Austin City Limits Music Festival kicked off the first of two weekends on Friday, with a very country-centric lineup for the first day. And it was kind of wonderful.
Of course, the first day's country leaning shouldn't be a surprise in the state of Texas, with left-of-center act The Chicks (fka Dixie Chicks) headlining Friday, following 2021's headliner by the king of country music, George Strait.
After taking 2020 off due to the pandemic, ACL returned last fall and whereas last year's event was shrouded in uncertainty as other fests canceled last-minute because of Covid, this year's ACL seemed to be bursting with excitement. Highlighting the new energy, fans were greeted by new branding and stage signage, as well as updated trademark flags surrounding Zilker Park, all courtesy of local ad agency Preacher.
First up for the day was Tamino opening the American Express main stage. The young, Belgian-Egyptian singer delivered a stunning performance to start off the day, and it was clear a good number of those in the audience knew his songs.
Over at the Honda stage, Kevin Morby gave us an incredibly electric performance, kicking off the set with his brand new song "This Is a Photograph," which had the crowd stoked. It was such a great way to start off his wonderful set.
Back at American Express later in the afternoon, Noah Cyrus was offering up a truly soaring performance. The younger Cyrus sister gave fans a show of rich, wonderful vocals as she delivered live renditions of much of the material off her newly released debut album The Hardest Part. Highlights included her song "Again," which she dedicated to her collaborator, the late XXTENTACION, as well as her song "I Got So High That I Saw Jesus," the latter of which proved to be an almost spiritual experience.
Speaking of spiritual experiences, Gabriels delivered their own over at the Barton Springs stage, as the trio led by singer Jacob Lusk absolutely captivated the audience. Donning a velvet cape, Lusk offered up a massive vocal showing, with a theatrical stage presence but most of all, an incredible vocal prowess. The crowd was totally enthralled as the group navigated an eclectic musical landscape, ranging from jazz to gospel to hip-hop.
After performing the tinier BMI stage at sister fest Lollapalooza back in July, Gayle was upgraded to the Miller Lite stage for ACL, and it proved to be a worthy choice, as the singer demonstrated she has the stage presence and lyrical chops to be a festival mainstay for years to come, covering Joan Jett and engaging with the crowd utilizing her very relatable demeanor and casualness while capping off her set with her chart-topping hit single "abcdefu," which she introduced by thanking fans and anyone who has ever listened to or supported what she called "the song that changed my life." Joined by a sea of fans singing along, it was a huge moment.
Huge moments continued with Oklahoma's Zach Bryan, delivering an almost headliner-like performance at American Express. The country crooner had the crowd in the palm of his hand as he channeled country greats like George Strait and Merle Haggard with a genuine swagger to his set. Songs like "Oklahoma City" and "Heading South" were standouts as Bryan leaned on his backing band, which included Lucas Ruge-Jones, or as Bryan referred to him: the best fiddle-player in the world. It wouldn't be a surprise at all to see the fast-rising country star headlining the fest in the future.
Between stirring performances by the likes of Jazmine Sullivan and James Blake on the Honda stage, it was Arlo Parks who had our attention on the Miller Lite stage, as the singer made the festival environment somehow seem intimate and cozy, as she shared her delicate collection of diary-like songs with fans. As she introduced her song "Hope," she told the crowd that if there was one thing she wished people would take away from her performance, that was it: "hope."
The mega performances on the Miller Lite stage were capped Friday by Omar Apollo, whose golden hour set was one of the highlights of the entire day. He was electric, totally feeling himself and easily engaging with the crowd between songs, as he flowed effortlessly between English and Spanish. And so did the crowd. After giving a shout out to all the fellow Mexicans in attendance, Apollo then expressed surprise at the non-Hispanics singing along with him in Spanish. "It's the Bad Bunny effect," he joked enthusiastically as he applauded the fans. As he danced and cheered the sun going down during his performance, he noted it was his first festival performance at night, suggesting the one-time lesser known artist's days as an early afternoon performer were likely fading and more nighttime performances and headlining slots are in his future. Omar Apollo is already a star, and his performacce at ACL made that crystal clear.
Meanwhile, Carly Rae Jepsen's set at the Barton Springs stage found the singer surrounded by devoted fans as she previewed her upcoming album while mixing old and new material, including her super catchy new single "Beach House," which is such a highlight of Jepsen's catalog. When she reminded fans her new album comes out on Oct. 21, she joked that it should be easy to remember because "it's the same day as Taylor Swift's album."
As dark fell on Zilker Park, SZA closed out the Honda Stage with an alluring performance, showing herself completely deserving of a headlining spot at a mainstream festival, trekking through her already exemplary catalog while foreshadowing her new chapter, as she continues to tease a new album. The set included opening with "All the Stars," her Kendrick Lamar collaboration, as well standouts like "Drew Barrymore," "Garden" and "Hit Different."
Of course, the big one of the day was a comeback performance Texas trio The Chicks, shutting down the American Express stage. And after nearly two decades since being suddenly shunned by country music fans and so many of their fellow Texans, they were welcomed back to Austin by a raucous ovation following their opening with "Sin Wagon," which was led in by an intense video introduction. They then leaped right into new album standout "Gaslighter," which the crowd loved. And from there, it felt like a homecoming, with "Wide Open Spaces" and "Not Ready to Make Nice" as well as wonderful covers of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" and Beyoncé's "Daddy Lessons." It was such a great way to start of another year of ACL and a new chapter for The Chicks.