The line to see Harry Styles on Wednesday was a serpentine thing. At one point, it reportedly sprawled six blocks away from Austin City Limits at the Moody Theater and into downtown Austin. A friend, still queued at Fourth and Guadalupe streets 30 minutes to show time — the venue is at Second and Lavaca — messaged me to say the guy applying wristbands had been at his post since 7 a.m.
I waited out the worst of it, but those diehards — mostly young women, but plenty not as young, and plenty not women — palpably buzzed when I scoped the scene. That line of devotion gradually filed past the statue of Willie Nelson as the sun went down, and a line turned into crushes of people on the floor and packed seats in the venue’s upper tiers.
Piercing screams and chants of “HARRY! HARRY!” were to be expected; pre-show singalongs of “Come Together” less — but pleasantly — so. By the time Styles’ silhouette appeared on the floral scrim, a woman was clutching her head in the row in front of me, another fanning herself in the row behind me.
There’s just something about the man in pink silk suit with the dragon embroidery.
The casual Styles observer might not have expected a setlist full of light, AM-radio-tinted folk rock, the stuff of the singer’s recently released, self-titled albm. Briefing anyone at ACL Live of that fact would elicit a “Tell me something I don’t already know.”
Styles, guitar in hand and backed by a four-piece band, breezed through “Ever Since New York,” “Two Ghosts” and “Carolina,” gently strumming while every word came back at him in stereo. The choruses on these songs are monotonous, and the tastes come through in the stew: a little James Taylor, a little Beck, a little Lady Gaga when she’s doing country, a little “Take a Picture” by Filter. Playing troubador, Styles seemed to sit on the bench that the detached cool of a rock star affords, either lost in his own reverie or just warming up. The first airborne crowd offering, a bracelet of some sort, made it past the line of black-clad security lining the front of the stage.
But then Styles told the crowd to be free to be who it is they want to be — a lot of being goes on at a Harry Styles show — and after breaking past the Sheeran-y “Sweet Creature,” the star at night was big and bright. Fittingly or ironically, however you want to look at it, One Direction song “Stockholm Syndrome” untethered Styles from his spot. He traveled the stage like he was selling encyclopedias door to door, or like he wanted to warn River City about the dangers of pool tables, hitting the lip of the stage to blow kisses and just handing the bridge to the audience wholesale.
It should be a crime to bind Styles to an amp cord, because when the cord was cut, Baby Jagger truly came alive. His voice has the easy electricity that makes a pop star. On “Only Angel,” a song Bachman-Turner Overdrive would have loved to play, Styles became a flurry of shoulder shakes, sex struts and thrusting elbows, convulsing with his band’s tempestuous climax of a finish.
How could you be Harry Styles without making everyone feel like they were the only person in the room? The singer’s banter shot the breeze, playfully calling out someone for flipping him the bird and even more playfully engaging with a tall “silver fox” in the sea of young women on the floor. When a flying book made landfall mere feet away from him, Styles was unfazed, his playful eyes opening into saucers: “The weight of that moved the whole stage!”
The showman only sharpened his act through a Vegas-revue edition of “That’s What Makes You Beautiful” and a “Kiwi” that would have made Colonel Tom Parker sign him on the spot. It would be lazy, by the way, to assume a man whose face has made a home of glossy bedroom posters for almost 8 years rests on flash. “From the Dining Table” revealed potential as a lyrical diarist: “Woke up alone in this hotel room/Played with myself, where were you?/Fell back to sleep, I got drunk by noon/I've never felt less cool.”
When the audience was still a line, I talked to a couple of fans for a story on the Austin360 Instagram account. One young woman said Styles helped her accept herself for who she is. Her companion echoed the thought, and said that waiting in line was just a small token of her appreciation for the pop star. Wednesday was National Coming Out Day, and she was draped in an LGBT pride flag. She said she hoped her mother wouldn’t see.
Styles sees her. Just an hour or two after that young woman was standing on concrete, the singer proudly displayed a rainbow flag onstage, acquired from the ticket-holders on the floor. Toward the end of his set, Styles waved bisexual and transgender pride flags (also sourced from the crowd) in a frenzied dance to his cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” It’s a familiar move from Styles’ tour; he’s also been outspoken about equal rights in interviews. Queer pop band (and ACL Fest standouts) Muna opened the show, to boot.
A fittingly titled “Sign of the Times” and a reprise of “Kiwi” closed the night out. Styles doffed his jacket for a pink fur coat from the audience. Had you passed through downtown on Wednesday and wondered what all the fuss was about?
What’s to wonder?