of those unfortunates whose set was canceled due to early morning rain on the second Saturday of 2014, so their performance this Saturday on the Austin Ventures stage at 11:45 a.m. was an entire year in the making. The result: a set of original, party-starting tunes like “Magik” and “Booty Sweat” that -- with the help of a full band, which including a robust horn section -- crackled with positive energy akin to socially conscious forbears like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Add a refreshing twist on contemporary hip-hop to Austin’s repertoire.
 
4. Gary Clark Jr. brought out Eve Monsees to rip it on “Travis County” + Hard Proof
On his recently released sophomore album The Story of Sonny Boy Slim -- with it’s varied tones of soul, gospel, R&B, traditional rock and roll, and even hip-hop -- Austin-bred axeman Gary Clark Jr. has already circumvented the all-too-convenient label as just another badass blues rocker. And during his Weekend Two performance Friday on the HomeAway stage, he stressed that point in front of thousands by adding the spice of local horn ensemble Hard Proof to the mix of nearly every song -- a significantly stronger sound than that of his tack-sharp backing trio the weekend before. Yet he still made an admirable nod to his blues roots by handing over his guitar to high school band mate and friend Eve Monsees -- also the co-owner of storied record shop Antone’s Records -- for a rippin’ blues rock solo on hometown homage “Travis County,” easily one of the set’s most kinetic moments. Goes to show: leaving the past completely behind is mightily overrated.

3. When Florence made the Strokes’ nostalgia feel irrelevant
This isn’t a putdown aimed at the Strokes but -- while their set of material gleaned largely from much-loved albums crafted more than a decade ago pulled at the heartstrings of thousands -- Florence and the Machine’s replacement closing performance Sunday night on the Samsung Galaxy stage felt so triumphantly fresh that it made those New York rockers’ stab at nostalgia seem irrelevant by comparison. Yes, it had a lot to do with the fantastically anthemic quality of songs off Florence Welch & Co.’s recently released full-length third album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, but there was also the simple difference of engagement. 

“We wanted to bring our choir, but we couldn’t fit them on stage … will you be our choir tonight?” implored Welch, dressed this evening in a white suit accented by the UT Longhorns’ signature burnt orange. The tens-of-thousands-strong throng --- which dwarfed the Weeknd’s audience across the park -- obliged instantly when the band launched into “Ship to Wreck” and didn’t let up for the duration of the 90-minute run. Tweens in particular let loose when Welch sang her Calvin Harris collaboration “Sweet Nothing,” but almost nobody was excluded from a explosion of mirthful dancing when Flo ripped off her top and sprinted through the audience’s front ranks in her bra for the galvanic finish of “Dog Days Are Over.”

2. Ben Kweller’s surprise appearance with Foo Fighters -- and the announcement of new songs
If Foo Fighters were going to come off every bit as powerful as they were Friday of Weekend One on the Samsung Galaxy stage, it was obvious that they’d at least need a repeat appearance by Gary Clark Jr. for his shredtastic solo on Sonic Highways track “What Did I Do?/God as My Witness” in their Weekend Two mix. The set didn’t include many changes -- still the same obligatory hits with the addition of “Breakout” this go-round. But in true Foos fashion, they took measures to top themselves. “You know what I did last night?” Dave Grohl asked the masses. “I recorded a f---ing song in your beautiful city of Austin, Texas.” [Deafening cheers] “And I’m just gonna say it now … we recorded five f---ing new songs in your beautiful city of Austin, Texas. And we’re gonna give it to you! But not tonight,” he finished with a sly grin. 

But fans did get an inkling of what at least one of the new cuts could sound like when Grohl brought out local musician Ben Kweller to harmonize and riff splendidly on a slow version of “Big Me.” It was an unexpected collaboration to say the least, and of course the details of their random encounter pre-Weekend Two were the stuff of legend: “Just by chance, I bumped into an old friend that I hadn’t seen in about 16 years,” Grohl said. “Right as I was recording a vocal, this motherf---er walks in … I’m like, ‘Hey, man!’ and he starts f---ing singing the most beautiful harmony to the thing I was singing. I was like, ‘Get your ass in the vocal booth right now.’ And then he said, ‘Hey, if you want, I’ll come up and sing a song with you tonight.’” No telling what the other new tracks will sound like, but this performance pointed toward not-sucking for the BK/Foos throwdown.

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1. When one fan joyfully cried her way through Modest Mouse, and it was f---ing beautiful
It’s undeniable that Modest Mouse conjured opportunities for mass euphoria at magic hour (around 6:30 p.m. [CT]) Saturday on the Honda stage. Prime example: the ecstatic chorus of voices on “Float On” as the last orange remnants of both weekends’ hottest sun faded away. Yet it still feels safe to contend that an encore showing from Alabama Shakes would’ve had more impact -- they’re simply on fire this year with the strength of fantastic sophomore album Sound & Color constantly filling their sails with gale after gale of unstoppably soulful rock 'n roll. And MM’s first album in six years,  March’s Strangers to Ourselves, is compellingly experimental, but largely disjointed. Yet there was a singular event beyond any song played that made the Portland outfit’s set the most magical moment of Weekend Two. 

From the time the gates opened at 11 a.m. that morning, 18-year-old Austinite Aleta Neill had been camping out front-and-center on the barricade, enduring hot sun with only one bathroom break during seven hours of other music she didn’t necessarily care for, just to see her favorite band for the first time. She’d missed them last November at Fun Fun Fun Fest due to an unreconcilable scheduling conflict, so when Modest Mouse took the stage with the emotionally charged “Missed the Boat,” she lost it.

“The second I saw Isaac Brock walk on stage, I was immediately overcome with a feeling of knowing that he and the entire band were there, and that they were actually real people that had felt all of the feelings in the songs,” said Neill in an interview with Billboard Sunday night after the fest’s conclusion. “The realization that they had made it all the way to a super hot day in Austin, Texas to play for a huge crowd that I just so happened to be in was more than enough to make me sob for the entire set and then cry for an entire hour afterwards.”

Neill said she’d never heard anything like Modest at the time or since she started listening to them four years ago, and cited the band as “the one I always come back to when I need them” in an emotional time. The band didn’t seem to notice her literally choking out the lyrics to every song at the top of her lungs as tears streamed down her face, but everyone around her in the audience kept turning back toward her, more than a few other eyes glistening with vicarious overwhelming joy as they witnessed her experiencing the greatest moment of her life thus far.

Which never would’ve happened if fest organizers C3, Live Nation et al. hadn’t taken the initiative to make major lineup changes from weekend to weekend. It was somewhat of a gamble -- surely the perfect lineup for many would’ve included the Shakes and Florence in the same weekend. But if it paid off so immensely, even for one person like Neill, isn’t that the point? It might sound idealistic, but those sort of catharses through music are why music festivals matter, not the kicks people get from who’s-who orgies where some random girl’s outfit is considered more important than an artist courageously pouring his or her heart out to tens of thousands simultaneously. 

Sure, a Saturday that closes with musically surface-level headliners Deadmau5 and Drake suggests an underlying concern for achieving two consecutive sold-out weekends -- gotta make the right amount of dough to bake the best bread, and they certainly did this year. But if there’s the potential to change at least one life by creating those different moments, and simultaneously give so much joy and/or hope to others experiencing it by proximity, then occasionally disrupting the fest’s family-friendly vibe with something highly commercial is worth it. Hats off to ACL Fest for continuing to take measures that preserve the sanctity of live music.