Shakey Graves wows hometown crowd

photo by Scott Newton

Shakey Graves has worked hard in the last few years. The Austin musician known as Alejandro Rose-Garcia to his parents has been a road dog of the first degree, taking first his one-man-band act then his band on the road to any club, festival and living room that would have him. The work has paid off with a pair of highly acclaimed albums and a growing national fanbase. For last night’s livestreamed taping, the young singer/songwriter was welcomed by a loving hometown crowd.

“I’m just gonna take a minute and soak all this in,” Graves said before launching into “Roll the Bones,” the title track of his debut album. Thumping a suitcase bass drum and tambourine combo and fingerpicking a noisy hollowbody guitar, the raspy-voiced Austin native made his case immediately: passionate, funny, mindful of folk and blues tradition without being dragged down by it. Graves was joined by his stalwart drummer Boo for the cowpunkabilly “If Not For You” and then by guitarist Patrick O’Connor for the more folky “Family and Genus,” with the trio then taking “The Perfect Parts” to the swamp. Boo and O’Connor took a break to let Graves go back to singing solo, digging into his folk bag for “Tomorrow,” the vaudeville-tinged “Chinatown” (a request from his mom, who was present) and “ Proper Fence,” which ended with playful call and response with the crowd. Following the fingerpicked electric blues of “Buil to Roam,” Graves’ band then retook the stage, swaying into the grungy “Pansy Waltz” and blazing into the surfing cowpunk of “Where a Boy Once Stood.” Inviting his friend Carson McHone to duet, Graves and co. ended the main set with his triple-A radio hit “Dearly Departed,” which brought the audience to its feet.

Graves came back alone for the encore, showing off both sides of his personality: the sensitive troubadour of “Hard Wired” and the sardonic storyteller behind the crime story “Late July.” With that one-two punch, the show concluded to rapturous applause, as the hometown hero left the stage. It was an excellent show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs during Season 41 on PBS.

Cassandra Wilson salutes Billie Holiday at her debut taping

photo by Scott Newton

This year marks the 100th birthday of jazz icon Billie Holiday. What better way to celebrate one of the greatest singers of all time than to have one of her spiritual descendants do a tribute? Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson has long been on our wishlist, but the stars never aligned – until now, that is. Tonight’s show not only finally brought us a long-sought guest, but also paid tribute to a true musical titan via songs from Wilson’s new Holiday-themed album Coming Forth By Day.

The set began quietly with “The Way You Look Tonight,” which Wilson and her 14-piece band (including an 8-piece string section) performed fairly traditionally, outside of the unusual choice of bass clarinet for Robbie Marshall’s solo. But she and her musicians stepped off the traditional path with “Don’t Explain,” guitarist Kevin Breit looping his instrument and applying slide and e-bow, while the rhythm section (including veteran bassist Lonnie Plaxico, who played on Wilson’s debut album) added healthy dollops of blues feel. A subtle singer who prefers to explore a song’s nooks and crannies rather than engage in acrobatics, Wilson is known for putting her own distinctive spin on classic material, and that’s the path she followed for the rest of the night.

“What a Little Moonlight Can Do” rode a samba rhythm, touched by Marshall’s flute and a gnarly electric violin solo from Charlie Burnham. “Crazy He Calls Me” shifted from Broadway flourish to jazz rock explosion, while “You Go to My Head” gained a funk undercurrent and a Breit solo that sounded like a soprano sax. The musicians put a subtle Latin spin on “All of Me” that turned into it into babymaking music, then masterfully manipulated the dynamics of “Good Morning Heartache,” Wilson taking a seat as the band swirled around her in collective improvisation. Perhaps the biggest highlight was “Last Song (for Lester),” a Wilson original that imagines the song Holiday might’ve sung at the funeral of her musical soulmate Lester Young had she been allowed. It was a beautiful tour de force, blending sadness at opportunities lost and joy for knowing a special someone. Wilson ended the set with a sardonic, defiant romp through “Billie’s Blues,” exiting the stage to raucous applause.

Naturally, the show wasn’t done yet – not without renditions of Holiday’s greatest hits. The encore began with “God Bless the Child,” given an almost pop/jazz reading with a slide guitar solo and Wilson’s distinctive take on the vocal melody. Then came a tribal drum beat and the sound of chains hitting the ground, which could only mean one thing: “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s bitter ballad about the practice of lynching African Americans in the south. The song’s already haunted atmosphere bristled with dramatic strings and a particularly husky vocal from Wilson, before she picked up her Telecaster and clawed a skronky, feedback-soaked solo out of her helpless instrument, channeling the ghosts of lynching victims howling from beyond. To say this amazing performance brought the house down seems almost inadequate. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.

