Taping recap: Chris Stapleton

photo by Scott Newton

After years of penning others’ hits, singer, songwriter and guitarist Chris Stapleton took the country and Americana scenes by storm in 2015 with his multi-platinum, Grammy-winning debut Traveller.  Since then the Kentucky native has gone from strength to strength, releasing the follow-up From a Room: Volume 1 earlier this year to great success, and hitting the road with his “All-American Road Show” tour in preparation for the companion release of Volume 2 on December 1. In the midst of another banner year for the now superstar artist, we were thrilled to host him and his crack band on the ACL stage for the first time.

The singer/guitarist took the stage with drummer Derek Mixon, bassist J.T Cure and his wife and fellow traveler, singer Morgane Stapleton, and wasted no time launching into the bluesy groove of “Might As Well Get Stoned,” showcasing both his stinging guitar and blowtorch soul. Stapleton hit the honky-tonk for “Nobody to Blame” and the ballad box for “Broken Halos.” He then unveiled “Hard Livin’,” a new song from the upcoming Volume 2 that revived classic 70s country rock for the twenty-first century. It was back to Volume 1 for the stoner anthem “Them Stems,” before another brand new tune: the choogling “Tryin’ to Untangle My Mind,” which, from the crowd’s reaction, is destined to be his next hit. Stapleton then really let it all ride, singing the bluesy ballad “I Was Wrong” with raw hurt. He then stripped down musically, dismissing the band and wielding an acoustic guitar to reclaim the Traveller gem “Whiskey and You,” formerly a hit for both Tim McGraw and Jason Eady.

Cure and Mixon returned as Stapleton explained that he wrote “The Devil Named Music” while he fronted the bluegrass band the SteelDrivers. The classic road dog ballad sounded right at home in its current electric arrangement, highlighted by its guitar solo. Gifted vocalist Morgane returned for “Outlaw State of Mind,” a swampy tune that mixed Creedence Clearwater Revival with the 70s country of its title. The song ended in a shriek of feedback that served as a bridge to “Death Row,” a crawl through the heart of darkness. The black clouds parted, however, with “Traveller,” the title track hit from his breakthrough debut and a song that elicited immediate screams from the audience. The Stapletons wrapped their voices around each other for the romantic affirmation “Fire Away,” the couple’s harmony showing in both voice and intimate glances. Things got a little crunchier for “Second One to Know,” a Volume 1 corker that unabashedly rocked.  

Stapleton ended the set with another hit. “Tennessee Whiskey” has been recorded by David Allan Coe and George Jones before Stapleton wrapped his pipes around it, but his version keeps the honky-tonk balladry and adds a dollop of southern-fried soul. The band left the stage to rapturous applause, but of course it wasn’t over. Stapleton and company returned to a thunderous reception. “What a treat to play Austin City Limits – I guess I’ll have to find a new dream,” he declared before crooning the delicate breakup tune “Either Way” solo acoustic. The band returned for closer “Sometimes I Cry,” a slow blues burn that pushed his full-throated rasp to its limits. It ended a sharp, powerful set, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year as part of our Season 43 on your local PBS station.  

Taping recap: Run The Jewels

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High intensity. Lyrical smartbombs. Killer beats. Those are the hallmarks of a great Run The Jewels show, and those elements were in abundance at the debut taping by the rap superstars.

“We’re gonna light this shit on fire like Willie Nelson would light a joint,” declared Killer Mike after an intro of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” He wasn’t kidding, as he, rapping partner El-P and DJ Trackstar exploded with “Talk To Me,” as energetic an opener as any rock band could provide. Mike’s rapid-fire delivery contrasted nicely with El-P’s punk rock bluster, with Trackstar throwing in the occasional interjection. “Legend Has It” and “Call Ticketron” kept the energy high, the crowd shouting “RTJ!” during the call-and-response section for the former. After thanking the show and warning the crowd about the profanity to come (“We curse like goddamn sailors, kids!”), the band launched into “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1,” Mike showing off why he’s one of the most acclaimed MCs on earth with a stream of superspeed wordsmithery. The band showed off its sardonic sense of humor with “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” and “36” Chain,” the latter previewed by an El-P speech about handing out invisible gold chains to the crowd with each ticket.

