Thao & the Get Down Stay Down a joy to see and hear

photo by Scott Newton

When ACL is in an anniversary season, it’s tempting for us to concentrate on booking the biggest artists we can find. That would deny, however, one of our core missions: to expose our audience to new artists. Of course, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down aren’t exactly new – the San Francisco-based act has been working for a decade. But Thao Nguyen and her intrepid band have begun to explode far past their underground origins, making it the perfect time to for us to invite them on the show for their debut taping.

After the brief, gospel-style open of “The Clap,” Thao and the band launched into “City,” a patented example of their patented funky folk rock. The group’s blend of groovy rhythms and Thao’s folk-influenced fingerpicking give the band a distinctive sound that truly makes it stand out from the pack, as “Cool Yourself,” “Beat” and “Every Body” easily proved. But she and her quintet hardly stick to one groove. The band also hopped jauntily through the jazzy piano pop of “The Feeling Kind,” complete with Dixieland trumpet solo, skipped energetically through the ska/soul hybrid “Swimming Pools,” moved through the crescendoing dynamics of the waltz “Age of Ice” and pounded through the percussion-heavy “Squareneck,” with Thao getting down and dirty on her lap steel guitar. Thao also demonstrated imaginative versatility with her instruments, playing her banjo like a guitar on the reggae-tinged rocker “Holy Roller” and her archtop guitar like a clawhammer banjo on the bluegrassy “Kindness Be Conceived.” The band ended the main set with the singalong folk pop of “We the Common,” a tribute to Thao’s volunteer work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down encored with “Body,” another fine example of their patented unpredictable pop that included an audience participation section of handclapping, and “Bag of Hammers,” more of the same, enhanced with Thao’s tropical guitar lick. Thao’s natural exuberance and wide-ranging songwriting acumen made the show a joy to see and hear. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs on PBS this fall.

White Denim’s thrilling evolution

photo by Scott Newton

“It’s always a thrill to introduce one of our own,” said ACL’s Terry Lickona as he set the stage for White Denim’s debut taping. While Austin City Limits casts its net far and wide around the world, we’re always happy to showcase homegrown talent. So we were thrilled to welcome White Denim to our fair studio. The Austin band has firmly established itself as an international draw on the club and festival circuits, and with the release of its latest acclaimed, Jeff Tweedy-produced LP Corsicana Lemonade, the time was right, and the Moody was packed with fans cheering them on.

Having evolved far beyond their garage rock origins, the band presented clusters of songs, layering together tunes from Corsicana Lemonade and D into jazzy suites that drew equally from prog rock, psychedelia and the jam band tradition. “Pretty Green,” “Corsicana Lemonade” and “River to Consider” illustrated the quartet’s evolution well, seguing from pounding, riff-oriented verses and choruses to jazzy bridges and long solo passages, sprinkled liberally with compressed wah-wah guitar. The tightly-knit duo of “Comeback” and “At the Farm” continued the trend with heavier riffs, busier rhythms and even proggier interplay, featuring singer James Petralli’s scatting and kazoo solo.The suite of  “Anvil Everything/Sometimes I Don’t Wanna Shake/I Start to Run” threw in everything except the kitchen sink: psychedelic grunge, heavy rock riffs, fast-talking vocals, airy arrangements and even a mutated Bo Diddley beat – the band’s current approach in a (large) nutshell.

Not everything involved extended jams – “Distant Relative Salute” essayed a frisky, jazzy rocker, “A Place to Start” evinced soulful pop and “Street Joy” ran its power ballad atmosphere on the fuel of Petralli’s powerful vocal chords. The set ended back in jamland with “At Night in Dreams,” a song that reveled in both the melodics and the expressive musicianship. A quick redo of the choogling “Dreams” and a frenzied meltdown of “Mess Your Hair Up” brought the set to a howling close, the fans going wild. We couldn’t be prouder of hometown heroes White Denim, and we can’t wait for you to see this episode when it airs later this year as part of our 40th season. Stay tuned.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ beauty and noise

photo by Scott Newton

Nobody explores the thin line between light and darkness as well as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. The Australian native and British resident has spent 30 years amassing a rogue’s gallery of killers, creepers and unsavory characters of all types. Yet he’s also capable of stripping away the grime and debauchery to give life to languorous love songs that border on the spiritual. His international band of brigands – including righthand man Warren Ellis and original Bad Seed Barry Adamson – are equally adept at shimmering beauty and hellacious noise, depending on the mood the song requires. That yin/yang contrast, a dichotomy on which Cave and the Seeds have built a successful three-decade career, exploded in full effect for the band’s first taping for Austin City Limits.

