ACL Music Festival Proves That The Must-See Acts Are The Ones Right Before The Headliners

It was 95 degrees, and I couldn’t move.

Around 5 p.m. on a blistering Saturday in Texas, I found my spot to see Billie Eilish at Austin City Limits Festival — I, and tens of thousands of teens, and parents, and teens with their patient parents, and everyone else who wanted to see one of 2019’s biggest pop stars. There were a lot of us, and the number was growing by the minute. The “Bad Guy” singer wasn’t scheduled to perform until 6 p.m., and to pass the hour-long-wait (or in the case of the sunburnt devotees up front, hours long), the crowd listened to Kali Uchis on a nearby stage, predicted the setlist, and reapplied Euphoria-esque makeup. What could have been a miserable time — it was, and I cannot stress this enough, so hot out — was actually a pleasant communal experience, all in the name of Billie Eilish.

This level of anticipation-turned-enthusiasm happened a few other times at ACL during weekend one (weekend two kicks off this Friday), but, as I discovered while hopping between stages, not for the headliners. That is not a knock on Childish Gambino, Mumford & Sons, The Cure, Cardi B, or Guns N’ Roses (OK, maybe it’s a knock on Gn’R, a curious top-of-the-poster festival act in 2019), but the most wild, most receptive, and most packed-in crowds belonged to the acts before the headliners.

Especially for Lizzo. If ACL 2019 is remembered for anything, besides the person in the crowd holding a sign with Catherine O’Hara’s face on it, it’s Lizzo. She was assigned to perform at 7 p.m. on the Miller Lite stage, the third biggest stage of the festival. It wasn’t big enough. Not nearly. As long-time pop critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine tweeted, “I couldn’t say if Lizzo’s #aclfest set is the best I’ve ever seen at the festival — it’s up there — but it certainly is the most insane. There’s nothing like seeing an artist riding a wave as it crests.” Lizzo was booked to play ACL before she became LIZZO, the self-love Hustlers star with the country’s No. 1 song for six straight weeks. I made my way over to see her after Kacey Musgraves, playing across the Zilker Park field, but by the time I arrived, I was greeted by an immense mass of bodies, all waiting for the juice and the flute. Rather than crowd surf my way forward, I accepted my Lizzo-less fate and found a spot at the stage next door for Cardi B. And yet, even from hundreds of feet away, Lizzo’s upbeat energy was palpable. Her voice, too, carrying across the grounds for distant ears to hear “Jerome” and the one-two set closer of “Truth Hurts” and “Juice.”

We, at the nearby Honda stage, couldn’t see her, and she couldn’t see us, but us nose-bleeders still gave her a standing ovation. Meanwhile, Mumford & Sons and Cardi B, the actual weekend-ending headliners, were touring behind an ambivalently-received album and arrived 30 minutes late, respectively. Cardi brought the energy, as she always does, and Invasion Of Privacy remains one of the best albums of 2018. But even she couldn’t compete with Lizzo, who won’t be playing before the headliners next time.

Neither will Billie Eilish. She brought a punk energy to her 14-song set, opening the pits for “You Should See Me In A Crown,” throwing herself into the adoring throng during “ocean eyes,” and commenting on her burped-up Chipotle, all with her leg wrapped up in a brace. But when Eilish slowed things down, like on “Bellyache,” featuring her brother Finneas on guitar, she didn’t lose the crowd’s attention; there was a startling quiet in the air, a rare feat at an event that many people use as an excuse to get drunk in public. It was invigorating to be a part of, surrounding myself with fellow ear-splitting fans who know every lyric on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. “Could we all try to live in the moment and celebrate… that we’re alive, I guess?” Eilish asked at one point. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to not live (sorry, Agent Scarn’s wife) in that moment.

Speaking of unforgettable moments: if you ever get the opportunity to hear Kacey Musgraves perform Golden Hour during the actual golden hour, 10/10 would recommend. She and her tight-knit band played nearly the entire Grammy-winning album, from the breezy “Slow Burn” to “Rainbow,” which caused more than a few people to start tearing up (that’s one way to wipe the festival dust off your face). Musgraves also included a pair of covers, “Neon Moon” by Brooks & Dunn and a country-tinged “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by… c’mon, you know who it’s by.

Two nights earlier, on the same stage where Musgraves watched the sun go down on Sunday evening, Jack White’s The Raconteurs — touring behind their first album in 11 years, Help Us Stranger — played a ferocious, swaggering set that Axl and the boys failed to top. (Both singers agreeably pandered to the Texas crowd with their wardrobe choices: White in a Daniel Johnston shirt; while Rose supported the Alamo Drafthouse.) 21 Savage also electrified his limited-but-loyal gathering on Saturday, none of whom seemed in any particular rush to see The Cure or Childish Gambino after.

If it sounds like I’m bagging on Donald Glover or Kevin Parker or Robert Smith, I’m not — they were pros up there, playing the hits (“This is America” for Gambino; “The Less I Know The Better” for Tame Impala; “Just Like Heaven” for The Cure) for the casual fans, and dipping into obscure material for the diehards. That’s exactly what a headliner should do! But through no fault of their own, weekend one of ACL 2019 belonged to the pre-headliners, and the future pre-headliners, like unassuming pop sensation Sigrid, who won’t be playing in the afternoon sun much longer; or Spanish-language superstar Rosalía, who can dance and sing and command an audience like she’s been at this for decades, not years; or Tierra Whack, who put out one of the 10 best rap albums of the 2010s. Then again, everyone was the warm-up for weekend two-only headliner Robyn. She has so much to teach us all, about dancing on our own and otherwise.

ACL Festival returns to Austin this Friday until Sunday