Austin City Limits is a festival seeped in Americana history, so much so that dance music has struggled to wriggle itself a home on its line-ups in the past. As recently as a couple years ago, the closest thing you were gonna get to some untz on Zilker Park's expansive grounds was crossover acts like Thievery Corporation or Girl Talk. This year, the number swelled to (arguably) 7 dance acts: Skrillex, Zedd, Calvin Harris, Major Lazer, Glitch Mob, Gramatik, and Beats Antique.
One thing you gotta keep in mind is that ACL is by no means a rave, it's not even a left-leaning festival like Coachella or Sasquatch that aims to be at once culturally definitive and progressive. Rather, ACL is a community-based celebration of music, borne out of a twang-happy PBS show, with latent down-home county fair vibes and an undying love for stringed instruments mixed in. Along the same lines, Texans take their sports so seriously that the biggest watering hole on the festival grounds was a sports bar and the lawnchair lobby was in full effect. Families were out in droves and people of all ages were casually enjoying the same setting. I only saw one set of kandi ravers all weekend, and to be fair, they looked lost and confused. Maybe that's a natural state for them, though.
Anyway, when in Rome: I started the weekend with one of the first guitarry sets I've seen in years. St. Vincent used to be the one of the more demure characters in indie rock. Yeah, she was prone to a guitar-bashing once in a while, but it seems that after spending so much time on tour with Talking Heads' David Byrne, she's taken on some of his weirdness. Her on-stage persona has transformed into that of a petulant alien-doll – all outlandish theatrics and fake deaths and cut-throat signs. She ended her remarkable set by throwing her guitar into the crowd and waving a massive Colorado flag pinched from a front row fan. Some of the synth tones her keyboardist was working would have had any producer I know itching to nick his hardware. Nobody was really too big on dancing, though. As a certified dance music convert, that's one thing I can't understand.
Most festivals try to get cute in their branding partnerships with Heineken tents and Smirnoff Houses and the like. Props to ACL for being cavalier about their arrangements and naming their stages straight up after sponsors. For example, "Samsung," "Honda," and my personal favorite: the "Retailmenot" stage. On the Honda stage, LA natives Glitch Mob brought all the weight of their anthemic electro live performance to the late afternoon crowd. Their penchant for the epic was almost overbearing as they careened from one upfront banger to another, but as darkness fell, the energy they brought to the show was undeniable and necessary.
Later on, I ran into Major Lazer's Walshy Fire backstage and he was educating me on something that's the subject matter of his new docu-series with Noisey. On the islands, a new generation of Jamaican youths are championing reggae over dancehall – something that's a novel phenomenon this side of the millennium. Lazer's set reflected that as they lapsed into jah rasta beats on more than one occasion. In all, though, the set was choppy-changy and Diplo seemed subdued, even as he tried to get the crowd to take their shirts off. When he went for the Flaming Lips maneuver (see below), he almost went down, but rose from the crowd like a besuited, kinda bored phoenix.
Props to the numerous children I saw sitting in the grass giving absolutely zero fucks about the music as they played iPad games. They're learning early that indifference is hip. Respect. In general, though, kids dance in a way that adults are way too inhibited to ever try, lest they end up lampooned in some YouTube video. Watching some six year old do convulsive cartwheels to Skrillex totally recontextualized my appreciation for what the OWSLA head honcho is able to do. ACL is a mainstream, family festival – watching Skrillex drop glitch-hop and (his one rad) future house track in between the Jackson 5 and the Lion King theme to an audience of good 'ol Texans made me realize the influence that he's able to have. We have a tendency to be self-reflexive towards the underground, but Skrillex is aggressively introducing forward-thinking tones to an audience of people we rarely actually consider in all of our snarky navel-gazing.
At the end of his performance, Skrillex brought out Diplo and Kiesza and the trio ran through their collaborative "Take U There" before Kiesza's hit "Hideaway." And as her now famous "Ooh's" and "Aah's" rang over the crowd, UK garage was brought to Texas, a state known more for garage rock and trailer park BBQ's than shuffled hi-hats. And like at, at 9:30PM, the night was over.
Somewhere in a Craftsman home converted into a gastropub, the Austin pedicab mafia is laughing. Walking out from the festival, there were miles of tired looking pedicab operators chugging their tired legs up Austin's languid hills. Usually, by the end of a festival, my body is struggling from a lack of sleep and over-indulgence. After ACL, the only thing that hurts is my tuchus from all that bike riding. So wholesome.
I know it's not a good look to hate on Beats Antique because burners are so friendly and all, but, c'mon, they're not really very good, are they? They slang more cheese than the Velveeta factory. I Couldn't really handle it for more than a couple songs. Props to Gramatik for somehow ending up on the line-up. The Slovenian glitch-bass provocateur was the only danceable curveball on show and his set was some much deserved shine for the Griz-collaborator.
Sunday night's dance offerings began with Zedd, who worked through a high-energy set stuffed with electro remixes of mainstream pop acts like Bastille and "Rude" by Magic! Comparatively, Calvin Harris' headline performance was actually a little bit deeper, despite his newfound obsession with Melbourne bounce. His crowd was massive and the generation gap between himself and the other headliner, Pearl Jam, was markedly evident.
In the ACL brand's long history, dance music seems the only genre to be included that doesn't seem in some way a natural progression from what ACL was already steeped in. Because of that, they went for the safe (although probably quite pricey) options and some dissonance within the programming was evident. Although many of the electronic acts selected were kinda no-brainers, the crowd's fervent reaction to them all hopefully indicates a more dancey direction for the future amidst all the banjo-twangery. So, Richie Hawtin presents ENTER at ACL next year, then? Maybe some hardstyle?
Jemayel Khawaja is Associate Editor of THUMP in Los Angeles - @JemayelK