Taping recap: LCD Soundsystem

photo by Scott Newton

The return of LCD Soundsystem to action after a five-year layoff is one of 2017’s biggest success stories. So we were thrilled to welcome James Murphy and his cohorts for the group’s debut Austin City Limits taping. The band lived up to every expectation and delivered a career-spanning set that rocked the packed house.

The octet took the stage casually before a lone synth pulse signalled the beginning of “Oh Baby,” the synth-popping opening track of the band’s latest album American Dream, their first career #1. Murphy thanked the audience for coming and expressed excitement for being on the show, noting that they’d never done anything like this before. Then it was on to “Call the Police,” the rocking first single from Dream. Assuring the fans that the show wouldn’t consist solely of new songs, Murphy reached back to This is Happening, formerly the group’s final LP, for the bouncy “I Can Change,” perfectly balancing romantic woe, disco rhythm and pop melody. The dance rhythms continued for the cheeky, percussion-heavy “Get Innocuous!”  and the groovily defiant  “You Wanted a Hit.” The propulsive powerhouse “Tribulations” followed, making the crowd a roiling mass of dance moves. Before anyone could catch breath, the synths led into “Someone Great,” a soaring pop tune that featured close harmonies between Murphy and keyboardist Nancy Whang.

In order to let band and audience have a moment, Murphy introduced the musicians. But the reprieve didn’t last long, as it was off into the noisy hipshaker “Change Yr Mind,” its relentless groove and anthemic vocals contrasted by six-string skronk. The guitar clangor continued, ornamenting the pulsing, playful, percussion-soaked “Yr City’s a Sucker.” The band’s penchant for mixing rock anthems with dance rhythms asserted itself in a big way for “Tonite,” which segued directly into the aggressively danceable pop song “Home.” The electropulse continued without pause as Murphy moved to a piano, Al Doyle started a chicken scratch on guitar and Nancy Whang took the mic for a driving cover of Chic’s immortal disco classic “I Want Your Love,” which made an already wildly dancing audience thrash even harder. After that breathless rush, the main set ended with “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” which started out mellow before ending in a power waltz that drove the crowd mad.  

A brief pause later, the band returned to the stage, Murphy explaining that he had to pee. Before anyone could divine whether or not he was kidding, Doyle banged out the big riff that kicks off “Emotional Haircut,” one of the combo’s wittiest tunes. The show ended with the pop anthem “All My Friends,” Murphy embracing the title by hopping offstage to shake hands with the front row. It was a perfect ending to a phenomenal show, one we can’t wait to show you when it airs early next year on your local PBS station as part of our season 43.

Taping recap: Shinyribs

photo by Scott Newton

Kevin Russell is no stranger to our stage. The leader of Shinyribs last hit Austin City Limits in 2007 while a member of Austin’s beloved Gourds. Since that group’s breakup, Russell has taken his vision of roots rock in a more soulful, danceable and theatrical direction with Shinyribs. Four albums and countless live performances later, he and the band finally came back home for an ACL taping that was a celebration of all things Shiny, livestreamed worldwide in all its glory.  Livestream viewer Brenda Walker raved of the riotous East Texas frontman, “Kevin really IS the Pavarotti of the Pineywoods” and Priscilla Promises chimed in “U in Austin bAaBeE.”

Introduced by hype man Trey Worth as “the Shakespeare of swamp pop” and “the shiniest man in show business,” patriarch Kevin Russell took the stage to brag about being “Country Cool,” allowing each member to show off his instrument during this slice of soul pop. The swamp to which Worth alluded earlier bubbled up in “Don’t Leave It a Lie,” a muddy groove accompanied by the Riblets, a trio of female dancers acting as Russell’s own Ikettes. Wielding a mean ukulele, Russell indulged in some call-and-response with ace backup vocalists Alice Spencer and Kelley Mickwee for the tropical soul of “I Got Your Medicine,” the title track to the band’s fourth and latest LP. The ‘ribs gleefully blended swamp rock, funk, c&w and yodeling for the epic “Song of Lime Juice & Despair,” complete with a Riblets ‘n’ Russell dance routine. The band then pulled out an inspired cover of David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” set to a double-timed rhythm (borrowed from the Drifters’ “On Broadway”) that allowed Russell to indulge in vocalese lifted from various R&B hits.

