Best of the Fest: Austin City Limits

Sunday, October 29, 2017 - 4:12pm

Earlier this month, three Daily Arts Editors went on an odyssey to Austin, Texas to attend Austin City Limits, a three-day festival of music, art and — most importantly — breakfast tacos.  

Solange

Solange is an artist you must see live. All the elements that make her such an important recording artist are amplified on stage. Her precision, her joy, her presence — it’s breathtaking. The visuals, in all their color coordination and choreography, enhance Solange’s sound without overpowering it.

After some travel delays, Solange and her band took the stage, awash in orange light. Every aspect of the show was quietly and soulfully choreographed; from the sways of her singers to the grooves of the musicians, each in some variation of an all orange outfit. But it didn’t feel forced. Each motion, no matter how small or grand, was meant.

Pulling mainly from A Seat at the Table, Solange moved seamlessly between tracks. She delivered the more pointed moments of her music with grace; striking a balance between giving the content the respect it deserves without making the performance too heavy. The importance of Solange’s art was palpable in the crowd; the faces of those along the guard rails were nothing if not exuberant. But even those in the furthest reaches of the crowd, those just barely touched by Solange’s warm light, felt Solange’s quiet power, too.

— Carly Snider

Vulfpeck

Jack Stratton guided the crowd in breathing exercises, six beautiful boys sang an a cappella to “Back Pocket,” Antwaun Stanley, Joey Dosik and Theo Katzman crowded around a keyboard and harmonize to “Birds of a Feather, We Rock Together,” and Stratton finished it all off with a handstand in the center of Honda Stage.

All of these things, these images were faroff myths to me before Friday, October 13th. I’ve been listening to Vulfpeck ever since my sister played “Back Pocket” for me back in 2013 and despite going to their alma mater, I always managed to miss my chance at seeing them live. But somehow, that chance came to me in Austin, Texas, hundreds of miles from where the group formed. And it was so, unbelievably worth it just to see “Beastly” live.

Opening with the clipped chords of Cory Wong and Stratton’s guitars on “Cory Wong” Vulfpeck took the stage after their pre-recorded introduction in the style of Don Pardo. Stratton yelled something about taking it “down south the coast of California” and my heart stopped as the first notes of “El Chepe”’s piano progression began. Antwaun brought the “Funky Duck,” “Aunt Leslie,” and “1612,” and Dart, of course, brought the bass. I wish there were more words to describe the experience of watching “Beastly” and “Dean Town” performed live, hearing the small fraction of the crowd who were down with the music singing along to the bass notes and chord changes as if they were words, lyrics, stories. I was worried the set would be identical to the week before’s; I shouldn’t have underestimated them like that. Because even after performing the previous Friday and two shows at Emo’s in Austin, the boys were still their magnetic, charming selves.

— Natalie Zak

Whitney

I saw Whitney frontmen (and certified cute boys) Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich play ACL back in 2013 and 2011, while they were playing with Smith Westerns. I was in high school and their music made me feel impossibly cool.

Now that they’re playing as Whitney, they make me feel — like all good bands do — very cool and very, very uncool. But, I didn’t fall in love with Whitney until I saw them live for the first time at a small show in Burlington, Vermont. They’re smooth and magnetic and crushingly cool. They’re the kind of band that is elevated by their own persona. It’s not a persona, though, that’s acted. Their charm and energy and sheer talent make them one of the best live acts currently on tour.

During their set last weekend, they played all the way through their debut album Light Upon the Lake, which, Ehrlich jokingly reminded the crowd only clocks in at 30 minutes. Opening with “Dave’s Song,” which holds a high ranking on my list of “Song that Make Me Want to Dance and Cry (at the same time),” the band drifted from song to song. The extra-album side of their set was filled out with Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan covers, and Ehrlich punctuated his airy falsetto with intimate banter. He met his girlfriend’s parents last week, they loved him (of course), and that morning he was really, really hungover.

Whitney sounds like summer, but they also sound like fall and spring and best parts of winter. They make sparkling nighttime driving songs and dreamy lay-on-your-bed-and-stare-at-the-ceiling song and (thankfully) swelling, dizzying, dancing in the sun songs. And, actually, all of those things apply to all of their songs.

— Madeleine Gaudin

Angel Olsen

Anything I write about Angel Olsen should be called “Why I Am Not A Singer.” Watching Olsen perform proves something I’ve long suspected: I’ll never understand everything that goes into musical performance. And I think that’s why I enjoy it so much.

Olsen was bubbly and electric, increasingly excited by the crowd and the night and how much she loves doing what she does, how much she loves doing the thing that blows my mind. And that thing is really just singing. She and her music are all about her voice and it’s airy ineffable quality. Olsen swayed through tracks from her first three studio albums and played “Special” the most recent single from her forthcoming collection Phases.

