Ms. Lauryn Hill’s magnificent soul

photo by Scott Newton

Tonight Austin City Limits welcomed a musical trailblazer – Ms. Lauryn Hill.  In a rare television appearance, Hill dazzled the capacity crowd for almost two hours with a wide range of hits from her Grammy-winning, bestselling LP The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as well as from her time with the Fugees. The crowd, on their feet for the entire show, cheered loudly and sang along to her unique arrangements of originals and classic songs by Bob Marley, Sade, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder.

The evening began with a stirring set from DJ Rampage who got the audience on their feet and ready to welcome Ms. Hill.  Resplendent in a blue and yellow gown,  Ms. Hill took to the stage and sat down with her acoustic guitar and eased into “Conformed to Love,” which began softly but transformed into an anthem due to the power of the band and her own impassioned singing. She followed with “Peace of Mind,” another new tune with an intricate web of vocals, flamenco-colored lead guitar from Jordan Peters and an unexpected scat/instrumental reprise. She then dipped into her 2002 MTV Unplugged album for the groovy “Mr. Intentional,” before pulling out a surprising and heartfelt cover of Sade’s devotional “Love is Stronger Than Pride.” Ms. Hill and band kept the Unplugged groove going with “War in the Mind (Freedom Time)” and “Mystery of Iniquity,” mixing jazz, folk, soul and rap into a distinctive blend all her own.

By this time, the audience was on its feet, giving as much energy back as they were receiving and Ms. Hill put her acoustic guitar away and the ensemble launched into a re-imagined take on Hill’s hit “Ex-Factor,” the band jamming hard and Hill pushing her voice into new territory. The spotlight hit her trio of backup singers, as they danced to the Latin funk rhythm of “Final Hour,” with Ms. Hill expertly speed-rapping through her verses. The energy stayed on high for “Lost Ones,” following a similar vision with the added emphasis on DJ Rampage’s scratching punctuation and Hill’s call-and-response with her singers. She then turned back the clock to the mid-90s and her work with hip-hop superstars the Fugees, taking her skills to the next level with “How Many Mics,” proving she’s one of the greatest MCs of all time. That was just a warm-up for the trilogy of hits to follow, from the booty-shaking “Fu-Gee-La” to the singalong “Ready or Not” and the silky-smooth “Killing Me Softly.” By that time, the crowd couldn’t have been any more off the chain.

Ms. Hill then shifted gears, paying tribute to the Marley family into which her children were born with a cover of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’,” which segued smoothly into Stevie Wonder’s reggae nod “Master Blaster.” She wasn’t done with the Marley repertoire, going immediately into “Is This Love” and following with “Could You Be Loved,” the third time this song has been performed on our stage in the past few years. She went from reggae to jazz, overwhelming the audience with a powerhouse version of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” which she produced and recorded for the recent Simone tribute album Nina Revisited.

After climbing that summit, Ms. Hill asked for well-deserved noise for her incredible band, and the crowd was happy to give it. Then she hit yet another peak with one of the 90s’ greatest singles. The brilliant, irresistible “Doo Wop (That Thing)” drew the band into new crescendoes and the audience into new heights of uninhibited dancing. Ms Hill left the stage in triumph, leaving everybody satiated. It was a magnificent show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs on your local PBS station.  

Kendrick Lamar’s explosive ACL debut

photo by Scott Newton

Last night Austin City Limits showcased the explosive debut of  Kendrick Lamar, the game-changing hip-hop artist, widely-acclaimed as one of the greatest rappers of his generation. The multiple Grammy Award-winning artist delivered an eclectic, electrifying 15-song set that emphasized his massively popular album To Pimp a Butterfly.

Taking the stage to a cover of Earth Wind & Fire’s classic “Can’t Hide Love,” Lamar teased the microphone before easing into the jazzy, speed-rapping “For Free.” He then launched into the bracing “Wesley’s Theory,” also the name of the crack soul band that served as his backup. “Institutionalized” served as an interlude before “Backseat Freestyle,” a trad rap track from his breakthrough good kid m.A.A.d city that garnered a big response from the crowd. Thus primed, the audience was ready for the call-and-response of the intro of “Swimming Pool (Drank),” one of his biggest hits and a clear favorite. Following a brief jam from his band, Lamar then essayed “These Walls,” his current single and a R&B-flavored treatise on denying limitations.

