Taping recap: H.E.R.

photo by Scott Newton

H.E.R. has had an eventful couple of years. Scoring a gold record with her full-length self-titled debut, a NPR Tiny Desk concert and two 2019 Grammy Awards for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance, the erstwhile Gabriella Wilson has moved from strength to strength since beginning her performance career ten years ago. The fast-rising singer and songwriter brought her award-winning artistry to the ACL stage for the first time with a set of songs guaranteed to slow jam the night away. 

After a brief intro from her six-piece band, multi-instrumentalist H.E.R. took the stage with an acoustic guitar for the funky “Carried Away,” also contributing bass and electric piano solos before the song’s end. She picked up a pair of drumsticks to pound out the intro of the Latin-influenced “2.” Hands-free, she said she was proud to be on “this legendary stage,” before giving her husky alto a workout on the roiling “Feel Away” and the lush “Avenue.”  Donning her acoustic guitar, she sang a couple of verses of Deniece Williams’ “Free,” leading directly into her hit ballad “Best Part,” with backup singer Malik Spence delivering original duet partner Daniel Caesar’s lines. Built on a fingerpicked acoustic guitar figure, “Fate” danced gracefully on the line between folk and soul. 

While engaging the crowd in call-and-response “whoa’s,” H.E.R. switched to a plexiglass Stratocaster for the soulful, gospel-informed anthem “Hard Place,” a clear audience fave. After that bag of originals, she pulled a surprising cover: Northern Irish songwriter Foy Vance’s lighter-waving ballad “Make It Rain.” Though it was originally popularized by Ed Sheeran on the soundtrack for the TV show Sons of Anarchy, H.E.R. made it her own with blues rock guitar soloing and powerhouse singing. The crowd agreed, going nuts as she paused at the end for dramatic effect. She moved back to the electric piano for the slow jamming hit “Focus,” a song that allowed her to really show off her liquid vocal flexibility. That tune also served as a jumping-off point for a grooving cover of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “X Factor,” clearly a key influence. The band kept that rhythm going for “As I Am,” namechecking Hill by comparing her lover to “my favorite Lauryn song.” Then it was time for “Lights On,” one of her earliest hits and a song that actually required phone participation, as everybody held their lights into the sky. H.E.R. responded by re-donning her electric guitar and seguing into the guitar solo coda for Prince’s “Purple Rain.” With the backing vocalists and crowd singing the “ooo-ooo’s,” H.E.R. took us all home on her Strat and quit the stage to thunderous applause. And that was the end of a remarkable show from an explosive young talent. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station. 

Taping recap: Patty Griffin and Steve Earle & The Dukes

photo by Scott Newton

Singer/songwriters Patty Griffin and Steve Earle have been frequent visitors to the ACL stage in the past couple of decades. Griffin first appeared in 2000 as part of a songwriters’ special, getting her own show the next year, while Earle debuted way back in 1987. It’s always a pleasure to welcome back old friends, and doubly so under such special circumstances: Griffin to showcase songs from her highly-acclaimed, self-released and self-titled new album, and Earle, joined by some special guests, spotlighting Guy, his tribute to his songwriting mentor Guy Clark. Both turned in shows for the ages, which we live streamed around the world.  

Patty Griffin comes off of a four-year hiatus while the singer dealt with breast cancer, and her performance pulled generously from it. After a boisterous welcome from the crowd, she opened with the album’s “Mama’s Worried,” essentially a duet between David Pulkingham’s flamenco guitar and her own resonant singing. Next up was “The Wheel,” a bluesy declaration built on its writer’s jagged rhythm guitar and multi-instrumentalist Conrad Choucroun’s bass guitar/kick-drum rhythm. She followed with “Boys From Tralee,” a Celtic folk-tinged tune about Irish immigrants (of which Griffin’s grandparents were two), tying it into the current situation at the U.S. border. From the Emerald Isle to the American swamp: Griffin moved back to her 2004 LP Impossible Dream for the shuffling, tremolo-heavy “Standing,” allowing her to draw from her love of gospel. But she quickly shifted from the sacred to the secular, with the sly “Hourglass,” inspired by the great Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and featuring a Pulkingham solo that earned cheers. 

