Joseph isn’t a band that’s anywhere close to headlining ACL. Sure, the Portland-based trio is well-admired for their folky approach to pop—or maybe it’s a poppy approach to folk—and has earned rave reviews from NPR Music and appeared on late night talk shows, but they’re not competing with Cardi B or Guns N’ Roses. When they recently played at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, they did a Sunday set at 2 p.m., as bleary-eyed festivalgoers were still waking up and settling in before getting to Lizzo’s stage hours before her performance.
But the night before, Joseph had been headlining stars across town at the Scoot Inn, as part of ACL’s Late Night Shows series. The band performed nineteen songs at the outdoor amphitheater, playing after opener Caroline Rose (whose own ACL set started at 11:45 a.m. the next day), to an audience that was there just to see them. And it was probably the most fun I had at the entire festival. These late night shows served as a reorienting of the festival experience from the all-you-can-eat buffet at Zilker Park to a more curated menu—a radically different experience.
There’s plenty to be said for massive outdoor music festivals like ACL. When an artist like Lizzo is at her apex, part of the joy comes from experiencing her performance communally. And if that community comprises more or less the entire acreage of Zilker Park, well, that just tells you how great Lizzo is right now. The collective experience of seeing a megastar—whether it’s the teenaged mosh pits breaking out during Billie Eilish or the exhilaration that comes from Childish Gambino playing “This Is America” during one of his final performances—is part of the point of going to ACL in the first place.
But it’s not a great place to see a midsized band like Joseph. It’s not the ideal venue either for someone like Jenny Lewis, whose impossibly deep catalogue contains few radio hits for casual fans to bop along to, or for a headphone-ready artist like James Blake to perform while fans await The Cure on a nearby stage. A rising artist like Orville Peck or Pink Sweats might be able to step up and bring a little bit of what makes them great to a 1 p.m. slot on the Honda stage or a late afternoon appearance at the tiny Tito’s Handmade Vodka stage, but it’s just not ideal. A venue like Scoot Inn—where Joseph, Jenny Lewis, and Peck all headlined late night shows around the festival—is.
The ACL fest’s Late Night Shows have been going on for years, but at this point they’ve found a nice balance. In the festival’s early years, the after shows were a chance to see some of the biggest headliners on small stages—above-the-fold acts like The Strokes, Bassnectar, or the Black Keys would pack crowds into Stubb’s or the Austin Music Hall. But in 2019, some 35 acts who mostly played during the day at the festival had headlining slots of their own, for a crowd that bought a ticket because they wanted to see that band (not to mention others who were booked as openers for those shows).
At Scoot Inn, Joseph played like the headliners they were. Their latest record, Good Luck, Kid, is only a few weeks old, so I’ve only had a few chances to listen to it. If I’d seen them in the afternoon at ACL, I’d have probably enjoyed the chance to nod my head to the songs that stuck with me from it, as I strained to focus amid bleed-over from other stages and idle conversation from people standing nearby who didn’t care about the band. If they’d had the chance to play the haunting cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” that they brought to Scoot Inn, I’d have probably enjoyed that, too—but the strict 55-minute set times at ACL don’t always allow for more. But watching the band play a headlining slot immediately deepened my connection to their music. The sing-with-your-whole-heart passion of “Blood & Tears”—a song I had never heard before, from the band’s 2016 debut—the atmospherics of set closer “Room for You,” and even the fist-pumping bombast of the album’s first single, “Fighter,” felt memorable, special, and played the way they were meant to be heard.
In 2019, music is more a commodity than it’s ever been. In some ways, that’s great—streaming, for all its flaws, also gives people the chance to sample practically every album that comes out each Friday, something that once made working in a record store the coolest job imaginable. But it also diminishes the meaning of art in real ways. The rise of the blockbuster summer festival means that seemingly every major city in America either has become or aspires to be a three-day destination, where a handful of chart-topping or legacy act headliners gets fleshed out by mid-tier bands who want the paycheck and exposure.
Watching a band for a few minutes is great if you just want to see as much music as possible during the weekend. But if that artist means something to you, then having the opportunity go see them play a late night show, where they’re the stars for a couple hours, is even better.