Russell took the mood from party-hearty to wistful by dedicating the slow-burn soul song “Who Built The Moon” to much beloved local bassist George Reiff, recently passed from cancer. The group then dropped in for a quick New Orleans visit, covering Allen Toussaint’s finger-popping R&B tune “A Certain Girl,” first recorded in 1961 by Ernie K-Doe and boasting cracking solos from Russell, keyboardist Winfield Cheek, saxist Mark Wilson and trumpeter Tiger Anaya. Doubling as a possible name for Shinyribs’ musical gumbo, “Tub Gut Stomp & Red-Eyed Soul” followed, reminiscent of key Russell influence Doug Sahm. Continuing his musical tour of Texas, Russell guided the band to the Lone Star/Louisiana border for the soulful “Take Me Lake Charles.”  After the frisky pop and roll of “Walt Disney,” Russell dug deep for “I Gave Up All I Had,” a powerful cover from the catalogue of the late soul man Ted Hawkins.

While Russell crawled back up from the floor, bassist Jeff Brown and drummer Keith Langford (a fellow ex-Gourd) started up a roiling groove that signalled the frisky funk of “Baby, What’s Wrong?” which also included a mock fight between Russell and the Riblets. Shinyribs concluded the main set with the jungle pop of “Poor People’s Store,” which generated the band’s traditional conga line on the floor – joined, of course, by Russell himself. The audience couldn’t let the night end just yet, though. The band came back for an encore, starting with a song “about my favorite root vegetable.” The ballad “Sweet Potato” doubled as an excuse to introduce the band, Russell noting each member’s root veggie preference rather than his or her hometown. Russell crawled to the edge of the stage and back in mock fatigue, before a Riblet draped a sparkling robe over his shoulders—what Russell called “a luminous cloak”—his very own technicolor dreamcoat with light-up lining in ever-changing colors. As the song drifted wistfully to an end, Russell picked up his guitar, cranked up the volume and grunged his way into the rock ‘n’ soul of “East TX Rust,” the robe making him look like a glam rock Jawa. “Let’s get it on now!” he demanded as he put his axe through its paces, and there wasn’t a soul in the crowd who would disagree. The song ended in a riot of guitar, horns and an audience going wild. It was a fantastic show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year as part of our Season 43 on your local PBS station.

ACL Hall of Fame inducts Roy Orbison, Rosanne Cash and the Neville Brothers, with a special tribute to Fats Domino

photo by Gary Miller

Last night three American musical innovators were inducted into the fourth annual Austin City Limits Hall of Fame: singer/songwriter Rosanne Cash, New Orleans funk ‘n’ soul collective the

Neville Brothers and late rock & roll legend Roy Orbison. The evening featured one-of-a-kind music performances and tributes from Elvis Costello, Brandi Carlile, Neko Case, Ry Cooder, Dr. John, the Mavericks’ Raul Malo, Trombone Shorty, the Nevilles Band and host Chris Isaak.

Austin’s renegade brass ensemble the Minor Mishap Marching Band led the audience to their seats with a second line, setting the scene for a party. After opening remarks from KLRU-TV CEO Bill Stotesbery and ACL executive producer Terry Lickona, Chris Isaak took the stage to welcome the crowd and introduce the first tribute. “He was a baritone, tenor and angel,” said Isaak about the late, great Roy Orbison before inducting his hero. Orbison’s three sons Wesley, Roy, Jr. and Alex and granddaughter Emily and grandson Roy III accepted the award, noting that this ceremony, including Cashes, Nevilles and Orbisons, was a family affair. Then, of course, came the music: the Mavericks’ Raul Malo belted “Crying,” Brandi Carlile nailed “It’s Over” and Isaak crooned “Only the Lonely” as if it was written for him. Carlile returned, and she and Isaak harmonized divinely on “Dream Baby,” one of Orbison’s friskier tunes. There was only one way the Orbison tribute could end, as Malo joined Isaak and Carlile for a joyful “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

