The double festival weekend concept was originally conceived at Coachella in 2012 to address quick sell-outs of the desert fest each year. The annual three-day Austin City Limits festival began to see a similar pattern circa 2011, when early-bird passes sold out in a speedy 45 minutes — before even a single artist on the bill had been announced.
So in 2013, the Austin, Texas festival held each year at Zilker Park followed suit with mixed results — in a rare incident, that year’s second Sunday was rained out, meaning ticket buyers didn’t get the mirrored experience they’d bargained for.
Call it a late reaction to that minor catastrophe or just plain ol’ innovative thinking, but this year’s two-weekend undertaking — the 14th edition — marked the first time that promoter C3 Presents (recently acquired by behemoth Live Nation) swapped out smaller, mostly local acts early on each day, plus a few major headliners. Most significant: Modest Mouse will replace Alabama Shakes next Saturday and Florence + the Machine will play instead of the Strokes next Sunday.
This, in some ways, guaranteed a distinctive experience during the fest’s kickoff weekend. Here are a few of the many highlights from Oct. 2-4, some of which may or may not repeat Oct. 9-11.
Friday, Oct. 3
11:15 a.m. Austin’s own Calliope Musicals is greeted on the Austin Ventures stage by a surprisingly large audience for such an early time slot.
“Holy shit, we weren’t expecting this,” exclaims frontwoman Carrie Fussel with a grin so wide it might be spotted clear across the field.
The sextet’s bubbly brand of pop-rock (think a more authentically hippied-out Grouplove) holds up — the crowd swells significantly as passersby get sucked into the genuinely good vibes of songs from recently released EP Clouds on Fire. “I hope you love your weekend and love all the people around you,” says Fussel, concluding on a wonderfully positive note.
2:00 p.m. British rock duo Royal Blood makes its ACL debut on the massive Samsung Galaxy stage (the main stage) in thunderous fashion with catchy heavy-hitters off their self-titled debut like “Figure it Out,” “Come On Over” and “Little Monster.”
Twenty-five-year-old bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr and 26-year-old drummer Ben Thatcher only launched this project in 2013, so their swaggering command over such a massive sea of people early in the afternoon is impressive. Thatcher punctuates one of the most memorable rock performances of the weekend by going for a brief, celebratory crowd-surf during closer “Out of the Black.”
4:00 p.m. Dallas, Texas native Leon Bridges draws the largest audience of the day (so far) to the Honda stage with a truly uplifting set of gospel and soul, pulled mostly from full-length debut Coming Home. He just celebrated his 26th birthday in July, but he delivered key album tracks plus a few new cuts (“Lonely Road,” “Out of Line,” “That Girl Can’t Make Up Her Mind,” “Mississippi Kisses” and “In My Arms”) with the professionalism of a Motown legend.
His introduction to the latter tune reveals a young man so full of charming confidence that he could only be destined for bigger, better things: “This next song basically says, if your man isn’t treatin’ you right, my arms are always open.”
6:00 p.m. Kevin Parker, frontman of Aussie psych breakouts Tame Impala, makes a good point: “Are you staying cool? Or are you staying hot, because that’s what you do in Texas.” He and his boys assist with beating the heat by serving up the uber-chill vibes of new tracks like “Let it Happen” and “The Moment” off July release Currents.
8:00 p.m. Foo Fighters blast one of the weekend’s largest crowds at the Samsung Galaxy stage with hit after earth-rattling hit, saving the cherry on top — an intense guest solo from Austin axeman Gary Clark Jr. on Sonic Highways single “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness” — to signal the beginning of their encore-less finale.
“Best of You” was a weak closer — why not more pay material from their self-titled debut for one of the last gigs on this 20th anniversary outing? — but an expertly executed cover of Pink Floyd’s “In the Flesh?” helps the performance maintain its legendary tier among ACL headlining sets. “We’re gonna go home and take 10 years off, I’ll look like the Unabomber, then we’ll do it again,” promises frontman Dave Grohl from atop his absurdly epic throne.
Saturday, Oct. 4
2:30 p.m. In his inimitable sardonic fashion, Father John Misty charms a few thousand strong from the massive Honda stage into forgetting that he was ever the un-spotlit drummer of Fleet Foxes before releasing two albums (this day he pulls heavily from recent sophomore record I Love You, Honeybear).
“I’m gonna turn up the vibe now with a sarcastic meta-ballad about despair,” he says before jumping down onto the barricade, pretending to film himself with a fan’s phone camera, and all the while still nailing the soaring vocals of “Bored in the U.S.A.”