Guitars went to their stands as Pulkingham moved to the piano and his boss to the mic for the gorgeous “Luminous Places,” a well-titled standout from Patty Griffin. Then it was on to the “Truth #2,” a fan favorite, as evidenced by the cheers at the opening chords, and “Where I Come From,” a narrative Patty Griffin highlight. “River,” the self-titled album’s single, once again showcased her rich vocals, accompanied by Pulkingham’s acoustic guitar and the ridiculously multi-tasking Choucroun on piano, and greatly appreciated by the audience. Wielding a mandolin, Griffin finished her set with the rocking, inspirational “Shine a Different Way,” to the crowd’s delight. 

photo by Scott Newton

Joined by his long-running five-piece band The Dukes, Earle hit the stage kicking off his Guy Clark tribute with the classic “Dublin Blues,” receiving exuberant cheers at the opening line “Wish I was in Austin.” Earle immediately went into “Texas 1947,” featuring the expert pedal steel work of Ricky Ray Jackson. After sharing a short story about how he met Guy Clark while hitchhiking around Texas, the band performed the ode to the Hill Country honky-tonkin’ queen “Rita Ballou,” featuring Eleanor Whitmore on violin. Following a tale about Clark’s loyalty to Texas BBQ over Tennessee style BBQ, Joe Ely joined Earle on stage to perform “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train” – two Texas music legends trading verses on one of the state’s most influential songs. The Dukes quit the stage temporarily, so Earle could essay “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” a Clark song made famous by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. The band returned for “The Randall Knife,” one of Clark’s most autobiographical and arresting tunes, followed by the beloved “L.A. Freeway,” one of his most famous. With Earle donning his mandolin, he and The Dukes got acoustic for “New Cut Road,” an explicitly bluegrass-flavored tune that threw another spotlight on Whitmore, as well as her flatpicking husband Chris Masterson. After introducing the band, Earle went into “Heartbroke,” going through the first verse before being joined onstage by another Clark mentee – songwriting great Rodney Crowell, who originally recorded the song in 1980, before it became a hit for Ricky Skaggs in 1982. 

“I guess I should play a couple of songs of mine so y’all won’t think Guy didn’t teach me anything,” Earle quipped before launching into “Guitar Town,” the song that put him on the map as a writer and performer. After that hit, there was only one other song The Dukes could hit, and sure enough: the opening synth riff of “Copperhead Road” – the powerhouse rocker that served notice that Earle was simply country – got the crowd going wild. “That’s what Guy taught me,” he asserted. After that explosion, Earle brought Crowell and Ely back, joined by Lubbock legends Terry and Jo Harvey Allen, for “Old Friends,” Clark’s beautiful evocation of friendship, with each singer taking one of the spoken verses. Earle led the audience in a round of the chorus, before an instrumental coda and the singers laying down one last “old friends” to close. A better elegy for Clark would be hard to imagine. It was a beautiful moment, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station. 

 

Taping recap: Maggie Rogers

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After ten years of writing and producing music, Maggie Rogers’ career has culminated in her bestselling major label debut Heard It In a Past Life, boasting the hits “Light On” and “Burning.” ACL is always thrilled to welcome fast-rising young artists, so we were happy to host the young Easton, Maryland singer/songwriter for her debut taping.

