I understand, intellectually, that the Austin City Limits Music Festival is something that people enjoy. That fact is undeniable, really. Thousands of fans spend hundreds of dollars to see concerts in Zilker Park, and they often like it so much that they attend for three full days and then come back the next year. I am not one of those people. I grew up in Austin and had the distinct privilege of being sixteen years old when the festival started, but the last time I attended was September 2005. It was an especially hot and dry year, and I remember leaving Zilker partway through headliner Coldplay’s set (having been at the park that day really only to see Arcade Fire and Wilco). I was covered in a layer of dust and had not been able to quench my thirst despite drinking gallons of water. I thought to myself, “There are too many people here, everything is so expensive, and the music sounds worse in this venue than it does anywhere else in the city.” ACL was not a place for me, and I vowed never to return.
But seventeen years later, I found myself standing in that same Zilker field, surrounded by a crowd three times the size of the one that had driven me away in 2005, waiting for another headliner to take the stage: the Chicks. The air smelled familiar—weed—and there were the camping chairs, custom flags, and light-up flower crowns that have become de rigueur on the outdoor music festival circuit. Everybody (but me) looked happy to be there, and I was glad that the Chicks, who had once been ostracized for saying, in 2003, they were embarrassed that George W. Bush was from Texas (a sentiment that I can assure you was shared by plenty of Texans at the time), could once again attract such a substantial crowd. The last time the Chicks toured in Texas was in 2016, four years before the band dropped “Dixie” from its name, and this was their first time performing at ACL.
In the minutes before Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Strayer took the stage with their band of ten or so musicians, the big screens on the American Express stage were playing old music videos to set the mood, such as 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up.” Suddenly the music cut out, and the crowd screamed. The first lyric we heard was the first line of “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me” (arguably my favorite Chicks song), but that turned out to be a tease, an opening video with sound bites from the Chicks’ back catalog. Then they launched into a thrilling rendition of “Sin Wagon,” complete with banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass, drum, and pedal steel solos, one right after the other.
After that, the concert went about as one would expect. They played a lot of songs from their most recent album, the Jack Antonoff–produced Gaslighter, including the title track, “Texas Man,” “Julianna Calm Down,” and “Tights on My Boat” (a song that sounds like it was written by Jason Mraz). The visuals were the same graffiti-pink collages that accompanied that album, and this girlboss energy was only amplified by Maines’s shirt, a bedazzled graphic of the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wearing a crown.
They played old stuff like “Wide Open Spaces” and “The Long Way Around,” and their performance of “Lubbock or Leave It” was genuinely awesome. The Chicks sat in a row with the members of their band, and just as with “Sin Wagon,” basically everybody got a solo, including Maines’s father, the legendary producer Lloyd Maines, who was playing the pedal steel, which the audience could see in close-up whenever the feed cut to a special “fingerpicking cam.” They followed that with a mash-up of “Long Time Gone” and Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons” (one of the best country songs from the past decade), and then things got real sweet with “Landslide.” Before that cover, which was featured on their 2002 album Home (coproduced with Maines’s father and recorded shortly after she became a mom), Maines introduced the audience to her now 21-year-old son, Jackson Slade Pasdar, who was touring with the band on rhythm guitar. “This is only the second show ever with three generations of Maineses,” she said to the crowd. It was lovely. I don’t think I was the only person in the audience who cried.
The crowd seemed more excited by the old stuff, erupting when one of the video feeds showed the sentence “Earl Is in the Trunk” (that was also a tease, as they wouldn’t play “Goodbye Earl” until the end of the show). But fans still danced, or at least swayed, through every song. The ACL crowd seems to get younger every year, but a group of Gen Xers in front of me were still having the time of their lives, singing along and embracing one another with an adorably happy drunkenness. One of them, a man still wearing his sunglasses a half hour after the sun went down, knocked over their row of camping chairs and fell to the ground. Classic ACL.
For most people, “classic ACL” is a good thing, a reason to come back to Zilker the next day, enduring long security lines, miles of walking between parking lots and the front gate, and surge pricing from Uber and Lyft. I was happy for them, but to me, “classic ACL” still meant I was in a venue where the music was somehow both too loud and hard to actually hear. I left after “Landslide,” hoping to avoid the post-festival rush to leave. I don’t exactly trust Live Nation with crowd management these days, and even if I did, I don’t want to spend more time than I need to at an event run by a conglomerate (rest in peace Fun Fun Fun Fest, the better Austin music festival). “That wasn’t as bad as 2005,” I thought to myself. But I still vowed not to return for at least another seventeen years, if ever again.