Depending on who you asked during the final four hours ACL Music Festival’s first Saturday (Oct. 5), you might’ve heard several different answers about the day’s definitive headliner.
The Cure and Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino persona technically topped the schedule, but legions of neon-clad, double-bun-hairdo under-18 fans (many of the youngest with parental units in tow) would’ve vehemently awarded the eminent rank to Billie Eilish — by 6 p.m., they’d congealed into what was arguably one of the largest audiences ever amassed at the Honda Stage at Zilker Park’s west end.
Earlier in the day, during an interview with NPR’s Stephen Thompson on the new Hidden Tracks stage, the 17-year-old singer-songwriter referred to rising rapper Tierra Whack — who indeed held a similarly youthful throng rapt throughout her own set earlier on the T-Mobile stage — as “like, God.” But if that’s true, then Eilish is some unknown species of super-deity.
Her faithful followers were ready to do anything she asked: they willingly made space for several circle pits and screamed to the high heavens on command as she tore through “you should see me in a crown,” and obliged when asked to jump “like a f—ing kangaroo” over the pseudo-industrial beat of “COPYCAT.” Heck, if she’d asked them defy the laws of physics and levitate, they would’ve spent the rest of the show trying their damndest. And many who’d toughed it out all day to hold front ranks were duly rewarded during “Ocean Eyes” when Eilish made rounds through the pit, slapping every hand she could reach as excited cries comparable to Beatlemania decibels nearly drowned out her singing.
“Could we all try to live in the moment and celebrate … that we’re alive, I guess?” she implored before the 14-song set closer “Bury a Friend.”
During the preceding hours, it was likewise the fest’s female artists who largely took up the task of preaching positivity. On the American Express stage, Norwegian artist Sigrid used the ultra-uplifting pop of debut album, Sucker Punch, to help people rally through the heat (expect her to land a headlining slot in the near future).
Later on the Honda stage, working off the strength of new solo album, Jaime, Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard evolved into a veritable priestess-in-chief: she tapped the gospel-toned gusto of her superb backing band as she crooned through single “Stay High,” served up swagger during an epically anthemic cover of Prince’s “The Breakdown” and released even more of her Purple-One’s-spirit-within as she belted out Jackie Wilson’s classic “Higher and Higher” and bits of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” hammering home the overarching message that — despite any adversity — “it’s gonna be alright.”
Using equal parts spectacle and undeniable talent as singer, possibly-possessed dancer and uncommonly clever rapper, Gambino offered a similar idea from the get-go of his 90-minute nightcap. After emerging mid-crowd atop a platform seemingly propped up by white beams of light to deliver “Atavista,” he quickly established the show’s tone.
“I broke my foot last year, I will not fail you this year,” he started, addressing 2018’s abrupt cancellation. “I’ve got two rules for my show … one, if you came just to hear your favorite song and record it, go home now — I came here for church. Two, keep your phones down … this is an experience. This is for us.”
Glover made good on that as he — backed by full band, dancers and a (mostly invisible) choir — emulated legends ranging from Prince to James Brown during highlights “Summertime Magic,” “Have Some Love,” newly revealed, heavily ’80s-influenced “Human Sacrifice” (presumably the first of whatever post-Gambino person he’ll transform into next) and rap-fusion opus “This is America.”
In the midst of it, he reiterated his thanks for fans’ endless patience, and likewise echoed the entire day’s overarching air of unity in the face of adversity: “Y’all waited a year for me … I really f–k with that — that’s crazy,” he said. “At that time in my life I felt really overwhelmed … there was a lot going. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed right now. There’s a lot of shit happening in the world … your city … your family … your life. But we have each other. We are all one. I know that sounds hippy dippy, but Austin’s kind of a hippy dippy place.”
Essentially, Glover’s central dispatch boiled down to the powerfully sung refrain on the night’s final song “Redbone,” pointedly dedicated to the audience: Stay woke.