Austin City Limits as a brand — be it the 45 years-running PBS television show or its multi-day festival, which kicked off the first of two weekends at Zilker Park for its eighteenth year on Friday (Oct. 4) — is historically about preserving all musical traditions. For much of the past decade, the festival’s roster has evolved to include heftier helpings of prevalent hip-hop, electronic, pop and virtually every other emerging style to appeal to increasingly younger demographics.
So was it a risk to book a legacy headliner headliner like Guns N’ Roses that might only attract a relatively small diehard contingent? Absolutely. The seminal Los Angeles hard rock band — which saw the reunion of frontman Axl Rose, guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan in 2016 — wouldn’t resonate as universally as last year’s Paul McCartney Friday finale, but pitting them against millennial darlings Tame Impala arguably served the fest’s overall population better by breaking it up into more pleasantly even masses.
Besides, since GNR started their 2.5-hour conquest of the American Express stage a whole 45-minutes before the Australian psych rock fusionists, casually curious patrons got to witness Axl Rose lead the septet through familiar hits like “Welcome to the Jungle” and one they might’ve recognized from watching Macca last year, the nearly-two-decades-standard rendition of Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” before high-tailing it to the other end of the field to round out the overall population’s fairly 50/50 split.
Everyone that stayed for the remainder saw the sharpest version of the band in recent memory. Rose, wearing a black Alamo Drafthouse T-shirt to start, appeared energized and vocally on-point, delivering faithful takes on mainstays like “Civil War,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the grand-piano-led “November Rain” and encore-ending anthem “Paradise City.” He also asserted his own amped-up spins on the Misfits’ “Attitude” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Slash, sporting a Rolling Stones tour tee, effortlessly shredded what felt like every millimeter of his fretboard: he demonstrated the textbook definition of making a guitar sing, and accounted for at least half an hour of the fireworks-laden spectacle.
GNR superfans who camped out at the main stage for hours in the day’s nearly 100-degree heat likely also reveled in the full-throttle raucousness of the Raconteurs’ preceding set, which was split between 10-plus-year-old fan favorites and new cuts off recently released third album Help Us Stranger. Co-founder Jack White paid subtle tribute to recently departed Austin legend Daniel Johnston by donning one of his “Hi, How Are You?” shirts, and attempted to help fans beat the heat by repeatedly proclaiming that “the sun does not exist because there’s no proof!”
Hopefully, at least some among the steadfast rocker crowd ventured to the other end of the park to witness the day’s most successful genre crossovers. Local rock duo Black Pistol Fire did it early on by covering Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” and inviting South Austin-bred hip-hop duo Blackillac (scheduled for their own full set next weekend) to blend silver-tongued asides with rowdy blues-rock on standout “Well Wasted.”
But the prime example was New York’s King Princess (stage name for 20-year-old Mikaela Straus), who launched her tour behind upcoming debut full-length Cheap Queen (Oct. 25) by flaunting a playful persona as massive as the Honda stage she commanded for about a dozen (prominently new) tunes.
“Hi baby, hi baby… welcome to the first show of the [tour],” she said with a sly grin. “Bitch, we’ve got transitions now. We’ve got a budget now. It’s lit, OK?”
The genderqueer singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist demonstrated both pop prowess (“Cheap Queen,” “Pussy is God” and “Trust Nobody”) and a penchant for rippin’ rock riffs (“Talia” was the most riveting among them, and spurred her headbanging about in a white jumpsuit with “69” emblazoned across the butt cheeks). Some of her messages might’ve come off shocking to more conservative types, but for the most part — whether via swagger-soaked lyrics or quick quips — it felt like she was just voicing what others didn’t have the guts to say.
“I’m so horny for Texas [and] so happy to be back… with the great Guns N’ Roses,” she said. “You will see me there, titties out!”