With an unusual (for us) stage setup that featured two ramps allowing the stage-stalking Cave to join the crowd, the band arrived to the electronic thrum of “We Real Cool,” one of the singles from his latest LP Push the Sky Away. The brooding amble of “Jubilee Street” seemingly continued the sedate mood, but ramped up the energy of a tent revival in no time for the first of the evening’s standout performances. The quiet dismissed for the moment, the Seeds launched into the explosive “Tupelo,” a twisted take on the mythology surrounding Elvis Presley that had Cave raving like a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher fallen from grace and grimly trying to claw his way back.

From then on the dark and the light battled for supremacy. In the former’s corner: the creeping crawl of Cave’s serial killer ode “Red Right Hand” (made infamous in part by its use in The X-Files) and the rock ‘n’ roll savagery of the obsessive love song “From Her to Eternity,” the title track of the first Bad Seeds album. In the latter’s: the religious authority satire “God is in the House” and the unusually straightforward romantic sentiments of “Love Letter,” both keying on Cave’s sensual croon and piano. The sonorous “Mermaids” and the rambling “Higgs Boson Blues,” one of the most discussed tunes on Push the Sky Away, seemed ambivalent toward the balance of good and evil, letting Cave ponder issues of modern technology shaping the inconsistency of memory.

That was apparently all the clemency Cave had left in him, though, as the Seeds launched into “The Mercy Seat,” the murderously powerful first-person account of execution by electric chair that has become the band’s signature song. That was merely a warm-up, however, for “Stagger Lee.” Cave’s aggressively profane version of the century-old folk song pushes the original’s braggadocio into deliberately over-the-top heights of arrogance and violence, and his especially intense performance had the audience howling for blood.

There was no way to top that kind of ferocity, so the band didn’t try, wisely choosing to close the show with the austere beauty of the title track to Push the Sky Away. It was the perfect comedown for the rollercoaster ride of a Bad Seeds performance, moving from devil to angel and all points in between. We can’t wait for you to see Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in action on the ACL stage – watch your local listings this fall.

 

ACL’s all-star 40th anniversary

photo by Scott Newton

When you’re celebrating four decades of musical excellence, there’s only one way to do it: with amazing artists, superior songwriters and master musicians. We were lucky to have all of the above join us for ACL Celebrates 40 Years, our all-star tribute co-hosted by Jeff Bridges and Sheryl Crow, and featuring Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Clark Jr., Jimmie Vaughan, Alabama Shakes, Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Doyle Bramhall II, Lloyd Maines and Grupo Fantasma.

Trading guitar licks with Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. and joined on vox by Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, Bonnie Raitt kicked off the first half of the show with a Grupo Horns-spiked groove through Sam & Dave’s classic “Wrap It Up.” Standard thus set, Raitt reiterated the importance of ACL to artists like herself that resisted easy categorization before launching into Mable John’s classic “Your Good Thing (is About to End),” punctuating the jazzy soul ballad with creamy slide solos. The set moved quickly from one legend to another, as Kris Kristofferson took the stage with co-host Crow for a moving take on his titanic classic “Me and Bobby McGee.” After an elated Crow exited, the Texas songwriting legend growled his virtual theme song, AKA the masterful “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.”