The crowd greeted executive producer Terry Lickona’s announcement with big cheers as the band took the stage, before the star herself bounded onstage to kick off “Give a Little,” her high energy stage presence matching the song’s caffeinated bounce. Her voltage doubled for “Burning,” as she ranged all over the stage like she wanted to cover every centimeter before the song was done. “This is a song about a crush,” Rogers said by way of introduction to “Say It,” a tune that entered ballad territory to allow everyone to catch a collective breath. Though it stayed with a slower tempo, “On + Off” adopted a slinky R&B groove that built to near-anthemic spirit. After expressing how thrilled she and the band were to be there for ACL’s 45th anniversary, they launched into the shimmering “Dog Years,” which she described as “a song about friendship.” She showed off her funky side again with “The Knife,” an undulating tune that really got her moving. On “Retrograde,” Roger and band grabbed a winsome pop melody and didn’t let go until extracting every ounce of emotional strength.

By way of once again giving band and crowd a break, Rogers expressed her gratitude at being allowed “to do this thing that I love more than anything,” seguing from stating her thanks to singing it with the pop anthem “Light On.” Her audience responded with a loud outpouring of love. She kept the powerful feel going with “Past Life,” which would’ve no doubt gotten lighterwaving if we allowed them into the theater. The band dug back into groove for “Overnight,” another tune that got Rogers’ feet moving, with the energy continuing for the airy “Alaska.” Then the ensemble jumped back into anthem territory for the emotional “Back in My Body,” before ending the main set with the lovely, almost gospel-tinged “Falling Water,” giving the crowd a chance to clap along before cheering their lungs out.

Rogers returned to the stage alone, eschewing backing for the ghostly, a cappella “Color Song,” a highlight from her 2017 EP Now the Light is Fading. At one point she even abandoned the mic, her voice still carrying across the crowded theater. It was a wonderful way to end this high-energy show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs on your local PBS station during ACL’s 45th season.

Taping recap: Mitski

photo by Scott Newton

Mitski has undoubtedly carved out her own unique space in modern music – appropriately enough for an artist equally comfortable opening for either the Pixies or Lorde. The Japanese-born/NYC-based singer, songwriter and university-trained composer has her own distinct point of view and a singular performance style that owes as much to theater and dance as rock and pop. With a generous setlist covering her entire career, Mitski and her four-piece band gave us a stand-out show, made all the more special by her announcement on her Twitter feed earlier today that this would be her final tour.

The band took the stage behind a table desk and chair, followed by Mitski herself, holding a mic and standing still at stage right. As she sang “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart,” she did a slow walk from the side of the stage to her desk, taking a seat as the song ended. She sat stock still as the synth pulse of “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” kicked off, going into full-on choreography as the song progressed. She went back to the desk for the atmospheric “Old Friend,” climbing atop at the song’s climax. The band cranked up the volume for “Francis Forever” and “Dan the Dancer,” which contrasted nicely with her stoic performance style – at least until the leg kicks began on “Dan.” A plethora of sampled claps heralded the arrival of “Washing Machine Heart,” which garnered immediate cheers and encouraged Mitski to leave the desk. She returned to the prop for the throbbing “I Will,” ending the song standing atop it.

The music became noisier and more insistent for “I Don’t Smoke,” which Mitski performed with her arms as much as her voice. The more straightforward “First Love/Last Spring” earned a more energetic performance from the auteur, as if she was fueled by nervous energy. The dramatic “Geyser” followed, with the table desk taking on a role closer to dance partner than prop. Leaving the table on its end, she stalked the stage for the vibrant, aggressive “Townie,” before straddling the chair like a Bob Fosse character for the danceably poppy “Nobody.” She re-embraced the table for the tightly powerful “Liquid Smooth,” before taking to a microphone stand for the clamorous “A Pearl.” The languid, spacey “Thursday Girl” found her back on the table, as did the heartworn “Lonesome Love.”

After a quick sip of water, she sat on her knees on the table as guitarist Patrick Hyland strummed the chords to “Your Best American Girl,” which moved from meditative pop song to loud rock thumper, complete with whipped hair. The more melancholic “I Bet On Losing Dogs” followed, which also used the soft/loud dynamic to great advantage, as Mitski took over the desk once again. She then turned the desk over and stood behind it for the angry, strident “Drunk Walk Home,” brandishing her mic stand like a soldier practicing with a rifle and crawling on the floor in defiance. She ended the main set with the heartbroken pop anthem “Happy,” after which she left the stage.

