ACL Music Festival: 10 Highlights

True Believers Reunion, Court Yard Hounds, Holly Williams Provide Memorable Moments

The Austin City Limits Music Festival grows bigger and broader every year. The real news this round: ACL has expanded from one weekend to two. Most bands love the atmosphere at Zilker Park and stick around for both weekends.

"I imagine, location-wise, Austin's the best big festival," Dawes keyboardist Tay Strathairn told CMT Edge. "Bonnaroo is in a heat basin. Coachella is in the middle of nowhere. Here, you get to be in the city and Austin's one of my favorite towns."

Here are 10 highlights from the first weekend -- Friday-Sunday (Oct. 4-6):

Court Yard Hounds: The sisters immediately wowed their hometown crowd with the buoyant opener "Lil' Jack Slade." High watermarks from their new Amelita album doubled down with endless energy ("Sunshine," the title track).

"Just getting to play is the most fun," singer-fiddler Martie Maguire told CMT Edge before their Friday afternoon set. "We're at a great festival with a great lineup, and our kids can come since I live here and Emily [Robison] lives in San Antonio."

Dawes: The skyrocketing Los Angeles-based band's anthems perfectly fit the main Samsung Galaxy stage early Sunday afternoon. Lead singer Taylor Goldsmith's vocals soared. His guitar solos erupted. The seamless combination sparked several singalongs, especially during the band's hit "When My Time Comes."

"This is one of the greatest festivals on the planet," Goldsmith said midway through the set. "We're truly honored to be back." The enthusiastic crowd welcomed them with open arms.

Greensky Bluegrass: "Hey, David," a man in the front row yelled after sound check. "Let me get a picture of you to send to your mama!" Guitarist Dave Bruzza gladly obliged.

Important? Only here. That family friend set the atmosphere. Greensky Bluegrass made the air familiar and friendly and provided a communal atmosphere fit for 1970s Austin on Saturday afternoon at the Zilker Tent. We're talking great tunes. Excellent vibe. Good people. More, please.

The Lone Bellow: "ACL's really cool," lead singer Zach Williams told CMT Edge beforehand. "You go to a bunch of festivals and you can smell the vibe real quick, whether it's gonna be real fun or uptight. This is one of those real down-home festivals, a pressure point of American culture."

The band treated it as such. The Lone Bellow enlivened the Austin Ventures stage -- especially with their take on John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" -- and earned a rare ACL encore. Bravo.

The McCrary Sisters: Even though Dawes surely stole some from the gospel outfit's audience, the sisters still nearly packed the house and delivered serious goods. I was already sold on them last month at the Station Inn's gospel brunch during the Americana festival in Nashville. Songs like "Amazing Grace," "Shine Your Light" and a singular "Blowin' in the Wind" resonated even better at the Zilker Tent amid ACL's open space.

Shinyribs: Hometown heroes Shinyribs did Austin proud on the BMI stage late Sunday. As Eric Church and Phosphorescent claimed thousands on larger stages, the city's most exciting current local band packed followers in just the same. No one tops lead singer Kevin Russell's showmanship. If you listen to him sing "Bolshevik Sugarcane" followed by "Lake Charles" and then a medley of Tom T. Hall's "Me and Jesus" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," your days will brighten immediately.

Shovels & Rope: The rapidly rising Charleston, S.C., duo turned the Austin Ventures stage into a raucous stomp-and-holler jam session Friday afternoon.

"Keeping it weird as usual, I see, Austin," Cary Ann Hearst shouted. "Good on ya!"

The overflow crowd at ACL's central stage went ballistic as the first notes from this year's Americana Music Association song of the year "Birmingham" rang. These guys are the real deal. Raw. Powerful. Fun.

True Believers: "Nice and steamy, Austin-style!" bandleader Alejandro Escovedo exclaimed straightaway. "Let's get sweaty."

They sure did. Considered by some to be Austin's all-time greatest rock 'n' roll band -- the reunited outfit fronted by Alejandro, his brother Javier Escovedo and songwriter Jon Dee Graham -- they simply combusted the Zilker Tent on Saturday afternoon. They delivered unstoppable energy ("The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over") and unbreakable riffs ("Dedication"). Perfect.

Wilco: This band is tailor-made for ACL: Independent. Innovative. Intriguing. The perennial festival favorites drew huge numbers toward the Samsung Gallery stage Saturday afternoon. Few (probably none) left disappointed. Wilco offered their best ("At My Window") and brightest ("I Am Trying to Break Your Heart") with absolutely effortless elegance. Guitarist Nels Cline's fiery fret work elevated the band around every bend. Mindblowing.

Holly Williams "Any John Prine fans here?" Williams asked near set's end. "I've been on tour with him and am gonna play my favorite."

Cue the weekend's first performance of "Angel of Montgomery."

Williams sings traditional country like the words run through her bloodstream. Of course, they do. Hank Sr.'s granddaughter offered the purest country set this weekend and her crowd -- relatively sparse yet entirely enthusiastic -- ate up every minute.

View photos from the first weekend of the Austin City Limits Festival.

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