After Isaak introduced honoree Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello inducted his friend, noting the power and skill in her voice and words. Cash accepted her award with humility, explaining how ACL helped her feel part of a music community when she was starting out, making her ACL debut in 1983 at age 28.  Costello returned, along with Cash’s husband and creative collaborator, guitarist and producer John Leventhal, for the stirring affirmation “April 5th,” a song co-written by Cash, Leventhal, Costello and Kris Kristofferson. Spiritual descendant Neko Case took the stage next, for a transcendent version of the aching and defiant “What We Really Want is Love.” Cash herself re-entered with her friend (and guitarist extraordinaire) Ry Cooder for the sparse, strong “A Feather’s Not a Bird” – a song from Cash’s 2015 triple-Grammy-winning album The River & the Thread and proof that she’s as brilliant now as she’s always been. Costello and Case came back for “Seven Year Ache,” Costello alternating chorus vocals and Case and Cash sharing harmonies like they shared an episode back in 2003.

House bandleader & ACL Hall of Fame inductee Lloyd Maines introduced the ace house band including guitarist David Grissom, bassist Bill Whitbeck, drummer Tom Van Schaik and keyboardist/mandolinist Chris Gage. Then it was on to intermission, as Minor Mishap played, the audience danced and the ACL crew reset the stage for the grand finale.

The second half of the show brought the funk, with a celebration of New Orleans music. Given that the sad news of the passing of rock & roll pioneer Fats Domino broke earlier in the day, ACL elected to open with a video of the New Orleans icon singing “Blueberry Hill,” taken from his classic 1987 ACL episode. The first induction of the second half honored a non-performer – the 50th Anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. The milestone signing helped pave the way for PBS.  Johnson’s granddaughter Catherine Robb and Amy Barbee, chairperson of the LBJ Foundation, accepted the award.

Isaak returned to the stage to introduce the first family of New Orleans music: the Neville Brothers. New Orleans sensation Trombone Shorty, a kindred musical hybridist, inducted the family with colorful stories about the Nevilles with whom he lived and toured as a child. While the brothers couldn’t be there, Aaron Neville’s son Ivan, Art’s son Ian and Charles’ son Khalif accepted on their behalf before taking their places behind their instruments (keyboards, guitar and more keys, respectively). Ivan introduced Dr. John and Elvis Costello, who came up to help with a rollicking take on “Ain’t That a Shame,” in tribute to its author Fats Domino.

Backed by Shorty, Ian, the Grooveline Horns, Ivan’s Dumpstaphunk bandmate Nick Daniels and longtime members of the Nevilles’ band Brian Stoltz, Tony Hall and Willie Green, Ivan asked the audience, “Are you ready to get funky?” Then it was into “Fire & Brimstone,” one of the Nevilles’ greatest tunes, sung by Hall. The group paid tribute to the Nevilles’ predecessor act the Wild Tchoupitoulas with that band’s call to arms “Meet De Boys on the Battlefront.” Things got even funkier for “Brother Jake,” a gem from the band’s late 80s’ sleeper Brother’s Keeper that really got the crowd going. Khalif then joined Ivan on keyboards for “Healing Chant,” a Grammy-winning instrumental from the band’s seminal Yellow Moon that featured Shorty on a lyrical trombone solo. That special breed of New Orleans funk burned brightly on “Fire On the Bayou,” one of the Nevilles’ signature tunes, earning a standing ovation. The Nevilles mini-set came to a close with the exultant dance party of “Shake Your Tambourine.”

But the music wasn’t over yet. Ivan brought Dr. John back to the stage for “Big Chief,” the Earl King-penned/Professor Longhair-popularized shout that has been in the repertoire of nearly every New Orleans and N.O.-inspired dance band for five decades. Elvis Costello rejoined Shorty, the Night Tripper and the Nevilles for a distinctly New Orleans groove through the traditional standard “Down By the Riverside,” which ran directly into its musical cousin “Amen.” That song brought Isaak, Carlile and Malo to the stage as well, and the audience was on their feet, ready to join in Ivan’s call-and-response. As the song reached its climax, confetti burst and the musicians rang in the Austin new year a couple of months early. The roof was raised, and the 2017 HOF celebration came to a close. Viewers everywhere will get to join this party when it airs as a special broadcast on New Year’s Eve on your local PBS station.

