James Bay - Samsung Galaxy Stage - 1:00pm
After taking a while to gain my bearing, I caught the tail end of Bay's soulful, singer-songwriter set. It's mostly him on guitar with one other musician backing him up on percussion from time to time, and he really doesn't need much more. He's got a great voice that belts out across the park with confidence and backbone. These songs are forceful. They throttle, they thump with earnestness.
Bay has been fortunate enough to tour the US with Irish bluesman Hozier who was scheduled to play a set of his own just a couple stages away in a bit had he not recently fallen ill and had to cancel this weekend's performance along with a show in Atlanta just a few nights ago. Bay has proven more than capable of stepping into this gig's void and the world getting hip to his voice may be all the better for it. By his set's close, he took a picture of himself on the same stage Beck would stand on at the end of the night, tickled at the fact that he is playing this festival. It didn't take him long on that stage to prove how much he deserved it.
Jon Batiste and Stay Human - Sculpture Hospitality Stage - 2:15pm
Photo credit: Jaime Monzon
New Orleans multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste has been reshaping the typical perception of a jazz performance. No stranger to the second line upbringing, Batiste understands more than well that the way to connect the people to the music is to put the music among the people. His performances on the subway platforms of New York City with his Stay Human band have become things of legend in very short order, and his recent Colbert Report performance—where he begins the performance in the studio before marching the whole audience outside into the alley out back—left a lot of hope that this afternoon's set would be just as literally and figuratively moving.
This was a well-constructed set. Batiste's quintet multitasks with ease. His old Juilliard classmates switch off on their instruments, most notably Eddie Barbash who is a monster on saxophone, to make a totally immersive show so good, so well-choreographed, so engrossing that early American songbook tunes like "St. John's Infirmary" may have never had such stank on them. These guys truly enjoy the music they're playing, breathing not only new life, but new joy and comfort with songs that may have been in the jazz repertoire for almost the length of its entire century-long life but its players have forgotten the attachments years ago. Batistes stride piano take on the traditional "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm" may have have the most people getting down to that specific song in the 21st century. Yet when he played this song solo on the grand piano set on the stage, masterfully owning this stride piano rag, he proved the saying in jazz: if you can play stride piano, you can play anything. He was only hinting at the one-third mark of the hour set that everything would happen here.
The organic nature of how they play jazz standards, Michael Jackson songs, or original compositions off their latest album, Social Music, display an appreciation that this is what they get to do for a living, sharing this feeling with others. This music lives in the streets, amongst the masses, whether it be through literally bringing it to them or through performing it in such an evocative, spectacular way that this crowd of easily jaded ACL attendees are all a part of the show. This act could probably work anywhere.
In the last fifteen minutes of the set, as the band left the stage and took to the center of the crowd, we gathered together. Clapped and snapped together. Sang and chanted and wooed. We sat on the ground in unison. We had a moment that afternoon. We made Social Music.
Lake Street Dive - Austin Ventures Stage - 3:15pm
Lake Street Dive brands themselves as a jazz band. They are not a jazz band. They swing a bit, they have a roots-y sound to them. The bass is heavy and good. There are solos
sometimes. It's a band set up to surround a decent, but bold female vocalist without seeming, in a performance sense, as ecumenical as jazz is designed to be. You may know this type of band. They are very good at what it is that they do, but they only really do one thing, and they've been doing the same thing at the same gear for the last ten years. Also, their on-stage banter is particularly cutesy. In essence, people will either love or hate this band, or entirely ignore it. That's pretty easy to do, too.
Childish Gambino - Honda Stage - 6:15pm
Photo credit: Jaime Monzon
For a set such as this, one would do best to walk as far as one can and stop at the weed smoke. You don't have to walk that far, though with this early evening set, that cusp moment of festivals where the crowds really start to come in and cell reception is just beginning to disappear from your life, it's not like you have much other choice.
Childish Gambino is the rap persona of Donald Glover, a man who, it should be noted, left a not so stable but immensely entertaining network television job in NBC's Community in its fifth season, in order to devote all his energy into his own artistic pursuits, of which his rapping persona Gambino is currently the most prominent. Even now, Community will show its upcoming sixth season streaming on Yahoo, and also without Yvette Nicole Brown who recently left the show to tend to her ailing father. If your day job is always on shaky ground of disappearing, and you can't get your own schedule straight to work on your own stuff, if you had the ability to do your own thing, it wouldn't seem like a bad move.
