The return of Austin City Limits 2021 was a more than welcome one, as many music fans were highly anticipating the festival’s return for months leading up to the weekend. The lineup boasting headliners Billie Eilish, Miley Cyrus and Tyler, The Creator along with buzzworthy names Machine Gun Kelly, Phoebe Bridgers, Jack Harlow and Megan Thee Stallion was sure to be a memorable weekend. COVID-19 protocols were in place throughout the weekend with a requirement of either showing proof of vaccination cards or a negative test within the past 72 hours prior to entering. Free masks were offered prior to entering and there were even free vaccinations taking place inside the festival. A forecast of heavy rain was on tap for Friday and potentially Saturday and the rains had started Thursday night but let up by morning. Festival organizers pushed the opening to 3pm and unfortunately, some of those who were scheduled for the early start would not perform. The weather would thankfully improve throughout the weekend and even the rain that was forecasted on Saturday did not come to fruition.
Even with a condensed schedule for the first day, the feeling of being back at a festival set in immediately. Having garnered much attention during the last year due to her viral hit “Violent”, carolesdaughter was one of the first performers at the festival and brought a lively energy right out of the gate. Songs like “Trailer Trash” and “please put me in a medically induced coma” showed that the artist has the chops to make not only catchy tunes but also lyrics that resonate with her young fanbase. Singer/songwriter Zella Day put on an inspiring set that was animated, passionate and equally enthralling. The Arizona native has evolved into more than a guitar-based artist, with many danceable tunes that have been recently released that meld her signature indie/psychedlic sounds with pop and disco. More recent releases like “Golden” and her cover of “You Sexy Thing” fit right in with “Purple Haze” and “Sweet Ophelia” and “Hypnotic.” Machine Gun Kelly, ever the showman, put on an energetic set that saw him moving around the stage constantly as he and his band tore through songs from his breakthrough album, ‘Tickets to My Downfall’ and even a cover of Paramore’s “Misery Business”. Without a doubt, Megan Thee Stallion and Miley Cyrus put women on the map on day one of ACL. The former’s set lit up the crowd with the energy she and her backup dancers put on, tearing through “Body,” “Savage” and “Don’t Stop.” A memorable moment happened as Miley Cyrus made a surprise appearance to dance with some invited fans on-stage to dance, sending the crowd into a frenzy. With Cyrus closing out the day, fans were on a high from a set filled with a fresh take on classics with covers of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” “Maybe” by Janis Joplin and “Where is My Mind?” By The Pixies. The songs were complementary to her originals like “The Climb,” “7 Things” and her signature hit “Party In the USA,” that latter that was a huge singalong amongst the crowd.
The weather cooperated just fine on day two with sunshine and the famous Austin heat. Emerging rapper Payday gave a rousing performance for what was her second live show ever. Commanding he stage with confidence, Payday performed recent releases like “Vampire” and “Big Boy”. The energy for the second day of Austin City Limits was seen everywhere as it felt like the most highly attended day. Audience participation and just the overall energy from the crowds were evident throughout many sets from AG Club and girl in red to Remi Wolf and Mob Rich. The former had throngs of fans singing and dancing to songs like “Grumpy Old Man” and “Disco Man.” If there was a signature “moment” that happened at ACL, it was definitely during Jack Harlow’s set. Similar to what happened with Lizzo a few years ago, Harlow performed at one of the smaller side stages to a crowd that overflowed to the edges of the main stage area. Harlow noted how far he’s come, commenting on his past performances at SXSW when he was still working his way up. The crowd was hyped like no other as he performed songs like “Industry Baby” and “What’s Poppin”. Closing out the night was none other than arguably the highlight of the weekend for many attendees, Billie Eilish. She performed in 2019 during the day just as her hit song, “Bad Guy” was riding high on commercial radio and streaming services. This time around, Eilish and her brother Finneas put on a show a top an elevated stage filled with amazing visuals. Now armed with two albums, Eilish seamlessly performed her breakthrough songs like “You Should See Me In A Crown”, from her debut, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” to newer tracks like “NDA” and “Therefore I Am” from her follow-up, ‘Happier Than Ever’. Expressing gratitude and an appreciation for the fans whenever she could, Eilish has nailed down her stage presence and is able to convey a sense of intimacy even to such a large crowd. It was evident as she was elevated above the crowd during “bellyache” and as visuals of the crowd were shown while performing “Everything I Wanted”. Taking a moment to opine about the anti-abortion laws that were recently enacted, Eilish pulled no punches stating, “I’m sick and tired of old men.” As the visuals displayed “Bans Off Our Bodies”. Her commentary elicited cheers in agreement throughout the audience and showed why the next generation of fans are a force to be reckoned with if they continue to be engaged, something Eilish will certainly be just as proud of as her legacy in music.
The last day of any festival is usually one where many have expended their energy to the point that they want to take it easy. The lineup for day three, however, would not allow one to just chill. Jany Green was a standout early on, performing with an enthusiasm and energy that was contagious. Songs like “Little” and “Lost in Love” showed his potential and a reason why many have resonated with his music over the last year. White Reaper and Mother Mother absolutely tore up their sets and the energy they put out was infectious as “Might Be Right” by the former had the audience dancing with their fists in the air. Tate McRae made her ACL debut after making a huge splash in the music industry over the course of the last year. Her songs have not only gone viral and played on commercial radio, but she has also scored many top-40 hits including the number one breakthrough, “you broke me first”. Accompanied by backup dancers along with her band, McRae performed like a seasoned pro and lived up to the hype. Other highlights from early in the day included Sofia Valdes, who scored a viral hit over the pandemic with “Handful of Water” and Cautious Clay, who performed songs from his critically acclaimed debut album, ‘Deadpan Love’. Marc Rebillet was absolutely entertaining as he performed in a robe, before taking it off to DJ and dance around the stage. While Duran Duran performed a set filled with nostalgia on the main stage, Tyler, The Creator brought not only a catalog of staples filled with classic material as well, but also new music from his recently released ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’. It didn’t matter what he performed, as the packed crowd sang and rapped to nearly every song throughout his set from “Yonkersl” “Tamales,” and “See You Again” to the newer “Wusyaname” and “RunItUp”. A literal one-man show, Tyler, The Creator showed sometimes less is more and the music holds up on its own.
Overall, this year’s ACL went off without a hitch, outside the weather delay on the first day. It marked a triumphant return to live music, even with the looming concern of the pandemic, as many festival attendees were able to set aside that concern for a moment while dancing and singing along to their favorite artists, new discoveries and soaking in the vibe. This year’s lineup also marked a notable shift to relying on current artists in Billie Eilish, Miley Cyrus and Tyler, The Creator as the next bearers of the torch for future festivals as music continues to evolve to showcase more women, artists of color and of diversity.