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One weekend down, one to go: ACL Fest sees big crowds, sunny skies

Peter Blackstock

What seemed like a gamble when the lineup for the 2014 Austin City Limits Music Festival was announced — a departure from the fest’s roots rock vibe with not one but two hip-hop headliners — paid off in big and happy crowds during the first weekend of the soldout fest, which concluded Sunday night.

Friday night’s reunion show from Atlanta hip-hop titans Outkast outdrew the audience gathered for indie rocker Beck by a long shot. And on Saturday night rapper Eminem, programmed against dubstep artist Skrillex, drew what would stand as the biggest crowd of the weekend. Other hip-hop winners over the three days included Friday’s set by Childish Gambino, the rap alter-ego of actor and comedian Donald Glover, and Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, who packed in so many folks at a side stage late Saturday afternoon, crowd flow across the east end of the field came to a virtual standstill.

With set times not staggered in the afternoon this year, large crowds moving at the same time made navigating the park cumbersome at times, particularly on the west end of the field where crowds from two large stages, Honda and Miller Lite, converge. British soul artist Sam Smith drew a massive crowd to the Miller Lite stage in the early evening Friday, and glitchy indie rockers Phantogram did the same on Sunday.

The weather, often an unbilled performer at ACL Fest, also put on a spectacular show at Zilker Park. After clear skies Friday and Saturday, scattered clouds appeared early Sunday but gave way to another blue panorama by late afternoon. Temperatures peaked in the mid-80s Friday and Sunday, with Saturday’s high not breaking 80 degrees.

One of the most contentious set conflicts of the festival was Spoon vs. the Replacements at 6 p.m. Sunday. Suspected massive crowds never really materialized for the alt-rock pioneers, with a thicker and deeper audience gathering for local indie rock heroes Spoon. Not that it mattered much. Original members Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson were in fine form on guitar and bass, with touring members Dave Minehan on guitar and Josh Freese on drums filling their roles perfectly in rendering the Replacements as a left-of-center rock powerhouse that’s now more right than ragged.

During the same time slot, NYC funk band Lettuce hosted a dance party that spilled out of the Sculpture tent, and a good-sized crowd remained camped around the Miller Lite stage in anticipation of electronic producer Zedd’s 7 p.m. set. EDM star Calvin Harris and grunge superstars Pearl Jam were set to close out the fest Sunday night.

For the most part, weekend one had little drama and no big problems. A minor incident unfolded at the Waterloo Records booth on Sunday afternoon, during a signing session for alt-country artist Nikki Lane. When a festgoer attempted to cut in line to get several items signed, Waterloo staffers called security, at which point the man was escorted off the premises when it was determined that his wristband was not authentic. Waterloo staff said that the same person had caused a similar disturbance at last year’s fest and later sold many signed items on eBay.

Last year, the first to include a second weekend, cheap tickets were readily available from scalpers on Barton Springs Road. This year no tickets under face value were being hawked. Saturday one-day wristbands were going for $120 on Saturday afternoon (face value: $90), and three-day passes (sold for $225) for next weekend are around $300 on secondary markets.

For the first time this year, fest-goers were offered the option of hooking their credit cards up to their wristbands for cashless purchases. The system, which fest producers C3 Presents also used at Lollapalooza in Chicago, appears to have gone off without a hitch. Also new in 2014: contests that won exclusive use of an air-conditioned “golden porta-potty” for 10 people a day and elected a “mayor of ACL,” and a partnership with the University of Texas athletics department. On Saturday, as huge crowds gathered in the Barton Springs Beer Hall for the telecast of the Longhorns’ football game against the Baylor Bears, a few brass players from the Longhorn Band joined Trombone Shorty on stage. Video of that performance was then broadcast on the jumbotron during the third quarter of the football game at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

If the weather was great, connectivity often was not. Those who had mobile data service on AT&T and T-Mobile reported spotty at best social media interaction for much of the festival, with Verizon customers faring somewhat better. Wi-fi signals were similarly inconsistent, causing at least one radio station to suspend a live broadcast from the festival media area on Friday afternoon.

While national and international acts naturally were the biggest draws, a few Austin performers made their marks. Guitarist Adrain Quesada ripped out scorching solos as his band Spanish Gold made its ACL Fest debut on one of the biggest stages, Samsung Galaxy, the same stage where Pearl Jam would headline the following night, and Austin synth-rockers Sphynx added glam to Friday.

Spanish Gold and Spoon are two of the few acts with Austin ties that will repeat during weekend two starting Friday, which also sees the addition of New Zealand’s teen sensation Lorde, who is on the Sunday lineup. The fest’s six headliners are the same.

Gary Dinges contributed to this report.