Eric Church: hail to the Chief

photo by Scott Newton

The word “limits” may be in our name, but we at Austin City Limits pride ourselves on not having any, at least when it comes to the styles of music we feature on the show. That said, our roots are in country music, so we’re always happy to welcome one of the genre’s shining stars. Eric Church certainly fits that bill, and so we were thrilled to host his first ACL taping.  “I’ve been watching this show for, like, 30 years,” remarked a visibly excited Church, who noted that seeing Iris DeMent on ACL was a lifechanger. “And I’m a little nervous.” You’d never know from this confident, powerful performance.

The appropriately stalking rhythm and National Steel guitar of “Creepin’” opened the set, the hard rock riffs contrasting nicely with Church’s North Carolina drawl. The louder, heavier “Guys Like Me” followed, the first in a series of anthems that established Church’s songwriting tradition of both paying tribute to and subtly critiquing his characters. With twin lead guitars at his side, Church energetically blasted out paeans to overindulgence (“Jack Daniels,” “Smoke a Little Smoke”), small town values (the CMA-nominated “Give Me Back My Hometown,” “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag”) and good old-fashioned rebellion (“That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” “The Outsiders”). It wasn’t all just fist-pumpers, however – Church also delved into the more traditional country that inspired him with “Talladega,” “Sinners Like Me” and the inspirational “These Boots,” for which the audience saluted by pulling their own boots off and waving them toward the stage. (One young lady was rewarded by Church taking hers and signing it.)

Of course, Church also performed his anthem to end all anthems – “Springsteen” is the song he’ll be playing until the end of his career, and starting it by singing a few lines from the titular artist’s “Thunder Road” and engaging the crowd to sing the “whoa-ohs” only enhanced this readymade classic. But after all the lighter-waving songs, Church brought it all home solo with “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young,” an ode to maturity that sent the audience away satisfied. We can’t wait for you to see Eric Church when his show airs as a full-hour episode November 15th on your PBS station during ACL’s 40th Anniversary Season.

J. Roddy and the Business rock ACL

photo by Scott Newton

The amazing evolution of popular music over the last few decades has been a fascinating and necessary process – where would we be without constant change? That said, sometimes you just gotta rock. That’s a situation which J. Roddy Walston and the Business are more than familiar with, as evidenced by their latest LP Essential Tremors, and it was in that spirit that the quartet turned our theater into that hip bar downtown that always features the sweatiest, ballsiest rock & roll. The band’s debut ACL taping was also livestreamed on the Austin City Limits YouTube channel.

The longhaired, leather-jacketed Walston looks like he should be rocking a Les Paul/Marshall combination, but instead he sits at the piano. Though “sits” isn’t quite accurate – instead he bounces, slides and jumps off and on the bench as the music moves him. And no wonder – as he and his homeboys roared into “Sweat Shock,” guitar chugging and piano banging, the energy level shot through the roof. Imagine Jerry Lee Lewis fronting Black Oak Arkansas and you’re in the ballpark.

From then on, rocking out was the priority. That’s not to say the band is a one-note proposition – far from it. They pull from several different strains, from punk to hard rock to classic pop. “Take It As It Comes,” “Midnight Cry” (with its audience singalong “Eye-yi-yi” chorus) and “Full Growing Man” drew from melodic piano pop, with the latter in particular sounding like an Elton John tune taken behind the barn and roughed up. “Marigold” and “Don’t Break the Needle” worked a loud, Stonesy groove, while “Heavy Bells” updated the bluesy hard rock of Led Zeppelin. “Boys Can Never Tell” eschewed drums and bass for acoustic guitar and a surprisingly pretty ballad. It was all a warm-up, though, for the colossal closer “Used to Did,” on which the band pulled out all the stops for a piano-pounding, guitar-wailing, hair-whipping finish. It was a climax that encouraged online viewer joel brown to enthusiastically comment that the band is “The best thing to happen to rock n roll in a long time!”

Viewer johnnYYac said “Hard to believe it was less than a year ago these guys were playing to me and fewer than 20 people in a little club in Iowa, on the Miss. River. They deserve this, but I’ll miss those intimate shows.” For our money, Walston and the Business brought that rock club intimacy in the most widescreen way. We can’t wait for you to see it this fall on PBS.

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Nickel Creek’s new gems and old favorites

photo by Scott Newton

We always love seeing old friends and so it is we welcomed back Nickel Creek to our stage for their third taping, which we also livestreamed on our ACLTV YouTube channel. The California combo last visited us in 2003 – recording their debut in 2001, while mandolin master Chris Thile performed with Punch Brothers in 2012 and fiddler Sara Watkins supported the Decemberists in 2011. But now the trio is back in toto, virtuoso instrumentation and tight harmonies intact, celebrating not only our 40th anniversary but also their own musical return after a nine-year absence with the reunion record A Dotted Line.

Defying the stereotype, the band opened with a ballad, “Rest of My Life,” featuring harmony arco lines from Sara and bassist Mark Schatz. The tempo picked up with “Scotch and Chocolate,” an instrumental that combined fluctuating bridges with Sara’s Celtic-flavored lines. The rest of the set alternated between pieces from the new record and well-known tunes from their popular repertoire. “Destination” and “When in Rome” were perfect examples of the band’s ability to create indie pop songs using bluegrass instrumentation. “Reasons Why” and “Where is Love Now” essayed the beauty of the band’s way with ballads. Fan-favorite instrumentals like “Smoothie Song,” “Ode to a Butterfly” and the new “Elephant in the Corn” raised the roof. The group’s wry sense of humor bubbled up throughout, especially in the twisted gospelgrass of “21st of May,” the stalker folk of “Anthony” and the aggressive bitterness of “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” for which Thile teased the crowd to unleash their buried anger. The band ended with its popular adaptation of the children’s tune “The Fox,” which drove the audience wild.

A well-deserved encore brought redos of “Where is Love Now” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” before the Creek flowed through the driving ballad “Helena” and into the traditional fiddle tune “Cuckoo’s Nest,” which featured not only expert musicianship (“They make it look soooooo easy,” noted stream viewer Take a Hike) but also Schatz tapdancing. It was an undeniably fun show – noted by viewer Mathew Cussen as “one of the best shows I’ve ever seen” – and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs in early 2015. And don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel to be notified of future livestreams of ACL tapings!

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.