Taping recap: Chris Stapleton

photo by Scott Newton

After years of penning others’ hits, singer, songwriter and guitarist Chris Stapleton took the country and Americana scenes by storm in 2015 with his multi-platinum, Grammy-winning debut Traveller.  Since then the Kentucky native has gone from strength to strength, releasing the follow-up From a Room: Volume 1 earlier this year to great success, and hitting the road with his “All-American Road Show” tour in preparation for the companion release of Volume 2 on December 1. In the midst of another banner year for the now superstar artist, we were thrilled to host him and his crack band on the ACL stage for the first time.

The singer/guitarist took the stage with drummer Derek Mixon, bassist J.T Cure and his wife and fellow traveler, singer Morgane Stapleton, and wasted no time launching into the bluesy groove of “Might As Well Get Stoned,” showcasing both his stinging guitar and blowtorch soul. Stapleton hit the honky-tonk for “Nobody to Blame” and the ballad box for “Broken Halos.” He then unveiled “Hard Livin’,” a new song from the upcoming Volume 2 that revived classic 70s country rock for the twenty-first century. It was back to Volume 1 for the stoner anthem “Them Stems,” before another brand new tune: the choogling “Tryin’ to Untangle My Mind,” which, from the crowd’s reaction, is destined to be his next hit. Stapleton then really let it all ride, singing the bluesy ballad “I Was Wrong” with raw hurt. He then stripped down musically, dismissing the band and wielding an acoustic guitar to reclaim the Traveller gem “Whiskey and You,” formerly a hit for both Tim McGraw and Jason Eady.

Cure and Mixon returned as Stapleton explained that he wrote “The Devil Named Music” while he fronted the bluegrass band the SteelDrivers. The classic road dog ballad sounded right at home in its current electric arrangement, highlighted by its guitar solo. Gifted vocalist Morgane returned for “Outlaw State of Mind,” a swampy tune that mixed Creedence Clearwater Revival with the 70s country of its title. The song ended in a shriek of feedback that served as a bridge to “Death Row,” a crawl through the heart of darkness. The black clouds parted, however, with “Traveller,” the title track hit from his breakthrough debut and a song that elicited immediate screams from the audience. The Stapletons wrapped their voices around each other for the romantic affirmation “Fire Away,” the couple’s harmony showing in both voice and intimate glances. Things got a little crunchier for “Second One to Know,” a Volume 1 corker that unabashedly rocked.  

Stapleton ended the set with another hit. “Tennessee Whiskey” has been recorded by David Allan Coe and George Jones before Stapleton wrapped his pipes around it, but his version keeps the honky-tonk balladry and adds a dollop of southern-fried soul. The band left the stage to rapturous applause, but of course it wasn’t over. Stapleton and company returned to a thunderous reception. “What a treat to play Austin City Limits – I guess I’ll have to find a new dream,” he declared before crooning the delicate breakup tune “Either Way” solo acoustic. The band returned for closer “Sometimes I Cry,” a slow blues burn that pushed his full-throated rasp to its limits. It ended a sharp, powerful set, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year as part of our Season 43 on your local PBS station.  

Taping recap: Run The Jewels

featured_008_ACLRuntheJewelsbyScottNewton__DSC6541

High intensity. Lyrical smartbombs. Killer beats. Those are the hallmarks of a great Run The Jewels show, and those elements were in abundance at the debut taping by the rap superstars.

“We’re gonna light this shit on fire like Willie Nelson would light a joint,” declared Killer Mike after an intro of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” He wasn’t kidding, as he, rapping partner El-P and DJ Trackstar exploded with “Talk To Me,” as energetic an opener as any rock band could provide. Mike’s rapid-fire delivery contrasted nicely with El-P’s punk rock bluster, with Trackstar throwing in the occasional interjection. “Legend Has It” and “Call Ticketron” kept the energy high, the crowd shouting “RTJ!” during the call-and-response section for the former. After thanking the show and warning the crowd about the profanity to come (“We curse like goddamn sailors, kids!”), the band launched into “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1,” Mike showing off why he’s one of the most acclaimed MCs on earth with a stream of superspeed wordsmithery. The band showed off its sardonic sense of humor with “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” and “36” Chain,” the latter previewed by an El-P speech about handing out invisible gold chains to the crowd with each ticket.

