Billie Eilish, Tyler The Creator & More

Some foreboding news arrived Friday morning (October 1st) of Austin City Limits‘ first weekend after two years away: heavy overnight rains in Austin forced organizers to cancel the first two hours of the fest, effectively eliminating most local talent, and push door time back to 3:00 p.m.

With the memory of Bonnaroo’s recent cancellation due to flooding from Hurricane Ida still lingering and predictions that more storms were coming, there was a veritable moment of fear that we were witnessing the doom of another fest. And to make matters worse, it would have nothing to do COVID-19 safety, which was handled masterfully (though vaccination and test results checks did cause annoying waits on Day 1) — why the cruel irony, Mother Nature? Why?!

Then, in twist of good luck, the torrential downpours never returned, and feelings of anxiety quickly gave way to an overarching sense of gratitude. Everybody from attendees to artists to workers just seemed extremely happy to be there, so much so that had it still stormed, it’s doubtful that would’ve dampened the mood at all. That feeling generally doesn’t happen until Weekend 2, which draws more of the dedicated music fans to Austin’s sprawling Zilker Park than the celebrity, looky-loo types who want to say “I saw it first” at Weekend 1.

Atmosphere at ACL 2021, photo by Amy Price

So maybe that’s how it will go down both weekends, and the majority of those soaking up stellar sets from the diverse ranks of Billie Eilish, Tyler the Creator, Miley Cyrus, George Strait and Duran Duran will be able to hold space for gratitude no matter what the elements throw at them. Whatever might happen moving forward doesn’t change the facts of Weekend 1: witnessing a fully functioning music festival again felt like a reaffirmation of humanity’s resilience, and nothing could get in the way of it.

Isn’t it amazing how live music en masse has that innate power power to proliferate gratitude and empathy? Thank you, ACL Fest, for bringing that back to us.

Here’s our recap of how it all played out. Plus, see our full visual recaps with photo galleries from Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.

Machine Gun Kelly and Black Pumas reached new heights … in their own ways

After Friday’s buzzkill rain delays, Machine Gun Kelly’s set on the Honda stage was a much-needed shot of adrenaline. From the kickstart of “title track” through the finale of “bloody valentine,” the 31-year-old rapper/singer-songerwriter never stopped moving. During “nothing inside,” he jumped into the pit and — without throwing any punches — made his way to the sound booth and made a daring climb to the top of the spotlight tower to finish the song.

“It’s a dream to be here,” he said. “But next year I want it to be when the sun’s going down …”

Machine Gun Kelly at ACL 2021 day 1

Machine Gun Kelly, photo by Amy Price

A couple of hours later, Austin breakouts Black Pumas lived that precise experience, delivering their ACL Fest debut to a massive audience across the field on the Lady Bird stage as golden hour graced the grounds.

Stalking the stage with boundless energy, frontman Eric Burton led the band through most of the group’s superb 2019 self-titled album, which garnered three Grammy nods over the past two years and elevated them to a level of popularity rivaling ATX mainstays Spoon and Gary Clark Jr.

Black Pumas at ACL 2021 day 1

Black Pumas, photo by Amy Price

This show marked their return from the road, but the level of celebration shared among tens of thousands of fans made it much more than a homecoming. When Burton took the stage solo for his cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” (a song he often busked on in Santa Monica before guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada plucked him for this project) and belted out the lyrics “I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone,” the full-circle sentiment peaked, imbuing closing hit “Colors” with an overwhelming sense of timelessness — it was a career-defining performance.

Megan thee Stallion landed the best cameo

It’s hard to believe there were enough people at the fest to make Megan Thee Stallion’s set on the Honda stage feel just as packed as the Pumas opposite her. But if peer adoration is any measure of impact, Meg was maxed out — both Billie Eilish and Miley Cyrus were watching from the wings as the Houston-raised rapper blazed through hits “Hot Girl Summer” and Cardi B’s “WAP.”

After a few lucky audience members got pulled up to dance during “Do It on the Tip” and “Big Booty,” Miley couldn’t contain her own fandom and ran out for a quick twerk sesh, then dashed away just as quickly. But Megan handily reclaimed the moment as her own, taking aim at Texas lawmakers by asking everyone to raise their middle fingers and declaring, “It’s a big fuck you … to all these hoe-ass men trying to tell us what the fuck to do with our bodies.”

Miley Cyrus won over Austinites with rock and roll

Hannah Montana who?

During Friday night’s finale on the Honda stage, Miley Cyrus fully asserted her independent adult identity: a rock and roll queen no longer dependent on the success of her past as a pop princess or heir to a world-famous country star.

Bursting onto the stage in a diamond-studded red romper and matching knee-high boots, she exuded classiness over outrageousness and wasted no time paying tribute to her varied rock influences. Explosive opener “We Can’t Stop” was cut with elements of Pixies’ “Where is my Mind?” And “Plastic Hearts” transitioned into a true-to-form cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”

“We are here to celebrate every artist and every genre for who they are what they do for us … fucking bringing the people together,” she said, then offered candid vulnerability before launching into “Malibu”: “I got a lot of fear and anxiety from the last year … and there are certain scenarios and situations in our life that make you feel a lot of pain. But that’s what brings us together.”

She then drove home the idea of music’s time-and-space-transcending, universally healing power with back-to-back renditions of Mark Ronson’s “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” and Janis Joplin’s “Maybe,” where her robust tenor rang out like Dolly Parton in her prime. For locals in the know, the latter cover likely hit harder than all-out-banger of a closer “Party in the U.S.A.” — Joplin began her career in Austin, and was instrumental in bridging racial gaps in the local music scene in the 1960s. Whether Miley realized that specific significance is unknown (the song is solidified in her tour set list), but it nevertheless made her performance and message of unity in the face of fear and pain that much more meaningful.

Billie Eilish returned to ACL as a headliner on Saturday

Austin-bred singer-songwriter Sir Woman got Saturday off to a soulful start. While front-person Kelsey Wilson got her start with the indie-folk of her longtime band Wild Child, this project fully embraces ’90s-inspired R&B, and silky-smooth bangers like “Bitch” and “High Road” easily won over droves of passersby. Wilson was also the first of many this day to harp on the them of shitty, oppressive men by weaving a snippet of TLC’s “No Scrubs” into crooner crème de la crème “Thinkin’ Bout Tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, girl in red tackled queer positivity and mental health awareness. The former professed her love for her partner with a dedication on the timely “we fell in love in october” and, between quick-hits of more boisterous and bouncy pop-rock, expressed the importance of making “more room to recognize being fucked up, because that’s how we grow and shit.”

Though she had the unforgiving sun to contend with, Phoebe Bridgers persevered powerfully on the massive Lady Bird stage and eventually lived up to the moniker of 2020 album Punisher when she addressed the Texas abortion ban led by governor Abbott: “Suck my dick, Greg,” she said, punctuating the protest with her cover of Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling,” which was released this week to raise funds for Texas abortion rights.

Phoebe Bridgers at ACL 2021 Day 1

Phoebe Bridgers, photo by Amy Price

As the sun dipped, Doja Cat took the Lady Bird stage and asserted her status as an undeniable diva. The production itself — a landscape of colorful jungle flora straight out of Jumanji or some alien landscape — was dazzling, but the real thrill was watching Doja keep pace with her four, incredibly agile backup dancers, all the while rapping with unfettered ferocity through cuts like “Get Into It (Yuh)” and guitar-blaze-of-glory closer “Say So.”

Like she did two years ago on this field, Billie Eilish drew the largest crowd of the weekend and — within the span of 90 minutes and 22 songs — proved that she’s every bit deserving of the astounding level of superfandom.

“That was one of my favorite shows I’ve ever done,” she said, reminiscing about her 2019 ACL appearance, which was centered around her debut album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Billie Eilish ACL Music Festival 2021

Billie Eilish, photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images

Here, she balanced the kinetic house undertones of those earlier tracks with the crooner, sometimes lullaby-esque vibes off sophomore release Happier Than Ever. In particular, “Your Power,” performed sitting next to brother Finneas on acoustic guitar, put the audience into a reverent trance, and — like the incredible role model she is — Billie connected the song’s themes to a broader purpose.

