The Texas heat did not stop some of music’s biggest stars from giving it their all during weekend two of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. This year, the lineup seemed to lean strong on pop – which is rather unusual for the fest, but something that we (bopsandbangers is a pop music publication) are here for. After all, the state of pop is stronger than ever, and ACL proved it.
Saturday night’s two-punch of Lil Nas X and P!nk was definitely the highlight of the weekend. The energy from both, the relatively newcomer and the underrated vet, was unmatched by any other set. Sunday night, Kacey Musgraves wrapped things up with a banger performance that demonstrated why she is the queen of country pop … and apparently, based on those in the crowd, queen of the gays too – which she happily acknowledged. Speaking of gay, several queer artists stood out big time with excellent sets from Conan Gray, Omar Apollo, and Yungblud. Meanwhile, the likes of SZA and Paramore left much to be desired.
Few artists can do it like P!nk. Emerging from underneath the stage ready to party, sing, dance, and fly, she gave ACL a 90-minute epic workout. It says a lot when your first six songs on the setlist (‘Get The Party Started, Raise Your Glass, Just Like A Pill, Just Give Me A Reason, Try, Who Knew) are all bonafide pop gems that cracked the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. And it felt like another day in the office for the singer; she went through them all flawlessly.
But what can a pop star do to up the ante when things feel like a walk in the park? Try new things.
“I recently learned to play the piano,” she said while performing Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love.’ She is no stranger to performing other people’s songs, so a big chunk of the middle part of her set was made up of covers including Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ 4 Non Blondes’ ‘What’s Up?,’ and Bishop Briggs’ ‘River.’ And to her credit, it never felt like karaoke. It felt like a great singer doing great covers.
She brought things back to her own discography with more hits such as ‘Fuckin’ Perfect,’ ‘Blow Me (One Last Kiss),’ and ‘What About Us.’ The latter, done as a dance remix, was the only lackluster moment of her entire performance. That was brief because for the encore, she made sure to give Austin the P!nk treatment by flying around Zilker Park for ‘So What.’
It is always impressive when an artist used to big productions in arenas and stadiums is able to deliver something remotely close to that at a festival. P!nk can.
In 2019, Kacey Musgraves performed at ACL at the golden hour. The sun beaming on her face on the sub-headliner, 6pm sunset slot. Now, a few years later, she returned to close things out with a very deserving Sunday night headlining spot. She made the most of it by delivering one of the best performances we’ve ever seen at the festival.
A burning heart (literally) made her shine bright as she opened the set with the title track from her latest album Star-Crossed. She set the tone of the show early on saying, “it’s a beautiful night for depressing songs.” Sure enough, the unbearable heat was gone as a chill breeze landed upon nightfall. Kacey grabbed her guitar and created a ‘playing by the campfire’ kind of vibe. The crowd joined her by belting out some of their favorites such as ‘Golden Hour,’ ‘Lonely Weekend,’ and ‘Merry Go ‘Round.’
Halfway through her time, she turned around towards the back and asked “can someone hand me a beer?” That’s when Democratic candidate for governor of Texas Beto O’Rourke walked out to do so. It received a cheer, no words needed. It was a semi-subtle endorsement by the Texas singer, who also expressed her love for the city of Austin. She used to live in the outskirts of town.
She put down the guitar and briefly turned the Honda stage into a dance party to the sound of ‘High Horse’ and then into a sing-a-long with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams.’
Then, guitar back in hand, she did her latest hit single ‘justified.’ Without a doubt, the highlight of the night.
“Thank you for choosing to spend the last moments of your festival weekend with me,” she said. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were performing on the other side of the park. Many festival-goers the previous weekend had praised her set and encouraged people to see her instead.
She capped things off with ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Slow Burn’ from her Grammy award-winning album Golden Hour. It felt just right. Musgraves got it right.
