Heartless Bastards return to ACL stage

photo by Scott Newton

Austin’s own Heartless Bastards first appeared on ACL in Season 35, showcasing the band’s critically-acclaimed first trio of LPs. For Erika Wennerstrom and company’s return to our stage, the group elected not to repeat itself, instead giving us a rocking program dedicated to its most recent albums Arrow and this year’s Restless Ones, in a taping that was streamed live around the world.

The band began with “Gates of Dawn,” a midtempo folk rocker with a perfect mix of acoustic and electric guitars.The propulsive “Got to Have Rock and Roll” followed, its title a hint of what was to come. Wennerstrom put her guitar down for “Wind Up Bird,” the ambitious opener of Restless Ones, title inspired by Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and featuring bird-like arm gestures buttressing the song’s lyrics. Wennerstrom donned her Les Paul for “Black Cloud,” pushing the song hard into the rock zone without coming close to bombast.   

Wennerstrom paused to reminisce about the last time the Bastards taped the show in 2009, before launching into “Journey,” a Restless tune inspired by author Dan Eldon’s The Journey is the Destination. The gentle “Pocket Full of Thirst” smoothed out the mood, as did the cosmic folk-pop of “The Fool” and the 70s-style country rock of “Skin and Bone.” The band stayed in the same vein for the lovely “Hi Line,” a different take on a song they did for a film soundtrack. The volume went back up, though, for the piano ‘n’ power rock stomper “Into the Light.”

After concentrating so much on Restless Ones, the Bastards shifted gears to predecessor Arrow for the last three songs of the main set. “Down in the Canyon” moved from heavy blues rock to something more expansive and back again for one of the show’s most poignant performances. Penultimate tune “The Arrow Killed the Beast” was soaked in the dusty atmosphere of the West Texas desert in which it was written. The groovy twang of “Only For You” brought the set to a crowd-pleasing close.

The band took advantage of the opportunity of the encore to re-do “Wind Up Bird” and “Black Cloud.” Remakes over, the Bastards treated the audience to the straightforward rock of “Parted Ways” before ending the show with the dreamy, enigmatic “Tristessa,” Wennerstrom alone onstage singing against looped feedback. The rest of the band rejoined her for a bow, and this remarkable show was brought to a close. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs in January as part of our Season 41 on your local PBS station.

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’ explosive debut

photo by Scott Newton

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats seemingly exploded onto the scene with the infectious gospel-charged hit “S.O.B.” While the tune’s quick rise in popularity belies the Denver-based Rateliff’s years of hard work, it’s only the tip of the iceberg for this talented band. For its debut ACL taping, Stax/Volt met singer/songwriter craft for a searing set of tunes guaranteed to make your body move.

The seven-piece Night Sweats took the stage first, using horns and Hammond organ to establish an old-fashioned 60s R&B groove. Rateliff followed, donned his Telecaster and launched into “I Need Never Get Old,” a rousing mixture of pleading and obstinance. “Intro” delved deeper into that Southern soul groove, showcasing the band and Rateliff’s dancing skills. “Look It Here” dialed the tempo down to mid-, while still keeping the energy level high. The themes took a turn for the introspective on “I’ve Been Failing,” but the song’s self-criticism was still driven by funky grooves and a defiant “Don’t you weep/Don’t you worry” refrain. “Howling at Nothing” sounded like a couples’ swing on the dancefloor, spiced by Rateliff’s reverb-soaked guitar solo.

The band followed up with “Parlour,” a Muscle Shoals-soaked slice of soul-pop that would do Dan Penn proud. The rhythm ramped up for the rocking “Out On the Weekend,” which added a Van Morrisonesque feel to Rateliff’s gritty singing. “Mellow Out” moved back to the Sam Cooke era of soul music, while “Shake” added a late-night vibe with stinging lead guitar, juicy organ and a smoky groove. After giving a shout-out to his mom, who taught him how to dance and was present, Rateliff essayed the finger-popping “Thank You” and the rocking “Trying So Hard Not to Know.” The descending melody of “Wasting Time” gave the audience a chance to catch its breath, followed by band introductions. Then it was time for the breakout hit. The crowd immediately clapped along with the gospel fervor of “S.O.B.,” the irresistible hooks and singalong chorus raising the roof in fine style.

