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.

Valerie June brings organic moonshine to ACL

photo by Scott Newton

“I’ll try not to cry tonight,” said Valerie June directly after taking the stage for her ACL debut. “It means the world to me to be here.” With an intro like that, it would be impossible not to be on the side of this fast-rising Memphis singer/songwriter. The talent bursting from her seams, however, justified the empathy. With one foot in country blues, the other in mountain folk music and her head in the stars, June and her band conjured a distinctive brand of genre-blending songs that she calls organic moonshine roots music.

June opened with the Carter Family chestnut “Happy or Lonesome,” her unique voice working the midpoint between those emotional extremes. Then she and her band – which includes guitarist Binky Griptite, last seen on the ACL stage as part of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – ranged all over the Americana map, from the twanging folk of “Twined & Twisted” and sprightly country of “Rain Dance” to the waltzing honky-tonk of “Keep the Bar Open” and the heartfelt gospel of Jim Reeves’ “This World is Not My Home,” which earned especially vocal approval from the crowd. But whether June was strumming her custom-made “baby” (a banjo/ukulele hybrid) for “Somebody to Love,” crooning through the R&B balladry of “The Hour” or philosophizing the slow blues of “Pushin’ Against a Stone,” June put her own stamp on every note. Once you hear “Goodnight Irene,” her show-closer, you’ll never want to hear it any other way.

This was one of those special first-time shows that will be talked about for years to come. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on PBS.

Beck’s exciting, dynamic performance

photo by Scott Newton

Last night, we were pleased to welcome Beck to the ACL stage for a wide-ranging set of classic hits and stellar new material from his acclaimed new LP Morning Phase. Opening with the riff-heavy rocker “Devil’s Haircut,” Beck and his crack band had the audience in the palm of its collective hand from the get-go. The skittering garage rock of “Black Tambourine” and the groovy rawk of “Think I’m in Love” – which cleverly interpolated Donna Summer’s disco gem “I Feel Love” – kept the party vibe going.

Beck strapping on his acoustic guitar signaled a shift in mood, confirmed by the gorgeous “Golden Age.” The band kept to the spirit of that Sea Change hit, digging deeply into Morning Phase, with attendant hits from other LPs. “Blackbird Chain,” “Don’t Let It Go” and “Blue Moon” proved that Beck’s bag of folk-pop melodies remains bottomless, and his incorporation of banjo in “Say Goodbye” and the anthemic build of “Waking Light” showed him willing to play with the formula. Not content simply to drop new material on the crowd, Beck also essayed takes on Sea Change’s “Lost Cause” and Mutations’ “Dead Melodies,” which fit right in.

After that sustained wave of shimmering beauty, it was time to pump the energy back up, which the groovy “Sissyneck” accomplished nicely. The whooshing rhythm ‘n’ psych gem “Soldier Jane” and the funky blues rocker “Soul of a Man” kept things vibrating, setting the stage for the Big Smash. The crowd went wild at the sound of the familiar slide lick that heralded “Loser,” as the band filled out the sparse original with psychedelic weirdness and Beck danced all over the stage. The frisky electropop of “Girl” and the noisy guitar fest of “E-Pro” brought the main set to a crashing close, with Beck and band on ending up on their back and literally crawling offstage.

But it wasn’t over yet. The musicians came back to redo a few of the Morning Phase songs with renditions even more beautiful than the first takes. The encore exploded to a close with Beck’s classic anthem “Where It’s At,” in an extended version that included audience call-and-response, Beck doing the electric slide with guitarist Smokey Hormel and bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen and a coda highlighting the singer’s harmonica showcase “One Foot in the Grave.” The crowd couldn’t have been happier, and we all wished we could have joined the band’s group hug.

Beck’s second performance for Austin City Limits – he first played the show in Season 28 in 2002 – was an exciting, dynamic showcase of talent, and we can’t wait for you to see it when the episode airs in the fall. Stay tuned!