As if the room wasn’t vibrant enough, the duo engaged the crowd for the intro of “Stay Gold,” one of the new album’s most indelible tracks. Trackstar provided both an ambient segue and a brief but fiery scratch solo for “Don’t Get Captured,” one of the group’s most political anthems. A sampled sitar earned immediate cheers and led into “Nobody Speak,” a clear audience favorite. But that was nothing compared to what came next. After Killer Mike declared, “I don’t care what anybody says about watching too much TV – I know I’m smarter because of PBS,” RTJ launched into the booming, cheerfully profane “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” which drove the audience even further into a frenzy. So they were primed for a titanic “Hey!” to intro “Hey Kids.” More social commentary followed in the blazing “A Report to the Shareholders,” before El-P exposed the raw emotions underneath the group’s bravado for “Thursday in the Danger Room,” an elegy to anyone who should be with us but isn’t.  

“We’re gonna do a song now that we’ve never quite pulled off,” said El-P, as singers Joi and BGV joined RTJ for “2100.” Then, singer Boots also arrived to add his crushed velvet croon, recreating his studio parts. They definitely pulled it off. Joi joined Mike and El-P on the frontline for the empowering “Down,” as perfectly uplifting a song to end a set with as can be. The band left the stage, but the break didn’t last long. The audience cheered wildly as RTJ returned to the stage for the angry, provocative “Angel Duster,” during which Mike and El-P joined the crowd on the floor. It was an explosive performance, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year on your local PBS station as part of our Season 43.

Taping recap: Herbie Hancock

photo by Scott Newton

For music fans, Herbie Hancock needs little introduction. The keyboardist and composer is not only a jazz legend, but also a funkateer, R&B balladeer and technology innovator in music. There are no walls separating the different sides of his musical personality, though – Hancock gleefully mashes all of his interests together into a cohesive whole. We couldn’t have been more thrilled to host him on our stage, and he used his debut Austin City Limits taping to prove exactly why he’s a musical icon.

Hitting the stage to a standing ovation, Hancock and his stellar three-piece band began the set with, appropriately enough, “Overture,” sampling the musical themes of the rest of the tunes just like a symphony orchestra does at a classical concert. Hancock drew a bucket of strange noises out of his synthesizer as jazz/session drummer supreme Vinnie Colaiuta, Saturday Night Live bassist James Genus and saxophonist/keyboardist/Kendrick Lamar producer Terrace Martin limbered up. Martin dropped in vocoder blurts in between wailing on his alto, while Colaiuta and Genus provided a masterclass of how to be laidback but look busy. Turning to his piano, Hancock moved from atmospheric ambience to furious storms of notes, never losing the melody no matter how far out he went.

After a mesmerizing stretch with each musician demonstrating their ingenuity, the overture came to a close and Hancock introduced the band. Then they went into “Actual Proof,” from Hancock’s classic 70s jazz/funk masterpiece Thrust. Hancock moved seamlessly from multiple synth sounds to the piano, going from funky to jazzy, rhythmic to melodic, and back again. Hancock may be 77, but his keyboard facility is as potent now as it was when he was 27. Martin then reeled out his sax, matching his bandleader lick for lick. Genus next took the spotlight with a short but hard grooving bass solo, before the song shifted back to the leader’s electronic keys.

Donning his vocoder, Hancock went into “Come Running to Me,” from 1978’s Sunlight, adding otherworldly vocals to what’s essentially a jazzy R&B ballad, showing the kids how it was done before the advent of Auto-Tune. Electronics may have seemed to dominate at first, but Hancock coaxed magic out of his grand piano once again. Martin also took up the mic through his own vocoder, providing spaced-out counterpoint to the leader’s robotic croon. Then Hancock and the band gave us a real treat: an unrecorded/unreleased song. “Secret Sauce” began with a thrusting groove on synth and bass guitar, before coming down to near-silence and slowly building itself back up again, at least partially due to Hancock’s wielding the synth and piano at the same time. Hancock turned the spotlight over to Martin, who duetted with himself on synthesizer and vocoder, joining Colaiuta and Genus crashing back in with a sax attack. Hancock went mobile, wielding his keytar (an instrument we’ve not seen on our stage since Edgar Winter in the eighties) for some fleet-fingered soloing.