The band then left the stage, but the music didn’t: the audience continued “S.O.B.”’s “whoa-ohs” until the group returned. The Night Sweats joined the crowd’s groove, segueing into a soulful cover of The Band’s funky “The Shape I’m In” that garnered immediate cheers. Then it was back to “S.O.B.” for a coda highlighting the gospel call-and-response of the chorus. After that frenzy, Rateliff and the Night Sweats elected to send us out into the night via “What I Need,” an old-fashioned R&B ballad of the type that makes you want to hold your baby tight as the lights go down. It was a fitting end to the Night Sweats’ southern soul inspired show, and we’re excited for you to see it when it airs early next year as part of our Season 41 on your local PBS station.

Ms. Lauryn Hill’s magnificent soul

photo by Scott Newton

Tonight Austin City Limits welcomed a musical trailblazer – Ms. Lauryn Hill.  In a rare television appearance, Hill dazzled the capacity crowd for almost two hours with a wide range of hits from her Grammy-winning, bestselling LP The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as well as from her time with the Fugees. The crowd, on their feet for the entire show, cheered loudly and sang along to her unique arrangements of originals and classic songs by Bob Marley, Sade, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder.

The evening began with a stirring set from DJ Rampage who got the audience on their feet and ready to welcome Ms. Hill.  Resplendent in a blue and yellow gown,  Ms. Hill took to the stage and sat down with her acoustic guitar and eased into “Conformed to Love,” which began softly but transformed into an anthem due to the power of the band and her own impassioned singing. She followed with “Peace of Mind,” another new tune with an intricate web of vocals, flamenco-colored lead guitar from Jordan Peters and an unexpected scat/instrumental reprise. She then dipped into her 2002 MTV Unplugged album for the groovy “Mr. Intentional,” before pulling out a surprising and heartfelt cover of Sade’s devotional “Love is Stronger Than Pride.” Ms. Hill and band kept the Unplugged groove going with “War in the Mind (Freedom Time)” and “Mystery of Iniquity,” mixing jazz, folk, soul and rap into a distinctive blend all her own.

By this time, the audience was on its feet, giving as much energy back as they were receiving and Ms. Hill put her acoustic guitar away and the ensemble launched into a re-imagined take on Hill’s hit “Ex-Factor,” the band jamming hard and Hill pushing her voice into new territory. The spotlight hit her trio of backup singers, as they danced to the Latin funk rhythm of “Final Hour,” with Ms. Hill expertly speed-rapping through her verses. The energy stayed on high for “Lost Ones,” following a similar vision with the added emphasis on DJ Rampage’s scratching punctuation and Hill’s call-and-response with her singers. She then turned back the clock to the mid-90s and her work with hip-hop superstars the Fugees, taking her skills to the next level with “How Many Mics,” proving she’s one of the greatest MCs of all time. That was just a warm-up for the trilogy of hits to follow, from the booty-shaking “Fu-Gee-La” to the singalong “Ready or Not” and the silky-smooth “Killing Me Softly.” By that time, the crowd couldn’t have been any more off the chain.

Ms. Hill then shifted gears, paying tribute to the Marley family into which her children were born with a cover of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’,” which segued smoothly into Stevie Wonder’s reggae nod “Master Blaster.” She wasn’t done with the Marley repertoire, going immediately into “Is This Love” and following with “Could You Be Loved,” the third time this song has been performed on our stage in the past few years. She went from reggae to jazz, overwhelming the audience with a powerhouse version of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” which she produced and recorded for the recent Simone tribute album Nina Revisited.

After climbing that summit, Ms. Hill asked for well-deserved noise for her incredible band, and the crowd was happy to give it. Then she hit yet another peak with one of the 90s’ greatest singles. The brilliant, irresistible “Doo Wop (That Thing)” drew the band into new crescendoes and the audience into new heights of uninhibited dancing. Ms Hill left the stage in triumph, leaving everybody satiated. It was a magnificent show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs on your local PBS station.  

Kendrick Lamar’s explosive ACL debut

photo by Scott Newton

Last night Austin City Limits showcased the explosive debut of  Kendrick Lamar, the game-changing hip-hop artist, widely-acclaimed as one of the greatest rappers of his generation. The multiple Grammy Award-winning artist delivered an eclectic, electrifying 15-song set that emphasized his massively popular album To Pimp a Butterfly.

