Max Donald and I hand out our awards for ACL 2017.
This past weekend, tens of thousands of people made their way to Zilker Park for the 16th annual Austin City Limits Music Festival. Normally, Friday of ACL brings a buzz of excitement and eagerness that lasts until the final performances on Sunday night. This year was different, though, with ACL being the first major music festival to take place since the tragic Las Vegas shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Hearts were heavier and minds were more apprehensive walking into Zilker park than on other years past.
The performers at ACL, however, wielded this uneasiness into beautiful, heartfelt performances that ushered feelings of relief and exhilaration from the crowd. As the festival went by without a hitch, it was hard to deny a sense of unity and catharsis that developed between the performers and the crowd. ZHU gave a particularly poignant shout out to Las Vegas before playing the national anthem. Several artists like the Killers and the Red Hot Chili Peppers also delivered their own unique renditions of Tom Petty songs to honor the late rock star.
ACL 2017 went above and beyond expectations. In the wake of national heartbreak, the artists delivered chilling performances that injected energy and optimism back into the city.
In light of this incredible festival, fellow Verge writer Max Donald and I took it upon ourselves to present some awards for the weekend. The variance between our decisions proves that ACL is a diverse festival that breeds different experiences for each attendee.
Katie: Louis the Child
I’m not totally sure what I was expecting when I got to Louis the Child, but it certainly wasn’t the two boys who stepped on stage Sunday night. The duo, Robert Hauldren and Frederic Kennett, no older than 21 years old, came on after the sunset and proceeded to put on one of the best light shows I saw this weekend. I’ve always loved “It’s Strange” and their newer “Love Is Alive”, but seeing them perform these electronic pop songs live was more satisfying than I anticipated. The crowd was packed shoulder to shoulder, but everyone managed to go wild when “Slow Down Love” played.
Max: Alison Wonderland
Ice Cube was on my schedule from the second the lineup was released way back in May. I was diverted, however, in a different direction toward the aesthetically pleasing Tito’s Tent to see a 5’2”, 31-year-old, blonde DJ by the name of Alex Sholler, better known as Allison Wonderland. From the second she took the stage, I knew I was in for a wild ride. Allison had a stage presence like nobody I’d ever seen before. She erupted with energy from start to finish and controlled the crowd remarkably, keeping us on our toes waiting to see what she would drop next. Just when you thought her transitions couldn’t get any more unique, she threw in some death metal and turned it into a shuffle-worthy house beat. Between the impressive light show, unpredictable progressions, and simply filthy beats, Allison Wonderland absolutely steals my vote for most surprising show of the weekend.
Max: Martin Garrix
When Martin Garrix’s name is brought up in the festival world, it comes with terms such as “#1 DJ in the world” or “a must-see show.” While he is an incredible producer, I personally felt his performance on Friday night was anemic at best. He had a great light show and played songs everyone knew, but that was about all he had going. I had similar feelings walking away from his set as I did with Calvin Harris’ set at ACL 2015: it felt as if Garrix was playing songs from a playlist, top to bottom. There was no variation whatsoever. Nothing that really swept me off my feet and made me say “damn, that was really sick.” This is no knock to Garrix’s music, I’m a huge fan of almost everything he puts out, I just felt that his stage presence was weak and his set exceptionally predictable.
Katie: Rainbow Kitten Surprise
It was about a year ago that I first heard about, and promptly became obsessed with, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, an alternative rock band from North Carolina. When I first listened to “First Class” walking home one day, it was so hauntingly beautiful I literally stopped in my tracks and had to sit down on a bench to finish the song fully before continuing home. Not an exaggeration. So it very, very deeply pains me to include RKS in this category as most disappointing. Performing on the largest stage during the hottest time of day took a toll on Sam Melo’s lead vocals as they sounded run down and strained in the sun. Expectations were high as the band’s past two albums host an emotional combination of Melo’s raspy voice and the band’s complementing harmonies, but on stage, the nuanced beauty of RKS’s songs got washed out and left Melo having to yell or talk through the beginning of their set. Definitely check them out because they’re still my favorite band, but this time around they were my most disappointing set of ACL.
Anyone who is a fan of Thundercat’s newest album, Drunk, would have expected him to look and perform exactly how he did Saturday afternoon. Rocking a ridiculous pink hair-do (I still can’t decide if it was a wig or his actual hair) and an enormous, oversized bass guitar, the 33-year-old bassist and vocalist had the Tito’s Tent grooving. Thundercat played every song you would’ve wanted to hear, from his Grammy award-winning feature on Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls” to his biggest hit single “Them Changes” and then some. The most eclectic part of the set was when he would indulge in 10 minute (or sometimes longer) jam sessions, freestyling on his bass guitar. Thundercat brought inarguably the most uncommon feel of the weekend in the best possible way, and thanks to that, wins the award for best vibes.
Katie: Tove Lo
Swedish singer Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson, known as Tove Lo, was one of the most fun parts of the day for me. She experienced some technical difficulties halfway through her set but didn’t let that stop her from putting on a great show at the Barton Springs Stage, the newest addition to ACL. Starting off her show with a rock and roll take on “True Disaster”, Tove Lo got people dancing immediately, transitioning perfectly into the funkier “Lady Wood”. The more removed area was a perfect place to listen to hits like “Talking Body”, where you could get up and move around if you wanted to, or sit towards the back and just soak in the setting sunset and surreal sounds. Towards the end of her set after playing “Disco Tits”, Lo flashed the audience, who responded with a thunderous applause and cheers of approval. From start to finish, best vibes of the day.
Katie: Red Hot Chili Pepper’s
The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s brought the house down. I was dancing to their entire set with my mouth hanging open because I was in awe of how killer they were. Not only was every song they played a hit- show me someone who doesn’t like “Dani California” and I’ll show you a liar –but they performed some of the best renditions of these classics I’d ever heard. Each musical rift introducing a song brought a new wave of unprecedented enthusiasm. The guitar riff that began “Can’t Stop” evoked a visceral reaction from me, and the drums that opened “Give It Away” started a surge of non-stop headbanging all around. Their cover of Tom Petty’s “A Face in the Crowd” was the perfect conclusion to Saturday’s affairs. Couldn’t complain if I wanted to.
I’m almost positive the first album I ever had on my iPod as a kid was The Black Album. With that said, this was definitely my most anticipated show of the weekend, and it certainly did not disappoint. Jay was rock solid from top to bottom. It seemed like each song was a bigger hit than the last. About halfway through the show a buddy I was with leaned over to me and said “Wow. I just can’t believe we are watching Jordan in ’96 right now.” I couldn’t think of a more accurate way to describe the only rapper in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame’s performance. He absolutely killed every song and was remarkably consistent. Another aspect of his show that was truly amazing was the way he controlled a crowd that size. He had every last person spitting every word of every song right alongside him. The biggest highlight, for me at least, was his tribute to the late Chester Bennington when he played the Linkin Park mashup of “Numb/Encore.” The only thing that could’ve made this show better was if he brought out Beyoncé. Oh well, a guy can dream right?