As if the room wasn’t vibrant enough, the duo engaged the crowd for the intro of “Stay Gold,” one of the new album’s most indelible tracks. Trackstar provided both an ambient segue and a brief but fiery scratch solo for “Don’t Get Captured,” one of the group’s most political anthems. A sampled sitar earned immediate cheers and led into “Nobody Speak,” a clear audience favorite. But that was nothing compared to what came next. After Killer Mike declared, “I don’t care what anybody says about watching too much TV – I know I’m smarter because of PBS,” RTJ launched into the booming, cheerfully profane “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” which drove the audience even further into a frenzy. So they were primed for a titanic “Hey!” to intro “Hey Kids.” More social commentary followed in the blazing “A Report to the Shareholders,” before El-P exposed the raw emotions underneath the group’s bravado for “Thursday in the Danger Room,” an elegy to anyone who should be with us but isn’t.  

“We’re gonna do a song now that we’ve never quite pulled off,” said El-P, as singers Joi and BGV joined RTJ for “2100.” Then, singer Boots also arrived to add his crushed velvet croon, recreating his studio parts. They definitely pulled it off. Joi joined Mike and El-P on the frontline for the empowering “Down,” as perfectly uplifting a song to end a set with as can be. The band left the stage, but the break didn’t last long. The audience cheered wildly as RTJ returned to the stage for the angry, provocative “Angel Duster,” during which Mike and El-P joined the crowd on the floor. It was an explosive performance, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year on your local PBS station as part of our Season 43.

Taping recap: Herbie Hancock

photo by Scott Newton

For music fans, Herbie Hancock needs little introduction. The keyboardist and composer is not only a jazz legend, but also a funkateer, R&B balladeer and technology innovator in music. There are no walls separating the different sides of his musical personality, though – Hancock gleefully mashes all of his interests together into a cohesive whole. We couldn’t have been more thrilled to host him on our stage, and he used his debut Austin City Limits taping to prove exactly why he’s a musical icon.

Hitting the stage to a standing ovation, Hancock and his stellar three-piece band began the set with, appropriately enough, “Overture,” sampling the musical themes of the rest of the tunes just like a symphony orchestra does at a classical concert. Hancock drew a bucket of strange noises out of his synthesizer as jazz/session drummer supreme Vinnie Colaiuta, Saturday Night Live bassist James Genus and saxophonist/keyboardist/Kendrick Lamar producer Terrace Martin limbered up. Martin dropped in vocoder blurts in between wailing on his alto, while Colaiuta and Genus provided a masterclass of how to be laidback but look busy. Turning to his piano, Hancock moved from atmospheric ambience to furious storms of notes, never losing the melody no matter how far out he went.

After a mesmerizing stretch with each musician demonstrating their ingenuity, the overture came to a close and Hancock introduced the band. Then they went into “Actual Proof,” from Hancock’s classic 70s jazz/funk masterpiece Thrust. Hancock moved seamlessly from multiple synth sounds to the piano, going from funky to jazzy, rhythmic to melodic, and back again. Hancock may be 77, but his keyboard facility is as potent now as it was when he was 27. Martin then reeled out his sax, matching his bandleader lick for lick. Genus next took the spotlight with a short but hard grooving bass solo, before the song shifted back to the leader’s electronic keys.

Donning his vocoder, Hancock went into “Come Running to Me,” from 1978’s Sunlight, adding otherworldly vocals to what’s essentially a jazzy R&B ballad, showing the kids how it was done before the advent of Auto-Tune. Electronics may have seemed to dominate at first, but Hancock coaxed magic out of his grand piano once again. Martin also took up the mic through his own vocoder, providing spaced-out counterpoint to the leader’s robotic croon. Then Hancock and the band gave us a real treat: an unrecorded/unreleased song. “Secret Sauce” began with a thrusting groove on synth and bass guitar, before coming down to near-silence and slowly building itself back up again, at least partially due to Hancock’s wielding the synth and piano at the same time. Hancock turned the spotlight over to Martin, who duetted with himself on synthesizer and vocoder, joining Colaiuta and Genus crashing back in with a sax attack. Hancock went mobile, wielding his keytar (an instrument we’ve not seen on our stage since Edgar Winter in the eighties) for some fleet-fingered soloing.