As the sun set and Austin started to (finally) cool to a brisk 85, Olsen broke into the opening notes of MY WOMAN standout and certified bop “Shut Up Kiss Me.” The way she smiles when she sings, the sharp twinkle of her voice, the electric current that runs between Olsen and the crowd, each one requiring the other to live: This is why people go to shows.

— Madeleine Gaudin

Red Hot Chili Peppers 

At this point in their career, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have live performance down to a science; they know exactly what a crowd (especially an enormous festival crowd) wants to hear. Anthony Kiedis and Flea sprinkle in just enough banter to be charming, the band rocks just hard enough to warrant woos and shoves from the masses. And, despite playing what is expected, their weekend two set still proved entertaining.

On top of the hits — “Snow ((Hey Oh)),” “Californication,” “By the Way,” “Give it Away,” etc. — the Peppers threw in some deep cuts and covers to round out their setlist. Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Tom Petty’s “A Face in the Crowd” were among the covers.

But the most notable had to be The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” There was a pause over the crowd as tried to decipher the opening notes, but once those iconic sleigh bells hit, it clicked. I could tell that not everyone recognized the track, but for me, a punk-centric youth from Ann Arbor, this homage to proto-punk made the set. Even after the last notes of “Give It Away” faded out and a shirtless Kiedis bid us all a goodnight, all I could hear were those opening lines, “So wrapped up / I want you here….”

— Carly Snider

BadBadNotGood

Have you ever gotten down to a jazz quartet? Like literally down on the ground as the band shouts at you to get low with everyone else in the crowd? In the final moments of their set, this is exactly what BadBadNotGood had their crowd do, and the intimacy of the small crowd tucked under Tito’s Handmade Vodka tent made the experience all that more incredible. Because while the music the group plays may be strictly called jazz, their foundations were originally geared toward reworking songs by the likes of Nas, Odd Future, and A Tribe Called Quest. And this becomes entirely clear when surrounded by a sea of 18 year old boys in cuffed jeans and oxfords throwing their hands and jumping in sync to the instrumental “Hedron.”

BadBadNotGood has it, that thing that makes crowds fall in love with you. It’s in their music, in their extreme command over their instruments, their youth and vibrancy that brings so much life to their performance. In the small tent in front of Tito’s stage for the hour that the quartet played, that entire crowd was cut off from the outside world and caught up in Leland Whitty’s sax.

— Natalie Zak

Gorillaz

Gorillaz’s performance was stacked. Damon Albarn was impressive in his own right, but the performance was overwhelmed with visuals and guest appearances. The enormous screen behind the stage was constantly blaring with images of “the band” — i.e. 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs.

Bookending the set with older material, Albarn opened with “M1 A1” and closed, of course, with “Feel Good Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood.” The middle was largely filled with material from Gorillaz recent mammoth of a release, Humanz. The stretch of newer material was supported by a slew of featured artists. Peven Everett, Jamie Principle, Zebra Katz, Kilo Kish, De La Soul and Del the Funky Homosapien all joined Albarn at one point or another. If this sounds like a lot, it kind of was.

The performance was most successful when it wasn’t over-produced; when the rolling beats of tracks like “On Melancholy Hill” or “Andromeda” were given room to breathe. Or when the animated band members were allowed to hold their own ground rather than compete with instrumentation or lights. Despite its overzealous moments, Gorillaz’s celebrated art sprung from multi-medium, multi-artist collaboration.

— Carly Snider

The Killers

I will effectively lose my shit to The Killers every time I see them perform. Call it nostalgia, call it my mom playing my “Mr. Brightside” for me at 8 and knowing all the words by 9 — they’re deeply ingrained in my childhood from Hot Fuss to Day and Age. Battle Born though, not so much.

I gave their new album Wonderful Wonderful a try and only came away from it with what I expected going in (disappointment), so when their set came along at Austin City Limits, I told myself I didn’t care. I’d stand in the pack for one song, maybe two. My legs hurt, eyes were weary; it wasn’t worth it. But then the first notes of “Spaceman,” Brandon Flowers’ “oh, oh, oh”’s and Dave Keuning’s guitar rang through the park and I realized all the lies I’d been telling myself that day were exactly that. Because they performed “Bling (Confessions of a King)” and “Bones” and “For Reasons Unknown,” and I had each passing word and note on the tip of my tongue despite having ignored the band for years.

Their new album may be trash, but I can’t help but love them. “This Is Your Life” has the line “Candy doesn’t give a damn about her hair” in the opening verse, and I think back to ten-year-old Natalie screaming it with her sisters because oh-my-gosh-he-said-damn. And then 4 years later seeing them live on December 21, 2012 when they opened to R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”; I could’ve died with The Killers that night. I just wish, wish, wish we could have the heavy eyeliner rendition of Flowers back, the angsty kid egging to get out of his Mormon faith who sang about prostitutes and drug addiction, but I know that will never be the case. 

— Natalie Zak