It's hard to believe that what started as a festival to showcase acts tied to the legendary Austin City Limits TV show is now one of the most anticipated destination music festivals in the world. Ahead of Austin City Limits Music Festival's 15th anniversary, here’s a retrospective of the fun (and not-so-fun) moments of the fest.
ACL Fest runs September 30-October 2 and October 7-9 at Zilker Park.
2002: The inaugural two-day festival hosted five stages and 67 bands, with one-day passes at $25 and two-day for $45. There were approximately 12 food vendors and only four ATMs to serve the 42,000 people that attended the event — only 25,000 were expected. Local bands included Arc Angels, The Gourds, Grupo Fantasma, and Gary Clark Jr. performing alongside established names like Ryan Adams, Los Lobos, and Wilco.
2003: The festival became a family affair with the debut of Austin Kiddie Limits. A beach area with chairs and umbrellas was eventually engulfed by the growing crowds – one of many ACL elements that disappeared to make way for new features (that area is now the Barton Springs Beer Hall). Choices had to be made on whether to stand in line for an hour for cash or food or go see bands. With a lineup that included REM, Ween, Ben Harper, Steve Winwood, and Rebirth Brass Band, the choice was clear.
2004: The festival expanded to include eight stages and a top attendance of 75,000 people. Consultant Jeff Blank, executive chef and owner of Hudson’s on the Bend, increased the number of booths to 33, including small snack and drink vendors, to help things move more smoothly. He also brought his signature hot & crunchy cone, which would spur one of Austin’s most iconic food trucks, the Mighty Cone. Performer highlights included My Morning Jacket, The Killers, Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Spoon, and Drive By Truckers.
2005: This year’s edition became known as the infamous "dust bowl" — the grounds were so dry that the dust kicked up by the festival crowd made it difficult for people to breathe, forcing festivalgoers to cover their faces with bandanas a la Subcomandante Marcos. Three-day passes sold for $105 with a lineup that included the Black Keys, Arcade Fire, Jimmy Cliff, Buddy Guy, Widespread Panic, and Coldplay.
2006: After the unbearable heat of the previous year, organizers attempted to relieve festivalgoers by adding more misting and water stations and tents for shade. Headliner Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were in good company with Van Morrison, Massive Attack, The Raconteurs, the Flaming Lips, and Muse. This year marked the start of the partnership with the Austin Parks Foundation. Austin City Limits Music Festival Park Grants Program provides direct financial support to volunteers and contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars in park improvement funding every year.
2007: Attendees were disappointed with cancelations from Amy Winehouse, Rodrigo y Gabriela, and Saturday headliner the White Stripes, who were replaced by already scheduled Muse. Highlights came courtesy of Björk, Ziggy and Stephen Marley, up-and-coming bands like The National and LCD Sound System, and powerful Latin rockers Aterciopelados. While headliner Bob Dylan’s lyrics were undecipherable, the band was tight. Fne dining restaurants made their first appearance at the food court, with Zoot serving classic gazpacho, chilled corn bisque, and mango chamomile soup.
2008: In an effort to alleviate the sweltering heat, organizers moved the festival to the last weekend in September. Sadly, by Sunday afternoon the dust was so impossible that many attendees were forced to leave before the much-anticipated set from Foo Fighters. The food court continued to improve as more fine dining restaurants joined the fold, including favorites like Vespaio and Aquarelle, providing alternatives to hamburgers, pizza, and barbecue. Musical highlights included Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Beck, the Mars Volta, Manu Chao, David Byrne, John Fogerty, and newcomers White Denim and Delta Spirit.
2009: After moving the dates to the first weekend in October to stave off the heat and dust, organizers were met with torrential rains starting on Saturday afternoon. Festivalgoers channeled their inner hippy by sliding around Woodstock style, turning the new grass turf into giant mud fields. In better news, Torchy’s made its debut in the food court, and Arctic Monkeys, Mos Def, Kings of Leon, Dave Mathews Band, and Pearl Jam provided the soundtrack.
2010: This was a big year for established acts such as The Eagles, Phish, Muse, The Strokes, the Flaming Lips, The National, Deadmou5, Vampire Weekend, Sonic Youth, and M.I.A., with little known names like Foals, Dawes, Kinky, Lissie, and Two Door Cinema Club catching peoples’ attention. The food court changed its name and added Fort Worth celebrity chef Tim Love’s Love Shack and Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. Seeking to add more local flavor and variety, HOPE Farmers’ Market vendors offered vegetarian/vegan fare and local arts.
2011: The 10th edition of the festival brought a diverse lineup that included huge names like Stevie Wonder, Kanye West, Arcade Fire, Coldplay, and Randy Newman, as well as indie faves TV on the Radio, Social Distortion, Gomez, and a scorching set from Nas and Damian 'Jr. Gong' Marley.
2012: The 130-band lineup included heavy hitters like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Black Keys, Jack White, Florence + The Machine, and Iggy & the Stooges. Lesser-known bands who would go on to make a splash included the Avett Brothers, Alabama Shakes, Trampled By Turtles, and POLICA. Food court newcomers included Second Bar + Kitchen and popular trailers Luke’s Inside Out and Chi’lantro.
2013: For the first time, the festival was split over two weekends, featuring a killer matching lineup that included Depeche Mode, The Cure, Kings of Leon, Atoms for Peace, Lionel Richie, Phoenix, Wilco, Vampire Weekend, Tame Impala, and The National. The Barton Springs Beer Hall was a welcome addition for those of us who prefer a microbrew to the usual festival offerings. Sadly, the festival was canceled on the final day of the second weekend due to heavy rains and severe flash floods that brought almost 4 feet of water to some areas of the park.
2014: The festival introduced a game-changer: ACL Cashless, where fans link a debit or credit card to their wristband to make easy onsite purchases including food, art, lockers, beverages, and festival merchandise. The craft beer tent expanded its offerings to 16 different brews, including local offerings and ciders for the gluten-free set. They also added a jumbo screen showing the biggest NCAA and NFL games all weekend long. An expanded partnership with the Austin Food + Wine Festival introduced the first-ever chef showcase, bringing award-winning chefs to the food lineup.
2015: The lineup featured more than 140 artists, including Foo Fighters, Drake, the Strokes, Florence and the Machine, Tame Impala, Dwight Yoakam, and local faves Gary Clark Jr. and Residual Kid.
2016: You can experience the 15th anniversary of ACL Fest from the comfort of your home. Red Bull TV will broadcast select sets live from Zilker Park, beginning Friday, September 30, at 2 pm. The stream will provide access to performances, exclusive interviews, and special segments spotlighting the people and stories behind the music. If you haven't yet purchased your wristband, a limited number of one-day tickets for Sunday, October 9, and VIP and Platinum passes are still available.