ACL Music Festival 2023 Weekend One Review
Back for its 22nd year, Austin City Limits Music Festival (October 6-8 and October 13-15, 2023) brings the magic of the famed public TV series Austin City Limits outside the studio and into Austin's most beloved park. ACL Festival features a diverse lineup of acts every year with 9 stages, 100+ performances – and, best of all, two weekends.
Weekend One Review
Maggie Rogers can’t stop singing. A songwriter skipping her way to the top with every dance confessional, her bottomless bag of ooo’s and woo’s and who’s proved the glue to the former Maryland prodigy‘s hour-long lasso on the headlining Honda stage Friday at dusk. Ricocheting in and out of the dozen songs pulled from her major label conversions, 2019’s Heard It in a Past Life and 2022 repeater Surrender, her wordless vocalizing pinged and popped at every point. The 29-year-old phenom played downtown churches in a buzzing South by Southwest 2017 but returned an every-age dancing queen, sporting a beachy bleaching and nape-of-the-neck shag complimenting hoop earrings straight off of Linda Ronstadt in 1978. Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Stevie Nicks: She emoted bright bouncy hooks and crying melodies like Christine McVie leading Daisy Jones & the Six. “I’m so excited to be at ACL,” she gushed. “I came here as a sophomore in college and saw Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, who completely changed my life.” Hear the connection in the metallic live bomp of second delivery “Want Want” and New Wave banger “Shatter,” both Surrender workouts. “I don’t know about you, but I came here to dance,” she announced, lighting into Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).” Wallflowers welcome.
Maggie Rogers at ACL Festival 2023.
Gothic Pop artist Nessa Barrett kicked off her U.S. tour at ACL Fest before an eager crowd of loving fans who screamed as soon as she said “hello” during a mic test. The crowd chanted her name in unison and soon after she appeared to sing with her smooth, melancholic voice. Passionate electrical guitar riffs and thunderous drums accompanied her. Fans sang along to her lyrics filled with themes of longing, grief and regret.
Nessa Barrett at ACL Festival 2023.
The Mars Volta. This El Paso based rock band is back together after a reunion last year, and it’s hard to tell they separated for a decade. Jarring electric guitar notes of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez paired greatly with Cedric Bixler-Zavala's powerful voice. The band used an array of unique instruments to rock out, including the electric piano, maracas, contrabass and barilles, a type of drum used in Puerto Rico.
Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta at ACL Festival 2023.
Julia Bailen of BAILEN at ACL Festival 2023.
What it all comes down to? Alanis Morissette is still pop music’s prophet of angst, her power is formidable, and woe to the joker who underestimates the Canadian hitmaker’s ability to form an army upon command.
During the first weekend of Austin City Limits Music Festival, Morissette played a golden hour set Saturday at the American Express stage. Her resume speaks for itself. She’s the creator of one of the best-selling albums of all time, “Jagged Little Pill,” which made her the first Canuck to go double diamond. She’s a cultural symbol of an entire decade of human history. She uses Grammys and Juno Awards as paperweights (or she could). She played God in a movie.
Alanis Morissette at ACL Festival 2023.
Portugal. The Man. Hailing from Alaska, the band’s performance of “Purple Yellow Red and Blue,” among the band’s most mainstream songs, from their 2013 album “Evil Friends,” sparked dancing and swaying from the crowd. The band smoothly transitioned from one song to the next, with little interaction, generating some disconnection between the performers and crowd.
John Gourley of Portugal. the Man at ACL Festival 2023.
Zoe Manville of Portugal. the Man at ACL Festival 2023.
David Shaw of The Revivalists at ACL Festival 2023.
Julia Wolf at ACL Festival 2023.
So, with Kendrick Lamar set for a third triumphant appearance at the festival on Friday, what could possibly go wrong? The answer: “Plane issues.”
A collective groan emanated from the crowd around 8pm when the jumbotron displayed a card reading: “Due to plane issues, Kendrick Lamar’s performance tonight will be delayed. Further updates to come.” His 8:40pm start time came and went and, at 9:24pm, a new bulletin updated fans. “An abbreviated set by Kendrick Lamar will begin at 9:45,” which is just 15 minutes before the event’s amplified sound curfew hits – though there were rumors either he or the festival would potentially take a financial penalty from the city to exceed the allotted time limit. Until then, the waiting audience oohed and aahed to a mostly underwhelming drone light show.
