Rock and roll lives at the 17th annual Austin City Limits Festival, and statistical proof existed even before its first weekend kicked off Friday (Oct. 5) at Austin’s Zilker Park with a slew of guitars-drums-and-bass-dominant bands, crowned by an historic headlining set by Paul McCartney.
While it was common in its infancy, ACL Fest hasn’t hosted a proper rock legacy headliner since Neil Young’s 2012 performance with Crazy Horse. And although prominent electronic, pop and hip-hop acts like Odesza, Justice, Travis Scott and Camila Cabello also occupy prime spots this year, Metallica anchoring dual Saturdays for their ACL debut — plus top-tier showings from the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Deftones, St. Vincent, David Byrne, the National and Greta Van Fleet — predestined a population dominated by diehard rockers who might normally pay ACL’s entry price for one of those acts alone.
Macca, who until now has never booked consecutive weekends at a long-running U.S. festival, unquestionably deserves credit for the bulk of that turnout on Day 1. Friday night’s nearly 2-hour set undeniably delivered the goods with 31 career-spanning tunes, 19 of those classic Beatles tracks (including customary encore finale “Golden Slumbers” > “Carry That Weight” > “The End”), and one relatively recent addition to his standard fare from the Fab Four precursors the Quarrymen, the simple yet lovely acoustic ballad “In Spite of All the Danger.”
Only two tracks from McCartney’s latest studio album Egypt Station (released Sept. 7) made the cut: piano-pounding stomp-and-shouter “Come On to Me” arrived early on (sandwiched by Wings’ “Letting Go” and “Let Me Roll It”) and “Fuh You” — one of three new songs produced by OneRepublic vocalist Ryan Tedder — landed later (between “Lady Madonna” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”) accompanied by an impressively vast contingent of fans already belting out every word.
Almost certainly no other artist in ACL history, save for Willie Nelson in 2016, has ever drawn so many people to the sublimely skyline-backdropped main stage, and it was evident that many more among Friday’s acts benefited from such a predominantly rock-loving throng.
Main stage runner-up The National — whose 5:45 p.m. performance marked a rare chance to catch the Cincinnati-bred band in daylight — amassed an audience that stretched nearly as far as McCartney’s. Frontman Matt Berninger seized the moment, flailing and gesticulating wildly while basically barking out certain lines on walloping, wall-of-sound songs like “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” which was prefaced by an endorsement for Democratic U.S. House candidate Aftab Pureval (not coincidentally, Texas Democratic congressional candidate Julie Oliver introduced the band, urging non-registered eligible voters to get with the program by Texas’ Oct. 9 deadline regardless of party leanings).
Michigan-based young bucks Greta Van Fleet likewise refuted any rock-is-dead notions by garnering a gargantuan turnout so packed and extensive that it merged with the masses waiting for Khalid to hit the nearby, larger Honda stage. After vocalist Josh Kiszka coyly paid respects to McCartney by singing a snippet of the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” as he strode onstage, the quartet succeeded in transfixing a generation-spanning crowd with classic rock-inspired shred epics like “Edge of Darkness” and “When the Curtain Falls,” the sole selection off upcoming first-ever full-length Anthem of the Peaceful Army (due Oct. 19).
The ranks of those faithful to forbears also swelled for David Byrne’s preceding main stage placement, which stunned with highly choreographed dance routines set to a montage of Talking Heads tunes, a few post-2000 tracks (including masterfully harmonic “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” the only cut played off the recently released album American Utopia) and a cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout.”
Though she’ll command the same stage at a comparable hour on Sunday, the Electric Lady herself didn’t sit in. Stay tuned for coverage of her impending ACL Fest debut, plus more Weekend One highlights, in the coming days.