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Vance Joy: On top of the world and in touch with his roots at ACL Fest

Joe Harrington

Is it any wonder Vance Joy made it this far?

The curly-haired acoustic troubadour radiated charm and gratitude as he took to the Miller Lite Stage at 7:15 p.m. on the final night of ACL Fest’s first weekend, nearly 9,000 miles from his home in Melbourne, Australia — and a lifetime away from his humble singer-songwriter origins.

The 29-year-old heartthrob proved himself worthy of his headliner status with an arsenal of hits both instantly catchy and disarmingly vulnerable, including the runaway indie-folk smash “Riptide” off his 2013 debut EP “God Loves You When You’re Dancing.” (It later reappeared on his 2014 debut full-length “Dream Your Life Away.”) The heartsick fireside anthem has accumulated more than 500 million Spotify streams, topped the Billboard Alternative Songs chart and earned Joy support slots for Taylor Swift — and on Sunday, it won him the screaming adulation of a near-impenetrable throng of fans at Austin’s own Zilker Park.

But Joy still remembers his roots enough to reflect on his first time in this city: South by Southwest 2013, which saw him playing a flurry of tiny showcases for mostly industry folk, including a noon opening set at BD Riley’s Irish Pub.

“That was kind of a big deal, I guess. To actually get over to South by Southwest and be booked is awesome,” Joy recalls backstage on Sunday afternoon. Artists often feign this sort of humility as a publicity tactic, but when Joy talks somewhat sheepishly about his pre-fame days, I haven’t the slightest urge to question his sincerity. “We had to carry our keyboard case down the streets, this big, hunky, stupid keyboard case!”

It goes without saying Joy didn’t have to move any gear tonight; his only duty was to dazzle his thousands-strong audience. The singer’s still easing into his Lay It On Me World Tour, which kicked off at the end of September and will visit clubs and theaters across North America this month, most of which are already sold out. But a festival performance is guaranteed to attract a number of listeners who are only familiar with “Riptide” and fellow chart-topper “Fire and the Flood.” Thankfully, Joy already has hits to spare, and he’s ready to convert these fringe fans into lifers.

“You want to start with a song people might recognize and end with another one that they might recognize, and speckle a couple more upbeat songs throughout it,” he says. “People are filthy and sweaty, and they’ve been drinking all day. They’re a little bit delirious. So I think that can be a really fun environment to play to.”

Joy called it right. Fans lustily sang along to the Aussie dreamboat’s opening one-two punch of “Fire and the Flood” and “From Afar,” the torturous afternoon heat already a distant memory. They relished the opportunity to hear new material, including recent single “Lay It on Me,” which has already pierced the Top 10 of the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. It’s Joy’s first new music since “Dream Your Life Away,” and with a sophomore LP in the works, he hopes to continue growing his audience while making music that’s true to him.

“You write songs that you feel good about and make sense to you and you’re proud of, and then you hope that you build enough of a connection with your fans that they’re on the same page,” he says two hours before hitting the Miller Lite Stage. “I think if you can just keep feeding their fire, that’s the aim. And I feel good about these new songs.”

As the sun set behind the Zilker Park tree line and bathed the sky in mesmerizing shades of purple and orange, the fire Joy stoked several years ago burst into an unquenchable flame.