It was only to retrieve her guitar, however, as her musicians continued to play. “My band, everyone,” Mitski remarked as they quit the stage, leaving her alone for the stark “A Burning Hill.” She then left the stage herself, leaving her adoring fans to cheer wildly. She returned, of course, as did keyboardist Kyuhyun Marie Kim, launching quietly, almost resignedly into the lovely “Two Slow Dancers.” She then thanked both the audience for supporting her in doing her “favorite thing in the world,” before praising the ACL crew as “the kindest, most accommodating, least pretentious people” with whom she’d ever done a TV gig. Then it was time for the big, show-closing anthem: “Carry Me Out,” a clear crowd favorite and the perfect way to end such a special show. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs as part of our upcoming Season 45 this fall on your local PBS station.

Taping recap: Rainbow Kitten Surprise

photo by Scott Newton

We always love Austin City Limits debuts, and it’s even better with a young band as fresh and exciting as Rainbow Kitten Surprise. The Boone, North Carolina quintet hit the Moody Theater stage in support of its highly acclaimed third album How To: Friend, Love, Freefall, from which comes the hits “Hide” and “Fever Pitch.” The band presented those and a whole lot more on its first ACL taping, which we live streamed around the world.

The band took the stage to enthusiastic cheers as they launched into the rollicking “Matchbox,” with vocalist/keyboardist/guitar and dancer Sam Melo and bassist/sparkplug Charlie Holt leading the way. The equally effervescent “It’s Called: Freefall” kept the energy level popping, followed by the moodier “Shameful Company,” a showcase for Melo’s soulful vocals. Melo added rapping to his vocal repertoire for “Moody Orange,” traversing a variety of musical moods in a single composition without taking the song anywhere near the rails. Then it was on to “Hide,” one of the singles from Freefall, its anthemic pop crashing into Melo’s bitter cries of “You better hide your love!” Guitarist Darrick “Bozzy” Keller put down his axe to join Melo in front for the theatrical “Devil Like Me,” before re-donning it for the mid-tempo charmer “Cocaine Jesus,” highlighted by a cappella harmonies.

A melancholy piano intro kicked off “When It Lands,” an ambitious, multi-movement composition that showcased each member’s talents. “Wasted” was simpler, but no less impressive, with Melo giving the vocal melody an impressive slow burn. Keller and fellow guitar slinger Ethan Goodpaster exchanged their electrics for acoustics for “Heart (Hey Pretty Mama),” a folky change of pace that was clearly a crowd favorite. The electrics came back for the groovy “All’s Well That Ends,” the better to play those smooth disco rhythm parts. Back at the piano, Melo crooned the intro to the dramatic “Holy War,” before retaking the mic at the front of the stage for the melodic midtempo charmer “Painkillers.” “Hi, we’re Rainbow Kitten Surprise,” said Melo, speaking for the first time between songs.  The band delivered a crowd favorite, “Fever Pitch,” the catchy anthem that brought the group to worldwide attention. The audience went wild as RKS quit the stage.

The fact that the lights didn’t go off signaled that the show wasn’t over. Sure enough they came back for a generous encore, starting with the minimalist “Possum Queen,” essentially a duet between Melo and drummer Jess Haney’s techno-influenced beats. Haney ceded the spotlight solely to Melo for the (mostly) solo “Polite Company.” Following the jaunty “Recktify,” RKS closed out the set with the hard-rocking guitar-frenzy “Run,”Melo doffing his shirt and in-ear monitor to slink around the stage like the rock star he is. The crowd went appropriately crazy.

But it still wasn’t over. Due to technical difficulties, the band decided on re-takes of “Matchbox,” “It’s Called: Freefall” and “When It Lands.” Given that there was nothing wrong performance-wise with the originals, this was a gift to fans for sticking around. It was a nice way to end a stunning show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.

