“Austin, are you with me tonight?” actor/singer/dancer Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino asked near the top of his Saturday night headline set at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. “I broke my foot last year. I will not fail you this time."
Then for an hour and a half, he sang, rapped and danced like his life depended on it, guiding the audience through an epic set that was by turns feel-good, end-of-summer jam, furious funk outcry and revival meeting. He gave his security team a workout, dashing up and down the front row high-fiving fans and playing to the crowd. He procured a joint from an audience member but failed to light it because of the wind. He wove in laser light displays and pyrotechnics, and yes, as he has been doing at festivals around the country all summer long, he took us to church.
This was no ordinary festival set; it was a radical act of artistic expression, exhilarating and rich and, at a couple moments, indulgently abstract.
He began the set levitating on a circular platform ringed with disco balls, his shirtless back to the crowd, as the unreleased track “Altavista” played.
With aspirational lyricism — “As we stand together/ Promise me/ That we'll teach the children/ That we must be free” — it felt like an invocation, a prologue. As he ran through the crowd to retake the stage and segue into another unreleased track — “Algorhythm” — lights revealed a gospel choir in robes.
He explained the ground rules: If you’re just here to hear your favorite song and record it, go ahead and leave. “This is church. This is for us tonight,” he added.
Then, lest anyone think it was a joyless communion, palm trees filled the big screen at the back of the stage as the opening notes to “Summertime Magic” played.
He graciously introduced his band, a sprawling ensemble packing a wall of sound, early in the set and used the only pyrotechnics of the night to punctuate the funkadelic monster jam, “Boogieman,” before he hit the halfway point.
Throughout his performance, he let the music seize him, moving through his body in frenetic convulsions, Michael Jackson spins and soul claps. The Zilker congregation cheered wildly, even when his falsetto wobbled a bit.
He called on the audience to put their lighters and phones in the air, creating a beautiful tapestry of light while he crooned, “Feels Like Summer.”
Then he introduced a new song, an odd move for an artist who has promised to retire after his Zilker performances. It included a series of transitions that were perhaps a bit too abstract for an inebriated festival crowd to appreciate fully.
An epic rendition of the Grammy-winning hip-hop/afropop mash-up, “This Is America,” that included Glover and a group of dancers bringing the urgency of the track to life, brought the set back into focus. After the track’s climactic finale, Glover sat on the stage and poured water over his head. He seemed overwhelmed for a moment, but then he jumped to his feet for a laser-augmented singalong version of the lilting lament, “Sober,” that segued into "3005" followed by a rap-along rendition of “IV Sweatpants.”
“If you have a joint, smoke that (expletive). If you’re here with someone you love, hold her tight,” he instructed the crowd before he took the set out with his biggest hit, the gospel R&B love song “Redbone.”
Once more he worked the front of the crowd, spinning along the edge of the barricade as hundreds of hands reached out to grab him. As he built the song to its dramatic finish, he fell to the ground, rolling on his back in the grass. He ended the set on his knees, face down, as if in supplication. He gave everything he had, left it all on the stage. And the Zilker congregation cheered a final amen.