Texans are crazy about live music, flocking to the rock bars of Austin and far-flung outposts to absorb waves of beautiful man-made sound. Naturally our festivals are as diverse as we are, so a visiting music lover has plenty of choices. We hugged the front rail at the Austin City Limits (ACL) Music Festival and discovered jazz in Denton to find out all the ways the heart of Texas beats.
Ah, the festival experience. It’s a rite of passage for the modern-day music fan and an intimate way to get to know the spirit of a place. Our state boasts a slew of fests, each one with a distinct personality and edge. Backpacks strapped on, we trekked to some of the best for a uniquely Texan sensory overload.
Austin: The Undisputed Capital
Austin easily lives up to its oft-cited title as the Live Music Capital of the World with a lively 24/7 concert schedule and the finest festivals around.
Perhaps the city’s most famous hurrah is South by Southwest (SXSW), a set of film, interactive and music events held downtown every March. More than 150,000 people attend, crisscrossing each other on the streets in massive throngs, all in a mad rush to catch the next act. About 2,200 bands and 100 venues officially participate, with many more unofficial participants, so SXSW has a haphazard feel that rewards a balance of spontaneity and planning.
In our SXSW wanderings, we’ve stumbled into free shows to catch artists like Yelawolf and Future Islands on the eve of career breakthroughs, but we’ve also beheld Erykah Badu magnetize thousands from a city park stage. The fest’s charm lies in its ability to contain such moments big and small.
To net a few of those moments, come prepared. Buy an official SXSW wristband and line up early at showcases to avoid shutouts, RSVP to as many events as you can in the preceding weeks, stay hydrated and be open to changes in plans. Trust us, some will be for the best.
Looking for a more organized, fenced-in, traditional festival experience? The ACL Music Festival is your bag. Founded in 2002 and named after the beloved PBS live-music show, the event draws 225,000-plus fans every fall to the grassy plains of Zilker Park. The fest takes place twice over two weekends—each three days long with a nearly identical lineup.
And that lineup, typically announced in the spring, is stellar. Featured artists have included rock band AFI, rap duo Outkast, dreamy chanteuse Lana Del Rey and electro-funk duo Chromeo.
A food area, ample drink vendors, a family-friendly Austin Kiddie Limits area and photo ops galore round out ACL Fest. Don’t miss the view of the skyline from the center of the festival grounds.
If your tastes are more niche, Austin has you covered on that as well. The Pachanga Latino Music Festival features vibrant young Latin acts from the United States and abroad every spring. And hip-hop, gospel, R&B and jazz prevail at the Austin Urban Music Festival.
Destinations Known: Denton
Denton, about an hour’s drive north of Dallas, is a hip little college town with plenty of live music throughout the year.
But for a gigantic helping, consider the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival. Every spring the three-day affair attracts more than 225,000 people who come to enjoy 2,300 musical acts on seven stages and more than 250 artisan booths at the well-shaded Quakertown Park.
We brought foldout chairs and coolers to the BYOB happening and spent a leisurely afternoon taking in the sights and sounds. The percussion tent was a fun place to make noise, and the kids in our party went crazy in the children’s art tent. We also admired the works of 175 juried artists and crafters displayed in various sites on the grounds.
But the main attraction is the music, and Denton’s premier fest delivers not just jazz but a host of other genres—from folk to Tex-Mex. Students from the University of North Texas College of Music, one of the most respected music schools in the nation, pumped out the jams all day on a dedicated stage. And Saturday night headliner Asleep at the Wheel, a country band from Austin, brought things to a rousing close.
Some of Austin’s coolest fests had their beginnings in music journalism. South by Southwest was sparked when a New York festival organizer reached out to staff members of the Austin Chronicle in 1986 about creating a festival offshoot. Those plans fell through, but the idea was planted, and SXSW was born the following year. And Viva Big Bend, a four-day romp in the West Texas towns of Marfa, Alpine and Fort Davis, is the brainchild of Texas Music magazine publisher Stewart Ramser.