“I am so sick of tired of old men … men in general, but old ones especially,” she mused. “Shut the fuck up about our bodies!” Surrounded by screen graphics displaying, “Bans off our bodies,” she continued: “When they made that shit law, I almost didn’t do this show because I was wanted to punish this place for letting that happen here. Then I realized it’s you guys who are the victims here, and you deserve everything in the world.” And with her middle finger raised high, she screamed, “My body, my fucking choice!”

A fair amount of fans probably forgot all about that for a few moments as they screamed their heads off while Billie floated above them on a crane platform for “Overheated,” but there’s no diminishing the power of a youth icon using her platform to spread something we could all use more of: empathy.

Sunday brought hip-hop highlights aplenty … and some badass rock in between

Early in the afternoon, Israeli artist Noga Erez earned scores of new fans with an absolutely magnetic performance on the VRBO stage. Her latest album Kids is masterclass in hooks, and the massive response she received as she rapped, sang and threw herself across the stage during key tracks like “Fire Kites” and “Views” veritably guaranteed a near-future spot on festival main stages.

Speaking of, it was heartening to see White Reaper graduate from the tiny BMI stage (their platform the last time they played ACL) to the enormous Honda stage. And how cool is it that they seized that spotlight moment to pay tribute to 30 years of Nirvana’s Nevermind with a cover of earsplitting b-side “Aneurysm”?

White Reaper at ACL 2021 Day 3

White Reaper, photo by Amy Price

Just after on the same stage, Chicago rapper Polo G did the opposite, squandering his primetime early evening spot by performing for a mere 25 minutes before seemingly running out of breath (after barely nailing the bulk of his lyrics on the songs he did play) and leaving his DJ to pick up the slack.

Shortly after, however, an antidote arrived via Compton, Calif.’s Channel Tres, whose mix of deep techno, smooth R&B, intelligent hip-hop and insanely cool choreography made the VRBO stage, once again, the place to be. He mentioned this was his first show back since the pandemic hit, and if he continues on tour with this level of genuine hunger and energy, you won’t want to miss him when he lands in your town.

Then it was time for the big rock show from Greta Van Fleet on the Lady Bird stage, which, despite including some fresh cuts off recent album The Battle at Garden’s Gate, felt fairly similar to the band’s first live run, but with new outfits that looked a bit like sparkly pajamas. But at the end of the day, even if their songs feel cut from the same classic rock cloth across the board, Greta Van Fleet is still important in this moment in music history. Need proof? All you had to do was look out at the sea of teenagers losing their minds — in a musical landscape where pop reigns supreme, it’s amazing to witness a band that can reignite young ones’ love for generation-transcending rock and roll. Greta Van Fleet is are gatekeepers to the genre’s survival, whether you like them or not.

St. Vincent, who followed that set across the field on the T-Mobile stage, likewise demonstrated how she’s a gift to the survival of guitar music. Material from new album Daddy’s Home relied heavily on funk licks, but — largely with the help of all-star players Jason Faulker and Justin Meldal-Johnson — songs often exploded into shred-offs reminiscent of power ballads and balls-to-the-wall grunge. Even older tunes (“Cheerleader” in particular) received treatments that split the difference between backup-singer-enhanced soul and headbang-worthy cacophonies.

St Vincent at ACL 2021 Day 3

St. Vincent, photo by David Brendan Hall

And then it was back to hip-hop to close it all out, a tradition at ACL Fest for a few years running. Where past headliners (Drake, Travis Scott) wasted their headline sets by coming on late, ending early and playing only snippets of each song, Tyler the Creator — the replacement for the disgraced DaBaby — hit a home run with a visionary production and career spanning setlist that rocked the boat without capsizing.

Actually, there was literally a speedboat on stage among his nautical vacation-themed stage setup that he often mounted and commanded from, wrangling it like a mechanical bull while spitting bar after fierce bar. And though a one-man show on such a huge stage doesn’t often pack as much punch, Tyler showed gratitude to his loyal fans by busting out plenty of top-tier tracks (21 in all, ending with a shower of sparks on “Runitup”) and made sure to show love for Austin peeps in particular by mentioning that he first played “Yonkers” at SXSW 2011. Like the overarching feeling of the festival, it was a full-circle moment.

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