The Chainsmokers at ACL Fest: An infernal neon descent

Now was the day departing, and the air, imbrown’d with shadows, from their 6:30 p.m. shows released all bros in Zilker; and I alone prepared myself the conflict to sustain, both of sad pity, and that perilous set, which my unerring memory shall retrace.*

I’ve been to glowing hell and back. I saw The Chainsmokers at Austin City Limits Music Festival on Saturday.

As 7:30 p.m. came, it seemed the entire fest converged upon the HomeAway stage in a massive doppler radar blob of bodies. Every step closer to the stage seemed to take you further away from the show, as streams of traffic cut through the crowd every which way, like a sweaty Möbius strip. Blaring sirens from the New York duo’s speakers sowed disorientation. Air sofas, carried aloft by travelers with no clear destination, knocked heads. Revelers dragged out their fading, too-inebriated friends. I tried to slipstream into the heart of the audience. The sound of Kanye West — my Virgil — finally delivered me to a solid rock, a spot where people stood without diffusing into the park. It was truly a love lockdown.

The Chainsmokers perform on the HomeAway Stage at the first weekend of Austin City Limits Music Festival on October 1, 2016. (Tamir Kalifa for American-Statesman)

The Chainsmokers perform on the HomeAway Stage at the first weekend of Austin City Limits Music Festival on October 1, 2016. (Tamir Kalifa for American-Statesman)

Total set time thus far: less than 15 minutes. I craved death.

ACL means EDM now. The pivot has occurred. The Chainsmokers’ show looks a lot like the hand that put it in motion. Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall held court from behind a giant news anchor desk, but if designed by Gaspar Noé. Pink and green neon flash-fried eyes weary from the day. Battering rams of white smoke charged from the edge of the stage. The hyperactive Taggart and focused Pall, who told Billboard that “Even before success, p**** was number one,” spun an eclectic mix of KISS, twenty one pilots and Smallpools.

Nineteen minutes felt like an entire set. But then Taggart announced that “this is the part where we play Red Hot Chili Peppers and y’all sing along.” I had no idea that was a part. Also a part: The emo interlude, with a genuinely, pleasantly surprising sonic cameo from Taking Back Sunday’s “MakeDamnSure.”

READ THE WEEKEND ONE REVIEW: Chainsmokers draw the crowd closer after dark

However, The Chainsmokers are of the EDM breed that peppers their own perfectly crafted pop songs, usually featuring recordings of other vocalists, into their mixtape setlist. “Roses” ripped a seal of cheers open in the crowd, and “New York City” sparked a glimmer of tenderness. But that aforementioned emo moment ushered in (with inexplicable a capella) “Closer,” the Chainsmoker’s smash hit with Halsey. Taggart didn’t even need to sing — in more ways than one, but notably because the audience picked up all the slack, as well as on “Don’t Let Me Down.”

ACL’s electric bacchanals are party first, concert second. The Chainsmokers are different for how indistinct their spin on the form is, void of cohesion in both sound and crowd boundaries. As a jump-and-pump factory, it’s day-glo heaven. As an experience, it’s a trip several circles down from a stay in festival purgatory.

*Extreme apologies to Dante.

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