Sleater-Kinney wow ACL fans with 22-song set

photo by Scott Newton

When innovative indie rockers Sleater-Kinney reunited in 2014, fans were thrilled. The excitement doubled earlier this year when the Pacific Northwest trio released No Cities to Love, a brand new, highly acclaimed record. That energy reached an apex of sorts when we welcomed the band to their first Austin City Limits taping, which we also streamed live on our YouTube Channel.

The band opened with little fanfare but tons of energy on the jagged rocker “Price Tag,” the danceable power popper “Fangless,” both from No Cities to Love, and crowd-pleasing new waver “Oh!” The cuts showcased not only the band’s way with uncommon hooks, but also the combustible chemistry between the clashing guitars and vocals of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and powerhouse drums of Janet Weiss. “This is one of our favorite cities and we’re so excited to be playing Austin City Limits,” noted Tucker in a rare between-song comment, before the band launched into “What’s Mine is Yours,” a sprightly rocker that detoured into grinding guitar noise. Following that avant interlude, Sleater-Kinney eschewed respites and simply rocked out for another hour, hitting tracks from nearly every LP they’ve released. The band ripped through the bouncing power pop of “Get Up” and “Words and Guitar,” urgent punk of “Light Rail Coyote” and the ironically titled “No Anthems” and the bristling rock & roll of “Bury Our Friends” and “Start Together.” With a one-two punch of the excessively melodic “Entertain” and “Jumpers,” both from the band’s masterpiece The Woods, Sleater-Kinney brought the main set to a close.

Packed with loyal fans, the crowd didn’t want the band to leave. Fortunately, their persistence was rewarded with a four-song encore, including “Sympathy,” “Dig Me Out” and the early fan favorite “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” closing with the winsome pop tune “Modern Girl.” At a generous 22 songs, there was no way any Sleater-Kinney fanatic could be unsatisfied. We think you won’t be either when you see this episode, broadcasting this fall on your local PBS station.

 

The War On Drugs’ psychedelic classic rock

photo by Scott Newton

For its debut ACL taping The War On Drugs lived up to the critical acclaim that’s been showered upon them since their 2011 breakthrough Slave Ambient. Drawing mostly from last year’s Lost in the Dream, widely praised as the Philadelphia band’s best so far, topping critics year-end Best lists, TWOD performed a strong set of its patented blend of spacey psychedelia and classic rock to an adoring audience.

Starting with a hazy synth intro, the sextet eased in “Under the Pressure,” also the first song on Lost in the Dream. Over a driving motorik rhythm, leader Adam Granduciel overlaid Dylanesque vocals and tasteful guitar solos, painting a vibrant picture that coaxes attention instead of demanding it. TWOD worked that formula even more successfully on “Red Eyes,” “Baby Missiles” and the midpoint anthem “An Ocean Between the Waves,” crowd-pleasers all. The band didn’t stick only to that groove, however. “Disappearing” added an almost disco rhythm to the drumming, giving the song its own buoyancy. “Lost in the Dream” and “Eyes to the Wind” worked more dynamic melodies, adding a certain wistfulness to the vibe, even as Granduciel traversed his fretboard. TWOD combined everything into “In Reverse,” the penultimate tune that served as the set’s climax.

Following that peak, the band closed by taking the crowd into the lush green valley of “Suffering,” the cathartic ballad pushing us gently into the good night. Eschewing the Big Rock Finish was the perfect way to bring this stunning, shimmering show to an end. We hope you’ll feel the same when this episode airs this fall on PBS.

 

Sturgill Simpson’s forward-thinking tradition

photo by Scott Newton

Country singer Sturgill Simpson is exactly the kind of artist we like on Austin City Limits: mindful of tradition but with a forward-thinking attitude. Inspired equally by Waylon Jennings and Carl Sagan, the Nashville-based Kentucky native makes hardcore country that comes from another place, as his acclaimed breakthrough LP Metamodern Sounds in Country Music proves.  Aaron Taylor, one of our live stream viewers on YouTube, remarked, “No boots like a fake cowboy, no cowboy hat, just pure country.” So we were thrilled to welcome the recent Atlantic Records signee to his debut ACL.

