AUSTIN — “It means ‘Over here, asshole,’” Omar explained as we admired his flag waving proudly in the setting sun, while we stood in nervous anticipation for the set to come. The flag he chose to hike around was bright yellow with these words scrawled on it in Spanish, drawing the attention and shouts of approval from fellow festival attendees.
“It’s my third year here, and I’ve learned you have to get creative with these things,” he continued.
And creative, people certainly got. Over the course of the weekend, flags and totems meant to locate friends varied in size and style and decorated the crowds that filled the 46-acre Zilker Park. Some were simply patriotic gestures or celebrations of collegiate pride (I’m looking at you, Michigan State University). Others were giant inflatable dinosaurs or the face of David Beckham plastered onto the head of a unicorn. Imagination prevailed, while heat persisted.
Two weekends, eight stages, 110 bands and a lot of tacos. Our three days at Austin City Limits stood the test of heat and dehydration — our bags were packed with complimentary coconut water and popsicles, while our ears filled with live music we never thought we’d hear and our voices cracked under the strain of screaming each cherished lyric. Three days, eight stages, thirteen bands, with the heavy weight of procrastinated homework hanging gleefully over our heads.
— Natalie Zak
The Front Bottoms
Punk rock isn’t dead, it’s just hiding in your parents’ garage. Or your friend’s basement. Either way, it has taken the form of four guys with their drums, guitars, keyboard and angst shouting into microphones about how “they got so stoned” and will never get jobs — and all you can do is sing or dance or shove along. Despite their command of Honda stage, this band carries the persona of adaptation; it can just as easily blend into the background of a college party as it can command a stage raised high before a throng of festival goers.
Looking for the mosh pit? You’ll find the band right above it. Looking for the scrawny high schoolers with braces or college kids in ripped jeans and a new tattoo? You’ll find them screaming the lyrics to “Twin Sized Mattress” as if it’s the only thing saving them from an insufferably human existence. It’s 2016 and angst is back, be you young, old or teetering on middle age. Give it a head nod, and then listen to “West Virginia,” for there’s nothing to lose now but the days of alt-pop we’ll gladly be rid of, and there’s everything to gain, including a new anthem that makes you want to cry, scream and dance all at the same time.
— Natalie Zak
What exactly does Flying Lotus do? If you went to his ACL set looking for answers, you might have come away just as confused — perhaps even more so — as you came. That’s the magic of Steven Ellison, the Los Angeles-based instrumentalist-producer-DJ-rapper-whatever behind Flying Lotus: he put together a performance that can’t be described as anything but absolutely mesmerizing. For the majority of the set he worked behind the board, spinning out hypnotic, experimental sounds to the crowd, which left everyone transfixed and swaying while a range of optical illusions twirled around him.
As he became increasingly intoxicated (he began taking swigs of Patrón directly from the bottle), he stepped out and started talking. Pitchfork had called him out the week before about some comments he made at a performance about Hillary Clinton, and he wasted no time addressing it: “Where all the motherfucking Pitchfork writers at? Fuck 2016 and your ultra-feminist memes. Hey, there’s one Asian person here, what’s up?!” Fired up, Lotus started rapping at the tail end of his set before walking off, Patrón in hand. Stunning.
— Matt Gallatin
When I was seven years old, my dad got into Radiohead. I mean really got into them, like carved-OK-Computer-into-his-Halloween-pumpkin into them.
Radiohead, as a result, formed the basis of my family’s first debates about music. At the respective ages of seven, ten and twelve, my sisters and I couldn’t stand them and their weird mélange of noises protruding inharmoniously from our speakers. We, being youths, couldn’t stand that it wasn’t Hannah Montana.
This ignorance thankfully didn’t last long. Radiohead’s music is a symphony, or at least it’s composed like one. With Jonny Greenwood on lead guitar and brandishing the conductor’s baton, their songs ebb and flow. The first note of “Burn the Witch” threw the audience into a frenzy characterized by pure amazement at the spectacle unfolding before their eyes. This amazement persisted throughout the entire two hour set as they moved from A Moon Shaped Pool to The Bends to Kid A, only stopping for Thom Yorke to make some absurd comment in his thick British accent, while audience members shouted “happy birthday” in these elusive pauses. Yes, it was Thom Yorke’s birthday, and I celebrated it with him.
And now a note on power and performance, because I witnessed an anomaly in concert attendance behavior: at the start of “Daydreaming,” the entire crowd fell silent. First unconsciously, and then purposely, with everyone silencing surrounding attendees who dared to make a sound. It was beautiful and intense, and a testament to the command Radiohead holds over its audience and instruments.