Hancock and ensemble closed the main set with “Cantaloupe Island.” Though probably most famous as the basis for the US3 hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” the song is one of the composer’s signature tracks, recorded twice: one in 1964 on his postbop classic Empyrean Isles and again in 1976 on his funk/jazz landmark Secrets. This version looked back to the original, not only in its signature piano riff, but in the jaw-dropping soloing from Hancock’s piano and Martin’s alto. It was the pinnacle of the main set, and the crowd responded accordingly with wild applause as the band left the stage. The exit was brief, however, as just offstage Hancock donned his keytar for the signature riff of his iconic jazz/funk tune “Chameleon.” Retaking the stage, Hancock faced off with the sax-wielding Martin as Genus and Colaiuta brought the groove to a boil. The bandleader then took centerstage for an extended synth solo that no doubt fired up every air keyboardist in the joint. Keytar in hand, Hancock brought the show to a close with a flourish.

Few artists in any genre can achieve such a masterful balance of the challenging and the crowdpleasing. The audience went unsurprisingly crazy, as well they should for a giant who not only lives up to, but surpasses his sterling reputation. It was a magnificent show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year on your local PBS station.

Taping recap: Father John Misty

photo by Scott Newton

It’s no secret that singer and songwriter Josh Tillman, as leader of Father John Misty, is a controversial figure – musically eccentric and defiantly outspoken, he inspires ire as often as devotion. But Tillman (who last appeared on our stage in 2013 as drummer for Fleet Foxes) earns attention for a better reason: the quality of the songs found on his three albums to date, including this year’s massively acclaimed Pure Comedy. Tillman’s work has earned him a loyal and ever-growing following, who turned in out in force for one of the most distinctive shows in our history.

Backed by a seven-piece band and a sixteen-person strong mini-orchestra of Austin players, Tillman opened the show with the lush pop of Pure Comedy’s title track, a satirical take on modern life that ends with the plea “each other’s all we got.” The ensemble followed with “Total Entertainment Forever Play,” a more straightforward folk rocker, before going back to the orchestration for the dramatic anthem “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” which Tillman punctuated with wild arm swings, like a mad conductor. He picked his guitar back up to lead the band in the pretty but pointed “Ballad of the Dying Man,” his impassioned wail scaling the heights built by the string section behind him.

Following four straight tracks from Pure Comedy, Tillman revisited his second LP I Love You, Honeybear with the irony-soaked “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” a sly parody of 70s sensitive balladry that namechecked Willie Nelson to comic effect and produced the biggest audience hosannahs yet. A Latin feel permeated the horn section during “Chateau Lobby #4,” which again earned a huge audience response. Returning to Pure Comedy, Tillman cleared away the clouds with the relatively subtle “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” which focused on piano, sedate strings and his keening croon. The full force of the ensemble returned for the lush “A Bigger Paper Bag,” before really bearing down on the powerful “Birdie.” Most of the band then left the stage, leaving Tillman alone with the string section for the 13-minute emotional travelogue “Leaving LA.” “This is the only TV show you could get away with doing that song on,” he quipped.

The rest of the orchestra retook the stage, but the mood stayed placid with “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain,” a clear audience fave. FJM ended the main set with the title track to I Love You, Honeybear, on which Tillman pulled out all the stops as a loverman crooner, venturing out into the audience to dispense hugs and lead the crowd in a chorus of “oh’s.” With that titanic end, Father John Misty quit the stage. But Tillman returned with the strings and pianist Jon Titterington for “Holy Shit,” a paean to change far more thoughtful and melodic than its profane title might lead one to believe. The rest of the ensemble quietly took the stage behind them and crashed into a bit of cacophonous bombast, clearing the sinuses before returning to a full band version of the melody as previously stated. One more crowd chorus of “oh’s” and it was over, everyone satiated. It was a great end to a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it arrives early next year as part of our Season 43 on your local PBS station.