Lamar then borrowed a portion of his song “For Sale?” for “Lucy,” before going into “Hood Politics,” another Butterfly track that involved enthusiastic audience call-and-response. After shining a spotlight on guitarist Rob G, Lamar indulged in some biography on “Complexion.” That was just a set-up, however, for the hit “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” its chorus sung ardently by the enraptured crowd. “Money Trees” kept the vibe going, before the band segued back into “Can’t Hide Love” to give everybody a chance to catch their breaths. That chance lasted a bit longer than anticipated when a technical issue arose, but the crew got it under control and the band went back into “Can’t Find Love.” That was another set-up, however, for the energy-spewing “m.A.A.d city,” another occasion for passionate artist/audience communion.

Lamar and band followed that triumph with the rapid-fire poetics of “U,” a love song of sorts, that ended with a spotlight on the band. The rapper then freestyled about his relationship to his fans, and how that relationship affected the expression of his art on To Pimp a Butterfly. As with the “Can’t Find Love”/”m.A.A.d city” pairing earlier, however, his low-key meditation gave way to the extra-funky high-energy single: “King Kunta,” another clear crowd favorite. Lamar drank in the applause for a minute, before channeling his inner James Brown for some quick beat counts. The slow jam “Momma” came next, followed by the brief rouser “Let’s Talk About Love,” which pumped the audience up more. That was just a warm-up, however, for the Grammy-winning single “i,” a hip-hop tour-de-force built around the riff of the Isley Brothers’ “Who’s That Lady.”

“How Much a Dollar Cost” was more intro than song, but that’s fine, as it primed the pump for “The Blacker the Berry,” another track in Lamar’s personal playlist of protest songs. That performance ended with theatergoers chanting “We gonna be alright” back at the star. That was an unmistakable cue, and Lamar rewarded the chanters with his popular single “Alright.”  With that, crowd and performer were one, taking the chant beyond the song’s length and into ACL history.  It was a hell of a show, and we can’t wait for you to see the broadcast when it airs in January as part of our Season 41 on your local PBS station.  

 

Angélique Kidjo’s danceable joy

photo by Scott Newton

It’s been awhile since Austin City Limits has hosted an African artist. We’ve done memorable shows with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Femi Kuti which have become some of our favorites, so we were ecstatic to welcome Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo to our stage. The queen of African music fulfilled our anticipation with one of the most energetic and danceable tapings in recent memory, which we livestreamed around the world.  

Kidjo’s four-piece band arrived first, clapping and cowbelling the beat of opener “Ebile,” immediately drawing the audience in by having them join in. The Benin native herself took the stage resplendent in her colorful dress, letting her powerful voice soar over the percussion and her feet dance her around the stage. “I see you’re ready for singing and dancing,” Kidjo said, “so don’t hold back.” She herself certainly didn’t, as the feet-moving groove of “Kulumbu” galvanized band and crowd, enhanced by Dominic James’ fleet-fingered guitar solo. The jazzy “Batonga” kept the rhythm burning, incorporating call-and-response and more of Kidjo’s Terpsichorian grace. She paused to give the audience a quick singing lesson, so they could join in on the flowing “Senamou,” which ended with Kidjo’s imitation of a whirling dervish. The beginning of “Malaika,” sung in Swahili, stripped things down to voice and acoustic guitar, before the rhythm section added a gently percolating groove.

Kidjo then welcomed members of Austin choir Veritas, who added backing vocals to a soulful cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” The choir remained for “Awalole,” a simmering and beautiful tune about women’s empowerment that ended with Kidjo playing a cajón. She stayed on the percussion box for the opening jam on “Shango Wa,” before retaking the microphone and kicking the song into extremely high gear. Things came down in energy, but not in intensity, as Kidjo’s passion for social justice came through in the near a cappella “Cauri,” a story of a 12-year-old girl being married against her will to a man in his fifties. The mood turned defiant and celebratory, however, with the dance party “Bomba,” featuring a bit of choreography between Kidjo, James and bassist Ben Zwerin and more call-and-response with the eager audience.

