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Staged Haze Takes Austin City Limits 2021: Our Recap

Three festivals in nine weeks. The last festival I attended before lockdown was Lollapalooza 2019 I’ve been to more festivals in the past 2+ months than I had been in almost two years. I’m sure you can guess that I’m pretty exhausted.

This past weekend, I headed to Austin, Texas for the first time, which means I was also attending Austin City Limits for the first time. Ever since I started becoming aware of festival culture and what ACL actually was, it was on my bucket list to attend. When the lineup dropped in the spring, I was dead set on attending. Unfortunately, some of the artists I was looking forward to the most had to cancel due tot COVID concerns (Stevie Nicks, Bleachers), but it was still an unforgettable weekend, nonetheless.

I’ve made a point to comment on the COVID protocols I’ve witnessed at the previous two festivals I was covering for Staged Haze: Lollapalooza’s security did nothing to verify that the copy of my vaccination record actually belonged to me: but Pitchfork Music Festival’s security made sure the name on my ID matched the records. ACL’s followed Pitchfork’s method, which I found to be interesting, considering ACL and Lollapalooza are produced by the same company. There was also a booth next to one of the main stages where you could get vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus, something I hadn’t seen at the two previous festivals. It was a bit surprising to see this in Texas, a place that has handled COVID questionably (to say the least), and it currently a state under a lot of media heat for its recent anti-abortion laws.

That second part definitely didn’t go unnoticed by attendees and performers alike: I saw many different pieces of clothing that were protesting the law, including “Bans Off Our Bodies” (the most common one I saw), shirts displaying expletives against Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and others. Artists like Claud, Band of Horses, Finneas, Phoebe Bridgers, and Billie Eilish alike all made comments during their sets that voiced their disapproval for the law. Finneas, most well known for his production work with sister Billie Eilish, announced during his solo set that a he would be donating his entire check from his ACL performance to Planned Parenthood Texas.

It will take some time to see if COVID cases rise as a result of ACL returning to Zilker Park this year, and we’ll have o keep a close look for the next month or so, since it’ll be back weekend for round two. But if it follows the pattern of other music festivals not being super spreader events (like Lollapalooza, which we were all incredibly nervous about), we may be okay. It also doesn’t hurt that according to the New York Times, cases have decreased by a third over the past month in the US.

Check out some highlights from the weekend below:

Carolesdaughter by Amy Price (Consequence of Sound)

After making it to Zilker Park around 3:30pm, I booked it from the entrance to the BMI Stage to check out the last few minutes of 18-year-old Carolesdaughter’s set, an artist who’s currently touring with Machine Gun Kelly and, like I mentioned in our festival pre-coverage, has a whopping 95 million streams on her biggest single, “Violent.” I expected her set to have a bit higher of a turnout, but things definitely got turned upside down after a massive amount of rain hit Austin Thursday night. ACL’s production team announced on Friday morning that they’d be pushing back the gates’ opening time from 12pm to 3pm. This eventually canceled a handful of performances. I’m sure it also forced people to reevaluate their arrival times, which meant less people would be getting there for a set that started 15 minutes after the gates’ new opening time.

I did expect Carolesdaughter, AKA Thea Taylor, to have a big more “angst” shown in her performance. Instead, it was a bit more subdued and laidback. It’s also possible I missed some of that higher energy at the beginning of her set. She had some fun dialogue with the crowd, including some banter with festival attendees walking past and towards her set, who looked like they had just arrived from the entrance just to the right of the stage she happened to be performing at. Encouraging them to come watch her set, some obliged and some continued walking elsewhere, but Taylor’s confidence onstage never wavered.

Machine Gun Kelly by Keenan Hairston 

When I was made aware just a few days before the first day of Austin City Limits that Bleachers had to cancel their set due to a COVID case within their crew, I was certainly bummed, but I realized this gave me the opportunity to check out Machine Gun Kelly’s performance, which was set to happen at the same time on the opposite end of the park. Thanks to the massive rain storm I mentioned above, I’d venture to assume that MGK’s set was the first of many attendees of the weekend: and the energy of the crowd certainly showed that they were ready for the days ahead.

