Midland turns the Tito’s tent into an early-afternoon honky-tonk at ACL Fest

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“I wasn’t expecting this many people to get up this early,” Midland frontman Mark Wystrach marveled to a sizable crowd that mostly filled the Tito’s tent at 12:30 p.m. for the country band’s debut at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Given the recent fast rise of the band’s hit single “Drinkin’ Problem” on mainstream country radio, though, the strong turnout wasn’t all that surprising.

Named after a West Texas oil town, the trio is actually based outside of Austin in Dripping Springs. They moved there a couple of years ago after cutting their teeth as musicians largely in Los Angeles, where bassist Cameron Duddy had played in separate bands with both Wystrach and guitarist Jess Carson, Midland’s primary songwriter.

Mark Wystrach, left, and Cameron Duddy of Midland perform at the Tito’s Stage during weekend two of the Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. TINA PHAN / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Recent online hubbub about the band’s “authenticity” as country musicians is a nonstarter. One listen to “Drinkin’ Problem” and the rest of their recent debut album “On the Rocks” verifies their honky-tonk bona fides, regardless of Duddy’s background as a pop music video producer. Wystrach’s lead vocals have a classic smooth twang that rivals Dwight Yoakam’s, while his bandmates provide sterling harmonies and solid honky-tonk instrumental support. Being raised country has never been a prerequisite for playing country.

READ MORE: Our 2016 Austin360 interview with Midland’s Jess Carson

Those at ACL Fest didn’t seem to care about that anyway. The crowd appeared to be a mix of fans who got on board with Midland early and curiosity-seekers who’ve heard some of the buzz and probably caught “Drinkin’ Problem” on the radio. Befitting the just-past-noon time slot, Midland’s set was fairly laid-back, more of a mellow festival greeting than a crazy barroom barnburner.

But the songs were almost uniformly strong, and that’s the main takeaway with these guys so far. They emphasize the vocals and the melodies: Many times, the instrumentation fell away to allow their trio harmonies to shine, and the volume in the tent never went into overdrive. It’s the right call, as Midland’s strength is more their musicality than raw energy, though you get the sense they could kick up some dust at midnight in a dance hall too.

It’s worth noting that they had a solid three-man supporting cast behind them. Austin pedal steel player Kim Deschamps, a Canadian transplant, has major credits with Canada roots bands Blue Rodeo and Cowboy Junkies as well as local troubadour Charlie Robison.  Drummer Robbie Crowell also hails from Canada, and supplemental guitarist Luke Cutchen seemed to have a small but vocal cheering-section in the crowd, perhaps partly due to his history with local instrument stores Strait Music and Musicmakers.

Midland’s lone misfire was a well-intentioned but ultimately unsatisfying stab at Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Covers of the late Petty’s tunes have been de rigueur during both weekends of ACL Fest, for good reason. But Midland’s effort came off as perfunctory, ending too soon and lacking the drama so vital to that particular Petty selection. It’s a shame they didn’t go to the well of one of the songwriters they later cited as inspirations, including Gary Stewart, Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker. A run through “L.A. Freeway” could’ve lit the fest up at that hour and furthered the band’s ties to their adopted home turf.

Still, when they closed the set with “Drinkin’ Problem,” the song most of those in attendance were waiting to hear — you could tell by how many cell phones popped up as soon as Wystrach launched into the first line — the focus was back on the simple matter that these guys know how to write, and deliver, memorable original material. The subject matter of “Drinkin’ Problem” may be overtold in country music, but Midland’s melodic groove is so catchy that it hardly matters. “Call it a problem, I call it a solution,” Wystrach sang, and most of those in the crowd sang with him, because the song is that good, plain and simple.

Watch our Austin360 post-show interview with Midland:

 

 

Run the Jewels light ‘ACL’ on fire ‘like Willie Nelson would light a (expletive) joint’

“El-P and Mike are going to make some effort to ‘clean up’ some of the lyrics in their raps,” “Austin City Limits” executive producer, Terry Lickona said via email Saturday when we reached out before the rap duo’s taping to find out how exactly producers of the iconic Austin TV show planned to edit the least PBS-friendly group in history.

Scott Newton/Courtesy of KLRU-TV

 

But let’s be honest, cleaned up is not how RTJ rolls.