Taking the stage to a cover of Earth Wind & Fire’s classic “Can’t Hide Love,” Lamar teased the microphone before easing into the jazzy, speed-rapping “For Free.” He then launched into the bracing “Wesley’s Theory,” also the name of the crack soul band that served as his backup. “Institutionalized” served as an interlude before “Backseat Freestyle,” a trad rap track from his breakthrough good kid m.A.A.d city that garnered a big response from the crowd. Thus primed, the audience was ready for the call-and-response of the intro of “Swimming Pool (Drank),” one of his biggest hits and a clear favorite. Following a brief jam from his band, Lamar then essayed “These Walls,” his current single and a R&B-flavored treatise on denying limitations.

Lamar then borrowed a portion of his song “For Sale?” for “Lucy,” before going into “Hood Politics,” another Butterfly track that involved enthusiastic audience call-and-response. After shining a spotlight on guitarist Rob G, Lamar indulged in some biography on “Complexion.” That was just a set-up, however, for the hit “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” its chorus sung ardently by the enraptured crowd. “Money Trees” kept the vibe going, before the band segued back into “Can’t Hide Love” to give everybody a chance to catch their breaths. That chance lasted a bit longer than anticipated when a technical issue arose, but the crew got it under control and the band went back into “Can’t Find Love.” That was another set-up, however, for the energy-spewing “m.A.A.d city,” another occasion for passionate artist/audience communion.

Lamar and band followed that triumph with the rapid-fire poetics of “U,” a love song of sorts, that ended with a spotlight on the band. The rapper then freestyled about his relationship to his fans, and how that relationship affected the expression of his art on To Pimp a Butterfly. As with the “Can’t Find Love”/”m.A.A.d city” pairing earlier, however, his low-key meditation gave way to the extra-funky high-energy single: “King Kunta,” another clear crowd favorite. Lamar drank in the applause for a minute, before channeling his inner James Brown for some quick beat counts. The slow jam “Momma” came next, followed by the brief rouser “Let’s Talk About Love,” which pumped the audience up more. That was just a warm-up, however, for the Grammy-winning single “i,” a hip-hop tour-de-force built around the riff of the Isley Brothers’ “Who’s That Lady.”

“How Much a Dollar Cost” was more intro than song, but that’s fine, as it primed the pump for “The Blacker the Berry,” another track in Lamar’s personal playlist of protest songs. That performance ended with theatergoers chanting “We gonna be alright” back at the star. That was an unmistakable cue, and Lamar rewarded the chanters with his popular single “Alright.”  With that, crowd and performer were one, taking the chant beyond the song’s length and into ACL history.  It was a hell of a show, and we can’t wait for you to see the broadcast when it airs in January as part of our Season 41 on your local PBS station.  


Angélique Kidjo’s danceable joy

photo by Scott Newton

It’s been awhile since Austin City Limits has hosted an African artist. We’ve done memorable shows with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Femi Kuti which have become some of our favorites, so we were ecstatic to welcome Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo to our stage. The queen of African music fulfilled our anticipation with one of the most energetic and danceable tapings in recent memory, which we livestreamed around the world.  

Kidjo’s four-piece band arrived first, clapping and cowbelling the beat of opener “Ebile,” immediately drawing the audience in by having them join in. The Benin native herself took the stage resplendent in her colorful dress, letting her powerful voice soar over the percussion and her feet dance her around the stage. “I see you’re ready for singing and dancing,” Kidjo said, “so don’t hold back.” She herself certainly didn’t, as the feet-moving groove of “Kulumbu” galvanized band and crowd, enhanced by Dominic James’ fleet-fingered guitar solo. The jazzy “Batonga” kept the rhythm burning, incorporating call-and-response and more of Kidjo’s Terpsichorian grace. She paused to give the audience a quick singing lesson, so they could join in on the flowing “Senamou,” which ended with Kidjo’s imitation of a whirling dervish. The beginning of “Malaika,” sung in Swahili, stripped things down to voice and acoustic guitar, before the rhythm section added a gently percolating groove.

Kidjo then welcomed members of Austin choir Veritas, who added backing vocals to a soulful cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” The choir remained for “Awalole,” a simmering and beautiful tune about women’s empowerment that ended with Kidjo playing a cajón. She stayed on the percussion box for the opening jam on “Shango Wa,” before retaking the microphone and kicking the song into extremely high gear. Things came down in energy, but not in intensity, as Kidjo’s passion for social justice came through in the near a cappella “Cauri,” a story of a 12-year-old girl being married against her will to a man in his fifties. The mood turned defiant and celebratory, however, with the dance party “Bomba,” featuring a bit of choreography between Kidjo, James and bassist Ben Zwerin and more call-and-response with the eager audience.

