Sweet Baby James’ sweet ACL debut

photo by Scott Newton

It’s been a long time coming. James Taylor has been near the top of our wishlist for years. Now the stars have aligned, and we were thrilled to at last welcome the legendary singer/songwriter to the Austin City Limits stage for a special show full of songs from his new LP Before This World, his first collection of original music in thirteen years, and deep cuts from across his long career.

Taylor and his band (featuring original Saturday Night Live band member Lou Marini and legendary drummer Steve Gadd) opened with “Wandering,” a gentle, reflective song from his 1975 LP Gorilla. He followed with the funky “Me and My Guitar,” another gem from the early 70s, and “Copperline,” a nostalgic folk-popper from New Moon Shine, his first LP of the 90s. Taylor stayed with more recent material for the next pair of cuts, including the new album’s positivity anthem “Today Today Today” and the 90s-era ballad “Line ‘em Up.” Taylor then jumped back to 1970 for his self-described “tree-huggers’ anthem” “Country Road,” a crowd favorite from his breakthrough Sweet Baby James. Then it was back to the present for another pair from New Moon Shine and Before This World:  the rousing, gospel-inflected “Shed a Little Light” and the Boston Red Sox mash note “Angels of Fenway.”

Paying tribute to the state in which he was performing, the perpetually smiling Taylor essayed his 80s-vintage cover of Texas rock pioneer Buddy Holly’s “Everyday.” Then he took a giant leap back in time to 1968, lifting his lilting hit “Carolina in My Mind” from his self-titled debut, originally released on the Beatles’ Apple label. Donning an electric guitar, Taylor shifted gears with 1970’s bluesy, rumbling “Steamroller,” which served to showcase the talents of his band. His iconic take on his friend Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” unsurprisingly earned him a standing ovation, while “Sweet Baby James,” his variation on cowboy ballads, cooled the crowd back down like a misty rain on the dusty trail. Taylor then invited the adoring audience to join him on a raucous run through his hit cover of Marvin Gaye’s joyful “How Sweet It Is.”

The main set ended as gently as it began with the clarinet/flugelhorn/violin-enhanced Before This World ballad “You and I Again.” But of course it wasn’t over. Taylor reappeared and brought out a surprise guest: Austinite Shawn Colvin, who joined him for a lovely take on his 1971 song “You Can Close Your Eyes.” But it still wasn’t over, as Taylor and his band came back for an unplanned second encore, starting with the frisky “Mexico” and ending with the grooving “Your Smiling Face,” which drove the audience wild. It was a spectacular way to close out a landmark ACL taping, and we can’t wait for you to see the show when it airs November 14th as a full-hour episode as part of our new Season 41 on your local PBS station.  

Don Henley takes us to Cass County

photo by Scott Newton

It’s not everyday we get to witness a superstar artist explore his musical roots. But that’s what Don Henley did during his debut appearance on Austin City Limits. For his forthcoming solo album Cass County, co-produced by Stan Lynch, out on Sept. 25 and his first in 15 years, the erstwhile Eagles co-founder explores a genre with which he has more than a passing familiarity: country music. Inspired by the sounds he heard growing up in Linden, Texas, Henley, his band and some very special guests showcased many of the songs from his new album, debuting them on our ACL stage for the first time anywhere.

But first he dipped briefly back into the past, opening with the rock radio classic “Dirty Laundry,” getting the audience immediately engaged. He then segued into the first of his new songs, the country rockin’ political broadside “No, Thank You.” Henley followed by welcoming his first guest – acclaimed country singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe, last seen on our stage with Miranda Lambert’s Pistol Annies – she sang beautifully on the Louvin Brothers’ ballad “When I Stop Dreaming.” Outlaw country revivalist Jamey Johnson appeared next on the thoughtful “The Cost Of Living,” after which he and Henley were rejoined by Monroe for Tift Merritt’s poignant waltz “Bramble Rose.” Henley then returned to his back catalog, for a relaxed, crowd-pleasing take on his huge hit “The End Of The Innocence,” with Erica Swindell’s liquid fiddle subbing for the original’s sonorous sax.