Hancock and ensemble closed the main set with “Cantaloupe Island.” Though probably most famous as the basis for the US3 hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” the song is one of the composer’s signature tracks, recorded twice: one in 1964 on his postbop classic Empyrean Isles and again in 1976 on his funk/jazz landmark Secrets. This version looked back to the original, not only in its signature piano riff, but in the jaw-dropping soloing from Hancock’s piano and Martin’s alto. It was the pinnacle of the main set, and the crowd responded accordingly with wild applause as the band left the stage. The exit was brief, however, as just offstage Hancock donned his keytar for the signature riff of his iconic jazz/funk tune “Chameleon.” Retaking the stage, Hancock faced off with the sax-wielding Martin as Genus and Colaiuta brought the groove to a boil. The bandleader then took centerstage for an extended synth solo that no doubt fired up every air keyboardist in the joint. Keytar in hand, Hancock brought the show to a close with a flourish.

Few artists in any genre can achieve such a masterful balance of the challenging and the crowdpleasing. The audience went unsurprisingly crazy, as well they should for a giant who not only lives up to, but surpasses his sterling reputation. It was a magnificent show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year on your local PBS station.

Taping recap: Father John Misty

photo by Scott Newton

It’s no secret that singer and songwriter Josh Tillman, as leader of Father John Misty, is a controversial figure – musically eccentric and defiantly outspoken, he inspires ire as often as devotion. But Tillman (who last appeared on our stage in 2013 as drummer for Fleet Foxes) earns attention for a better reason: the quality of the songs found on his three albums to date, including this year’s massively acclaimed Pure Comedy. Tillman’s work has earned him a loyal and ever-growing following, who turned in out in force for one of the most distinctive shows in our history.

Backed by a seven-piece band and a sixteen-person strong mini-orchestra of Austin players, Tillman opened the show with the lush pop of Pure Comedy’s title track, a satirical take on modern life that ends with the plea “each other’s all we got.” The ensemble followed with “Total Entertainment Forever Play,” a more straightforward folk rocker, before going back to the orchestration for the dramatic anthem “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” which Tillman punctuated with wild arm swings, like a mad conductor. He picked his guitar back up to lead the band in the pretty but pointed “Ballad of the Dying Man,” his impassioned wail scaling the heights built by the string section behind him.

Following four straight tracks from Pure Comedy, Tillman revisited his second LP I Love You, Honeybear with the irony-soaked “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” a sly parody of 70s sensitive balladry that namechecked Willie Nelson to comic effect and produced the biggest audience hosannahs yet. A Latin feel permeated the horn section during “Chateau Lobby #4,” which again earned a huge audience response. Returning to Pure Comedy, Tillman cleared away the clouds with the relatively subtle “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” which focused on piano, sedate strings and his keening croon. The full force of the ensemble returned for the lush “A Bigger Paper Bag,” before really bearing down on the powerful “Birdie.” Most of the band then left the stage, leaving Tillman alone with the string section for the 13-minute emotional travelogue “Leaving LA.” “This is the only TV show you could get away with doing that song on,” he quipped.

The rest of the orchestra retook the stage, but the mood stayed placid with “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain,” a clear audience fave. FJM ended the main set with the title track to I Love You, Honeybear, on which Tillman pulled out all the stops as a loverman crooner, venturing out into the audience to dispense hugs and lead the crowd in a chorus of “oh’s.” With that titanic end, Father John Misty quit the stage. But Tillman returned with the strings and pianist Jon Titterington for “Holy Shit,” a paean to change far more thoughtful and melodic than its profane title might lead one to believe. The rest of the ensemble quietly took the stage behind them and crashed into a bit of cacophonous bombast, clearing the sinuses before returning to a full band version of the melody as previously stated. One more crowd chorus of “oh’s” and it was over, everyone satiated. It was a great end to a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it arrives early next year as part of our Season 43 on your local PBS station.

