Austin City Limits 2021: stage invasions and powerful statements

Austin, TX, Oct 1-3: Impromptu dance-offs and a politically-charged statement from headliner Billie Eilish stand out from a star-studded weekend of music

After a lengthy, pandemic-induced hiatus, Texas’ capital rockfest Austin City Limits has returned to the city’s Zilker Park for the first of two music-packed weekenders – marking another major American music festival’s comeback since the pandemic. And with a Lone Star State-sized smorgasbord of a lineup, boasting a heaping serving of headliners ranging from Miley Cyrus and Billie Eilish to Duran Duran and Tyler, the Creator, fans are sure to get their fill, even despite the “devastating” cancellation by Fleetwood Mac legend Stevie Nicks due to covid concerns.

After a briefly-delayed opening on Friday in the face of threatening storms, the clouds part for three straight days of toasty post-summer sun instead; with the gates flung open to the booming sound of the Star Wars theme song (a daily tradition at the opening of the festival.)

Although considered the festival’s second stage, the Honda Stage quickly becomes the immediate focus of fans slowly trickling into the inviting sound of Skip Marley playing many of his grandfather Bob Marley’s songs on the nearby Miller Lite stage. Soon, they begin camping out for a close spot to see the day’s main draws: Machine Gun Kelly, Megan Thee Stallion and Miley Cyrus.


Rising out of a cartoonishly large pink-capped pill bottle to chants of “MGK! MGK!” Machine Gun Kelly, real name Coulson Baker, pops off the pop-punk party. “I will be serenading you for the next ‘until I decide to get off the stage’ hours,” he announces, even extending that promise by taking to the crowd to scale the light tower, soaking in the scene from above, and declaring he’s setting his sights on a sunset slot at next years proceedings.

Machine Gun Kelly scales a light tower (Credit: Joshua Mellin)
Machine Gun Kelly scales a light tower (Credit: Joshua Mellin)

Although Megan Thee Stallion is a daughter of Houston, this set stands as her big Texas homecoming after the cancellation of Post Malone’s Posty Fest. She does not disappoint. Following celebratory sets at Lollapalooza, Life is Beautiful, and Governors Ball, the trend continues with easily the most iconic moment of the weekend, as Miley Cyrus appears in the wings before joining Megan in a twerk competition along with fans pulled from the crowd – watched by a gleeful Billie Eilish cheering them on from side of stage.

After her surprise appearance, Cyrus takes to the stage again for her own headlining set in a glittery pink rockstar romper and western boots, twirling a bra thrown on stage in one hand, and tossing on a cowboy hat that can barely contain her coiffured country locks.

Miley brings country glam to Austin (Credit: Joshua Mellin)

Opening her covers laden set with ‘We Can’t Stop’ – melding in elements of Pixies‘ ‘Where is My Mind’ – the momentum doesn’t slow, with Cyrus quickly treating the crowd to the 1-2 punch of her own ‘Plastic Heart’ before diving into the Debbie Harry approved rock-twist on Blondie’s disco-vibed ‘Heart of Glass,’.


The night also takes on songs by Mark Ronson’s ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’, Janis Joplin‘s ‘Maybe’, and Cher‘s ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’ before threading Prince‘s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ into the mix. Before long, she’s closing the first night out with the ultimate ‘Party In The USA’ sing-a-long.

Before the start of the festival on Saturday, a rally is held on the steps of the Texas State Capitol in downtown Austin, and thousands of demonstrators gather as part of nationwide protests against Texas abortion bans and to demand protection of women’s’ rights. Austin’s very own empowering trio Tiarra Girls, Houston’s rapper-with-a-message SaulPaul, and Russian feminist protest punk rock band Pussy Riot all stage musical performances, and many of the attendees with homemade signs make their way from the rally into the festival.

Pussy Riot perform at the nearby Women's March (Credit: Joshua Mellin)
Pussy Riot perform at the nearby Women’s March in Austin (Credit: Joshua Mellin)

The same night headliner Billie Eilish addresses the issue head on, admitting she considered cancelling the performance in response. “When they made that shit a law, I almost didn’t want to do the show, because I wanted to punish this fucking place for allowing that to happen here,” she tells the crowd, “but then I remembered that it’s you guys that are the fucking victims.” “’My body, my f**cking choice’ she says, as bold text reading BANS OFF OUR BODIES covers the video boards.

From here, Eilish barrels into an energetic, 22-song set – one of the best of the weekend, and according to the singer posting on Instagram later on, “one of my favourites” of the summer.

Billie Eilish headlines ACL (Credit: Joshua Mellin)
Billie Eilish headlines ACL (Credit: Joshua Mellin)

Elsewhere, St. Vincent – otherwise known as Texas-native Annie Clark – makes her stately rounds, playing television tapings, aftershows, and an exclusive set for weekend one attendees on the T-Mobile Stage.

The breakout set of the weekend belongs to the ethereal hip hop artist 070 Shake, the stage moniker of Danielle Balbuena. Over at the Tito’s Bodka stage, the New Jersey artist draws an impassioned crowd after rising to prominence appearing on recent albums by Kanye West, Pusha T, and Nas, as well as releasing her own debut album ‘Modus Vivendi’ last year.

And Tyler, The Creator, filling in following Da Baby’s removal from the line-up, perhaps sums it all up best at the start of his set, as only he can. “Weird ass fucking Texas.”

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