Simpson and his four-piece band wasted no time once they hit the stage, launching into “Sitting Here Without You,” a high-speed burner with plenty of room for skillet-licking guitarist Laur Joamets to shine. Indeed, Simpson often featured Joamets’ picking, letting the Estonian native rip through the trucking “Long White Line,” the hot-rocking “Life of Sin” and the bluegrass-blazing Ralph Stanley cover “Poor Rambler,” on which Simpson traded licks with his lead guitarist. “Found myself stomping my floorboard,” exclaimed theoskeewhoat on our YouTube live stream. As happy as he was to showcase his band, though, Simpson ultimately is about songs, and he has plenty of good ones. From the philosophical “Time After All” and “Water in a Well” and the angry “Some Days” to the romantic cover of synthpop band When in Rome’s “The Promise” and the pitch-black “Living the Dream,” Simpson gave a masterful performance. He and his band closed the main set with the back-to-back killers “Turtles (All the Way Down” and “It Ain’t All Flowers,” which started honkytonkin’ and ended rockin’.

Of course, it wasn’t quite over, as the audience didn’t want the band to leave. Simpson paid tribute to the outlaw country scene that inspires him with a cover of “I’d Have to Be Crazy” by Austin cosmic cowboy Steven Fromholz, before digging into the repertoire of his old band Sunday Valley for a ripping take on the Osborne Brothers’ “Listening to the Rain,” which incorporated T.Rex’s “The Motivator.” With that, Simpson brought down the house, leaving the crowd wanting more. “Hard to believe how absolutely great Sturgill is!” enthused Chris Durand on our Facebook page. It was a great show and a strong debut, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs on PBS this Fall.

 

TV on the Radio conquers ACL

photo by Scott Newton

When TV on the Radio hit our studio for its livestreamed Austin City Limits debut, the Brooklyn combo proved exactly why it’s one of the most acclaimed bands in the land. The quartet’s ingenious mashup of rock, soul and electronica makes it a favorite of both critics and audiences, and gives it a unique style and flavor that conquered onstage.

A slow, psychedelic intro signaled the atmospheric “Young Liars,” the title track from the band’s 2003 EP that introduced it to the world. But the mood didn’t stay dreamy for long, as the foursome (plus two auxiliary musicians) launched into the punk-rocking “Lazerray,” an aggressive track from TVOTR’s latest album Seeds. That record, described as “ a perfect distillation of what the band does best” by Exclaim, provided the backbone of the set. Stripping down its often elaborate production schemes to simply get down to business, the band hit hard on “Winter,” the synth-spiked “Happy Idiot” and the trombone-frosted “New Cannonball Blues” (from the group’s previous LP Nine Types of Light). “Could You,” the 6/8 “Love Dog” and the crushing “Wolf Like Me” (from breakthrough Return to Cookie Mountain) represented TVOTR’s lighter-waving anthem side, while the dreamy “Seeds” and silky “Careful You” embodied its skill with psychedelic balladry.

Following the nearly rapped demi-punk smasher “Dancing Choose,” from the record Dear Science, TVOTR closed its main set with the emotional anthem “Trouble,” which directly addresses the loss the band felt at the sudden death of member Gerard Smith with the repeated plea “Everything’s gonna be okay!”. “This song is dedicated to anyone seriously going through something right now,” noted singer Tunde Adebimpe, and the crowd responded with a standing ovation after the song’s gentle close. Though no encore was planned, the band couldn’t just leave us in such an overwhelmed state, and came back with “DLZ,” a loud, wordy groover from Dear Science that gave us the catharsis we needed. A stunning show, and one we can’t wait for you to see once the final edit hits the PBS airwaves this fall.

 

Asleep at the Wheel’s all-star homecoming

photo by Scott Newton

It’s always a thrill to welcome back ACL alumni. It’s an even bigger thrill to re-open the stage to a band that was literally there from the beginning. Asleep at the Wheel appeared in ACL’s first official episode in 1976, joined by Bob Wills’ Original Texas Playboys. It’s now 40 years down the road, and Austin’s beloved Western swing institution returns for their tenth taping in salute to the Playboys’ vast catalog.

After opening with straightforward renditions of “Cherokee Maiden” and “Miles and Miles of Texas” (which is as much a Wheel standard at this point as a Playboys staple), bandleader Ray Benson welcomed 92-year-old saxophonist Billy Briggs, who was a 1950s-era Playboy, to the stage for a hopping take on “Route 66,” co-sung by pianist Emily Gimble, the granddaughter of former Playboy (and frequent ACL guest) Johnny Gimble. The band then took a skillful, joyful trip through Wills’ back catalog, hitting not only the obvious hits (“San Antonio Rose,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Faded Love”) but titles that ring bells only with hardcore Western swing fans (“Keeper of My Heart,” “It’s All Your Fault,” “A Good Man’s Hard to Find”). Ending the first half with the party-hearty “Big Balls in Cowtown,” the Wheel brought the crowd to their feet.