6:30 p.m. Alabama Shakes dishes out no-frills roots rock to an audience that seems to stretch out endlessly on the field in front of the Honda stage. Drake may be the night’s headliner in terms of billing order, but masterfully soulful (not to mention humble) frontwoman Brittany Howard and her crew seem as much deserving of the label. ACL’s historically familial dynamic holds up here — while Drake’s crowd will largely comprise teens and early twenty-somethings, representatives from all generations are present here to help Howard belt out the stirring finale of “Over My Head.”
8:30 p.m. Drake ensures that his first of two Saturday closing performances on the Samsung Galaxy stage doesn’t fall flat like both of his Sunday-closing Coachella spots back in April by bringing out Atlanta rapper Future (set to replace Brandon Flowers with his own set at 6 p.m. next Friday). The duo performs live debuts of “Jumpman” and “Big Rings,” two cuts off their just-released No. 1 mixtape What a Time to Be Alive, which get this audience more hyped than the significantly smaller deadmau5 crowd gathered across the park at the Honda stage. That said, his tendency to play only tiny snippets of most songs and rarely a full track stifles his performance’s flow throughout. Drake will need more guests for weekend 2 if he wants to exceed expectations.
Sunday, Oct. 4
12:45 p.m. New York duo Lion Babe rounds out a strong early-bird hat-trick of female-fronted acts — Waxahatchee on the Miller Lite Stage and Ume on Austin Ventures, respectively. It’s just the iceberg’s tip — ACL 2015 possibly has the largest proportion of woman-fronted acts at a major 2015 U.S. festival (this day alone will tout around a dozen when Flo joins as top dog next weekend).
Though the audience remains miniscule, the group’s powerful set of neo-soul on the Honda Stage incites a spirited dance party by riding on the coattails of genre-bending greats like Lauryn Hill (see singer Jillian Hervey’s ferocious rap-esque delivery on “Jump Hi”) and the Notorious B.I.G. (producer Lucas Goodman snuck in a “Big Poppa” sample somewhere). Throughout the show until the conclusion of breakout hit “Treat Me Like Fire,” wild-maned Hervey asserts herself as one of the most captivating dancer-singers at the fest.
4:30 p.m. “We’re going to try to play a quiet song,” says the Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy to a massive crowd gathered at the Honda stage.
“Ah, the festival quiet song … you know, the ol’ festival killer,” he chides in earnest.
Meloy’s doubt is misguided: audience members either sing along softly or remain reverently quiet during “Carolina Low,” a tune off the band’s latest album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, which retains the heart of the Portland outfit’s stint as one of the most contemplative folk acts in the biz.
Meloy continues to show what comes off as disdain for festival crowds — “That was pathetic,” he goads during the dry run of the audience pretending to be swallowed by a whale during set closer “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” But the crowd got their revenge by wowing him into a positively mirthful performance with a chorus of hilariously lighthearted death cries as stage hands carried out a giant, chomping whale prop during the tune’s final go.
7:30 p.m. Dwight Yoakam makes his first ACL Fest appearance in 12 years and rewards the tiny Austin Ventures stage with its most sprawling audience of the weekend by far. Sure, the festival has relented to adding hip-hop to the mix (Chicago’s Chance the Rapper was the genre’s highlight this weekend when he made his ACL debut a couple hours earlier on the Miller Lite stage), but ACL-ers still love their downhome country roots. Just listen to all these voices shamelessly belting along, for better or worse, to Yoakam’s cover of Johnny Cash staple “Ring of Fire.”
8:30 p.m. “What’s up City Limits? I love me some City Limits,” says the Strokes‘ frontman Julian Casablancas after the New York-based band pulls at the heartstrings of old-school fans first-timers alike crowding the Samsung Galaxy stage (though not as thickly as the throng amassed at the Honda stage for competing headliner the Weeknd) by opening with the title and lead track of 2001 debut Is This It.
Few post-2011 tunes permeate the band’s second-ever run at the fest (they closed Friday in 2010) save for “Welcome to Japan” and “Machu Picchu,” which is just fine for this audience clearly in it for the nostalgia.
“What Ever Happened,” the Room on Fire track that sports one of contemporary rock’s catchiest 8-bar guitar solos, closes the main set for its first live showing anywhere since 2011. And the crowd literally goes wild (tears of joy stream down a few faces) like this is friggin’ Beatlemania.
“You Only Live Once,” another example of the band’s most cohesive songwriting (RIP), kick-starts the encore, which finishes triumphantly with Casablancas’ feral screams on “Take It or Leave It.”
“Thanks so much. I hope you guys have … wonderful lives,” offers the shaggy-haired frontman in parting, once again plunging the group’s fans into uncertainty regarding just how long they’ll have to wait for an ACL return.