With the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s announcement on July 1 that this year’s event has been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re taking a look back at some of our favorite memories from the fest’s first 18 years. Organizers said in the announcement that they plan to return the festival to Zilker Park on Oct. 1-3 and 8-10, 2021.
Paul McCartney, 2018. The single best ACL Fest moment ever? That’s subjective, of course, but it’s easy to make a case for the almost universal appeal of the Beatles’ music that dominated McCartney’s sets on both weekends.
Willie Nelson, 2016. I didn’t even see most of this one, opting for a great Amanda Shires set on the BMI stage that overlapped. But walking down the hill to catch Willie’s glorious "I’ll Fly Away" finale to a huge and euphoric crowd packed into Zilker Park’s east end was an indelible ACL Fest memory.
Yola, 2019. The year seemed dominated by Lizzo’s massive breakout and Billie Eilish’s pre-Grammys-sweep appearances. But it’s testament to the upside of the fest’s undercard that this English country-soul dynamo also blew the roof off of the Tito’s tent on the way to her own Grammy best new artist nomination.
J.T. Van Zandt, 2004. Here’s a sleeper pick. The son of legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt rarely plays shows anymore, but his voice and style are so evocative of his father’s music that it was something special and almost surreal to hear him play to a small, devoted group of fans that gathered around the shady BMI stage.
Asleep at the Wheel and Barton Hills Choir. Superstar headliners and buzz-bands aside, these two local institutions have been central to the fest’s identity, with the Wheel playing every single fest since the start and the choir a fixture for more than a decade. Their respective noontime sets have always felt like a perfect way to get in the right frame of mind for a joyous day in the park.
DEBORAH SENGUPTA STITH
Lizzo, 2019 (and 2016). The Minneapolis rapper’s 2019 performance was a spectacular booty club soul revival and self-love communion that drew one of the largest crowds we’ve ever seen in Zilker Park. The gluteal gyrations were mind-boggling; the calls for love, compassion and positivity were inspiring; and "Truth Hurts" was explosive. The queen claimed her crown. But I also have a soft spot in my heart for her 2016 performance, when she played an opening set to a small but ecstatic crowd. Backstage after the set, she talked about how profoundly the death of her city’s icon, Prince, had affected her. It filled her with a drive to spread as much love and light as possible, and those of us who came to the fest early that year were showered with her radiant vibes.
Janelle Monae, 2018. In a flawlessly executed hourlong spectacle that included expert dance routines, soaring vocals and upward of a half-dozen costume changes, Monae "spoke truth to power in the darkest hour." Surrounded by her crew, predominantly female and black, she preached a love revolution with such jubilant verve it was easy to get swept up in the magic. She’s a powerful visionary who inspired us to believe once more in the American dream, to embrace the idea that Black people, white people, brown people, queer people, immigrants, we’re all equal.
Outkast, 2014. The Playa and the Poet were essentially on a farewell tour, and on the first Friday of the fest they put in the funky dirty South hip-hop throwdown that longtime fans of the ATLiens had been dreaming of for the better part of a decade. A show for the ages, it was a reminder of exactly what hip-hop at the top of its game is supposed to sound like.
Kendrick Lamar, 2016. Standing in a field full of thousands shouting "We Gon’ Be Alright" at the end of a terrible summer defined by far too much death was cathartic and necessary.
Gary Clark Jr., 2019. No one puts the Austin in ACL better than Gary Clark Jr. With fiery licks and sweet falsetto, he used his 6 p.m. Saturday set to remind us why he’s our hometown hero. Then, to close his set, he brought out blues upstarts the Peterson Brothers and dynamic rap duo Blackillac for a thunderous cover of the Beatles classic "Come Together" that felt like ATX history.
Robyn, 2019. The Swedish pop was an unusually cultish pick for a headliner last year. I vouched for her bona fides, of course, but I’ll admit the "Call Your Girlfriend" singer is an "if you know, you know" kind of star. Robyn’s set was transcendent: fluid, narcotic, balletic. When the music from the stage dropped out, and the crowd sang the chorus of "Dancing On My Own" in unison straight to Robyn, it was one of the most communal moments I’ve seen at ACL Fest.
Solange, 2017. Music festival sets do tend to blend together. Play the hits, maybe have some stunts, give the sunburned people a beat to slosh their beer to. Solange, riding the critical anointment of her album "A Seat at the Table," gave us crimson style and creative substance. You could have watched it at the MOMA instead of Zilker Park.
LCD Soundsystem, 2016. This set and the band’s 2010 ACL Fest stop sandwiched an infamous band breakup, so nostalgia came as part of the deal. Idiosyncratic dance breaks, glitched-out lights and a feels-good-to-be back "All My Friends" all put this Sunday headline slot in the hall of fame.
Florence and the Machine, 2015. The first female-fronted act ever to close ACL Fest. Yes, that’s wild! There’s a whole machine behind Florence Welch, but the British alt-pop dynamo is her own power generator. Until you’ve seen this belter hypnotize a massive festival crowd through the sheer magic of joyful cavorting, you haven’t lived.
Lorde, 2014. The first line of my review from the Kiwi upstart’s ACL Fest debut: "Why wasn’t Lorde a headliner?" I know 2020 has been 18 years long on its own, but ACL Fest grew into its super-fest status gradually. Lorde’s audience was massive and impenetrable. If you got in, you weren’t getting out — which was fine, because it was a thrill to watch her thrash to "Royals" and "Team." It’s one of the more notable examples of a skyrocketing new artist booked on a smaller stage drawing an army come fest time.