Icon, pop trailblazer, Tony Award-winning Broadway composer, Emmy-winning actress and prolific hitmaker, Cyndi Lauper has made a career of defying expectations. A musical omnivore with a thirst that’s led her to drink deeply of genres like blues, standards and country music in recent years, she brought all this and a series of lively anecdotes from throughout her three decade-career to her first-ever performance on the Austin City Limits stage, and it was as spectacular and entertaining as one could imagine.
Primed by Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” on the sound system, the crowd welcomed the band as they kicked into the rollicking “Funnel of Love,” the Wanda Jackson tune on Lauper’s latest album Detour. The singer herself strutted onstage in a black hat over hot pink hair, carrying a small suitcase and belting the song. Star and band jumped right into her bucket of hits, lighting into “She Bop,” Lauper doing call-and-response with the audience and contributing a recorder solo. She returned to Detour, explaining the genesis of this LP of country covers with a hilarious monologue that covered Nashville, Seymour Stein, Dolly Parton, Ethel Merman and a very large cockroach. A faithful cover of Ray Price’s “Heartaches By the Number” followed, with fiddle provided by Andy Burton’s synthesizer and pedal steel player Jon Graboff contributing a traditionalist solo. Then it was into “I Drove All Night,” the propulsive late 80s hit from A Night to Remember.
Lauper then stepped onto a platform on stage right shaped like a vinyl LP. Sure enough, it began to spin, serving as the perfect setting for Skeeter Davis’ show-stopping ballad “The End of the World.” She revisited her rockabilly roots with the band Blue Angel by swaggering confidently through Patsy Cline’s immortal classic “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Using a stick pony as a prop, Lauper talked about seeing both Cline and serial Westerns on TV as a child, and how it inspired her to be a singer and to discover country music. It was a lead-up to her faithful cover of Patsy Montana’s Western Swing hit “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” featuring frisky solos from Burton and guitarist Alex Nolan, harmony yodeling from Lauper and backup singer Elaine Caswell and the stick pony (which remained silent). She then went back to her own catalog for “You Don’t Know,” an anthemic shoulda-been-hit from her overlooked LP Sisters of Avalon.
Lauper revisited her breakout debut She’s So Unusual for “When You Were Mine,” Prince’s heartbreaking pop tune that she’s made her own. As drummer Sammy Merendino provided a backbeat, Lauper introduced the band, before said backbeat led into the rockin’ “Money Changes Everything,” the Brains song she took into the top 30 in 1984. That was the end of the main set, but not the end of the night. After giving the audience plenty of time to work themselves into a frenzy, the band retook the stage and started “Misty Blue,” the Bob Montgomery ballad recorded by Eddy Arnold, Ella Fitzgerald and others. Using the handset of a prop payphone as a mic, Lauper added her name to the list of luminaries who put their stamp on the song.
As Lauper talked about watching ACL while on the road, the crew brought up a mountain dulcimer on a stand. Strumming the familiar chords of “Time After Time,” Lauper invited the audience to sing along, letting them have the song’s final note to themselves. That earned a standing ovation. The big hit followed – you know the one. Lauper started the song accompanied only by Graboff’s steel, and that first verse was all it took to make the crowd go wild. Then that familiar guitar riff kicked in, and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” brought the audience to their feet and Lauper into their midst. One massive call-and-response singalong later, the house came down and the band quit the stage. Lauper came back alone for a stunning closer: an a cappella take on her inspirational ballad “True Colors,” once again with the crowd as her backup. It was a moving performance, with a lot of tears in the audience. We can’t wait for you to see it when Cyndi Lauper’s episode airs early next year on your local PBS station.