Taping recap: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and Amanda Shires

photo by Scott Newton

When last we saw Jason Isbell and his intrepid band the 400 Unit, it was on the heels of the release of his beloved 2013 breakthrough Southeastern. Since then he’s become an award-winning star in the Americana world, releasing two more acclaimed records: 2015’s Something More Than Free and this year’s The Nashville Sound. As thrilled as we were to have him back, we were even more excited that he would be joined by his wife and creative partner Amanda Shires – not only as a member of the 400 Unit, but as a featured artist in her own right. The former fiddler for the most recent version of the Texas Playboys has built a critically acclaimed catalog of five solo albums, including 2013’s revered Down Fell the Doves and last year’s My Piece of Land. Two great sets in one night – both livestreamed around the world.

“What a dream,” said Amanda Shires as she tuned her violin. Then she and her three-piece band launched into “My Love (The Storm),” before an unauthorized monitor buzz rudely interrupted. (“That’s OK, I enjoy a technical problem,” she quipped, before soundchecking with a bit of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”) Problem fixed, the band went back into “My Love” with no issues. That song’s swampy menace segued directly into “You Are My Home,” a smoky ballad whose romantic title sentiment was knocked off kilter by Shires’ violin skronk. The quartet wasted no time going into the next song, the minor key folk rock of “Devastate” contrasting nicely with its more languid predecessor. After a witty round of band intros, she donned a tenor guitar and led her boys in “The Way It Dimmed,” a frisky country tune, and “Harmless,” a wistful ballad.

Following a story about an old boyfriend, Shires invited said paramour onstage, as husband Jason Isbell arrived to add harmony vocals and a fiery guitar solo to the folk rocker “Wasted and Rollin’.” Switching back to the violin, she sang and bowed the atmospheric ballad “Pale Fire,” before bearing down on her fretboard for the darker, gnarlier “Look Like a Bird.” Shires drove the song with drone as Isbell and guitarist Zach Setchfield traded solos, before digging in with her own epic four-string cries and growls, much to the crowd’s delight. Isbell left the stage (to get ready for his own show, presumably) as Shires switched back to the guitar for the melodic rocker “When You’re Gone,” ending the set on a powerful and upbeat note. “That was awesome!” said producer Terry Lickona as he came out to announce the intermission for the stage to be reset.

photo by Scott Newton

“Happy to be back on the best rock & roll TV show in the whole wide world,” said Jason Isbell as he and the 400 Unit (which includes Shires) took the stage and began with “Hope the High Road,” a burly rocker from The Nashville Sound. Then it was on to the Grammy-winning hit “24 Frames,” a perfect marriage of powerful music and Isbell’s poetic lyric, and the accordion-kissed country rocker “Codeine.” Showing himself to be the natural heir to the songwriting tradition set by Guy Clark and John Prine, Isbell went into “Last of My Kind,” an introspective tune interrupted by a mistake, quickly righted by a second, stronger take. The band followed with “The Life You Chose,” a melodic folk rocker that really got the crowd going.

With both Isbell and co-guitarist Sadler Vaden on acoustic guitars, “Chaos and Clothes” moved even further into the realm of folk, but lyrics that referenced black metal T-shirts kept it grounded in the modern world. Isbell donned a crunchy Telecaster and the Unit blasted into the powerhouse rock & roller “Cumberland Gap,” keeping the electricity flowing with the social commentary of “White Man’s World.” The acoustic guitars came back out for “If We Were Vampires,” a song of devotion that seems destined to be an Isbell standard. Speaking of standards, Isbell dipped into the songbook of ACL favorite John Prine for a duet with Shires on “Clocks and Spoons.” A round of band intros followed, before the 400 Unit roared into the anthem “Anxiety,” its grunged-out intro and outro allowing the band to really get loud. Isbell and the Unit took a bow to wild applause and the music, sadly, was over. It was a great doubleheader of a show, one we can’t wait for you to see when Isbell and Shires’ shared episode airs early next year as part of our Season 43 on your local PBS station.

