Paul McCartney, Parquet Courts, Blood Orange and Janelle Monae had the best sets of a strong first weekend.
My carpool crew got a later start Friday morning than we’d hoped, so we missed some must-see acts. We got to Zilker Park around 6 p.m., meaning we lost out on David Byrne, who put on an awe-inspiring set at Jazz Fest this year, and Noname, who just released one of the best albums of 2018. We also missed some key undercard sleepers, including Natalie Prass, who plays Gasa Gasa Sunday, 10/14, and Big Thief, who plays Voodoo’s South Course Stage at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 27.
We got inside in time to catch the second half of The National, a band whose live set is universally acclaimed but has failed to impress me either time I’ve seen it. Granted: I was never a huge fan to begin with. During middle school in the late aughts, when The National, Arcade Fire and Radiohead were the go-to gateway indie groups, I found my way in through the latter two. Also granted: I’ve only seen The National play during the day in large festival settings--not the ideal backdrop for a band whose bread and butter are thoughtful lyrics and minimalist, progressive song structures. Still, I was struck again by how boring their set was. Lead singer Matt Berninger looked and sounded drunk, sunburnt and tired, and the rest of the band wasn’t doing much better. Tracks whose studio versions already teeter on the verge of excess dragged extra-long, and most of the lyrical insight and harmonic subtlety that makes them work was lost in the outsized crowd.
I opted out of catching preeminent aging hipster Father John Misty and preeminent underage hipster supergroup Brockhampton to get a good spot for preeminent ancient anti-hipster Paul McCartney. McCartney is 76 but, in the past decade he’s released four full-length projects and toured aggressively to promote them. On a day when the second longest set (Odesza) ran 75 minutes, he played for well over two hours. During that time, McCartney picked up a bass, an acoustic guitar, a piano and, unfortunately, a ukulele. (More on that later.) His band of super-competent session musicians included keys, two guitars, an occasional horn section and an oversized but energetic drummer who, both literally and musically, carried the weight of three Ringos, ripping through virtuosic fills and even singing the lion’s share of Lennon harmonies, all while keeping perfect time.
Paul’s 31-song setlist included 19 Beatles tracks, six Wings tunes, five solo McCartney jams and one super deep cut: “In Spite of All the Danger,” recorded in 1958 by proto-Beatles act The Quarrymen. It’s the only song ever jointly credited to McCartney-Harrison, though Paul claims he wrote everything but the guitar solo. Back then, he explained, the future Beatles were naïve to the ways of music publishing and assumed everyone owned all the songs. “When we got the record, the agreement was we would each have it for a week,” he remembered. “John had it for a week and passed it on to me. I had it for a week and passed it on to George, who had it for a week and passed it on to [drummer] Colin [Hanton], who had it for a week. Then Colin passed it onto [keyboardist John] ‘Duff’ [Lowe], who kept it for 23 years!” The song remained unreleased until 1995, when it was included in the first installment of the comprehensive Beatles compilation, Anthology.
The show was as masterfully crafted as any I’ve seen, threading timeless classics (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Lady Madonna” et al.) with newer, solo Paul tracks, which served as pleasant lulls in the nostalgia tempest. The only actual low point came when Paul picked up his uke for a frankly nauseating rendition of “Something.” Paul claimed George had approved of his version when he played it for him years back, but it was hard not to imagine Harrison turning over in his grave as the island remix blared from the American Express Stage’s speaker system. On the flipside, there were too many high points to mention. Paul stood on a raised platform for a haunting solo performance of “Blackbird,” his stately voice barely cracking as it hit the highest note. When the main chorus to “Live and Let Die” dropped, massive flames burst from the stage and fireworks filled the sky. It was followed by “Hey Jude,” which finished out the regular set with a full five minutes of “Na-Na-Na-Na”s.
It was around 9:50 p.m. when “Hey Jude” finally wrapped up, and it seemed unlikely the world’s sexiest septuagenarian would return to the stage for an encore, but he came back mere moments after taking his bows for five bonus tracks that stretched well past the festival’s 10 p.m. cutoff. The encore began with a reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” before launching into “Helter Skelter,” played with all the punk energy of a young Charles Manson. McCartney and his band finally exited for good after a medley featuring “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End,” a fittingly amorous end to a two-hour McCartneyan love fest.