I admittedly have no familiarity with MGK’s music before his 2020 album, Tickets To My Downfall, a pop punk album that notably shifted his music from his rap origins to a genre that’s still picking up steam as it makes its way back to the mainstream. I liked the album enough, and was curious to see if this performance would live up to the hype. I enjoyed the performance, though: MGK’s confidence tows the line of cockiness to just the right degree: he’s attractive, talented (enough), and has a decent amount of stage presence that, for the most part, makes me understand the mania surrounding his persona at the moment. I do find it interesting that just a couple weeks ago, he was a headliner at Chicago’s Riot Fest: but only playing a late afternoon set here in Austin.

Machine Gun Kelly by Keenan Hairston 
Machine Gun Kelly by Keenan Hairston 
Moses Sumney by Jackie Lee Young 

What I quickly noticed after just two sets at Austin City Limits is the production team doesn’t have quite have the artists under the same time constraints as they do when artists play at Lollapalooza (C3 Productions is the company responsible behind both fests). For as many years as I can remember, artists performing at the Chicago festival are very much bound by the set times they’re given: sure, they can start late, but going as much as 30 seconds over their end time will get their sound cut. This wasn’t the case at ACL, where Machine Gun Kelly went at least six minutes over his designated end time (he also started late), which resulted in Moses Sumney, who was set to perform at the next stage over, to start late. He eventually started about 18 minutes past his 5pm start time, which meant he was going to have about 40 minutes to perform compared to his given 60.

For the few minutes I did get to see Sumney perform, he definitely exceeded my expectations. He has an uncanny ability of bringing his music to life, making it a very visual experience on top of his vocal performance, which is already far above average. In comparison to the other sets I saw at ACL this past weekend, Sumney’s was definitely the most artistically interesting and intriguing enough for me to want to check out again, and next time, in full.

Moses Sumney by Jackie Lee Young 
Miley Cyrus by Charles Reagan
Miley Cyrus by Charles Reagan
Miley Cyrus by Charles Reagan

It’s pretty incredible how much an additional 30 minutes to a performance slot can change the dynamic of a show. This is how I felt after watching Miley Cyrus headline ACL this past Friday, catching her slot as a headliner for the second time this summer, the first being at Lollapalooza. Miley, who had 90 minutes in Austin, performed five songs less than she did at Lollapalooza, and the songs she decided to add and/or omit didn’t quite make a whole lot of sense to me.

Cyrus’ 2020 album, Plastic Hearts, has catapulted her back into the spotlight: this time, she opted for recreating herself as an ’80s rockstar, mullet included. We’ve seen Cyrus go down different routes throughout her career as a musician, Bangerz was (for better or for worse) more R&B inspired and Younger Now being country: but (in my opinion) nothing seems to be more fitting for her than what she did with Plastic Hearts. With that being said, it makes sense that she included so many covers by artists like The Pixies (“Where Is My Mind”), Janis Joplin (“Maybe”), Prince (“Nothing Compares To U”), and of course, her now very popular cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”

This only left space for three songs off of Plastic Hearts to be performed, which feels like a missed opportunity for Cyrus to get audience members invested in the album (she played five songs from it at Lollapalooza).

girl in red by Dusana Risovic
girl in red by Pooneh Ghana

When I first saw girl in red perform back in September 2019 at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, I felt like her awkward dialogue in between songs was a bit distracting and quite frankly, annoying. I’m not sure if she toned it down or I got a bit less cynical, but seeing 22-year-old Marie Ulven Ringheim’s enthusiastic candor during her set on the main stage at ACL this weekend was quite endearing.

It may be hard to believe, but GIR has nearly twice as many monthly listeners on Spotify than Phoebe Bridgers, who performed on the same stage two hours later. This is really mind blowing to me, but I suppose it makes sense when you saw the pull Marie received during her set: the size was comparable to Bridgers’.

We missed the first song, which was a bummer, because “Serotonin” is definitely my favorite song off girl in red’s 2021 album, if i could make it go quiet, an album we reviewed earlier this year. Other highlights of the set included “dead girl in the pool” and “bad idea!”

Remi Wolf by Greg Noire
Remi Wolf by Greg Noire
Remi Wolf by Greg Noire

I’ve been a fan of Remi Wolf’s for quite some time now, and it’s really surprising that it took her this long to land on several major US festival lineups. Though I’ve been familiar with her music since 2019, and she’s been consistently releasing music ever since, it feels like I blinked and suddenly everyone else knew her music, too (though I know there’s been a lot more to it than that). Wolf’s 3:20pm set was squished in between girl in red and Phoebe Bridgers’ set (as you can see, they’re also in this order on this post), and it feels like it was a bit of a mishandling on the festivals’ end in terms of assigning artists to respective stages.

