The first-ever virtual Austin City Limits Music Festival featured more than 15 hours of streamed content on the festival’s YouTube page Oct. 9-11, with tens of thousands of viewers tuning in online. The pandemic may have made an actual festival in Zilker Park impossible this year, but viewers got to see around two dozen archival sets for free, along with some recently taped new content from local acts plus a few recent "Austin City Limits" TV show episodes.
Highlights included sets by Austin icons Willie Nelson (2016) and Gary Clark Jr. (2019); Paul McCartney’s epic 2018 performance; Billie Eilish’s 2019 set just three months before she swept the Grammy Awards’ major categories; an "ACL" TV taping by Rosalia (plus three short biographical segments about her career spread across the three nights); performances taped on a stage at Tito’s Farm featuring Black Pumas, Mobley and Paul Cauthen; local acts Jackie Venson, Los Coast, Melat and Otis the Destroyer playing short sets in a handful of Austin parks; and Asleep at the Wheel keeping alive its streak of taking part in every ACL Fest since the beginning by kicking off Friday’s opening broadcast with their 2019 rendition of "Miles and Miles of Texas."
On the Austin360 Monday Mashup this week, we talked about our favorite moments from the virtual event, with Stephen Sternschein of Heard Presents joining us for some of the conversation.
Peter Blackstock: Both the Willie Nelson set and the Gary Clark Jr. set were just great hometown shows where you really appreciated that vibe of all of those Austinites there to see the biggest we have. That was nice to see again — just to see AUSTIN again. … That point near the end of Gary's show where Zeale got up there and was rapping at the end of ‘Come Together’ and he's like, ‘Austin, Texas, make some noise!’ That was maybe my favorite moment of the whole thing. That was a moment I hadn’t seen (in 2019), so I was grateful for that.
Deborah Sengupta Stith: One of my all-time favorite ACL Fest moments is when Zeale yells that out. And, man, that dude can freestyle. He's one of my faves. … I just like the pride, as somebody who's been watching Austin hip-hop for years and years, to see those guys who are Gary Clark Jr.’s homies from high school on this big stage with him, just killing it. It felt like Austin hip-hop had arrived.
Stephen Sternschein: It was like exactly what every one of us wants to see — a wonderful leader in our community like Gary, helping his friends and artists who really deserve to have that voice. And they just came through and they slayed it. It was awesome.
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PB: It was maybe a little different than the others that I had seen in that none of it was live; it was all pre-recorded. I don't think that was necessarily a problem, but it did take away a little of the spontaneity of it.
SS: When you're doing a big festival stream that's free for everybody to watch, it's always going to play more like a music video or like a permanent expression of artistry. So artists don't want to do live at those situations. But I actually think it's more important that there's original content as opposed to legacy footage, because the thing that's hard to do right now is produce new stuff. And I think they did a great job holding the day for us for the future.
DSS: Something that a lot of people don't necessarily understand is that even though they shot that footage, they don't own the rights to put all of the footage that they've shot online. So there were a lot of complaints about there not being enough hip-hop in there. We had actually asked the organizers, and they said that they were trying to get some stuff in there. I'm pretty sure that they would have loved to have had Kendrick Lamar doing ‘Alright.’ I don't have any insight or knowledge about this, but I'm assuming they probably couldn't get the clearances.
PB: This is kind of an educated guess, but I think they had a loophole in diversifying the lineup by using the ‘Austin City Limits’ TV show tapings. That's how they got Run the Jewels and Khalid and Rosalia in there. All of those got added late in the game, and I think maybe they realized they actually could get the rights to tapings from the "ACL" TV show, because that's probably a different kind of deal than it was for festival footage. It was a little weird to have that vibe of going from Zilker Park and all sudden you're in the Moody Theater, but they were great performances and really good content.
DSS: Those Rosalia documentary segments that they aired, that was one of my favorite things I saw all weekend. I liked mixing in that kind of content, which gave you more information in a way that you wouldn't have gotten from just being at the festival. … And there was a discovery element, which is one of my favorite parts of ACL Fest. I did not know I was going to like Paul Cauthen as much as I did. And Black Pumas — Eric Burton is a superstar now. The camera loves him. And that stage was pretty cool, the Tito's Farm thing. I would have liked if it had been possible for those performances to be live; I feel like it would have given it more of an immediacy. But I really liked those sets a lot.
PB: Yeah, that Tito's Farm stage was one of the best surprises for me — just how well that stage was done. I really don't think anybody knew what that site was like, so we didn't know what to expect. But it was visually really strong, and all the sets out there were really good. Mobley’s set there was terrific, too. That’s one of the things they did with the original content they had: Even though it wasn't live, they at least made it really good quality.
DSS: It was cute that they did the Austin-y things like the barbecue cam and the margarita cam, but it said ‘live’ on it, and it was daylight while it's actually dark out.
PB: Yeah, the marg cam and the barbecue cam were sort of pushing it a bit. But I did like some of the ways they Austin-ed it up. I thought the Donn's Depot stuff was good, especially when you had Shakey Graves popping up to sing with Donn & the Station Masters on the last night; that was really special. And I'm always glad to see the Barton Hills Choir get worked in. They did a mashup of Flaming Lips and Wilco that was really well done. Another thing I thought was really good from an Austin landmark was using the El Arroyo sign as the marquee for what acts were coming up next.
DSS: Yeah, I liked that a lot, too. I also liked the tortoise cam — they had the camera on a tortoise walking around the field.
PB: I hadn't seen that on Friday or Saturday; I was watching part but not all of everything. And then Sunday, all these people in the chat are posting little tortoise emojis. And I'm like, what is this? Did they get footage of the band Tortoise or something? But it turns out all these people in the chat wanted to see the tortoise cam!
DSS: If you go to ACL Fest, you see that tortoise sometimes.
PB: What was fascinating about watching String Cheese Incident on Sunday was that it was from 2003. It was like this time capsule looking back to see what the festival’s production values were like at that point. It was nothing like the amazing footage they got for McCartney's huge set (in 2018). But then you had Chris Thile, who at the time was 22 years old, walking up and jamming with them on a song. Because they have those archives, one of the cool things is that you get some history in viewing back that far.