For the second half, the band brought out some special guests. The Quebe Sisters, a trio from Burleson, TX, brought triple harmonies to both their fiddles and their Andrews Sisters-styled vocals on “Navajo Trail” and “Across the Alley.” Amos Lee gave “I Hear Ya Talkin’” and “Sweet Pea” a bluesily soulful spin. The Avett Brothers and their band turned “Girl I Left Behind Me” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa” (the Wheel’s first song on their debut episode 40 years prior) into down-home folk songs as much as Western swing. Then came the night’s biggest coup, as former Playboys singer Leon Rausch, who played with Wills in the ‘50s and with the Playboys on ACL’s 10th anniversary episode in front of the Texas capitol, arrived onstage for a rousing “Milk Cow Blues.” Eighty-eight years young. Rausch hasn’t lost a step and the audience showed its appreciation.

The entire ensemble then took the stage for a nifty run through the “Texas Playboys Theme,” which used to open the Playboys’ radio show; the band interpolated “Happy Trails” into the old chestnut. The Wheel encored with another of its standards, the jumping “Choo Choo Ch-Boogie,” before closing things out with a crowd singalong on country superstar – and Western swing fanatic – George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas.” We can’t imagine a better way to complete a circle that began in the mid-70s, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs later this year on PBS.

 

Foo Fighters conquer the ACL stage

photo by Scott Newton

When our good pals the Foo Fighters returned to Austin City Limits, it was not only as stage-conquering rock superstars-it was also as filmmakers of the much-acclaimed HBO series Sonic Highways, which chronicles the making of the band’s latest LP of the same name. Episode four of Sonic Highways, centered around that song and our town, was rapturously received, and on its heels we were thrilled to welcome them to our current studio in the Moody Theater for the band’s second ACLTV appearance.

The Foos opened with the moody, spacy epic “Aurora” before slamming into the raging “The Feast and the Famine.” Once the needle hit red it stayed there, as Dave Grohl and the band pumped out anthem after fan-favorite anthem: “Learn to Fly,” “Times Like These,” which featured the first of Grohl’s many trips into the audience, “Rope,” “The Pretender,” “My Hero,” “Monkey Wrench,” deep cuts “Arlandria” and “Hey, Johnny Park!” The Foos barrelled back down the Sonic Highways with the blazing “Congregation,” before launching into the album’s two part Austin-based song. The melodic “What Did I Do” garnered immediate audience approval, but that enthusiasm turned into fervor when album guest and ACL alumnus Gary Clark Jr. took the stage to perform his elegiac solo on the second half, “God As My Witness.” The fervor didn’t stop there, as not only did Clark stay for the next song, but Grohl welcomed ATX blues legend (and co-star of the Austin episode) Jimmie Vaughan for a spirited run through the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Tuff Enuff,” with Vaughan replicating his distinctive solos.

After that, the band could do no wrong, digging into its catalog for the rocking “Cold Day in the Sun,” sung by drummer Taylor Hawkins, before another series of back-to-back-to-back killers with “In the Clear,” “I’ll Stick Around,” “Walk,” “Outside” and the punky “All My Life.” Then things took an epic turn. Grohl took off his guitar and headed back into the audience with a bottle of champagne to share with the delirious crowd as the rest of the group launched into the Rolling Stones’ disco rock hybrid “Miss You,” sung by Hawkins (who admitted he didn’t know the words). Grohl then took over the kit so Hawkins could come up front for a punked-up take on Cheap Trick’s “Stiff Competition.” The Foos’ living jukebox didn’t stop there, though – next up was “Under Pressure,” the Queen/David Bowie classic done as a duet between Grohl and Hawkins, then Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” with an extended electric piano solo from keyboardist Rami Jaffee, and finally a roaring bash through Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love.”

“I guess we better play one more Foo Fighters song,” chuckled Grohl, cueing up “Best of You,” with its “whoa-ohs” taken over by the audience. The band ended the show with “Everlong,” another hit and crowd favorite, and then, almost three hours from when it started, the show was over. It was a monster of a performance, one that Grohl described as “the weirdest f-g show we’ve ever played.” We can’t wait for you to see it when it broadcasts early next year as a highlight of our milestone Season 40. Stay tuned.