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Guest blogger and Austin, Texas, native Danny Calise reviews his experience at this year’s Austin City Limits music festival.

For the first time, my girlfriend, Maya and I attended Austin City Limits (ACL) music festival this year. It was a two weekend event, the second of which we attended. Practically a rite of passage for any Austinite, we were initially drawn to it by the lineup, and eventually realized that it was about much more than just the music.

Buying tickets for such a popular event turned out to be an event in unto itself. The festival organizers announced a window of time weeks before the festival when discounted tickets would be on sale for students and military personnel. The “line” started at 5AM and tickets were to go on sale at 10. We arrived promptly at 5, and there was already over a hundred people in a scrum to reach the ticket window. Heck, we could barely find parking to line up to buy tickets. Most of the people in this line were UT students, willing to suffer for cheaper tickets. But what we learned after abandoning our post around 9 AM, was that when it comes to ACL, sometimes it’s worth it just to pay more for convenience. Thus, we ditched the line and bought tickets on Craigslist later that day.

Officially, the festival got underway on Friday afternoon. After I was released from work at 4:30, I rushed home, picked up Maya and proceeded to the Capital Metro Rail station near our apartment. The plan was to catch the train to downtown, walk nine blocks to the festival shuttle (which, hopefully didn’t have a massive line), and arrive at Zilker Park before Future went on at 6. Well, the train got us to downtown at about 5:45. Making a gametime decision, we noticed a bicycle cab riding by and flagged the driver down. “How much to Zilker?,” I asked, knowing it may be a lot due to festival inflation. “Normally, I charge $30 per person, but for you guys I can do $20.” Too much. We can just take an Uber, I thought. “Thanks anyway.” “Okay, how much would you like to pay?” “I was thinking more like 20.” “How ‘bout 25?” “Sold!” And off we went on the back of a bicycle taxi at sunset. We rode over the Congress St. bridge, soaked in the view and the sun, and passed by all of the cars in traffic heading towards the event thinking, “Suckers!”

The bicycle cab took us as far as he could, right up to a police stopping point for cars. We had about a 5 minute walk to get to the festival. Hungry and ready to hear music, we were delighted to see a random dude with 10 Papa John’s heat-keeping pizza bags stacked up near the gate. “Two dollars a slice?,” he offered. “Sold! We’ll have two…each.” What a world!

Entering the festival gate, we could hear Future playing. To the left we saw huge monitors and an enormous crowd. We had made it.

* * *

Future’s set delivered. Accompanied by a DJ, he energetically played all of the best tracks from his latest album, Dirty Sprite 2, as well as his mixtape with Drake, What a Time to be Alive. Following Future on Friday night, we saw Flosstradamus, presumably a rap/DJ duo whose set consisted of remixes of other artists’ well known songs. This was a common thread among DJ performances at the festival. Floss climbed up their speakers to be seen by the concert goers in the back. Towards the end of Floss’ set, we decided to patronize the food stands, labelled “ACL Eats.” The available stands included local favorites such as P. Terry’s, Stubb’s BBQ, Amy’s Ice Cream, and a lot more. Being vegetarian, Maya and I opted for Frank’s BBQ, which offered a Veggie Chili Cheese Dog for $9. This was by far the best vegetarian option, and as two people who have been burned by a lack of options in the past, we were grateful. We dined under a very large canopy at picnic tables. It felt like camp.

To close the night, Foo Fighters headlined. Their set, like their most famous songs, was epic. Old songs like “Monkey Wrench,” as well as newer, older songs like “Best of Me” were injected with an instrumental break right before the very last chorus, showing that the band could rock like no other. Dave Grohl was seated for the set, still on crutches from his injury months ago. But it didn’t stop him from being funny on the mic, and at the very end of the set, admitting “Okay okay, we’ll play the damn last song now.” Clearly, he was referring to “Everlong.” It sent us away that night with an unforgettable tune in our heads and smiles on our faces. We swam through the enormous crowd and made our way to a bus stop that would take us to the train stop that would take us to our parked car that would take us home. The next night, we decided to drive in and pay for parking.

* * *

On Saturday, which also happened to be my birthday, we skipped the morning performances and drove into downtown at 5:30 PM. We got to Barton Springs Rd., parked in a $10 lot, and, although we were disappointed that the Papa John’s guy wasn’t there, we made it into the gate in time to catch some of Modest Mouse’s set. After seeing Foo Fighters the previous night, our expectations were high for the remaining festival bands to rock, and Modest Mouse didn’t disappoint. Isaac Brock’s voice sounded just as otherworldly live as it does on record, and hearing “Float On” live was exactly what the thousands in the crowd wanted. From there, we caught R&B youngster Alessia Cara. Her soulful voice rang out as she sang her current hit, “Here,” much to the pleasure of the small but receptive audience.

