Tame Impala at ACL Fest: Only the briefest flashes of a true headliner
Tame Impala is an Australian psychedelic rock band, led by Kevin Parker, that has received both critical and popular acclaim, and they are very good at writing melodies and locking into satisfying grooves, but I am not so sure they are very good at headlining ACL.
For starters, I firmly believe that for a festival headlining set, the artist should make it matter to the audience what is happening onstage -- give them a reason to look at the big projector screens. It doesn’t have to be elaborate costumes or stage dressing or dancing necessarily (though these are extremely fun things to experience). It could also come down to stage presence, personality and gravitas. Regardless, I (and this is of course subjective but I’m confident I’m not alone) want a reason to watch the performance, not just hear the music.
Parker and his band didn’t bring that -- in fact, they utilized the giant projectors to show standard-issue trippy rainbow psychedelic abstract visuals, so we almost never got to see what they were actually doing onstage. Moreover, the band delivered an incredibly sharp performance, so crisp and clean that the music could have easily passed for studio recordings. That’s an impressive accomplishment -- Parker and his band are extremely talented musicians who play super tight together -- but it doesn’t deliver much of a live experience.
Beyond that, there is the music itself, which, try as I might, I can’t find any better way to describe than as a series of pleasant, unobtrusive psych-tronica lullabies. Tracks like “Let It Happen” and “Patience” and “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” are nice, mesmerizing and bland. They set a mood of chill vibes, and that’s about it. Within Tame Impala’s music there are signifiers of soul, but their expression is hollow (just like those of many of the crowd members swaying limply out of time).
Some people hear unique experimental music when they listen to Tame Impala, but regretfully I do not. I hear a lot of hints of cheesy eighties yacht rock and the kind of watery down-tempo “disco” that gave disco a bad name.
But, as the title of this review suggests, amid the modern-day easy listening (alas, easy listening with lasers and reverb is still easy listening) there were flashes of a real, satisfying headliner-level performance. “Elephant,” which came about halfway through the set, is clearly their best song. It has heft and propulsion, and it’s psych-y and groovy but also rocks pretty hard and knows how to use a weighty rhythm to keep the listener in its hold. “The Less I Know the Better,” which prompted an enthusiastic crowd response, also significantly brought up the energy levels, which I’d argue is because it leaks out real, painful emotion rather than a numb facsimile. Basically, any time the band’s extremely talented drummer, Julien Barbagallo, really gets something fun and challenging to do, it’s a sign of life. Also, occasionally the band made use of a very cool and fun “Phantom of the Opera”-type organ sound, and that is something they should do more often.
Ultimately, Tame Impala are technically outstanding, very professional, seemingly nice, and at times hypnotic. But I’d trade all those qualities in an instant for something interesting, edgy or challenging. - Kayleigh Hughes