Upon leaving the 2015 Austin City Limits Music Festival on the second day of its second weekend, someone near me made the comment that a person heading back towards the downtown area was presented with the nine circles of hell. Bottled water was being hawked for a dollar, pizza slices for two; here, a man selling bootleg tie-dye shirts, there someone with knock-off posters. Eventually, one would encounter homeless persons trying to get a few quarters out of anyone passing by and attendees could never escape a string of (sometimes very aggressive) people trying to buy, sell, or trade prized festival wristbands. Ultimately, the Dante reference worked–-not only for the process of leaving the event, but for the event itself: surely, the Austin City Limits Music Festival, though fun in its own way, embodies a special sort of hell.
Founded in 2002 as a two-day event at the Texas capital city's Zilker Park with 67 mostly mid-card-level bands (a one day pass cost $25), the ACL festival grew exponentially over the following decade, finally taking a place alongside Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza (incidentally started around the same time) in the top tier of American music festivals. Perhaps this growth was inevitable: in its first year, some 25,000 people were expected but 42,000 actually appeared and, by 2004, in only the event's third year, attendance had topped out at 75,000 on the second of three days. In 2012, Austin City Council voted unanimously to expand the event to two weekends with both having essentially the same lineup-–a format identical to the one used at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. One might think this would have alleviated some of the overcrowding at the event, but it instead appears to have been a cash money grab and, aside from increasing the event's total revenue, has only truly succeeded in creating two messy festival weekends instead of one: 2014 attendance at ACL over the six non-consecutive days officially hit 450,000 (for comparison, the city-wide SXSW handles 400,000 over the course of ten consecutive days).
Florence + the Machine – photo by Ralph Arvesen
ACL Festival has always seemed the populist choice among Austin's big music events, designed to appeal to mainstream listeners. That being said, when I attended in 2012, I was amazed by the depth of the lineup: aside from a list of headliners that would rival that of most any other music fest (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Jack White,The Black Keys, Iggy & The Stooges, Avicii, et al.), top-notch supporting acts were featured throughout the day that year. Since ACL has become a two-weekend extravaganza however, the quality of its lineup seems to have declined, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that there was not a single band on the 2015 lineup that I was genuinely stoked to see.
Certainly, the 2015 incarnation of the festival featured some good music but the lineup was painfully unimpressive. Booking an established alt rock group like Foo Fighters as the Friday headliner is a no-brainer, and even getting safe but reliable bands like indie rock legends (?) Modest Mouse, TV on the Radio, or masters of storytelling The Decemberists to play early evening sets is reasonable enough. Though not quite the draw they once were, first weekend closers The Strokes seemed comparable to weekend two's Florence + The Machine in terms of appealing to and attracting a crowd, yet the other headliners struck me as being sketchy at best. The odd choice of Canadian rapper Drake or the womping electro of Deadmau5 ("it's dead mao five, right?") as the Saturday featured act, positioning of British garage house duo Disclosure against the Foo's, and R&B crooner The Weeknd as the alternate Sunday headliner hinted at the fact that festival organizers may be trying to make ACL appeal more to younger audiences. Few of these groups had obvious, far-reaching appeal to the older crowd, and alienating this demographic seems almost to have been the point.
This transition from ACL being a festival geared towards an older crowd and one designed for younger audiences unsurprisingly has consequences: I was shocked during weekend two at the amount of drinking going on by some attendees. Bear in mind, Austin's coolest day between October 9th and 11th hit 92 degrees Fahrenheit; on Sunday, in the relatively shade-free Zilker Park, it was a sunshiny, dusty, and brutally hot 95 by the early afternoon. Needless to say, copious drinking (along with possible pill-popping and dope smoking) didn't work out well for some festival-goers: plenty of horror stories have popped up online and one only needed to look around to realize that some people should have heeded the “stay hydrated” advisories. Some of this sort of behavior is inevitable at big music festivals but inadvertently or purposely driving away the more grounded, responsible, and typically friendly crowd is likely to have a detrimental effect on the overall atmosphere of the event. I suspect I'm not the only one who would have minimal interest in going to a festival almost exclusively attended by inconsiderate patrons more in need of babysitting than anything else.