The 65-minute delay only primed the tens of thousands of spectators for a momentous release when Lamar’s voice came over the speakers, singing the childlike intro of “N95” from 2022’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. Follow-up “Element.” spiked the energy, leaving no doubt in the superstar lyricist’s credo: “I'm willin' to die for this shit!”
But not show up on time for this shit.
Kendrick Lamar at ACL Festival 2023.
Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers at ACL Festival 2023.
Lauren Jacobson of The Lumineers at ACL Festival 2023.
Thirty Seconds to Mars. It’s OK to go full Jesus.
We’re talking all-white regalia, bungee jumping onstage while singing a set opener called “Walk On Water.” And you sing most of it off-stage so people are like “Where is he?” Then bam you shock them at the end of the final chorus because you are up by the big Honda sign as you swoop in.
And later, summoning ghosts of rock stars past, it’s OK to use your Hollywood charisma to engineer fervent crowd participation — getting everyone to chant “whoa” on “Kings and Queens,” getting lots of people to hop on strangers’ shoulders and sing old jam “Attack,” getting everyone to raise an apolitical fist and chant “This Is War” for unclear reasons, getting Texas country artist Calder Allen to play acoustic guitar and sing on “Seasons.” Then you invite all the press photographers onstage during “The Kill” when you’re ready for a closeup. And then on “Stuck,” get your “Dallas Buyers Club” co-star to beat his chest to the drums, “Wolf Of Wall Street”-style.
“This is a surprise, we didn’t even plan it — good to see you brother,” Jared Leto told Matthew McConaughey onstage as he paraded fans up to sing final song, “Closer To the Edge.”
Jared Leto of Thirty Seconds to Mars at ACL Festival 2023.
Amaarae at ACL Festival 2023.
Rina Sawayama’s 56-minute production on the Honda stage embodied a coming-of-age dichotomy, mourning and comforting her younger self in a white dress one moment (“Hold the Girl”) and releasing a rush of nü metal rage the next (“STFU!”). Enhanced by numerous outfit and set changes, the Japanese British artiste crystallized her avant-garde universe within 12 songs, screaming over a slew of hyperpop that teetered between dreams and reality (“Imagining”). When she sang “Elevate your vision when you put me on the cover,” the screen flashed her image on British Vogue in all black with gravity-defying hair and elongated fingernails (“Comme Des Garçons [Like the Boys]”). Despite choreography throughout, the songwriter’s sharp vocals remained unscathed, and her fearless, towering ad-libs illustrated control and range with “XS.” Donning a crimson bodysuit, cowboy hat, and boots for “This Hell,” the 33-year-old John Wick 4 actress lassoed the crowd with an Austin, Texas-exclusive call and response competition. “This song is for the queers, and we’re gonna give it to them good,” she smirked. Leading up to an exhilarating guitar solo, festivalgoers echoed the bridge, sinfully eager to accelerate into “eternal damnation.”
Rina Sawayama at ACL Festival 2023.
Coi Leray at ACL Festival 2023.
Deep in the recesses of the headlining Honda stage to close Saturday night, black-and-white visuals on the big screen confirmed the status of Foo Fighters: classic rock. Definitely your daddy’s, judging from the millennial demographic – many with parents. And yet Dave Grohl’s instantaneous transcendence beyond band punchline (the last thing a drummer says in a band? “Let’s do one of my songs”) to earthly “My Hero” atomizes Seventies rock star bloat, Eighties cocaine-nosis, Nineties ego, and millennial hubris. Two-hour blitzkrieg red lined from go, “No Son of Mine” teased Metallica‘s “Enter Sandman” and Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” while the introduction to Taylor Hawkins replacement Josh Freese sampled his previous band Devo’s “Whip It” and a bracing slice of NIN’s “March of the Pigs.” Like Red Hot Chili Peppers on the same stage last ACL, Foo Fighters kneeled to the Ramones, then Beatles on “Nothing At All,” and even the Beastie Boys (“Sabotage”). B&W screen shots turned sepia then color. Calling for a field of phones to light Shania Twain on the opposite headlining slot, Grohl then hosted her in hot pink headwear during a penultimate “Best of You.” In 1995, upon Foo Fighters’ ATX bow at Liberty Lunch, Grohl, first lieutenants Pat Smear and Nate Mendel, and more ignited the same power and passion. Our heroes.
Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters at ACL Festival 2023.
Tanya Tucker at ACL Festival 2023.
Matching her auspiciously-titled sixth studio album, Shania Twain’s Queen of Me Tour finally galloped through Austin and into Zilker Park.
Launched in April 2022, the revitalizing run marked the Canada-born singer’s first major live dates in nearly five years. A recent slew of TikToks from the tour showed fans leaving midway through the star’s set, criticizing Twain’s turn towards pop pageantry instead of doubling down on her country roots.
Was the highest-selling female country artist of all time guilty of cosplaying cowboy? Or when your only prerogative is to have a little fun, who really cares?
Certainly not the singer's boisterous Saturday night ACL crowd, which donned bedazzled boots, oversized fans, and pink cowboy hats in celebration of the pop-country queen’s Honda stage headline. Rising from a dense cloud of lavender mist, Twain emerged in a Little Mermaid-esque wig and a rhinestoned silver two-piece to ear-splitting applause.
Shania Twain at ACL Festival 2023.
David Macklovitch of Chromeo at ACL Festival 2023.
The crowd thoroughly appreciated Tove Lo’s lyrically aggressive dance-pop, whose flair was evocative of her more famous Swedish counterparts, ABBA. Songs with names like “Attention Whore,” “2 Die 4,” and “disco tits” incited gyrating swaying. Hits like “Talking Body,” instantly recognized by the crowd and greeted by piercing teenage cheers, set the scene for a mischievous performance, especially as the sun dramatically set, creating a pastel sky, fitting for the multi-colored, eclectic artist herself.
Tove Lo at ACL Festival 2023.
For all their enthusiasm and blaring speakers, Mt. Joy’s first few songs did not prompt passion from the crowd, whose snippet cover of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” got more engagement from the crowd than their previous four songs. Matt Quinn’s impressive vocals and genuine, polite rapport with the crowd did little to impress upon them, even as one of their biggest hits "Astrovan" started playing, instead serving mainly as a backdrop to conversations.
Matt Quinn of Mt. Joy at ACL Festival 2023.
Before Arya’s ACL debut, two people in bear costumes walked around Zilker Park, holding up signs that framed her as some sort of conniving bear mangler. “She’s out of her mind,” one of the placards read. The strategic demonstration led some festivalgoers to the T-Mobile stage, where the Belgrade, Serbia-born musician performed for 45 minutes. “I’m here to share some stories with you,” declared the naturalized Texan, who moved to the Lone Star State to chase her musical dreams.
Arya at ACL Festival 2023.
After the ascension to mass dominance of Ed Sheeran, the novelty of seeing a musician accompany themself with self-generated loops should have worn off by now. On Saturday afternoon in Zilker Park, weekend-two-only performer Tash Sultana proved she isn’t merely beating her guitar, however.
Besides picking her trusty Telecaster, the 22-year-old Australian tickles the keys of synthesizers, smacks the pads of drum machines, aggressively trills a mandolin, beatboxes on a handheld mic, and even blows a mean trumpet, building in enough delay to make dub fans smile.
Given the cheers every time she switched instruments during her debut American festival performance, that’s what the sizeable audience came to see. It’s safe to assume that most of the audience was seeing her live for the first time, primed by her years of YouTube videos and Spotify/Bandcamp releases. And they were pumped.
Tash Sultana at ACL Festival 2023.
Before Memphis-born rap heavyweight GloRilla even had the chance to spit a lyric at her Sunday afternoon set, a wheeling mosh pit broke out at the T-Mobile stage. Clearly eager to see one of biggest breakout hip-hop acts of the past year, the crowd’s energy quickly spilled over into ill-advised outlets: during hard-hitting second track “Nut Quick,” one boisterous audience member launched a pair of shoes in the 24-year-old’s direction. In a real-life play out of her deliciously confrontational lyrics, GloRilla cut the track short, warning festivalgoers not to interrupt her flow again (“Throw another motherfucking shoe!"). Unfazed by the disrespect, the Cardi B collaborator lived up to her reputation as a new leader in Southern rap, interpolating fellow Memphis natives Three 6 Mafia on bass-heavy banger “Lick or Sum.” Finishing her set with “F.N.F. (Let’s Go)," an endlessly catchy, head-bobbing ode to leaving lame dudes in the dust, the rapper hand-picked six audience members to join her for an onstage twerk competition. After an epic battle settled by applause, GloRilla Cash Apped the lucky winner $500 on the spot.