After Crow having some time behind her guitar, it was time for her fellow host to have a shot, as Jeff Bridges returned to the stage in tribute to his recently deceased friend and Austin favorite Stephen Bruton. The Bruton-penned “What a Little Bit of Love Can Do” and “Fallin’ and Flyin’” (the latter from the Crazy Heart soundtrack) sounded great coming from Bridges’ perfectly weathered throat. Following that treat, ACL executive producer Terry Lickona came on to recap the recent ACL Hall of Fame presentation, honoring creator Bill Arhos and pilot star Willie Nelson. The past thus commemorated, it was time to move from veterans to young guns, as Alabama Shakes launched into its old-school soul ballad “Heartbreaker.” The band then gave the audience a thrill with the Memphis-styled “Gimme All Your Love,” a new song as yet unreleased on any Shakes record. Set one closed out with Austin guitar hero Gary Clark Jr., whose blues rocker “Bright Lights” slow-burned its way into our ears on the back of his sizzling thick-toned solos.

One brief intermission in order to reset the stage later, blues and Americana gave way to a different groove, as Austin’s greatest Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma got hips moving and booties shaking. The slinky “Nada” and funky “Mulato” could make a dead man dance. We then shifted from sexy salsa to hard-edged rock, with a special videotaped appearance by the Foo Fighters. The alt.rock superstars blazed through a fierce take on Austin hero Roky Erickson’s raging “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog),” recorded in the original ACL studio 6A – the public debut of a performance that will appear in the final edit of the special.

“If you want to hear what the blues are like in the 21st century,” proclaimed co-host Crow, “get ready.” That was the signal for Austin blues kingpin Jimmie Vaughan to re-take the stage, joined by his old friend and tonight’s vanguard artist Bonnie Raitt. The pair essayed an old Billy Emerson tune called “The Pleasure’s All Mine,” a classic blues shuffle with their guitars locking horns at the end. Vaughan continued solo in the classic blues bag with Teddy Humphries’ stinging “What Makes You So Tough,” before inviting his former proteges Clark and Doyle Bramhall II up for the latter’s unrecorded blues grinder “Early in the Morning.” Blues has always been important to ACL’s history, and it was nice to have the spotlight shone directly on it.

Following a salute to our other Hall of Fame inductees Darrell K. Royal and Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, co-host Sheryl Crow arrived for her own set. With Bramhall guesting on guitar, she rocked “Can’t Cry Anymore,” one of her earliest hits from her breakthrough Tuesday Night Music Club. She then ceded the mic to Bramhall, singing harmony on his own early rocker, the choogling “I’m Leavin’.” Crow then shared the spotlight with Clark, the pair doing a guitar-and-harmonica run through blues pioneer Elizabeth Cotten’s standard “Freight Train.”

ACL started as a showcase for Texas music, so it was only natural for the penultimate segment to honor that legacy. Seminal Lone Star singer/songwriters Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen took the stage for what Bridges called “the song that pretty well sums up the theme tonight,” the fist-pumping Texas anthem “The Road Goes On Forever,” written by Keen in 1989 and a staple of Ely’s live shows. Ely then left the stage so Keen could perform his cheeky crime tale “I Gotta Go,” before returning for his own original lighter-waver, “All Just to Get to You.” The Texan theme continued, with a special Hall of Fame award presentation to producer/steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, a veteran of both Ely and Keen’s live bands, the house bandleader for the night and quite possibly the musician who’s appeared the most times on the ACL stage.

Though the song claims that “The road goes on forever and the party never ends,” our party did come to an end with a massive gang-twang on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” featuring the entire cast. You can’t have a much better time than with Joe Ely, Jeff Bridges and Sheryl Crow trading verses and Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. trading solos. It brought a great evening blazing to a close. As the icing on the cake, this landmark performance will find its way to PBS for a two-hour prime time special as part of of the PBS Fall Arts Festival – look for ACL Celebrates 40 Years on PBS on Oct. 3 at 9pm ET.

 

Jeff Tweedy’s family affair

photo by Scott Newton

Jeff Tweedy is a longtime friend of Austin City Limits. His band Wilco has taken our stage four times, first in Season 25 and most recently in Season 37. So we were happy to welcome him back once again, this time in support of Sukierae, his upcoming debut solo LP. Joined by a band that includes Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius and his drumming son Spencer, Tweedy graced the Moody with a generously programmed set, highlighting not only the new album, but also songs drawn from the many stages of his 20+ year career.