Taping recap: The Revivalists

photo by Scott Newton

New Orleans rock band The Revivalists earned their success the old-fashioned way: writing good songs and playing ‘em for people as often as they could. After 10 years of grinding, the veteran road dogs scored a platinum single with 2015’s breakout “Wish I Knew You,” setting the stage for their next wave of success with 2018’s Take Good Care and its hit “All My Friends.” We were happy to catch that wave as it crested, hosting the octet for its Austin City Limits debut, which we live streamed around the world.

“What a true honor it is to be here on this stage,” remarked singer David Shaw as the band took the stage. Then the band kicked off with “When I’m With You,” a slow build that turned into a mini-anthem. The group then launched a heavy groove that powered “Oh No,” a bluesy rocker that had the front row singing along. The radio hit “All My Friends” came next, filling the room with its catchy chorus. Shaw put down his guitar for “Change,” a song for the crowd to clap along with and sing the “Ooooohs.” The Revivalists kept the energy level up with “You and I,” Shaw advising the crowd to “give us the good stuff.” A certain psychedelic element crept into “Criminal,” courtesy pedal steel guitarist Ed Williams’ spacy tones, but the electricity never flagged, and the audience responded with its biggest cheers yet.

The band slowed the pace down slightly with “It Was a Sin,” which had a more measured tempo – at least until the bridge, when it all ramped up again. “Fade Away” dived deeper into the pool of soul balladry, a move the eager crowd adored. “Otherside of Paradise” explored more atmospheric pop, before “You Said It All” re-asserted groove without breaking the spell. That presaged “Got Love,” a gospel-inflected tune that carried the group’s love for old-school soul into the audience for some old-fashioned call-and-response. That vibe kept burning bright with “Celebration,” its unabashed “na-na” chorus evoking the titular feeling.

“We’re in the home stretch now!” declared Shaw, which meant that it was time for the Big Hit. Sure enough, the band went straight into “Wish I Knew You,” the lyrics’ yearning tone riding the song’s irresistibly smooth pop groove into a massive crowd singalong. The Revivalists quit the stage to massive applause. But of course the show wasn’t over; a meditative piano line and Shaw strumming an acoustic guitar signaled the start of “Soulfight,” a lighter-waver of the first order that had the crowd going wild. That was the real end, with band and audience happy beyond words. It was a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.

Gary Clark Jr. brings rock, blues and soul to his third ACL taping

photo by Scott Newton

The rise of Austin’s own Gary Clark Jr. has been a joy to behold, from his days as a teenage blues guitar slinger to the eclectic, critically acclaimed festival draw he is twenty years later. ACL has followed that rise with four previous appearances on the show, starting with his participation in the Jimmy Reed tribute in 2007 up through his 2012 and 2015 headlining slots and his 2015 guest appearance with Foo Fighters. (Not to mention appearances on our Hall of Fame specials and the 40th anniversary celebration.) Through those years, the ATX native has grown by leaps and bounds – and that’s never been more true than now, with his third Warner Bros. studio album This Land. So we were thrilled to welcome him back for a live streamed taping showcasing the widely hailed LP.

Clark got a loud hometown welcome as he came onstage after executive producer Terry Lickona’s introduction. The Austin homeboy basked in his welcome for a second before donning his Epiphone and going into This Land’s “What About Us,” a choogling blues rocker kissed by Clark’s alluring falsetto and co-guitarist Eric Zapata’s legato slide. “Feels good up here,” noted Clark, as Zapata knocked out the twangy riff to “When I’m Gone,” a R&B tune that could’ve come from a lost sixties soul compilation. The leader donned a Gibson SG and announced, “We’re gonna play some rock & roll for ya,” before launching into the grunged-out soul of “Low Down Rolling Stone” – like the other tunes from This Land, it focused as much on his soulful voice as his guitar. Keyboardist Jon Deas contribute a slinky Mini-Moog solo. Clark went back to his falsetto for the crunchy, but still groovy, “I Walk Alone,” taking it home with a gnarly guitar solo.