The Veritas Choir returned for the funky, infectious “Pata Pata,” a cover from the catalog of pioneering African singer Miriam Makeba with an unambiguous call to dance. The crowd, featuring members of the Austin Samba School, couldn’t resist, showering her with applause and cheers. Kidjo followed that triumph with another: “Afirika,” a celebration of the human family, took her out into the audience to make that family sing and dance with abandon. The celebration continued when she invited the crowd onstage, as many of them as could fit following the lead of the Samba School and shaking their groove things to the luminous “Tumba.” Percussionist Magatte Sow brought his talking drum to the front for a conversation between his instrument, Kidjo and any dancer willing to join them. He also engaged in call-and-response between his drum and the audience’s claps, before turning the stage back over to Kidjo so she could lead the crowded stage in dance. Kidjo left the stage to the people, the song ending in a joyous crescendo.

Amazingly, it wasn’t over. The stage cleared and Kidjo returned for a music lesson in the kind of African rhythm that’s influenced every musical form that’s come after it. The stunning “Orisha” brought the crowd to its feet and its voice, bringing the show to an incredible close and earning Kidjo and her band a standing ovation. It was an amazing night, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year on your local PBS station.

Leon Bridges’ new old soul

photo by Scott Newton

Leon Bridges has taken the music world by storm with a soul sound rooted in 50s and 60s R&B – a Sam Cooke-derived aesthetic that’s so old-fashioned it sounds new all over again on his debut album Coming Home. So we were pleased to welcome the young Fort Worth native to Austin City Limits for his debut taping.

Bridges and his band, which includes our White Denim pals Austin Jenkins and Joshua Block, gently kicked things off with “River,” a quiet, meditative hymn of desire. Bridges broke that spell immediately afterward, putting down his guitar to shimmy through the jumping “Flowers,” a throwback to an earlier era of soul music. “Brown Skin Girl” and “Let You Down” (an as-yet-unreleased song) continued the vibe, conjuring the specter of Cooke without enslaving it. One of his best-known tunes, “Better Man” moved forward to the Stax era, hitting a mid-60s groove. Bridges slowed back down for “In My Arms,” a classic R&B slow dancer that would have had all couples in the room in a clinch if we’d had a dance floor. Speaking of dancing, “Out of Line” grabbed hips for a classic twist, before “Daisy Mae” dialed back for a 50s-style, missing only doo-wops. “Smooth Sailin’” evoked the early Motown era, with its basic hooks and irresistible groove.

Bridges ventured back to ballad territory for the quietly passionate “Lisa Sawyer,” the young singer’s tribute to his mother. After asking audience members to tell their neighbors “I love you,” he sang a perfect version of his hit “Coming Home,” inviting the thrilled crowd to sing along with him. Then Bridges took us to church with the slow burning “Shine,” much to the audience’s delight. After introducing his band, Bridges went back to the dance floor, first for the lovers’ waltz “Pull Away” and then for the set-closing New Orleans R&B of “Twisting and Groovin’.”

One quick offstage break later, Bridges and the band returned for “Pussy Footin’,” another hip-swinging old school soul tune that would make a dead man dance. Bridges finished the performance with “Mississippi Kisses,” a slinky seduction song on which he engaged everybody in the crowd to dance along with him, going onto the floor to make sure it happened. That earned Bridges and band a standing ovation, and with good reason: few soul singers can evoke such old-fashioned musical values and still sound contemporary. It was a great show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs next spring on your local PBS station.    

Vintage Trouble’s high energy rock & soul

photo by Scott Newton

We’re always happy to give space to up-and-coming artists, so we were thrilled to host the ACL debut of Vintage Trouble. The L.A. quartet has honed its fiery live show on tours with the Who and AC/DC, and the band brought the full measure of its live prowess to its high-energy rock/soul, winning over not only our studio crowd, but also the online contingent of Troublemakers from all over the world who watched their heroes via our livestream.

