The first act of the first day of the 2017 Austin City Limits Music Festival was the rising soul crooner, Jonny P. Before he completed his 45-minute set, he made a special dedication.
"This is for all the people that lost their lives in Vegas — may we have fun and live free for them," he said, then soared into a stirring, heartfelt performance, the kind ACL fans have come to expect from its invited artists and one that immediately set the tone for the weekend.
The annual music fest opened its gates less than a week after the attack on Route 91 Harvest Festival concertgoers in Las Vegas. Gunman Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and wounded hundreds in that assault, carried out from the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel and casino. The shooting prompted ACL organizers C3 Presents to offer concerned ticket buyers refunds. There were few takers on the offer and fans and artists alike refused to sweep the event under the proverbial rug. Instead, they chose to honor their fallen brethren in various ways, but specifically by attending the festival and beating back fear.
We spoke with Nolan and McKaylie, a Houston couple spending their anniversary at ACL, which they've attended three times now. Nolan has first responders in his family and McKaylie said they expressed some anxiety about the two attending the festival as planned. McKaylie said the atmosphere actually felt more vibrant this year, that there seemed to be more people intent on not bowing to terror or the specter of it that is sometimes floated out by the media.
"Bad things have always happened in the world, but we haven't had the media that we have today, and now we're having this huge impact of media everywhere," she said. "When we turn on our phones, every second we look there's something from some sort of newscast that says, 'This is bad, this is bad, you shouldn't come.' But then it's like, where's my opinion on it? Why are we riding on the opinions of other people?"
Looking out at a massive crowd gathered for rap artist Ice Cube, Nolan added, "We see all these people here, all unified and having a fantastic time. I mean, (the situation) is there in your mind but [the crowd] puts you at ease."
Also in the crowd and nearby, David and Yvette, from San Antonio, took more stoic approach.
"The way I see it personally is you've got to kind of leave it in God's hands, you can't live in fear," David noted. "Everybody's unified here, I don't think there's really anything to be scared about."
He did notice a SWAT patrol car near the fest grounds, something he said had not seen in previous trips to ACL. Yvette mentioned it was probably another way to remind people to be vigilant about their own safety.
"You've just got to be cautious and aware of your surroundings; that's it," she added.
"I haven't heard any negativity from anyone. I know C3 did open up the option for people to get a refund but nobody that I know did that. We didn't feel afraid," said Taylor Baker, vocalist for Austin's The Wild Now. "It's so tragic what happened, but we're going to try to not let that affect what we're doing because this is our passion."
"This could happen in any industry or moment, so why just single it out to musicians? It could happen anywhere," added her bandmate, Drew Walker. "We'll just keep on doing what we're doing and have high spirits and pray for everyone that was affected and keep on moving. That's all we can really do."
For ACL artist Jacob Banks, the prospect of music-festival violence was something that felt very close to home.
"I read that the guy was going to hit up Life is Beautiful [Festival]. We played there. We were watching Chance the Rapper the time that [Paddock] had planned [the attack]; so, it's weird for me knowing we were there. That could have been us. So easily could have been us," he said. "It breaks my heart for many reasons. Music and sports are the only two things that bring people together in this world.
"Everyone's all torn apart by agendas but when we come to a festival, we come here because we like music and want to have a good time," he added. "For eight hours a day, people put their differences aside; they all stand in the same crowd and watch people that they love."
The singer-songwriter, whose hits include "Chainsmoking" and "Unholy War," vacillated between dismay and hope while discussing the shooting, a see-saw of sorts that many attending the festival were riding over the weekend.
"I know the world is bad but, shit, leave some stuff for us. You shouldn't fuck with music festivals. You shouldn't fuck with anything at all. But, let people have happiness," he said.
"The thing is, we're in such a bad place that I saw people that were happy that [the shooter] wasn't a Muslim person, which I get, because of prejudice against Muslim people; but, at the same time, people lost their fucking kids. There's so much happening in the world, each issue doesn't get an adequate amount of attention because everyone's like, 'Whew, at least it wasn't a Muslim.' That's nothing to celebrate.
"Togetherness is all we have," he concluded, see-sawing back to hope and readying himself for a moving and well-received set. "I believe the only reason God made so many of us was because we're supposed to help each other."
If any single person at ACL embodied that notion, it was Logan Cassidy. The Austinite has organized The Walk for Vegas, a daily march to remember the shooting's victims. He carried the torch in the form of a sign which read "End Mass Shootings, We're Not Afraid of You."
"ACL is one of the largest music festivals in America to open its gates since what happened in Las Vegas. That being said, some people, quite frankly, were afraid to come because of what happened," he said. "My message was really we can't live our lives in fear, we've got to get back out there and we've got to keep doing what we would normally do and also just pay tribute to all those that were impacted by what happened in Las Vegas. It's a horrific tragedy, but at the end of the day we have to show no matter how hard they hit us our spirit's never gonna break."
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As we chatted, many fest-goers approached Cassidy with thumbs-up and back-pats; one woman stuffed cash into his pocket for a cold drink. He said the walk begins at 2 p.m. each day of the festival from Austin's City Hall to the festival grounds. Cassidy invites those who wish to join him in this apolitical statement to march each remaining day of the fest.
"It's been very well-received. People who were from Las Vegas would come up to me crying and hugging me and just saying thank you," he said. "There's been a couple of people who've taken it the wrong way, thinking it was about gun control, which it's not. It's not a political statement at all."
We asked what his actions are about. His answer spoke for many of ACL's legions.
"Music can bring us together and, again [I'm] just trying to restore the faith so that people aren't afraid to live their lives and do the things they love," he said. "With the people, for the people — let's restore the faith."