Taking that into consideration, watching him dance with a casual elasticity to him shows he really is enjoying what he does. Performing these songs, putting on this show, may be the best part of his job. With his latest album, Because the Internet, Gambino has managed to make an album with actual bangers on it to sustain the bulk of this set, while sprinkling in a few songs from Camp and other past work that had been most memorable. His hour-long set proves that he indeed has built a body of work that has earned such placement on this stage where OutKast would play later, where he performed at their festival in Atlanta just a few days earlier. He's paid his dues, his bars are tight enough, and gosh darn it, people like him. However, it's also apparent that he's niche.
The massiveness of the festival grows clear at these moments. When there are more people, more gathered perspectives and backgrounds and consciousnesses, the act of coordinating them becomes more of an art as well as a craft. Holding the crowd's attention is certainly part of that craft. The problem here with a Childish Gambino show at ACL is two-fold—not everyone is here specifically for this because ACL is the most Austin-y of outsized, everyone-is-here events, and that Childish Gambino's work is still inconsistent. His albums are conceptual and bold, but they can falter at times. However, Glover has been at this for the better part of a decade now. He has built a body of work large enough to cherry pick through and craft a set that can fight through the obstacles of attention that is a major music festival of people, half of whom are asking, "So who is this?"
His staging involves a backing band who are immensely talented and should probably be playing a set at Elephant Room later, though the sound there would leave much to be desired compared to the impeccable standards that Glover is ensuring this show must have. There were pyrotechnics and fireworks. There was a moment taken for Gambino to remove and already open tropical shirt, another for the camera to focus on a microphone dropped on stage as a flourish. (This show is even well directed.) There were women on couches whose entire job was to look uninterested in the show. For a brief moment, the camera focused on them as they chatted for a moment, their authentic moment now beaming on the screens to the park. They noticed and immediately returned to their corners, realizing their mistake in breaking from the performance. They, too, are part of the stagecraft.
This is part of the problem. Childish Gambino puts on a good show, but through tailoring his catalog of music to only show the high points, editing out anything that drags (and even then, there were still some dragging moments in the set). His performance depicts a party filled with ennui that his audience may not grok because the concept is just too lofty for them. He's enjoying himself on stage, but it's as much a show as the rest of it and it's clear the seams are showing. The show is put together the way we put out our Facebook profiles, projecting only the best of our lives. That's, of course, the nature of art (of course, you present your best), but it's still very selective execution. He's working hard to put on this show; sprezzatura, it ain't.
There were a couple moments on stage where at one point fireworks, at another flames, blanket the stage. The screens display a wide shot, center. Near the front of the crowd, someone is waving a flag, one of the many that dot the park, emblazoned with a cat in front of a galaxy, essentially the most befitting thing to photobomb such a shot that would intentionally feature 'Bino front and center. Because the internet
OutKast - Honda Stage - 8:15pm
Photo credit: Jaime Monzon
This was the set that the year was leading up to. When news of the 20-year reunion tour of Andre 3000 and Big Boi spread, seeing these two back in action after Big Boi has still been killing it solo and Andre has been doing his thing as an actor, guest verse land razer, and occasional razor ad model was a must-see event, at least for most.
But the problem of ACL rears its head again. The crowds of people here are mostly to see OutKast out of obligation of implied importance, the befitting nature of them being a headlining act. They wouldn't move like Atlanta did a few nights earlier, when they were the more than welcome hometown heroes. This show was a stop on the tour, and after two or three songs, with the repeated calls out to the crowd asking "Y'all still with us?", gave every indication that this would ultimately be a Shut Up and Play the Hits kind of night. The "Sold Out" tag dangling off Andre's black jumpsuit (this evening's slogan on Andre's ever-changing touring jumpsuit: "make love like war.") seemed all too befitting.
Over the 24-song set, the show which spread over OutKast's full body of work, including solo sets from 2003's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below what were performed with pizzaz befitting of such an occasion, but also in a perfunctory sense. People only came in on the choruses of the big hits. That the biggest early response from this very Austin in demographics crowd came for the chorus of "Rosa Parks" was particularly distressing.
There's a cognitive dissonance in regard to the racial issues presented in this music definitive of Atlanta, of these men and their lives, that has a depth that this town may not be receiving. The folks of Austin are in town to get down... and they're missing Beck for this. Stopping to think about how weird it is that this rather white crowd isn't feeling what is effectively a legacy act, or not realizing that Andre 3000's "Prototype" kills it just as hard as "Hey Ya" (which did indeed stop everyone in their tracks to jam, but in the most pop music of ways) pulled the cloak from behind what this festival's pretense is. OutKast put on a great show, and undoubtedly there were people in the crowd who could appreciate Big Boi and Andre's triumphant return, but everyone was here out of obligation. Fortunately, OutKast still managed to live up to it.