Taping recap: Ed Sheeran

photo by Scott Newton

The last time Ed Sheeran visited Austin City Limits, he was a pop star. For his second appearance tonight, he returned at the top of his game, and arguably the biggest pop star in the world. The massive international success of the British singer-songwriter’s third album ÷ spread his gospel far and wide, and it showed in our rapturous audience.

Taking the stage in an ACL t-shirt to thunderous applause, the one-man marvel, with just his guitar and a loop pedal, jump-started the evening with “Castle On the Hill,” the folk-rocking top 10 hit that announced the arrival of ÷. He followed with “Eraser,” one of his patented mashups of folk-pop and hip hop that found him bounding across the stage, looping his guitars and vocals into ever-more intricate musical webs. After singing the praises of Texas music, food and alcohol, Sheeran went back to “the one that kicked things off for me,” namely his breakthrough hit “The A Team.” Encouraging the eager audience to sing at the tops of their lungs, he then launched into “Don’t,” an early hit that rides a hard groove and works well for call and response. Sheeran returned to the new album for “Happier,” a heart-rending ballad perfect for pulling your loved one closer, glad you’re not the song’s subject.

The ginger tunesmith dug back into 2014’s x for “Bloodstream,” slathering the harrowing tale of a drug experience in echo, energy and live overdubbing. Then Sheeran essayed one of his concert centerpieces, a theatrical and slowly unfolding medley of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and his own “I See Fire,” the atmospheric theme to the fantasy film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. After that epic, he brought the mood back from middle-earth with “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here,” a tender love song, and “Supermarket Flowers,” a lovely number about the death of his beloved grandmother – both eschewing his usual penchant for looping and in-concert singalongs. The mood skyrocketed back up with “Photograph,” a song of devotion built into a choir of Sheerans that unexpectedly incorporated Austin’s own Sixth Street into its lyrics. He kept the ecstatic vibe going with “Perfect,” a song he described as “my favorite song I’ve ever written.”

Heading into the home stretch, Sheeran paid tribute to his grandparents’ love story with “Nancy Mulligan,” a ÷ song that brilliantly incorporated the folk of their Irish heritage into his signature beat-driven pop. Donning an electric guitar instead of his typical acoustic, he then played his Grammy-winning, chart-topping single “Thinking Out Loud,” joined on every verse by the rapt crowd. He paid tribute to that receptiveness by bringing up an audience member, complimenting her on her consistent dancing throughout the performance. Which was an appropriate segue into “Shape of You,” his current, dancehall-infused hipswinging smash that made the crowd go wild. Sheeran ended the show with an epic high-energy take on “You Don’t Me, I Don’t You,” practically a distillation of the folk/pop/hip-hop hybrid that’s made him a global superstar. It was a magnificent ending to a spectacular show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when the epic hour kicks off our 43rd season October 7 on PBS.

Taping recap: Zac Brown Band

photo by Scott Newton

Grammy-award winning, multi-platinum Zac Brown Band has been a consistent presence in the music world since 2008’s major label debut The Foundation, and it was inevitable that they would eventually make their way to our stage. So we were pleased to welcome one of music’s biggest live acts, celebrating the success of their latest record Welcome Home with a career-spanning set in front of a crowd practically vibrating with excitement.

Said crowd cheered wildly as the octet took the stage. ZBB launched into the easygoing country rock of “Home Grown,” both a statement of purpose and a clear fan favorite. Brown kept the theme of home and comfort going with Welcome Home’s poppy “Family Table,” before entering a more philosophical mode with the anthemic “Quiet Your Mind,” which he called “one of my favorite things we’ve ever recorded.” The group brought down the intensity with the rolling country ballad “Sweet Annie,” before starting back up that ramp with the power-of-music testament “Day That I Die.” “I never get tired of playing this song,” Brown declared before easing into “Free,” a flowing anthem that smoothly segued into Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” to the crowd’s delight.