After a moment to catch his breath, Clark shifted back to a slice of warm-bath soul with “Guitar Man,” a sexy tune that, surprisingly, does not emphasize his six-string wizardry. The falsetto returned once again for “Feed the Babies,” a socially-conscious soul tune that came closer the classic sound of Curtis Mayfield than anyone outside of the man himself. Then the band went into “Feelin’ Like a Million,” an out-and-out reggae song spiced by stabs of power chords. Clark then started banging away at his axe for a repetitive guitar figure that led right into the near-punk of “Gotta Get Into Something,” a breath of fresh rock & roll air. The mood shifted from rock to funk for the similarly titled “Got to Get Up,” a hard groover that let Clark off the leash on his guitar.

After nine songs in a row from the new album, Clark dipped into his back catalog for “When My Train Pulls In,” delivering a more subdued, less fuzz-encrusted reading than usual, often more reminiscent of B.B. King than Jimi Hendrix – at least until the end, when Clark built an extended guitar solo from croon to scream. As a palette cleanser, he essayed the lovely, moody “Blak and Blu,” slowly moving towards his signature tune “Bright Lights,” which came on like a wave crashing to shore. It was the perfect setting for his latest killer: the angry, defiant “This Land,” given a seething, smoldering read. After that bit of catharsis, he ended the main set on a soothing note with the beauteous “Pearl Cadillac,” another showcase for his falsetto singing. That wasn’t quite all, of course, as Clark and band returned for a crowd singalong through his grungy version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” from the Justice League soundtracks. It was a brilliant way to end his third solo taping, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.

Rising country superstar Kane Brown opens ACL Season 45

photo by Scott Newton

There are no two ways about it: 25 year-old Kane Brown is contemporary country’s fastest rising star, as well as the first country singer to have a number one single on all five Billboard country charts. We here at Austin City Limits love hosting talented newcomers, so we were happy to welcome the Georgia native as the first taping of Season 45, with a live streamed set of hits and deep cuts from his pair of albums.

Following executive producer Terry Lickona’s opening remarks, Brown joined his band onstage and wasted no time jumping right into “Baby Come Back to Me,” the rocking opening cut from his hit album Experiment. The singer followed with his first number one hit, the equally rock-oriented “What Ifs”.  Brown and the band changed the mood with “Weekend,” a mellow party tune that incorporated a R&B vibe. “This song is my baby – it got my life started,” he stated by way of introduction to the ballad “Used to Love You Sober,” the song he posted online that got him his record deal, and a tune with which the audience sang along. From one of his oldest to his most recent: the devotional country soul of “Good As You” proved why it was poised to be his next hit, especially given the crowd’s eager participation.

Biracial and raised by a single mother, Brown detailed being subjected to bullying, racism and abuse as a child, before launching into the mid-tempo “Learning,” a song about letting go of the negativity of the past. Appropriately, that tune led into “American Bad Dream,” a tough country rocker about school shootings. Every band-member except keyboardist Cameron Pessarra and fiddler Lars Thorson left the stage, as Brown took a seat for the self-explanatory ballad “Homesick,” dedicated to those serving overseas. Guitarist Jimmie Deeghan replaced Pessarra for “Work,” a tune literally about the hard work it takes to make a relationship – a topic near to the heart of the freshly wed Brown. Piano switched out for guitar once again for another ballad, the passionate “Live Forever.”

The band retook the stage to dispel the serious mood with the slide guitar-slathered “Short Skirt Weather,” kickstarting the party vibe again. The guitar-heavy “Found You” followed, leading into the thundering Southern rock chug of “Pull It Off.” Brown then re-incorporated the audience into the show, engaging in a call-and-response chorus with the romantic hit “Heaven.” Brown ended the show with the anthemic “Lose It,” exiting the stage to wild applause as his band continued to rock. It was a crowd-pleasing show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.