At least two people passed out before the gates to the Austin City Limits Music Festival even opened on Friday. A torrential downpour Thursday night led organizers to delay opening the festival by three hours. The result: a massive, torpid line for security in which there were more Tupac shirts than masks, all under a baking sun that felt even hotter as it sucked up the night’s rain. Chloe Theis, a social media manager–slash-influencer, was waiting in line when, just a few feet ahead of her, a young girl’s knees buckled. Moments later, her eyes scanning the massive throng of eager, impatient attendees, Theis saw a small crowd of people furiously fanning a passed-out patron who laid still in a small sliver of shade.
“That was the only time I’ve felt truly claustrophobic so far,” said Theis, who was attending ACL with her brother. “Considering that we’re fully vaccinated, we feel perfectly fine.”
Others in line weren’t so composed. “If I don’t get in to see Backseat Lovers, I’m going to punch someone,” one growled. Then, possibly recognizing how off-putting his statement was, he backpedaled. “Myself. I’ll punch myself.” Nearby, a woman coughed. Heads turned. “It’s not COVID,” she quickly said. “Just allergies.” It was eighty degrees, but it felt like 102. “Take off your mask,” a mother told her son as she prepared to snap a picture. “But don’t breathe,” she added.
Theis and her brother alternated taking sips of water from a brown CamelBak. They were already planning on what they would do differently the next day. A fanny pack was a must. The pair, wedged in line with hundreds of others, also planned to keep their distance from large crowds—at least up to a point. “I don’t feel like I have to get close,” Theis said. But for Megan Thee Stallion and Miley Cyrus, “I’m going to try to get my butt in there as much as possible,” she said.
This was a common theme: people expressed anxiety about the pandemic but were ready to get wild. Theis was bummed yet understanding about Stevie Nicks canceling her performance because of COVID concerns, and Theis wishes the festival required negative tests for those who are vaccinated. (Either a vaccine card or proof of a negative test within 72 hours is required for all attendees.) But perhaps predictably, the prevailing narrative was one of revelry, with a dash of rebellion for some. Many people interviewed for this story shared a similar sentiment that basically amounted to: “I made it through the last eighteen months; let’s party.”
In that way, Miley Cyrus and George Strait were the perfect headliners for the festival’s first night: one implores us to “Party in the U.S.A.”; the other tells us, “I ain’t here for a long time / I’m here for a good time.” The latter was certainly the case for Rachel, a 37-year-old gay divorcée from Houston whom I met after finally entering the festival grounds. She was there with three of her friends. They couldn’t wait to see King George; Rachel was high on mushrooms.
“Can I ask you some questions?” I asked her.
“About COVID? No,” she replied. “About being gay? Yes.”
Rachel said she visits Austin at least once a month. It’s one of her favorite cities, she explained, but this visit is special. It’s her chance to enjoy all that Austin typically offers while also seeing Machine Gun Kelly. “Here you can be whoever [or] whatever and no one judges you,” Rachel said, referring to both Austin and ACL. The festival has the added benefit of giving her a long-awaited break. “I needed to get the f— out,” she said. “COVID. Three kids. I needed this.”
Rachel and her friends were taking pictures underneath the festival’s famous colorful flags when Troy, a 59-year-old engineer and father, trudged by with his daughter, Madison. Troy said he was only excited to see Austin-based Black Pumas perform and was disappointed with the rest of the lineup, singling out Miley Cyrus as the epitome of “all these millennial bands.” (Eric Burton, Black Pumas’ lead singer, is 31 years old, which makes him a millennial.)
His daughter was ready to say more. Madison is a 25-year-old freelance artist who was raised in Texas but more recently has been living in California. She had just come from a performance by singer-songwriter Finneas, who, citing Texas’s new restrictive abortion law, told the crowd he will be donating his ACL check to Planned Parenthood Texas.
“I’m actually trying to cut all ties with Texas, because I hate it that much,” Madison told me. “And I’m trying to get every single one of my family members to move out of this ridiculous state. Unfortunately, at the moment I’m staying with my parents in Austin,” she continued, her father a few feet away. “So at least I’m in the most liberal city, and I feel like at least I’m supporting musicians, and I really want to support them because I care about them. And at least I get to support day-drinking, because that’s a social cause I care a lot about.”