If there was ever a time when a stage felt too big for an artist, then this was it. SZA is a great performer, but a headliner? We had our doubts heading into Friday night, and she reassured us.
The effort was there. It was a big production with huge set pieces including a lighthouse, a dock, and cool screen effects. There were dancers. She has great stage prescence. So what was missing?
It’s hard to fully put our finger on it. The vocals seemed off at times. The energy came and went. While not entirely her fault, the music has been the same for years. Her last and only album, Ctrl, was released in 2017.
Few moments stood out such as ‘Love Galore,’ the short dance break in ‘Wavy,’ and the inevitable dance party in the audience with ‘Kiss Me More.’
It seemed like ACL was doing her Austin fans a favor more than anything. After all, SZA canceled her 2021 show at Emo’s just minutes before showtime. This basically made up for it. But you can’t go from a 1,500+ venue to a festival headliner in a year with no new music.
Lil Nas X
In the name of transparency, over the years, we have been critical of Lil Nas X’s television performances. But now, with a number of shows under his belt for his Montero tour, we can safely say that he is one incredible live performer. He brought as much of his current production to the main stage at ACL to perform a one hour set of his hits.
Opening up with ‘Panini,’ his nerves went away rather quickly and he commanded the stage like a pro. You’d think he’s been doing this for a very long time. Intricate choreographies, sparkling ensembles as outfits, and a lot of determination best describe the ‘Old Town Road’ hitmaker’s time on stage.
If you said 10 years ago that a young, black gay artist would be performing at a prominent slot at ACL with a massive crowd, people would think you’re crazy. But that’s how far, thankfully, we’ve come as a society. Lil Nas X is this generation’s Madonna as far as someone with a lot of courage that keeps pushing the envelope and takes risks.
‘That’s What I Want’ and ‘Industry Baby’ created an almost euphoric atmosphere in the crowd. They were very well-received. He left some time at the end for his new single, ‘Star Walkin,’ which has a great chorus but fell flat after the two other songs. He should have let ‘Industry Baby’ be the closer.
Either way, Lil Nas X is someone that is clearly grateful to be where he is at now. He gets what it means to be a performer.
Paramore’s long awaited return to touring this fall has been welcomed by sold out shows and a great deal of positive nostalgia. Emo kids from now and yesteryear gathered in big numbers for Hayley Williams and company on Sunday night for a set that was fun, but also felt odd and messy.
On weekend one of the festival, they started their show with their new song ‘This Is Why’ and ended it with ‘Hard Times.’ For their second showing, they opted to swap them and fill everything in between in a way that did not make things flow. Ending the show with their latest effort did not help either; many in the ocean of people started to scatter away as soon as they started playing it.
They seemed to have cut their tour setlist in two – playing half of the songs on weekend one and the others the second weekend – with their biggest hits being the only exception (no pun intended). Notably missing on weekend two, however, was ‘Decode’ from their contribution to the Twilight soundtrack. The performance of the song on weekend one was praised by many on social media. Instead, they gave weekend two another big hit with ‘Still Into You,’ which was not performed on weekend one.
Hayley was on point; her bright orange hair and green attire made her visible from far away. Her vocals didn’t miss at any point. It was just the flow of the show that seemed to miss. It peaked halfway through when they performed ‘Ain’t It Fun’ and ‘Misery Business.’ The latter included a special guest appearance by Pinkpantheress, who had performed earlier in the day at a different stage.
Regardless, it was cool to see the band back on stage. They are readying the release of their sixth studio album also titled This Is Why. It’s scheduled for release on Feb. 10, 2023. Presumably, more concert dates will follow.
Austin’s own (kinda) Conan Gray fought the hellish sun that was shining on his face during his 4pm performance on Friday.
“Petition to move ACL to the winter,” he said. “It’s hot as balls.” We second that!
