On my first day in Austin, the Uber Driver told the story as though he was a pastor, passing along a piece of scripture to the masses in a form of wisdom, hope, and truth:
“When Willie Nelson came down to Austin from Nashville, he immediately called Waylon,” he told me, shocked that my friends had never heard it before. “He said, ‘Get the hell down here. The hippies and the rednecks are getting along.’”
He had taken the scenic route to Zilker Park, so even though I had an extra ten minutes of traffic time to allow me the opportunity to Google the story of Willie and Waylon saving country music from the Nashville sound, I decided not to. Maybe not fact checking would give the trip some sort of mystical quality.
It didn’t take us long before we’d hopped out of the Uber, hiked a mile down Barton Springs Road and into the park, and the beer tent. We rushed through the huge crowd in front of the empty Miller Lite stage, because by the time Alvvays indie-dream set was finished, and their throngs of fans were filing out, it was time to get serious: we’d have about an hour to wait for Greta Van Fleet, and if we didn’t get ourselves within the first three rows for their performance, then we might as well get a flight back to South Carolina.
By the grace of God and the support of craft beer, we made it up to the third row, sandwiched between a group of guys in Led Zeppelin shirts and a middle aged couple who were not budging, thank you very much, no matter how annoying the shoving from the teenage girls and the stoners would get.
From our spots in the blistering sun, another artist could be heard from the nearby Honda stage. BORNS, otherwise known as lead singer Garret Borns, was beginning his hour long set to massive audiences… who likely had no idea about the recent allegations made against him. It was shocking for many to see that he was even still on the lineup, after being accused of sexual misconduct and predatory behavior by multiple women…or more accurately, 18-year olds.
I had the chance to interview Borns, a few weeks before his ACL set.
“I’m very excited,” he said, when I asked if he was happy about playing the fest for the second year in a row. “I remember that was the first festival, when I played there a few years ago, that I had ever like walked out onstage and seen a sea of people that made me think, ‘Oh my god. Here we go.’ Like, there’s no way to prepare yourself for that and you’ve just got to dive into it. But yeah, good memories from ACL.”
What used to be a simple separation of art and personal life has dissipated in the age of #MeToo. No longer are artists able to revel in pure debauchery like the groupie days of the ’70s — women are holding them accountable and getting the treatment and equal moral footing that they deserve.
But watching hundreds of people cheer Borns on felt like a major depletion to the message of the movement. “It just sucks that they can get away with things like this,” a girl standing with us commented.
Our group had started staring in the direction of the Honda stage, all of us silent and curious as to why nobody cared enough to stop him, or to say something, or even to protest. A week later, he’d be dropped from second weekend’s lineup. Good memories from ACL turning quickly into an artist receiving, probably for the first time in his career, the repercussions of his gross actions.
After starting their show about ten minutes early, it was plain to see that Greta Van Fleet were one of the standout newcomers of the weekend, despite being one of the lesser known headliners. Looking back at the crowd from the front, thousands upon thousands of people had gathered to catch a glimpse at whatever the hell was going on at the stage.
Their performance was effortless. Pure rock and roll. “When the Curtain Falls,” the lead single off of their newest release, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, was a definite crowd favorite, but it was the group’s older tunes like “Safari Song” and “Flower Power” that really seemed to impress both hardcore fans and newcomers.
I could only catch a few Father John Misty songs, in order to be able to see part of Hozier’s set, but Josh Tillman, for the three and a half tunes that I witnessed, was wonderful.
“Nancy From Now On” was done beautifully, to the point of making all of the sunrise-laden festival grounds feel like some sort of indie, Sofia Coppola-directed daydream, while a horn section joined him for “Chateau Lobby #4.” At the end of “Total Entertainment Forever,” my friends alerted me that we had to catch Hozier before his set ended, so we moved along.
— ACL Festival (@aclfestival) October 18, 2018
But having to catch the tail end of Hozier’s set was simply depressing, not to mention the fact that I wasn’t even able to see him.
Having been to one of his sprawling and graceful performances before — back in 2014 when he was pop radio’s only saving grace — he was one of the first on my list to check out. But when we couldn’t get a spot in the crowd surrounding the stage, we ended up watching his set perpendicularly, settling in a spot in the grass where people were already setting up lawn chairs for Paul McCartney’s headlining set.
Our vision might have been impaired, but “Someone New,” “Arsonist’s Lullabye” and even a cover of “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child didn’t disappoint. Hozier finished the set with none other than “Take Me to Church.” Heavenly, to say the least.
But can anything really compare to watching a former Beatle perform live?
The answer is no, which I would find out for myself after seeing Paul McCartney’s bewildering, almost-three-hour long, show. When I was a little kid, my parents had scored tickets to see Paul McCartney with my aunt and uncle, and while getting drinks from the concessions, my mom and aunt were approached by someone who worked at the venue. She offered them front row seats, as Paul apparently likes to have enthusiastic looking fans on the front, and they excitedly traded their nosebleed tickets for the VIP lanyards.
I can still remember the phone call I got from my mom after the concert, which I received standing in my pajamas in my Grandma’s kitchen, as she shouted happily over the phone that she was less than five feet away from one of the greatest cultural icons of all time.
From the first note of “A Hard Day’s Night,” my friend and I ran as far to the front as we could, ending up in the middle of the vast crowd. Among the Beatle favorites and songs from Wings, he included tracks off of his newest release, Egypt Station, like “Come Onto Me.”
“I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Helter Skelter” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” were welcome surprises, Beatles cuts that you wouldn’t expect to ever hear live.
But something felt off.
From the opposite end of the park, Odesza’s music was bleeding into Sir Paul’s set. I felt angry at first that what could be boiled down to an EDM set was ruining seeing one of my personal favorites perform.
I had watched them all earlier, from my spot in the grass, as they make their way across the grounds: college guys in ironic Grateful Dead t-shirts, teenage girls with fishnets under their shorts, all of them wasted and ready to rave at what would basically be an EDM set. They stumbled and clung to each other, stepping carefully through the classic rock fans awaiting Sir Paul.
To each his own, I’d thought then, but now it was getting personal. The sound lingered as though it had nowhere else to go within the expanse of the field.
The sound of “Hey Jude” started to drown it out at the end of his set, and the entire crowd began singing along. Suddenly I didn’t feel so irritated anymore. I felt amazed. I felt lucky to be standing where I was standing, and tried to remember that this is the kind of music that truly make us feel things as humans. It’s timeless. It’s humbling and amazing, and heightened even more when you’ve been drinking craft beer in the sun for hours, as I had for the entire afternoon.
We walked to the shuttle that would drop us off downtown with cheers still ringing in my ears. The entire way back to the hotel, I didn’t want it to stop.
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