Austin City Limits Is A Festival Full Of Hometown Comfort, Even Across Two Weekends

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Austin City Limits is my hometown festival, and I’ve gone enough times to know a few tricks. ACL brings a lot of out-of-towners into the city. Uber prices skyrocket with people who don’t know about the free shuttle from downtown to Zilker Park. My block up north, a comfortable six-ish miles from Zilker, becomes a street full of Airbnbs. Friends come in from Denton or San Antonio or out of state, and couches and air mattresses fill with friends pumped for the Friday headliners. The city, already bursting at its edges with new transplants and a rotating cohort of students, swells to capacity. Zilker Park, year-round home to cute hiking trails and the ever-popular Barton Springs Pool, accepts thousands upon thousands of strangers. I walk in like an old pro, seasoned enough to know where the HomeAway stage is and where the best landmark meeting spot is (the yellow “Craft Beer” sign on the edge of the Beer Tent, just past the press lounge).

ACL is reliably hot — the weather is always hot in Austin, but some demonic intervention makes those two weekends in October ungodly hot. 95-degrees-and-humid hot, sweat-running-down-the-back-of-your-knees hot. Zilker Park is beautiful, but there are not a lot of trees, at least not by the stages. You will stand in the sun. You will suffer a little. Stay hydrated. Miller Lites are almost the same price as water bottles, but learn from my mistakes a few years ago and alternate. Those killer mid-afternoon sets are worth it. Also, bring a hat.

The lineup for the festival was incredible this year — the headliners were some of the best of the fest season, give or take a Beyoncé. Paul McCartney made a rare fest appearance to absolutely crush it on the American Express stage Friday night. Walking around the park that day, I saw more than a few 50 and 60-something year old fans in Beatles T-shirts and new McCartney merch, freshly snagged from the merch table.

Some camped out by the American Express stage with chairs and sun visors, catching sets by David Byrne and The National (legends in their own right) or walking across the park to jam to Hozier or Big Thief. I was touched to see these fans who seemed devoted to music more than anything else, the few middle-aged guys in the crowd of UT undergrads at Noname’s show and Greta Van Fleet. They loved it all, but they came alive during McCartney. I didn’t grow up on The Beatles, so I was a little concerned I wouldn’t get as much out of the set. But McCartney put on an incredible show, and it turns out I know more Wings than I thought I did.

Apart from the fireworks of McCartney’s set (yes, there were literal fireworks) the other headliners were also killer. Childish Gambino had to cancel his tour dates to recover from an injury, but Justice were a crowd-pleaser during weekend one, and Lil Wayne is sure to be memorable for those lucky enough to catch him next weekend. Travis Scott drew a massive crowd on Sunday — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Sunday crowd that big. I was already on the other side of the park, so I saw Arctic Monkeys that night instead.

I was curious how the mellow, inscrutable Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino would sound to a hyped-up festival crowd, but Turner bewitched the mosh pit. It also didn’t hurt that they filled their set with fan favorites from AM (“R U Mine” remains the ultimate mosh pit catalyst) and me-favorites from Humbug. Turner has an odd charisma, and my eyes were glued to the screen to catch the subtleties of his facial expressions and his mumbled asides. After “Cornerstone,” a heartbreaker of a song that ends with the lyric “Yes, you can call me anything you want,” Turner said under his breath, “But you didn’t mean it.” I turned around to everyone near me to see if they heard it too, but I think everyone else was dancing and too deep under Turner’s spell.

Apart from rock legends, ACL also featured some excellent pop acts. Janelle Monae is a fantastic performer. Her set Sunday afternoon was high-energy and perfectly choreographed. She didn’t come to Austin on her Dirty Computer tour, so it was great seeing her utilize the space of the massive American Express stage to dance. Monae’s choreography is really something else — her inventive dancing with the “Pynk” pants remains one of the greatest pleasures in this world, and she and her backup dancers brought out their tightest dance moves for “Make Me Feel.” The following day, Monae also taped an episode of Austin City Limits to air on PBS in November, and I was blown away by how she turned even that small, intimate stage into a dance party. Monae is seriously one of the best performers I’ve ever seen live.

Part of the beauty of ACL is that you don’t have to live an amazing set just once. Many of the artists stay in town during the week for tapings, late-night shows, and weeknight sets. ACL isn’t as big as Coachella, so you don’t usually have the problem of seven different acts you want to see playing at the same time. But I missed The National to get close for Hozier, and Father John Misty and Brockhampton were booked at the same time. The fest is big enough that you sometimes miss artists you want to see, but small enough that it’s pretty likely they’ll stick around for an aftershow sometime later during the week.

One of my favorite parts of attending ACL as an (adopted) hometown daughter is being there to watch other people fall in love with the city. I went to my first ACL a few weeks after I moved to the city — it was one of the first great weekends I’ve had here, and I felt immediately welcomed. This year, I went to the fest with my friend from Houston, who hadn’t spent much time in Austin. We spent the weekend hunting down buses and rideshares, trying hole-in-the-wall brunch spots, and eating cheese fries in the grass. I think I caught a couple glimpses of people I knew from undergrad and other cities. I was too far away to say hi and confirm, but I think I recognized the swirling hair dancing at St. Vincent.

I love that this festival is spread out over two weekends, and I love everyone’s corny Instagram posts about Torchy’s Tacos and South Congress. When I go to work at my favorite coffee shop, I still see some weekend one wristbands on obvious out-of-towners, sticking around to catch other shows and bits of the next weekend. It’s the kind of festival and the kind of city that immediately welcomes everyone in, if you love the music enough to withstand the heat. And the best part is it’s not even over yet.