To conclude: everybody deserves the chance to dance like Thom Yorke once in their life — spasmodically and passionately, like it’s your 48th birthday and you’re spending it with a thousand friends who care.
— Natalie Zak
Michigan was well represented in Austin last weekend, and not just by the three hotties from Michigan Daily Arts and those guys with the MSU flag. JR JR (formerly known as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.), a Detroit-based indie pop project from Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein, put on a spectacle of a show early Saturday afternoon. The 1:30 timeslot is a difficult one for a festival set. It’s hot; it’s lunchtime. People are trickling in slowly.
But JR JR came out guns blazing. Zott and Epstein, both dressed in metallic ponchos, played a setlist of their more upbeat songs. Zott ran around the stage, climbed on the amps, climbed over the guardrail and ran through the crowd in a display of pure joy and enthusiasm. The crowd was the most alive, awake, alert and enthusiastic (name that song reference for some bonus points) that I have ever seen for a midday set. The crowd fed off the band, and the band fed off the crowd. And together we started the second day of the festival on the best note possible.
— Madeleine Gaudin
AJ Jackson, the frontman of Saint Motel, has the most perfectly geometric teeth I have ever seen. They’re like two rows of white Chiclet gum. And he’s a smiley singer, so the crowd on Saturday evening got a good look at that glorious set of dentures during Saint Motel’s set. The set was good — nowhere near as spectacular as the teeth, but good. Almost all bands with trumpets are better than bands without trumpets. That’s just a fact. Trumpets are fun. Saint Motel has a trumpet. Saint Motel is fun.
They’re the perfect band to see at a festival because they aren’t quite enough on their own to warrant money for tickets and gas and food. But they’re good enough to stop by on your way to see LL Cool J or grab a taco (or ten) from the food tents. It’s not great music, but it’s fun music. It’s the perfect music to dance to on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
— Madeleine Gaudin
LL Cool J
LL Cool J believes in America’s youth, and you should too!
Between his love songs and early career throwbacks, LL Cool J professed a deep respect for the youth of America as the impending leaders of this great nation. Probably because our current leaders aren’t doing much for us, and partisanship is tearing this country apart — but I digress. LL Cool J, in the midst of his set, bestowed upon a lucky little girl in the audience a medal. While laying it on her shoulders, he spoke to her and said that she must have faith and be strong, because she is the future of our country.
And that little girl right there grew up to be Ann Coulter.
No, no, no, she didn’t. She was lifted back to her proud, smiling father, probably confused, but immediately appeased, because Cool J burst into a rendition of “Mr. Goodbar” as if it wasn’t 2016 and he didn’t currently host “Lip Sync Battle.” What I saw of LL Cool J that evening was not his “Lip Sync Battle” self; it was his “I Need Love,” seven-season-star of “NCIS: Los Angeles” self up there onstage, giving a performance for the ages.
We all have prized possessions we cling to in times of need. I can’t live without Spotify, and LL Cool J can’t live without his radio. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
— Natalie Zak
Paak has had a steady call to fame in the last two years, coming off the success of his major label debut Malibu and appearing on some of the year’s biggest and best hip-hop releases — Schoolboy’s Blank Face LP, Kaytranda’s 99.9% and Chance’s Coloring Book, to name a few.
Accordingly, his live show comes with the energy and excitement of an artist kicking his way to the top. Paak played tracks almost exclusively from Malibu and Venice, his first coherent studio album, and he dished them out with ease and confidence. Paak was flanked by The Free Nationals, his touring band, but the instrumentals were never distracting — “Drugs” was anthemic as ever, “Milk and Honey” flared with his signature delivery and “Room In Here” grooved in the flesh even better than it does on tape. Paak’s stage presence was calm, but still electric. He knew how to keep the people happy.
He also played some new music from his upcoming album Yes Lawd! with producer Knxwledge, and it was perhaps his best performance of the evening; this is an album to watch out for. Paak mentioned throughout that he didn’t know when he was going to be back, so he was going to just “groove with it like it was his last.” Groove with it he did.
— Matt Gallatin
TDE, showed up in force on Saturday, and Schoolboy didn’t disappoint on his end of the bargain. Perhaps the most popular modern “gangster rapper” (what that even means anymore is up for debate), Q doled out his hits hard and fast — “Studio,” “Man of the Year,” “Break the Bank.” There’s an interesting overlap between rap and punk concerts in the last few years: both love moshing. As Q reached his ultimate Kanye-assisted track, “THat Part,” no less than four full-fledged mosh pits were slamming full-throttle.
