Looming large was the uncannily fitting fact that the Killers, easily the most popular rock group out of Sin City in the last decade or so, should be the ones closing out ACL’s first of two weekends, the largest Stateside live music undertaking since the horrific mass-shooting in the band’s hometown one week before. Unstoppably energetic frontman Brandon Flowers addressed that elephant in the room tactfully and affectingly before launching into classic cut “Smile Like You Mean It”: “Don’t you ever let any motherfucker get in the way of what you wanna do,” he said. “The best moments of my life have happened at concerts, from down there and from up here, and I’m happy to be here tonight with you all. Let’s sing together now.”
Within that context, it felt doubly poignant when the 36-year-old singer, accompanied only by the soft strumming of touring guitarist Taylor Milne, later tackled Petty’s ’81 single “The Waiting” – his gentle yet fervent delivery of “Don’t let ‘em kill you baby, don’t let ‘em get to you” over the song’s stripped-down rendition seemed to say it all, and added a sense of uplifting urgency to the spirited encore closer “When You Were Young.”
Previous to that weekend-capping coup, Portland’s Portugal. The Man eschewed Petty but offered their own understanding of music’s power to inspire unity and healing by bookending their hour-long run with covers of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” and Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” respectively.
Rap duo Run the Jewels – who drew a crowd to the Honda stage during sunset that rivaled several of the weekend’s headliners – served up solace by throwing the most fun-loving dance-fête of the fest, which felt like an extension of similarly silly yet musically magnificent shows from Virginia-bred singer-rapper D.R.A.M. (who also guested with Gorillaz on “Andromeda” during their headlining turn opposite the Killers), Chicago’s sonically whimsical and stoned-witty Whitney, and wild Detroit rapper Danny Brown, who reemerged hours later to join RTJ on “Hey Kids (Bumaye).”
Ultimately, Sunday’s lineup felt like a victory lap for ACL, a festival that – partly by coincidence, but perhaps mostly by perseverance – was exemplary in affirming live music as one of the most powerful antidotes to fear and tragedy.