Henley reached back a few decades to his very first solo release I Can’t Stand Still with the somber “Talking to the Moon,” co-written with Amarillo native J.D. Souther. Back in Cass County, he welcomed country star and Season 24 ACL vet Martina McBride to the stage for the anthemic heartland rocker “That Old Flame.” “Train In The Distance” brought the volume back down with its folky autobiography, before Henley flipped through his back pages once again with the stately “The Heart Of The Matter,” an audience favorite.

Nashville siren and ACL three-timer Trisha Yearwood then hit the stage for a pair of showcases: the romantic duet  “Words Can Break Your Heart” and the harmony rocker “Where I Am Now.” The lush breakup tune “Take A Picture Of This” added a spot of bitter defiance, before Henley brought on his final guests of the evening: sisters Emily Robison Strayer and Martie Maguire of Dixie Chicks and Court Yard Hounds. The pair added their banjo, fiddle and dulcet harmonies to “She Sang Hymns Out Of Tune,” a cover of the mystical Jesse Lee Kincaid waltz made famous in the 60s by Harry Nilsson and the Dillards.

Along with a pair of hammer dulcimers, all of the evening’s guests joined Henley for the environmentally conscious plea “Praying For Rain,” another new song that garnered a particularly enthusiastic reception. Dulcimer masters Dana Hamilton and Bonnie Carol brought down the rain as the star, guests and band left the stage.  

But it wasn’t quite over yet, as Henley launched into “The Boys Of Summer,” perhaps his best-known and loved hit, then invited Monroe back for “When I Stop Dreaming.” Thus ended a remarkable show full of new classics and old favorites. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs on October 24th as part of our upcoming Season 41 on your local PBS station.

Gary Clark Jr.’s stellar performance leaves crowd satiated

photo by Scott Newton

Back on the ACL stage in support of is terrific new record The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, singer, songwriter and guitarist Gary Clark Jr. kicked things off with his signature tune “Bright Lights.” Joined not only by his longtime band guitarist King Zapata, bassist Johnny Bradley and drummer Johnny Radelat, but also singers Stevvi Alexander and Sophia Stephens and a horn section borrowed from Austin Afrobeat act Hard Proof, the Austin native blazed right into rocking soul tune “Ain’t Messin’ Round” and rumbling blues anthem “When My Train Pulls In,” both from breakthrough LP Blak and Blu. Clark employed clean tones, rather than the fuzz in which he often indulges, resulting in a looser, more open sound. That new sonic aesthetic especially suited the songs from the new record, which is a more vocal- and groove-oriented affair than his past guitar-slinging work. The sparse, funky “Hold On” and the slow ‘n’ soulful “Our Love” allowed Clark to break into an alluring falsetto, a tactic that worked even more effectively on the biting, 70s-style soul attack of “Cold Blooded.”

Clark returned to Blak and Blu for “You Saved Me,” a quiet storm ballad that’s not quiet at all, thanks to his power chords. The pull of new tunes proved strong, though, as Clark jumped back into Slim with both feet. He sat at the electric piano for the seductive “Wings” – “I’ve never done that before, it was kinda scary,” he remarked. He was back on the six-string for “Grinder,” a well-titled blues rocker highlighting what the Austin Chronicle notes as his “raw, visceral fearlessness as a soloist,” really pumping the crowd up. He brought the mood back to a quieter place with the stripped-down gospel plea “Church,” before ending the main set with “The Healing,” a funky blues tribute to his muse that asserted “This music is my healing!” The rapt audience agreed.

Following chants of “Gary! Gary!,” Clark encored with Slim’s “Shake,” a dirty boogie that featured Zapata on a rollicking slide solo. The high energy romp left the crowd satiated at last. It was a stellar performance by a young artist developing by leaps and bounds, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.


2015 Austin City Limits Hall of Fame

photo by Scott Newton

Last night we were proud to present the new class of Austin City Limits Hall of Fame inductees. Loretta Lynn, Guy Clark, Flaco Jimenez, Townes Van Zandt, Asleep at the Wheel and the Season 1 crew joined the ranks inaugurated last year. The night was about more than awards. It was and is always about the music, and, anchored by host Dwight Yoakam.

