Published in the October 20, 2017 edition

A BIG crowd gathers to enjoy The Heart during the Austin City Limits Music Festival which transforms the city each October when hundreds of acts perform over the course of two consecutive three-day weekends. (Mel Webster Photo)


AUSTIN, Texas — In October, Austin becomes the unofficial music capital of the world, hosting the Austin City Limits Music Festival, a two-weekend long event featuring hundreds of acts playing for hundreds of thousands of fans. ACLFest celebrated its 15th anniversary this year and this was the fourth for me. I’ve never walked away disappointed.

THE AUSTIN, TEXAS skyline dwarfs a huge crowd gathered at Zilker Park for ACLFest, which adds an exclamation point to the city’s vibrant music scene each fall. (Mel Webster Photo)

Before getting to the music, one has to prepare for the heat. While we already have turned on the furnace to take the chill off a few nights here in North Reading, ACLFest is usually held in 90-degree heat or higher, with abundant sunshine. This year was no exception. We lucked out on Saturday, which turned out to be overcast the entire day, but temperatures still hovered in the mid-80s. Both Friday and Sunday touched the low 90s. It’s not a scene for the weak.

Accompanied as always by my lovely wife, I saw 25 shows over the three-day period, bringing to just under 100 acts I have seen over four years. This year proved a little more challenging, as the event organizers expanded ACL’s footprint at Austin’s beautiful Zilker Park, which in many cases made for longer walks getting from one stage to another. And I know for certain these walks were long, as the fewest number of daily steps I recorded on my Fitbit was 18,532, or 9.6 miles.

IT’S AUSTIN, not Boston! The author, Mel Webster (at right) takes in the sights and sounds at the 15th annual Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACLFest) with his brother-in-law David Sullivan. Sullivan, a Massachusetts native, has played a major role in Austin’s city planning over the past three decades and also attends 300-plus live music shows each year. (Courtesy Photo)

Austin is known for its vibrant, live music scene and ACLFest adds an exclamation mark. In addition to the three-day weekend event, many bands play night shows during the week at some of the city’s most popular clubs. The result? A year’s worth of great music packed into a week.

Discovering new music

The highlight of ACLFest, and every music festival, is discovering new, great music and this year was no exception. There were four such bands that stood out. First, was Tank and the Bangas, who earlier this year won the NPR Tiny Desk contest, beating out 6,000 other acts. Hailing from New Orleans, Tarriona “Tank” Ball and her four-piece backing band delivered the hottest set of the weekend. Combining jazz, soul, hip hop and rock, the quintet, which opened the Sunday lineup at 11:45 a.m., nearly melted the hot Austin sun. They delivered 45 minutes of joy and the best morning dance party I’ve ever seen.

Car Seat Headrest, led by Will Toledo, played a raucous set Saturday midday. Featuring mostly pedal to the metal rock and roll, Toledo and company gave a nod to legend Neil Young with a stomping cover of Powderfinger. The band also ripped through indy favorite Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, along with several other songs from their two albums released in the last three years, “Teens Of Style” and “Teens of Denial.” Toledo has been recording and releasing music on the Web since his late teens and the band seems headed for a breakout year.

MIDDLE KIDS proved they are the next big thing during their performance at ACLFest as Hannah Joy (right), the frontwoman of the Sydney, Australia-based band, jams left-handed on her upside-down right-hand guitar. (Mel Webster Photo)

Sydney, Australia-based Middle Kids should be the next big thing. Frontwoman Hannah Joy’s vocals demand attention, as does her left-handed playing of an upside down right-hand guitar. Also playing a midday show, the band featured several new songs off their soon-to-be-released first album. The highlight of the set was “Edge of Town,” one of the best songs released this year. If alt-indy pop is your thing, give them a listen.

Finally, there’s Vulfpeck, a tightly wound, funk-driven band made up of former University of Michigan students that boasts one of the best bass players in the world, Joe Dart. With guest vocalist Antwaun Stanley, the band barreled through their hour set, which featured a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” as well as what Jack Stanton labeled the worst drum solo ever. His premise: You see so many great drum solos that blend together, but you’ll always remember the worst. There was no letup to the funk during this set.

Before hitting the headliners, other acts that impressed were Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Angel Olsen, Joseph, Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son) and Promise of the Real, First Aid Kit, The Head and the Heart, and Spoon.

Headliners: XX, Chance the Rapper, Gorrilaz

You never know what you’ll get for headliners at a festival and this year’s lineup was somewhat disappointing. For the night one I chose The XX over Jay-Z and was rewarded with a great set from a band that you wouldn’t expect as a headliner. The three-member band was dwarfed by the large stage, but the backing sounds of Jamie XX and the intriguing, shared lead vocals of Romy Madley Sim and Oliver Croft produced a warm, dreamy 70-minute set. The band was highly appreciative of the crowd, with Croft noting, “We aren’t stupid, we knew we were up against Jay-Z. We expected six people.”

On night two, Chance the Rapper was the choice over Red Hot Chili Peppers. The result – lots of energy, lots of noise, and an excellent group of backing vocalists. Chance is an interesting artist in that he has never sold a record or song. Everything he has recorded has been available free on the Web and he has become one of the world’s most popular rappers. I enjoyed the set, but wouldn’t go out of my way to see him again.

The third and final night brought the band I had waited for, Gorrilaz, Damon Albarn’s mashup of cartoon characters and wide array of musical styles. Albarn, the musical genius who also founded the band Blur, led his band and impressive cast of singers through a blistering 65-minute set topped off by mega hits Feel Good Inc. and Clint Eastwood. Everyone danced, everyone sang, no one left.

ACLFest 2017…in the books.


Mel Webster is a 13-year member of the North Reading School Committee whose appreciation for all things music has compelled him to collect more than 3,000 CDs and 500 vinyl albums.