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This is how Jack Antonoff converted at least one Bleachers skeptic at ACL Fest

Ramon Ramirez
Special to the American-Statesman

They made it.

After a COVID exposure among their traveling crew, Bleachers pulled out of the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s first weekend. But Friday at the Lady Bird Stage, they proved that while lonely wants to stay forever, to borrow a line from Jack Antonoff, tonight we’re gonna do a little better.

It was that rousing Bruce Springsteen homage that made my ears perk up on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” this summer, from single “How Dare You Want More?” It’s a little too on-the-nose at first: a big melancholy outro, a dueling guitar-sax breakdown, midnight mass vocals that reverberate with howling energy, and of course, lots more saxophone. But after coincidentally tracking this guy’s career since his days as an emo idol on Drive-Thru Records — he’s 37, I’m 36, we share birthdays at the tail end of March — I’m suddenly buying shares of Antonoff’s old-millennial road show, because he’s found his sound. Finally.

More:Machine Gun Kelly reads Austin360 and he told an ACL Fest crowd all about it

His best work manifests when he sits in and produces. On Taylor Swift’s “1989” and Lorde’s “Melodrama,” in particular. I like what he did with St. Vincent, too. He has an ear for layered vocals that make you pump fists at the loud part.

But Bleachers? Or his pop band, fun., that gave us cringe Freddy Mercury karaoke? Or even his mopey emo band Steel Train? The producer was left of the dial. 

Festival-goers wander Zilker Park as Bleachers performs on the Lady Bird Stage during Day 1 of Weekend 2 of ACL on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

He makes a lot of soft-boy ballads. (Literally the Soft Boys. “Rollercoaster,” from album "Strange Desire," is cut from the power-pop cloth of 1980’s “Tonight.”) “ I Wanna Get Better” from 2014 was nasally sung and overstuffed with melodramatic lyrics that box out its great “I didn’t know I was lonely ‘till I saw your face” chorus. And its weird falsetto breakdown? What was Antonoff doing?

This year’s Bleachers album, “Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night,” puts muscular instrumentation — heavier drums and bigger chants — on those soft-boy ballads, though. And now, he wants to remake cool records that his dad likes. Live, he has five multi-instrumentalists behind him, including two saxophones and two full-service drummers.

He wants Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. He wants rock & roll. He knows that the kids are here for Miley Cyrus’ range and he can’t play in her sandbox; that Machine Gun Kelly unexpectedly pivoted to emo and sold it to a whole new generation of 14-year-olds. He knows that time’s running out. So what’s left?

As he tweeted this week: “god i cant wait to get back on tour ..... see you friday .... get me out of here”

Coming out to new album-opener “91,” lurched on a white piano and wearing a black jacket, he slow-burned his way into ACL, and into hearts and minds, by tapping into our collective impatience. 

“We got so much pent-up energy,” he told Zilker Park onlookers two songs in. 

So yes, there is some Jersey dive pastiche to his recent stuff. But who else is doing it with those sonics? And his special herbs and spices are the rotations. He’s out there doing ‘70s Dutch soccer substitutions where positions don’t matter: The sax guy plays keys, the drummer plays xylophone, Antonoff plays bass and guitar, everyone sings

Bleachers performs at Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 8, 2021.

And when the multi-instrumentalists take turns hopping on the mic, every chant punches. On “Everybody Loves Somebody,” backing R&B vocals from one of the drummers and the keys player simultaneously crooned and chanted over live hip-hop beats. They later wished the sax player a happy birthday and brought him donuts. Antonoff couldn’t resist making a music nerd joke: “He loves jazz, so we’re gonna wish him a happy b-day in thirteenths.”

Before “Rollercoaster,” a plea that worked: “Get on each other’s shoulders, we’ve been home for two years.” And on “Don’t Take the Money,” the master of millennial “whoas” shamelessly belted them out until every old guy on the lawn chair believed.