Taping recap: Colter Wall

photo by Scott Newton

Innovation is awesome, and music would be dead in the water without it. But innovation grows out of tradition, so it’s important for young artists to come along and keep tradition alive. What makes 24-year-old Colter Wall special is his ability to stay within traditional music stylings, while sounding fresh and contemporary, rather than stale and reactionary. That’s what the Canadian C&W artist does on his widely-acclaimed second album Songs of the Plains, and that’s what he did for his first ACL taping, which we live streamed around the world. 

Following Terry Lickona’s introduction, Wall and his four-piece backing group took the stage. Singing and picking alone, Wall opened the show with “Thirteen Silver Dollars,” essentially a folk song that became country when the band kicked in. He then reached back into Canadian musical history for the rodeo honky-tonker “Calgary Round-Up,” penned by Nova Scotian Wilf Carter (AKA Montana Slim in the States), Canada’s first country star and the father of Canadian country music. With a midtempo take on Johnny Cash’s “boom-chicka-boom,” Wall went back to his catalog of originals with “Saskatchewan in 1881,” highlighted by Jake Groves’ harmonica solo. He and the band then laid out a classic tear-in-your-beer two-stepper with “Thinkin’ On a Woman,” a perfect vehicle for his craggy baritone. Wall followed that with a brand new song, the folky cowboy tune “Happy Reunion,” penned by his songwriter friend Mike Beck and recently recorded in Texas. Straight from that new take on the cowboy tradition, he went to another song from the past: the waltzing “Cowpoke,” written by Elton Britt and recorded by a host of luminaries, including Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, Jr., Riders in the Sky, Glen Campbell and Austin’s own Don Walser. Again, without pause, he essayed the next tune, and it was another old classic: Marty Robbins’ murder ballad “Big Iron,” which garnered immediate cheers at the first line. 

With the crowd in the palm of his hand, Wall then gifted us with another brand new song entitled “Western Swing and Waltzes,” a danceable honky-tonker with the air of a future setlist staple. Ditto “Hoolihans,” another unrecorded tune that dips into the tradition of songs about being on the road a little too long and using cowboy roping shots to stave off boredom. Itt took on extra poignancy stripped to just Wall and steel guitarist Patrick Lyons on dobro, to the crowd’s delight. That was followed by an older original, the witty, two-stepping “Motorcycle.” He paid more tribute to the Canadian C&W tradition with “The Coyote and the Cowboy,” taken from the catalog of British Colombian legend Ian Tyson. Then it was back to his own songs with the waltz “Plain to See a Plainsman,” a song Wall explained just “poured itself out” – Groves’ harmonica break earned enthusiastic cheers. Wall ended the set with “Sleeping On the Blacktop,” a fan favorite with dueling dobro and harmonica and a palpable sense of menace. It was a fine, stirring end to the show, and the audience clearly loved Wall’s earnest revival of old-school country & western. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.     

Taping recap: Black Pumas

photo by Scott Newton

While we at Austin City Limits cast our musical net far and wide, we have a special place in our hearts for hometown talent. So we were thrilled to present the fast-rising Austin act Black Pumas, led by singer Eric Burton and guitarist Adrian Quesada, who’s no stranger to our stage due to his work with Grupo Fantasma. Joined by a five-piece band, the duo gave us a burning hot set (which we live streamed around the world) of rock, funk and soul.

The audience extended these hometown heroes a warm welcome as they came onstage, setting a level of excitement as the band dived into the simmering soul groove of “Next to You,” with Burton showing off his husky pipes and slinky dance moves. The singer donned a guitar for “Colors,” a midtempo charmer from the group’s self-titled debut, highlighted by nifty solos from Quesada and keyboardist JaRon Marshall. New song “Black Cat” followed, blending a sixties-derived melody with a modern rock feel – a sound that moved Burton to join the crowd on the floor, to their delight. “Old Man” segued into seventies funk with a smoky descending groove anchored by a Latin bridge, while “Know You Better” charged into moodier territory while still keeping the rhythm alive. “Black Moon Rising,” the Pumas’ original calling card, stayed with the same groove without losing steam or heat. 

Some louder guitar licks signaled another new tune: the funky “I Am Ready,” accented by more Burton dance moves. He re-donned his guitar for the undulating “Stay Gold,” an anthem for positivity and good will. The former Congress Ave. busker then gave thanks to both Quesada and the crowd for his current career position, before jumping right into the hard-grooving “Fire.” An insistent electric piano lick and more Burton steps powered the sinuous “More Than a Love Song,” while the singer’s powerful voice and Quesada’s psychedelic solos made the ballad “Confines” soar into lighterwaving territory. The group brought back that soulful, brooding seethe for “OCT 33,” whose mystery came wrapped in a lush package. The Pumas ended the set with the explosive “Etta James,” with Burton paying tribute to the R&B great while Quesada smoked on guitar. 

The audience applauded rapturously, but of course that wasn’t the final tune. The band came back, with Burton leaping into the crowd for high-fives, with a surprising cover choice. The Pumas deftly transformed the Beatles’ string-quartet masterpiece “Eleanor Rigby” into a snarling soul rocker, paying tribute to Ray Charles’ radical rearrangement more than the original. Quesada ripped up his fretboard, while Burton and backup singers Angela Miller and Lauren Horsby anchored the song in the church mentioned in the lyrics. The audience cheered the Austin homeboys wildly, as well they should have. It was a great showcase for the power of Austin music, and we’re excited for you to see it early next year on your local PBS station.  

