“Twenty-seven hours ago, we were in a border patrol office with two grams of marijuana and no excuses.”
That’s Killer Mike, one half of the rap duo Run the Jewels, and he’s talking to us in the audience while his partner, El-P, laughs beside him. “So we couldn’t be more happy to see you, Austin.”
The feeling is mutual.
The band is performing their afternoon set on the first of two weekends at the world-class Austin City Limits Music Festival. Run the Jewels, on the way back from some off days in Mexico, had been stopped entering Texas, and, if you’ve ever been through the madness of Border Patrol, it’s one of the most anxiety-inducing moments of your life, with or without weed. Mike would go on to thank Office Gonzalez for the talk at the border (and the implied fact they were let off the hook), and he would extend his praise for the United States — after their recent, very-extended European tour and run-in post-Mexico, Austin and its city limits were as good as home.
The thing is, everyone knows that feeling. And when you get it, it’s even kind of exhilarating. You get pulled over by a cop, you were clearly speeding, but he lets you off the hook with only a warning. You’re dreading some meeting at work because you didn’t finish your presentation and the boss decides to reschedule the meeting. The phrase you’re looking for is “dodging a bullet,” but what’s really important is the feeling that transpires immediately afterward. That feeling is the reason we appreciate life just a little bit more. And all of us at Austin City Limits are there for that exact same feeling.
We all do things to take our minds off life for awhile, but in the timeline of human history has shown music has always been a popular option. Zilker Park plays the perfect Zion, 350 acres of public land with a perfect view of downtown Austin, big enough to hold the hundreds of thousands of music lovers who descend to southern tip of Texas’ capitol city to take a break. The festival is split into two weekends of nearly identical lineups, and the first weekend was idyllic. It was sunny and slight hot, but there was no rain, an upgrade from last year.
The festival is run like a machine, and C3 Presents, the Austin-based company that puts on the event, has taken great steps to make sure everyone is accommodated. Got kids? Hit up Austin Kiddie Limits, an adorable, sectioned-off area with its own stage, “tattoos” and punk-rock hair styles and even DJ and hip-hop workshops for the tykes. If you’re a football fan (like many an Austin citizen), they have multiple massive TVs all tuned to your favorite college and pro games on Saturday and Sunday. Modeled after the way Jazz Fest features their wonderful celebration of New Orleans cuisine, Austin Eats holds one of the most spectacular arrays of food options. Pizza, Korean barbecue, gourmet hot dogs, even popsicles, you can find nearly anything you want to vanquish your hunger. Don’t want to carry your money? Don’t worry. Their use of a multipurpose wristband lets you charge up some cash and a simple swipe can get you what you need. But at the end of the day, it’s all window dressing when it comes to the all star lineup ACL can command.
Let’s start with the Foo Fighters, who have established themselves as a league of their own in rock music. Opening their set with “Everlong,” the band played hit after hit after hit, powering through their set while reminding everyone not just how great they are at writing rock songs, but at how long they’ve been able to stay in the game. Dave Grohl, still sidelined from his broken leg injury in mid-June, performed from his quasi-famous ‘FF’ throne.
Electronic musician deadmau5 went all-in on the live show, giving the audience a taste of what they call The Dome, a massive hemispheric geodesic dome, designed by industry-leading production and lighting powerhouse Roy Bennett, founder of Seven Design Works. Fellow dance music authority Bassnectar slayed his set as well, the crowd dancing through to the nonstop music and featuring one of the more impressive light shows, made even more spectacular as it played out across the park in the darkness of the evening.
The two major side stages highlighted some incredible acts that, on many other festival bills, would be on a main stage without a second thought — a testament to the talent. Gary Clark, Jr., who calls Austin home, brought his brand of blues rock, a king of cool who looks as good as he sounds. The name of the festival celebrates the long-time PBS show of the same name, which many Texans grew up watching, featuring the best in country, bluegrass and Southern music. ACL has rightfully evolved with the changing musical landscape, but bands like Gary Clark, Leon Bridges, Dwight Yoakum, Alabama Shakes and Of Monsters and Men, all on the bill this year, are perfect fits for both the show of yesteryear and the stages of today.
One of the most impressive performances of the weekend was Twenty One Pilots, a duo of multi-instrumentalists who toe the line between rock, pop and hip-hop. Vocalist Tyler Joseph was quiet between songs during the first few songs, but started to open up with his deadpan delivery, making jokes among his earnest and honest thankfulness for the ability to perform for such a large crowd.
In what was the coolest moment of the entire weekend, Joseph tempted fate by running off-stage during their second-to-last song, “Car Radio,” before reappearing climbing the truss on the side of the stage. He climbed the height of stage and stood up besides the Texas flag to deliver the final verse, an awesome moment for the band, who have been reaching new heights all year with their fourth release, Blurryface, taking the world by storm.
Hip-hop artist A$AP Rocky played the main stage an hour after Twenty One Pilots was done; the two groups are actually friends, having shared the stage at the 2015 MTV Music Awards in a collaboration of songs. It happened to be A$AP’s birthday, so despite starting his set 20 minutes late, he was clearly having a good time, expounding on his love for milkshakes, and, in honor of his birthday, taking one to a lucky lady deep down the runway into the crowd. He highlighted his set with fan favorites “LSD” and “Wild for the Night,” but threw in some great surprises like A$AP Ferg’s “Shabba.” Hip-hop shined throughout the festival, with G-Eazy, Chance the Rapper and Drake all having their moments, though Drake’s reflective flow doesn’t translate as well to such a grand scale of a venue.
The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers also had an outstanding set. He’s more in-his-own element these days, exuding a confidence and sure step performing without the band that made him famous. A child of Vegas, his set reflected that mentality, with his backing band in black and midnight blue and even the brass cast in matte black. He played a selection of both his outstanding solo albums, but still played a few of The Killers’ hits, including “Human,” “Spaceman” and the Jacque Lu Cont Thin White Duke remix of “Mr. Brightside,” which closed out his set.
As diverse a world we live in, Austin City Limits delivered equally on the lineup. For its fourteenth year, the festival continues to stake its claim in the upper echelon of festivals. The ability to solidify the world’s best music acts paired with outstanding food and non-music options make it a must-have ticket for your festival travels. For those who haven’t attended, it’s seamlessly run; bike, walk and Uber friendly; and there’s no shortage of stylistic band choice to satisfy your viewing pleasure. And for those who have been, there’s a reason we all keep coming back, making it one of the most well-attended and inviting music events every year.
Austin City Limits 2015 was posted on October 18, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by David Stagg.