Beggars can’t be choosers — this ain’t Chipotle — but Q fans got plenty of what they came for, and Q managed to keep the energy going for the entirety of his hour-long set. He even showed up for round two later that night with fellow TDE headliner Kendrick, performing “THat Part” again along with “Collard Greens.” Q was most vicious on his freshest tracks, his performance of “Ride Out” from the new acclaimed Blank Face LP being particularly hard-hitting, not worn out like hits can tend to feel after a while. Almost 30, Q is definitely on the older side of the rap game, but if his performance Saturday proved anything (along with the assorted young children in the crowd), it’s that gangster rap is ageless, maybe?
— Matt Gallatin
If you’re too uncomfortable with modern music to call Kendrick the best rapper ever, you have to at least give him the last three years. Nobody else has been as consistently impressive — hell, nobody else in the game has been as impressive, period. But his live show walks an interesting line, as his latest legitimate album, To Pimp a Butterfly, moved away from the bass- and drum- heavy, festival-friendly production of his peers and moved closer to a sort of jazz rap. He had a live band with him Saturday night, but he used it sparingly. It worked perfectly. He awed with some off the cuff verses as he told the band to just “give him something to work with,” but he also made sure to play to the crowd, performing the chorus of banger “M.A.A.D. City” four times, nearly shaking the foundation of Zilker Park.
The best moment came when Kendrick walked off the stage, and the crowd roared “We gon’ be alright” at him until he came back. He jumped right in — “Alls my life I had to fight!” He also payed homage to his label TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment) bringing out fellow Black Hippy member Schoolboy Q, who performed earlier that day. It was a fittingly powerful ending to a great night for West Coast rap.
— Matt Gallatin
“Sometimes you just have to roll yourself into a burrito.”
Out of context, truer words have never been spoken. In context, this was said after Paul Janeway, the lead singer of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, was so overwrought with emotion while performing “Broken Bones and Pocket Change” that he collapsed onto the ground, wrapped himself into the rug lying on stage and rolled under the platform where part of the six-piece soul band stood. All while still singing. And I loved it.
Emerging from Birmingham, Alabama in 2012, St. Paul and the Broken Bones is about the soul and the spectacle. Clad in a red tuxedo and alternating between a rose between his teeth and a Deadpool mask, Janeway was a star, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The band’s raw talent is enough to carry them through a performance and leave the audience content. But their energy and Janeway’s ecstatic personability is what made the festivalgoers dance, and what made those unfamiliar with the music stare in awe as to what bizarre skit was occurring on stage. It’s not every day the lead singer of a soul band dons a Deadpool mask while singing about the woman who wronged him, but we all have the rituals that get us through the day. Who am I to judge?
— Natalie Zak
I have never been in a more purely joyful crowd than the one gathered on Sunday night to see LCD Soundsystem close out the festival. I — and I think many of the people around me — had completely written off ever seeing LCD live. The band consciously uncoupled (long before Gwyneth made it cool) with a farewell show at Madison Square Garden in 2011. So as the minutes ticked down until we would all be face to face with a band we thought was dead, the crowd buzzed with anticipation, fluxing between pinching ourselves and not wanting the dream to end.
I’m still a little bit in shock that what happened on Sunday night was real. It was magical to hear “Dance Yrself Clean” build, and to watch Nancy Whang bang away on the keyboard. It was everything I had dreamed it would be since my dad made me watch “Shut Up and Play the Hits” (a fantastic movie about their break-up and “final” concert). But it was better because it wasn’t a dream.
LCD Soundsystem is a project bursting with love. Its frontman and maestro James Murphy’s love of music, his love of the music he makes and his love of the people he makes music with. It’s also the love of the people that listen to that music and love that music and raise their kids to love that music (thanks, Dad). The crowd on Sunday night pulsed with that love. Our joy came out of this collective love.
Something happens to music when it’s played live, and never has that felt truer than during LCD’s set at ACL. Everything — sound, energy, love — is at full volume. “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” bursts the crowd into a sea of dancing, and “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” draws us back into a quiet sway. On either end of the energy spectrum, LCD Soundsystem makes music that asks you to lose yourself in it. It begs for uninhibitedness. It begs for joy.
Finally, with “All My Friends,” Murphy leaves us with the question: “Where are your friends tonight?” And the only answer is: if they aren’t at LCD Soundsystem, who cares?
— Madeleine Gaudin