“We’re going to light this (expletive) on fire like Willie Nelson would light a joint,” Killer Mike said at the top of the set, after he and his partner in rhyme entered the way they always do, to the chorus of Queen’s underdog anthem “We Are the Champions.”

Then the duo launched into a ballistic rendition of “Talk To Me” off their 2016 album “Run the Jewels 3.”From there it was into the grinder. El-P and Mike spit furious rhymes to the relentless pulse of menacing bass and drums, blasting through “Legend Has It” and “Ticketron” before pausing to breathe. They’re only the third hip-hop act ever featured on the the show, but, they boasted, “the first real rap show,” with nothing on stage but two emcees and a DJ.

Run the Jewels, however, doesn’t have a traditional hip-hop sound. With vicious machine gun flows, they make mosh pit rap for the Warped Tour generation. Their shows pass in a flurry of aggro-rhymes spat over turbulent, pounding beats. In many ways, they’re the most fascinating phenomenon in modern music: a pair of 40-something indie rap lifers who just as easily could have ended up making an “Odd Couple”-style YouTube buddy comedy, but instead inspire thrashing masses of humanity to chant “R-T-J” at the top of their lungs while rocking imaginary “36” Chains.”

They know it’s a fluke that it panned out this way, and the love they expressed to the crowd multiple times throughout the night was genuine. At one point El-P shouted out a older couple in the crowd. He said he was watching backstage through the monitor while the pair, who looked like traditional PBS supporters, arrived early and took their seats in the in the front row.  He said he kept thinking, “I hope they like us.” Turns out it’s easy to get swept up in a RTJ show and even the senior citizens seemed to be having a good time.

Scott Newton/Courtesy of KLRU-TV

The obvious knock against RTJ is that there are very few levels in their shows. They go hard non-stop, and it’s a visceral rush, but it can get monotonous. While some songs have distinctive sonic flourishes, like the cascading guitar line in the beginning of “Nobody Speaks,” many bleed into each other indistinguishably.  Their die-hard fans don’t care, though, and the floor section of the club, was jam packed and as rowdy as its ever been through the whole show. The vast majority of the crowd in floor seats never sat down.

At the end they mixed it up, bringing out singer Boots to do his part on “2100,” and Dungeon Family queenpin Joi to close out the set, singing her hook on “Down.” The latter song is the lead track on “RTJ3” and Joi’s syrupy Southern soul makes it stand out from the rest of their catalog. Mike, who intro-ed the track by reminding the audience to look out for each other and help the downtrodden in our community, said it was a song to lift you when you’re feeling down, unloved, “when life kicks you in the (expletive).”

It was an emotional close to the most hardcore show “ACL” has ever produced. The folks in charge of silencing all those obscenities were probably shaking their heads, but the crowd said “R-T-J, R-T-J.”

 

 

Sports doubleheader in late-afternoon heat fills up ACL Fest beer hall

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Competitive contests for both the Texas Longhorns and the Houston Astros made for a lively time in the beer hall at the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Saturday, as hundreds of festgoers filled up the space for a break from the late-afternoon heat.

Among them were Jody and Liz Lara, two Austinites who are both volunteering for the festival this weekend. Volunteers work in shifts, and they purposefully scheduled themselves for time slots that allowed them to catch the Texas-Oklahoma football game.

Jody and Liz Lara spent much of Saturday afternoon in the ACL Fest beer hall for the Texas-Oklahoma game on Oct. 14, 2017. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

They endured a tough start, with Texas going down 17-0 early. But in the third quarter, Texas rallied back to pull within 23-17. On the adjacent screen, the Astros and the New York Yankees were locked in a tense 1-1 tie during the second game of the American League Championship series.

The Laras, both decked out in Longhorn gear, were there mainly for the Red River Rivalry. “I want the Astros to win, but we’re mostly fans of Texas football,” Jody said.

The 90-degree late-afternoon temperatures made staying in the beer hall an even easier call. “Being in the shade definitely helps,” Liz said. “It’s an enticement to keep watching the game.”

Key third-quarter penalties against the Sooners, one of which nullified an OU touchdown and another that helped keep a Texas TD drive alive, brought a reversal of fortune to the hall as Sooners fans first exulted, then quieted while the Longhorn faithful cheered. Some added a little color: “Stop cheating!” after the first penalty, and “You can’t do that!” after the second. The requisite “OU sucks!” cheers followed soon enough, but the game was still far from over.

