Austin City Limits Festival Day 1 (ACL): Paul McCartney, David Byrne, Big Thief Lead Big & Bright Friday

The first day of the opening weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival featured a variety of genres on eight stages, from up-and-coming acts to established veterans to rock legends.

The Coronas kicked off the festival on the Barton Springs stage with its blend of jangling pop rock. The Irish band, touring behind its fifth album, Trust the Wire, laid down set of melodic rock with sing-along choruses and pop hooks. “If I had a rainbow I’d put the end of it at our toes, so nobody could find us; let the colors always blind us,” Danny O’Rielly sang on the catchy “Addicted to Progress.” The band sometimes slowed things down from the uptempo pop rock, such as with the slow, melodic “We Couldn’t Fake It,” but mostly stuck to mid-tempo hook-filled pop rock.

Brooklyn’s Big Thief delivered a pristine set of expertly crafted indie melodies next on the Barton Springs stage. Adrianne Lenker’s poetic storytelling and underappreciated guitar chops — sloppy but effective — led the way for a performance that was highly melodic with subtle charges of power. From the upbeat shuffle of “Shark Smile” to the mid-tempo earworm of “Mythological Beauty,” the band sounded even better than on its impressive sophomore album, Captivity. The grooving set also featured a stellar performance of the new, yet-to-be-released track “Terminal Paradise.”

Big Thief

The most energetic and exuberant performance on day one belonged to Bishop Briggs. Beginning the set on the American Express stage with an a cappella rendition of the first verse to “The Way I Do,” Briggs showcased her powerful voice before the bass and drums dropped in. It was a dynamic performance, with Briggs shifting from standing stoically while crooning to running across the stage while belting out the vocals with ferocity. Briggs was emotional throughout, being moved to tears twice. At one point, she acknowledged that a couple years ago she was playing to crowds of two or three people at coffee shops “who were on their laptops and their phones, but now I’m opening for Paul McCartney!” she said, marveling at the size of the crowd. “Wild Horses” and her subdued cover of INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” were highlights, but it was the set-ending “River” that really drove home the impact of the performance. Briggs’s voice, strong yet soulful and vulnerable, hit like a punch to the chest as she prowled the stage, bouncing to the rumbling beat.

Jangling garage rock was on display on the Miller Lite stage via Toronto band Alvvays. The band deftly blended a fiery punk attitude with melodic guitar, pop hooks, and Molly Rankin’s girl-next-door voice. From the soft ballads of “Dreams Tonite” to the upbeat garage rock of “Saved by a Waif,” Alvvays straddled the line between pop rock and aggressive alt-rock. They saved the best for last, tearing through the high-octane “Archie, Marry Me.”

David Byrne’s performance on the American Express stage was exactly what you expect from a Byrne performance, for better or worse. It was theatrical, quirky, and featured a mix of deep cuts from his solo catalog and Talking Heads hits. The entire band, including drummers and percussionists, were unplugged so they could move about the stage in Byrne’s distinct choreographed dance routines. Playing songs off the current album American Utopia, such as  “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” and crowd pleasers like the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” and “This Must Be the Place,” Byrne owned the stage in his own, oddly disaffected way.

David Byrne

Hard rockers Manchester Orchestra delivered the most dynamic and powerful performance of the day on the HomeAway stage. The Atlanta band has some of the best heavy riffs in indie music while also boasting some of the most beautiful ballads. They are a rare band that can seamlessly transition from raw power to emotional croon, sometimes within the same song. “Pride” led off the set, a slow burner that started with Andy Hull gently crooning over a light melody before abruptly switching to a full-throated scream over crashing power chords. The band mostly opted for heavier songs in this setlist, with the power ballad “Simple Math” standing as the only soft number, or at least the only one that remained soft for a significant period of time. A rowdy performance of “Cope” and a wildly dynamic rendition of “I Can Barely Breathe” stood out, as did the set-closing number, “The Gold.” Throughout the set, the crowd had to constantly alternate between head banging and singing along, which is standard for a Manchester Orchestra show.

Father John Misty aka Josh Tillman brought his unique persona to the Barton Springs stage. Backed by a full band, including a string section, Tillman oozed swagger — perhaps ironically so — as he led the band through his verbose folk-rock songs. Recent Father John Misty albums have suffered from being too slow and one-dimensional, but as a  performer his songs have more of a rock edge. Opting mostly for more upbeat cuts, such as the opener “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “Mr. Tillman,” Tillman performed with gusto, even when hamming it up with over-the-top theatrics. During “Nothing Good Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” Tillman tossed his guitar aside and strutted the stage, dancing and twirling the microphone on the cable. When he did slow things down, such as with the impassioned “Hangout at the Gallows” and the ranting “Pure Comedy,” his strengths became clearer: Whatever one thinks about Tillman’s personality and antics, his ear for melody and songwriting craft make for an impressive experience.

After a long day of music, Paul McCartney put in a tour de force set that showed why he is a living legend. Playing 2.5 hours of music spanning his solo career, Wings work, and of course his tenure with the Beatles, McCartney unleashed one amazing song after another. Opening with a rocking version of “A Hard Day’s Night,” McCartney and the band set the tone early. Moving back and forth between playing bass, guitar, and piano, McCartney introduced many of the songs with a story. He introduced “Back in the U.S.S.R.” with a funny story about performing for members of the Soviet government, and for “Here Today,” talked about how the song was the conversation he wishes he had had with John Lennon before he died.

Though the 76-year-old’s voice shows signs of wear over the years, McCartney still sounds good. Many Beatles songs were featured, from the big hits like “Love Me Do” to obscure cuts like “In Spite of all the Danger,” which McCartney said was the first Beatles song ever recorded, before they were even called the Beatles. After the pyrotechnic bombast of “Live and Let Die,” McCartney ended the regular set with the sing-along favorite “Hey Jude.” For the encore, the band returned and played “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise),” aggressively rocked out with “Helter Skelter,” and ended with the medley finale from Abbey Road — “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End.”

Photos by Maggie Boyd

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