I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds, if not thousands of attendees also saw all three of these sets back to back to back, which is probably the reason why Remi’s set was unbelievably congested with a never-ending slew of foot traffic (she also just pulled a really impressive-sized crowd). Her music, which is definitely a mix of pop, soul, and funk, brought a much more rambunctious crowd than I was anticipating: probably a sign of the times that I’m a lot more out of touch with what Gen Z kids are listening to (the crowd skewed much younger). It makes me wonder if they knew the two songs she covered: Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and MGMT’s “Electric Feel.”

Phoebe Bridgers by Jackie Lee Young
Phoebe Bridgers by Miranda McDonald
Phoebe Bridgers by Jackie Lee Young

It feels like I was just writing about Phoebe Bridgers’ set at Pitchfork…and that’s cause I was. Just a little over three weeks ago, Bridgers headlined the first evening of Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago (more on this here). It was definitely different to see her perform a late afternoon set on the main stage at ACL this past Saturday, but enjoyable, nonetheless.

The energy was different, considering it’s likely that the majority of the audience members weren’t familiar with Bridgers’ entire catalog: probably more likely that they knew a handful of songs that she performed during the one-hour time slot. I was one of the few people near me in the audience that was singing along each song. The crowd’s energy (or lack thereof) didn’t seem to phase Bridgers, who seemed to enjoy the performance just as much as when I saw her a few weeks ago. It still seems to make Phoebe entertained to see the crowd’s reaction after she strums the opening chords to “Motion Sickness” when they realize she’s playing her biggest song at the start of her set: very on brand to continuously shock the people around her.

Though I wasn’t super excited to hear Bridgers perform a cover of Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” in Chicago, I was happy to hear it in Austin: proceeds of Bridgers’ cover of the song via Bandcamp go to Texas abortion funds.

Doja Cat by Greg Noire
Doja Cat by Greg Noire

This may be a controversial opinion, but one of my biggest pet peeves is seeing artists lip sync when they’re supposed to be singing live. I realized in about 60 seconds that Doja Cat was doing just this during her set at ACL, which instantly made me feel less invested in her performance, one that I was looking forward to very much.

I never got into Britney Spears as a kid, and as I got older, never really understood the hype when it was obvious she rarely sang live. I understand it’s difficult to execute strenuous choreography, but in terms of what I find to be more important on the list of things to do in a live performance, I would place singing live ahead of complicated dance moves. I understand I’m likely the minority in this. But it just feels like a different experience, which is why I left Doja Cat’s hour-long set overall pretty disappointed. She definitely had great energy, and the crowd, probably as large as any of the headliners who performed at this stage during the same weekend, seemed into it as well, but I definitely expected more.

Doja Cat by Todd Owyoung
Billie Eilish by Pooneh Ghana
Billie Eilish by Chad Wadsworth

I have a love/hate relationship with Billie Eilish’ live performance. That’s probably a bit melodramatic, but after seeing her four times thus far, it does feel accurate for the most part. First seeing her live back in 2018 at Lincoln Hall (which feels like a lifetime ago), her voice was fitting to the space. This isn’t a dig on her vocals whatsoever, but I would venture to assume that anyone with ears can understand that she has a very whispery voice. It became more noticeable when I saw her perform at Lollapalooza later the same year, then at United Center in 2019 (barely a year after the Lincoln Hall show, which is wild), and finally at ACL this past weekend.

It was noticeable to other people: a couple of audience members near me were screaming “turn up your mic!” (we were far away: there is no way she heard that). At the end of the day, it is what it is, and though I still very much enjoy seeing Eilish live, it’s still something that I tend to get frustrated about, as it inhibits the potential of the performance. Regardless, Eilish pulled a massive crowd, and seemed to be very at home with her headliner status: seamlessly weaving through 22 songs during her 90-minute set: 11 of which were from Happier Than Ever, even making a point to comment on the recent abortion law in Texas (“When they made that shit a law, I almost didn’t want to do the show, because I wanted to punish this fucking place for allowing that to happen here… My body, my fucking choice!”)

