Spoon returns to rock ACL

photo by Scott Newton

We love having hometown heroes on Austin City Limits. So we’re thrilled to welcome ACL vets Spoon back for our 40th anniversary season. Masterful songwriter and singer Britt Daniel had led his crew to our stage on three other occasions: in 2002, 2005 and 2010. Now riding high on their rapturously received new record They Want My Soul, Spoon returned for their fourth taping to rock ACL once again.

The quintet opened the show with the new album’s “Knock Knock Knock,” a moody rock tune punctuated by Alex Fischel’s noisy guitar solos. The band then swung directly into “Rent I Pay,” another They Want My Soul tune that proved that Spoon has only gotten tighter, hookier and more melodic as they’ve matured. The band drew mostly from its three most recent albums thereafter, banging out tasty, tension-filled pop rockers like “Who Makes Your Money,” “Do You” and “Rainy Taxi” and groovier, more atmospheric numbers a la “Way We Get By” (which found Fischel joining the audience with his tambourine), “The Ghost of You Lingers” (on which Jim Eno abandoned his drum kit to take up one of our handheld cameras) and “Don’t You Evah.” They split the difference with “Don’t Make Me a Target,” which started out stacatto and moved into limber by the end, thanks in part to Eric Harvey’s clavinet. Much to the fans’ delight, Spoon dipped into their two decades’ of catalog as well, with the piano-driven “Way We Get By,” winsome “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” and gloriously choppy “I Turn My Camera On.” Preferring a no-frills approach, Spoon makes a virtue of straightforward, gimmick-free performances, contrasting Daniel’s vibrant, barely contained cool with Fischel’s spastic thrashing.

Spoon ended the main set with the postpunk slash of “Got Nuffin” and the more jangling “Black Like Me,” but the evening wasn’t over yet. The band returned with a pair of gems from They Want My Soul, the nearly funky “Outlier” and the snappy title cut. But it was the ending that brought down the house, as the band blazed through a dynamic version of its radio hit “The Underdog,” giving it as close to a big rawk finish as they’ll ever come. It was a bravura performance, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs on PBS early next year.

The return of the Avett Brothers

photo by Scott Newton

Last night we welcomed the The Avett Brothers back to the Austin City Limits stage in a triumphant return to the show. Fresh from their appearance at the ACL Music Festival, the band was greeted by enthusiastic fans eagerly waiting to hear them and sing along.  Since the band first appeared on the show in 2009, they have been busy writing and recording back-to-back Rick Rubin-produced albums The Carpenter (which received a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album) and Magpie and the Dandelion.

As the band opened with the romantic folk rocker “Live and Die,” there was a clear difference between this band and the one that visited in Season 35, and not just because of the addition of a drummer, keyboardist and fiddler. The ragged, nervous energy of the first show has been replaced by a different vibe, one of confidence and the professionalism that comes from having played hundreds, if not thousands, of shows to people all over the world. The energy level was just as high as last time, but this time the band focused its power, giving the frisky folk tune “The Fall,” the piano anthem “Head Full of Doubt, Heart Full of Promise” and the giddy folk rocker “Satan Pulls the Strings” a blazing vitality that was infectious. Not that the audience needed much prodding – even lower key tunes like “Life” and “Rejects in the Attic” garnered cheers before they’d barely started.

As good as the band was with newer tunes, it was on older songs like “Slight Figure of Speech” and “Kick Drum Heart,” both transformed into rock anthems, that proved explosive. The band ended the show with an especially peppy take on George Jones’ “The Race is On,” on which the septet bounced all over the stage, before coming down with the lovely “November Blue” from their very first LP. The crowd went wild as their heroes left the stage, and we’re sure you’ll go wild as well when we broadcast this episode early next year on your PBS station.

Sam Smith: soulful singer/songwriter

photo by Scott Newton

Soulful singer/songwriter Sam Smith exploded seemingly out of nowhere this year with the hugely successful single “Stay With Me.” Fans in his native U.K. have known about his sensitive songs and amazing voice for a couple of years and now fans stateside are catching up in a big way.   Last night we were happy to welcome them and their hero to his first Austin City Limits taping.

In the tradition of the soul singers of yore, Smith took the stage as his eight-piece band was already a minute into “Nirvana,” the title track of his early EP. The song began as a ballad, but moved into anthem territory, a method with which Smith fans are intimately familiar. A funkier backbeat ruled “Together” from the same EP, pumping up the energy, not that the eager audience needed it. Smith then took us on a tour through the unrequited love that drives his debut album In the Lonely Hour, from the midtempo “Good Thing” and the jazzy “I’m Not the Only One” to the dramatic ballads “Lay Me Down” (which garnered tears and cuddling couples in the audience) and “Leave Your Lovers” (“one of my favorites on the album,” he noted). He also took time out to pay tribute to a key influence by covering Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” as a piano ballad and teaching the audience to dance with his new single “Restart.” He ended the main set with a mashup of a pair of his tunes, the anthemic ballad “Money On My Mind” and the discofied “Finally.” “I don’t care if you can’t sing at all,” Smith insisted to the crowd, “please sing as loud as you can.”

Smith and band returned with “Latch,” his U.K. hit with the electronic act Disclosure, done here as a midtempo pop tune, before going into “Make It to Me,” a song he described as a “massive mating call.” But it was the final song that truly raised the roof. The opening chords of “Stay With Me” drew a roar, and Smith exhorted the crowd to clap along. Audience comfortably instilled in the palm of his hand, Smith then released them by dropping the band out, letting the fans take a chorus by themselves, sounding like a church choir. It was an explosive end to a strong ACL debut, and we can’t wait for you to see this show for yourselves when it airs on PBS early next year.