Taping recap: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and Amanda Shires

photo by Scott Newton

When last we saw Jason Isbell and his intrepid band the 400 Unit, it was on the heels of the release of his beloved 2013 breakthrough Southeastern. Since then he’s become an award-winning star in the Americana world, releasing two more acclaimed records: 2015’s Something More Than Free and this year’s The Nashville Sound. As thrilled as we were to have him back, we were even more excited that he would be joined by his wife and creative partner Amanda Shires – not only as a member of the 400 Unit, but as a featured artist in her own right. The former fiddler for the most recent version of the Texas Playboys has built a critically acclaimed catalog of five solo albums, including 2013’s revered Down Fell the Doves and last year’s My Piece of Land. Two great sets in one night – both livestreamed around the world.

“What a dream,” said Amanda Shires as she tuned her violin. Then she and her three-piece band launched into “My Love (The Storm),” before an unauthorized monitor buzz rudely interrupted. (“That’s OK, I enjoy a technical problem,” she quipped, before soundchecking with a bit of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”) Problem fixed, the band went back into “My Love” with no issues. That song’s swampy menace segued directly into “You Are My Home,” a smoky ballad whose romantic title sentiment was knocked off kilter by Shires’ violin skronk. The quartet wasted no time going into the next song, the minor key folk rock of “Devastate” contrasting nicely with its more languid predecessor. After a witty round of band intros, she donned a tenor guitar and led her boys in “The Way It Dimmed,” a frisky country tune, and “Harmless,” a wistful ballad.

Following a story about an old boyfriend, Shires invited said paramour onstage, as husband Jason Isbell arrived to add harmony vocals and a fiery guitar solo to the folk rocker “Wasted and Rollin’.” Switching back to the violin, she sang and bowed the atmospheric ballad “Pale Fire,” before bearing down on her fretboard for the darker, gnarlier “Look Like a Bird.” Shires drove the song with drone as Isbell and guitarist Zach Setchfield traded solos, before digging in with her own epic four-string cries and growls, much to the crowd’s delight. Isbell left the stage (to get ready for his own show, presumably) as Shires switched back to the guitar for the melodic rocker “When You’re Gone,” ending the set on a powerful and upbeat note. “That was awesome!” said producer Terry Lickona as he came out to announce the intermission for the stage to be reset.

photo by Scott Newton

“Happy to be back on the best rock & roll TV show in the whole wide world,” said Jason Isbell as he and the 400 Unit (which includes Shires) took the stage and began with “Hope the High Road,” a burly rocker from The Nashville Sound. Then it was on to the Grammy-winning hit “24 Frames,” a perfect marriage of powerful music and Isbell’s poetic lyric, and the accordion-kissed country rocker “Codeine.” Showing himself to be the natural heir to the songwriting tradition set by Guy Clark and John Prine, Isbell went into “Last of My Kind,” an introspective tune interrupted by a mistake, quickly righted by a second, stronger take. The band followed with “The Life You Chose,” a melodic folk rocker that really got the crowd going.

With both Isbell and co-guitarist Sadler Vaden on acoustic guitars, “Chaos and Clothes” moved even further into the realm of folk, but lyrics that referenced black metal T-shirts kept it grounded in the modern world. Isbell donned a crunchy Telecaster and the Unit blasted into the powerhouse rock & roller “Cumberland Gap,” keeping the electricity flowing with the social commentary of “White Man’s World.” The acoustic guitars came back out for “If We Were Vampires,” a song of devotion that seems destined to be an Isbell standard. Speaking of standards, Isbell dipped into the songbook of ACL favorite John Prine for a duet with Shires on “Clocks and Spoons.” A round of band intros followed, before the 400 Unit roared into the anthem “Anxiety,” its grunged-out intro and outro allowing the band to really get loud. Isbell and the Unit took a bow to wild applause and the music, sadly, was over. It was a great doubleheader of a show, one we can’t wait for you to see when Isbell and Shires’ shared episode airs early next year as part of our Season 43 on your local PBS station.