The first award of the evening went to Loretta Lynn. The First Lady of Country Music gave us two memorable shows in Seasons 8 and 23. Accepting her award, Patty Loveless, a four-time ACL vet herself. With a fiery “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” and a soulful “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (especially appropriate, as Loveless shares the same background as Lynn), Loveless paid perfect tribute to one of her inspirations. She and country superstar Vince Gill paired to sing a rendition of Lynn’s song “After the Fire is Gone,”  originally performed with Conway Twitty.

photo by Scott Newton

The night continued with Lyle Lovett coming to the stage to honor friend and Texan singer/songwriter Guy Clark. Lovett accepted the award on Clark’s behalf with wit and grace. Singing “Step Inside This House,” Lovett performed the first song Clark ever wrote, following that with “Anyhow I Love You,” a lovely waltz from Clark’s second album.

photo by Scott Newton

Jason Isbell killed it with the indelible Clark classic “Desperados Waiting For a Train” before being joined by guitarist extraordinare/Gillian Welch partner David Rawlings for the picker’s rumination “Black Diamond Strings.”

photo by Scott Newton

Next, host Dwight Yoakam inducted influential conjunto accordionist Flaco Jimenez. The eight-time ACLer and 76-year-old San Antonio native has recorded and performed with the honkytonk hero before, and accepted his award from his old compadre with a humble and eloquent speech. Then it was time for some classic Tex-Mex music. San Antonio Grammy winners Los Texmaniacs served as Jimenez’s opener with a swampy, rocking “Down in the Barrio,” joined by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on stinging guitar. The man himself took the stage for a honkytonking “He’ll Have to Go,” sung by Hidalgo,  and a irresistibly danceable “Ay Te Dejo San Antonio.”

photo by Scott Newton

Yoakam returned to the stage for “Carmelita,” his and the honoree’s distinctive take on the Warren Zevon ballad. The ensemble closed out with a pair of Yoakam classics: the two-step standard “Streets of Bakersfield” and gorgeous murder ballad “Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room (She Wore Red Dresses).”

photo by Scott Newton

After a brief intermission, Yoakam introduced superfan Gillian Welch, who inducted Townes Van Zandt by telling stories about how the Texas troubadour came to her gigs in her early days in Nashville. The late singer/songwriter appeared on ACL twice, including a Season 1 episode some argue is his best-ever television performance. Van Zandt’s eldest son JT accepted on his father’s behalf. Welch then took the stage with her guitar-slinging partner David Rawlings for faithful takes on TVZ classics “Tecumseh Valley” and “Dollar Bill Blues.”

photo by Scott Newton

British singer/songwriter Laura Marling followed up with a stunning version of “Colorado Girl,” trailed by JT himself, performing a haunted take on “Nothin’,” one of his father’s most cathartic songs.

photo by Scott Newton

Vince Gill then returned to the stage to induct Asleep at the Wheel. With eleven appearances, including the very first episode of Season 1, Asleep at the Wheel has been a mainstay on ACL. Bandleader Ray Benson accepted, dedicating his award to the late Joe Gracey — his former roommate and the person responsible for the band’s first booking on Austin City Limits. The band hit the stage for a pair of standards, “Miles and Miles of Texas” and the boogie-woogieing “Route 66.”

photo by Scott Newton


Gill joined his old pals for a hoppin’ version of Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” while Lyle Lovett returned for a rousing run through Wills’ “Blues For Dixie.”

photo by Scott Newton

To round out the night, the Season 1 crew, having been honored the night before, was publicly recognized for their contributions in establishing the show as a music institution.  The night ended with an all-star reading of Van Zandt’s classic roadburn “White Freightliner Blues.” It was a special evening, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it appears as part of Season 41 next year.

photo by Gary Miller

Courtney Barnett’s infectious energy

photo by Scott Newton

Courtney Barnett came to her livestreamed debut Austin City Limits taping after a couple of years of relentless hard work. “This is a lady that has paid her dues in the local Melbourne music scene and fully deserves to be where she is right now,” noted Darin Brown in the YouTube comments. “She and the other two guys are only going in one direction and that is up!!!” The Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist broke out of her country on the strength of a pair of EPs, collected as the album A Sea of Split Peas, hitting the States via festival shows, including noteworthy sets at 2014’s Fun Fun Fun Fest and Coachella. This year Barnett not only released the critically-acclaimed, Billboard Top 20 LP Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, but was a ubiquitous presence at SXSW. She arrived at the Moody during a U.S. tour that’s seen sellouts, and with infectious, unpretentious energy.

