Our five favourite performances at the 15th Annual Austin City Limits Festival

As Austin returns back to normal following the 15th annual Austin City Limits Festival, we reflect on our favourite performances of the second weekend of the event. The two-weekender festival continues to stand out as one of the best in the world (read our official recap) and while there were many highlights, here are our top five.

M83

This French band, the brain child of Anthony Gonzalez, was on another level musically during their Friday night set. An M83 show resembles more of an orchestral light show that a typical rock show. But don’t get me wrong this band has it’s moments when it rocks out as well. Gonzalez may very well be a musical genius as he is the mastermind behind M83 in studio. He brings this incredible talent to their live stage and plans a show that is so rich musically and visually.

Their time slot Friday night was perfect. The sun had just gone down, most of the crowd was walking over from Die Antwoord so their minds were already blown. As their first note hit, their lasers and lights lit up the park, and their incredible sound grabbed the audience and the rest was history.

Photo: Julian Bajsel
Photo: Julian Bajsel

The Chainsmokers

No one in music is having more success and a sharper rise to notoriety right now than this two DJs from New York City. Their song “Closer” is the number one track in the United States and has led them to headlining concerts and festivals all over the world.

2016 has been amazing to them as “Closer,” “Roses,” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” has landed them on the radio worldwide and helped grow them a devout and ever growing fan base.

I was very much looking forward to attending their show to get a nice workout from dancing and hear some of these songs I have come to love from the radio, but what I got was a full on dance party filled with not only their hits, but some of the best songs of the past 20 years. Mixing their own songs with classics like “Under the Bridge”, and massive hits from bands like Twenty One Pilots and the credits music from Netflix’s Stranger Things, the show was a grab bag of just about everything you could ever want.

The energy and pulse of this show was unmatched by anything else at that festival. Just about every song had pyro, flames and smoke radiating from the stage. It was exhilarating, exhausting and oh so much fun.

Photo: Roger Ho | roho foto
Photo: Roger Ho | roho foto

Kendrick Lamar

The evolution of Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest stories in music right now. This Compton MC has gone from one of the most respected lyricist and best underground rappers to massive global superstar in just a few short years.

In 2013 while at South by Southwest, I saw Kendrick perform in an abandoned warehouse in Austin, TX. At that show Lamar performed with just a DJ and on a stage that resembled a model’s catwalk. There were maybe 500 people in this dark, abandoned, warm warehouse on the outskirts of downtown. Lamar’s album Good Kid/M.a.a.d City had just came out and everything was a little green. It was a great show, as it felt very underground, but it would have been very hard to predict that three years later I would be at the Kendrick Lamer show I was at Saturday night at ACL.

Over 100,000 people gathered at the festival’s main stage to see Lamar, who may be the biggest draw in hip-hop right now. His show has massively grown; a full rock band backs him up and his beats from his album create a full on rock show, that even turns into a jazz show at times.

Lamar has become a full fledged entertainer and it showed Saturday night. The blending of hip-hop, rock, soul and jazz made this a show unlike any other and the crowd was with him for every step of the way. Lamar’s star is still on the rise as he continues to approach the Jay-Zs , Drakes and the Kanyes on the hip hop hierarchy. His performance Saturday night only further established himself as a true superstar.

Photo: Cambria Harkey
Photo: Cambria Harkey

Mumford and Sons

Speaking of evolution, Mumford and Sons are the current poster childs for changing and growing with the times. The critics were loud and Mumford listened after the criticism of their sound not changing much from their first album Sigh No More to Babel. So they went into the studio, added electric guitars and made a electronic rock album. Gone were the banjos and comparisons to Americana/Folk/Bluegrass and in, were the electronic guitars and comparisons to Coldplay and Foo Fighters.

The change was sharp and not everyone loved it, but what is undeniable is that this change has brought a whole new element to their live show. In fact, it gives them one of the most wide ranging, complete live sets of any band performing today.

Their shows have grown like their status, they are huge now. Their use of lights and pyro make their shows pop on a huge level. They did a wonderful job of constructing their show like a roller coaster. It started big with their steady intro of “Snake Eyes” into their loud rocking sound and slowly built to the crescendo of “Little Lion Man”.

The crowd went craziest for their older classics like “Little Lion Man”, “The Cave”, and “I Will Wait”, as they provided amazing sing-along moments, but they definitely rocked the crowd with their new great live cuts of “Believe” and “The Wolf”. Their show wrapped wonderfully when they were joined by HAIM and Gregory Porter to sing Joe Cocker’s version of “With A Little Help From My Friends.”

It’s definitely a tough task being pegged as the final set to close out a festival but Mumford hit every perfect note in doing so. There were surprises, throwback moments, and even a little crowd surfing. Their status as global superstars is something you can’t argue with and something they have definitely earned.

Photo: Cambria Harkey
Photo: Cambria Harkey

Willie Nelson

I am just as surprised as anyone that this was my favorite set of the festival. Country and bluegrass is not necessarily my bag of music. I haven’t spent nearly enough nights at Saloons and country western bars to be able to say that I am a fan of Willie Nelson music but there was something truly special about Willie’s show Sunday evening.

Willie is perhaps Austin’s favorite son and there isn’t a better representative of this town and everything it stands for than Willie Nelson. So the fact he was slated to play the festival’s biggest stage was hugely appropriate and something many people anticipated all weekend. Before the show the festival ran a video package of several of the bands playing the festival thanking Willie for everything he has done. This automatically gave you an idea of the scope of the significance of this show.

At 83 years old, it is an incredible feat that Willie can play one song live, let alone an entire one hour set. But there WIllie was, standing front and center as the only guitarist and strumming and singing like it was back in the 1950s. He hit on so many of his hits like “On The Road Again”, and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”, and other covers and tributes to his fallen friends.

What made this such an amazing show to be at was realizing the moment and observing the crowd around. Just where I was standing there were kids in their teens singing along with men and women in their 60s and 70s. Looking on the side of the stage, you saw the VIPs and other bands of the festival gathered to take a glimpse of a living legend. Matthew McConaughey, along with his family, stood gleaming and taking pictures the entire show. Members of Mumford and Sons stood watching along with many others. This turned out to be just as seminal and important moment for them as it may have been for Willie himself. This was his home. There were his fans that have supported him for so many decades and there he was at 83, bringing so many people together.

As his show closed, he was joined on stage by probably 40 people including friends, bands and crew members. In this moment it was clear this wasn’t just a concert, it was a celebration of his life and everything he has done. It became clear that this may have meant to him as much as it meant to everyone else. As he wrapped his show, Nelson took several moments to look into the crowd and wave and thank the 100,000 plus in attendance.

The sincerity and the many thanks he was throwing out showed that this meant the world to him as well. Will it be his last time he ever plays ACL? Only time will tell. But for everyone in the crowd and on that stage that Sunday afternoon it was a show they will never forget.

Honourable Mentions

AWOLNATION
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Die Antwoord
Jack Garratt
Radiohead

M83 photo by Roger Ho | roho foto.