“Oh. I knew this was going to be weird,” said an ACL festival goer who soon shifted into the blur of people.
David Bryne held up an anatomically correct brain and stepped into the role of mad scientist with the opening song, “Here.” Soon, a cult of artists joined him on the stage, barefoot and giddy. The rhythmic drumline seemed to make your heart pound faster, but the backup dancers moved as fluid as water. Even from the back of Zilker Park’s muddy, tennis-shoe-stomped grass, you felt like you were part of the tribe.
The set seamlessly blended songs both old and new, and it rang with a perfection that could only be described as mechanical. The stage sat relatively bare. There was no obstacle course of cables to weave through. To me, the explanation was simple. They used a backing track.
In true circus master style, Byrne read my mind. From the snare drum to the bass, he layered the sound one by one. Proving, without a doubt, that the magnificent wall of sound pounding in our eardrums was anything but smoke and mirrors. This revelation lead into “Once In A Lifetime,” and “Born Under Punches.” The musicians on stage danced in a frenzied parade across the stage and inspired a sort of half-assed drunken conga line on the lawn. The whirling dervish of energy reached a roaring climax during “Burning Down The House.”
On the final chord, the audience began to awaken from their trance. Phones came out of pockets and feet drifted away from the stage. Like any major music outing, Austin City Limits is a game. In order to win, you have to strategize. As the stampede rumbled by, Byrne made an announcement.
“Say. His. Name.”
Sticks popped against the rim of the snare. The choir’s intensity accelerated. Soon, the mini-orchestra launched into Janelle Monae’s caustic and poignant “Hell You Talmbout.” Shoes skidded to a halt on the weathered grass and people glued their eyes back to the stage. The final song was a brutal interruption to the frivolous ACL Instagram competitions.
The singers in gray suits were no longer polite. They urged you, with every cell in their body, to remember. The roars of “Trayvon Martin,” “Sandra Bland,” and “Walter Scott,” grew with each passing phrase and erupted into hot magma all over the field. The scalding anger eventually quelled into an exhilarating catharsis, ready for action.
The polls open November 6th, Byrne reminded. And then the stage went dark.
Photos by Jason Gonulsen