Opener “Elevator Operator,” from Sometimes, was a good introduction to her basic style: straightforward, unfancy guitar rock, vibrant but not aggressive, with conversational vocals and an observational lyrical style. Aided by her tight band featuring bassist Bones Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie, she stretched out within her framework, adding variety to her performance while remaining consistent in sound. The trio ranged from the garage-rocking “Canned Tomatoes” and  melancholy balladry of “An Illustration of Loneliness” to the lovely folk rocking “Depreston” and the power popping “Dead Fox.” She earned special kudos from the eager audience with “Small Poppies” and “Avant Gardener,” both featuring rambling lyrics that move from mundane observation to philosophical contemplation – a Barnett specialty. She brought the main set to a crashing close with the single “Pedestrian at Best,” to the audience’s delight.

Barnett returned to the stage solo for a ragged but right cover of “Heavy Heart,” from the catalog of Australian rock stars You Am I. Her rhythm section rejoined her for “History Eraser,” a bashing fan favorite that (d)evolved into a perfectly sloppy Big Rawk Ending. “It’s nice catching her at these small venues now,” commented themadbatter, “because she’s blowing up.” We’re happy to help her with that explosion, and we can’t wait for you to see this episode when it airs as part of our 41st season this fall on PBS.

Shakey Graves wows hometown crowd

photo by Scott Newton

Shakey Graves has worked hard in the last few years. The Austin musician known as Alejandro Rose-Garcia to his parents has been a road dog of the first degree, taking first his one-man-band act then his band on the road to any club, festival and living room that would have him. The work has paid off with a pair of highly acclaimed albums and a growing national fanbase. For last night’s livestreamed taping, the young singer/songwriter was welcomed by a loving hometown crowd.

“I’m just gonna take a minute and soak all this in,” Graves said before launching into “Roll the Bones,” the title track of his debut album. Thumping a suitcase bass drum and tambourine combo and fingerpicking a noisy hollowbody guitar, the raspy-voiced Austin native made his case immediately: passionate, funny, mindful of folk and blues tradition without being dragged down by it. Graves was joined by his stalwart drummer Boo for the cowpunkabilly “If Not For You” and then by guitarist Patrick O’Connor for the more folky “Family and Genus,” with the trio then taking “The Perfect Parts” to the swamp. Boo and O’Connor took a break to let Graves go back to singing solo, digging into his folk bag for “Tomorrow,” the vaudeville-tinged “Chinatown” (a request from his mom, who was present) and “ Proper Fence,” which ended with playful call and response with the crowd. Following the fingerpicked electric blues of “Buil to Roam,” Graves’ band then retook the stage, swaying into the grungy “Pansy Waltz” and blazing into the surfing cowpunk of “Where a Boy Once Stood.” Inviting his friend Carson McHone to duet, Graves and co. ended the main set with his triple-A radio hit “Dearly Departed,” which brought the audience to its feet.

Graves came back alone for the encore, showing off both sides of his personality: the sensitive troubadour of “Hard Wired” and the sardonic storyteller behind the crime story “Late July.” With that one-two punch, the show concluded to rapturous applause, as the hometown hero left the stage. It was an excellent show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs during Season 41 on PBS.

Cassandra Wilson salutes Billie Holiday at her debut taping

photo by Scott Newton

This year marks the 100th birthday of jazz icon Billie Holiday. What better way to celebrate one of the greatest singers of all time than to have one of her spiritual descendants do a tribute? Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson has long been on our wishlist, but the stars never aligned – until now, that is. Tonight’s show not only finally brought us a long-sought guest, but also paid tribute to a true musical titan via songs from Wilson’s new Holiday-themed album Coming Forth By Day.

