Editor's note: the author is an Austin-based music journalist.
There are only two logical reasons for you to click on an article about Austin City Limits one week before the annual festival makes its grand return to Zilker Park: You’re either psyching yourself up for another whirlwind weekend, or you want to justify your decision for not snagging tickets.
Luckily, there’s something in this article for both parties.
This year’s ACL lineup delivers several heavy-hitting triumphs along with a few puzzling inclusions. One praiseworthy feature that immediately sticks out: There’s at least one woman occupying the top line of each day on the festival poster, and two on Friday (The Chicks, SZA) and Sunday (Kacey Musgraves and Paramore) apiece. It might not seem like much, but in an era where music festival lineups are still overwhelmingly male (and white), it’s a notable gesture that hopefully signals even greater diversity in future bookings.
Female headliners are also supplying the bulk of the star power this year. C3 Presents had their work cut out for them matching last year’s megawatt George Strait headlining performance, but they rose to the occasion with the savvy booking of the Chicks, who haven’t played a proper Austin show since 2016 at the Germania Insurance Amphitheater (they also dropped by the Moody Theater in 2018 to perform at Mack, Jack & McConaughey’s annual gala). And with Musgraves returning just three years after her last Zilker Park romp (admittedly a strange move), ACL further shores up its identity as a top-draw festival that’s more country-friendly than many of its contemporaries — this is the Lone Star State, after all.
Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of a solid rock lineup, which feels increasingly like an afterthought at ACL. Don’t get it twisted: Paramore are poised to make a triumphant ACL debut, and with a new song, “This Is Why,” out this week and an album of the same name coming in February (their first since 2017’s After Laughter), they’re a no-brainer booking. But it’s harder to get excited about their Sunday night counterparts, Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Sure, the veteran funk-punks recently reunited with classic-era guitarist John Frusciante and will be promoting two new albums, April’s Unlimited Love and the brand-new Return of the Dream Canteen, out Oct. 14. But the band headlined ACL just five years ago, and in a year featuring mammoth tours and residencies from Rage Against the Machine, My Chemical Romance, Elton John and Aerosmith (not to mention the Strokes, who just finished supporting RHCP on their U.S. stadium tour), the booking feels particularly uninspired.
You’ve got to squint awfully hard to find other bonafide rock bands on the undercard too. Stalwart emo and indie-rockers like Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, the War on Drugs and Manchester Orchestra might scratch the itch for some, but they’re a far cry from Metallica’s thundering 2018 set or the back-to-back wallops of the Raconteurs and Guns N’ Roses in 2019. And if you’re thinking about stopping by Yungblud’s set to get your fix of snot-nosed, adolescent pop-punk — spare yourself the agony and head to the Torchy’s Tacos stand instead.
Enough bellyaching, though. ACL would be nothing without its pop and hip-hop bookings, and this year delivers in spades. SZA will make her ACL debut more than four years after her last Austin visit, when she co-headlined the Top Dawg Entertainment Championship Tour alongside Kendrick Lamar. The R&B star has come a long way since the release of her triple-platinum debut album CTRL in 2017, the same year she played her last proper Austin headlining gig at the comparatively puny Emo’s, which holds less than 2,000 people.
Yet even SZA’s star is dwarfed by Lil Nas X, the flamboyant pop-rap cowboy who parlayed his stratospheric “Old Town Road” success into a flourishing career. The 23-year-old TikTok savant has since scored two more No. 1 hits — the Jack Harlow-assisted “Industry Baby” and the sultry “Montero,” the title track off his 2021 debut album of the same name — and his ACL set is guaranteed to be both extravagant and hilarious. And festival-goers who want a bombastic, hit-filled throwback set need look no further than Pink, who’s racked up an astounding 14 Top 10 hits and dazzles in concert with her aerial acrobatics.
The rest of this year’s undercard offers plenty of highlights for fans of lighter, poppier and occasionally more reflective fare. Led by Michelle Zauner, Japanese Breakfast will captivate with their vivid storytelling and jubilant alt-pop. Culture Club, fronted by the legendary Boy George, will bring an arsenal of euphoric new wave hits in weekend 2, filling a similar role as Duran Duran last year. And pop-R&B singers Arlo Parks and Omar Apollo promise plenty of sultry hooks and good vibes.
As always, ACL attendees should make an effort to brave the early-afternoon sun and check out the treasure trove of local artists playing this year. Eric Tessmer blends incendiary blues-rock guitar playing with smart, anthemic hooks, while Pleasure Venom (who opened Bikini Kill’s sold-out Austin show in May) packs a furious, garage-punk punch. And on weekend 2, Flora & Fawna will hit the Miller Lite Stage with their explosive electro-pop confections, powered by Lili Hickman’s powerhouse vocals and tireless stage presence and anchored by Mason Ables’ deft guitar work and infectious production.
What are you waiting for, Austin? Festival season is upon us. Go bask in the glory of your favorite artists and find a few new ones in the process — just don’t expect to do much head-banging.
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🗓 All weekend
Check out this highly anticipated art exhibition with illuminated art along Waller Creek. Tickets are free and the event includes food vendors, dazzling lights, live music, and hands-on activities
All weekend 6 p.m - 10 p.m | 📍Waterloo Park
This iconic holiday tradition lights up for the first time this holiday season starting this weekend! Reserve your spot for an enchanting light and sound performance, delicious hot cocoa, sweet treats, and some overall fun with your friends or family. The show runs till January 6th.
6 p.m and 9 p.m | 📍Mozart's Coffee Roasters - 3825 Lake Austin Blvd, Austin, TX 78703
This fitness event is free and open to the public. Get your morning started right with a "Fitness in the park" class for kickboxing! The class will be led by certified instructors and is a great way to get a cardio workout in while also honing your self-defense skills.
10 a.m - 11 a.m | 📍 Metz Park
Support local LBGTQ+ and female artists at this outdoor market with over 150 vendors. Get your holiday shopping out of the way at this event, with vendors for food trucks, handmade goods, raffles, hands on workshops and activities, and more.
Did someone say cheese?! If you're like me and always willing to get your hands on a bowl of mac and cheese, then this event is for you. Check out the Mac and Cheese festival happening this weekend to decide which vendor has. the best mac and cheese for yourself, and enjoy the bar with creative cocktails while you're at it. Tickets start at $45.
11 a.m - 3 p.m | 📍Lantana Place - 7415 Southwest Parkway