The Austin City Limits Music Festival has expanded beyond the Texas country, Americana, and roots music of its first years to offer something for everyone.
The first weekend of this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival — now in its 15th year — is a far cry from the lineup of the inaugural 2002 weekend of music, and it’s even further removed from the early days of the weekly live Texas music PBS television program for which it’s named.
It’s hard to believe that a fest whose biggest names included the likes of Wilco, Ryan Adams, Shawn Colvin, and Emmylou Harris its first year would attract the collective star power of Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, and Mumford & Sons, or that it would all but obliterate genre restrictions to include a top-of-his-game rapper, an experimental British rock band, and glitchy electronic dance punk.
But that’s not to say ACL Fest has abandoned its roots. British folk-rockers Mumford & Sons, the headline act for the final night of Weekend One, probably would have fit right in on that first bill. And fans of country, Americana, and roots rock could find something to enjoy every day — particularly Sunday, which had us running from stage to stage to catch Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, and Chris Stapleton.
Weekend Two’s lineup is similar to that of the first, but with a few key differences. Musgraves and Stapleton will not be on the bill, but Americana violinist, singer, and songwriter Amanda Shires and country icon Willie Nelson should be ample replacements. Following are a few thoughts on some of our favorite performances from Weekend One.
The description “garage country” from our February talk with Aubrie Sellers seemed perfectly apt for her 4:30 p.m. Saturday set. Though the sun was still bright and the haze of smoke wafting through the crowd was thin, the reverb-drenched, gritty guitars made it easy to imagine how her black-clad crack backing band and she would look and sound in a dingy dive bar around midnight. And her cover of the 1959 Motown classic “Money (That’s What I Want)” — made even more famous by the Beatles’ 1963 version — was a particular treat.
“I like that Texas rainbow flag,” Kacey Musgraves said. “That’s badass. I can get behind that.” It was a perfectly fitting bit of stage banter that somehow said it all: She’s a proud Texan, not afraid to alienate conservative country fans with progressive politics, and she’ll use some salty language on occasion. The shout-out was between her version of “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a song she co-wrote and sang harmonies for when it was first recorded by Miranda Lambert, and an unlikely cover that sounded just right with a swinging Western sound complete with some incredible pedal steel licks from Harrison Yount and Musgraves wailing on harmonica: Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” The show had an irreverent yet slickly professional vibe to it, with kitschy neon cactuses as stage decorations, her band members’ LED-studded suits, and her infectious cheeriness. Adding to the fun were her charming stories between songs — and sometimes during them, as when she botched a line during “Dimestore Cowgirl,” laughed it off, and admitted that she had “a pretty good buzz going.” When she asked if anyone else did too, the audience’s whoops and cheers made clear what the haze of smoke over the no-smoking Zilker Park grounds had suggested. Her set-closing cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walking” gave the song an upbeat, twangy feel — and yes, gave her Luccheses a workout.
Almost a polar opposite of Musgraves' prettied-up appearance and polished stagecraft was Margo Price’s gritty, bluesy set that immediately followed. Yet the contrasts showed their respective strengths. Like Sellers the day before, the humbly dressed Price and her T-shirt- and denim-clad band seemed like they’d just as comfortable in a noisy rock club over the din of clacking pool balls and breaking glass as in the 3 p.m. September sun. Her incredible pipes and laid-back vibe made for a great combination, and the set was a great chance to sit under a shade tree and relax. “We’re gonna do a Billy Joe Shaver song since we’re in Texas,” she announced before launching into a rocking version of the devilish “Black Rose.” That, other impressive covers including Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X,” and her charming jailhouse story preceding a great rendition of “Weekender” were the perfect palate cleanser.
The burly, longhaired, heavily bearded Chris Stapleton seemed to come out of nowhere last year to win multiple CMA Awards on the strength of his 2015 solo debut, Traveller. But before that breakthrough year, the 38-year-old singer-songwriter had been frontman for bands including The SteelDrivers and wrote songs for Lee Ann Womack, Trace Adkins, Kenny Chesney, and Luke Bryan, among others. He sounded every bit the old pro, and played a mean guitar, too. His stage setup was sparse but muscular — just him singing and playing some tastefully twangy licks, a drummer, a bassist, and his wife, Morgane, lending backing vocals (and taking the lead on a beautiful, weather-appropriate version of “You Are My Sunshine”). He seemed to be having as much fun as the raucous crowd on “Traveller,” “Might as Well Get Stoned,” and “Tennessee Whiskey,” and the weary “Fire Away” had the crowd singing along.