It’s 2019 and rock is supposed to be dead. Hip-hop acts, indie bands, pop singers, EDM purveyors and performers in other disparate genres have plenty of representation at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, as has been the case for years.
The surprise, then, is the prominent rock presence in the lineup, especially near the top of the bill. Four of the six acts closing out the fest’s three nights on its two biggest stages fit squarely or loosely under the rock umbrella: Guns N’ Roses, Mumford & Sons, the Cure and Tame Impala.
Furthermore, near the top of the bill are the Raconteurs, Thom Yorke, Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers, Third Eye Blind and Metric. They're not equally rock-centric, but all of them probably would go into a record store’s rock section more easily than anywhere else.
First and foremost, of course, is Guns N’ Roses. The Los Angeles band’s legacy is convoluted, with only 2008’s 15-years-in-the-making “Chinese Democracy” to surface on record since the turn of the century. At their peak, though, GNR was the world’s biggest rock band, selling more than 30 million copies of their first four albums in the U.S. alone before grunge knocked them off their lofty perch in the early 1990s.
The lingering fan-love for smash hits such as “Welcome to the Jungle,” “November Rain” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was strong enough to support the band’s resumption of consistent worldwide touring in 2006. They’ve played nearly 500 shows since then, but none in Austin. Their last visit here was a 1993 Erwin Center concert; the closest they’ve gotten since then were San Antonio shows in 2017 and 2013. (Bassist Duff McKagan played a show at Scoot Inn earlier this year to promote his recent solo release, “Tenderness.”)
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With a 7:30 p.m. start time on the American Express stage on Friday of both weekends (and the standard ACL Fest ending time of 10 p.m.), GNR has been given a preposterously long window, 15 minutes longer than even Paul McCartney got last year. They’ve played just a few shows in 2019, with set lists indicating around 25 songs at recent appearances.
All the expected old favorites have been in the mix, along with some intriguing covers: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” They’ll also almost surely play McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” long a staple of their live act, though it’s hard to imagine GNR’s take comparing to Sir Paul’s fireworks-enhanced show-stopper at last year’s fest.
On that same stage both Sunday nights is English folk-rockers Mumford & Sons, arguably the festival’s most uninspired 2019 booking simply because they were an ACL headliner just three years ago. They’ve put out a new album since then, last year’s “Delta,” and the legions of fans that flocked to their 2016 shows likely will return. But it’s entirely possible that hip-hop sensation Cardi B will pull off the rare feat of outdrawing the night’s purported headliner when she hits the Honda stage at 8 p.m. on the west end of Zilker Park.
READ MORE: Our review of Mumford & Sons at ACL Fest 2016
The Honda stage is where the Cure, the English new-wave rockers who lit up the 1980s and early ’90s with indelible hits such as “In Between Days” and “Friday I’m In Love,” will offer a Saturday-night alternative to the likely jampacked Childish Gambino performance across the way. Like GNR, the Cure perhaps passes as an oldies act in 2019, but a very good one, known for energetic live performances with charismatic frontman Robert Smith at the center.
Western Australia band Tame Impala gets the Honda slot opposite Guns N’ Roses on Friday. Irony alert: One of their new singles is called “Patience,” but no, it’s not a cover of the GNR classic. That song and “Borderline” (no, not a Madonna cover), released earlier this year, have whetted fans’ appetites for a fourth album by Kevin Parker’s rock/pop outfit from Perth. No doubt they’ll also play some favorites from their two previous Grammy-nominated records at ACL Fest.
A quick look at other rock-leaning acts in pre-headliner slots:
Raconteurs (5:30 p.m. Friday, American Express): The Nashville-via-Detroit band has become something more than a side project for the White Stripes’ Jack White and rocker Brendan Benson. The new “Help Us Stranger,” their first album together in more than a decade, is enough of an event to warrant not only a prime fest appearance but also an Oct. 3 taping of the “Austin City Limits” TV show.
Thom Yorke Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (7 p.m. Friday, Miller Lite): Though the billing is awkward — “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” is the name of the Radiohead frontman’s 2014 solo album, not his new release which is called “Anima” — there’s no doubt this will be a big draw for any of the ’head-heads at the fest. Collaborating with longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Yorke has been playing a set that’s focused on both albums, plus a couple of tunes from side-project Atoms for Peace.
Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers (6 p.m. Sunday, Tito’s): Tough draw going up against Grammy Album of the Year winner Kacey Musgraves, but Hornsby has a few Grammys on his own shelf, including 1987 Best New Artist after his platinum-selling debut “The Way It Is.” He’s had a fascinatingly diverse career since then, moving from his initial keyboard-based polished rock to bluegrass excursions and even a stint with the Grateful Dead.
Third Eye Blind (6 p.m. Sunday, Honda): Up against both Hornsby and Musgraves, Stephan Jenkins’ Bay Area rockers emerged with the smash single “Semi-Charmed Life” in 1997 and never quite reached that peak again, but they’ve kept churning out a steady stream of albums every few years. Expect to hear some tunes from their new one “Screamer,” which is due out just after ACL Fest.
RELATED: Our 2017 interview with Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind
Metric (7 p.m. Saturday, VRBO): Emily Haines fronts this Canadian synth-rock/pop quartet with seven albums and handful of EPs across two decades. They’ve had a busy year supporting their 2018 release “Art of Doubt,” playing arenas in their home country before hitting the summer festival circuit for appearances including Lollapalooza Paris and Romania’s Electric Castle Festival.