Austin, Texas — The first thing you have to know about Austin City Limits is that it probably couldn’t happen in Boston. We’ve covered Boston Calling a bunch of times—and seen it move and grow from City Hall Plaza to the Harvard athletic fields in Allston—but ACL is a totally different animal, with eight stages to Boston Calling’s three, more and dare I say better food, more other stuff, and a whole thing called Austin Kiddie Limits that appears to be either a family-friendly venue or a daycare or maybe both. I don’t think you could replicate something the size of ACL with the same proximity to downtown Boston, unless you shut down the entire Common, which I don’t think is as big as Austin’s Zilker Park.
And in that sense this weekend is unique, as The Heights branches out a little from BC things and Boston happenings and checks out a cool event in a city that maybe some Boston College kids will move to.
Friday’s lineup, maybe even more so than Saturday and Sunday, was stacked with some of the biggest names in music right now (and ever).
Paul McCartney has been on something of a press tear as of late. He told GQ a weird story about masturbating with John Lennon (and some other weird stories I probably shouldn’t mention), he talked candidly with Howard Stern about why the Beatles really broke up, and he gave a lengthy, thoughtful interview to 60 Minutes. It’s all to pub his newest album, Egypt Station, released last month, and the accompanying Freshen Up Tour.
McCartney’s two-and-a-half-hour headliner set Friday night had some of the same thoughtfulness he’s been showing in the media. A lot of it was about grappling with the past. He talked about Johnny Lennon and Georgie Harrison and the band’s early Liverpool days, playing “In Spite of All the Danger,” originally recorded in 1958 when McCartney was 16. As he often does live, he played “Here Today,” the song he wrote in response to Lennon’s death, about an imaginary conversation McCartney would’ve liked to have with him. The best moment might have been “Blackbird,” as a hidden stage with screens showing Earth lifted McCartney high above the crowd.
Another big takeaway is that McCartney is deeply fun on stage. He screams back at people in the crowd who scream at him. After seemingly every song he waves and bows, and he swaggers back and forth between a piano and the front for different songs. He hums constantly. He exudes music. The 76-year-old also doesn’t really appear human. With his band dripping sweat around him almost as soon as the show started, at first I thought McCartney himself might never sweat. He did get there eventually, but even then he was inhumanly composed.
There’s also the whole dynamic of having Paul McCartney up there on stage. He told a story about meeting Jimi Hendrix when he first came to the U.K. and going to a show where, apparently, Hendrix covered a song from Sgt. Pepper’s and his guitar ended up out of tune. Eric Clapton, also somehow in the audience, declined to tune it for him. As weird as that is, as maybe the person on the planet who has been the most famous for the longest, it sounds less like McCartney is name-dropping and more like he’s just talking about old friends. A lot of the set was about just that: how McCartney thinks, as a not-so-young man, about his past, about the weirdness of being an icon for almost 60 years and knowing the people he’s known. And the answer he arrived at, I think, is that he’s cool with it.
We’ve covered Brockhampton before, but in Boston, where the rap group usually plays smallish venues like the House of Blues and played Boston Calling this past year. In Austin, just a 40-minute drive from where the band formed in San Marcos, Brockhampton is big. Kevin Abstract, the band’s de facto leader, made fun of the crowd (“Hey Texas, there’s a lot of white people out here”) and called on all the gay people in the audience to yell it out (Abstract, now all of 22, came out publicly two years ago and routinely raps and talks about his sexuality). Coming after the seductiveness of Lily Allen and the soul of Khalid, Brockhampton bumped, especially on “Weight” and “Sweet,” which felt almost like church.
Khalid’s set was ruminative, with the 20-year-old talking almost nostalgically about the days before he shot to stardom. Before he played “Saved,” one of his breakthrough songs, he talked about recording it in his bedroom, with just a guitar and a mic. He played “Eastside,” which features Halsey, acoustic, because of how much the song means to him. “Silence,” Khalid’s song with Marshmello, became an almost haunting lament without such a hard EDM drop.
Channeling pantsuit aficionado Hillary Clinton in pink, Lily Allen was a change of pace, with a simple set featuring some favorites, including “Who’d Have Known,” the song sampled by T-Pain on “5 O’Clock,” and “The Fear.” A lot of the other Friday acts had large bands or did a lot of moving around, but Allen largely stayed put, her voice doing all the work in her seductive set.
Paul McCartney was epic, Brockhampton bumped, Lily Allen was a breath of fresh air—but David Byrne won Friday. Looking almost regal, the former Talking Heads frontman wore an impeccable gray suit, matching with his dozen or so band members. There was a melodica. He played “Once in a Lifetime” and “This Must Be the Place” back to back. And he closed with a powerful cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which Monae made as a response to police treatment and killings of black people. Byrne gave it an intense energy all his own while, in the spirit of the day, paying homage to Monae’s version.
Featured Image by ACL Press Pool