On the morning of day two, roughly an hour before her band Sir Woman was due to perform, Texas singer Kelsey Wilson was missing. To be fair, this wasn’t entirely surprising. Wilson, best known for her work with the bands Wild Child and Glorietta, is extremely sociable and seemed to know everyone at ACL. That’s why her manager, Rick, wasn’t worried. She was probably hanging out with some friends or catching some R&R after a fourteen-hour bus trip from St. Louis.
“I’m here!” Wilson announced when she finally surfaced, gliding through the press lounge while wearing her trademark sunglasses and a high-wattage smile. Moments later, Wilson and the other members of Sir Woman caught the last few minutes of a gospel band that was effectively their opening act. The band’s boisterous singer asked God to heal diabetes and high blood sugar, and in the middle of the small crowd, a middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt rose his hands to the Lord. His name was Steve. “I’m just here to have a good time,” Steve told me. “I don’t even know half these bands, but I’m here!”
Matty and Mo, two thirtysomething friends from Chicago, were enjoying some cigarettes and beers when a couple of teenage girls walked by. “If we Venmo you, can you buy us some drinks?” one of the girls asked.
“You’re not 21!” Mo snapped back. “We’re from Chicago, we follow the law.” The girls just stood there, momentarily stunned by this refusal.
Mo proceeded to tell me a story about meeting some women on Rainey Street, a drag in downtown Austin popular among coeds and weekenders, who were possibly prostitutes. Even if they weren’t, he and Matty hoped to see them at ACL. “Chicago likes the Texas vibes,” they both repeated often. (Prostitution is illegal in Texas.)
Neither of them seemed to mind the heat, which is more than could’ve been said for singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers. “It’s hot as f—,” she told the crowd in the middle of her Saturday set. For a moment, clouds brought some relief. “Oh, now you come out,” Bridgers said. Nearby, Texas-born musician Allison Ponthier, who would perform the next day, watched Bridgers with her manager, also named Rick. Unlike Sir Woman’s Rick, Ponthier’s Rick was a bubbly, energetic man who loved using the word “sick” and always delivered a themed pep talk before Ponthier’s shows. This weekend’s pep talk would be inspired by “The Climb,” Miley Cyrus’s inspirational anthem.
“Rick gives a pep talk, we all hug, then we go out and play,” Ponthier told me, describing perhaps the most wholesome preshow routine of all time. Ponthier’s music is a meld of country, folk, and a little bit of pop, and as she watched Bridgers perform, she appeared to be taking mental notes. “Give me ten years, and I’ll have fifteen guitars on stage,” she said after Bridgers, who was backed by a small army of musicians, finished a song.
“This song is about alcoholism, I guess,” Bridgers later told the crowd in the endearing, half-smirking way her fans love. “That’s what I’m gonna do from now on,” Ponthier said to me, half-joking. “I’ll introduce my songs by telling you what they’re about.”
On Sunday, the sun still searing, I met Kelsey, a seventeen-year-old Austin native. Last year’s ACL was supposed to be Kelsey’s first, but it was canceled. Now, after a Tierra Whack show she called “the best hour of my life,” she was on the hunt for some chicken fingers before rapper Tyler, the Creator’s set. “I’m a little sad this is my first one,” she said, “because it’s weird, with COVID. But I couldn’t wait any longer.”
Kelsey was right: the festival did feel a little weird. At times, it felt like the massive crowds should be illegal, even with the health precautions. But it also couldn’t wait. There was a distinctly Texas quality about this festival’s collective ethos. People have a right to party, and they showed up in droves to do just that. While attendees were united by a love of music and good times, many of them had their own individual reasons for showing up, be it mushrooms, Machine Gun Kelly, or a chance to escape their children for a few days. For Valerie, a 29-year-old from San Antonio, it was a chance to get inspired. “ACL inspired me out of COVID, out of this coma we’ve been living in,” she said, bouncing while she talked. She was “high on life,” and like George Strait, she was ready to bet on herself and carve out a future as a storyteller. “I believe in manifesting,” Valerie said. “I literally bought a guitar yesterday, and I’m gonna be on this stage next year. I’m manifesting it. Just wait.”