ACL’s all-star 40th anniversary

When you’re celebrating four decades of musical excellence, there’s only one way to do it: with amazing artists, superior songwriters and master musicians. We were lucky to have all of the above join us for ACL Celebrates 40 Years, our all-star tribute co-hosted by Jeff Bridges and Sheryl Crow, and featuring Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Clark Jr., Jimmie Vaughan, Alabama Shakes, Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Doyle Bramhall II, Lloyd Maines and Grupo Fantasma.

Trading guitar licks with Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. and joined on vox by Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, Bonnie Raitt kicked off the first half of the show with a Grupo Horns-spiked groove through Sam & Dave’s classic “Wrap It Up.” Standard thus set, Raitt reiterated the importance of ACL to artists like herself that resisted easy categorization before launching into Mable John’s classic “Your Good Thing (is About to End),” punctuating the jazzy soul ballad with creamy slide solos. The set moved quickly from one legend to another, as Kris Kristofferson took the stage with co-host Crow for a moving take on his titanic classic “Me and Bobby McGee.” After an elated Crow exited, the Texas songwriting legend growled his virtual theme song, AKA the masterful “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.”

After Crow having some time behind her guitar, it was time for her fellow host to have a shot, as Jeff Bridges returned to the stage in tribute to his recently deceased friend and Austin favorite Stephen Bruton. The Bruton-penned “What a Little Bit of Love Can Do” and “Fallin’ and Flyin’” (the latter from the Crazy Heart soundtrack) sounded great coming from Bridges’ perfectly weathered throat. Following that treat, ACL executive producer Terry Lickona came on to recap the recent ACL Hall of Fame presentation, honoring creator Bill Arhos and pilot star Willie Nelson. The past thus commemorated, it was time to move from veterans to young guns, as Alabama Shakes launched into its old-school soul ballad “Heartbreaker.” The band then gave the audience a thrill with the Memphis-styled “Gimme All Your Love,” a new song as yet unreleased on any Shakes record. Set one closed out with Austin guitar hero Gary Clark Jr., whose blues rocker “Bright Lights” slow-burned its way into our ears on the back of his sizzling thick-toned solos.

One brief intermission in order to reset the stage later, blues and Americana gave way to a different groove, as Austin’s greatest Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma got hips moving and booties shaking. The slinky “Nada” and funky “Mulato” could make a dead man dance. We then shifted from sexy salsa to hard-edged rock, with a special videotaped appearance by the Foo Fighters. The alt.rock superstars blazed through a fierce take on Austin hero Roky Erickson’s raging “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog),” recorded in the original ACL studio 6A – the public debut of a performance that will appear in the final edit of the special.

“If you want to hear what the blues are like in the 21st century,” proclaimed co-host Crow, “get ready.” That was the signal for Austin blues kingpin Jimmie Vaughan to re-take the stage, joined by his old friend and tonight’s vanguard artist Bonnie Raitt. The pair essayed an old Billy Emerson tune called “The Pleasure’s All Mine,” a classic blues shuffle with their guitars locking horns at the end. Vaughan continued solo in the classic blues bag with Teddy Humphries’ stinging “What Makes You So Tough,” before inviting his former proteges Clark and Doyle Bramhall II up for the latter’s unrecorded blues grinder “Early in the Morning.” Blues has always been important to ACL’s history, and it was nice to have the spotlight shone directly on it.

Following a salute to our other Hall of Fame inductees Darrell K. Royal and Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, co-host Sheryl Crow arrived for her own set. With Bramhall guesting on guitar, she rocked “Can’t Cry Anymore,” one of her earliest hits from her breakthrough Tuesday Night Music Club. She then ceded the mic to Bramhall, singing harmony on his own early rocker, the choogling “I’m Leavin’.” Crow then shared the spotlight with Clark, the pair doing a guitar-and-harmonica run through blues pioneer Elizabeth Cotten’s standard “Freight Train.”

ACL started as a showcase for Texas music, so it was only natural for the penultimate segment to honor that legacy. Seminal Lone Star singer/songwriters Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen took the stage for what Bridges called “the song that pretty well sums up the theme tonight,” the fist-pumping Texas anthem “The Road Goes On Forever,” written by Keen in 1989 and a staple of Ely’s live shows. Ely then left the stage so Keen could perform his cheeky crime tale “I Gotta Go,” before returning for his own original lighter-waver, “All Just to Get to You.” The Texan theme continued, with a special Hall of Fame award presentation to producer/steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, a veteran of both Ely and Keen’s live bands, the house bandleader for the night and quite possibly the musician who’s appeared the most times on the ACL stage.

Though the song claims that “The road goes on forever and the party never ends,” our party did come to an end with a massive gang-twang on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” featuring the entire cast. You can’t have a much better time than with Joe Ely, Jeff Bridges and Sheryl Crow trading verses and Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. trading solos. It brought a great evening blazing to a close. As the icing on the cake, this landmark performance will find its way to PBS for a two-hour prime time special as part of of the PBS Fall Arts Festival – look for ACL Celebrates 40 Years on PBS on Oct. 3 at 9pm ET.