 

 

The Great ACL Fest Debate: Is rap duo Run the Jewels overrated?

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Over the past few years rap duo Run the Jewels has become the unlikely breakout of the decade. Their aggressive rhyme style and feline-friendly internet antics have made them one of the biggest hip-hop acts around, but do they deserve the acclaim? Team 360 is split on the matter with contributors Ramon Ramirez and Chad Swiatecki taking polar opposite positions.

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On Sunday at noon they will duke it out in a Facebook Live debate moderated by yours truly. Here are their opening position statements:

Chad Swiatecki: I’m not saying Killer Mike and El-P are proof that mankind is still evolving to a higher level of intellect and communication… wait, actually, yes I am.

Ramon Ramirez: Run the Jewels should not be here. But three albums and four years into ACL sets, the cagey duo of southern icon Killer Mike and aggro contrarian El-P are still posturing in denim jackets. It’s repellant rap music for tatted dudes who work in front of MacBooks, mean and nostalgic in the worst way. People like the familiar stylings, but it’s reverse-engineered noise. I don’t like their art, and neither should you.

Tune in Sunday, to see who takes the trophy in what is sure to be a spirited conversation.

She’s 13. And she may be the breakout star of this year’s ACL Fest.

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Just as the local elementary-school Barton Hills Choir finished their half-hour performance on the Austin Kiddie Limits Stage at ACL Fest, 13-year-old Grace VanderWaal began an hourlong show on the adjacent HomeAway Stage. If there were any doubt, those back-to-back sets affirmed that, yes indeed, the kids are all right.

Grace Vanderwaal performs during the second weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

VanderWaal will release her first album, appropriately titled “Just the Beginning,” next month — and what a beginning it is. VanderWaal created a buzz around the grounds after her performance last weekend, so it was no surprise to find quite a sizable crowd for an early-afternoon set greeting her for weekend two. Performing beautiful pop songs that highlighted her soaring voice and occasional ukulele playing, VanderWaal charmed a crowd that included plenty of die-hard mega-fans up front and a lot of curiosity-seekers further back.

Leading off with “Moonlight,” an early single from her new album, and proceeding to favorites from her 2016 EP such as “Light the Sky” and “Gossip Girl,” VanderWaal simultaneously impressed the crowd with her natural talent and charmed them with her youthful wonder. “I know a lot of you don’t know who I am, and that’s totally fine,” she said midway through the set. “I know some of you might,” she added, to the uproarious cheers of fans who got to know her from her appearance on the TV show “America’s Got Talent” (when she was still a pre-teen).

VanderWaal’s potential may be boundless, but it’s worth noting that she’s still learning, as any 13-year-old would be. A well-meaning introduction to “Talk Good” went on a little too long, and on the set-closing “I Don’t Know My Name” (which helped launch her career), she relied a little too much on sing-along the superfans singing up-front, to the detriment of folks further back who might have liked to hear her own voice more.

Still, part of VanderWaal’s appeal is that she knows she’s still finding her way. On “Better Life,” a wonderful ballad from the upcoming album, she fessed up midway through to getting a verse out of order, and apologized to a bandmate: “I’m sorry I sang through your guitar part!” Her three-piece band supported her admirably throughout on guitar, drums and keyboards, and she made sure to give them full credit, as well as her sound crew.

You’ve heard the line before about singers with such great voices that they could sing the phone book and it would be worthwhile. For VanderWaal, the parallel is perhaps “Happy Birthday.” It’s almost impossible to make that chestnut sound anything more than an obligation to get through quickly, so when she accepted the request from three fans in the crowd, it seemed perhaps unwise. But VanderWaal made the dedication to Kevin, Emma and Mary sound first musically magnificent and then uproariously fun.

VanderWaal seemed genuinely impressed with the city and the festival on her first visit here. “I want to come back to Austin every day. You live in the coolest place,” she beamed near the end of the set, admitting that she had no idea what to expect before she arrived. “I just thought, like, Ohio. But it’s pretty awesome!”

What comes next for VanderWaal? “I hope she can find a safe, true-to-herself path through early stardom. A lot of pressure!” a fan wrote on Twitter in response to a video clip from Saturday’s performance. There’s so much talent here that it does indeed feel like the sky’s the limit. Are we looking at the dawn of another pop start like Taylor Swift? Or perhaps more of a Grammy-winning Americana sensation like Wimberley-raised Sarah Jarosz. Wherever she goes from here, ACL Fest was fortunate to have her aboard this weekend.

Barton Hills Choir shines again at Austin Kiddie Limits, this time with David Grissom

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“Can I just say this is the coolest gig ever?”

David Grissom was right. The renowned Austin guitarist, who’s played with everyone from Joe Ely and John Mellencamp to the Allman Brothers and the Dixie Chicks, had a big smile on his face when he offered up that assessment of his guest turn with the Barton Hills Choir on Saturday afternoon, as part of the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s second weekend.

Kids with the Barton Hills Choir perform on the Austin Kiddie Limits Stage during weekend two of the Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. TINA PHAN / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Grissom followed first-weekend guest Charlie Sexton, who might have been a slightly better fit for the David Bowie tunes “Starman” and “Golden Years” that the kids from Barton Hills Elementary sang out loud and clear on the Austin Kiddie Limits stage both weekends. But Grissom’s roots-rock bona fides fit quite neatly into “I Know You Rider” and “They Love Each Other,” two nods to the Grateful Dead.

The former was folded into Woody Guthrie’s “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” which kicked off the 25-minute set as dozens of parents and other devoted Barton Hills Choir fans enjoyed a performance that has become one of ACL Fest’s most beloved traditions. Like last week, they closed with Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” inviting all other kids in the crowd to join in for a rockin’ finale that the band — Grissom, bandleader Gavin Tabone, guitarist Don Cento, bassist Jason Brint and drummer Jake Perlman — drove home as the children walked off into the crowd to their proud parents.

One difference this week: A late addition to the set was a magnificent version of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Grissom took the lead vocal and sounded every bit the true Heartbreaker, with the children’s voices chiming in on the chorus as a joyful affirmation of the late Petty’s enduring music.

David Grissom signs shirts for Barton Hills Choir members after performing with them on the Austin Kiddie Limits Stage during weekend two of the Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. TINA PHAN / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I go see the Barton Hills Choir every year, though as a non-parent, I don’t experience it the same way as those whose kids are performing. Still, it’s impossible not to love the spirit of these performances. One boy in this year’s choir is the son of a dear departed friend, and watching him onstage, I couldn’t help but think how happy his father would be. For a moment, it was like Brent was there with us in the crowd, smiling widely and taking it all in.

 

Shine bright! Glittery fashion at ACL Fest

A couple years ago Flash Tats were all the rage at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, this year it’s glitter, glitter and more glitter. We talked to fest-goers on the ground about what inspired their sparkly style.

Valerie June backstage at ACL Fest. Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Valerie June: “In this whole record cycle I decided my style onstage is going to be anything that shines,” singer-songwriter Valerie June said in the press lounge after her Austin City Limits Music Festival set on Friday. She was wearing an iridescent sequined top with swaths of glitter highlighting her temples. She’s been thinking a lot about light lately. Her song “Astroplane” on her new album “The Order of Time” deals with light and the stratosphere.

REVIEW: Valerie June reminds ACL Fest to shine

“I feel like we need more light in the world,” she said. “And we need to remember a little more that we each have individual light. And that all the light inside of us is so different from other people’s light. So oftentimes, we feel like, ‘Why should I shine because there’s already a nurse out there, why should I try to go be a nurse too? Why should I be this or why should I be that?’ Well you should do it because you’re called and you have a purpose with your life. You have a light inside and it’s like nothing else that anybody could contribute to humanity. So you have to do it with all your energy.”

Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Tess Yarbrough: “I grew up loving glitter,” Tess Yarbrough said. When she was a child, her mother worked a job waiting tables to be able to afford Catholic school for her kids. She was older than most of the waitresses at the restaurant and to make herself stand out she would apply glitter before going to work. Tess considers her mother her hero and now, she says, “glitter has come full circle” in her life. She doesn’t just rock the sparkles for festivals. It’s an every day thing. She uses pantyhose adhesive as a base (“It smells like maple syrup,” she says) and uses a special glitter mix she buys on Etsy.

PHOTOS: Glittery fashion at ACL Fest

Jannet Jara at ACL Fest. Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Jannet Jara: “Glitter makes everything better,” Jannet Jara said on Friday. She used regular hair gel and standard glitter that you can scoop from craft stores for pocket change to create her sparkle hair.

Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Taylor Freeman: Taylor used a GoGet Glitter kit on her face and used a sparkly blue lip gloss to complete the look. She said the kit comes with its own adhesive and is easy to apply. “When else can you do (this) other than at ACL?” she said, adding, “what girl doesn’t love glitter?”

Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Sam Frazier: Sam rocked her sparkle with a custom hat created by a friend in honor of Jay-Z’s headline set on Friday. “I just Bedazzled it,” her friend Clarissa Horner said with a laugh.

ACL Fest: Gates are open under scattered clouds

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Gates are open on day two of the second weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. At the 11 a.m. gate time, scattered clouds  obscured the sun somewhat, but don’t leave your sun hat at home. Our forecast shows clouds burning off by early afternoon, leaving us with another day of bright sun and temperatures creeping up near 90 degrees.

Chance The Rapper, American rapper from Chicago, Illinois, performs on the Honda Stage during Weekend one of the 2017 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park on Saturday Oct. 7, 2017.
Erika Rich for American-Statesman

RELATED: For Chance the Rapper all of ACL Fest is a gospel choir

Both Saturdays of the festival sold out weeks ago, so we can expect thick crowds on the ground by mid-afternoon and a packed field later tonight when headline Chance the Rapper and the Red Hot Chili Peppers take the stage.

Revivalists aren’t ready for prime time on one of ACL Fest’s biggest stages

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Last Friday at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, a familiar tune wafted across the grounds around sundown, and it sounded great. It was Tom Petty’s beautiful ballad “Wildflowers,” being played by New Orleans band the Revivalists near the end of their set in memory of the singer who’d passed away a few days prior. Then they upped the ante by going straight into “Refugee,” picking up the tempo considerably and sounding just as strong on one of Petty’s signature rockers.

READ MORE: Musicians pay tribute the late Tom Petty at ACL Fest

That was enough to suggest the group’s second-weekend set at the fest was worth checking out. It’s fair that the band didn’t revisit those covers this Friday, as the acknowledgment of Petty was more timely last week. Problem is, without those two great songs in the set, the Revivalists were left to stand on their own material, during a prime hour of the festival. And their repertoire just isn’t strong enough for that.

It might have appeared otherwise at the start. The band charged out of the gate with “Wish I Knew You,” a fair-sized radio hit from their most recent album, 2015’s “Men Amongst Mountains.” The crowd was densely packed all the way back to the sound board, and many sang along without any prompting. Lead singer David Shaw roamed the stage with a personable charisma, backed by a super-talented six-piece crew that draws extra color from pedal steel and saxophone.

During weekend one of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Revivalists singer David Shaw and pedal steel guitarist Ed Williams perform on the Honda Stage. The group returned for a second-weekend performance on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

But that was as good as it got. The rest of the band’s hourlong performance included tunes from their three albums that grew increasingly tiresome and formulaic as the set went on. Every song was about six minutes long. Most of them included jam-band builds to a frenetic finish. The musicianship was impeccable and the band was endlessly energetic, but the melodies and the lyrics didn’t rise to the high bar of the instrumentation.

You could feel it in the crowd, which gradually lost interest except for a few hundred hardcore fans up front. The middle section thinned out; those who sang along early weren’t motivated to do so again, despite Shaw’s increasingly annoying exhortations. At least a half-dozen times, he asked them to join in, either on chorus chants or for simple whoa-oh-oh vamps: “Now you do that!” “Let me hear ya!” “Sing it with me!”

By the time Shaw sent out a “last chance, come on now!” plea on the band’s final tune, much of the crowd that amassed early had drifted off toward the evening’s next sets at nearby stages. Ultimately the Revivalists seemed a little bit in over their heads. They might have worked better as an early-afternoon act on a slightly smaller stage, but the Honda at sundown? Boundless energy and chops notwithstanding, they just don’t have the songs.

ACL Fest: Delayed by travel, Solange takes the stage late

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A wave of disappointment swept over the crowd gathered for Solange’s 7:15 p.m. Austin City Limits Fest set, as a the big screen by the stage flashed a message that the R&B singer’s set was on hold due to “unforeseen travel delays.”

(Photo by Greg Noire/courtesy of C3 Presents)

Though the message said she was rushing to the fest, a good portion of the crowd cleared out. But those who stuck it out were rewarded when she finally made it to the stage, roughly 40 mins late.