The Veritas Choir returned for the funky, infectious “Pata Pata,” a cover from the catalog of pioneering African singer Miriam Makeba with an unambiguous call to dance. The crowd, featuring members of the Austin Samba School, couldn’t resist, showering her with applause and cheers. Kidjo followed that triumph with another: “Afirika,” a celebration of the human family, took her out into the audience to make that family sing and dance with abandon. The celebration continued when she invited the crowd onstage, as many of them as could fit following the lead of the Samba School and shaking their groove things to the luminous “Tumba.” Percussionist Magatte Sow brought his talking drum to the front for a conversation between his instrument, Kidjo and any dancer willing to join them. He also engaged in call-and-response between his drum and the audience’s claps, before turning the stage back over to Kidjo so she could lead the crowded stage in dance. Kidjo left the stage to the people, the song ending in a joyous crescendo.

Amazingly, it wasn’t over. The stage cleared and Kidjo returned for a music lesson in the kind of African rhythm that’s influenced every musical form that’s come after it. The stunning “Orisha” brought the crowd to its feet and its voice, bringing the show to an incredible close and earning Kidjo and her band a standing ovation. It was an amazing night, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year on your local PBS station.

Leon Bridges’ new old soul

photo by Scott Newton

Leon Bridges has taken the music world by storm with a soul sound rooted in 50s and 60s R&B – a Sam Cooke-derived aesthetic that’s so old-fashioned it sounds new all over again on his debut album Coming Home. So we were pleased to welcome the young Fort Worth native to Austin City Limits for his debut taping.

Bridges and his band, which includes our White Denim pals Austin Jenkins and Joshua Block, gently kicked things off with “River,” a quiet, meditative hymn of desire. Bridges broke that spell immediately afterward, putting down his guitar to shimmy through the jumping “Flowers,” a throwback to an earlier era of soul music. “Brown Skin Girl” and “Let You Down” (an as-yet-unreleased song) continued the vibe, conjuring the specter of Cooke without enslaving it. One of his best-known tunes, “Better Man” moved forward to the Stax era, hitting a mid-60s groove. Bridges slowed back down for “In My Arms,” a classic R&B slow dancer that would have had all couples in the room in a clinch if we’d had a dance floor. Speaking of dancing, “Out of Line” grabbed hips for a classic twist, before “Daisy Mae” dialed back for a 50s-style, missing only doo-wops. “Smooth Sailin’” evoked the early Motown era, with its basic hooks and irresistible groove.

Bridges ventured back to ballad territory for the quietly passionate “Lisa Sawyer,” the young singer’s tribute to his mother. After asking audience members to tell their neighbors “I love you,” he sang a perfect version of his hit “Coming Home,” inviting the thrilled crowd to sing along with him. Then Bridges took us to church with the slow burning “Shine,” much to the audience’s delight. After introducing his band, Bridges went back to the dance floor, first for the lovers’ waltz “Pull Away” and then for the set-closing New Orleans R&B of “Twisting and Groovin’.”

One quick offstage break later, Bridges and the band returned for “Pussy Footin’,” another hip-swinging old school soul tune that would make a dead man dance. Bridges finished the performance with “Mississippi Kisses,” a slinky seduction song on which he engaged everybody in the crowd to dance along with him, going onto the floor to make sure it happened. That earned Bridges and band a standing ovation, and with good reason: few soul singers can evoke such old-fashioned musical values and still sound contemporary. It was a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs next spring on your local PBS station.    

Vintage Trouble’s high energy rock & soul

photo by Scott Newton

We’re always happy to give space to up-and-coming artists, so we were thrilled to host the ACL debut of Vintage Trouble. The L.A. quartet has honed its fiery live show on tours with the Who and AC/DC, and the band brought the full measure of its live prowess to its high-energy rock/soul, winning over not only our studio crowd, but also the online contingent of Troublemakers from all over the world who watched their heroes via our livestream.