After Ms. Cara, Maya and I settled down on our sheet towards the back of the audience area where Drake would be playing later on. Bassnectar, apparently a dubstep DJ, performed on the stage next to us, his silhouetted figure and extra long hair swaying and bopping to some raucous, bass-heavy electronic tunes.

Drake’s set was the highlight of the weekend for us. He played just about everything you’d want him to. From his one-off features (“Come My Way,” “Tuesday”) to his current hit, “Hotline Bling,” to his deep album cuts (“Crew Love,” “Worst Behavior”) and just about everything in between, spanning all of his three official albums and various mixtapes. He was energetic, honest, and candid, admitting that he was “about to do something very Drake-ish,” and playing yet another song just for the ladies. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of the show occurred when the lights went out and another figure appeared on stage, J. Cole. Cole played his current song with Jeremiah, “Planes,” as well as snippets from “Power Trip,” and “Work Out.” To see two huge rap superstars, neither of whom represents the “gangsta” image, touting one another and sharing an on-stage hug, was a treat. It made me wonder why these two don’t have a hit together.

Following J. Cole’s appearance, Drake closed the show with fireworks shooting out of the stage, capping off his headlining set with yet another unforgettable moment. After the last note was played, everyone in the crowd attempted to exit the park simultaneously, a process that took an hour and a half including the painstaking process of inching our way out of the parking lot. Well worth it.

* * *

We wanted to get an early start on Sunday, so we headed downtown around 2 PM, wanting to catch one of Maya’s picks, Kali Uchis at 2:45. It was a sweltering day with much of Zilker Park drenched in oppressive sunlight. However, we were pleased to discover that Kali was playing underneath a huge tent. Kali played her smooth, reggae/island infused pop jams to a loyal fanbase under a canopy. Her band consisted of young guns: teenaged musicians rocking out while she swayed front and center with long, pink hair. She posed questions to the daytime audience such as, “Who are y’all excited to see tonight?,” and she disclosed that she was pumped to watch The Weeknd later on. Her set was a personal one, clearly early on in her career, and those of us who were familiar with her music (as well as her endorsement from Tyler, the Creator), were excited to be there for that moment.

Knowing we didn’t have much we wanted to see at the festival before Chance the Rapper went on at 6, we decided to forgo the food stands and venture out into civilization to a nearby Mexican joint, Chuy’s. To sit down in a comfortable restaurant was a much needed break from the sun and from the dusty grass that was starting to fly around everywhere at the festival. And just before our waitress dropped our check, who walks into the back dining room at Chuy’s, but Kali Uchis! She didn’t stay, but we did let her know that we were fans. Truly, a classic ACL experience.

By 6, we were back at the fest and ready to watch Chance. He performed all the best songs from his very popular mixtape, Acid Rain, as well as select songs from his band project, Surf. The full band sound was something very interesting to watch and listen to for the audience, differing from other hip hop acts. Surf established Chance as not just “the Rapper,” but a veritable band leader, which translated well in a live setting. In between songs, he hyped up the crowd with a call-and-response “Woo-OOH” chant, and generally rambled about the positivity he found reflected at him by the audience. He acknowledged that he values his personal time very much and that he has mixed feelings about flying to a different location to perform. While it wasn’t exactly what we wanted to hear, this revelation was consistent with Chance’s honest persona and certainly makes for a more interesting artist than someone whose whole life consists of touring and recording. Nonetheless, hearing our favorite songs from Acid Rap in band format was very enjoyable.

To fill the two hour gap between Chance and festival closer, The Weeknd, we once again laid down our sheet and went horizontal on the grass. Nero, a DJ, played in the background, and we weakly fist-pumped each time the beat dropped.

By the time The Weeknd went on, we were both ready to wrap up the..well, weekend. However, he brought a lot of energy to the stage, as well as his numerous recognizable songs. His collaboration with Ariana Grande, “Love Me Harder,” had new life as a one man song. He played some of his salacious anthems from his early stuff, “Glass Table Girls” and “Wicked Games,” and wowed the crowd with his Michael Jackson-esque banger, “Can’t Feel My Face.” Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack hits, “Earned It,” and “Often,” reminded the crowd why this guy was headlining. We were exhausted by the end of the set, and decided to venture off to the parking lot before the whole crowd was released. On the way out, though, we heard the song I had been waiting for the whole festival, IMHO, undeniably the song of 2015, “The Hills.” Having already exited the festival gate, we sang along with Abel Tesfaye as he declared that when he’s f’ed up, it’s the real him.

* * *

All in all, the weekend was music and fun-filled. We didn’t have any complaints or regrets, and got to dance, eat, drink, and relax to our hearts’ desires. Would I recommend ACL to someone who’s never been? Heck yes. But be ready to fight crowds, inflated prices, and funked up transportation along the way.

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