The title track of the album served as the performances’ closing song: if you stay up-to-date with TikTok, you’ve probably seen the videos of audience members’ experiences hearing this song live being uploaded all over the app. The energy exuding those short video snippets was even larger IRL, which was the moment I was looking forward to the most.

Billie Eilish by Chad Wadsworth
Allison Ponthier by Amy Price (Consequence of Sound)
Allison Ponthier by Amy Price (Consequence of Sound)

When you think of what it would feel like to reach success in your field, regardless of what it is, what would be the moment you realize you’ve made it? Obviously, this would be a different answer for everyone, but I’d like to think it was the moment Allison Ponthier realized that she was opening the same stage that St. Vincent would later close at Austin City Limits Weekend 1 (which also was Ponthier’s first festival performance ever).

The Allen, Texas native grew up a massive fan of St. Vincent, even seeing her perform multiple times a year at one point, she told me during our interview after her set, saying it felt “surreal.” Ponthier, who originally attempted to pursue a career as a jazz musician, felt “too scared” to “give herself the permission” to be an artist. After just a year and a half of college at the University of North Texas, Ponthier decided to move to New York.

The song “Cowboy” essentially started Ponthier’s career: her current management team found a performance of it on YouTube and found it to be super special. Out of all the songs she was working on, it was the one she liked the most, though she described it as a “random, rogue country song” in a sea of songs that went down the R&B pop route more so than country. It was also the song she closed with at her set at ACL, introducing it as the last song she’ll perform on the current run of shows she’s been on with Lord Huron. The track makes Ponthier emotional, who held back tears during the closing lines of the song.

“I didn’t realize other people would connect with it…”Cowboy” is the song most personal and most about my experience at the time,” she said. “From then I led with what is most personal will connect with the most people. What’s more specific reaches people better.”

Noga Erez by Daniel Cavazos (Flood Magazine)
Noga Erez by Daniel Cavazos (Flood Magazine)

When the bass was so loud at the Vrbo Stage in the middle of the day, I knew I was in for a treat. Leaving the massive, air-conditioned merch tent at ACL and opting for Israeli musician Noga Erez’ set, which seemed to be disappointedly smaller than what Erez deserves. But it definitely didn’t stop her from putting on one of my favorite sets of the weekend, infusing pop, hip-hop, and dance music seamlessly. I’ve described her sound in the past as a combination of Billie Eilish, M.I.A. and Tove Lo, and seeing her perform live further reinforced this comparison.

Erez had no graphics or visuals onstage with her: just two other musicians behind her playing instruments and bringing the production elements to to life in real time. This forced the audience members to really pay attention to her performance: no gimmicks involved whatsoever. It was a refreshing experience: I’ve said it several times before, I’m not much for dance music, but it takes a very specific (and special) musician to get me to rethink (what I consider) dance music and its intricacies as a fluid genre.

Greta Van Fleet by Miranda McDonald
Greta Van Fleet by Miranda McDonald
Greta Van Fleet by Todd Owyoung

I get it: there are two camps of music fans. One of them loves Greta Van Feet, the other thinks they’re a complete rip-off of Led Zeppelin. Where do I belong? I guess I love them. I first saw them back in 2018 at Lollapalooza, opting for the show with the largest demographic of adult audience members when the rest of my peers checked out Post Malone’s set at the main stage (on my way out of that area of the festival, a teenage boy shoved me out of his way to get to Posty quicker).

I’ve towed the line with my opinion on GVF: they’re certainly talented, but they’re not entirely my style of music. I also understand the criticism they’ve received being essentially, a cover band. I see both sides in things…it’s the libra in me! I think at the end of the day, you really can’t ignore talent. And the band, fronted by Josh Kiszka, has plenty of talent to go around.

It didn’t seem like audience members had any sort of care in the world that Pitchfork has ruthlessly tormented GVF’s music, rating their 2018 album a 1.6 (out of 10), describing the band as “A new kind of vampiric band who’s there to catch the runoff of original classic rock using streaming services’ data-driven business model…swallowed into the algorithm’s churn and rack up plays.”

Sometimes, I think we try to analyze music (and art) with too much of a critical lens (this may be a hot take), instead of just enjoying it for what it is. And if we can learn to do anything better, it’s that we should unapologetically enjoy whatever we want to, simply because we want to.

Austin City Limits returns to Zilker Park this weekend from October 8-10. Read all our festival coverage here.

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