Austin City Limits took over Austin, Texas, for the last two weekends, bringing thousands of visitors and over 100 bands to Zilker Park. What differentiates good festivals from great ones can be split into three categories: the performances, the people, and what I’ll call “the fixings,” which includes food, shopping and general production.
Here’s a rundown of the good, the bad and the ugly at Weekend Two of ACL 2014.
The real gems this year were hidden amongst the big stage performers like Outkast, Eminem and Pearl Jam, which tended towards nostalgia rather than new, fresh sounds. Many of the lesser-known bands garnered intimate and engaged crowds, had better stage presence, and felt more spontaneous and less robotic than their more popular counterparts who may have gotten too much practice after playing the same sets at countless festivals.
Bands like gospel group The Legendary Soul Stirrers, Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, and country singer Nikki Lane brought the touch of Texas and the South, both so necessary for making ACL feel special.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sound issues that plagued most of the big shows this year. Iggy Azalea and Lorde both drew massive crowds, but for some reason were each relegated to a non-headlining stage. This made it very difficult to find a spot to enjoy either of their performances. Dead zones of sound were also a problem at Outkast and Lana Del Rey. If you weren’t directly behind a set of speakers, it was hard to hear the performances clearly. At Lana Del Rey, I heard more about some loud guy’s drunken night than I heard of “Blue Jeans” or “West Coast.”
I often find myself cursing the youth of today when I attend a festival full of millennials, but my first experience at ACL proved to be more pleasant. The festival drew families with young children, teenagers and couples of all ages, in addition, of course, to the stereotypical twenty-somethings. There seemed to be less shoving and smoke blowing into my face, and the presence of little kids may have had something to do with it.
Although the courteousness of the festival-goers was a high point, the fact that Iggy Azalea and Lorde drew some of the biggest crowds of the weekend was a testament to the overwhelming number of mainstream music fans. While in line to buy a shirt, I overheard a woman say she didn’t feel strongly about any of the bands at the festival “except maybe Pearl Jam.” If someone wants to spend hundreds of dollars to see bands they don’t feel strongly about, that is their prerogative, but when these people form a large portion of the concert audience, the vibe of the show can be affected.
At the Interpol, Lorde and Outkast shows, the crowd got stoked for the big songs. But beyond the front rows, there didn’t seem to be many huge fans. It felt like a downer when some of my favorite songs were played and most people around me lacked energy and enthusiasm.
It needs to be said: ACL Cashless was genius. It turned everyone’s wristband into a conduit for a credit card, which meant no cash, no credit card holdups, just fast-moving lines and easy transactions. The food lines were surprisingly manageable, which meant you could keep going back for more crazy good tacos from The Peached Tortilla or ice cream from Amy’s. Most, if not all, of the food vendors were from local Austin eateries, which made ACL seem more unique and less commercial than other festivals.
In contrast to festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella, which are situated in the middle of nowhere, ACL is in the heart of Austin. This added another draw to the fest for out-of-towners. Usually at festivals you wake up to cereal in your car or a bland hotel breakfast, but at ACL you could explore the Austin culinary scene for breakfast and a late night snack after the fest ends at 10 p.m. No doubt the Austin businesses like this, too.
Overall, ACL 2014 was a great experience. Even though the stages were all named after huge brands, the distinct Austin feel of arriving in pedicab, walking over Barton Springs to get to the festival entrance, eating delicious tacos, and listening to an eclectic line-up of musicians made the fest a success.
Contact Gabriela Groth at gngroth “at” stanford.edu.