Jenny Lewis’ smart pop gems

photo by Scott Newton

Singer and songwriter Jenny Lewis last appeared on the ACL stage in 2005 with the band Rilo Kiley for a memorable show that opened our thirty-first season. So we were pleased to welcome her back, this time under her own name, for a sparkling show full of smart pop gems.

Reaching back for a quick history lesson, Lewis and her five-piece band opened with the shimmering country rock of “Silver Lining” from the Rilo Kiley catalog. The song boasted a classic 70s singer/songwriter vibe, which she carried over to other rootsy tune like “Late Bloomer,” “You Are What You Love” and the Linda Ronstadt-like “Rise Up With Fists.” The country/folk elements took a back seat on other songs, with the midtempo pop of “Slippery Slopes” and “The New You,” the sweetly charming “Love U Forever” and the devilishly catchy “Head Underwater” drawing from familiar but less obvious sources. The brash “The Moneymaker” and “The Next Messiah,” on which the band was joined by Lewis’ frequent collaborator (and beau) Johnathan Rice, found her comfortably embracing louder rock & roll, a thread she continued with the climactic shuffle “Just One of the Guys.”

Backed by her bandmates surrounding a single mic, Lewis ended the main set with her acoustic guitar for the beautiful, hymn-like “Acid Tongue.” After blowing the audience a kiss, she exited the stage to wild applause. But it wasn’t over yet  - the crowd response was so eager she came back with a guitarist and harmony singer for a folk take on Rilo Kiley’s “With Arms Outstretched,” which the audience greeted with cheers from the first line. It was a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year on PBS.

Future Islands’ charismatic synth pop

photo by Scott Newton

A few months ago, Future Islands was a cult band with a strong critical following. Now, thanks to the songwriting talents of musicians Gerrit Welmers, Mike Lowry and William Cashion and the indisputable charisma of frontman Samuel Herring, the band is on everyone’s lips. Herring, who mentioned that he grew up watching the show in North Carolina, called Future Islands’ livestreamed ACL debut a “ten-fold honor – I can’t even make sense of it.”

“Back in the Tall Grass” served as a low-key opener, a midtempo pop tune that allowed the singer to build up to his signature stage moves. The band hit its stride immediately with the classicist British synth pop of “A Dream of You and Me,” which found the restless Herring beginning his sweep across the stage. The band stayed out of the singer’s way literally and figuratively, the stripped-down music giving Herring plenty of room to move. From the high kicks in “Balance” to the stripper hips of “Doves” and the reach for the stars in “The Great Fire,” Herring was in near constant motion, augmenting his croon-to-growl vocal gymnastics with completely unselfconscious movement. “His dance moves ARE the best,” enthused livestream viewer Monique Jewett-Brewster. The disco rhythms of “Walking Through That Door” and “Long Flight” seemed particularly conducive to Herring’s flamboyance, as he pulled out all the vocals stops.

Future Islands ended the main set with the uplifting “Spirit,” which Herring revealed is about the “inner flame that keeps us going.” But it was the final song of the encore that really underscored what this band is all about – “Little Dreamer,” from the group’s first album Wave Like Home, featured music even more austere and minimalist than the rest and plenty of room for Herring to emote. “One of the best performers of our time,” commented Chad Parker. You can see for yourselves when Future Islands hit the PBS airwaves in early 2015.

Eric Church: hail to the Chief

photo by Scott Newton

The word “limits” may be in our name, but we at Austin City Limits pride ourselves on not having any, at least when it comes to the styles of music we feature on the show. That said, our roots are in country music, so we’re always happy to welcome one of the genre’s shining stars. Eric Church certainly fits that bill, and so we were thrilled to host his first ACL taping.  “I’ve been watching this show for, like, 30 years,” remarked a visibly excited Church, who noted that seeing Iris DeMent on ACL was a lifechanger. “And I’m a little nervous.” You’d never know from this confident, powerful performance.

The appropriately stalking rhythm and National Steel guitar of “Creepin’” opened the set, the hard rock riffs contrasting nicely with Church’s North Carolina drawl. The louder, heavier “Guys Like Me” followed, the first in a series of anthems that established Church’s songwriting tradition of both paying tribute to and subtly critiquing his characters. With twin lead guitars at his side, Church energetically blasted out paeans to overindulgence (“Jack Daniels,” “Smoke a Little Smoke”), small town values (the CMA-nominated “Give Me Back My Hometown,” “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag”) and good old-fashioned rebellion (“That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” “The Outsiders”). It wasn’t all just fist-pumpers, however – Church also delved into the more traditional country that inspired him with “Talladega,” “Sinners Like Me” and the inspirational “These Boots,” for which the audience saluted by pulling their own boots off and waving them toward the stage. (One young lady was rewarded by Church taking hers and signing it.)

Of course, Church also performed his anthem to end all anthems – “Springsteen” is the song he’ll be playing until the end of his career, and starting it by singing a few lines from the titular artist’s “Thunder Road” and engaging the crowd to sing the “whoa-ohs” only enhanced this readymade classic. But after all the lighter-waving songs, Church brought it all home solo with “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” an ode to maturity that sent the audience away satisfied. We can’t wait for you to see Eric Church when his show airs as a full-hour episode November 15th on your PBS station during ACL’s 40th Anniversary Season.