Cage the Elephant at ACL Live: The Many Personas of Matthew Shultz

An erratic Matthew Shultz took the stage last Friday at the Moody Theater. With a dizzying on-stage energy and an overabundance of costume changes, the well seasoned singer proved the decade-old Kentucky band still has plenty vivacity left.

Story by Taylor Sprinkle

Art by Sarang Kim

Art by Sarang Kim

A tan beret, knee socks and a sleek, black-and-white bodysuit. Those were just a few of the many ensembles Shultz adorned throughout his 90-minute set. In what appeared to be a manic craze, the singer darted around the stage, not even halting as he pulled from an array of costumes that rested at the front and side of the stage. He leaped onto speakers, he danced with his fellow band members. At one point, he intertwined himself with a chair and, at another, he lay sprawled in a cloud of artificial fog and brilliant green stage lights.

It was my first time attending a performance at the Moody Theater. Though sizable, the seating and the structure of the venue felt intimate. As the performance was a live taping for Austin City Limits, the PBS produced live television music series, phones were not allowed. The reduction of typical concert distractions enhanced this sense of intimacy. I took my place on a balcony and I got the sense I would be experiencing a relaxed performance. I was wrong.

I’d seen Cage the Elephant briefly before at a Float Fest 2017. I can confidently say the unhinged zeal Matt Shultz brought to the stage at this most recent performance was unmatched. He began the production in blue bicycle shorts, knee pads and a fanny pack. Appearing somewhat biker-ish and 100% deranged, as if he’d just come out of a crash, he rose from a two piece lawn chair, grabbed a cane and made his way to the front of the stage.

By the time he’d started the second song of the night, “Cry Baby,” the clearly unnecessary cane was ditched and he’d already begun experimenting with several other props, trading his newsboy cap for a floppy sun hat. By “Spiderhead,” he had on a dad cap, the song after, “Too Late To Say Goodbye,” he donned what appeared to be a yellow hazmat suit and bathed in the opposing purple light. Shultz dramatically lifted the yellow hood off his head to change his cap once more before jumping off stage to join the crowd.

In the back, electric guitarists faced each other in what looked like a battle. The sweaty drummer was driving the beat at full force and the more reserved bass guitarist seemed somewhat in a daze. All six of Shultz’s bandmates masterfully supported his energy.

The immersed crowd sprang from their seats to dance during the 2015 hit “Cold, Cold Cold.” When the guitarist pulled out an acoustic guitar during “Trouble,” whirling circles illuminated a starstruck audience. As we swayed to the slower song, I could feel the chills. “I've been facing trouble almost all my life,” Shultz sang. Later, everyone screamed along to other classic hits from “Tell Me I’m Pretty” and “Melophobia.”

All the while, the wardrobe changes continued. A yellow bucket hat, to which he secured a reflective aluminum material. Then a black bucket hat, followed by a black ball cap. A face mask followed by white gloves.

The acoustic guitar was traded for an electric when Cage quickened the pace performing “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked.” The saturated orange stage felt a symbol of Shultz’s spirit. Everyone screamed along.

Songs blurred together. As he continued his transformations, he leaped onto speakers, sprinted the stage and joined the pit once again. The stage was not a limit.

Toward the end, the energy finally began to fade. After a standing ovation, Shultz sat down for a minute for a heart-to-heart. “I go back and forth with myself, but that’s how these things go,” he said. It was then that I understood the meaning behind his plethora of costumes. It was a statement on indecisiveness.

He followed the speech with one last outfit, and a stripped down performance. In a flowy brown patterned shirt, he emotionally sang his farewell: “All your laughter turned into a cry // it's alright, goodbye.”

Leaving the venue, I felt an overpowering sense of nostalgia. In part because the set relied heavily on songs I’d blasted in high school. Also, because it was clear Cage The Elephant has long since seen their prime. Their most popular track to date, “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked”, was released in 2008 and made the U.S. charts at number 83 in 2009. Yet the thought of the eccentric Shultz and his many costumes also lingered with me.

Cage The Elephant may have seen better days, but that doesn’t matter. Shultz has stripped himself of his past persona and is moving on. They’ve still got spirit, he’s still got a voice. Now if he could only decide: Which costume will the band wear next?