Sometimes insights about artists at live shows come not from the act's own performance, or firsthand observation. Sunday afternoon at Elle King's set during ACL Fest, the most illuminating thought came in a chat with a crowd member who suggested King's songs were largely the opposite of early-era Rollings Stones songs that had a woman-done-me-wrong bent. The thing with King: "Her songs are all about how stupid men are," suggested this voice in the crowd.
He may well have a point. Just a few minutes earlier she'd introduced one of the hard-hitting songs that dominated the first half of her set by saying, "I hit him where it hurts: I wrote a mean-ass song about him."
King's a dominating singer backed by a ferocious horn-spiked big band called the Brethren, and that sometimes works in her favor but sometimes makes everything blend together a bit. The first half of her Sunday set was like that, with lots of minor-key bluesy-rock riffs. Things got more interesting about halfway through with "Compromise," which started quietly with King playing banjo, and continued when she mined a more reggae-flavored vein for a couple of tunes.
Playing her 2014 breakthrough tune "Ex's & Oh's" somewhat surprisingly in the middle of the set rather than the end, King perhaps was more interested in giving a showcase to her newest hit, "Shame," a soulful tune released a few weeks ago as a stand-alone single. And maybe she knew she'd lose some of the crowd by the end of her set as many folks streamed eastward toward the American Express Stage, where Janelle Monae was set to start at 4 p.m.
King's final number included a spoken-word segment that felt a little self-indulgent if well-meaning with platitudes such as, "You can't see love until you know love." Preaching to the choir, maybe, as her faithful fans at the show certainly love her music. Whether she converted some new ones at ACL Fest is less clear. I wasn't one of them, but I left with a level of respect for her talent, and her band, that made the hour well spent. And thankful for that voice in the crowd.