On Saturday, I missed an early set from Molly Burch, who played Gasa Gasa Monday night, but got to Zilker in time for The Breeders, who play The Civic Monday, 10/15. Led by former Pixies bassist/vocalist turned frontwoman/rhythm guitarist Kim Deal, their current lineup also includes Deal’s sister Kelley (lead guitar, vocals), Josephine Wiggs (bass, vocals) and Jim Macpherson (drums).
Since leaving her backup role with Pixies, Deal has far surpassed her former act in every category but commercial success. While Pixies rest on their laurels, The Breeders continue to create terrific new content. Their fifth full-length, All Nerve, released in March, is guitar-driven, angsty alt rock at its finest.
The Breeders delivered a characteristically deadpan yet satisfying set. Deal introduced a little levity when she told a story about Kurt Cobain stealing her guitar but, for the most part, it was pretty straightforward post-grunge with little chatter.
Next up was Blood Orange, who put out his most recent album, Negro Swan in August. It’s a Top five album of the year contender, a gorgeous snapshot of Black experience entirely at odds with the one generally painted by the media and the Conservative state.
Frontman and bandleader Dev Hynes charmed the crowd the moment he took the stage, his goofy yet impressive dance moves and mischievous smile imbuing his often heavy lyrics with a lighthearted aura. Hynes’ soulful ethereality is inspiring, especially when witnessed live. Simply put: he’s the best at what he does since his direct musical ancestor, Prince. Standouts from his ACL performance included neo-bluesy, guitar-driven “Charcoal Baby,” slow-burning, future gospel cut “Holy Will” (feat. Ian Isiah) and set closer “EVP,” a soaring, post-funk power ballad from the third Blood Orange album, Freetown Sound.
After Blood Orange wrapped, I walked over to the HomeAway Stage to check out Nelly, who delivered the most disappointing set of the festival. If Nelly decided to rap any of his lyrics, it wasn’t apparent from where I was standing in a massive and massively bored crowd. His DJ played the hits but his sound guy must have been asleep at the boards because the levels sounded terrible. Through it all, Nelly wandered the stage like he couldn’t be bothered to care. I returned to the Miller High Life Stage to catch St. Vincent, who I last time I saw play at Houston’s Day For Night 2017, she stood alone onstage, rocking a red, patent leather miniskirt and high-heeled boots, wailing on an array of pastel colored guitars while faceless women flashed across the screen behind her. She performed that show when she last played New Orleans, but at ACL, only her outfit was the same. Her defiant image was pared down, but she had a band, more traditional graphics in the background, and a more conventional show.
My Sunday started with Parquet Courts, who released another of the year’s best albums, Wide Awake!, in May. They put on one of the festival’s best sets, managing to be political without coming off preachy, intellectual without sounding pretentious, and noisy without sacrificing tightness. They were able to achieve these tricky balances by adding the perfect amount of playfulness to the mix to cut their elite-New-York-hipster ethos.
Parquet Courts leaned heavily on Wide Awake! tracks, though they threw it back to 2016’s Human Performance for deadpan cleaning anthem “Dust” and, later, to 2014’s Sunbathing Animal for the irony-laden love song “Dear Ramona.” The set was tight and timely until the band launched into a droning jam on “One Man No City,” which lasted about nine times longer than it should have. It didn’t sound bad, but it certainly could have been cut in favor of two or three more songs. It led into the minute-long “Light Up Gold II,” from the band’s sophomore effort, Light Up Gold, a welcome throwback but abrupt ending after such a long lull in an otherwise phenomenal performance.
Finally, I checked out Janelle Monae, whose live shows never disappoint. In 30 minutes, she made four costume changes, sat on a throne, danced with impeccable form, sang beautifully and rapped better than most seasoned emcees I’ve seen. Her new album, Dirty Computer, was released in April and it too is one of the best of the year. Unlike her previous two projects, both concept albums, the new record is gimmick-free. Untethered by the robot alter-ego that often felt like a crutch on The ArchAndroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013), Monae shines brighter than ever. Still, the best moment of the first half of her set was the soaring “PrimeTime,” The Electric Lady’s standout single. Monae plays Voodoo's Altar Stage Saturday, October 27 at 5:30 p.m.