GloRilla at ACL Festival 2023.
Don’t call it a comeback — they’ve been here for years.
“It’s a simple rule of thumb guys. If Mumford is active they’re probably headlining this fest,” a Reddit post observed five months ago as the Austin City Limits Music Festival lineup was revealed.
I’ve come to terms with this universal truth, reviewing the divisive banjo rockers favorably twice at this publication, in 2016 and 2019, and similarly enjoying the three-peat Sunday night at ACL. (Oh, and Marcus Mumford performed ACL ‘22 solo too.)
“We’re Mumford & Sons and we can’t help ourselves, we keep on coming back,” Mumford told the crowd at the American Express Stage early on Sunday, just before “Little Lion Man,” a song that you have to think is disproportionately more well-known by osmosis around the greater Austin area relative to the rest of the U.S.
Pre-show, the Austin High School marching band warmed up Zilker from the AmEx stage. These trombone shorties performed a hip-hop hit and the symbolism was obvious: For Mumford, ACL is homecoming.
Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons at ACL Festival 2023.
Suki Waterhouse. The singer and “Daisy Jones and the Six” actor turned to music in 2016 when she said she felt like her life was over. “Brutally,” a minor hit when it came out back then, still holds as one of her strongest songs. Most of Waterhouse’s music speaks of messy, young love, charting her relationships with several famous men, much like another pretty, young blonde singer we all know well.
The universality of her lyrics very clearly spoke to her overwhelmingly Gen Z crowd, who shrieked and sang along to her viral hits. And yet despite some of her darker lyrics, Waterhouse was enchanting and genuine, engaging with her fans, and giggling as if she too was one of those teenage girls in the crowd.
Suki Waterhouse at ACL Festival 2023.
Becky Hill at ACL Festival 2023.
A stage name for Sean Lee Bowie, Yves Tumor has a style that ranges dramatically from grunge to trance to R&B to rock and soul. The psychedelic elements are quintessential to his sound, and as one fan told me: “This is great music to listen to high.” The Tito’s tent could barely contain the outpouring of fans and Tumor himself, who bounced between various microphones, each with a different sound effect. The frenetic energy among the crowd did not limit itself either, it showed up in a range of ages among fans, from the self-proclaimed cool middle-aged parents in the VIP section, to the kids who would rather be caught dead than hanging out with said parents.
Yves Tumor at ACL Festival 2023.
Donning a technicolor jumpsuit engulfed by a shimmering red cape like an Elton John angel, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O elevated the theatrics that put the New York City avant-punk-turned-electronic-rockers on the map 20 years ago. Starry synth apocalypse “Spitting Off the Edge of the World,” from the trio’s 2022 return Cool It Down, warmed up the Honda stage before the bandleader shot water into the air in literal spit takes. Following her own lyrical directions on “Cheated Hearts,” the vocalist removed her reflective sunglasses and cape before going full daredevil and swallowing the microphone. Massive inflatable eyeballs stage-dived for leather-laden electro-pop of “Zero,” waking a relatively dull audience (save for die-hards sprinkled throughout).
Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs at ACL Festival 2023.
Still, Karen O declared, “Love is in the air tonight, Austin” ahead of “Lovebomb.” When she softly cooed “come closer,” an entranced crowd obliged. Fever to Tell favorite “Y Control” injected guitarist Nick Zinner’s rhythm into sonic shrill, while the singer dedicated “Maps” to crisp drummer Brian Chase’s family, who happened to be in the audience. Ultimately standing statuesque at the stage’s closest possible edge, she brandished the mic with tinsel-fringed red gloves as a natural extension of her body. “Heads Will Roll” closed the 11-song set, somehow morphing 7pm Zilker Park into a dance club as soon as O screeched “UH-OH!” God is a woman, and her name is Karen O.
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