One of the best songwriters of this new emerging generation of artists, Gray has managed to put into song all the emotions from the things he experienced (or maybe not considering he did say he was a great liar) in the small town of Georgetown, Texas, on the outskirts of Austin. He pointed out how his songs were written about people that could possibly be in the audience.
‘Heather,’ his biggest song which just surpassed one billion streams, showed off how well he is able to encapsulate the emotions of his storytelling beyond just the writing and onto the stage. It was during the ballads that he shined the most. ‘People Watching’ and the stunning ‘Memories’ showcased his vocals in a great way.
The opening song ‘Disaster,’ from his new album Superache, paired up with his standalone single ‘Telepath’ was a good way to get the crowd going. Other upbeat moments that helped balance the set included ‘Overdrive’ and the brilliant ‘Maniac.’
Gray is slowly, but surely making his presence known. And with all the touring he is doing, he is definitely maturing into being as good of a performer as he is a songwriter. Don’t be surprised to see him on a more prominent spot at a future ACL lineup.
Omar Apollo is an openly gay, first generation Mexican-American that hails from Indiana, sings and raps in Spanish and English, while dabbling in many different genres.
Talk about versatility.
A must-see, Apollo performed an excellent set that (like with Conan) demonstrated that the future of music is in good hands. Whether it was feeling sad with songs such as ‘Bad Life’ and ‘Killing Me,’ belting out the more traditional Mexican tune ‘En El Olvido,’ or jumping to the trap-meets-soul ‘Tamagotchi,’ Apollo confidently changed the pace keeping the audience on its toes.
His relentless search for landing each song right showed a star in the making. Songs such as ‘Frio’ and latest single ‘Evergreen’ set themselves apart as peaks in a very well-rounded performance.
Apollo is about to head out on tour. Catch him if you can; you won’t regret it.
England’s own Yungblud created a pop-punk atmosphere that few could make happen in the middle of the afternoon in Texas. Fresh off of a plane from a string of tour dates in Mexico, the singer brought his hyper-energetic self to do a show worthy of being a headlining moment.
His ardent fans showed off their devotion by giving it their all as other festival goers started to ultimately gather the more he played. Songs such as ‘Tissues,’ which he said he worked on with The Cure’s Robert Smith, as well as his song with Machine Gun Kelly, ‘I Think I’m Okay,’ had the fans dancing and jumping their sweat away.
He lead a sing-a-long for ‘Fleabag,’ a song that sounds like it was made in the 90s and today all at the same time. In interviews, he has mentioned that some of his biggest influences include bands like The Clash, My Chemical Romance, and Soundgarden as well as singers such as Lady Gaga, David Bowie, and Katy Perry. This is clear not only by the sound of his music, but also by the way he carries himself on stage.
Other Acts We Saw
On Friday, Noah Cyrus performed a set heavy on her recently-released debut album The Hardest Part. With an interesting mix of country, pop, and soul, she has managed to carve out a space for herself in her very talented family. Some of her older songs, however, were the highlights such as ‘Again,’ ‘I Got So High That I Saw Jesus,’ and ‘July.’
Wallows had the big responsibility to perform right before Lil Nas X and P!nk on Saturday. They really benefited from having a big crowd beyond their fans. They have been playing many festivals and shows this year, which is evident by their chemistry on stage. It was a fun set even though a lot of their music sounds the same.
The worst performance of the weekend (from the ones we saw) came from Pinkpantheress. She arrived late to her afternoon set on Saturday and dialed it in. She let the backing track do most of the work. Her stage presence was non-existent; she was either very nervous or did not want to be there at all. Very disconnected. Hopefully things change for the better as she gets more opportunities to perform live.
Oliver Tree brought his antics on Sunday. Talk about a talented guy that can sing, act, and be funny all at the same time. His Gen-Z fans sang all the words, while onlookers were glued to what was happening on stage – completely puzzled and amazed all at the same time. This man is just a really good entertainer.
The Austin City Limits Music Festival will return Oct. 6-8 and 13-15, 2023.