Following handshakes all around, the socially-conscious ballad “Not Alright By,” from the debut The Bomb Shelter Sessions, gently began the show. Then VT went straight into the blazing “Blues Hand Me Down,” impeccably dressed singer Ty Taylor engaging in his trademark spin before commanding the microphone and exhorting the crowd to dance and scream. The band shifted to the 70s-soul styled “Doin’ What You Were Doin’,” losing no momentum and engaging the audience to help sing one of the highlights from their latest album 1 Hopeful Rd. The come-on “Total Strangers” jumped into James Brown territory, aided by an infectious “na-na” chorus, a rocking guitar riff courtesy axeslinger Nalle Colt and plenty of audience participation. The fans also sang part of “Another Man’s Words,” a beautiful ballad also from the new record. The band then dipped back into its past with “Nancy Lee,” Bomb’s bluesy tale of Taylor’s father meeting his mother. The blues was also at the heart of “Angel City, California,” as filtered through the classic rock & roll stylings of forebears like the Faces and featuring one of Taylor’s most skillful performances.

Everything up to then, however, was just a warm-up for “Run Like the River.” Rolling all of VT’s soul, rock, blues and gospel influences into one monster anthem, the band revved up both themselves and the crowd, who got a visit from Taylor on both the floor and the balcony. After that extended expression of joy, for which VT was rewarded with a roar, Taylor and company mellowed the mood with the easygoing “Nobody Told Me” – at least until the end, when gospel call-and-response came to the fore and Taylor moved himself to tears. The band then indulged in some juke joint blues, deliberately invoking the 50s for the hip-shaking, frontman-spinning “Before the Tear Drops.”

Taylor took time out to thank both the ACL staff and the crowd, demanding big cheers for both. Then it was into another steaming slice of James Brown-style R&B with the shimmying “Strike Your Light,” which, of course, required some serious audience participation (and another visit from Taylor). After that, the band could do little else but bring us back down to earth via the soul ballad “Run Outta You,” Taylor letting his passion spill and Colt punctuating it with an elegiac extended solo, after which he tossed his axe away as if it was pointless to continue and left through the audience. The rest of the band kept going, Taylor coaxing yet more call-and-response from the crowd, before first bassist Rick Barrio Dill and then Taylor wormed through the people, leaving drummer Richard Danielson to finish the song alone. And that was the end, even though by the sound of the audience’s cheers they didn’t want Vintage Trouble to go. It was an amazing show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it broadcasts next spring as part of our Season 41 on your local PBS station.

Alabama Shakes’ triumphant return to ACL

photo by Scott Newton

Alabama Shakes wowed us three years ago when they taped Austin City Limits in support of their debut Boys & Girls. Now, with the band taking over the world with their follow-up Sound & Color, we were pleased to welcome them back to our stage for a triumphant second taping, and on singer Brittany Howard’s birthday, no less.

The band clearly takes a lot of pride in their new record, as they played every song from it. The quartet, augmented by two keyboardists and three backup singers, kicked off the night with the slinky “Future People,” a three-cowbell song for the singers. The combo followed with the wailing “Dunes,” featuring a clanging Howard guitar solo as well as her distinctively soulful vocals. “Shoegaze” moved the band out of the retro soul bag in which it’s often placed into somewhere more rocking. The Shakes then revisited their debut Boys & Girls for the fan favorite soul ballad “Heartbreaker,” before going back to a streak from Sound & Color. The Hi Records-styled “Guess Who,” the church-powered “Joe”  and the powerful “Miss You” brought the mood to a boil, letting the rocking “The Greatest” blow off the steam. The set hit a peak with “Gimme All Your Love,” the band’s destined-to-be classic anthem that appeared in our 40th anniversary special before it was released. The audience rewarded the Shakes by serenading the birthday girl with a spontaneous “Happy Birthday.”

The new “This Feeling” turned the heat back down to simmer before giving way once again to the past for B&G’s gospel-flavored “On Your Way.” Sound &Color gave us another trilogy of future classics: the atmospheric ballad “Gemini,” the gently groovy title track and the 70s funky strut “Don’t Wanna Fight.” The band then visited its contribution to the hit film The Silver Linings Playbook for the rocking dance tune “Always Alright,” a clear audience favorite. The Shakes’ hit lighter-waver “You Ain’t Alone” followed, much to the crowd’s delight. Howard then thanked the crowd for its support before the band ended with S&C’s sparse, soulful “Over My Head.” It was a great set that proved how much Alabama Shakes deserves every bit of acclaim and success they’ve earned, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year on your local PBS station.