Current Events

Texas Music Festivals Wary in the Wake of Route 91 Massacre

The vibe at this weekend's Austin City Limits Music Festival may not be quite as laid-back as last year; among other things, "air furniture," like the above inflatable couch, is prohibited at Zilker Park.
The vibe at this weekend's Austin City Limits Music Festival may not be quite as laid-back as last year; among other things, "air furniture," like the above inflatable couch, is prohibited at Zilker Park. Photo by Jason McElweenie
The massacre at last Sunday’s Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, thought to be the deadliest mass shooting in American history, has inevitably raised questions about security at a pair of large outdoor festivals set to take place in Texas later this month. Coupled with the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert at Great Britain’s Manchester Arena back in May, the Vegas shooting — where a gunman fired modified semiautomatic rifles from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino into a crowd of approximately 22,000 people across the street — has left many music fans feeling especially vulnerable, and even the nation’s leading security experts at a loss for easy answers.

“I think what will happen in the analysis of this event is we will look at how that expresses itself into our vulnerabilities,” Russ Simons, managing partner of Nashville-based facility-management firm Venue Solutions Group, told the PBS Newshour earlier this week. “We will look at ways to mitigate those risks and we will react to that. It is not a ‘check a box and be done’ situation.”

The first major music festival in the country after the Route 91 shootings — which have so far left an estimated 58 people dead and more than 500 injured, according to The New York Times — happens to be the Austin City Limits Music Festival, scheduled for this weekend and next in Zilker Park near downtown Austin; ACL typically enjoys sellout or near-sellout crowds of roughly 75,000 people per day. Also of interest in the Gulf Coast region is the ZiegenBock Music Festival, the three-stage country-music event scheduled for October 14 at Sam Houston Race Park. One of ZiegenBock’s headliners, the Lubbock-based Josh Abbott Band, also played Route 91 last Sunday, hours before gunfire erupted a few songs into headliner Jason Aldean’s set.

JAB guitarist Caleb Keeter made national headlines after the shootings by publicly renouncing his support of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to bear firearms. “I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night,” he wrote on social media. “I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with CHL licenses [concealed handgun licenses], and legal firearms on the bus. They were useless.”

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The Josh Abbott Band made national headlines earlier this week when guitarist Caleb Keeter renounced his support of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The group is a headliner at the ZiegenBock Music Festival, scheduled for October 14 at Sam Houston Race Park.
Photo Courtesy of Shorefire Media
The Houston Press has contacted representatives of Live Nation, which produces ZiegenBock Fest, multiple times for comment about any additional security measures for this year’s event, but had not received a response as of late Wednesday night. The environment is much different around Sam Houston Race Park, though, with nothing taller than a pine tree for hundreds of yards in any direction. A different Times article explains why the elevation of the gunman, whom authorities have identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, played such a crucial role in making Sunday night’s shooting so deadly.

But what may have seemed like a difficult feat, firing across an urban area and into a crowd from about 500 yards away — the equivalent of several football fields — appears to have been offset by Mr. Paddock’s preparations, which made it possible for him to inflict mass carnage.

The possibility that Mr. Paddock used tripods, which two law enforcement officials said were in the room, indicates that he understood how to overcome some of the difficulties of his plan. Special mounts designed to fit the underside of a rifle and sit atop camera tripods allow the gunman to fire more accurately while standing. Military snipers use tripods in urban spaces, often setting themselves back from a window so neither they nor their weapons can be seen from the streets below.

These preparations, along with the downward angle of Mr. Paddock’s gunfire and the density of concertgoers, would make the shooting more lethal than it might otherwise have been, and more difficult to counter or escape.
Austin’s picturesque skyline often features prominently in photographs of ACL Fest; after the shooting, some fans expressed concern about Zilker’s proximity to the array of high-rise condos, hotels and office buildings on the festival’s Facebook page. According to the Austin American-Statesman on Tuesday, ACL producers C3 Presents offered refunds to any fans having second thoughts about attending after the tragedy in Vegas, but had received only two takers.

The city’s acting police chief, Brian Manley, told the Statesman his department was coordinating security for ACL with other law-enforcement agencies at the state and federal levels, and has been carefully reviewing a security plan “months in the making.” What happened at Route 91 complicated things, he admitted.

“What we saw happen last night and into this morning is something new that we haven’t seen before — someone that appears to have a very well-planned attack on a large gathering like that, contained in a relatively small location,” Manley said.

ACL has also banned umbrellas, e-cigarettes, inflatable furniture and bags over a certain size this year. C3 released the following statement to the media after the Vegas shooting:

Our thoughts and prayers are with our colleagues and everyone in Las Vegas who was affected by this terrible tragedy.

Safety has always been our top priority. Our staff and security team works year-round with the Austin Police Department, Austin Fire Department, Austin-Travis County EMS, and other authorities to plan and rehearse security and response plans. Over the years, tighter security measures have been implemented at ACL Fest including a layered security plan that includes elements that are seen and unseen, as well as pat downs, bag searches and size limits, and an enhanced security and law enforcement presence inside and outside the festival.

We look forward to Austin City Limits Music Festival over the next two weekends.

The same statement was posted on ACL’s Facebook page at 4:21 p.m. Monday, plus a link to a page on the ACL website that covers safety and security issues. Those include evacuation routes, medical emergencies, reporting sexual harassment, and the “Sober Park” area reserved for non-drinking fans. In a poignant example of the changing nature of security threats against large gatherings like this one, absent are any sort of specific instructions on what to do should the festival be interrupted by gunfire from outside the perimeter.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray