Like everything else, the Austin City Limits music festival was canceled last year, so even though serious rain had turned Zilker Park into a humid, puddled swamp, I went last weekend, just like I have every year since 2005.
I was there for the “Dust Bowl” year when all the grass in the park died, and everyone who went coughed up black dust for months afterward. I was there for the mud year when it rained buckets and the park turned into a pit of stinky “Dillo Dirt” that required millions of dollars and acres and acres of new grass to fix.
I was there for my bachelor party, since it’s my favorite weekend of the entire year. Well, based on this year’s visit I think this festival is dying, and it’s a problem of their own making.
From Outlaw Country to … Miley Cyrus
The festival was founded to celebrate the sounds of Austin: folk, rock ‘n roll, and outlaw country. So much for that. Outside of the legendary George Strait, who headlined Friday’s lineup, I knew almost none of the major acts performing this year. Meghan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, Tyler the Creator? I have no idea who these people are.
The headlining acts that I do know, I am not very fond of: Billie Eilish and Miley Cyrus. Really? This is the same festival where Willie Nelson has played (multiple times). So have Bob Dylan, My Morning Jacket, Arcade Fire, Sir Paul McCartney, Jack White, The Killers, The Eagles, Robert Plant with Alison Krauss, Gary Clark Jr., David Byrne, Buddy Guy, John Prine, Jon Batiste, Van Morrison—I could go on and on. You know, real musicians.
One local DJ who has been in Austin forever noted that it is playing to not just a younger audience, but also the large amount of California transplants who have moved to Austin in the last few years. These are the same California transplants who are driving up housing costs, driving up crime rates, and ruining the “Keep Austin Weird” culture that has made this city unique for generations.
From Music Fun to Political Distaste
This is also the year the festival became openly political. Sure, it’s live music, so it’s not unheard of for an act to say something or sing something from the stage with a political undertone. I’m not saying that hasn’t happened before.
This year, though, politics seemed baked into the festival from the start, and that’s disappointing. We already get bombarded by politics at every turn in our daily lives. The ACL festival is the place I go to escape the outside world every year, to reset and recharge my batteries. That was almost impossible this year.
Festival organizers brought in former state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat known for her strident pro-abortion stance, and gave her a speaking slot on a small stage at the festival to rail against the new Texas pro-life law. This side stage is a relatively newer addition to ACL, but in the past it tended to have interviews with musicians or local food legends. Now it’s being used to unnecessarily stir the political pot. Why do we need to inject a debate about a hotly contested political issue into a perfectly good music festival?
The acts on the stage also took plenty of opportunities to rail against anyone who didn’t tow the most liberal of political lines, most notably Eilish, who constantly harped upon Texas pro-life protections during her set, saying, “When they made that sh-t a law, I almost didn’t want to do the show. Because I wanted to punish this fucking place for allowing that to happen here.”
She went on to say, “You deserve everything in the world. And we need to tell them to shut the f-ck up! My body, my f-cking choice!”
Again, is there really a need to divide fans by bringing up controversial political issues in such a vitriolic manner during your set? Can’t we just all enjoy some music, or does everything have to be politically charged these days? What used to be a festival about people enjoying great music while munching on great food has become a political rally for the TikTok crowd and San Francisco transplants.
Festival to Attendees: Your Body, No Choice
That doesn’t even count the COVID theater you had to participate in just to get in the door of the park. The city of Austin has already canceled many other festivals and outdoor happenings in the name of COVID. For ACL to get a permit to use a city park for the festival this year, they had to promise to check people’s COVID status at the gate and enforce masking in tight areas.
To get past the security guards at the front, you had to either show a copy of your vaccine record or a negative COVID test within the last 72 hours. However, the guy who checked my card upon entry barely looked at it. I could have shown him a library card or someone else’s record, and I’m not sure he would have noticed.
The masking was even more of a joke. Almost none of the security guards, particularly on Friday, were wearing masks. I didn’t see many of the festival staff wearing masks either, and if you were a VIP or Platinum Pass holder, forget about it.
Even many of the regular Joes who just had general admission passes ditched their masks as soon as they got past the front gate. I took two, just in case, but despite the theatrical event at the front gate, and the “you must wear a mask” drumbeat in the press ahead of time, masking by the nearly half a million people who attend ACL is minimal at best.
Again, this begs the question, if we can attend football games crammed shoulder to shoulder with strangers and festivals with tens of thousands of music fans, why is our ability to celebrate Christmas in doubt, Dr. Fauci?
Let’s Wash This Away with Beer
Now, this is supposed to be a column about beer, so let me say a few things about what I drank at the festival this year.
At ACL, you have two options for beer. There are the bars sprinkled throughout the park that serve mostly tallboy cans of Coors, Miller Lite, and the occasional Sol. Then, there is the “Craft Beer Hall,” a large tent that serves drafts of a more diverse set of beers.
In years past, this has been mostly craft beers from local breweries and more well-known but still small brewers from places like Colorado, Michigan, and California. This year, they pared back the number of actual craft options quite significantly.
There was the award-winning Electric Jellyfish IPA from Austin pizza and beer chain Pinthouse Pizza, McConauhaze IPA (named after a true Austinite, the Oscar-winning actor, and potential gubernatorial candidate Matthew McConaughey) from Twisted X Brewery, Long Gone Blonde, a tasty, easy-drinking blonde ale from Whitestone Brewery in Cedar Park, then a host of beers from Karbach, the formerly independent Houston brewery that is now owned by Anheuser-Busch.
Since it was incredibly hot and muggy this year, I mostly drank water. When I did have a beer, I went for the easier drinking options both of the blondes offered in the beer tent.
Love Street is a Kolsch-style blonde from Karbach. Appropriately enough, it is named after a music venue. This is a golden-colored beer that is effervescent, light on the hops, and not very malty. It’s not a beer you’re going to sit down, drink, and analyze to death, but on a hot day, when you want to cool down with a decent beer, Love Street will do the trick.
Long Gone Blonde from the fine folks at Whitestone Brewing has more flavor than Love Street does, with interesting hints of vanilla and orange. This beer is refreshing, easy drinking, and enjoyable, even while being baked under a blazing hot, unforgiving sun.
A good local beer like the Long Gone Blonde makes it easier to forget all the noise around you and just enjoy the music. That’s getting harder and harder to do at ACL, though, with its shifting demographic focus and increased politicization.
However, if the folks at C3 can see past the mounds of money they make from the tech bros and TikTok trollers and remember that music is something that is meant to be enjoyed by everyone no matter his class, creed, or political tribe, then maybe, just maybe, they can save America’s best music festival.