Following handshakes all around, the socially-conscious ballad “Not Alright By,” from the debut The Bomb Shelter Sessions, gently began the show. Then VT went straight into the blazing “Blues Hand Me Down,” impeccably dressed singer Ty Taylor engaging in his trademark spin before commanding the microphone and exhorting the crowd to dance and scream. The band shifted to the 70s-soul styled “Doin’ What You Were Doin’,” losing no momentum and engaging the audience to help sing one of the highlights from their latest album 1 Hopeful Rd. The come-on “Total Strangers” jumped into James Brown territory, aided by an infectious “na-na” chorus, a rocking guitar riff courtesy axeslinger Nalle Colt and plenty of audience participation. The fans also sang part of “Another Man’s Words,” a beautiful ballad also from the new record. The band then dipped back into its past with “Nancy Lee,” Bomb’s bluesy tale of Taylor’s father meeting his mother. The blues was also at the heart of “Angel City, California,” as filtered through the classic rock & roll stylings of forebears like the Faces and featuring one of Taylor’s most skillful performances.

Everything up to then, however, was just a warm-up for “Run Like the River.” Rolling all of VT’s soul, rock, blues and gospel influences into one monster anthem, the band revved up both themselves and the crowd, who got a visit from Taylor on both the floor and the balcony. After that extended expression of joy, for which VT was rewarded with a roar, Taylor and company mellowed the mood with the easygoing “Nobody Told Me” – at least until the end, when gospel call-and-response came to the fore and Taylor moved himself to tears. The band then indulged in some juke joint blues, deliberately invoking the 50s for the hip-shaking, frontman-spinning “Before the Tear Drops.”

Taylor took time out to thank both the ACL staff and the crowd, demanding big cheers for both. Then it was into another steaming slice of James Brown-style R&B with the shimmying “Strike Your Light,” which, of course, required some serious audience participation (and another visit from Taylor). After that, the band could do little else but bring us back down to earth via the soul ballad “Run Outta You,” Taylor letting his passion spill and Colt punctuating it with an elegiac extended solo, after which he tossed his axe away as if it was pointless to continue and left through the audience. The rest of the band kept going, Taylor coaxing yet more call-and-response from the crowd, before first bassist Rick Barrio Dill and then Taylor wormed through the people, leaving drummer Richard Danielson to finish the song alone. And that was the end, even though by the sound of the audience’s cheers they didn’t want Vintage Trouble to go. It was an amazing show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it broadcasts next spring as part of our Season 41 on your local PBS station.

Alabama Shakes’ triumphant return to ACL

photo by Scott Newton

Alabama Shakes wowed us three years ago when they taped Austin City Limits in support of their debut Boys & Girls. Now, with the band taking over the world with their follow-up Sound & Color, we were pleased to welcome them back to our stage for a triumphant second taping, and on singer Brittany Howard’s birthday, no less.

The band clearly takes a lot of pride in their new record, as they played every song from it. The quartet, augmented by two keyboardists and three backup singers, kicked off the night with the slinky “Future People,” a three-cowbell song for the singers. The combo followed with the wailing “Dunes,” featuring a clanging Howard guitar solo as well as her distinctively soulful vocals. “Shoegaze” moved the band out of the retro soul bag in which it’s often placed into somewhere more rocking. The Shakes then revisited their debut Boys & Girls for the fan favorite soul ballad “Heartbreaker,” before going back to a streak from Sound & Color. The Hi Records-styled “Guess Who,” the church-powered “Joe”  and the powerful “Miss You” brought the mood to a boil, letting the rocking “The Greatest” blow off the steam. The set hit a peak with “Gimme All Your Love,” the band’s destined-to-be classic anthem that appeared in our 40th anniversary special before it was released. The audience rewarded the Shakes by serenading the birthday girl with a spontaneous “Happy Birthday.”

The new “This Feeling” turned the heat back down to simmer before giving way once again to the past for B&G’s gospel-flavored “On Your Way.” Sound &Color gave us another trilogy of future classics: the atmospheric ballad “Gemini,” the gently groovy title track and the 70s funky strut “Don’t Wanna Fight.” The band then visited its contribution to the hit film The Silver Linings Playbook for the rocking dance tune “Always Alright,” a clear audience favorite. The Shakes’ hit lighter-waver “You Ain’t Alone” followed, much to the crowd’s delight. Howard then thanked the crowd for its support before the band ended with S&C’s sparse, soulful “Over My Head.” It was a great set that proved how much Alabama Shakes deserves every bit of acclaim and success they’ve earned, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs early next year on your local PBS station.

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.