The first half of the set was devoted to songs from Sukierae. Despite three guitars tripling the riff, “Down From Above” opened the show with a slow tempo and sedate arrangement, inviting attention instead of demanding it. Precedent established, new tunes like the midtempo pop song “Summer Noon,” countrified ditty “Desert Bell” and pretty ballads “Honey Combed” and “Where My Love” kept the volume down and the intimacy up, as if letting the audience peek in on a practice session that mustn’t wake the neighbors. The band didn’t keep things too quiet, though, letting stabs of dissonant guitar and keyboard spice “Diamond Light,” some muscular soloing punctuate “New Moon” and noisy riffs battle for prominence in “World Away.” The audience participation of “Slow Love” and the straightforward folk rock of “Nobody Dies Anymore” brought the band set to a close with a more bracing vibe.

The bandleader remained, armed with his collection of acoustic guitars and his vast catalog. He dug deep for Wilco’s “Born Alone” and Golden Smog’s “Please Tell My Brother,” but mostly stuck with fan favorites. From Yankee Hotel Foxtrot standards “Jesus, etc.” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” to Uncle Tupelo gem “New Madrid” and A Ghost is Born standout “Hummingbird” (on which he clammed the whistling solo, but laughed it off), Tweedy had the audience comfortably sitting in the palm of his hand, getting them truly riled up with “Passenger Side,” a classic from Wilco’s debut A.M. The band then returned for spirited runs through “Give Back the Key to My Heart,” the Doug Sahm cover that appeared on Uncle Tupelo’s final LP Anodyne, and “California Stars,” Wilco’s best-known contribution to the Woody Guthrie tribute Mermaid Avenue.

For an encore, Tweedy hit the stage solo for “Misunderstood,” incorporating the album version’s dissonance after hitting a bum note and sweeping the audience up in a chant of “nothin’” to bring the show to a close. It was a special night full of new music, classic tunes and a perfectly receptive audience. We can’t wait for you to see this show when it broadcasts on PBS this fall.

Ed Sheeran’s incredible synergy with his ACL fans

photo by Scott Newton

Part of the whole pop music experience is the synergy with the fans. That’s a big “duh,” right? All artists experience it – we experience it ourselves here at Austin City Limits. For all the great fan interaction we see at every taping, however, nothing compares to an Ed Sheeran show. The Suffolk native appeared on the eve of the release of x, his highly anticipated second album, with a setlist full of new tunes and favorites. From the evidence of the British sensation’s first ACL taping, he may very well have the most loyal, enthusiastic fans in recent memory.

The chart-topping, Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter began with “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” from his landmark debut LP +. He started by using his foot-controlled loop station to create a groove, using his guitar as a percussion instrument as much as a melodic one. Adding mouth and breath-generated percussion and a barrage of rapped and sung lyrics, he generated a near-perfectly balanced meld of folk and hip-hop, appropriately enough for a tunesmith deeply influenced by Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP. Once the groove was established, Sheeran put his guitar down to exhort the crowd to clap and sing along. The audience needed little encouragement, eager for call and response before he even arrived at that point in the song. By the time he had the house lights brought up so he could snap a cell phone pic of his congregation, the energy in the room had shot into the stratosphere. And this was only the first song!

From then on, whether he was building more grooving loops on “Don’t,” “Give Me Love” or a fiery take on Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband” or breaking hearts and inducing tears with the stripped-down balladry of “Lego House,” “Thinking Out Loud” and the moving “All of the Stars,” from the soundtrack to the hit film The Fault of Our Stars, Sheeran and the crowd were in it together. The energy bounced back and forth, from performer to audience and back again, never faltering. Even when Sheeran sang the traditional folk tune “The Parting Glass” and led it into the dark “The A Team,” a cautionary tale of addiction, the fans were right there with him, singing along, hanging on his every gesture.

Sheeran ended with, of course, “Sing,” the relentlessly upbeat single from x that required, even demanded, audience participation. At his request the crowd kept up the wordless chorus even after he left the stage. That the audience’s energy never dissipated during this vocal coda proved their dedication to Sheeran’s vision. It’s going to make a great episode, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on PBS.