The band dipped into its country bag for “Goodbye in Her Eyes” and “2 Place at 1 Time,” an ode to trying to be on the road and with one’s family at once. ZBB then cranked up the congas and the clavinet for the rocking grooves of “Day For the Dead,” a salute to Hallowe’en and the Day of the Dead that allowed the musicians to really stretch out with both their instruments and some impressive counterpoint vocals. The band slowed down the tempo but turned up the heat for the #1 hit “Colder Weather,” a power ballad in the grand tradition. Welcome Home contributed “Roots,” once again affirming the inextricable bond Brown has with music, before ZBB stripped their sound down for the ballad “My Old Man,” a tribute to father figures everywhere. The rock returned for the power waltz “The Muse,” before the band closed the main set in tribute to Gregg Allman, burning through the Allman Brothers Band classic “Whipping Post” with keyboardist/guitarist Clay Cook on soulful lead vocals and Brown taking lead guitar. 

Of course, it wasn’t really over. After the audience showed its loud appreciation, the octet returned for “All the Best,” a heartfelt take on John Prine’s great ballad. After expressing his love for Prine, Brown immediately launched into the fingerpicking pattern of “Chicken Fried,” the band’s biggest smash. The crowd cheered wildly and began singing along immediately, amping up even further when the band brought on a member of the United States Armed Services in appreciation of their service. To close out the night, Brown donned a bass guitar and thanked the band’s crew, before launching into a surprise (well, except to longtime ZBB fans): a pounding cover of Metallica’s greatest hit “Enter Sandman,” sung by guitarist John Driskell Hopkins and highlighted by Jimmy DeMartini’s effects-laden electric violin solo. Brown introduced the band as the finally satiated audience showed its love. It was a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs as part of our upcoming Season 43 which premieres this fall on your local PBS station.

Taping Recap: Angel Olsen

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Next-generation singer-songwriter Angel Olsen made a grand entrance to loud cheers from the expectant crowd and dived right into “High and Wild” from her 2014 breakthrough Burn Your Fire for No Witness.  Her highly-anticipated Austin City Limits debut taping was also livestreamed worldwide to her fervent fanbase and viewer Nick Julian commented that “once you see her perform it’s impossible not to fall in love.” The North Carolina-based Olsen continued with “Shut Up and Kiss Me” from 2016’s widely-acclaimed My Woman, and went a long way to proving him right, showcasing her powerful vocals.  The indie stunner had the crowd firmly in pocket from the onset, singing along rapturously to her longing, demanding love songs.

The chatty Olsen gave a shout out to longtime Austin City Limits makeup wonder woman Glenda Facemire (for giving her just the right amount) and launched into “Give it Up,” whispering “I’ve got a secret, I’m ready to share it.”  The audience was ready to hear it, responding with loud cheers and shouts of “we love you.”

Olsen slowed things down momentarily for the open of “Not Gonna Kill You”. The song soon returned to the rocking confidence she is known for, prompting livestream viewer Martin Sainz Aja to comment “such a musician! Incredible night!”

After introducing her talented five-piece band (sharp in matching light-blue suits and bolero ties), she reached back to her 2012 debut Half Way Home for the slow burn of “Acrobat,” a poetic almost 10-minute swoon that had the audience swaying throughout.

Olsen charmed the crowd between songs with her trademark deadpan banter before diving into a trio of songs from her tour-de-force My Woman, which Olsen says deals with “the complicated mess of being a woman.”  “Sisters,” “Those Were the Days” and “Woman” were clear fan-favorites leaving the studio audience screaming for more as Olsen & co. left the stage.

She capped her hourlong performance with one more from Burn Your Fire for No Witness: the rapturous power ballad “Windows”.  Livestream viewer Luis Millan commented “This is the closest I will be to see Angel Olsen live. Thank you so much ACL for this.”

We can’t wait for you to see this arresting live performer too when Austin City Limits Season 43 premieres this fall with all-new episodes on your local PBS station.