Tame Impala – photo by Ralph Arvesen
It's not just in the headliner department where the ACL lineup seems to have suffered over the past few years either: I went through large sections of 2015's second weekend knowing nothing about the bands on the schedule. I would expect a situation like this at SXSW, which prides itself on featuring up-and-coming groups, but had hoped to be at least vaguely familiar with the vast majority of the groups playing ACL. Not knowing much about the lineup lead to some pleasant surprises (Royal Blood's blistering Friday afternoon set was a highlight for me, as were agreeably laid back Sunday performances from Daughter and then Sylvan Esso, who impressed despite some initial technical hangups), but I was more disappointed that many groups at ACL 2015 didn't suit my taste at all. I'm willing to give most any music a shot, nevertheless the nauseating positivity of Echosmith (terrible to say, but overwhelming amounts of cheer in music pisses me off to a sometimes large extent), the obnoxious exclamations and glitchiness of Flosstradamus, and incessant bird-like hoots and hollers of Chance the Rapper (to say nothing of his claims of having “won” ACL both weekends) annoyed me more than anything else. Though their drummer was outstanding, I also didn't care much for the much-hyped Twenty One Pilots and was similarly unmoved by Alt-J's lackluster Sunday evening set.
Still, along with the bad, there was plenty of good at ACL. Meg Myers showed during an early Friday show that she's coming into her own as a performer, delivering a much more vibrant live experience than she had when I saw her two years ago at SXSW. Billy Idol, meanwhile, proved he can still rock out at nearly sixty years of age (true story: the man's newest singles are immensely catchy and probably would have been radio hits a decade ago), hometown hero Gary Clark Jr. set the crowd alight with his scorching blues rock, and Tame Impala sashayed through a hazy batch of tunes as the sun began to set on weekend two's opening day. Performing between a pair of mannequins mocked up to look like R. Kelly, LA's FIDLAR (one of the scant few punk-oriented bands at the fest) positively slayed during a noontime set on Saturday, working through a particularly deranged version of the Star-Spangled Banner before breaking out an impromptu version of Weezer's “Undone – The Sweater Song” that replaced all the words during the verses with meows. Later, in between his strange but often sweet folk rock tunes, Father John Misty thanked an audience member for “putting down his phone long enough to punch [him] in the dick” and urged the crowd to keep up their energy with methamphetamines before poking fun at a string of VIP personnel strolling down an aisle in front of the stage. While possibly subdued by his own, somewhat outrageous standards, these and other antics made his set quietly memorable for reasons other than the music.
Photo by David Ingram
Two of the most-hyped, most-discussed acts of the weekend were hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, who continued to build their legacy with another exhilarating Austin performance, and Walk the Moon, a group I was unfamiliar with but who wowed me with their irresistible brand of pop rock. Worth noting: Brand New were the obligatory mainstream-ish punk band on the schedule, but their Friday afternoon set (much like one I saw at last year's festival from AFI) seemed woefully out of place at the event. Noisy rock duo In the Whale proved to be the best band I saw on the livestream from weekend one, and country artists Sturgill Simpson and Dwight Yoakam were on hand (apparently) to provide a glimpse of what ACL used to be like “in the good ol' days.”
It's kind of unfortunate that ACL does manage to get some really solid performers in amongst the passable or plain forgettable ones: I almost feel that this festival is more held back by apathy among its organizers than by anything else. When you've got 75,000 people per day clamoring for your ticket no matter who's playing, why bother changing up a tired booking formula? ACL appears satisfied with being just another music festival, one which delivers a roster of performers virtually identical to that of other, big-name American events, but I have to wonder why this vibrant city is satisfied with a festival this bloated and bland. Maybe 2015 truly was just a down year for ACL, but an ongoing trend toward mediocrity is rather alarming. For sure there are better festivals in Austin for those whose tastes lie outside the mainstream: events like Psych Fest and Fun Fun Fun go out of their way to deliver a unique and more personable experience, and I'd immediately choose them over an overrated, overcrowded, and often frustrating ACL.