The world demands a fast, if not instant, reaction. Since the Austin City Limits lineup isn’t the Mueller report — something that should be deliberately digested, rather than knee-jerk frothed about or summarized in four pages — I’m happy to oblige. So here’s my initial, quick, not-instant reaction to the 2019 edition of Austin’s favorite three-day music festival:
Let’s start by calling it … a bit curious. It’s a mixed bag, with some interesting choices of billing. Of course, it’s diverse. The big-font names are the usual combination of stars of yesterday and today. Guns N’ Roses take top billing to satisfy the oldest, richest ticket-buyers who think real rock ‘n’ roll is dead; the Cure hook in the rest of those middle-agers who came of age in the ’80s and early ’90s, some of whom must love the current synth-pop renaissance; Cardi B and current album-chart champion Billie Eilish represent the the new guard; and Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover is back to make up for the foot injury that forced him to pull out of headlining last year.
The best line on the poster is the first line of small names. How is Kacey Musgraves not an official headliner? Seemingly everyone loves her. She won four Grammys this winter, including Album of the Year for the outstanding Golden Hour. She’s popular country’s best hope. She’s a Texas girl. To me, it’s hard sailing explaining how, at this moment in time, you can list eight names in large type and not have Musgraves be one of them. Kacey was a rising star when she last appeared at ACL back in 2016, and now, she’s a superstar. Tame Impala is a headliner ahead of Musgraves? Robyn?
Anyway, she’s the first name on the first line that doesn’t get the big font. Then there are the Raconteurs, featuring some guy named Jack White and resurrected after more than a decade of dormancy, with encouraging comeback tracks released ahead of a new album due in February. Then, Gary Clark, Jr. And finally, Lizzo, a talented R&B singer and rapper who’s carving out a space as a symbol of body positivity. Three of those four are defensible headliners, including one who’s a curious relegation to the second tier.
Mumford & Sons? Again? They were here in 2016. They were headliners then. They’re headliners again now. Honestly, Mumford & Sons’ rise to extreme prominence with bland, warmed-over folk rock has always been a mystery to me. I don’t get it. I’ll continue to not get it as they collect a million dollars or something for headlining ACL again — ahead of Kacey Musgraves.
The local talent is musically diverse and represents a good cross-section of what Austin is churning out. For the inconsequential purposes of this blog, I’m still counting the widely acclaimed Clark as a local musician, but he’s just the most well-known of the native sons and daughters on the bill. Go deep into the poster, and you’ll find some of Austin’s up-and-coming exponents of hip-hop (Abhi the Nomad), moody hard rock (Otis the Destroyer), earthy singer-songwritery-ness (Jane Ellen Bryant), and straight pop (Kady Rain). Out-of-towners coming in for ACL should always have the option of absorbing some of the local flavor of the moment. They’ll have that opportunity.
When it comes to “the now,” hip-hop is the best-represented basic genre. Cardi and Gambino are headliners many will anticipate with excitement. Lizzo, Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Megan Thee Stallion and K. Flay are an abridged who’s-who of young stars and up-and-comers in the game.
Overall, this lineup is slightly to moderately underwhelming. There is a lot of intrigue in the headliner group, if not necessarily enough to generate overwhelming excitement. What version of GnR will we get — the partially reunited version featuring Slash and Duff McKagan, which would be roughly 6x more enticing than the Chinese Democracy version? Will teenage wonder Eilish deliver a set creepy enough to match her dark, drowsy nightmare-pop? Tame Impala has the sonic sweep in their sound to prompt hope that they can find the visuals to put together a satisfying headliner set.
And yet … Mumford’s there, again. Two ’80s nostalgia headliner acts with both GnR and the Cure? There’s a feeling that something’s a little missing in those first eight.
Beyond that first line of alleged B-teamers, many of my favorites are needles in the proverbial haystack. Indie semi-legend Jenny Lewis gets buried here a bit. Cherry Glazerr on … scanning, scanning, scanning … line 13. Promising young Brit rocker Sam Fender and indie-pop talent Caroline Rose are buried even lower.
ACL is probably incapable, at this point, of ever presenting a truly bad lineup — too big to fail, you might say. To give it a final grade, I’ll need to wait until there’s a full schedule to see where all the set conflicts are. But this is not its best-ever collection of talent.