Taping recap: Vampire Weekend

photo by Scott Newton

Six years is a long time in popular music. For Vampire Weekend, that means six years since the band’s last album and six since the last time they were on Austin City Limits. But the success of their fourth album Father of the Bride – which is also their third #1 on the Billboard album chart – proves that six years is nothing to a fanbase as loyal and enthusiastic as theirs. To say the crowd was excited for Vampire Weekend’s return – which we live streamed around the world – is an understatement. 

The audience yelled their appreciation loudly as the seven-piece band took the stage with the double drummer groove of “Sympathy,” from Bride. The group then dipped into their landmark Modern Vampires of the City, for the jangly “Unbelievers.” A cheer went up at the opening, African-tinged chords of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” a canny update of American worldbeat experiments, followed by the eight-and-a-half minute “Stoneflower,” a more jamming multi sectional version of the new record’s “Sunflower” highlighted by dual guitar action and a dizzying solo from axe person Brian Roberts. If dual guitars are good, triple are better, as leader Ezra Koenig, bassist Chris Balo and Roberts harmonized the intro to the Afrobeat-loving “White Sky.” Bride’s “Bambina” followed, working a delightful pop atmosphere all VW’s own. That led into another epic tour-de-force, as “2021” went from ethereal ballad to bombastic lighter-waver, all of it laced with Koenig’s subtle talk box. The crowd loved it. 

Something lighter was clearly required, and the sweet psych pop of “Step” provided it. “My Mistake” got even quieter, its strain of sixties pop melody made all the more acute by its demand for close attention. Breath sufficiently caught, the band launched into “New Dorp New York,” Koenig’s collaboration with EDM producer SBTRKT, transformed into a Vampire Weekend funk rock epic. “This Life” took the band back to jangle pop, but Koenig’s jones for catchy melody really flowered on the masterful “Harmony Hall,” a clear audience favorite. VW followed that triumph with the radio hit “Diane Young,” its original faux-rockabilly stylings replaced by more forthright rock & roll. The group revisited second LP Contra for the spiky “Cousins,” but that was just a warm-up for “A-Punk,” the band’s breakthrough tune which brought the crowd to its feet to sing along. 

After that breathless five-song rush, it was time for another ballad, and the group obliged with the lovely “Hannah Hunt.” VW ended the main set with “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin,” which started slowly and gently, before building up into a drum-driven epic. The audience went wild. Of course, the band came back, bearing a surprising and faithful cover of Crowded House’s guitar pop standard “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Following retakes of “2021” and “This Life” (which their fans didn’t mind at all), Vampire Weekend ended the show with the power popping “Walcott,” a fan favorite given a turbocharged reading here. It was an excellent show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.

Taping recap: Lucy Dacus

photo by Scott Newton

Though only 24, Lucy Dacus has already made a big impact. The Richmond, Virginia indie rocker’s second album Historian, released last year, was hailed “ a career album” by Paste, who also noted “she’s really only just getting started.” Widespread critical acclaim and consistent performances brought her to the ACL stage for her debut taping, and she delivered with a powerful set drawing from across her catalog. (Note: the appearance was scheduled to be a dual taping with fellow singer-songwriter Julien Baker, but due to unforeseen medical circumstances Baker was unable to perform).

Taking the stage and strapping on an acoustic guitar, Dacus talked about the relationship between performer and audience, noting that it revolved around mutual trust. That led, naturally, into the introspective “Trust,” a song she wrote when she was sixteen. “Beauty is the only way/To make the nightmares go away,” she sang softly as she strummed. Guitarist Jacob Blizard, bassist Dominic Angelella and drummer Ricardo Lagomasino then joined her – “They’re cute and nice, and good people” – as she donned her Telecaster for “Addictions,” a shuffling rocker keying on the contrast between her smoky croon and the fuzzy guitars. “Green Eyes, Red Face” followed, unrolling like a carpet, starting quietly and building to a near-anthemic reach. The social commentary of “Yours & Mine” followed a similar path, from folky placidity to rock power. 

Blizard and Angelella (wielding Dacus’ acoustic) sat on the floor with their instruments while their leader, accompanying herself on a handheld synthesizer, sang “My Mother & I” – a new song and one of a string of holiday-themed singles she’s releasing this year. The band resumed their customary positions for “Forever Half Mast,” a new July Fourth themed midtempo folk rocker amplified by a noisy guitar solo. She flipped that script for her breakout 2015 single, the witty “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” starting with fuzzy decay and moving into a brisk jangle. “I’ve always understood and felt very at home here,” Dacus commented about Austin, before starting the slow strum that heralded the wry, thoughtful “Night Shift,” which almost casually evolved from pensive tranquility to a wall of distortion – much to the appreciation of the crowd. 

After the rhythm section left the stage, Dacus delivered a stately “Historians,” with only Blizard’s effects-soaked guitar swells as consort. Then Blizard also quit the stage, leaving Dacus alone with her Tele to deliver “Fool’s Gold,” a beautiful unrecorded tune. The audience went wild following its conclusion. It was a lovely show by an important new talent, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs as part of ACL’s upcoming milestone 45th season.  

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

photo by Scott Newton

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.