The set began quietly with “The Way You Look Tonight,” which Wilson and her 14-piece band (including an 8-piece string section) performed fairly traditionally, outside of the unusual choice of bass clarinet for Robbie Marshall’s solo. But she and her musicians stepped off the traditional path with “Don’t Explain,” guitarist Kevin Breit looping his instrument and applying slide and e-bow, while the rhythm section (including veteran bassist Lonnie Plaxico, who played on Wilson’s debut album) added healthy dollops of blues feel. A subtle singer who prefers to explore a song’s nooks and crannies rather than engage in acrobatics, Wilson is known for putting her own distinctive spin on classic material, and that’s the path she followed for the rest of the night.

“What a Little Moonlight Can Do” rode a samba rhythm, touched by Marshall’s flute and a gnarly electric violin solo from Charlie Burnham. “Crazy He Calls Me” shifted from Broadway flourish to jazz rock explosion, while “You Go to My Head” gained a funk undercurrent and a Breit solo that sounded like a soprano sax. The musicians put a subtle Latin spin on “All of Me” that turned into it into babymaking music, then masterfully manipulated the dynamics of “Good Morning Heartache,” Wilson taking a seat as the band swirled around her in collective improvisation. Perhaps the biggest highlight was “Last Song (for Lester),” a Wilson original that imagines the song Holiday might’ve sung at the funeral of her musical soulmate Lester Young had she been allowed. It was a beautiful tour de force, blending sadness at opportunities lost and joy for knowing a special someone. Wilson ended the set with a sardonic, defiant romp through “Billie’s Blues,” exiting the stage to raucous applause.

Naturally, the show wasn’t done yet – not without renditions of Holiday’s greatest hits. The encore began with “God Bless the Child,” given an almost pop/jazz reading with a slide guitar solo and Wilson’s distinctive take on the vocal melody. Then came a tribal drum beat and the sound of chains hitting the ground, which could only mean one thing: “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s bitter ballad about the practice of lynching African Americans in the south. The song’s already haunted atmosphere bristled with dramatic strings and a particularly husky vocal from Wilson, before she picked up her Telecaster and clawed a skronky, feedback-soaked solo out of her helpless instrument, channeling the ghosts of lynching victims howling from beyond. To say this amazing performance brought the house down seems almost inadequate. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.

Sleater-Kinney wow ACL fans with 22-song set

photo by Scott Newton

When innovative indie rockers Sleater-Kinney reunited in 2014, fans were thrilled. The excitement doubled earlier this year when the Pacific Northwest trio released No Cities to Love, a brand new, highly acclaimed record. That energy reached an apex of sorts when we welcomed the band to their first Austin City Limits taping, which we also streamed live on our YouTube Channel.

The band opened with little fanfare but tons of energy on the jagged rocker “Price Tag,” the danceable power popper “Fangless,” both from No Cities to Love, and crowd-pleasing new waver “Oh!” The cuts showcased not only the band’s way with uncommon hooks, but also the combustible chemistry between the clashing guitars and vocals of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and powerhouse drums of Janet Weiss. “This is one of our favorite cities and we’re so excited to be playing Austin City Limits,” noted Tucker in a rare between-song comment, before the band launched into “What’s Mine is Yours,” a sprightly rocker that detoured into grinding guitar noise. Following that avant interlude, Sleater-Kinney eschewed respites and simply rocked out for another hour, hitting tracks from nearly every LP they’ve released. The band ripped through the bouncing power pop of “Get Up” and “Words and Guitar,” urgent punk of “Light Rail Coyote” and the ironically titled “No Anthems” and the bristling rock & roll of “Bury Our Friends” and “Start Together.” With a one-two punch of the excessively melodic “Entertain” and “Jumpers,” both from the band’s masterpiece The Woods, Sleater-Kinney brought the main set to a close.

Packed with loyal fans, the crowd didn’t want the band to leave. Fortunately, their persistence was rewarded with a four-song encore, including “Sympathy,” “Dig Me Out” and the early fan favorite “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” closing with the winsome pop tune “Modern Girl.” At a generous 22 songs, there was no way any Sleater-Kinney fanatic could be unsatisfied. We think you won’t be either when you see this episode, broadcasting this fall on your local PBS station.